For all unpublished writers there is nothing more exciting than to meet a literary agent. To be able to pitch a novel and receive individual feedback can be a dream come true. Your blogging team recall with fondness the excitement of attending a Curtis Brown Creative Discovery Day when they were once members of the New Writers’ Scheme and only dreamt of securing an agent and being published.
So, how was this year’s event? Who better to ask than some of our current NWS members.
Thank you to Sue Lovett (SL), Julie Stock (JS), Michael Clarke (MC), Tammy Lovell (TL), Rosemary Goodacre (RG), Elaine Roberts (ER), Elaina James (EJ) for answering our questions.
How did you prepare for the day?
(SL) Instructions for the day were very clear – after introducing yourself, your pitch should take no longer than 30 seconds. So, I worked hard to boil the essence of my novel down to 100 words, trying to maintain the tone of it then read it out loud over and over.
(JS) I spent a lot of time preparing my pitch, using the tips on the Curtis Brown Creative website, as well as reading various articles on the Internet because I had never pitched to an agent before. I also edited the first page of my novel to give to the agent on the day.
(MC) With the stopwatch app on my phone! I knew that 30 seconds was a very short time in which to do make the pitch – 100 words maximum. I practised repeatedly and still came in at around 40 seconds so I hoped I wouldn’t be gagged just before I’d shoehorned in the final hook.
(TL) Before the day I wrote a short blurb giving an overview of the plot. As the pitch was only meant to last for thirty seconds I aimed to make this 100 words, which would take around that long to read. However when I got there I abandoned what I’d written and decided to freestyle it instead!
(RG) I struggled with the pitch and was still practising it when I arrived early at the station and there was a clock showing seconds. I was especially motivated as I gained a place at the last moment when someone wasn’t able to attend.
(ER) I wrote my pitch in bullet points, making it easy to read. I also practiced and timed myself with a stopwatch many times. My paperwork, which included my pitch, first page, synopsis and a family tree I had created, was protected in a folder. I took everything, just in case.
(EJ) I’m terrible at public speaking. Stage fright kicks in and I end up a blabbering wreck. My only hope of calming my nerves is to be exceptionally well prepared. I spent weeks refining my pitch, talking to people who had attended before and getting every bit of advice I could.
What was it like waiting in the queue for your appointment?
(SL) Thankfully my appointment slot was early (11.45am) before the afternoon backlog build-up. I queued for 20 minutes or so. The whole process (queue, interview, then Q&A session) took around 45 minutes. By the time I returned to the cafe, the queue was snaking two floors down the central
(JS)When I arrived on the 5th floor, I got chatting to another author with the same slot as me and we practised pitching our very different novels to each other. We eventually joined the queue together, making our way slowly up the stairs and I found that companionship really eased my nerves.
(MC) It was a surprisingly calm and orderly forty minutes, given that everyone’s insides were probably doing somersaults. I started queuing on the fourth floor and the pitching room was on the sixth. Seeing that long line of writers snaking upwards is a sobering reminder of the huge number of other aspiring novelists out there
(TL) I had the final 3.15-3.45pm slot and managed to be the last person in the queue for the whole day! It took me about 40 minutes to get to the front, but it went quickly as I was chatting to the man in front of me about his crime novel.
(RG) We were tense, of course, and the queue was winding up a flight of stairs. I imagined a customer arriving to buy a book and accidentally getting caught up in it and then being asked to provide a pitch...
(ER) On previous occasions, the queues wrapped around Foyles, which made us a nuisance for those who wanted to buy books. This time, we were not allowed to join the queue until five minutes before our half an hour slot. For me, it was better organised and the time flew by.
(EJ) The queue looked daunting as it snaked down the stairs, however it wasn’t actually so bad once I’d joined it. Chatting with the other writers I barely noticed the time passing until we were in the final stretch and the door was in sight. Then the nerves kicked in.
Which agent did you speak to and was your pitch well received?
(SL) I was seen by Matthew Marland. He listened carefully to my pitch, asked questions about the plot, then about me, then (speed) read my first page. He was very positive and although mine was not the kind of book he handled, he thought the voice strong and liked the concept.
(JS) The agent I spoke to was Abbie Greaves from Curtis Brown, who works alongside Sheila Crowley (JoJo Moyes' agent!) Abbie was very kind, putting me at ease straight away. She listened carefully to my pitch and was very positive about it. She read my first page straight afterwards and made some notes.
(MC) Catherine Cho, who works with Jonny Geller. She was very polite, patient and seemed genuinely interested in the novel and in me as a writer. The pitch went better than I’d dared hope (I didn’t clam up anyway), Catherine liked the first page and recommended I submit a named agent at CB when the MS is ready: so very well received.
(TL) I spoke to Sophie Lambert from Conville & Walsh. As she read my first page she laughed a couple of times which was encouraging (luckily it was intended to be funny!). She was very constructive and praised my character’s voice and the setting of the novel.
(RG) I spoke to Catherine Cho, who was very encouraging and asked me some more questions about my story.
(ER) I spoke to Sophie Lambert of Conville and Walsh, who immediately put me at ease. Sophie wanted more than the pitch; the detail, where was it set?, what was the plot? how did it end? The response was excellent. She gave me an agent’s name to send my manuscript to.
(EJ) I pitched to Johanna Devereaux who was very friendly and helpful. It was fantastic watching her nod and smile as she read the first page. Johanna asked lots of probing questions and said they don’t get many submissions like mine which is a good sign.
What advice was given to you?
(SL) He said to submit to Sheila Crowley or Rebecca Ritchie (Rebecca being the better option he thought as Sheila’s list is big with some pretty big names too, eg Jojo Moyes). He said to make my cover letter as good as it could be (the CB website gives good guidelines).
(JS) She thought my story idea was sound and my writing good but she said that to grab an agent's attention, it would need a real twist to make it stand out in the contemporary romance genre. Commercial success is uppermost in the agent's mind when considering submissions.
(MC) Catherine advised me to consider what type of reader my novel would appeal to – the dreaded ‘compare yourself to famous authors’ question. She was encouraged that I’d had lots of feedback on the novel from my likely target readers via writing courses and groups, etc. She also advised about the importance of a strong narrative arc.
(TL) Sophie advised me that domestic thrillers are very popular in women’s commercial fiction at the moment, so when writing outside this genre it was important to have a gripping plot. She told me to make sure the character faced lots of challenges which allowed her to develop outside of her romantic relationships.
(RG) She advised me to submit to one of two agents, appropriate for my genre.
(ER) I was told not to forget to include the architecture of the area and not be too heavy with dialogue. Also, because it was historical, make sure it was written in keeping with the time, although she did feel my first page did fit the time and setting.
(EJ) Johanna’s advice focused on my elevator pitch. Basically I just wasn’t selling my novel well enough. One of the key things she told me was to consider what a character thinks they want and what they actually need. Once I did that the pitch I should have made became clear.
How did you feel about your appointment?
(SL) Don’t expect too much – nobody gets signed up here – but it’s worth the effort. You’ll learn what agents want, what standards they expect from writers and how you might gain an edge. You’ll learn that agents are human too and want your novel to succeed just as much as you.
(JS) I was very pleased with my pitch and with Abbie's comments on the day. We had a good talk about my writing and where I might go from here. She was friendly and not at all as daunting as I had expected and I know that I was lucky in that respect.
(MC) I felt far more positive than I’d anticipated I would. I’d been concerned that six minutes to pitch a novel was an impossibly short time but after the appointment I felt I’d been able to myself and
the novel justice. So I’d both obtained some concise but very positive feedback and honed an elevator pitch.
(TL) Beforehand I was really nervous and expected it to be a Dragon’s Den style drilling in which the agent would interrogate me about my plot and characters. However Sophie couldn’t have been nicer and I left feeling positive, encouraged and motivated to keep writing.
(RG) I understand that the agents did not all receive pitches all through the day. However, it must be demanding on them sitting there for long sessions and I can’t help wondering if they manage to stay focused throughout. There was no sign of Catherine going off message, though, and obviously they are professionals.
(ER) My appointment was quite late in the afternoon, but if the agent I saw was tired, she hid it very well. I was very happy with the questions I was asked. The conversation was detailed and not just a pitch. I was relieved I had prepared and practiced for it.
(EJ) Nerves struck on the day and I didn’t put my pitch across particularly well, so initially I was disappointed with myself. It wasn’t until later that I realised it wasn’t actually that bad. The pitch may have flopped, but the first page, the concept and plot lines had gone down well.
Would you recommend attending Discovery Day, and events like it, to other authors - and why?
(JS) I would definitely recommend the experience. I found the discipline of writing a pitch about my novel and honing my first page very useful, and it was so helpful to be able to discuss it with an agent. I also enjoyed the opportunity to ask questions of Jonny Geller, no less, afterwards at the surgery.
(MC) I’d been a little sceptical about attending but was pleasantly surprised at the courtesy (and stamina) of the agents and organisers. I got a motivational kick from the feedback and a genuine
sense of interest in my novel so when it’s ready to submit I’m likely to send it in Curtis Brown’s direction. However, the sheer number of other pitching writers, shows how tough the competition is likely to be – perhaps a reflection that, unlike at writing conferences, these one-to-one were absolutely free . Fortunately a couple of other writing friends were also pitching and I had the bonus of catching up with them for a coffee in the excellent Foyles café.
(TL) I’d definitely recommend Discovery Day to any author as a great opportunity to get invaluable feedback from a literary agent and ask any questions you have. Preparing the pitch is also good practice in itself. It’s not surprising the day is so popular when you get to receive a personal critique totally for free.
(RG) Yes, I’d definitely recommend it. It’s daunting but good practice for strutting your stuff. There are other worthwhile elements: the surgery, with an opportunity to ask further questions to an agent, and the panel session, featuring an author, agent and publisher, to complete the overall picture. The venue is pleasant, with a good range of refreshments to boost our energy.
(ER) Yes. Discovery Day is an opportunity to focus on selling your novel. Not to be discovered, but to be given an agent’s time and a detailed critique. That is something you can’t buy. The afternoon panel also gave an insight into how everyone in the publishing world has to pitch.
(EJ) I would definitely recommend it. It’s an amazing learning experience. I discovered that despite all my careful drafting my pitch simply wasn’t strong enough to do justice to my novel. If I hadn’t gone to this event I might not have realised that.
Thank you, Sue, Julie, Michael, Tammy, Rosemary, Elaine & Elaina for answering our questions. The opportunity for a one-to-one with any industry professional is always worthwhile. Writers never stop learning!
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