Writers' Conference at the University of Winchester is no exception. Last weekend, hundreds of delegates attended workshops, Masters' Courses, lectures and the conference's famous and hugely popular One-to-One appointments. During my One-to-Ones, where I gave advice on editing and submitting, the fifteen-minute changeovers were signalled by a conference volunteer barking 'Five minutes!', then 'Changeover NOW!' with all the relish of a sergeant-major.
I was there not only to have One-to-Ones but to run my Making Memorable Scenes Masters' Course on Friday and deliver my talk Cracking Openings to a packed room on Saturday. Apart from the usual intense networking, I try to get to a couple of lectures as well. This year, I attended talks given by two agents, Becky Bagnell and David Headley, the latter in conjunction with his client, author Adrian Magson. Both Becky and David were keen to demonstrate the value of an agent to a writer: I don't think that's in doubt when it comes to negotiating contracts, interpreting royalty statements or leaning on publishers who don't play ball with their writers. I also feel that one of the great strengths of an agent - or any agent worth his or her salt - is knowledge of the market and of editors' individual likes and interests at any one time. An agent who can look at your script and envisage the perfect home for it is going to target your submission far more effectively than you can yourself.
Becky was highly-animated, enthusiastic, friendly. She gave the sort of submission package advice - letter/synopsis/three chapters - that every writer should be familiar with. She has come from the world of publishing herself, having been an editor, and it was clear that she feels a lot of passion and will really get behind a book she cares about. However, there were some salutary moments among the glee, so take note. She receives around fifteen scripts a day, so even though you're submitting three chapters, she will probably make a judgement call on the first 1-3 pages. If she's going to reject, she needs 'to reject as quickly as possible'. This is perfectly reasonable: she's an agent looking for a saleable commodity, not an adoring best mate, not an editor who is paid to put in effort to see the gold within the dross and make sure it shines through. She will look, judge, move on. Earlier that day I'd said in my talk how crucial it is to get the opening right because readers in bookshops make quick judgements, as do Kindle readers who've downloaded their free samples. Here too is the stress on the quick return on the reader's investment of attention. Scary, but there it is. Hone that opening!
Becky reads those first three pages and will read on if, and only if 'a world is opening up', because she says 'an agent is looking for any reason to reject' (to hear that sentiment echoed, read Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages). She wants to believe in the world the writer creates, with its characters and setting and she expects something to intrigue her. She says the sales team at a publishing house will ask 'What's the hook?' What's yours?
When I'm critiquing or editing submissions, I start with the opening chapters and I make it my policy not to look at the synopsis initially, on the grounds that the reader won't have a synopsis sitting there to nudge them towards understanding or make them see the opening in terms of the whole. If they're going to be confused, bored or exasperated, it will happen in the opening - and no wonderful synopsis will ever solve that. Becky also does this, only reading the synopsis to confirm that the engaging opening has the potential to maintain interest as a whole story. She advises your synopsis should be no more than one side long, introducing the main characters, telling a mini-story. If both opening and synopsis have worked for her, she'll return to the covering letter to get a sense of you, the writer, so in your letter remember to include any personal experience that led you to write your book and any writing credentials you have. Don't ever say 'My Mum loves it!'
Even if you are rejected, Becky says you should feel that 'any feedback is an achievement' and reiterates what we all know: that publishers are risk-averse. During both agent talks, members of the audience wanted to know what was going to be hot in the market (apart from hyperventilating unarousing erotica currently riding high in the sales-charts, of course ...) - Becky's view is that it's easier to sell children's books and that historical fiction for the children's market is being requested.
David Headley, on the other hand, feels the children's market is saturated, so he doesn't take on children's writers. So you see, you've got to shop around. Talking of shops, what makes David very interesting as an agent is that, unlike Becky, he has come from the world of bookselling. He runs Goldsboro Books in London - in fact, I blogged about his History in the Court event last autumn and he has Crime in the Court upcoming, on July 3rd, with an amazing roster of authors appearing.
His bookselling background gives David a commercial outlook. His entire talk was sprinkled with the words 'commercial', 'return' and 'market'. Quite right, you may say: this is a business and he clearly sees it as such and is upfront about it. If there is no potential for reward there is no motivation. He didn't mince words about this or about anything else. He thinks self-publishing will burn out because so many are doing it that nobody can stand out, so there will be a return to traditional publishing. He says he works very hard with his client, seeing the novel through as many drafts as it takes before sending it out. His client Adrian Magson was clearly happy with their relationship: there was a lot of laddish joshing going on. However, be warned. He receives around 400 submissions a month and is not interested unless he can see some 'edge' and unless a writer is prepared to trust him and work with him. 'You have to change what the publisher wants changed' and you have to be able to produce two books a year if need be. Woah there! Here's a potential problem both for unknown writers and those who are established, whether traditionally or independently. You as writer strive to create an appetite for your work, but once you've created it you discover it's voracious, an open maw constantly gaping to be filled. Can you do this? I think that with industry and professionalism you can, if you're writing genre fiction where there is a clear model for your work and the elements your reader expects to see in it. But this doesn't apply to all writers, all books. Some stories need a long time to grow and if rushed, they end up pale and leggy like forced plants in a greenhouse.
On a more positive note, David says 'Nothing will stop me reading a good story' - this is the bottom line for all of us. Writing - and reading - damn good stories.
So, what comes out of all this? Yes, there are the usual depressing references to how hard the market is, how cautious the publishers, how genre-oriented the bookshops. As David says, 'You cannot be precious as a writer.' You're entering a world of business, with business-values, not a hobby-group. Agents tell you to write the book that's dear to your heart, then tell you to be market-aware, malleable, commercial, inhumanly productive. They predict upcoming fads in fiction, they spout contradictory messages ...
But in spite of it all, there's hope: key to these talks was my feeling that somewhere, for all of us, is the right agent. One-to-ones and agent-appearances are a kind of speed-dating. They give you the chance to weigh up a potential relationship. Instinct will tell you if you're likely to get along or whether the chemistry isn't there. Write the right book, find the right agent, trust the agent to find the right publisher. Repeat as necessary.
Finally, it was a joy, as ever, to meet up with some lovely people at Winchester, to hug old friends, to read new manuscripts, to confirm once again that we writers never quite break free of our dreams, our addiction to writing, no matter what - and that even jaded editors and agents have their dreams too: of THE book, the book that will inspire instant passion - and earn a lot of bucks for its bang.