Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Agent One-to-Ones – Part Two

In my earlier blog which you can read below I spoke about the lead up to the Winchester Writers’ Festival one-to-ones. Each meeting was fifteen minutes long. Fifteen. Positively ages if you are waiting for something, gone in the blink of an eye if you are enjoying something. It’s a funny old thing, time.

The one-to-ones on the first day were held for some reason only known to the organisers in a large, windowless room. At least I think it was windowless, perhaps very heavy drapes were pulled. It was so gloomy in there it was depressing. It reminded me of battery farming. I truly pitied the poor agents who had to sit in there for hours on end. I think I would have gone out of my mind. What a perfectly awful and depressing setting. I’m guessing the person or committee who chose it didn’t have to sit in it.

Dark room
Room with chairs by Glasseyes View courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 – Winchester wasn’t quite as bad as this but you get the idea https://flic.kr/p/nShyGq https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The one-to-ones on the second day were held in a different building, the waiting area was large and airy, the room we met in had windows (yay!) and whether it was my imagination or just the cohort of agents who attended that day, the atmosphere seemed lighter, happier and more energised.

I was struck, once more, by how young most of these women were – and they were predominantly women. Terrifyingly glam with faultless make-up, great hair, classy clothes and fabulous shoes, I couldn’t help wonder if somewhere in the country is an agent school, like an old fashioned finishing school, where they go to ‘get the look’. I was also struck, in a far less positive way, by the dearth of ethnicity.

Having met many editors at trad publishers I know this demographic is mirrored there too. This article is not about to turn into a rant about gatekeepers but when the people in charge of directing a large chunk of the industry are all cut from similar cloth is it any wonder that we have so many books that look and read the same, cookie cutter style? Heyho, a topic for another blog methinks.

Cookie cutter
Escher Cookie Cutters – The Sequel by Fdecomite courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/kchCPr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Tales of meetings were swapped amongst the writers in corridors and classrooms, in the loos and at breakfast, lunch and dinner, like war stories. Those who had done well were congratulated, those who had faired less positively were consoled. Comments were picked over, endlessly analysed and debated. Facial expressions dissected and bad experiences, even if collected third or fourth hand, were recounted and passed along.

I heard examples of unprofessional conduct from some agents ranging from bored expressions and lack of interest to monosyllabic conversation and general apathy.

In fairness, it was hot in that soul-destroying room on the first day but still if you have put yourself up to take part and meet with however many wannabes you should be prepared to at least be professional and put your game face on even if you are bored to tears by most of them. Remember a lot of miles had been travelled and a lot of money spent to sit there in front of them. Boundless enthusiasm throughout the day would have been impossible for anyone, common courtesy should not have been.

One particularly mindboggling comment delivered to a friend of mine was ‘You cannot write about something you haven’t personally experienced’. What?! I have three murders in my current work in progress.

Question mark2
Business Way by Sebastian Vital courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/Wo4mSw https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

How did I get on? I won’t name the agents I met with but the two on the first day were wonderfully friendly, warm and engaging on a personal level and complimentary about my work. Ultimately, neither were interested in taking things forward and that was cool. So much of writing is subjective. Our conversations were polite but a little stilted and finished before their allotted time.

Stand out comments for me were ‘What are you even doing here?’, ‘You should keep doing what you are doing, you’ll make more money indie publishing’ and ‘How does someone so glamorous write something so dark?’. I was heartened by the candour of the first and the kindness of the second (remember it was dark in that room!).

On the second day, in a far more suitable room, I met with two more agents. The first had clearly engaged with my writing style, fired questions at me ten to the dozen and our conversation zipped along with no awkward silences to the extent that we started nudging into the next meeting. A business card was handed over, a request to see the whole manuscript delivered. I left feeling energised from the encounter.

The second meeting was, unbelievably, even more positive. This particular agent had also clearly read the work I had submitted in forensic detail, her conversation was littered with the names of my characters and various plot points. On the desk in front of her, my covering letter was covered in handwritten comments, arrows, lines, stars and double underlining. Normally an expert at reading upside down I sadly could not decipher the unfamiliar handwriting. This conversation, too, went beyond its allotted time. It felt as though I was chatting with an old friend. How strange when we had only just met and in such artificial circumstances. A second business card was produced, another exhortation to send the whole manuscript when I had finished my edits.

Perhaps it is possible to find an agent at the writing equivalent of speed dating. I’ll let you know how it goes.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Agent One-to-Ones – Part One

What a strange and unnatural device the agent/editor one-to-one concept is. Speed dating for writers. I wonder whether agents love them or hate them? I guess, as with normal speed dating, should you be lucky enough to ‘find the one’ you love them, if you have to spend hours chatting to people you really would rather not, then you’ll be less enamoured.

Speed dating
Dunedin Internship Speed Dating by Samuel Mann courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/de7Coj https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Winchester offered the chance to have four such meetings of fifteen minutes in length because I had booked the Thursday-Saturday package. There was a large list of agents, editors, writers, tutors and other book related luminaries to choose from. At the time of booking a little biography is available on each person and of course there is the tool of social media to find out more.

I had two one-to-ones lined up each day. I was interested to see what their approach would be to a predominantly indie author. A month before we had been called upon to submit a covering letter, a synopsis and a sample from our latest work – either one chapter, two or three depending on the personal preference of each agent.

I was going into it with open eyes, hoping, if possible to secure representation for my diversion into crime writing having made great strides in building myself a platform as an indie romantic/women’s fiction novelist already. I perhaps had less riding on it than most. If it didn’t work and nobody bit (in the nicest sense) I could always indie publish – a process I am now at ease with.

You are asked to gather five minutes before your scheduled appointment in the corridor outside the room in which the meetings happen. You register and, name duly checked off the list, you take a seat.

All crowded together, sitting in a narrow corridor, it is amazing how you pick up on the tension of others and it feeds into your own emotions.   I was reminded of stories of crowd hysteria. I now have a better understanding of how those instances can occur. Through emotional osmosis almost, I began to feel nervous. I hadn’t felt this way since I last took an exam and I guess that is what it is like – an examination of your writing and a potential job interview all rolled up into one. That is a lot of tension to carry.

Tension
See the Tension by Aart van Bezooijen courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/9WHnL https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Being a stationery junkie, I was in my element. There were a huge array of folders, notebooks, bags and plastic wallets on display. Pens were fiddled with nervously, clicking on and off, papers rustled. There was a lot of avoiding of eye contact, quick smiles and fidgeting. A few random attempts at conversation quickly dwindled away. Everyone practised the art of silently rehearsing their elevator pitches. Overriding everything was the babble of so many conversations, which on occasion lifted to a deafening roar, going on in a confined space just over our shoulders.

Held in the waiting area, ready to be called to our respective fates, I was reminded that writers come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and nationalities too. Some looked like a wardrobe had fallen on them – I could only hope their work was better put together than they were, some were dressed to the nines and looked like they were going to a wedding or a funeral – which, to continue the speed dating analogy, I guess they were. Some looked so young I hoped their mum or dad was close by to offer support if their dreams were crushed.

There was, apparently, an agony aunt on hand to assist those whose egos were subjected to a nasty dose of reality.

All too much
All too much by Kelsey Graeter courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dTUzoN https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I gathered later from discussion with one of the tutors that the agony aunt had been introduced because in previous years a large number of would be writers had emerged from their one-to-ones sobbing into their manuscripts and everyone had felt that “something needed to be done”. I wondered if the more ‘direct’ agents had been whittled out and not invited back. In some ways I hoped not, the school of hard knocks teaches us far more than polite but ultimately hollow comments can ever do.

I was therefore in two minds as to whether this was a good idea. Being criticised comes with the territory of being a writer. You simply have to toughen up because no one, be they Shakespeare or Austen, Tolstoy or humble old you and me, is universally loved. It struck me a little of the nanny culture that decrees that every child in school should win a prize. We are all special snowflakes, I grant you, but we can’t all hack it as professional writers.

snowflakes
Snowflakes by James Mann courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/joih25 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In the waiting area, it was our turn to walk into the lion’s den. Wardrobe woman tripped and nearly fell, leaving her looking ever so slightly more disheveled than she had been before which was saying something, the young girl next to me looked petrified as if a firing squad was waiting for us inside and behind me I could hear a chorus of nervous coughs as throats were cleared.

Find out how I got on next time.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes