Sunday, 28 February 2016

Discovery Day!

Well hello there!

Yesterday, I went to London to gather with many aspiring authors in the Foyles bookshop, where literary agents were listening to pitches, reading first pages, and offering critique and feedback. How to put this experience into words is something I’ve been thinking about since the coach ride home last night and I suppose the best way to do this would be to start from the beginning.

I set off to London from Sheffield at 7.45AM. I used to live in London and my family home is still there so I’m used to going back every now and again, especially early in the morning. I actually normally go at 6AM but because my allotted time with an agent was 2.15PM, I decided to book my coach a little later. The journey is just under four hours, meaning if everything goes to plan and there are no delays, etc. I should arrive there at 11.30AM. I love long coach rides because I usually take the time out to either just listen to music, read, or catch up on some work. Somehow, I’d managed to pack lunch, a snack, a bottle of water, my first page to give to an agent, my camera, spare batteries, my oyster, my phone charger, and a few extra things, but not my earphones. Luckily, I was kept busy with my work and a book that I’m currently enjoying: The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay – which I highly recommend!

You’d think that I’d use this long period of time to practice my pitch or look over my first page but I did neither. I didn’t practice my pitch because I didn’t want to start getting nervous seven hours before my allocated time, and I didn’t look over my first page because I knew I’d spot a mistake that wasn’t really there, or see something I could have perhaps changed.

Honestly? I think the real reason I was able to stay so calm was because I knew what to expect and I feel this is most important when attending events like these. This is the first pitching event I’ve ever been to, in fact it was the first author’s event I’ve ever been to, and I think it might be pretty easy for many authors to pin a lot of hope on an agent reading their first page, loving their pitch, being asked to send the rest of their manuscript, and eventually being offered representation. I didn’t go in with that mind-set, because first of all, I’ve been rejected by so many literary agents that it just wasn’t likely. Secondly, because it was very unlikely even without all the rejection because it was only a thirty second pitch and a first page. I’m positively certain that many authors must had amazing first pages and pitches, and so asking for each person to submit based on these two things alone I'd imagine would be quite difficult for agents and their submission boxes. Thirdly, I’ve already made up my mind to self-publish. Yes my first page is strikingly different compared to that which received rejections but I’ve gotten a few rejections from this first page too, and the idea of the novel still remains the same. Because of these reasons, I managed not to excite myself.

Since I was due to arrive in London at 11.30AM, and thanks to minimal traffic, we arrived at 11.10AM, I decided to spend the couple of hours I had free to look around Covent Garden Market, since it was only fifteen minutes away from Foyles. Yet, on arrival, I checked twitter and the hashtag DiscoveryDay and saw pictures of the queue already forming. I think the earliest allocated time was 10AM and so people had been queueing since then, obviously not wanting to be late because the rules clearly stated, that if you were late, you would have missed your chance and there would be no way to help you out. Since my bus from the coach station stopped right outside Foyles, I decided to head in and see if it was necessary for me to start queuing up now – I was assured that it wasn’t and that I should return at 2.10PM. So I went out in search of Covent Garden. However, I needed to use the GPS on my phone to get there and my battery was currently dying, and I needed my phone to show my Discovery Day ticket otherwise I wouldn’t be permitted entrance, so twelve minutes away from the market, I instead went looking for somewhere to charge my phone. I couldn’t find anywhere in Waterstones, and after stopping for some food I checked Starbucks. There was one plug socket but it was right in the corner next to the bathroom. There was a table close enough to it but it was occupied. I continued to look around until I found a CaffĂ© Nero and YAY! They had a socket right next to some chairs under a wooden bar where people could sit! My battery was glowing red so I knew I would have to sit for a while and I couldn’t take up space without ordering anything. Despite being full, I ordered a lemon and poppyseed muffin, which was delicious by the way, and sat by the window.

I decided to look through some pictures on my camera but those batteries had died too. I took out my spare batteries and found that they were empty of charge too! Luckily for me, for some reason that probably has to do with my lack of camera knowledge, my phone took better quality pictures anyway!

By this time it was around 1PM, so I sat for an hour with my sweet treat and my book, occasionally checking twitter to keep up to date with what was happening in Foyles. 2PM came around and I made my way back to the bookshop which was less than a minute away. I asked an attendant whether I could queue up or not and she kindly said that she would be letting those whose allotments were 2.15PM to join the line in ten minutes. So I waited near the elevators where the queue was, along with others who had been instructed to do the same.

To my right, snaked a long line of people waiting for their six minutes with a literary agent and I just knew that I would not be seeing an agent at 2.15PM as the line looked to be at least an hour’s wait. To my left was the Wild Card Queue, almost as long as the actual queue. I should probably explain the Wild Card Queue. 

Basically, opportunities to pitch your novel IN PERSON to well-known, highly respected literary agents from two of the most prestigious literary agencies in London (Conville & Walsh and Curtis Brown) FOR FREE don’t come around very often, and so of course, many authors want a spot. Unfortunately, not every author could get one otherwise agents would be listening to pitches for days on end, so tickets were allocated on a first come first served basis. When I first saw this event advertised on the Curtis Brown website in 2015 (I think!) I followed the agency on twitter to await announcement on when the tickets would be available to grab. Fortunately, I was able to get one after pestering the Foyles events team through email concerning release dates, but understandably, the event sold out quickly after, therefore, many authors didn’t get a chance. The Wild Card Queue is where these authors could wait and see if maybe, I think at the end, they could get the chance to speak to an agent. I don’t know how this went but seeing as the event started at 10AM and finished after 4PM, I really hope at least some of them were seen, especially if they'd been waiting from the very beginning.

It hit 2.10PM and I was told, along with many others to join the queue. About ten minutes later, a man came round to check our names of a list and when he found my name, asked me whether my pitch was for Children’s or Adults. I said Children’s as that’s what Young Adult is classified under, and I was taken to a much shorter queue.

HOWEVER, this shorter queue was at least six times slower than the Adult's line because I later found out that there were only three Children’s literary agents to about eleven Adult’s agents. So the Adult queue moved much faster, in fact the woman who was behind me in the Adult's line was in and out before I’d even moved! I stood in the queue for two hours but 70% of that time I spent reading my book and the other 30% I spent unintentionally overhearing conversations. I have to say, being in a queue for that long was a major wake up call.

I think for a lot of aspiring authors, especially the ones who haven’t had the easiest journey, including myself, tend to think that we personally suffer the most, not knowing what other authors have gone through. My novel Gifted has been rejected by my estimate, over two hundred times, from literary agents in the UK and the US, but I believe in Gifted so much that I’ve refused to give it up. Of course people reading this would tell me to give myself a break and to quit, maybe write something else, and they’d be right if what I had written was absolute rubbish. Yes, I’ve been told no countless times by literary agents but I’ve been told yes, yes, yes many times from beta readers, book bloggers, and book reviewers too, including the well-respected Kirkus Reviews, so one day I decided to take my targeted audience’s opinions over others.

I went through a few dark months of oh! Woe is me! But bounced back and decided to get my book out there to the people I knew would read them through self-publishing, but that’s a blog post for another day. My point is, I went to this event thinking, I’ve gone through a lot with this book and I doubt anyone has suffered so badly. I believe statements like that was what the term LOL was made for. A lady behind me in the Adult queue was speaking to another lady in the queue and told her that she’s been to a few author events but this was by far the biggest and most daunting. As I mentioned before, this was my first event. I also think I heard her say she’d come from Ireland just for this event. I’d come from Sheffield and had even thought that was a bit of a journey! In the Children’s queue, another two ladies were conversing. One of them had knee problems but was determined to stand and wait in the queue for two hours in order to see an agent (she was later given a chair to sit in whilst she waited).

These very same ladies also discussed something I’d never considered before - the idea that criticism never stops. You send to literary agents and receive rejection, that’s essentially criticism. You get an agent and then send to editors and publishers. If they reject you, again, that’s criticism. You get published and, I wish it were different, but because of subjectivity, everyone who picks up your book isn’t going to be a fan, that’s also criticism. Some will leave badly rated reviews – voiced criticism. It never stops, no matter what you achieve, so criticism is something you must learn to embrace.
I’ll admit, I’m not quite there yet with embracing criticisms but fortunately for me, aside from the rejections from literary agents, nobody has hated my book. I did get a three out of five star review from a book blogger once but I agreed with her reason and that part of the story was revised.

Back to the queue. I was able to focus on my book for most of those two hours because again, I knew what to expect, but I could see others were hoping for more. One person took a deep breath every step closer to the front of the queue she got. One woman was discussing with another whether to take her first page out of the plastic wallet or to present it still inside. I doubt it would have made any different to the agent she saw, but the fact was, she was so determined to do well that she didn’t want to risk making the tiniest of mistakes. Someone else seemed to have brought a little notebook just to practice her pitch in because that was all that was written inside. I could see through the glass window that an author was clearly being told what she wasn't expecting to hear. Someone came from France for this event so as not to miss an opportunity. So whilst standing in a queue for two hours any other day would have been a cause to complain, yesterday, it had been a real eye opener.

I wasn’t the only struggling author out there. There does exist some authors who just suddenly write a book, send it off, and are besieged with offers of representation days later, but most of us struggle, and unfortunately, that’s life. What I learnt from standing in that queue was to get over myself and make my own luck. Sometimes luck gets bored of its daily route, decides to detour and ends up finding you. Other times, you have to run after it and work hard enough to catch it.

After two hours, I was pointed in the direction of Emma Finn from Conville & Walsh. Since there were only three children’s authors, someone behind me managed to point them out and I hoped to get Emma. NO disrespect to the other two Children’s authors! But Emma just looked so friendly and smiley, and incapable of saying anything harsh. Another honest moment? I almost didn’t come to the event, I almost gave up my ticket because no matter how it’s dealt, rejection is hard to take in and I seemed to have terrible experiences with literary agents when it came to my book. As soon as I sat down opposite Emma, my mouth instantly dried - literally. I almost laughed because it was so odd how my mouth managed to dry up! I’d been relaxed and calm up until that moment because I knew what I was going to walk away with – critique, but as soon as I sat down, that fear of rejection that I’ve just been able to get over for now, came rushing back. Emma smiled warmly at me and asked for my first page but all I could think was, she’s a literary agent, so she’s going to hate it. My confidence will be knocked all over again and despite how hard I’ve worked on this revision, I’ll be back to square one.

I delivered my pitch and she read my work. I waited. I looked around and saw that I had somewhere along the line put, my book, The Santa Klaus Murder down on the table! I swept it off and threw it into my bag. Emma finished reading and smiled. Here we go. Here comes the compliment and then the ‘but’. There was no but. I repeat, THERE WAS NO BUT. Emma told me I had a good first page and a strong character voice to which I think I almost peed a little, because, if you continue to read my blog, I intend to put up a post about how the only criticism I managed to get out of two literary agents was that my character voice was weak (this was before my major revision of Gifted). I had spent a lot of time and had worked really hard on reinventing my protagonist, Avery Gray, because it wasn’t enough to just change her. I had to change her and make her real to me all over again, and it was like writing a stranger at the beginning. Avery Gray is the book and so if she had to change, then so did the book. Now that I come to think about it, Emma didn’t really say much about the first page after those two compliments. She did say my novel was longer than usual but that it could still work at the word length it was now. I told her how I had an editor and would discuss the word count with her and if there was anything that needed to be cut, and she also gave me some querying tips. I didn’t even think to mention that I’d now done a major revision and would be self-publishing. Before I knew it I was stood up, shaking her hand, and walking away. All around me people were sitting and talking for much, much longer than I had been but I decided to take that as a good sign. Either Emma was too nice to tell me what she really thought of my first page, or she genuinely did like it. Since she’s a professional literary agent at a large agency, I’m going to go with the latter. Because it’s better.

It was past 4PM when it was all over and I thought it best to leave now to not miss my 5.30PM coach back. I felt elated the entire four hour journey home because I finally found a literary agent who agreed with the non-professionals who had read my book. Granted she only read the first page but that’s enough for me, so I’m running with it. I then put out my first tweet, after joining twitter a few days ago and this crazy thing happened:

No, Emma didn’t ask to read the rest of my novel and no she didn’t offer me representation, but that’s okay because I knew she wouldn’t and after all I’ve been through with literary agents, it’s just enough that she liked it.

Onwards and upwards, as they say!

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