Today I’m back in London after a four-day holiday in Harrogate at the Crime Writing Festival.
I attended ‘Creative Thursday,’ the £99 1-day course for aspiring crime writers, and at the end of the day my name was drawn from the hat of people who had volunteered to pitch to Jane Gregory, Jon Wood, Sarah Lutyens, and Nick Sayers and I thought I would share my thoughts on the experience here.
The official description is:
Four brilliant publishing professionals. Two minutes to convince them your synopsis and first chapter are worth reading. One audience full of your fellow would-be writers watching how you fare. Our literary version of the popular TV show, the Dragons’ Den, is not for the faint-hearted.
What the actual deal is:
I think there are around 200 people in the audience, with the four dragons at the front, and Mark Billingham organising. When he calls a name, you go to the front and he asks a few questions about you and how long you’ve been writing, so this is a chance to talk about yourself a bit, which I didn’t take advantage of because I was nervous. Then you have two minutes to speak.
Some people had gone to a lot of trouble to memorise their pitches Dragons’ Den style, I thought about doing this but chickened out, as it is too easy to fluff your lines and lose your train of thought. Interestingly, I think that the people who were a little more nervous and human actually came off better as the dragons were more merciful. Those with perfectly honed pitches and professional delivery probably got more detailed and useful feedback, but my feeling is that they came away with less requests to see a submission.
I had prepared a short (300 word) synopsis, and I originally had the strapline at the end, but I ended up putting it at the beginning. From listening to the others, I realised that it’s actually quite difficult to listen and understand two minutes of plot description, and I think a mistake many people made was to include too much of this. Because my pitch was shorter, I think this worked to my advantage as Jane Gregory said she was intrigued enough to want to see more. Nick Sayers said he liked the fact my pitch started with a clear statement – “The Cliffs of Lizard is a psychological thriller that asks the question: how far would you go to protect your family?” so I know making this last-minute change was the right thing to do.
I didn’t give away the ending in the pitch, but I think I should have made it clear that there is a dramatic, unexpected ending with a twist, as this was what they asked about afterwards. Mark Billingham commented that aspiring authors have a tricky balance of intriguing an agent/publisher enough, reassuring them it’s a good ending, but not giving the game away.
Sarah Lutyens said my idea had potential, but so much depends on the actual writing that she couldn’t really judge it. Her tip was that you need to take something that is successful in the genre, and then do it in a different way. For example, Elizabeth Haynes’s ‘Into the Darkest Corner‘ is a psychological thriller with a first-person narrator, but told with two interweaving timelines that meet at the end.
Publisher Jon Wood of Orion said that Waterstones have changed the way they buy books from publishers. Waterstones used to order many different books, then if any were unsold they could return them. Now, they don’t do this – they just bulk order books they know will sell, and this means it’s even more difficult to take on a new author, and they have a very small ‘nursery’ of authors they are developing. He said my book sounded similar in style to Elizabeth Haynes who he is publishing, so it wouldn’t be one he’s interested in.
So, I had three requests to see more, which is very exciting for me, and the chance to get any kind of personal feedback from these people will be hugely valuable.
There are many, many ways for an unpublished author to spend lots of money “honing the craft” and getting different levels of feedback, but I think this £99 was well-spent.
Other notes on Creative Thursday in general:
In the morning, we heard from forensic scientists Lorna Dawson, Professor Dave Barclay and Dr James Grieve, who were all witty and fascinating, I was on the edge of my seat hearing about their experiences (and listening to the gorgeous Scottish accents), and it was funny to watch Stuart MacBride struggle to reign them in and stick to schedule – they just had so much to say!
I also sat in the sessions with Mari Hannah and her editor at Pan Macmillan Wayne Brookes; Mark Edwards & Louise Voss and their editor at HarperCollins Kate Bradley who told us about their roads to publication.
The lesson I learned here is that it can take many long, heartbreaking years, but you have to keep going. I was particularly interested in hearing that Wayne had wanted to publish Mari Hannah’s book before, but had to wait to change jobs to be able to add her to his list.
So again, apparently it’s all about perseverance, finding the right person who loves your book, and giving yourself the best odds of this happening.
Thanks to Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride for being so generous in setting this up for aspiring authors like me, this was a fantastic event and I’m very glad I went.