This weekend, in between buying school trousers that don’t fit and water bottles that will soon be lost, I attended the Festival of Writing at York. Although I only attended for one of the two and a half days (Saturday), I learned a huge amount from the experience. Some of the lessons were embarrassingly obvious (agents are people – who knew)? But I also picked up some genuinely helpful advice on how best to improve ‘voice’ and plot that I think are worth sharing. I’m sure that others will soon be blogging their pictures and insights from FoW15, but here are the nine lessons I took away with me:
- Plot exists to change character
I arrived in York just after ten, knackered from a sleepless night and nervous about my first agent pitch at 11.20am, so I decided to attend Julie Cohen’s workshop on what Pixar movies can teach us about storytelling as a way of filling time. I’d heard she was good, but there was no way I could concentrate on some talk when I had The Big Meeting hanging over me. Or so I thought, because as soon as I’d taken my seat, Julie Cohen tore into a rocket-fuelled performance that honestly made me forget about preparing for my pitch.
Why does plot exist? Julie demanded, before answering: plot exists in order to change character. She then proceeded to demonstrate her point by talking us through the character and plot arc of the film Cars, which is essentially a series of turning points whereby the main character learns something about himself and life, until the thing that he most wants at the start of the film (success) is changed at the end (friends). The talk was so good – so energising, moving and revealing – that I was almost late for my first agent 1:1.
Julie Cohen’s message was reinforced further in Craig Taylor’s lecture Character is Destiny, where he argued that every story has a theme (i.e. love), and that a character’s fatal flaw (i.e. inability to love) should provide the basis for the turning points of the plot as s/he either succeeds or fails to change. Both speakers helped me to clarify and resolve a few character/plot issues I’d been grappling with, and I’d strongly recommend taking a look at the resources the FoW15 team make available to get the benefit of their talks. Also, watch the film Wall-e. In fact don’t just watch it, do what we did with Julie and study the first five minutes and the skill with which story and character unfolds without a single word being spoken: the ultimate in show and tell. There are no huge information dumps or flash backs: Pixar trusts the viewers and Resists The Urge To Explain (RTUTE). I left the workshop humming a tune from Hello Dolly and with Julie Cohen’s challenge ringing in my ears: ‘Your first line should show character’.
2. Find your character’s voice in their shoes
When agents and editors talk about the importance of voice, it usually makes me want to chew my own toes off in frustration, as although most people can’t seem to describe it, ‘they know it when they see it’. But I was lucky enough to talk with Ben Illis, who recommended a brilliant post by Annabel Pitcher (My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece) which explains how she developed the voice of her characters and stayed true to them throughout her novel. Essentially, Annabel Pitcher sat down and thought about what the different voice patterns of each character would be – would they use short sentences, particular phrases etc. and came up with about five for each, stuck them on the wall, and applied them to her characters. As a former method actor, Ben talked passionately about literally wearing a character’s shoes, or finding a hat or a stone or something you can touch as you write to help you be that character. His key bit of advice to me was to do an editorial pass for each main character in my MS to get their individual voices right – crucially resting for a week or so between each one.
Yup, each character. And Resting. Between. Each. One.
That’s one of those golden bits of advice that you both love and hate, because you know he’s right, Goddamn it.
3. There IS a winning formula: write the story that needs to be told
The next panel session I attended was a very lively Q&A with Penny Holroyde, Ben Illis, David Maybury and Julie Churchill on writing for children and YA. The same questions kept coming up from the audience: what’s the ideal word length? What’s the next trend? Is the market for dystopia truly saturated? Should you have swearing in YA books? There was lots of advice on ‘norms’ but for every rule, there was an exception. The session concluded with a plea for writers to write the story that needs to be told. Now, I heard this phrase many times during the day I was there, but what struck me most about this phrase was the genuine passion with which agents urged us – begged us – to write what compels us.
Euan Thorneycroft from AM Heath expanded on this theme when he talked about the role of agents after lunch. Publishing is essentially a gamble, he explained. Your book might tick all the right boxes, but you need a huge amount of luck for a story to take off. In which case, the only thing worth doing is writing from the heart and telling the story that needs to be told.
4. Publishing is a people business – so passion (and pet hates/faves) rules
The YA panel session was a great example of being shown, rather than told, that publishing is a people business. The agents touched and teased and laughed at each other; they often disagreed about word length or genres or swearing, but all of them shared a passion for books and for getting the stories that they care about out there. And because they are people, they have pet favourites (i.e. anything with a Welsh angle) and pet hates (i.e. miserable stories about being shagged behind the back of Allied Carpets). The market may tell them to hunt down more stories about unicorns (yes, wailed David Maybury, fxxxing unicorns), but what agents and publishers really want is to find an MS to fall in love with that they can to go out to bat for.
Euan Thorneycroft said – and I believed him – that the best part of being an agent is going through the slush pile: the exciting possibility that today might be the day that you find that special MS. But all the reading is done out of office hours: during the early or late commute or once the kids have been put to bed, so this business only works because agents are driven by their love and passion for stories
5. Agents are basically trying to remove any reason for a publisher to say no:
Both the YA panel and Euan Thorneycroft explained how a key part of an agent’s job is to look at the MS that they have fallen in love with through the eyes of a reluctant lover, and to basically remove any reason for a publishing house to say no. It’s not that a YA book can’t ever be over 100k, but every single word over 75k is making it easier for someone to say no, so an agent will generally advise you to stay within industry norms. Likewise, dystopia isn’t dead, but there is a sense that there is a glut in the market, so agents will tend to describe it as ‘speculative sci-fi’ – anything to avoid that ‘no’. And it’s not enough for an editor to love your MS, by the way: the sales department need to be convinced that they can sell it, the marketing people need to believe that they can market it and the PR team need to believe that they can publicise it. A ‘no’ from any of these departments and your book simply won’t get published. Hence the attractiveness of unicorns. It also explains why an agent like Euan Thorneycroft will often require 2, 3 or even 6 re-drafts from his clients before he will send it out to a publisher. ‘You only get one shot at a publisher,’ he told us. ‘And a no is a no.’
6. Conferences are worth every penny, BUT pick your agents carefully
There are so many articles and books on ‘how to get published/write a best seller’ but a conference really is the ‘show’ versus the ‘tell’. At a conference like FoW15, you see the ethos and passion of the publishing business in action, and somehow, those simple lessons you have read ten times before finally sink in when an agent sits one foot away from you with your MS in his/her hand.
But a word of warning. If you are going do a 1:1, and/or submit your MS to an agent, then please invest the time and energy in picking the right one for you and your work. I didn’t do this last year (I booked too late to get my ideal choices but went ahead anyway) and I think that’s partly why I didn’t get requests for fulls. This year, I booked early and picked two agents I thought would be genuinely interested in my work, and it made such a difference. Your MS can have a great concept and/or be beautifully written, but if it isn’t ‘right’ for that particular agent, then they aren’t going to fall in love with it; they simply aren’t going to ask you to add to their groaning inboxes. It is so great when you meet an agent who is excited by your work, but I saw again this year how it can knock a writer’s confidence if they have a 1:1 with an agent who simply isn’t right for them.
7. Other writers are lovely but fragile beings
Which links to another key lesson for me: writers are lovely but fragile things. It’s easy enough to swap emoji kisses on twitter, but it turns out writers really are lovely – I spoke to so many people at break times or at the start/finish of lectures. They were mostly short conversations, but they always ended with a genuine and heart felt ‘Good Luck’, and the constant kindness and understanding from strangers was actually quite moving. I think we all felt strengthened by being with others who understand the tortuous business we are in: to talk with people who have been through the same awful cycle of hope and despair, enabling us to come away with the strength to carry on.
8. Agents are people – passionate, empathetic but BUSY – people
As writers, it is so easy to over-think the whole ‘agent’ thing: to think that X is An Agent, rather than a busy mum of four who’s children, like yours, go back to school on Monday, and who has far too many things to read but will stay up way past her bedtime if she finds something she really loves. All the agents I saw were incredibly friendly and generous with their time and advice, not just in the 1:1s but over breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks. They weren’t just attending a conference, they were active members of a community of people who write, find and publish books, and they were all trying to help us be the very best that we can be. Some were extroverts, some were introverts: Ben Illis was taller than his twitter icon suggests, David Maybury was funny and sweary, Jenny Savill wise and watchful and (according to Julie Cohen) Julia Churchill was quite a bad influence. Just like the rest of us, agents are all different, but at York, I could see that they were all once ten-year-olds who read with a torch under the bed, and probably still do.
9. Only send your MS to an agent when it is REALLY ready
When I left York on Saturday evening, I thought that the magical five words I heard from both agents – I’d like to see more – was the most important thing I’d got from the conference. But as the train progressed through the darkening skies to Birmingham, I realised that the second half of that magical sentence was far more important: When It Is Ready.
Jenny Savill says that the number one reason she rejects MS’s is because they simply aren’t ready. And after meeting her and other agents at York, I think my definition of ready has changed. ‘Ready’ doesn’t mean at the end of this week when I have raced through the last 50 pages of my MS and given it a quick read through. It doesn’t mean just fixing all the obvious issues that they picked out in my first two chapters and bashing out a panicky email in case they forget me and my MS. Being ready means absorbing the feedback both agents took the time to give me and applying it to the whole MS. It means getting out the mop and bucket, not the bath wipes. It even means doing an editorial pass on each main character (sigh) with rests in between (Goddamn it).
And even when I think it is ‘ready’, I am going to ask myself some tough questions. Can I imagine sitting across from those very same agents, looking them in the eye, and saying, I heard you. I have removed not just the weaknesses you mentioned, but every possible weakness I can imagine you would spot. I think this is now worthy of your time: more worthy than anything else on your slush pile or TBR. I think you will recognise the landscape that you know more intimately than me; that it will make you shut your door and read the next page and the next until you are dashing out of your office, insisting that others must read this too.
Can I look those agents – those people – in the eye, and truthfully make those claims?
Not yet, but I’m working on it. (With rests in between. Honest).
Finally, I’d just like to thank the organisers of FoW15 who arranged this huge conference with great skill and compassion, and the agents, publishers and writers who made it such a positive, energising experience, and wish everyone who attended the very best of luck.