When I first saw this event advertised, I have to admit to having been a little apprehensive. I’d been to events like it before, and my experiences had generally been that they were expensive, involved travelling to London and the delegates were explicitly informed not to approach the agents with their work. Besides, I wasn’t even a graduate, so was it really for me?
But when I started reading the blurb, I knew that this event was going to be very different from anything I’d experienced before. The timetable was jam-packed with lectures, workshops and included not one, but TWO fifteen-minute 1-2-1 agent pitching sessions – all for a measly £40 (a quarter of the price you’d normally pay for such an event).And it was based in Manchester, not London. Maybe this was for me after all.
The day started at 8:30 and, after a few nervous hellos, introducing myself to my fellow delegates, we were soon ushered into the auditorium for Kit de Waal’s Keynote speech. Still a bit bleary-eyed, and with my head doing flips trying to figure out my plan of action for my agent pitching sessions later, I was not prepared to be blown away. But I was. Kit de Waal’s speech was fantastic. Too much so to even begin to cover here. But what hit me most was the lack of representation of the working class in literature.
There are, however, people looking to change the system; Kit de Waal being one of them, through the scholarship she has set up to address this issue. Literature should represent everyone. Your voice is equally, if not more, valid than all those voices that have got there ahead of you.
Following the Keynote speech were two Panel Sessions, where we had the opportunity to choose between four different topics for discussion. My first choice was ‘You, The Author: Motivation, Self-Critique and -Promotion’. Monique Roffey (Author and former director of the Arvon Foundation) told us about her writing journey. From securing her first agent to hating her second book, which was never published, and the bumpy road to getting herself back on track with White Woman on the Green Bicycle, which was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Even brilliant writers, who have had the opportunity to do an MA and PhD in Creative Writing, aren’t guaranteed an easy ride.
There was also more helpful advice from agents Samar Hammam and Jessie Botterill, impressing upon us the need to be professional in our approach to the industry – be aware of the world you’re trying to knock on the door of, show them you’re taking it as seriously as they do and don’t press send as soon as you reach the end of your first draft. Write and rewrite. Get feedback off people who are committed to being honest and helping you get the work to be the best it can be.
The next talk I chose was ‘Reaching Your Audience: Creating a Presence in Public and Online’, with Tom Ashton (Kate Nash Literary Agency), Kate Feld (Director of Openstories) and Sarah James (poet and blogger). The panellists encouraged us to develop a public and online presence. Twitter, in particular, can help to build a network of writers and to pick up news and insights from publishers and agents and to help us stand out. It was interesting, however, to hear them reassuring the more reluctant audience members that it wasn’t necessary for success.
After the lunch break, there were six different drop-in workshops. Andrew Michael Hurley (Author of The Loney) talked about his journey to publication. Rejection happens. It hurts. But keep going. It took him 15 years to become ‘an overnight success’. Alysoun Owen (Editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook) helped us perfect our Elevator Pitches and Commonword (a writing development organisation) helped us write some experimental fiction.
Slotted in between these workshops were the 1-2-1 agent pitching sessions, allocated based on our chosen genre preferences. My first agent pitching session was with Samar Hammam from the Rocking Chair Books Agency, who was full of really helpful advice. She’s particularly on the lookout for commercial / women’s fiction at the moment, so if you have something that might suit then do send it her way!
And, right at the end of the day, I met with Chloe Seager of Diane Banks Associates. The YA novel I had brought with me had only just been plotted, so wasn’t anywhere near the submission stages, but it was still very useful to share it with Chloe and get her invaluable advice. Plus, she said I could send it directly to her once it was finished – bypassing the slush pile! A perfect end to a perfect day!
So, whatever stage you’re at in your writing career, and whatever stage you’re at with your work in progress, I can highly recommend The National Creative Graduate Fair.