Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Pen Factor Q&A Part 2:

Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown and Deborah Arnander, both Words And Women members, Guin from Cambridge and Deborah from Norwich, had success recently with The Literary Consultancy’s  Pen Factor competition. Both were shortlisted and Guin went on to win first prize!

Over this week on the blog we’re posting our Q&A with Guin and Deborah. Their generous responses to our questions reveal how they prepared for the competition, and what the competition has shown them about their writing and about the business of getting an agent and publishing.

Part 1 of the Q&A was posted on this blog on Sunday 22nd June. Here is Part 2 about the pitching process. Part 3 will appear on Thursday 26th June.

The pitch:

Shortlisted entrants were invited to pitch their work to a panel of agents at the TLC Digital Age Conference. How did you prepare for this?

Guin: The pitch was strictly timed – three minutes each and no more. It was interesting to see how the pitches varied. Some of the fifteen shortlistees focused on reading a prose extract, and others on talking about the themes of the novel. I had never pitched to a live audience before. I split the pitch 50/50 between talking about the book, and reading a prose extract. The prose extract was the opening of the novel, and had a clear end point. Then I practiced, practiced, practiced, cutting the words back until the time came out at 2.50. I needed a few seconds at the end. Silence to return to.

Deborah reading at It's Your Festival, Norwich
Deborah: We had to give a three-minute pitch, which we were warned would be strictly timed (in the event, several people got cut off mid sentence).  In it we had to introduce ourselves, sum up our novels, and read from the opening of our books.  I chose a short and lively scene, with lots of dialogue and an interesting setting (in a derelict air base) which I hoped would set up intriguing expectations about the rest of the novel and show what my writing style is like. I kept the biography and synopsis very short- just a few sentences.  Beforehand, I read into a dictaphone and timed myself until I was sure I would have at least five seconds to spare in case I stumbled. At the conference we also  had a pre-pitch session with Katy Darby from the Liars’ League who gave us some good advice:  Look up from your page, be confident, project, don’t apologise for yourself, relax(!), do different voices for the characters (couldn’t quite bring myself to do that one), use the ‘Wimbledon effect’ for dialogue (turning head to one side then the other) etc.  On the day itself I hid in the toilets and did some deep breathing for ten minutes before it was time for my slot!

What did you learn from the pitching session?

Guin: Not to be too afraid of being scared. I have been struck time and time again through my (short) writing career about issues of self confidence. I think it affects all writers, but women especially. The times I have thought, oh, I'll not do that; I'm not good enough. I'm getting better at banishing that voice. You must try – who else will be ambitious for your work, if not you? It's not the end of the world if the work is not placed. But you have to learn from it, and become a better writer as a result. Each of these experiences is learning. All of us were nervous – that was to be expected. We each had feedback from the panel. We all lived to tell the tale.

Deborah: The pitching session was fascinating.  There were 6 people on the panel; one representative from TLC (chair Rebecca Swift to begin with, but she had laryngitis and had to give up to her deputy), and five literary agents.  The mature woman agent on the panel, I noticed, always tried to say something positive to each pitcher - while still being pretty incisive with her subsequent remarks.  I have a problem with the structure of my book, which I have been trying to resolve for ages; one of the (young male) agents asked me a question about just that, and my difficulty in responding made me realise I need to do some more work on it.  The mature woman suggested to my horror that since I was writing a family saga it might have something in common with Downton Abbey, which is not the case at all, and I said so a bit snippily, which I regretted; if I’d shut up I could have heard more from them (they had four minutes in which to respond).  It was fascinating to listen to their reactions to other pitchers.  Comedy is almost impossible to pull off, we were told, so don’t say you’re writing a comic novel.  They all responded with excitement to anything that sounded ‘high-concept’ - second prize-winner Lucy Yates’ pitch (for the novel she’s writing now) about a feral child who knows about the world only through a copy of Raymond Chandler, for example, raised lots of interest.  I have to say the winners, particularly Guinevere and Lucy, really did stand out: both had honed their extracts very carefully so that the rhythms flowed beautifully and we were immediately engaged with a clearly expressed, high-stakes emotional predicament.  Guin in particular showed excellent knowledge of the contemporary fiction market and had thought carefully about where her book fits in.  The whole panel was impressed with that.  So what I think I learned is: firstly, have a thick skin.  You may get some affirmation but only if you have done what you need to do to deserve it.  These people are expecting to be underwhelmed.  The experience of their indifference can be pretty bruising.  Secondly: write and rewrite and rewrite again.  Any hint of laziness - repetition of a word for example, will be spotted and you will get no further consideration.  Thirdly: they expect you to have considered your audience and the contemporary marketplace in detail and to be able to explain why your book is uniquely exciting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many, many thanks for this interesting article. I'm about to start an MA in Creative Writing and found the advice inspiring for my writing in general. Good to know I'm not the only one who lacks confidence about my abilities, despite the reassurance of having been accepted on the course. I'd be interested to know whether you found your MA courses useful and to have any insights of how to get the best out of it. As a (very) mature student it's something I've long wanted to do but never had the time until now. Good luck to both of you with your writing careers, I'm sure you'll deserve your success.