In January I was fortunate enough to spot something shared on Twitter about a ‘Discovery Day’ for aspiring novelists to be held at Foyles bookshop in London. I jumped at the opportunity, emailed them and luckily bagged myself a slot– 6 minutes with a literary agent from Curtis Brown or Conville & Walsh!
So what is Discovery day? The name could be misleading for some. Agent representation isn’t something that can be offered within such a short pitch slot, so it’s not an interview or chat which leads to a book deal. Instead, it’s a great opportunity to get feedback on your novel from an industry expert.
They asked for a 30 second pitch to be said verbally, and the first page of your novel printed out for them to read. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful writing group who double-checked my first page, and fellow pitcher Grace Palmer also gave me some great advice. I felt I’d done the best I could do with it, and my pitch…well, 30 seconds is tough when it’s a character driven drama. I wish I could’ve just said ‘Jaws in a council estate’ but somehow I didn’t think that would work. So I tried my best to whittle it down to who it’s about and what they do. I also planned just to say a line about myself and that I’ve had a few short stories published.
The day came around I was all prepared with tube maps and a bucket of determination not to get freaked out in busy Underground stations in London. I used to have a huge fear of escalators (I fell down one from top to bottom so I had good reason to) so I avoided going to London when I was younger. I’m okay with escalators now, but am not too familiar with London, so making the trip was quite an empowering part of it to be honest.
The queue of writers waiting for their pitch slots was curling around two flights of stairs when I got there. We weren’t able to join the queue before the start of our half an hour slot time – mine was 2.15 – 2.45pm but I think I was seen at about 3.15. The Foyles staff were very organised and nice though so it was fine. I used the time productively editing my novel (the latter parts, not the bit I was pitching) whilst I was waiting. I’m not sure if there was an air of competition or if everyone was just too nervous to talk to each other. In the queue to the toilet earlier I’d heard a girl say she saw Claire Conville from Conville and Walsh and I was really surprised. I wrongly presumed they’d just send the readers, but the big agents were there – agghhh!
There were a lot of agents, and the plan was just to see whoever came free first. I got a male agent from Curtis Brown. I asked him if he wanted the first page or 30 second pitch first, and he said it was up to me. That kind of threw me a bit as I thought they’d have more of a set format. They didn’t have stopwatches to check it was 30 seconds, they just say that so you keep it short. It’s a great exercise to do even if you aren’t going to an event like Discovery Day as it really helps get to the essence of your novel. I’d played about with mine so much, but still he said it needed some work. He didn’t really say what, just that ‘we need to know the story’. My pitch was something like this:
I’m Mel. I’ve written two novels, a screenplay, have had short stories and blogs published and I co-run a storytelling night in Bristol. ‘Paper Cuts’ is a gritty character-driven drama about a troubled young woman called Izzy from a council estate in the Midlands. She travels to a Tibetan region of India to escape her turbulent relationship with her family. The stories of her and her mum (Sue, in the UK) run side by side through their mirroring struggles with substance abuse and mental health problems. It’s influenced by some of the places I’ve travelled.
He asked me how the novel ends. I told him but he didn’t look very interested. Maybe I’d started to ramble.
Then he read the first page. He said ‘well, it’s hard to comment just from the first page’ to which I felt like screaming ‘that's what you bloody well asked for’ but instead I nodded and smiled politely. He said ‘the question is, does it want to make you read more?’ so I asked him ‘would it make you want to read more?’ and he said ‘yes, it’s fine’. That was pretty much it. Not massively useful, if I’m honest. I think maybe I was just expecting a little more feedback. Here it is, if you want to read it. I don’t meant to be self-indulgent, but I thought maybe it might be useful to read it:
Izzy sits in the back of a rickshaw speeding through Delhi in the early morning haze. Her long black fringe clings to her hot, sticky forehead as she tries to breathe normally, certain she’s made a huge mistake. Since leaving England her stomach has been churning, and that was several hours ago. Feeling sick, hot and cramped, she steadies her second-hand backpack, bought from a charity shop a few days before, in front of her. Izzy knows she’s a fake and a wannabe. Maybe they were right, this is a joke. The owner of this backpack was probably a real traveller, she thinks, trying to shake her fringe loose. The rickshaw lurches to the left and the backpack strays from her fingers. She grabs it just before it topples over, her slash-necked t-shirt sliding down one shoulder exposing a tattoo of three doves.
It’s 5.30am and the streets are mostly quiet except for the chai stalls setting up. She stares as they pass ramshackle huts, grey and jagged, surrounded by litter, dust and mess. Every inch of space on the street is used by people sleeping in rows, small children curled up next to their parents. She pulls her backpack in-between her legs, gripping it with her knees and then clutches the seat. Her nails, bearing the remnants of black nail varnish, dig into the torn upholstery. The rickshaw starts to slow down to overtake a grubby white cow, so thin every bone in its ribcage protrudes as it plods across the road. A group of Indian men chatting nearby stare at Izzy. She instinctively folds her arms across her chest, keeping her head down, her knees trembling against her backpack. When the rickshaw suddenly lurches forwards again, Izzy quickly grips the edge of the seat with sweaty hands.
After a few more sharp corners, the rickshaw stops and she slowly starts to loosen her grip. She peers out towards the building next to them, a tall, grotty place with bars over the windows and hanging baskets full of dead flowers at the entrance. Just yesterday, she’d been in a council flat in the Midlands. She can’t believe she’s really in India. She’s finally done it, got away from them…and she’s shit-scared.
I guess I felt a little disheartened at Foyles from the beginning. There were so many writers there so it really made me realise how many people are working so hard towards the same dream. I think I may have initially seen the ‘it’s fine’ feedback as negative because I was feeling a bit lost in the world of writers. I felt like just another wannabe novelist pitching the same idea as hundreds of others. In hindsight, I feel like it could have been a lot worse!
After the pitch slot we were taken down to speak to other agents in groups of about 5 writers. We had a lovely lady from Curtis Brown and we were able to ask a few questions about the publishing industry and getting an agent. I asked what the worst things she’d seen in cover letter were. She said they hate ‘dear agent’ so do your homework and find an agent to send it to directly. I was surprised at how little some of the others writers knew; one guy asked ‘I’ve got a bunch of words on a computer and written down, what’s my next step?’ We also talked about writing a synopsis. She said it’s fine if it reads like a boring document, it basically is just a ‘they do this, they do that’ sort of format. In fact, she said that she usually reads the cover letter and the chapters first and then the synopsis after.
So is it worth doing Discovery Day, that’s the question? My friend Grace Palmer who also went along this year had a very positive experience, so it’s sort of luck of the drawer as to who you get. If London is easily accessible for you, then I’d say give it a go. It’s good practice. Otherwise, anyone can submit to the agencies (and it doesn’t involve a 30 second pitch!) through their websites. Or you could try Tweeting #PitchCB if you can manage to get your pitch down to 140 characters!
I had a great day overall. I feel much more confident about going to London and going to these sorts of events. Having to explain what my novel was about in such a short amount of time was a great tool, and to know that my first page is ‘fine’ is in fact, just fine.
Here are my tips for anyone going to Discovery Day in the future:
Copyright Mel Ciavucco 2016