I’ve always been something of a paradox. Raised in Glasgow’s mean streets, I spent my youth witnessing school friends become users, dealers and robbers. Yet I have never once broken the law myself. Instead, I chose to bury my head in the world of books, revelling in the escapism they provided; of imaginary places populated with more interesting, not to mention altogether less threatening, characters.
In adulthood, as a communications specialist I advise corporate MD’s how to communicate with their employees. Yet, outside the job I’m shy and excruciatingly awkward around strangers. So, it was with much trepidation that I signed up for the W&A ‘Manuscript Submission’ Masterclasses. Paradoxically, of course, I was also very excited having really enjoyed the earlier ‘How to Get Published’ conference.
The first session was held in Bloomsbury Publishing HQ’s boardroom and I was enthralled by the many Bloomsbury titles lining the copious bookshelves, as well as the countless awards attributed to JK Rowling that were dotted around the room. In such an evocative and inspiring ambience I immediately felt, er…a bit out of place. ‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway, as they say…’
There were five attendees plus our Editor, and the introductions at first did little to alleviate my anxiety. Why? Simply put, just hearing the names of the other attendees conjured up a Waterstones Bestseller list. There was Jonea Geary, a YA writer, as was Rebecca Perkin. ‘Haven’t I read one of her novels before?’ I remembered thinking, ‘and the lady writing historical fiction, what’s her name? Eve Wilder. Oh. Come. On!’
So far was I out of my comfort zone, it was no longer appearing on my radar.
But truthfully, all that changed when Cressida Downing, our Editor, spoke. A wonderfully down to earth person, Cressida laced her introduction with just the right amount of self-effacing humour to make us feel comfortable, together with some very useful tips on submitting proposals and writing synopses. We laughed loudly and scribbled furiously, and any anxieties I had faded. In a matter of minutes, the class had unified and we were collectively looking forward to an evening of creativity and learning.
We undertook a number of tasks including a simple exercise in describing our novel in under 140 characters. I guess this was my first ‘light bulb’ experience; up until then it had never occurred to me to try to articulate my novel so concisely. It took each of us more than a few attempts to get it right.
Then Cressida outlined what is looked for in a pitch and we identified problems among various sample submission letters; making notes as we went along. We then returned to our own submission letters for group discussion, and everyone chipped in with views on what worked well or otherwise. As precious as I felt about my writing, I have to say that not once did I feel lectured to or patronised by the others in the group.
Finally, our Editor outlined what an Agent would look for in a synopsis - including ‘the hook’. I think this proved to be a defining moment for all of us. As if mining for gold, Cressida’s very clever questioning managed to separate the pure nuggets that were ‘hook’ and ‘plot’ from the cloudy deposits in each of our manuscripts, with some startling revelations; genuinely intriguing story arcs emerged that caught my interest in genres which I’d have normally avoided!
For homework we each took away three chapters of someone else’s work to critique and provide feedback the following week. We would also have some one-on-one time with a Literary Agent, obtaining feedback on our own submissions.
And that was when it got really interesting…
Tom Quigley is a communications specialist for a FTSE 100 company and a passionate crime writer. Tom is currently working on the second title in the Marcus Beck series. Follow Tom on Twitter @TQuigley_Writer and for extracts of Tom’s writing, visit www.tomquigley.co.uk.