Writing advice

When preparing my submission for agents, I did everything I was supposed to do. I made sure my opening chapters were the best they could be. I wrote a succinct synopsis. I composed a professional and engaging cover letter. I researched which agents were likely to be interested in my work and prepared to send it to a small selection.

Then what? Then, I would wait and stare down the silent weeks and months ahead. My submission would wend its way to the bottom of some tall, teetering slush piles. The agents concerned would get around to looking at it at some point, eventually, in some brief window of time during their busy schedules. They would be looking for a reason not to like it.

I decided this would not do. I wanted to take a more pro-active approach. There must be other ways of connecting with these people. But, apart from stalking and accosting, how?

Well, it turns out there are events specifically designed to bring agents face to face with aspiring authors. At literary festivals and writers’ conferences, agents are often invited, not only to give talks, but to hold one-to-one meetings with writers during which pitching of novels is positively encouraged. I decided it was time to rise from my desk and engage with the real world. It was time to get out there and, though every part of me cringes at the idea, get networking.

Like many writers, I am a solitary animal. I can manage social media, just about, because I am reasonably comfortable communicating via a computer screen. Face to face is a whole different scenario. I am not a people person. Hell, I like dark winter evenings with the curtains drawn.

And yet, I soon found myself amongst a group of writers, all wringing hands and mumbling plot summaries, waiting to be called forwards to one of several desks behind which sat attentive literary professionals. We would have ten minutes in which to pitch our novels before the woman with the stopwatch called out ‘next’ and we were to move onto another desk. It was a bit like speed dating. Or, you know, so I imagine.

I had booked three pitches and submitted a sample of my work and synopsis beforehand. First, I met with a publisher. She told me I needed to get an agent. Secondly, I saw an author who liked my work and suggested three agents to whom he thought it would appeal. He gave me their emails and told me to use his name. Lastly, I saw an agent who asked probing questions about my synopsis and ended by inviting me to send her my first three chapters.

It was over very quickly. I came away dazed, but happy, feeling I had got my money’s worth. I went home and sent out my chapters to the agent I’d met and the three to whom I’d been recommended.

What would happen next was out of my hands. The submission must do its work. No agent was ever going to sign me on the basis of a recommendation, or because they were bowled over by my wit and charm. In this game, the quality of the writing is always paramount. But at least it lent my otherwise faceless submission a positive identity and may even have elevated it towards the top of the pile.

At the next event, I wasn’t required to submit work beforehand, but to pitch cold. This is a scary exercise, but a useful one. Pitching requires a distillation of your novel to its bare essentials. As with the dreaded synopsis, any flaws in the premise or the story will be quickly revealed.

These are the questions a pitch should answer. What is your novel about? What happens in it? What kind of novel is it? What other novels would it sit alongside? With real live pitching, you also have to answer unforeseen questions. It can be a revealing experience. If the agent doesn’t leap at the chance to represent you, they will hopefully tell you why and help you to improve your submission.

I realise that living close to London gives me greater access to some events, but literary festivals and writing conferences are held all around the country. To anyone considering having a go, here is some basic advice given by agents to pitchers:

  • Respect the rules. If you’ve been given ten minutes, don’t harass the agent for the remainder of the day.
  • Try not to confuse positive summation with praise. Don’t tell the agent how beautifully written your novel is, or how brilliantly plotted. Let them be the judge of that.
  • Make sure you have something ready to submit, should you receive a request to do so. It’s no good expecting an agent to remember you weeks or months down the line. One agent did assure me that, as a breed, they generally have very good memories, but I wouldn’t rely on it.

Although it is no longer the case that who you know is all important, in any profession making contact in person is more likely to open doors than conversing via a computer screen. Whatever happens, I have found positive action has helped me to feel more in control.

At the moment, I don’t have any more pitches in the diary. The reason for this is that I am currently trying to address that other question agents invariably ask: what are you working on next?

Claudia Cruttwell is currently seeking representation for her psychological suspense novel entitled, ‘A Piece of Broken Sky.’ She has an MA in Creative Writing from Brunel University and writes short stories on a variety of themes. She blogs about her journey to publication on her website and can also be found on Twitter @cscruttwell.