Brighton! The perfect destination for a day of literary adventuring, especially at festival time. I’m here for the Hendrick’s Writers Den—an ominously-named event which offers budding authors a chance to pitch their books to a panel of publishing insiders. Right now, I’m sitting outside the ‘den’—a kind of circus tent decorated to look like a gentleman’s club crossed with a Victorian gin palace—it’s kind of atmospheric, but probably looks better at night under the influence of too many cucumber gin cocktails. It’s chilly, even for Brighton, and I hope that the ‘dragons’ inside will assume my nose is red with cold and not from too much free Hendrick’s gin.
The Writers’ Den is the brainchild of Damian Barr, a cultural entrepreneur who divides his time between writing journalism, plays and books, to being reader-in-residence at swanky hotels, and hosting the Soho House literary salon. He has teamed up with Hendrick’s Library of Delightfully Peculiar Writings to host a number of literary events for the Brighton Fringe, and today he’s chairing a panel of literary ‘dragons’ which will include agent Clare Conville of Conville and Walsh, editor Victoria Blunden of Brighton-based publisher Myriad Editions, and publicist Matthew Railton of Colman Getty.
Unfortunately the dragons are running a bit late—they’ve spent too long sharpening their teeth on the bones of other wannabe novelists. So I’ve had an extra forty minutes to wander the North Laines, becalming myself with some rather impulsive retail therapy that I will no doubt come to regret in the days ahead. When they’re finally ready for me I’m laden down with so many shopping bags that I make an awkward hash of shaking hands and the nerves come flooding back. Fortunately the first thing the dragons want to know is will I read my work out loud. Phew, I practiced this the night before, just in case. I stand up and clear my throat and try to remember all those things you’re supposed to do like making eye-contact, speaking slowly and not trying to do the voices of characters unless you’re 100% sure you can carry them off. To my surprise, it goes quite well and actually steadies my nerves. The dragons say nice things and I relax—a bit.
Then things get tough again as I’m asked to justify my novel’s title—the dragons all hate it—they give me their reasons, and they don’t hold back—but instead of feeling defensive I find myself agreeing with them and it’s actually very liberating. I’ve taken my title for granted for so long that’s it’s an emancipation of sorts to realise it isn’t set in stone. While I’m still reeling from this epiphany the dragons have moved on—now they want to know if I’m trying to write literary fiction or pure crime—I’ve prepared for this question—after all, it’s a fair cop—and I cite other literary crime crossover books, authors and even films that I hope my novel is following in the footsteps of—two of the dragons nod their heads and smile—maybe they’re just in a good mood because they’ve had their lunch—so I run with the advantage and tell them a little bit more about my story—where it’s set, what inspired me to write it, and they are all very pleasant and don’t interrupt or ask me any ‘trick’ questions. I’m feeling so confident that I make my first big mistake—I tell them how long the book is—and immediately an icy blast of disapproval fills the ‘den’—Clare Conville is horrified—apparently 220,000 words for a crime novel is unheard of—there just isn’t the paper available to print it. I feel her interest slipping away so I gabble embarrassingly, reassuring her that I’ve always known that the book is much too long, but that it’s getting shorter after every re-draft, and that what I really need now is a professional overview—someone to tell me what works and what should go. Clare suggests paying a reputable literary agency to give it a thorough assessment. Coming from her, the idea of paying someone to read my book doesn’t seem as self-indulgent and ‘vain’ as it might have done before—it actually makes sense. Matthew Railton is keen to ask me which writers I admire and who I would choose for a book jacket endorsement—again I’ve prepared for this and immediately mention Kate Atkinson who books I love, John Irving—who’s been known to write some pretty long books in his time, and I throw Agatha Christie in there for her plotting (and let’s not forget, she sold an awful lot of books).
Damian lets me know that I’ve got just five more minutes in which to impress the panel and pump them for information—he talks for a while about the importance of getting myself out into the community of writers—going along to readings, reading my own book wherever possible, taking part in workshops, festivals and all book-related events. He says it doesn’t matter at all that I haven’t published my book yet, or even honed it to perfection, I can still take it out into the world—and this also surprises and excites me. For four years I’ve hugged this monster tight to my chest, shown bits of it to an unfortunate few, but never dared to do much more—but what the panel seem to be saying is that its okay to let it out a little.
I venture to Clare that I have actually sent a synopsis and three chapters to her agency already, and received a standard rejection letter—Clare is not surprised—they receive hundreds of manuscripts every year and a small team of readers have to plough through them—she didn’t see it, but she says that if it had landed on her desk she would have been interested. This is very exciting! But also scary; the dragons have only read two pages of my novel and my synopsis—the reader at Conville and Walsh had a whole three chapters to base his decision on—what if he was right to turn me down? I shake that thought from my mind and try and think of a sensible question to ask the dragons before my allotted time is up—but the fact is, I can’t—they’ve been so helpful and encouraging that I really feel I know where I’m going with my book after this.
We talk briefly about the merits of self-publishing—Victoria Blunden is against it as it makes her job harder when she’s working with authors who have already self-published, Clare is skeptical too—though of course everyone agrees that it’s an important part of publishing now. I leave on a wave of good wishes and pleasantries, full of positive-thinking and ideas for the future. I stop only briefly in the paddock outside to have my picture taken and to swig down a complimentary gin and tonic—it’s been a fantastic experience all in all—I really feel as though the dragons treated me and my book as a viable commodity—they all seemed passionate about publishing and finding new talent, and Damian in particular was terrifically encouraging. Best of all though, the experience taught me to look at my novel far more objectively, to play up its strengths, and to look more critically at its weaknesses and plan how to tackle them. Learning how to talk about your book coherently and calmly—without getting tongue-tied, embarrassed or bogged down in a long-winded blow-by-blow account of its plot is a valuable experience, and something that should be on the curriculum of all Creative Writing Courses.
And so I say goodbye to chilly Brighton and sink back into my Network South East seat with one of those headaches you get when you’ve had too much excitement. The Dragons weren’t nearly as frightening as the ones on the telly—in fact they were more like fairy godparents—giving out just the kind of magical gifts we writers need most—encouragement, advice and hope. The next morning the good vibes continue as an email from Clare arrives in my inbox—she’d be more than happy to look at my manuscript if I’d like to send it in again. Result!