The biggest revelation to me since I’ve started dipping my toe into the Irish writing scene is how much of a community spirit there is. I’m continuously struck by the generosity and openness of those more established than me (ie. pretty much everyone).
One of the most recent examples of this was a week of events at Cork City Library as part of Cork World Book Fest.
I signed up for the day-long Constant Reader seminar on getting published, which consisted of three separate discussions. First up was an agent panel with Simon Trewin from William Morris Endeavour and Polly Nolan from The Greenhouse Literary Agency, chaired by Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin from the Inkwell Group and Writing.ie.
The combined experience and knowledge of these people was huge, so at first I felt like a bit of a charlatan masquerading as a ‘writer’. Their advice ranged from things that would seem obvious – such as don’t submit a form letter starting with ‘Dear Agent’ – which people nonetheless do, to suggestions I would never think of (on the difficult task of writing a synopsis, Simon recommended asking someone else to do it as they would have more objectivity).
Polly pointed out that with the enormous volume of children’s book submissions she receives, she is forced to delete any that come in without observing the clearly stated submission guidelines. Again, a surprising number of people neglect to follow them, which is hardly likely to make the best impression.
The agents also had fantastic anecdotes about some of their most exciting signings, which I could have listened to all day. What was very clear was that a good agent-author relationship is crucial, and you have to click with one another. Underlying it all was a genuine love for books, the common denominator in the room.
After a short break with tea and biscuits (thanks, Cork City Library, for knowing our weaknesses), there was a discussion from the writer’s perspective. Chaired by Mary Malone (herself an author), it featured Hazel Gaynor (The Girl Who Came Home, A Memory of Violets and soon-to-be-released The Girl from the Savoy), Elizabeth Rose Murray (The Book of Learning) and Alana Kirk (Daughter Mother Me, and who, incidentally, has written her own lovely account of being on the panel side of the table for the first time).
The whole session was a joy, starting with them showing us the macarons they were guzzling as we filed in. Mary joked that much of being a writer is about ingesting sugar, something I could relate to as I was surreptitiously trying to fit an entire chocolate digestive into my mouth at the time.
They were delightful, to a man (and by man, I mean woman). We were treated to a brief reading by each, and then they shared their respective publishing journeys. Incredibly, the three guest authors first met years ago at a writing for the web workshop. Fast-forward eight years, and there they sat – three published success stories, making the rest of us feel that maybe this writing lark isn’t such a crazy pipe dream after all. All credited their success to the help of Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, which leads me nicely to the afternoon…
The final session, which Vanessa did alone, was incredibly intense and packed with so much information I wouldn’t even know where to begin. If you ever have a chance to hear her speak, you really should do so. Already touched upon during the agents’ panel, Vanessa discussed the preparation of synopses and cover letters in greater detail (for example, make sure your letter’s more about the book than about you). They’re incredibly tricky things to get right and the bane of every novelist’s life – I haven’t gotten this far yet so I’m simply repeating what other writers tell me.
Vanessa also talked about what to look out for when considering a publishing contract. And she gave examples using her own first-hand experiences as an author, with her thriller Little Bones (under the pseudonym Sam Blake) due out May 17.
Incidentally, all the way through the day the respective panels were happy to field questions from the audience. There was never a sense of being preached to from on high. You’ll find another account of the day by Olivia Hope on Writing.ie, which covers lots of the points that were made. I was listening – honest – it’s just that much of the information is still swimming around in speech bubbles in my brain.
It was an insanely valuable free day out. Did I mention that all of this was free? With the hot-and-cold running tea and biscuits? Yes, it was all laid on as part of Cork World Book Fest for anyone who fancied popping along. Talk about nurturing.
I was invited to a similar event hosted by Penguin Ireland in Dublin last year, when I didn’t even have the idea for the novel I’m now finishing the first draft of. There, I was also struck by how approachable everyone was and how willing to give a glimpse behind the veil. All that remains for us would-be authors is the small matter of following guidelines and using some common sense about who to submit what to and when. That, and a killer manuscript of course…
Creative writing workshop with Kevin Curran
I also have to mention the creative writing workshop that I attended as part of the Book Fest on Thursday. It was with author Kevin Curran (Beatsploitation, Citizens). He also talked about his writing career, which started with a Stinging Fly writing course, followed by reaching the finals of the Irish Novel Fair in 2012. Kevin was very open about his circuitous route to publication (some publishers wanted changes made to his book about racism that he wasn’t comfortable with so he stuck to his guns), and is obviously a writer with tremendous integrity. Much of his workshop was about the importance of voice, something I find makes or breaks anything I’m working on. I came out of the talk feeling hugely motivated.
So thanks to Kevin, and thanks to all the amazing panellists from the publishing day – hopefully they have some idea of how encouraging and energizing their shared wisdom was.