Thursday, 24 December 2015

Hook, Line & Sinker! Event report by Natalie Yates

The Hook panel
Ok, so you’ve painstakingly polished your manuscript to perfection after months, probably years, of hard graft. You’ve researched, plotted and structured, then restructured and rewritten and recreated your pride and joy.  


You’re ready to submit or given the opportunity, to pitch direct to an agent or publisher. 

Let’s go with the latter. 

Your mouth’s dry, your hands are sweaty and your heart’s beating like an African drum. Mentally your head’s awash with taglines, themes, character profiles, market analysis and book comparisons. 


Well, at SCBWICON 2015 five intrepid authors took to the stage to do just that. 

In public. 

And not to just one agent, but a panel of five well-respected agents, all vying to sniff out any treasure troves in the work of these brave souls. 

The idea for this event was sparked when Jan Carr saw a similar Dragon’s Den style pitch event at the London Book Fair and promptly set about organising one for SCBWICON15. Hosted by the lovely Sara Grant (equipped with buzzer), who had prepared for her role by sitting through hours of X-factor and The Voice (it’s a hard life), each contender was to pitch for five minutes and receive five minutes of feedback from the panel, consisting of Julia Churchill, Gemma Cooper, Amber Caraveo, Felicity Trew and Penny Holroyde. And the winner would be free to choose her agent, with whom she would have up to an hour’s one to one. 


Pitch-tastic contenders!

As each contender took to the stage, the audience were treated to snippets of their polished manuscripts and, with Josephine Dellow, a complete visual mock-up of her picture book. We listened to stories of magical realism, historical science fiction and picture book tales of naïve magpies and Annie Tauk’s fictional café serving outlandish meals to its non-human customers. The agent panel were forthright in their feedback (don’t you just love how agents can so quickly pin point the strengths and weaknesses in a story? Perhaps ‘love’ is the wrong verb choice here…). 

Agents' skill at 'articulating things about each story that we other listeners probably couldn’t have put into words’ (contender, Sheila Averbuch).

Yet, as they reeled off their doubts about story shape, absence of jeopardy, pace, underlying messages and market positioning, contenders and the audience were able to appreciate their skill at 'articulating things about each story that we other listeners probably couldn’t have put into words’ (contender, Sheila Averbuch). 

Many positives were noted too: clear synopses, believable characters, humour, ability to evoke empathy in the reader and imaginative plots. Both the panel and the audience could sense each contender’s enthusiasm for their work (with Kim Howard, this extended to her dressing as her protagonist – Dangerous Dave: camouflage gear plus fairy wings). 


Sara and Shelia

However, there could only be one winner and while the agents departed to deliberate, Sara encouraged the pitchers to practise their loser’s face. On their return, the agents handed Sara the envelope while a drumroll sounded *stamping feet*, and … Sheila Averbuch was declared the winner of the Hook with her novel Seven Places Like Home. The panel noted her clear and confident pitch and loved the sound of her middle grade sci-fi story about family, friendship and a lost dog. Remarkably, Sheila made her final decision for her agent on the spot and chose Gemma Cooper

'...something about standing up like that makes you think more about being a storyteller, rather than being a writer selling a book.’  Sheila Averbuch

GOOD LUCK SHEILA AND VERY WELL DESERVED! 

Interestingly, Sheila said that since the Hook she hasused [her] pitch again and again, and it gets easier every time: something about standing up like that makes you think more about being a storyteller, rather than being a writer selling a book.’ 

‘...once I was up there I could feel the support in the room. It was amazing.’ Helen Simmons

The other contenders also found it a satisfying and learning experience. Helen Simmons was ‘grateful for the opportunity’ and despite being nervous ‘once I was up there I could feel the support in the room. It was amazing.’ She felt proud that she was ‘brave enough to listen to feedback in a very public way.’ 

So, what to take from this? 


'Writers who can’t describe their work in four or five lines don’t have a clear idea of what they are writing.' Jillian Manus

With the agents’ final words in mind, I would suggest the following: 


  • Put a tagline/one sentence summary together: ‘A short, single hook sentence and a longer, one-paragraph summary will always be useful to — and used by — anyone who wants to share your story onwards.’ Thanks Sheila! 
  • Always have comparison titles in mind. This not only helps the agents place the story in the market but proves the author has done their research. 
  • Know your work. This may sound obvious, but as Jillian Manus (USA agent) says, ‘writers who can’t describe their work in four or five lines don’t have a clear idea of what they are writing.’ 
  • Show your passion. This is your work you are selling, be passionate – excitement is infectious. - Include the theme, voice and concept in your pitch.
  • Remember, agents are people and it is a people business, from top to bottom. Be yourself. It is a relationship and it needs to work amicably. 


Obviously, all this could not have been possible if it hadn’t been for the five agents who were willing to give their time to participate in this event – so, on behalf of all Scoobies – a massive THANK YOU! And of course thank you to Jan Carr, Sara Grant and everyone who helped put this event together, an entertaining and educating experience for all. 

Finally, Sheila met Gordon McAlpine recently (author of THE TELL-TALE START), who gave her these words of advice: 

‘the labour of writing a book is in three pieces – the first 90%, the next 9% and the final 1% - and the secret of success is putting the same effort into all three pieces.’ Sheila said ‘The Hook played a big part in making me push the boat way out on that last 1%, and I think that has made all the difference.’ 

@eastyorknat
Natalie joined SCBWI in early 2015. She works as a part-time Teaching Assistant and a full-time manager for her three girls, husband and a mad schnauzer. In her spare time she writes for YA and MG and this year gained her MA in Creative Writing at Hull University. She loves to write realistic fiction based on historical events and self-published a MG novel in 2013. She lives in the beautiful East Riding of Yorkshire.
www.natalieyates.com

4 comments:

  1. Natalie thanks for this awesome overview of what was definitely a high point of terror in my writing life. SCBWI provides such magnificent opportunities to connect with publishing professionals and The Hook was the best yet. It gave me confidence to submit to agents and I'm thrilled to say I've just signed with Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

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    1. Sheila, glad you enjoyed reading about your 'high point of terror '! Also great to know how the event helped propel you up the ladder towards publication.

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  2. There are several meeting rooms, conference rooms and boardrooms all around that can be booked online. You can spot a conference room, a meeting room and a boardroom at seattle convention center.

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  3. Ok so that has made me all the more nervous about entering, but I know I need to do things like this. Great insight, thanks. As an illustrator (and aspiring writer, though I know there's a long way to go on that side of things)how does one pitch? Total novice at this, so any suggestions welcome please.

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