WHAT IT TAKES with Sarah Davies

On a sunny Edinburgh afternoon members from SCBWI Southeast Scotland gathered at The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre for a workshop on ‘What It Takes', with last year’s SCBWI conference keynote speaker, Sarah Davies, founder of The Greenhouse Literary Agency. Here, Elizabeth Frattaroli shares what she learnt and offers us some excellent advice on how to make your story stand out.

Sarah began by saying that she loves talking to writers and is excited by the idea of people as individuals finding their own potential. She said the good news is that there's almost never been a better time to find an agent because there are so many around just now, and everyone is looking for new talent. And if Bologna Book Fair is anything to go by, most of these will be looking for the next big MG author.

What takes something that is ‘okay’ to something that is “knocking it out of the park”? How do writers find their edge and turn their work into something publishers will want to buy in a highly competitive, highly concentrated industry? Do you have ‘what it takes’?
The biggest question should be not ‘are you good enough’, but ‘what makes you stand out from the crowd’. Sarah stressed that it’s never about perfection, but more about stand out potential. How do you create LOVE in the reader?

i.e. a perfect storm of things coming together.

SCBWI members listening intently and some taking copious notes. Photo Credit: Sarah Broadley

Concept and Craft = two halves of the perfect whole. A great concept is a hook, and one of the key things that will be part of this are HIGH STAKES. So, how do you know if you have this? It should have the gasp/wow factor. You need to make what you write matter to the reader. Plus, it’s all about spin and USP.

Our mission as writers is; to deeply ‘get’ the chaos, pain and dilemmas of being human, but be able to perceive order and meaning in that and create a unique story framework from it.
What If is our friend as it helps us to think big and outside our world. All successful books should impact you in such a way as to make you a bigger person, or change you in some way. A quote Sarah often uses is;

“In an extraordinary story, the very best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters, what they look like, what they do, we discover more about ourselves.”

This is a huge key to making your stories stand out. Agents and editors also love structure and things that do something different, that they haven’t seen before.

Focussing on the writing part, we were given the definition of plot:
‘It’s a main character who desires or yearns for something hugely significant, and is thwarted.’

This is THE DESIRE LINE. Usually in the strongest fiction, the internal conflict will run parallel to the external crisis. One of the main problems Sarah sees is that the main character doesn’t actually desire very much. She also finds that many debut authors perhaps don’t know their main character enough.

Stephen King said, “I try to create sympathy for my characters and then I turn the monsters loose.”

Other critical factors are:

• A memorable sense of place that is ‘imbued with emotion’.
• Showing not telling (Telling significant detail).
• Voice (voice is money as you can’t create voice – would be more inclined to take on a good voice even if the plot is mixed up). Therefore, encourage your ear to listen effectively, listen to language like you listen to music, try writing the same scene from a ten-year-old boy’s perspective, then as a middle-aged woman.
• Revise with your imaginary reader in mind.
• Strong, interesting start/finish. (No dreams, waking up, or making breakfast please!)

We moved onto what to look for when choosing an agent to prevent some of the time wasting - avoid spreading yourself around like confetti and avoid making some common mistakes. Key things to consider would include deal history, client list, personal chemistry, whether they are editorial, their processes and editorial vision for your MS, and back room capabilities (e.g. finance, rights etc.).

Event Organisers Sarah Broadley and Anita Gallo with attendees Marie Bastings and Susan Bain during a well deserved coffee break.

In the second part of the workshop we focussed on querying. We all got to be agents for half an hour, and had to pick submissions that stood out (for both the right and wrong reasons) from a sample of ten. This was a fascinating exercise and one which helped us understand things from an agent’s perspective. Sarah receives around 25 submissions a day, seven days a week, and most agents will read these at the weekends as they are dealing with their existing clients during the week. The more you can stop her doing something she should be doing, like going for a Sunday afternoon walk, the better the MS. She is partly reading as a regular reader and partly as an agent, while also thinking about editors she could send it to, how much work it’s going to involve (as well as how much else she has to work on already) and her own market knowledge and taste (don’t send her dystopia). Nothing sells a book faster than making people laugh and/or cry.

Finally, she gave us some tips on how to keep ourselves sane:

• Keep a bank of ideas (if we do land a contract we may be required to come up with books two and three quickly).
• Find a group of good critiquers who are at least as good, or preferably better, than you.
• Find ways to keep busy and keep life rich, interesting and inspiring, plus keep your curiosity.
• Find ways to nourish your creativity e.g. use writing prompts.

So, on that note, our homework was to come up with an opening paragraph using the words – cliff, blackberry, secret, cloud, voice, mother, strange and lick. Please feel free to join in!

Thank you to Sarah for a hugely interesting and informative afternoon, delivered in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

A full house enjoying a drink after the event. Photo Credit: Sarah Broadley


Elizabeth Frattaroli won the 2016 T.C. Farries Trophy at the Scottish Association of Writers annual conference last year with her MG novel, PATHFINDER 13, and has previously been shortlisted for The Greenhouse Funny Prize Award. She is currently working on a YA novel, SIXTEEN AGAIN, a modern day Sleeping Beauty story with a Faustian twist.
Twitter: @elizfrat


A M Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team, she manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage.
Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org
Twitter: @a_reflective


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read. Sounds like a very informative event, loved her speech at the conference last year.


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