EVENT REPORT The Sweat behind the Success

The room at City Lit, for all its classroom feel, was a cosy and comfortable area in which to enjoy April’s Industry Insiders talk from debut authors Sue Wallman and Kathryn Evans, and their respective agents, Becky Bagnell and Sophie Hicks. Jenny Rees reports. 

Kathryn Evans became an overnight success after 15 years of hard work and a series of rejections. She was positive her first book would be a best seller and she couldn’t believe it when it was rejected. She later realised it was because it was terrible.

The highs and lows did not deter her. She had to write - not writing made her unhappy, so much so that her family begged her to carry on as there was no living with her if she didn’t. She often fell into the writer’s pit of despair, but as she is a positive person she climbed out and carried on.

Kathryn said, ‘I don’t know what it is that drives you on but if you haven’t got that drive, you’re not going to make it. You have to want to write.’

The highs and lows did not deter her, she had to write, not writing made her unhappy - her family begged her to carry on, there was no living with her if she didn’t

Kathryn started reading, went on courses and went to events. ‘I listened,’ she said. ‘If I had a rejection I listened to what they said. Trust your gut. I joined an on-line critique group which has developed into a great friendship and support group.

‘I like to be busy. I aim for 500 words a day which is easily achievable, but I often write more, so my head is in the story every day. I want to be doing this. I have two kids, a farm to run and I fence competitively, but 500 words a day means my brain is always in the story.’

Sue Wallman and her agent Becky Bagnell.

Sue Wallman’s journey was different to Kathryn’s but also fraught with difficulties. When she started writing she worked for a magazine and knew it was easier to get an article published than a novel. But she had to hope.

She was lucky enough to get an agent with her second book submission and while you might think that was the end of the story, it wasn’t. Her first book was turned down by publishers and she didn’t feel her agent was moving forward with it, so the partnership terminated.

I aim for 500 words a day which is easily achievable, but I often write more, so my head is in the story every day

‘When I got the knock-backs I didn’t want to be around people,’ she said. ‘Eventually I realised it was better to write and not get anywhere than not to write. Writing gives me a great sense of fulfilment.’

The panel was asked how the writers met their agents and how their relationships work.

Sue had a 1-2-1 with Becky at Winchester. Becky said, ‘I read Sue’s submission before the event and thought the writing had potential, but it wasn’t for me. So I asked her for other ideas. Sue spoke about a YA novel and I asked her to send it to me, which she did. I loved her voice and wanted to represent her.

Eventually I realised it was better to write and not get anywhere than not to write. Writing gives me a great sense of fulfilment

‘Sue works so hard. I love her writing so it doesn’t feel like work. It’s easy to support someone if you believe in them.’

Kathy met Sophie at a party, which led to a mutually enjoyable working relationship. ‘If you have a good relationship with your writer as Kathy and I have, it’s a joy and a pleasure.’

Here are some of the best tips from the talk:

Kathy: The knockbacks feel so much worse than the high points. Pick yourself up and carry on. Trust your gut. Listen to criticism. Set targets.

Sue: when success comes to others, it can be depressing for you - even if you are pleased for them. But you are sharing the journey with all the despairs and joys... be the writer you are, not who you think you should be.

Mandy Rabin hosted the Industry Insiders event.

Becky: if the author puts their heart into their writing, the reader will know it. It takes luck and hard work.

Sophie: every writer is different. You just have to keep going. Rejections are hard for the author but also for the agent.

Becky: if you are selling a trilogy, that first book must stand alone; don’t leave the reader without a satisfactory ending.

Sophie: with the traditional publishing route you get support with rights, etc. Publishers prefer an author to have an agent as we act as a filter.

Sue: second and third book syndrome is difficult. You have to keep going, rewriting, doing it on time and doing it well. The pressure is always there.

All panellists agreed that to succeed, read, read, read and write, write, write.

*Featured image: Kathryn Evans and agent Sophie Hicks.
*All photos: Candy Gourlay

Jenny has been a member of SCBWI since 2012 and a volunteer, helping the Industry Insiders (London) team since 2017. She has written five middle grade novels but is still seeking an agent. Between writing her stories, Jenny writes directs and sometimes even acts in pantos for her local drama group. Oh yes she does!

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