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I only made it to two of the Chester Literature Festival events this year, due to a lovely slap of jet lag after a few weeks in America. The first (and the most sleepy experience of the two, on my part) was a 20 minute slot with a Literary Agent from Curtis Brown – Lucy Morris. This event at Storyhouse for £20, was advertised as:

Have you written a book that should be published? This is a rare chance for writers to get one to one feedback from someone at the heart of the publishing industry. Please book a slot and then we’ll ask for an extract of your book beforehand so that everyone gets the most out of the sessions.’

I was skeptical about the 20 minute aspect – how much value could really be squeezed from such a small window? At the same time it seemed like a good opportunity, an exclusive meeting with a agent, all for the price of a meal. I decided to give it a shot. The timing seemed perfect for me (jet lag aside), as I was working away on the third draft of my novel, and gearing up to thinking about how to get my book out there.

I received an email in late October, asking me to provide a short synopsis and the first chapter within the week. The latter was easy enough as it’s my most edited piece, the former was somewhat…absent. It was almost time for me to jump on a plane to America for a few weeks with a busy agenda, and not a synopsis in sight. My hard drive was fitting with random ramblings about my book, its plot and direction, but I’d yet to create something Literary Agent worthy. I hastily Googled ‘synopsis’, hoping to locate a quick and easy how-to guide, but the considerable advice out there varied depending on the source. Google told me that a synopsis could be a myriad of things, but the most likely direction was something that entertainingly sells the gist of your story, whilst also screaming out your USP within a page or so.

I didn’t have time. What I did manage to scramble together was a blow-by-blow of the action, forcing it painfully into a page and a half. I figured the main purpose of it in this scenario was to get Lucy up to speed on the book, which we would then discuss. I assumed wrongly, and therein lies the issue with the event – the lack of clarity.

I can’t fault Lucy herself; she’d taken the time to read both of my submissions and took me through her carefully considered comments. A fair amount of the time was taken up discussing how to better improve my synopsis, as something that would be submitted to an agent. Something Google had already educated me on (to a degree). I quickly realised that the session would’ve been vastly more useful to me had I been able to submit a thoroughly considered synopsis, for Lucy to then pick holes in.

It makes sense this is what we focused on. It’s 20 minutes. I had naively anticipated an in-depth (be it speedy) discussion on my book and market and next steps, rather than my dull, hastily thrown together summary. There were a few minutes left over for me to ask questions on pitching to agents. She was perfectly nice, but tired no doubt – I was almost the last session of her day, part of two days of almost back-to-back consulting – conveyor belt style.

Two things occur. One, I question the set-up, the restrictive 20 minutes, which, by the time you’ve introduced yourself and your work and answered a few questions to orientate the agent, dissolves into a sickly 10. I’d rather pay £60 for an hour, but didn’t think to book up three sessions back-to-back (it was a sold out event and I’m not sure this block-booking is exactly what they had in mind.)

The second is, a plea for more information, more guidance, should Storyhouse put this on again. I’d also suggest that alongside their first chapter and synopsis, writers are asked to state briefly what they’d like to get out of the session, or at least their main goal. It would’ve benefitted from more focus, rather than skirting a range of things. Neither of us seemed sure where to magnify. I think I expected Lucy to guide it, somehow knowing what would be most useful to me, but of course this was impossible for her to do, and there wasn’t time to really get into it – I was aware of the clock hanging over us, ticking away. At the same time I definitely wasn’t prepared on what to expect, or what was expected of me and what I was submitting. We were both at a bit of a loss.

I hope I’m not giving the impression that I gained nothing from the time – I did – some insightful comments on character and issues to consider, just that if given the opportunity again, I’d come at it a little differently.

My personal guide for any attendee is:

  • State from the get-go what it is you’d like to focus on/gain.
  • Have an elevator pitch ready, even if it’s a work-in-progress – you’ll likely be asked for one, and this way you can maximise the agent’s time via feedback.
  • Have a synopsis prepared – one that you’d be happy to send to an agent – the comments you receive will be of much greater value. Use an online source to help you put it together like this one.
  • Have a few, specific questions prepared, especially ones where the answer is tough to Google.

The second event I attended was a showcase put on by Chester Writers, with readings from their new anthology. Full disclosure, I’m part of this group, one of three editors who worked on the publication and my short stories even feature in it. For these reasons I’m not going to try and convince you that the writing is wonderful and you should buy yourself or someone you love, a copy as a stocking filler (unless you really want to of course). Instead, I want to applaud Storyhouse for making room in the festival (alongside the New Voices event) for local writers, and giving us a great Sunday slot; it was easy for people to come along and lend their ears. The turnout was great and a fair few copies flew off the shelves (they were in boxes but you get the idea).

Alongside open mic events in Chester (such as Ginger) gatherings such as these really help to bolster our creative community. Well done to everyone brave enough to get up behind that podium and share their work, and a big thanks also to those who attended and cheered the writers on. Should you wish to purchase a copy of the anthology (I mean, if you insist) for the reasonable price of £3.00 (excluding postage)  email team Amble. If you’re happy to pick it up from somewhere central Chester, one of us will happily hand it to you in person (now that’s Christmas spirit).