What happens when aspiring authors have to brave not one but four literary dragons in front of a live audience?
The London Book Fair (LBF2015 to the cognoscenti) had a demob flavour on its final session of the afternoon, but not in Author HQ where for ten hopefuls the serious stuff was just cranking up.
Seen Dragon’s Den? That’s how The Write Stuff was organized. Ready to breathe fire on the ambitious writers were agents Mark Lucas, Toby Mundy and Lorella Belli, plus non-fiction publisher Alison Jones.
They didn’t look that fierce from where I was sitting. As we waited for the start, I couldn’t tell if Belli and Jones were discussing books, designer shoes, or their team’s chances for the next season, but it all seemed quite jolly.
Alison Jones, left, with Lorella Belli
Then the real business began, with the contestants standing in front of the panel plus a packed Author HQ to sell themselves. Each had just one minute to say who they were, two minutes to pitch their book, and five minutes for questions and comments from the panel, who had already sampled their opening chapters.
This happened a few weeks ago now, but there were lessons that authors should remember for all time.
First up was Lucy Brydon, a young Scottish film-maker who presented a novel set in China where she had worked. While The Boy Who Died Comfortably was redolent of Chinese culture and highly filmic. Toby Mundy wasn’t so sure that, as a foreigner, the author had ‘a place to stand in this story.’
Agent Toby Mundy
Characters came under scrutiny when romance writer Catherine Miller pitched her novel Baby Number Two. The panel was clearly impressed with her perfect title, as well as her blurb, her writing, and her Katie Fforde bursary. AND she’s a mother of twins.
They weren’t so keen on her characters’ motives, however. Alison Jones also felt she had shoehorned in too many topical subjects.
Caroline James also writes mainly for women. Coffee, Tea, the Caribbean and Me was aimed more at those in their fifties, and drew on her experience in the hospitality industry. ‘Highly relatable,’ thought Mark Lucas, relatable being the buzzword de nos jours.
Agent Mark Lucas
The authors received all the comments with good grace, though Olga Levancuka was a tad more combative. There she stood in her full-length orange coat, looking every inch the Skinny Rich Coach (her alias). She responded feistily when the panel questioned her approach and her credentials.
Olga Levancuka aka Skinny Rich Coach
Mike Rothery had spent decades in the Navy, so no surprise his novel The Waiting-Pool involves an ocean voyage. And a jaunty hat.
It was a good thriller, thought the panel, but it took a bit too long to get started, and Alison Jones couldn’t bring herself to care that much about the characters. The protagonists had started life in another of Mike’s books, so getting the amount of back-story right may have been an issue. A tip here for anyone writing a series, I think.
Italian satirist Vittorio Vandelli presented a tub-thumping account of the dystopia of the Berlusconi period. What had happened in Italy was, he claimed, a dire warning to Western democracy everywhere. He soon digressed from his blurb and just gave us his tirade. As entertaining as it all was, Vittorio and his book came on a little strong. Mark Lucas said he felt he was being smacked over the head with all the things he should be outraged about.
Caroline Mawer is a doctor, globe-trotter, photographer, and author of A Single Girl’s Guide to Modern Iran. The panel thought there wasn’t enough of herself in the work, and the title wasn’t faithful enough to the text. Wouldn’t Skinny-Dipping in the Spring of Solomon have been more arresting? Maybe literally?
Up stepped Julia Suzuki. Her children’s book The Crystal Genie is, appropriately enough, all about dragons. The panel sat bolt upright. Was it about them? They all claimed to adore dragons. But it is no longer enough, apparently, for dragons to be green. Even the youngest readers must now have them in shades of grey. Alas, Suzuki’s characters were ‘a bit too black and white.’
Lennox Morrison, an award-winning journalist from Aberdeen, offered a collection of short stories. Although she writes ‘like a dream,’ the consensus was that short stories are very difficult to sell on a grand scale.
The winner was another journalist, Sanjiv Rana, who pitched The Insignificance of Good Intentions. This first person novel is about a 33-year old virgin who’s sent to prison charged with rape. Sexual assault is a big problem in India, though, as the panel said, false accusations of rape aren’t usually the issue, so it’s an original angle. The panel agreed that Rana has a very original voice too. You think that stopped them comparing him to other writers? Think again.
Sanjiv Rana and certificate
Rana won an appointment with Toby Mundy, and a framed certificate for slaying dragons.
What did the other writers get out of it? Olga landed herself an agent shortly afterwards, and Caroline Mawer did change the title of her book. Her thought-provoking take on The Write Stuff is well worth a read. It’s on Words With Jam right after my piece.
Meanwhile Catherine has completed her novel, and I for one am dying to read it.