28 March 2013

James Hannah: Face the facts of fiction

James Hannah
by Rufus Purdy From Our Students

Please ignore the byline above. This lovely – yet sobering – piece is by James Hannah, a former student on the Autumn 2011 Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course, whose novel, The A to Z of You and Me, has just found representation at our sister agency, Conville & Walsh.

There’s no doubt about it, the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course is great for giving you the cold, hard facts of what it takes to shape up your work for submission to literary agents. After I finished the Autumn 2011 course, I took another year to wrap up my novel, and a month after that I signed with an agent. The end.

But that’s not the whole story, is it? If there was something we agreed on during this course it was that ‘chasing the market’ is a losing game. Far better to, yes, be aware of the market, but stay loose: don’t lose sight of what you’re best at, or of what you enjoy most of all.

It was the warmth of our course that I found most valuable: the warmth of mutual support, the spark of enthusiasm, the occasional inferno of disagreement (even if it was a very small and private inferno, kindled after the fact).

The real secret (and this has surely got to be true of any good course) was the use of our own writing as the basis of our learning. You can’t beat the experience of submitting your work to the class of like-minded writers who are prepared to understand what you’re trying to do, and to help you do it on terms you recognise as your own.

I found the democracy that was nurtured across such a diverse collection of personalities to be the most fruitful thing of all. Seriously: how often will an established fiftysomething professional face the opportunity of discussing his or her work on a completely equal footing with an honest, intense twentysomething graduate?

The energy and nourishment and encouragement of a well-mixed group is totally impossible to replicate in an informal setting. Theresa Howes has written about the ongoing experience of the Autumn 2011 group and Sarah Drinkwater has written about the course here.

So that’s the warmth. Now back to the cold, hard facts. Curtis Brown Creative’s course has that tantalising ace up its sleeve: the promise of contact with well-established writers, agents and publishers. Our group had talks (very much two-way talks) with a number of industry big-hitters, who were completely open about the ins and outs of the day-to-day job of writing. So much of it is so simple: it’s about getting the basics right.

But: be warned. Exposure to authors, agents and publishers can be sobering. The agency I eventually submitted my novel to receives 4,500 extracts annually. Of those, they request 150 full manuscripts to read. Of those, each agent takes on maybe only a couple of authors.

When you look at it like that, it just all seems all so impossible.

Sitting through a talk where such statistics are bandied about certainly exercises your mind. But it’s like any exercise, isn’t it? It’s all about how quickly you recover. After staggering about for a day or two, you realise that getting somewhere near the 150 is not just a matter of being in some random three per cent.

Agents and publishers aren’t there to be defeated, they’re to be engaged and persuaded: they’re just crying out for a decent pitch, and a well-structured synopsis. Why wouldn’t they be?

So after my year wrapping up my novel (as well as holding down a full-time job and all the rest of it), I spent a full two weeks getting the synopsis and pitch right. I hated every second of those two weeks, but I absolutely refused to send anything off until it was as persuasive as I could make it.

Sure enough, the agent I signed with said she read my opening extract because the title and pitch appealed. It was enough to move me on that next step, which is where I am now.

When you look at it like that, it just all seems so possible.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

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