In 2009 I made the first rough notes for the novel I would spend the next three years writing. All I knew was the theme: the white feather: I had the barest of character outlines, no plot and had no idea I was going to be writing a novel. I thought it was a short story. I was trying, and failing, to write a novel about something else. Sometime in October 2010 I made a stark, bare outline – so stark I wrote it in Notepad, no word processing software for me! – and then got going. I joined an online group and the feedback they gave me, so early in the process, encouraged me to keep going as I pasted wodges of first-drafty material on the site and probably sorely tried their patience.
As the story began to flesh out and characters come to life (some quite rudely walking in and demanding to be noticed) the Irish Writers Centre were also coming up with the idea of their Novel Fair, which inaugurated in 2011. I had managed an unspeakable first draft and was part of the way through the second, so I sent in what I thought would be a good beginning, an in medias res effort. I remember just finishing printing it, glancing over the pages and my inner Reader remarking, a propos of nothing, “Don’t like it.”
“What do you mean, you don’t like it! The writing is good; it’s not dull or staying in the same place too long.”
“Dunno.” The Reader can be laconic beyond the point of frustration. “I just don’t like it, that’s all.”
I sent it in and sure enough it got nowhere. Then again given that the staff of the Irish Writers’ Centre were presented with several sacks and a total of 600 manuscripts – well, unemployment was high, what to do? – anything that was not coruscatingly good was not going to cut the mustard. And looking back on it, I was better off beginning at the beginning and not being a smart you-know-what about it. So I licked my wounds and kept on writing. And writing. And then next year came around.
I had a new character join the assembly, Lucia, an opera singer from Jamaica who had travelled over to England during the war. On her shoulders rested the prologue, and therefore the rest of the book. A night or two before the novel fair, I realised the prologue had to be rewritten. It was down to her. She pulled a blinder. And so I got the phone call and learned I – we – had made it through.
So on Saturday 16 Feb, from 10.30 to 4, I went to the Irish Writers’ Centre with nine other novelists and pitched my novel almost non-stop to 14 publishers and agents in the industry. It was wonderful, exciting, overwhelming. When I got home that evening I went straight to bed and slept for several hours. (The three glasses of Prosecco I had afterwards courtesy of the IWC probably helped in that regard!)
It was an amazing privilege to speak about a dream that in Yeats’s words, “had all my heart and love” to luminaries in the Irish and English publishing industry. Each one of us novelists sat at a table and waited for the next publisher or agent to come around and when they did I would hand them my bio and, if they wanted to hear it, do the elevator pitch. If it happened that my particular elevator travelled five floors rather than one, I don’t think they held it against me –they were all really nice And also it was good to hear from the publishers about their own plans and what they wished to envision, as well as what interested the agents.
The people who spoke to us that day – publishers: Penguin Ireland (Patricia Deevy); New Island (Eoin Purcell); O’Brien Press (Michael O’Brien); Hachette Ireland (Ciara Doorley); Liberties Press (Clara Phelan); Lilliput Press (Sarah Goff); Transworld Ireland (Eoin McHugh/Brian Langan); Picador (Paul Baggaley) – agents: Ger Nichol from The Book Bureau; Faith O’Grady from Lisa Richards; Marianne Gunn O’Connor; Jonathan Williams; Sheila Crowley from Curtis Brown.
The previous Saturday, we had a talk in the IWC about what to expect. This was facilitated by Anthony Glavin, crime novelist Arlene Hunt and Niamh Boyce, who secured a publishing deal as a result of taking part in last year’s Fair. Anthony, one of last year’s judges, told us what worked in a novel and what he would have been looking for. Niamh explained what it entailed, advising full printing of partials for all and she was absolutely spot-on in her advice as partials went flying out. (In my bio – a separate page with picture and writing CV – I also added a public dropbox link in case people preferred the electronic option) Arlene was wonderful – she made us all pitch on the spot and provided invaluable advice on how to structure the pitches. I took everything she said on board.
The Irish Writers Centre, ably staffed by June Caldwell and Clodagh Moynan as well as Gareth, covered the day very ably and efficiently. The all-important bell when the fifteen-minutes for each session was up made it very structured and well-organised. Food was on hand when needed, and at the end of the day, drink too!
I had an interesting conundrum in that two of the people I was due to meet had initially rejected my partial when I started tentatively subbing late last year. I decided I would tell them straightaway and offer them the option of having coffee and cake rather than hear me pitch. In a way these sessions were the best because I did not feel going in that I had to pitch and telling them they’d turned me down already broke the ice. As it happened, in both cases, they were happy to have another look so I pitched anyway!
By the end of it my head was in ribbons, but I also realised what a unique opportunity this is. I don’t know of anything like this anywhere else. And I realise how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to take part on a day like this and meet people you would normally as a writer never meet face to face. I would recommend 100 per cent that anyone seriously working on a novel enter this competition – and I’m very grateful to the Irish Writers’ Centre and the publishers and agents for making it possible. No matter what happens, it was so beneficial to be there; the experience itself was an enormous boost to my self-confidence even if I was wracked with nerves beforehand!
But – the fourth draft in full must still be honed. There is work still to be done. As a friend of mine said to me on the phone – yesterday was a victory, today is a day of rest. And tomorrow – back to work on the MS!
Susan graduated from a Masters in Writing in NUI Galway with first class honours in 2003. Since then, she’s had short stories published nationwide in a variety of good quality magazines and publications, such as The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She’s been twice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, and won highly commended awards for short stories and poetry elsewhere. Currently (as well as being a Novel Fair winner) she has one story published and another forthcoming in Nature Magazine’s Science Fiction section and is also featured in a special sci-fi/fantasy anthology Music For Another World. Her work has also featured in the fundraising anthology 50 Stories For Pakistan. Susan was shortlisted 30 out of 1,900 entrants to the Fish Short Story Competition 2011, where I have been longlisted in previous years. She’s also a professional programmer/developer.