Festival of Writing to a Literary Agent. A guest post from Eleanor Anstruther.

I came to The Festival of Writing 2016 with a novella born of ten years of wrestling and ranting and tearing my hair out. Just a novella but one from a decade of trying, of rewriting completely from scratch six times, six novels of the same story rejected and ripped up – a scratch of an idea and a whole heap of fear all wrapped up in a bundle marked Help. I submitted to Friday Night Live and Best Opening Chapter thinking, why not? I’m never going to get anywhere, it’s just good practice, even though a voice inside of me said, you might. I’d worked with the superb Andrew Wille through The Writers’ Workshop and he, clever man that he is, always said he thought the book had something, that it could be a novel again but I, being only used to rejection, thought, really? And then I got shortlisted for both competitions.

And then my world exploded. Jenny Savill, senior agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, was a judge for Best Opening Chapter. She asked for the manuscript, she asked for next draft as I developed it from novella to novel, she asked to see it all when it was done. Eight months later my debut is in her safe hands, I am signed and we are on our way to the next mountain, the next chasm, the next jump. I am still absolutely terrified. I don’t think that ever goes away. I don’t think I want it to.

It’s taken me most of my life to call myself a writer. Granted, for much of that I was a child who knew she was, an adolescent who had it figuratively kicked out of her, someone young who ran away from it and then an adult who couldn’t run anymore but still hid yet these things, this gift has eyes and nose as well as ears and when it gets a sniff that you might be listening, that you might have the guts and the heart it doesn’t let go. It follows you around. It followed me around until I couldn’t hide anymore and had to try, to really try to sit down with it and listen.

We are given stories – that’s how it feels to me. They circulate and fly above us, looking, looking, looking for someone to hold up their hand and say okay, me, I’ll do it. Once they see you’re safe, that you’ll work, that you’ll give it your all to get to the truth they don’t stop and nor, I found, could I. But I still hid. Not from it anymore – I began the novel that has now, finally found its feet – but I still hid from the world. I made my own little glory at the kitchen table where I would write and plot and imagine and send out and get knocked back and wonder why and cry.

Then my friend, Tor Udall – a trailblazer for me whose beautiful book, A Thousand Paper Birds, is coming out in June – told me how she did it, how she jumped the chasm from a thousand unknowns to being heard. Come to York. That’s what she said. Come to York, it’s brilliant, you won’t regret it, and I was faced with the reality that no matter how hard you work, no matter how brilliant your words if you don’t get out there and risk it, meet your people, connect, then all of it is just a thousand unknowns blamed on a world you can’t reach for lack of asking. But if you’re going to #FoW17 it means you’ve jumped, you’re in mid air, you’re going to risk it.
Ruth Stone spoke of how she would hear poems coming at her across the fields, that she used to have to run back to the house and grab a pencil, get there in time and sometimes she didn’t, sometimes they whistled on before she had time to write them down. Zadie Smith calls it a bear hunt – you go out for months, years into the wilderness and sometimes you come back with nothing and some people never come back. But without this bear hunt, this hearing something in the wind and running, there is no life at all and not just for us. Without books, paintings, dancers, voices, shapes made out of clay there is no life at all. This is our giving to the world. This is it determined to get through.

As Joanna Cannon calls it, writing for mental health. I’m going to put that on a t-shirt.
If you don’t hold up your hand or if you hide it won’t care. It will just find somebody else more willing and you will be left without. Maya Angelou says, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” and she should know.

So the only question to ask yourself if you’re thinking of coming to York is, am I a writer? and if the answer is yes then in great part, the jump is begun.

Eleanor Anstruther

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#FoW17. Meet the Literary Agents: Carrie Plitt, Felicity Bryan Agency

Carrie Plitt is one of the agents appearing at this year’s Festival of Writing. Each year we invite important industry players who are hungry for new talent and who look after some of the best authors in the business.

Before joining Felicity Bryan as an agent in 2016, Carrie worked for five years at Conville & Walsh Literary Agency. She loves well-written non-fiction by authors who are passionate – perhaps even bordering on obsessive – about a topic. She’s drawn to unique and diverse voices, atmospheric settings, coming-of-age stories and books that capture the zeitgeist. She also hosts a monthly books radio show called Literary Friction.

When did you come into agenting? What did you do before? And why agenting?
When I graduated from university with an English degree, I knew I wanted to work in publishing (this was partially through a lack of other viable options, and at the time I thought there were only editors sitting at big desks). After some internships, I knew a lot more, and was lucky enough to land a job as the Rights Assistant at Penguin Books. However, I quickly realised that agenting was the job that really appealed – I love the idea of spotting talent, and working closely with writers throughout their careers as an editor, advisor and champion. I was hired as Jo Unwin’s assistant at Conville & Walsh, and I worked my way up from there.

What sort of books do you love?
I’m a bit of an omnivore when it comes to books, and I represent both fiction and non-fiction, but there are a couple of things I’ve noticed that I tend to be drawn to in novels: literary writing, coming-of-age stories, a strong sense of place, books that engage with the zeitgeist, family dramas and strong female characters.

Of the authors who are not on your list, who would you most love to represent?
I am a bonafide Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie fan – I love everything she writes, even if it’s not perfect, and I would love to represent her. I just finished reading the debut Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and I think she is a genuine literary talent. There are so many others: Nina Stibbe, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson, Eimear McBride…

Are you most drawn to beautiful writing? Or a wonderful plot? Or a stunning premise? Or what?
First and foremost I am drawn to beautiful writing. But if a book doesn’t make me want to keep reading (and this doesn’t have to be because of a conventional plot) then I’m not interested.

Tell us how you like writers to submit work to you. And how you’d like them not to submit work.
Do follow the guidelines on our website – we ask for a covering letter, synopsis and the first 3-4 chapters by email or post. Don’t send me the full manuscript with no covering letter, or a very short ‘sample’. Also, don’t send me toast (this has really happened). It won’t make me more likely to take you on.

Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?
I don’t know about ‘chemistry’ but I think getting along with my authors is essential – and that’s just as true for authors as it is for agents. You need to trust your agent, and be comfortable with the idea of them giving you both good and bad news. That’s why I always like to meet authors before taking them on, or talk to them extensively on the phone if that’s not possible.

Have you enjoyed reading more since becoming an agent? Or are there times it feels like a chore?
Honestly: sometimes work reading feels like a chore. A lot of the submissions we get in our inboxes are boring or just plain bad. But then I read something really good, and I’m reminded of why I do this job in the first place. I still read for pleasure all the time, and it remains one of the joys of my life – right now I am reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion before bed.

Do you like your authors to tweet & blog & Facebook … or do you really not care?
Twitter, Facebook, social media can be a useful tool. It will help you engage with a community of writers and – if nothing else – keeps you abreast of what is happening in the publishing world. But if you really hate it, or if you are just going to tweet once a month about what sandwich you ate that day, then it’s not worth it! Twitter is a huge source of distraction in my life, so sometimes I think it might be best if we all avoided it.

Agent: Carrie Plitt, Felicity Bryan Agency
Carrie’s list covers popular science, nature writing, big ideas, history, travel, sport, health, women, art and music. On the fiction side: she represents literary and book club titles.
Book Your Meeting with Carrie Today!

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The art of being foolish by Jo Jakeman. Festival of Writing to a Literary Agent.

Jo Jakeman

The decision to attend the Festival of Writing last year was a rash one. I’d just finished a Curtis Brown Creative course and was keen to keep improving. I’d been looking at York FoW for a few years but couldn’t justify the expense. At the end of July, an email hit my inbox offering a 20% discount.

‘Honey? You know you were wondering what to get me for our wedding anniversary..?’

I only booked for the Saturday thinking I’d drive up and back in a day. The CBC course I’d been part of had opened me up to critique, which was painful but necessary, and I decided the next step was to ‘put myself out there’ and enter my first competition. After much deliberation, or at least ‘close-my-eyes-and-press-send’, I entered all three competitions.

Ten days before York I was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for ovarian torsion. The trip to York was off. I was directed to not even lift a kettle for eight weeks so bed rest was prescribed alongside some heavy-duty painkillers.

And then came the emails. First was, ‘congratulations you’ve been shortlisted for Best Opening Chapter’. Oh. My. Word. The surgeon said, ‘I can’t tell you not to go but, in my opinion, it would be foolish.’ I was disappointed but thought it better to follow the wishes of the experts.

And then a couple of days later, ‘congratulations you’ve been shortlisted for Friday Night Live.’ Are you kidding me? There was no way I was going to miss these opportunities. The whole family were dragged in to help. James, my husband, took the Friday off work so he could carry my bags (reference earlier comment about not even lifting a kettle) and I got permission from my boys’ school to keep them off because, well, I had no-one else who could look after them, and the whole Bunt family boarded a train for York.

I was in agony as I walked onto that stage in my heels, fighting the urge to vomit, and prepared to read my 500 words for Friday Night Live. I have never been so terrified, but getting applause (and might I add, the odd bit of table banging) in response to my writing was overwhelming. I was the joint winner with the lovely Gerry Fenge. Much fizzy stuff was quaffed and I didn’t feel any pain from my operation at all. Funny that…

Four agents asked for the full manuscript but it was the fabulous Imogen Pelham at Marjacq, with whom I’d managed to get a 1-2-1, who really understood what I was trying to say with my book and matched my excitement for it. Fast forward almost a year and the book has a new name, Sticks and Stones. I have a new name, Jo Jakeman – apparently, Bunt just doesn’t say ‘psychological thriller’ enough –  and I have… drum roll please… an actual book deal!

Harvill Secker will be publishing Sticks and Stones on 12th July 2018. Oh, my giddy aunt. I’m working on the edits at the moment with my amazing editor, Jade Chandler.

There were so many reasons to not attend York Festival of Writing last year, but I’m so thankful that I was foolish enough to follow my heart and that my wonderful family was foolish enough to help me.

If I can give anyone reading this one bit of advice it’s – be foolish! Take a risk, and follow your heart. Yes, it’s bloody scary but the rewards make it all worthwhile.


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Festival of Writing to a Literary Agent. A guest post from the winner of the inaugural Goat Bursary Award.

Linda Duncan McLaughlin

When I saw the subject line on the email: ‘WINNING ENTRY FOR THE GOAT BURSARY – yes, you!’, I assumed it was just a competition update.  But when I opened it and read ‘It is with great pleasure…’  I had to stop for a moment and just breathe.   Every writer wants to read those words, and they couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

I’d been promising to return to my novel, Original Sins, which had been sitting in the virtual desk-drawer of my laptop for five years – but life and work and keeping a roof over my head just kept interfering.   I’d heard about the Festival of Writing and I longed to attend – but it seemed beyond my grasp.  Then the wonderful Jo Cannon and Sue Armstrong came up with the idea of The Goat Bursary.  The night I read about it was the night I re-opened that document on my laptop and sat down seriously to reacquaint myself with my novel.


I could go on at length about the advantages of attending FoW, but anyone who reads the programme can see what a brilliant and beautiful thing it is.  Add to that the sheer joy of spending a whole weekend thinking about and talking about and learning about writing in the company of other writers, and it’s hard to over-state just how good an experience it is.  I’m quite shy and it was a struggle at first just to walk up to people and say ‘Hi!’   But Tor Udall, Nas Rafiq (Bursary runner-up), and the Writers’ Workshop staff prodded, encouraged and at one point took me by the hand and marched me up to people, and I managed to meet some wonderfully encouraging agents and more writers than you could shake a USB-stick at.  The best thing about the whole experience was the boost in confidence it provided – not only in terms of belief in my writing, but in gaining the courage to tell people about it.  And that, in turn, got me back in the writing chair.

As a direct result of attending FoW, I’ve now signed with an agent (the amazing Broo Doherty at DHH) and yes – I have finished a first draft.  I know the hardest work is to come.  But I genuinely would not have got this far if I hadn’t been lucky enough to win the Goat Bursary and attend FoW.  Jo Cannon attended in 2014, and went on to publish the wonderful The Trouble with Goats and Sheep in 2016.  She’s blazing a trail that I hope to follow – and she and FoW have given me the map and compass to do so.  (Or the SatNav, if you’re under 40…)
Nikki from Writers’ Workshop calls me her Goatling.  It’s a label I’m very proud of and one that, without Jo, Sue and FoW, I could never have won the right to wear.

The Festival of Writing: it does what it says on the tin.  Go.  You won’t regret it.

Linda Duncan McLaughlin

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Can you Write a Book in 6 weeks? – Oh Hell Yeah! Says our Editor Sam Jordison

One of the biggest challenges any writers must face is, you know, actually writing. The sitting  down in front of a computer and typing side of things. The finding  the time. The ploughing on: in spite of blocks and distractions. The getting out of the words even though you might have a headache. The  thinking and the doing and the typing. Did I mention the typing? No books are ever published without typing…

… And put like that it sounds too obvious to even mention. But actually the physical act of writing is one of the most fascinating and difficult parts of the process. At literary festivals, writers are invariably asked questions about how they carve out the space to sit down and write, and how you keep going when the going gets tough. Some of the best interviews on the craft of writing in the world are those published by the Paris Review and the first thing they always ask is a variation on the question of pen, pencil, typewriter or word processor?

When I teach my CREATIVE NON-FICTION COURSE here at the Writers’ Workshop, meanwhile, I always like to try to address the question of how you actually physically get the words down. The advice I offer is generally to try to be flexible, because not only is every person different, every writing day is different. One of the worst things you can do is beat yourself up and obsess over the fact that you haven’t hit an arbitrary word count. But equally, another of the worst things you can also do is to fail to get any words down on a regular basis. Most often I try to suggest that people get into a sensible routine that fits them, not to worry too much if progress is slow, but to always try to make progress.

I like to hope that this is good advice. I’ve followed it myself in the past – and managed to produce a dozen books and plenty of journalism by doing so. But more recently, I have discovered two things that can work even better: a fierce deadline and a burning sense of  injustice.

If you have a burning desire to write a memoir, a piece of journalism, or a biography then use that energy to propel your writing.

In early spring this year, I was asked to write a book about the people that brought us Trump and Brexit and the general sense that the world is spinning off its axis. I was also asked if I could write it in about six weeks. And make it reasonably long.

My first thought was: oh hell yeah! The rage I was feeling at the collapse of our democracies and the rise of a dangerous and malevolent right-wing would perhaps start to feel a bit less impotent. If I could channel my anger into a book that would tell the truth about post-truth and provide real facts instead of alternative-facts, I might have a small hope of influencing things for the better.

My second thought was: oh hell. I’d have to do an awful lot of writing and research in a very short time. And I’d have to – as already discussed – actually sit down and do it.

But that’s when the two weapons of clock pressure and anger really kicked in. I didn’t spend any more time wondering about how I was going to write the book. I didn’t have time for that. All I could do was get going. If I wanted to nail the people who had done so much to make things so bad, I just had to get going.

I’m not going to lie and say it was easy. It was stressful and tiring and my head was whirring for six solid weeks. But lots of the things that usually get in the way of writing just weren’t around. There was no putting it off until tomorrow, because tomorrow was too late. There was no wondering if I was doing things the right way – because I was arguing with people who seemed so obviously wrong.

And it worked. At the risk of sounding like a Nike advert, the thing I realised that sometimes the best approach to writing is to just do it. I got the words down. And as I type this article, I’m waiting for the first copy of the resultant book to come through the post. It’s called Enemies Of The People and even though it probably has a few rough edges, and a few clumsy sentences that I might have improved if I had more time, I also hope that the way it was written has given it rawness and energy and a burning sense of indignation. It feels important. And I’m very glad I sat down and wrote it.

Enemies Of The People is published in the UK on 1 June 2017. Available from all good bookshops

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#FoW17. Meet the Literary Agents: Laura Macdougall, Tibor Jones

Laura Macdougall is one of the agents appearing at this year’s Festival of Writing. Each year we invite important industry players who are hungry for new talent and who look after some of the best authors in the business.

Laura has a Classics degree and a Masters in Latin from Oxford. She started her publishing career as an editor at Hodder & Stoughton, commissioning historical, crime and debut literary novels. She worked with internationally bestselling authors such as Stephen King and David Nicholls and set up Hodder’s historical fiction community. She was a judge on the 2014 Green Carnation Prize which celebrates the best of LGBT writing.


When did you come into agenting? What did you do before? And why agenting?
I’ve been an agent at Tibor Jones for two years. Before that, I worked in the Fiction department at Hodder & Stoughton for five years, starting out as an editorial assistant before going on to commission books for the list. I left to become an agent because I wanted to work on a wide variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and because I wanted to work with authors right from the very beginning of their careers, and hopefully for many many years and many books!

Have you ever opened a new manuscript, read a single page, and thought ‘I’m going to end up making an offer on this’? What was it about that page which excited you?
Yes! You’ll have to come to the event I’m doing with my author Ruth Hogan (author of THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS) on Saturday at 15.10 to find out more about this…

Tell us how you like writers to submit work to you. And how you’d like them not to submit work.
I find it very difficult to understand why people spell either my name or the agency’s name wrong, when it’s clearly spelled correctly on our website and on all our social media profiles. It’s really not difficult to check these sorts of things. I also don’t like it when people address query letters really casually, such as ‘Hi’, or ‘Hey, Laura’. I think Dear [Agent / Agency Name] is the only way these letters should be addressed, unless you already know the agent in question. I also think it’s really important to follow strict submission guidelines. Every agency is individual and has different requirements. We only ask for the first five pages of a novel, but often receive submissions from authors where they say that five pages just isn’t enough so they’ve sent us fifty, or the whole manuscript. This doesn’t really make us want to offer them representation…

I appreciate it can be difficult to step back and judge your own work, but I would urge every author to try and put themselves in our position. Given the volume of submissions we receive, of course it’s important to stand out, but not for the wrong reasons (i.e. for not following very straightforward submission guidelines)! I like people to be themselves – if they can make me laugh, that’s good, though it’s not appropriate for every book – but also to be polite. They need to include a one-page synopsis that reads well – some synopses are really quite dry and convoluted and immediately put me off. I also quite like it if authors make it clear they’ve done their research and can demonstrate why they think we would be a good fit, and why they’re submitting to me and to Tibor Jones.

Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?
I think if you have good personal chemistry with an author it can be a real bonus, but it’s certainly not a necessity. I do like to meet my authors in person if possible, before offering them representation, just to check that we can at least have a conversation over lunch or coffee together, and of course that they’re happy being represented by me and by Tibor Jones. It should be a mutual decision, and sometimes meeting in person can help. But it’s such an international job and one that takes place mostly via email that I think being passionate about the author’s book is the most important. If you get on like a house on fire, that’s an added extra!

Have you enjoyed reading more since becoming an agent? Or are there times it feels like a chore?
I actually read slightly less for work since becoming an agent, probably because our submission guidelines only allow authors to send in the first five pages of their books. When I was an editor, and receiving full manuscripts from agents every week, that left much less time to read for pleasure. Although I think all reading for pleasure sometimes feels like it’s still work, as there’s always a certain amount of pressure to make sure you’re reading what is being published so you can keep up with current trends, bestsellers, prize-winners and those well-reviewed books.

Where do most of your authors come from? The slushpile? Personal recommendation? Or what?
It really varies how many submissions we get each week / month / year. Some submissions are directed straight to me and others go to the agency’s enquiries inbox, but I deal with all of them. I can say, however, that in the summer of 2016 I turned down 1,000 submissions from the so-called ‘slush pile’ and only took on one author, though I didn’t take on other authors during this time who came via personal recommendations. As I’m still quite a new agent, I only represent about twenty-five writers. Of those, I found seven in the slush pile. I have quite a few friends who either work in the publishing industry or who are writers themselves, and they have been wonderful in recommending authors to me. I think I’ve signed around three authors this way. The rest of my list is made up of non-fiction writers whom I’ve approached after having an idea for a book, and other novelists I met outside of publishing or who wanted to move agents.

Do you like your authors to tweet & blog & Facebook … or do you really not care?
This varies from author to author. I never put pressure on an author to create social media accounts for themselves. To some people, things like Twitter and Instagram and blogging come naturally, but others prefer just to focus on the writing. There’s nothing worse than Googling an author and being directed to their website or Twitter account only to find they haven’t updated them in three years. I’d much rather authors created accounts if they enjoyed it and if they planned to use them regularly, rather than having a website because they feel obligated only for it to quickly become obsolete.

Agent: Laura Macdougall, Tibor Jones
Laura’s list covers literary, book club, historical and crime fiction and narrative non-fiction from memoir to music, politics and popular culture.
Book Your Meeting with Laura Today!





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Austin Macauley – what a terrible vanity publishing contract looks like

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12 easy steps to writing your book

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