ISABEL COSTELLO on THE YORK EFFECT – HOW I GOT AN AGENT

Isabel CostelloThe first I ever heard of the York Festival was a success story, of Shelley Harris winning the Friday Night Live competition and landing an agent with her debut novel Jubilee. I’ve since got to know Shelley who isn’t just talented but very supportive of other writers on their way up.  She is one of the people who’ve inspired me and made me believe It can happen.

I didn’t waste much time booking for my first Festival of Writing and having now attended two years in a row, I am delighted to have signed with Diana Beaumont of the Rupert Heath Literary Agency.

Many if not most new writers aspire to be traditionally published and in a difficult market the odds of achieving this don’t make for happy reading.  Writers’ Workshop wouldn’t tell you otherwise and I admire their realistic approach.  They have a very practical focus on what you can do to improve your chances, along with demystifying the publishing industry in a way that’s invaluable for outsiders.   Ultimately it all comes back to the same thing: write a really good book and know how to pitch it.  The opportunity to get honest, constructive feedback directly from agents and editors at the Festival is a good way to find out if you’re on the right track.

My first year at York was many things: fun, educational, highly sociable, but above all it was a sobering reality check.  I realised just how many talented unpublished writers were chasing the same thing I wanted. I realised my manuscript wasn’t good enough to stand out, but at least I now knew how to change that.

Get Professional Input.   I heard this advice repeatedly at York and my only reason for endorsing it is that it’s worked for me.  I’d already clocked up the dozen rejections that Harry Bingham sees as a sign that something is fundamentally lacking.  I’ve been complimented on my perseverance (or bloody-mindedness, from those who know me better) but you only need talk to a few published authors to know there’s nothing at all unusual about that.  It’s an essential requirement for any writer and so is toughening up.

Hiring a professional editor is a big decision.  You’re paying for honesty and you may not like it when you get it.  I was lucky with Debi Alper; like all the best editors she is tough but insightful and constructive.  It was clear that if my novel was ever going to get anywhere I had to take the whole thing to pieces and reconstruct it.  Oh, and once I’d nailed the structure, I had to completely re-write it (it went through another four drafts!)

I knew this would teach me a lot regardless of the outcome and during the many months of hard graft I held that thought, very aware that there was no guarantee I’d ever get an agent.  Booking for a second consecutive year at York was a no-brainer, although part of me felt inadequate taking the same book back again.

Except that of course it wasn’t the same book.  This time it generated the kind of interest I’d been hoping for, which was an enormous thrill and relief.  Back in London I spent a frantic month working all hours to polish the manuscript to a shine before sending it in full to seven agents, some of whom had contacted me afterwards.  (My agent Diana wasn’t even at York – she contacted me via Twitter after reading my blog.) I had meetings with five of them and ended up with several offers of representation.  I know how lucky I am to be working with someone who knows the business so well, who loves my book and believes in me as a writer. I suspect we’ll also have a lot of fun.

I have no connection with Writers’ Workshop other than as a very grateful and satisfied customer.  A huge thank you to Harry and all the team.

Isabel Costello writes the Literary Sofa blog and has recently posted 6⅔ Things I Learnt from Rewriting my Book.  Her agent will be sending the manuscript to publishers in January 2014.

Diana Beaumont of the Rupert Heath Literary Agency will be at the Festival of Writing 2014 doing one-to-one sessions and a workshop with her client Eve Harris, whose debut novel The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.  Eve found her writing mentor through WW.

Don’t miss your chance to attend our next event, The Getting Published Day. Meet agents and publishers, and get feedback on your work. The event will be held in Regent’s College, on Saturday 1st March, 2014. Book Today!

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