The truth is I was terrified. My comfort zone is a quiet room with only my characters and words for company, so the idea of spending three days with hundreds of writers I didn’t know felt challenging. Apart from having to face industry professionals, there was also the prospect of the Gala Dinner. When I followed participants on the forum discussing dresses they were going to wear (taffeta was mentioned), I definitely wobbled.
But I was determined to do something radical. I had been writing for 15 years, been close to publication a couple of times, but the overall message I was receiving was ‘you have talent, you write beautifully BUT…’ Hearing I had potential in my early twenties was lovely. Hearing I still had potential 15 years later was frustrating and I realised that if I was going to cross that golden threshold I had to do something different.
I had submitted my third novel to 5 agents in June 2013. When I received 2 rejections and silence from the others, I booked my place at York. The week before the festival, those 3 agents got in touch, saying they were interested. None were offering representation but all wanted to work with me on a further draft to see how our relationship and the work might develop.
So I arrived at FOW13 on a high and had an absolute blast. I learnt so much from the workshops and loved meeting writers from other genres. The biggest discovery was that I actually ENJOYED ‘small talk’ if it was about books. I was in my element.
During the weekend, I met two agents who both asked to read the manuscript. I returned from the roller coaster, proud that I had pushed my courage to the limit, and as I sat there on the Sunday evening I had no idea that the real ride was only just beginning.
The agents from the festival read my manuscript within 24 hours and both offered representation. I then returned to the original 3 and they offered representation too. Overwhelmed, I contacted two people I had met in York: the wonderful book doctor, Andrew Wille, and the fabulous Francesca Main from Picador. Both offered advice without being directive and both suggested that I contact other agents too. This led to a ridiculous number of agents saying yes and my diary became unrecognisable with daily meetings. I was in the centre of a ‘buzz’ and I realised that people were now reading the manuscript differently with a starting point of ‘how can I help make this work’ rather than ‘what’s wrong with it.’ The doors I had been knocking on for 15 years were crashing down around me.
I now had a new problem. Who was I going to pick? All the agents were smart, passionate, experienced and a delight to be with. I would have happily worked with each of them as they all brought something unique to the book and showed great insight. By this point, several successful writers were also getting in touch to recommend their agent or offer advice – and I remain stunned and humbled at the support I received from so many professionals who took time out of their busy schedules to help an unknown. But it did get to a point where I was scared to look in my inbox to see who was there that morning. ‘BOO!’ However the overall message I received was clear. I needed to listen out for that infamous ‘click’ … and to trust my instinct.
When I walked into the ANA offices, Jenny Savill led me into the boardroom where I found a pictorial homage to my book spread out on the table. There were not only photographs of the novel’s location, but print-outs of music I mention and images of motifs that proved to me she understood the subtleties of what I was trying to do. She then introduced me to her colleagues and they had read the book too. Despite being in the hectic run up to Frankfurt, each of them stopped to meet me and I was so overwhelmed that I walked into a glass door. A classic Bridget Jones moment…
Had I heard a click? There had been a symphony of castanets. But still I wasn’t sure. How could I possibly turn down the others who I also adored? But I kept coming back to Jenny who had shown me that she understood the book, and what I’ve been trying to do with my writing, better than I could ever hope to explain it. The key moment came when I noticed a poster of an NME cover showing David Bowie surrounded by origami birds. Both of them key motifs in the book. It was the strangest synchronous moment … and the first person I wanted to call was Jenny. And that was that.
It was hard to let the others down – all who had put so much energy and belief into the book – and of course I would have loved to mesh them into one uber-agent! But this was the real world and after all the excitement, my suitors rode into the sunset to find other books to fall in love with, other writers to court. In the ensuing silence, I was left standing opposite the one I had chosen, the two of us looking into each other’s eyes, thinking of the years and challenges ahead of us and saying ‘okay, let’s make this happen.’
So now I have the draft of my life ahead of me. But I’m back in my ‘happy place’, playing around with words and asking these wonderful, frustrating characters to reveal themselves to me just a little bit more. And as I work, I don’t only have the brilliant support of Jenny … but all the agents’ wise voices in my head. And I feel hugely supported and blessed.
None of this would have happened without the Festival Of Writing. They were the spark that lit the fire. I also can’t thank Andrew and Francesca enough for their unbiased support – I couldn’t have got through the roller coaster of these crazy months (or had so much fun) without them.
Who knows if this book will be published? There are many more hurdles to jump. But I have learnt an important lesson … and ironically it’s a lesson I needed to learn for my characters too.
If you do the thing you’re most frightened of, you might just get what you want.
(You can follow Tor’s journey on Twitter @TorUdall)