Elizabeth Woodville, that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair
Dreaming the first Queen Elizabeth

The Book Doctor will (not) confuse you now

Winchester is just finishing, York is in September, then there's Verulam, Swanwick, the Historical Novel Society, which is not just historical but international,since it alternates between Britain and the United States, Getting Published, WriteConZurich, the Romantic Novelists Association and another which I can't talk about yet ... and dozens more. I'm talking about Writers' Conferences; you may well know the kind of thing I mean. If you don't, my impressions of York 2012 are here, and if you think that asking an aspiring writer to spend a money on their aspirations is like the Pope suggesting that putting money towards re-building St Peter's is the best way to shorten your stint in Purgatory, then I refer you to scriptwriter and teacher Jon Spira.

Most conferences provide the famous "one-to-ones". You submit a couple of thousand words of your work, plus a synopsis, and then for ten or fifteen minutes, you get to discuss both the writing, and its prospects in the market, with a publisher's editor, an agent, or a book doctor. The editors and agents are principally looking for oven-ready new books and authors (rare), or likely prospects (not uncommon), but the ones who like doing conferences do genuinely want to help. The book doctor is someone like me: probably a writer, certainly someone with experience at the editing-teaching interface. We like helping too.

But, of course, you want to prepare, to make the most of what feels like a blink-and-you'll-miss-it slot. Don't stress, though; the person sitting opposite you will have plenty to say, and is very likely to have made notes or marked up your script, for you to take away. You could also:

  • Take a notebook, and use it. If you're anything like me, you always think you'll remember oral feedback, and you never do.
  • Think out two or three clear questions that you really would like answered. Even write them down. What do they think of the prose? You're thinking of sending the plot in a certain direction - does that sound tasty? Feedback said that it needs a buzzier opening - do they agree?
  • Have a one-sentence hooky sort of pitch for what the book is, for when conversation flags. Ask if it sounds compelling enough? Is this a good way to pitch this book? If not, is it the book, or the pitch, which needs changing?
  • Clarify your idea of roughly where it sits on the bookshop shelf, again, for when conversation flags. Does that make sense to an industry insider? Are you wrong about this book? Are you wrong about there being a bookshop shelf with that label on it?
  • Have a clear idea of where you've got to with this project. It doesn't have to be spit-and-polished, but a sentence or two about what work it still needs may garner some advice, and will show an agent or editor that you're practical and realistic .

On the day, do try to strangle at birth your urge to meet feedback by explaining things at length. Of course it may be relevant that X is all resolved in Chapter 16, but I've done one-to-ones at York when, try as I might (and, if I'm honest, how hard I tried depended on how shattered I was by that point in the weekend), I couldn't get a word in edgeways. Every point I made about the piece was met with a barrage of reasons which sounded sensible, but were actually defensive. Anyone who's done a writing workshop will know just the kind of response I'm talking about - in themselves, or in others.

It's not just that explaining why your work doesn't need changing isn't the most useful way of spending your nine-and-a-half minutes (and at York Obergruppenfuhrer Susan makes very sure that's all it is). It's also because, if you're busy defending your work, you're not listening to the opinions you've so carefully and expensively sought out. And, even more importantly, you're not letting your creative brain grasp the new possibilities being offered; you're just fending them off and entrenching yourself in the current situation.

And during the session

  • Take notes, but not at the expense of keeping your ears open and listening and asking questions. And you may well get a sheet summarising what's been said anyway.
  • Try not to be mesmerised by the knowledgeable person on the other side of the table. Of course you want to listen, but you don't want to come away not having sorted out some clear issues which are bothering you.
  • Suspend judgement 1: even if what they're saying is painful - and our hearts and hopes are stapled to the page so of course it may be - try not to let your ears go protectively deaf. And try not to despair, either. The lakes at York are beautiful, but discarded manuscripts give the ducks indigestion
  • Suspend judgement 2: trying not to be defensive isn't the same as rolling over and accepting everything the editor says as gospel. You're allowed to think, "No, that's not what I'm trying to do."
  • Suspend judgement 3: don't jump harder than you can help to positive conclusions. Be thrilled if they ask for the full manuscript, of course, but don't suspend common sense about them or your writing. Having written a book that industry people are liking is even more reason to make business-like decisions.
  • Respect the time-keeping of the sessions in fairness to the other writers. Not all conferences, I gather, are as well-organised as York.
  • When you leave, take a little time straight away to make notes about what was said. It's tempting to plunge back into the workshop you had to sneak out of, or the hubub of the bar, but just-afterwards is the best time to re-capture the nuances of the discussion you've just had, and any ideas and inspirations that came to you.
  • These notes will also help you to revisit what was said later, when you're feeling less keyed-up, and perhaps less defensive. Or is that just me?
  • Please don't allow the pain or the defensiveness to overflow into how you respond to the editor. We quite understand if you're a bit monosyllabic by the end, and we don't expect to be on your Christmas card list this year, but harrassing or threatening us is bad manners. Besides, have you seen the size of your average University security guard these days?

So, when you revisit the advice, what do you do with it? It's up to you - as all advice is, whoever's giving it, at least until someone's paid you for the book. Accept, adapt, ignore ... So, for any advice you need to remember that

  • 33% of the time an editor points out a genuine problem in how it works on the reader, and comes up with the true cause, and then suggests the right solution for your story.
  • 33% of the time they're right about the problem in terms of it not working for the reader, but suggest the wrong cause, and are therefore unlikely to have come up with the right solution.
  • 33% of the time the book fundamentally doesn't work for them: it's not their genre, they've taken it wrong, they're dealing with it as something it was never meant to be. Their suggestions for how to make it work may therefore be well off-beam. Mind you, that may make you realise that what your book was meant to be isn't something that anyone can sell.
  • 1% of the time (see? I did the maths) there's a complete mis-match between you and the editor, or your ms didn't get to them in time. Or they didn't read it beforehand. Quite a few of the agents and editors read in slushpile mode, which in one sense is just what you're looking for: how do the first two paragraphs and covering letter strike them? That's valuable feedback, but occasionally you don't even get that. It happens. It's not ideal. This is where your general questions come in, though, because they may still have useful things to say about those.

So your job is first to separate out the editor's "not-working" from their "because", because the former is right (at least for them though maybe not for everyone) but the latter may not be. You can accept the problem, without accepting their solution. If you do accept the solution, fine. If you don't, you have to come up with your solution to the problem they've highlighted.

Finally, many conferences offer you more than one slot, so what do you do if the advice is conflicting?  I suggest you try to deconstruct both sets of feedback separately, in terms of problems and offered solutions. Are they wanting the book to be two different things? One sees it as edgy mum-lit, the other full-on psychological thriller? Which is closer to how you see it? Where are the overlaps, and where are the conflicts? Are they both recognising the same problem but coming up with different solutions? How would you solve that problem? If they're recognising different problems, do you agree with both? Can you solve both?

And finally, finally, don't let the one-to-ones dominate your sense and experience of the festival - or your decision about whether the money will be worth it for you. I've heard far too many stories from agents and editors of formal one-to-ones which yielded little, this time, but excellent, informal one-to-one-type encounters in the bar, after a workshop, over breakfast. And that's before you count in the workshops, the mini-courses, the book signings and the lifelong writerly friendships...