Back in 2008, I had a painful but extremely valuable encounter at the Winchester Writers’ Conference. As part of the Winchester package, you are given the opportunity to have fifteen minutes with three different writing industry luminaries. These may be agents (pitch!), editors (pitch again!) or experts (listen!)
My three sessions were booked with an agent (to pitch a non-fiction project that’s still awaiting lift-off), a radio producer (to get feedback on a radio play that’s still awaiting interest) and a writer (to get feedback on a children’s book that I’d first touted around in 1992 during my first attempt at a writing career). Unfortunately the writer, Daniel Clay (who incidentally is doing very well indeed right now), was unable to attend through illness (although he did send me a very thorough critique later) and the first substitute offered failed to turn up.
The second substitute was a well-known author, creative writing teacher and journalist. I gave her my manuscript, which she scarily speed-read in front of me, metaphorically tearing it to shreds as she went. In particular, there were a number of unconventional aspects to the book, which she did not like at all. Basically, she wanted to kill my darlings.
I reacted badly.
I think I’m generally OK with dealing with criticism of my writing (except – curiously – from my nearest and dearest), but for some reason I lost my rag this time and we had a very argumentative and heated fifteen minutes, following which I came away feeling as if I’d completely wasted my time. I also felt more than a little embarrassed at having behaved so unprofessionally. However, I felt a bit better after we’d bumped into each other in the breakfast queue the next morning and I’d apologised to her for not taking her criticism well. She was very nice and actually suggested that I send it out to a few agents, asking me to let her know how I got on.
The odd thing was that after I’d thought about it for a while afterwards, I came to the conclusion that what this showed was that I was actually too close to the book to send it out as a first novel. There was no way that I could ever submit to the inevitable compromises that I would have to go through in order to get it published; I loved the concept too much. So I decided to put it to one side and focus on other things (including – eventually – Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens).
But the other really important thing that I picked up on was a tiny grain of encouragement she’d given me right at the start of our fifteen minutes. I’d thrust my writing CV at her, with a comment that what I really wanted was to have a short story collection published, “but of course, there’s no chance of that ever happening.” Her response was to look at the CV and say, “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” This was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to me about my short stories.
So, in the light of recent events, I rather think it’s about time I thanked Sophie King for that painful fifteen minutes.
Thank you, Sophie.