Report by Peter Hitchen
The logos of Simon and Schuster and Orion Publishing Group shone from the huge screen that formed the backdrop for November’s gathering of the Hampshire Writers’ Society. The auditorium was packed in anticipation of keynote speaker and Commissioning Editor, Clare Hey, one of publishing’s most experienced professionals.
Stop Press: Publishers are human beings! But more on that later…
First Speaker: Joanna Lane
The first of the evening’s speakers was novelist and Hampshire Writers’ Society member, Joanna Lane. Joanna’s debut non-fiction book, Mother of a Suicide is an incredibly affecting account of trying to understand and come to terms with the terrible tragedy of the suicide of her son, Christopher.
Joanna’s honesty and bravery shone throughout her talk and these two qualities also underpin her incredible book. It can’t have been easy to stand up and talk to such a large audience about the circumstances that led her to write such a powerful account of such challenging personal circumstances. Joanna managed with understated dignity and composure and in doing so she was really able to make a connection with her listeners. She discovered that writing the book was something positive to do as she tried to come to terms with her son’s death and she began to recognise the value of writing as therapy. It became obvious that Joanna was determined that something positive should come from such awful circumstances. By raising awareness of the ramifications of serious head trauma during childhood and its potential to cause chronic and debilitating depression in adulthood, Joanna was determined that other parents need not have to go through what she and her family had to face.
Of course, as well as dealing with the acutely personal nature of her task, Joanna also faced the same challenges that all serious novelists face. She explained in detail how she developed a system of notation and filing in order to keep track of the work’s progress and she had some good advice for those struggling in the midst of their work – taking regular physical exercise and staying active during the writing process helps keep ideas fresh and enhances motivation.
Taking the advice of writing friends, Joanna organised a one-to-one meeting with Bob Cushion of Accent Press at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. Subsequently she was delighted to be asked to provide a further sample of her work. There were hiatuses, false starts and the inevitable setbacks and frustrations to negotiate but finally, after super-human determination, Joanna’s book made it into print with an initial run of 3k copies.
Mother of a Suicide: Fighting for the Truth by Joanna Lane. Accent Press.
Second Speaker: Damon L Wakes
A recent graduate of Winchester University’s MA in Creative Writing, Damon gave us all a fascinating insight into the process of crowd funding and how it is establishing itself as a mainstream route into print. His book, Ten Little Astronauts (the title a delightful play on Agatha Christie’s  work) is set on a decaying spaceship – an environment in itself guaranteed to enhance the tension of any narrative. A murder mystery set in outer space but who, if anyone will survive? Damon’s promo video explained that pledges, starting at an entry level of £5, can be made in the usual way via Unbound’s website.
You can view Damon’s video on this link
Keynote Speaker: Clare Hey
Clare started her publishing career 14 years ago with Harper Collins and during that time she has seen many, some might say revolutionary changes. Digitisation, print on demand, the birth of E-books and self-publishing are just some of the developments that have conspired to change the topography of the publishing world. Clare, however provided a steadying voice, quick to recognise that one fundamental thing would never change – the need for great writing to be put in the hands of appreciative and discerning readers. That need she told us, is what a commissioning publisher is there to meet. Whilst she accepts that subjectivity inevitably plays a part in what any agent will want to read (Clare is not a huge fan of Science Fiction for example) some fundamental elements of pitching are generic across genres and publishing houses.
She advised that authors should write a perfect covering letter. That means the letter should be concise, it should intrigue and it should make the agent think ‘I simply have no choice but to look at the synopsis and manuscript’. The letter should achieve the same thing a good back-cover blurb – it should make the agent want to read the book. Clare, similarly to most agents we were told, wants to read a ‘strong story set in a believable world’ therefore the accompanying synopsis should show that the writing has those very qualities. Finally, if the all-important moment arrives and the agent actually starts to read the manuscript the writing must be flawless, fresh and original.
Clare concluded by providing some examples of writers with whom she has worked successfully over the years and she left her audience with the very encouraging belief that that there will always be room on the shelf for books by writers who are prepared to perfect their craft and write convincing, engaging stories set within exciting and believable worlds. It’s that simple.
So you see… agents are human after all.