Around 6 months ago I decided to take the plunge and submit my first novel, Dreams of Yasmeen, to a handful of Literary Agents. I sent it out to 5 agents at a time so that I could gauge reactions and adjust my approach and/or my writing accordingly. Several rejections down the line, I took stock of my submission e-mail and read a lot about how I could improve my pitch. The new version had the next agent I tried asking to see more. He kept the requested material for quite a while before getting back to me with discouraging news. Although he loved the premise, he said the writing didn’t ‘jump off the page’ as he’d hoped. So the pitch had hooked him but the manuscript hadn’t.
What exactly does ‘jump off the page’ mean? I’ve puzzled over this since December and despite my disappointment, I am enormously grateful for this agent’s candour. Unlike the other, very generalised responses (we get so many submissions, not quite right for our agency, etc), this one made me aware that something was lacking in my novel’s opening chapters. I didn’t look at the manuscript for around 8 weeks, worked instead on the second novel which is quite different in style, but continued to muse about Dreams of Yasmeen and it’s missing mojo.
Last week, I managed to escape for an afternoon at the Emirates Airlines Festval of Literature in Dubai. I attended the Montegrappa First Fiction Prize Giving which was judged by London Literary Agent, Luigi Bonomi of LBA Books.
Rachel Hamilton, a children’s author and last year’s runner-up, entertained us with details of her journey to publication. Nicolas Forzy’s experience of working with Luigi to edit his novel before pitching to Publishers was also intriguing. But it was Luigi Bonomi’s speech and his formal announcement of this year’s winners that led to the penny dropping for me. I think he has helped me identify why my first novel has not been snapped up by an agent.
Luigi started by telling his audience of aspiring writers to ‘think big – have a big idea, see it as a film’. Mmm … the film comparison again … yes I’ve even chosen the female leads. He told us the plot is what gets him interested in a submission and that his agency is prepared to work with new authors, help them develop their work through to the publication stage, just as they did with Nicolas Forzy. It was all very encouraging and I chuckled at his amusing anecdotes about authors who think their scripts are perfect and shun advice. No, no, Luigi, not me – do tell more.
I didn’t want the session to end but eventually the prize winners had to be announced and this was when my ‘Eureka‘ moment occurred. Luigi gave a short synopsis of the 5 books he’d chosen from the 80 entries, and read an extract from each of the 5. As I listened, the thought struck me that writers often forget that agents are first and foremost readers. We think of them as literary experts who can sniff out ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’ at 50 paces, or hear a built-in alarm bell if a scene is not packed with conflict. But what I realised as Luigi announced the winners, was that he was responding on an emotional level to the writing. As a reader, Luigi was feeling his way into the story and becoming involved with the main character’s dilemma. I may be off the mark, but I think he chose these 5 books because they moved him – the characters were affecting, and so the writing ‘jumped off the page’, forging a connection between writer and reader. Luigi was pulled into these books and wanted to read on. With more than 30 years’ experience in the business, he knew that others would too.
The Irish author, Brian Finnegan left a comment about my post on ‘show, don’t tell’, recommending the book Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge. I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and read it a few days after listening to Luigi Bonomi’s presentation. This sentence struck a chord: ‘All filmmakers, therefore, have a single goal: to elicit emotion in an audience’.
Like it or not, we live in a digital age – cinema is an important part of our culture and a film’s success can dictate what appears on the bestsellers lists (see for example, ’12 Years a Slave’). As writers, we cannot afford to ignore the link between films and books. Readers are avid viewers too – ‘see it as a film’, Luigi said. He also said the genre that is most difficult to sell to publishers these days is Literary Fiction. Dreams of Yasmeen certainly has a literary vibe – a reflection no doubt of my own reading habits, but primarily, it’s Women’s Fiction. Phew! Even if it were highbrow Literary Fiction, I can’t use that as an excuse – I have to try to fix what’s not working, make sure it’s better for the next round of submissions.
So what now? Well, I’m all abuzz. I know what I have to do with my manuscript to make it cartwheel off the page. I need to achieve an emotional connection between the characters and the reader – I must narrow the gap. I was at my desk at 9am yesterday and dusted off the flash drive containing Dreams of Yasmeen. Reading it again after a break made me think of this analogy. Imagine your book is a party and you’ve invited readers. When you open the door to greet them, do you tell them to wipe their feet on the doormat first, show them around the garden, or ask them to move their car to another parking spot? No, you grab them by the hand, pull them in and say, ‘Welcome! I’ve been waiting for you. You’re going to have a great time.’
I’ve already rewritten the opening sequence, made cuts from the first couple of chapters and re-ordered some of the action. It’s work, but I’m no shirker and I’ll enjoy taking my manuscript by the neck and giving it a good shake. If you have time (the extracts are short), please check out my pitch and the new opening on my novel page where I’ve also kept the older version. I would so appreciate any feedback at this crucial stage.
I’ve had many positive comments on Dreams of Yasmeen from beta readers, which I thoroughly appreciate, but none of them were leading Literary Agents. If you’re also at the submission stage, please consider meeting agents, following their blogs, websites, Tweets, etc. You might discover the golden nugget of advice your book needs.
The only thing left to say is, thank you, Luigi Bonomi. You weren’t speaking to me directly, but your advice and readings from the heart have helped me get my mojo back!