Is There A Novelist In The House? MLF event

The Manchester Literature Festival continues apace, and last Saturday I went to an event called Is There A Novelist In The House?  I'd read about it on the MLF website, and one of our MA tutors emailed encouraging us to attend.  Two alumni of the course were presenting their work, so I thought I'd better check it out.  Here's the website blurb (I'm feeling lazy and now you don't have to click - I'm practically a labour-saving device):
Commonword and Manchester Literature Festival have been seeking out the most exciting new fiction voices in the North West and now six unpublished hopefuls (Rachel Connor, John Davenport, Gift Nyoni, Marli Roode, Pauline Rowe and Colette Snowden) will be pitching their novel to a panel of movers and shakers in the publishing world, including Dan Franklin (Canongate), Rebecca Swift (The Literary Consultancy) and novelist Sherry Ashworth. The panel's favourite will win £250 and the opportunity for more extensive feedback on their work.
I hadn't gotten a ticket in advance - wild and reckless chancer that I am - so I joined another seven hopefuls out in the hall and we watched with utter dismay as the room filled up before us.  This was a Saturday morning - a Saturday morning! - don't these people sleep?  I'd certainly weighed up the sleeping option, and besides, I have a suspicion that my attendance was really a sneaky way of deferring working on my own novel.  (Let's see how other people's careers are progressing, hahahaha, gulp.) A few ticket returns came in, and soon it was just me in the hall, trying to look nonchalant, like I'd placed myself there on purpuse, clutching my bicycle helmet and looking nervous, because that's just the way I roll, suckas.  They let me in eventually, the kind souls, and I got the last seat in the house, which was right near the lectern, so I had a very good view of the whole event.  It was held in some sort of committee room upstairs in the Manchester Central Library (beautiful building, great leather desks, makes you feel like you're learning when you're really just opening and closing documents in a panic) and I think the capacity was about eighty, with a few more packed in standing at the back, so there was a pretty large audience. 

Imagine pitching your unpublished novel to a panel of three and a room of ninety eager punters.  Gives me the shivers.

Each of the six entrants had already submitted their synopses and extracts to the panel of judges.  They then had five minutes each to give a public presentation, followed by a quick Q&A from the judges.  After a fifteen minute break when all ninety of us competed to get to the little refreshments table in the corner (I emerged triumphant with a polystyrene cup of tea and a Bourbon Cream - score!), they all trooped back in and the judges spent a while discussing the merits and flaws of each submission - the writing, the synopses, the pitches - before announcing the winner.

Now, my memory requires aides, like copious note-taking or a handout, if you want much precision in my reporting, and I went into this with nothing but the bike helmet and a cramp in my side from sprinting through the library at the last minute.  So apologies for the brevity of this section - the details of the actual entries are a little hazy in my mind.  On the other hand, I can unequivocally state that all six of them were brave and clear and passionate about their work, and that the range of works presented was fascinating. 

John Davenport's novel is about a young Manchester boy on the hunt for his missing mother, who has run away from a haunted house and may or may not have been murdered; Gift Nyoni, a performance poet from Zimbabwe, has written about the conflicts there and the fallout for a pair of childhood sweethearts, caught up in it as adults; Marli Roode, from South Africa, and a very recent graduate of my own MA, pitched a literary thriller about a journalist returning after a period of exile to South Africa, and embarking on a perilous road-trip with her estranged father.  Pauline Rowe, who's also a published poet, has written about a woman whose story begins in a psychiatric ward; Colette Snowden's novel deals with the interior life of a woman called Marion while asking the audience to question the reliability of Marion's narrative; and, finally, Rachel Connor, the other MA graduate on the line, presented her distopian-esque novel about polygamy, desire, and duty.

Got it?  There was a lot to take in, I have to say, and without access to the extracts, it was hard for the audience to second-guess the judges, X-Factor style.  Some of the six read from their work; others didn't, the judges read short extracts from one or two of the entries.  The panel explained their decision in some detail, telling the various entrants what they might want to work on in the future - structure, voice, the pitch itself, and issues such as the intended audience or market for the work.  All six had presented their work differently; having never attended a literary pitching session before, and being aware that this public session might not reflect the reality of an actual pitch to a publisher, I wonder which conformed most closely to the industry standard?  There's always an industry standard, whatever your industry, and a pitch must surely be one of the more business-like aspects to writing in this day and age.  I imagine it's possible to approach it very much like a job interview - each situation will be different, but there'll be acknowledged ways to approach it (I suspect Nicola Morgan probably has a post on it somewhere in her archives) and presentation is probably key.  It is a product, after all, your novel, and there's always professional hoops to jump through, and ways to get through unscathed.

Anyway; enough of my babbling; the winner was - ready? - the lovely Marli Roode!  The name of her novel, annoyingly, is one of the many details that totally escapes me. Oops.  But well done, Marli!  I can't wait to read her work - and I'm so impressed that both Marli and Rachel, having handed in their MA dissertations just last month, are at the point where they have good solid drafts of their novels, ready to pitch to real industry people.  I'm not sure I'll be in that position in a year's time, but I've now been set two very worthy precedents.  And congratulations to all six entrants - I'm sure we'll see every one of them on our shelves in time.      

Finally, I'm cross-posting this on the new Bewilderbliss website, (though the entry probably isn't up yet), and also, if you want a different perspective on the event, do check out the MLF's own blog, where Benjamin Judge has written all about it.

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