The Dragons’ Pen is an event hosted at the Theakstons Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival’s ‘Creative Thursday’ – a day-long workshop for aspiring authors. It features a scary panel of agents, publishers and authors that wannabe crime writers can pitch their novel to.
Magda North gives her take on pitching a novel in two minutes to the steely book trade panel in 2009.
‘All writers love being in their rooms writing. What they hate is selling themselves.’
This was the feedback from my one-to-one session with Spread the Word, a development agency for London writers. My writing was strong, apparently, so now I needed to get myself out there.
Flick forward four months and my mouth is clarty, my armpits damper than I’d like and I’m standing before a microphone in Harrogate’s Crown Hotel at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Making a pitch to the ‘Dragon’s Pen’.
It was the finale to ‘Creative Thursday’, a day of diverse criminal activities for aspiring writers. Having completed one novel, I’m in the early stages of trying crime fiction and the sessions were exactly what I was after. Andy Manns, a real-life CSI, had talked us through forensic accuracies, novelist Zoë Sharp demonstrated self-defence moves (I know I’ll forget them in a crisis) and I’d got insightful comments on my opening chapter from novelist and tutor, Adam Creed.
Then came the ‘Dragon’s Pen’, the opportunity to pitch my crime novel to a book trade panel. The prize? An editorial report from the bidding Dragon. I’d put my name down not wanting to, but knowing that it would be good for me. Me being a rather dreary civil servant, two small kids, no writing CV to speak of.
No need to draw comparisons with the Dragons on the box – except perhaps to say that our compère, the novelist Mark Billingham, was quite as charming as Evan Davis. But with better ears.
The panel consisted of two publishing directors: Selina Walker from Transworld and David Shelley from Little, Brown. Philip Patterson of Marjaq Scripts. And a red-head.
‘I bet she’s the agent,’ I hissed at a fellow writer. Sure enough, Jane Gregory was introduced by Mark Billingham last of all.
Those about to pitch, swallowed hard.
In Harrogate the bosoms come large, shoes are supportive and the men are beaky – or so it was with much of the audience. As contestant number five I got a handy preview of what went down well and perhaps more importantly what didn’t. Feedback on location could be devastating. ‘My pet hate is Australia’ and ‘When I heard Warwickshire, my heart sank.’ Which, I like to think, comes down to book sales rather than topographical whimsy.
The Dragons consistently probed on autobiography. ‘Why are you the right person to write this book?’ and ‘Tell us about you’. When one contestant revealed that she worked in a women’s prison, the Dragons performed a Mexican wave. All desperate for her to write a book about that, rather than the one that she had.
Some contestants fared better than others, but on the whole the panel was supportive. Confident pitches and passion were praised hard, defensive responses bombed. One contestant’s nose shone brightly as he stuttered: ‘I’m a great media personality.’ Another was so pushy that a Dragon claimed to be genuinely frightened of him.
It was only once I was up that I noticed the organisers had brought in four extra rows of chairs at the back – sitting there were many of the authors appearing at the festival. Looking at them, a scene from When Harry Met Sally sprang to mind (which dates me, I know). After years of unsuccessful relationships, Carrie Fisher (Sally’s best friend) has got together with Harry’s best friend and turns to him in bed saying:
‘Tell me I’ll never have to be out there again.’
Which sums up the feeling I was getting from those with the publishing deals on the back four rows.
In the end my pitch went well. Location big hit, less keen on title (duly changed) and some reservations about whether the hero was likable. Lots to think about.
At the end we lucky few went to the front to collect the business card from our bidding Dragon. And I had the distinct sense of game over; the panellists each had a look that didn’t encourage lingering. But from where I’m sitting, that’s fair. These are busy people working at a crime festival that ran all weekend. And in one hour they’d been more help to us would-be writers than a writing guide could ever be.
Anyway, I came away with no complaints because Jane Gregory and David Shelley had given me their cards.