Discovery Day

Back in September, Jonny Geller tweeted about a joint Curtis Brown/Conville and Walsh initiative called Discovery Day.  Who is Jonny Geller, you ask?  Who is Jonny Geller??  He is a literary agent and joint CEO of Curtis Brown and represents ooh lots of people like John Le Carre, William Boyd, Linda Grant,  Sally Vickers and David Nicholls.  And I follow him on Twitter.

Anyway.  You sign up for Discovery Day and if you’ve done it fast enough and beat the other 5,000 people who didn’t you are invited to go to Foyles on 16th November to pitch your novel/novel in progress to an agent from one of those two agencies.  You have 30 seconds to deliver your elevator pitch, and then another six to eight minutes (I got eight) to expand on it.  They made it very clear that no new novelist would be taken on at the end – eight minutes, even the frankly quality eight minutes I pulled off, isn’t really enough to base an agent/writer relationship on.  And multiply those eight minutes by 250 because I think that’s how many of us there were…  Well.

But I did write this afterwards, awaiting the opportunity to stick it in my blog.  And here it is.  And now i’m going to submit my first three chapters and synopsis, because I have finished the final draft and it’s going on its way before 2014.

It’s Discovery Day day!  (DDday?)   On the train down from Hitchin, I deliver my elevator pitch to three total strangers who are off to the rugby.  Apparently this is how you should test out elevator pitches.  Apparently.  I’ve never had to do one before, so I’m going with any ridiculous suggestion thrown at me.  However, they all go ‘ooh’ and say they can’t wait to read it.  Bless them.  

Arriving at Foyles, I stand in the first of several queues and am greeted by a friendly man who explains the process. “It’s a good idea to get all your bits of paper out before you sit down, to optimise the time.”  We all start scrabbling in our bags, even though we are already holding everything we need.  I am glad I decided on my more glamorous notebook for the occasion.  At least the notebook will look impressive even if the pitch is shite.

And then it’s my turn.  A room full of tables and people.  I am ushered over to table 7 and the charming Alex Christofi from Conville and Walsh – it’s like literary speed daring.  He smiles.  I smile.  The clock is ticking.  I deliver my pitch with all the words in the right order and Alex gives me constructive, positive feedback.  Having established that there are four narrators, he says it’s a good idea to make sure that information is in the pitch.  And of course it was, in the first one I wrote.  Always go with your first instinct – how many times have I said that as an actor?  Every time.  As a writer?  Very different.

Alex reads the first page.  I watch him avidly.  Will he laugh?  Thankfully yes…and in what seems to be the right places, as far as I can tell without actually being inside his head.  More constructive feedback and an ‘ooh what a good idea’ moment.  And I loved that he got (without my saying) that it was partly about the object of obsession. He even mentions Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’ although I’m pretty sure he’s not saying: ‘And your first page is just as good, Sharon, so let’s auction it now – I think it’ll sell for at least a million and we’ll throw in a Peter Jackson film trilogy’.  How can eight minutes pass so quickly?  Would anyone notice if I went round again? And how are all these agents managing to keep their focus without their eyes glazing over?  Very impressive.

Then it’s down to Surgery and whirlwind chats with Jonny Geller, Jonathan Lloyd and Lucia Rae.  Interesting, informative and generous people, answering our questions with precision and humour.  One other thing I notice – they look at us properly, making eye contact with everyone.  I’ve been to more than enough auditions where nobody bothers to look up from their notes/Ipad/Twitter account while I do my thing.

And it’s over. I emerge blinking into the light of Charing Cross Road.  Is that it?  After all the imagining, telling my own stories about what it would be like…  So, what to do for three hours until the panel talk?  A 30 minute chair massage, falafel for lunch and a trip to Fopp (series 1-3 of Breaking Bad for 20 quid, nice). 

Back for the panel and more thoughtful responses and comments.  Quite a few people say they had terrible pitch sessions and that the agent they saw didn’t ‘get’ their idea at all.  That’s interesting – I did actually think that they’d all be nice to everyone, but I’m glad that they’ve been honest. I’m also glad that I had a good experience. I try not to be smug about this and mostly succeed. Biggest applause for S.J Watson, who is honest and funny and I definitely want to read his book.  And that really is it.  I am delighted to meet Sheila Crowley, who I’ve been tweeting all day via a mutual friend.  I’ve chatted to some great people.  I’ve spent all day being a writer.  This rarely happens, and it’s bloody great.

On the train back, I half-expect to meet the rugby three again, but I am alone, so spend the time re-editing Chapter 6 for what I really hope is the final time.  I’m on my 7th draft and this has to be it.  My baby is ready to go.  Fly, my pretty, fly.

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The one about breast cancer

I did wonder whether to make my first blog a little more jolly, but no.  It needed to be this.  Jolly will come later.

At the beginning of December, Professor Louise Jones was on the news and in the press, talking about a new detection test for DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) – a particular form of breast cancer that I confess I’d never heard of before May.  She said:

“At the moment we treat everybody who has a diagnosis of DCIS in exactly the same way, as though their disease is likely to progress.  They will have surgery and they may have chemotherapy and it’s really quite distressing for women.  They are told ‘you have cancer’ –  but it’s not quite cancer – and some of them are also told, ‘You need a mastectomy’.  They find this very hard to understand and ultimately this disease may not have done them any harm.”

Before May, I would have read it, gone ‘oh that’s good’ and put it out of my mind; not from callousness, but from the atavistic, primal fear that every woman has when the words ‘breast cancer’ are mentioned.  Before May.  After May.  Before DCIS.  After DCIS.  In May, after several biopsies of varying degrees of painfulness, I was told by the breast screening unit at Luton: “You have early stage breast cancer.”  Two weeks later in the consultant surgeon’s office in Welwyn, he said: “Well, I can tell you you don’t have cancer.”  Naturally he expected me to be thrilled – and if I hadn’t spent the previous two weeks trying to get my head around the first diagnosis, I might have been more thrilled than angry.  But I was angry.  Ragingly, tearfully angry.  The consultant was lovely, gave me lots of time, answered the list of questions I had but I still didn’t entirely believe him.  Why should I?  One medical professional said I did, the other said I didn’t.

Then I was back at Luton for biopsy number three and a showdown with the consultant radiologist who said: “We were as surprised and as disappointed as you with the diagnosis.”  My eloquent silence made him a little uncomfortable.  “Maybe not as disappointed as you,” he amended.  Oh, you think?  ‘Disappointed’ – now that’s more ‘I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the IPad I wanted for Christmas.’  ‘Surprised’ – as in ‘I was surprised not to have been seen for the Chichester production of Sweeney Todd…’ – actually that’s surprised and disappointed.  But it’s not: “So, I have early stage breast cancer.  Well, I am disappointed.  And surprised.”

What I loved most about Professor James was that she acknowledged the difference between being told you do and being told you don’t.  The difference between the minute before, when the nurse is telling you over the phone like something out of ER and you know, you know – because she’s going: “You came to see us after your initial mammogram, and we performed a biopsy…” And you know, because that’s how they tell you, by repeating the process you went through as though you might have actually forgotten.  And the minute after, when the world has caved in on you and you don’t hear: “Early stage breast cancer, very easily treatable.”  You hear mastectomy and chemo and your hair falling out.  You hear dying.

None of that happened.  I had surgery to remove the pre-cancerous and pre-pre cancerous cells.  Two weeks after that I went back to the lovely consultant surgeon, expecting to be told I needed radiotherapy.  Instead, he said: “We’re very pleased.  Off you go, see you in a year.”

And yes, I know how lucky I am and I bless the amazing NHS and the surgeon and the nurses.  But what I want now is for all those different postcodes to talk to one another, to have the same terminology and to have some kind of human understanding of what those words mean to every women who has ever heard them and who fear that one day they may.  The understanding that Professor Jones has.  Might that be because she’s a woman?