Riding the rails and receiving critiques

In front of York University’s iconic Central Hall

At the beginning of September, I shouldered a bag and hopped a train from Zürich to Paris, the first of many trains as I travelled to York and Kent in England and on to Antwerp. The Interrail app tells me I took 14 trains over 2,779kms and logged more than 22 hours on the rails.

The big draw in York was the Festival of Writing, where I hoped to get feedback on my novel-in-progress, and finally visit the school where I did my two-year Postgrad Diploma in Creative Writing. Tacking on some sight-seeing afterwards, plus catching up with friends in southern England and Belgium, rounded out a week and a half of travel.

In-person and unguarded

Held on the University of York campus over the first weekend of September, YFoW (I’m not sure anyone other than me calls it that) brings together hundreds of writers, editors, presenters, and, most nerve-wrackingly, literary agents. While the workshops and keynotes and socialising and canteen food are all very exciting, it’s the ten-minute agent sessions that really get hearts racing. 

It’s rare to get this kind of access to literary agents. Most often writers send queries by email and there’s no human face to the process of submissions and rejections.

YFoW’s one-to-one meetings offer time with two agents of your choosing (selected from over 20), who have read your query letter, synopsis, and first three chapters in advance (the standard query package). The hope is to answer “Is my work marketable?” and every attendee I spoke with before their meetings was feeling the pressure. We’d been feeling it for weeks!

A pinch of research

Several weeks before YFoW started, registration opened for workshops and agent one-to-ones with a suggestion from the organisers: research agents before booking a spot. My most rewarding one-to-one was with an agent I follow on Twitter. I knew what kind of stuff she was into and my underrepresented protagonist was definitely up her alley. Another prospective querier said their most helpful meeting was with an agent they thought might not be a great fit for their book, but they had a really great Twitter feed. Both of us had a sense (even a tiny one) of who we’d be meeting beforehand.

I heard from a couple of people who said the agent across the table simply went, “It’s not for me.” And then seemed happy to sit in silence for the remaining nine minutes. 

Checking into agents in advance is always valuable. Prepping submissions takes time and bravery — why waste that on someone who won’t appreciate it!

Write, revise, agonise

Submitting the agent package a month before the festival was scary, even with plenty of support — from articles on crafting the perfect query letter and webinars about mastering the tightest spoiler-filled synopsis, to roping in readers and using good ol’ spellcheck. Those few pages (one-page cover letter, one-page synopsis, and the novel’s first 3,000-ish words) are your only chance to make a stunning first impression.  

The YFoW online community got pretty active around the submission deadline. Lots of hang-wringing around perfecting the pitch. Much panic about the website not working as expected. Some hysteria as people noticed typos mere moments after confirming the file upload.

No one posted that they’d nailed the submissions package. We were all bumbling around, struggling with imposter syndrome, and clearly beyond our comfort zones. 

In the same boat

The similarity of our situations was apparent in person, too. At the welcome speech, the festival director asked for a show of hands from people who were excited about the agent meetings. The number more than doubled when she asked who was nervous. 

We were all scared of what the agents might say. Anxious about having our work judged. Not-so-secretly hoping they’d love what we’d written. Trying hard not to focus on the question “Will you represent me?” as we’d been warned against in the YFoW brochure. 

Most people seemed satisfied or resigned as they left their agent sessions. A few were distressed. And a handful were downright delighted. I spoke with a couple of writers who got coveted full manuscript requests through their one-to-ones, but most of us parted ways with the agents saying “Good luck with your writing!” 

I think nearly all of us received feedback we can use to improve our work. Maybe it took a few beats to get past an uninterested agent, or a bit of processing to swallow the sting of criticism, but my impression was that most attendees found the one-to-ones a positive experience. That doesn’t mean that we all agreed with the comments the agents made.

Grains of salt and tough skin

Caffeinating on the last morning of the Festival

Yes, the agents at the Festival are professionals. But they’re also human. And they have differing opinions. One person I spoke with said the first agent stated her work was “too literary” for them. And the second deemed it “not literary enough.”

Just like any kind of submission, there’s an element of luck (and perhaps a bit of magic) with these agent meetings. And getting a book published usually requires persistence. The agent one-to-ones at the York Festival of Writing reminded me that being critiqued is hard and there’s bound to be a sense of rejection. Pretty much every traditionally published writer is turned down (repeatedly!) before finding an agent and (fingers crossed) getting a book deal. 

I was pleased to be amongst friends to lick any wounds from the meetings in the days after YFoW. And it’s only after a bit of distance — and the perspective of watching the world glide by through the train windows—that I’m able to process all the feedback and learnings and the millions of new resources I discovered.

So while I’m waiting for my next “Good luck” farewell, I’ll be lurking around literary agents on Twitter, refining the pitch for my novel-in-progress, and polishing my rhino hide.


This piece was adapted from my original post about One-to-one Agent Meetings at the York Festival of Writing for Zurich Writers and Illustrators (or WIZ as we like to call it).

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2 thoughts on “Riding the rails and receiving critiques”

  1. Way to go Laura! It’s hard to put your work out there for feedback and it sounds like you are reflecting and learning as you go. Your publisher is out there – just keep writing!

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