Kevin Barry once said he’d wager that “some of the most brilliant writers who ever lived have never been published”. He was making a case for the importance of discipline over talent. (In his scenario, the brilliant writers hadn’t managed to complete any work.) But what of those brilliant and disciplined writers who have gone undiscovered, their manuscripts sitting latent on a laptop?
Over its first 12 years the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair has uncovered a great many such writers and manuscripts. The speed-dating-style pitching event, whose 2024 edition is launched today, seeks to bridge the gap between yet-to-be-discovered talent and industry professionals.
First, writers are chosen by a panel of judges, based on the opening 10,000 words of a manuscript. Next, these writers polish and submit their completed novel. After that comes a seminar, where the budding authors are briefed on the pitching process. Then comes the fair itself, at which they pitch their novel to agents and publishers in the hope of securing representation, a book deal or both.
Among the fair’s past successes are Michelle Gallen (Big Girl, Small Town), Caitríona Lally (Eggshells), Kevin Curran (Beatsploitation), Olivia Fitzsimons (The Quiet Whispers Never Stop) and, recently, Lauren Mackenzie, whose debut novel, The Couples, will be published by John Murray in July.
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Mackenzie and her agent, Gráinne Fox, met at the 2021 fair. “I had a choice of two agents,” says Mackenzie. “The other agent was just as fantastic and enthusiastic [but] I got on really well with Gráinne. I wanted it to be a straight-talking relationship and she was totally up for that.”
Fox, who is based in New York, had attended the fair in previous years and had “come close” to signing talent but Mackenzie ended up being her first. “I got an excited feeling hearing her describe her novel and admired how she talked about her work.”
The Couples is about a group of friends who go away for a birthday weekend and a game of truth or dare in which the only rule is: no falling in love. “As she was telling me about the book, a rough pitch for the novel – Normal People for married people – started to form in my head,” says Fox, who then went away and read the complete manuscript. “I knew I couldn’t not work on it with her. I had to do it. That’s a rare and wonderful feeling.”
Mackenzie, who is also a screenwriter – she has worked on Red Rock, Fair City, The Clinic and more – and who did an MA in creative writing at University College Dublin, first heard about the Novel Fair from Fitzsimons, a former winner.
With guidance from Fox, Mackenzie then worked on her novel for almost another year. “Then we spent about two months trying to get a title,” the writer says. Among the options were The Secret to Falling, Life in Between and Once We Were Glorious.
Her agent then pitched it to editors at publishing companies. “We accepted a pre-empt from Jocasta Hamilton at John Murray, a dream publisher for Lauren. She read it on her holidays and completely got what the book could be and wanted to buy it. Lauren’s film agent then had a ball selling the TV rights to a fantastic production company in London, House Productions.”
Mackenzie says she had known nothing about publishing. As such, Fox was a crucial go-between. “She’s a sounding board for a writer. She’s a first reader. And then she also has absolutely huge knowledge of the publishers out there and what the various editors in the publishing companies like,” she says. “But, really, it’s just you have someone by your side, sort of whispering in your ear.”
As well as the immediate part of her job, which is to get her clients the best deals she can, Fox says her role is to be “a steady ship throughout the publishing process”: “My role in Lauren’s creative life is to help her navigate writing not just this book but as many as she has ideas for. That’s the trick to building a career.”
Mackenzie has no hesitation recommending the Novel Fair process. “Just jump in and do it. Because, for a start, you are only sending the beginning [and] the synopsis.” After that there’s time to improve the work. “Once it’s in, in September, keep working on it until December, when you hopefully get word that you’re a winner,” she says.
Even if you’re not, there’s the possibility of being shortlisted or highly commended. “Once it’s on a CV or [you] send out that information with a manuscript to publishers, it’s a great boost.”
The entry fee is €55, though there are waivers for writers who aren’t in a position to pay, “so money shouldn’t be an obstacle”, Mackenzie says. “The other thing about the Novel Fair is that there’s been so much success that the publishers and agents coming to attend are already primed. They are expecting good work.”
Fox agrees. “A huge part of the appeal for me is that it showcases Irish and international writing at its best,” she says. “I have confidence in the quality of the fiction the Irish Writers Centre is presenting, as there’s already been a filtering process via the judging panel.” Fox’s client Nuala O’Connor has been a judge in the past.
“The writers I get the opportunity to speak to are serious about their craft and have gone to some lengths to be there. The Irish Writers Centre has also prepped them very well about how to talk about their work in a commercial sense, which is no easy task. Agents, no matter how busy they might be, are always on the lookout for new talent.”
The Couples will be published by John Murray on July 6th. Lauren Mackenzie and Gráinne Fox will be at the launch today of the Irish Writers Centre’s Novel Fair 2024, as will the writer Alan McMonagle, who was a judge at Novel Fair 2023