Can working with a literary consultancy really help you to secure that elusive publishing deal? If your work is any good, it will eventually get picked up by an agent or publisher anyway ... won't it? So, why spend your money on getting your work appraised? Shanta Everington talks to five authors who have found success after turning to Cornerstones literary consultancy.
Ava McCarthy, who landed a fairytale six figure publishing deal with Harper Collins following help from Cornerstones literary consultancy, believes the editorial report was pivotal in her success. 'I sent my novel to about a dozen agents with no luck before going to Cornerstones,' says Ava.
'I was very excited about The Courier,' says Helen Corner, Cornerstones Founder and Director. 'She came on a workshop and had a report. I read her manuscript in one sitting. I rang an agent the next day. Within two weeks of Ava flying in from Ireland to meet her agent, she had a publishing deal.'
But wouldn't someone as obviously talented as Ava have got there anyway, even without Cornerstones' help? Ava, whose third novel, Hide Me, is out in October 2011, is not so sure. 'I had an earlier attempt at writing a novel in 2004. That's when I first went to Cornerstones. I made the mistake of writing women's fiction when what I read and adore are thrillers. They were very honest. They basically told me to go back to basics and start from scratch. They didn't give me false hope but I trusted them. I didn't write again for a year.'
When Ava did pick up her pen to write again, she focused on writing the kind of book she would love to read and this time her writing took off. She went back to Cornerstones for a report on her new book. 'I feel the report did the bulk of the work. It was very specific. I took each point and followed it up myself by reading books about editing. It gave me hit list of material I needed to know more about.' After Ava's hard work editing the manuscript, she returned it to Helen and things took off.
Harriet Goodwin, author of children’s novel, The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43, and a classically trained singer, said she had never written anything before in her life. Her debut novel was inspired by a dream that she had shortly after having her fourth child. ‘Somehow, I managed to find the time to write the book,’ says Harriet. ‘But once I had a first draft, I knew I needed feedback. I knew I had a great premise but I had no idea if my writing was any good. So I went to Cornerstones.’
Harriet’s report from Cornerstones was very enthusiastic, highlighting a few areas that needed further work. ‘It took me four or five months to edit,’ says Harriet, ‘and I wondered whether I should be brave and send it out to agents or go back to Cornerstones for another report. Then I heard about the SCBWI anthology competition and submitted it on a whim.’ A whim that paid off, as six weeks later, Harriet found out she was one of the winners.
The first thing Harriet did was phone Helen to say thank you. Helen offered to act as a go-between to help Harriet find an agent, and she was signed to Sarah Davies at Greenhouse within four weeks. ‘I had to think about it,’ says Harriet, ‘because it did mean that Cornerstones got a cut of my first advance, but ultimately I knew it was worth it to have that back up and support. It was odd though, because it took me ten years to get an agent as a singer and everything happened so fast with my writing!’
‘We are agents' best kept secret,’ says Helen. ‘Agents like us and trust us to pass on quality work. And as our contract is with the author, not the agent, we don’t charge agents anything for our services so they are happy to work with us.’
Harriet now combines singing and writing with raising her family. Her second novel, Gravenhunger, is out now with Stripes publishing.
Sarwat Chadda, author of Devil’s Kiss and sequel Dark Goddess (published by Puffin), was discovered via the SCBWI competition after using Cornerstones' services. 'I didn’t understand the fundamentals of writing when I began. These were things like points of view, pacing scenes, the different depths of perception and the basics of the submission process. So, Cornerstones saved me a good two or three years of fumbling around in the dark by myself,' says Sarwat.
After working through an editorial report on his debut novel, Sarwat knew there were still some serious flaws in the overall story so arranged a brainstorming session with Helen and Kathryn. 'That lead to developing the plot for Devil’s Kiss and what would be my second book, Dark Goddess,' says Sarwat. 'It was more looking at the big picture of theme and style, rather than the more technical aspects.'
I wonder if it was any easier the second time around? 'The second novel had a whole new batch of problems!' says Sarwat. 'I’d not worked to a deadline before, remember my first book took four years to write and my second had to be turned around in six months. That said it wasn’t the basics that were holding me back. It was the overall plot and finding a way to say my story as clearly as possible.'
Jane Yardley, author of four novels, says she never would have got there without Cornerstones. ‘When I wrote my first novel, Painting Ruby Tuesday, I didn’t see it as a first draft, it was just my novel. I thought it was wonderful.’ Still, Jane wanted professional advice and went to Cornerstones for a report. ‘I read the report and cried my heart out,’ says Jane. ‘I threw the report in the bin. Then I thought, well I’ve paid for this advice so I wonder what would happen if I took it.’
Two years and four reports later, Jane had a five figure publishing deal. ‘I learned that you’ve got to take advice. It never gets any easier to read the criticism but in time, you get over the heartache and despair quicker. When my agent or editor pass me pages of editorial comment, it takes me less time to calm down!’ Jane’s latest novel, Dancing with Dr Kildare, is out now with Doubleday.
Mike French, The View From Here Senior Editor, is also a fan. He turned to Cornerstones after using peer feedback services. ‘I had tried Writewords and whilst they were good it wasn't going to leave me with the ability to self-edit a whole manuscript. I saw spending money with a consultancy and going to one of their workshops as money spent learning my craft and if I was going to be serious about having a career as a writer I needed to treat it like any other career and learn my trade.’
Mike would recommend the service to others, with a caveat: ‘Of course you can't teach someone how to write, I believe that comes from within, but you can teach somebody how to better use that skill and the structure of writing and an appraisal is an effective way to do this. It is, however expensive, so I think you really need to be sure that you are serious about taking your writing forward and that you believe your work is good enough. For this reason, it would probably be worth going through something like Writewords to get other writers' reaction to your work and to get honest feedback before spending a lot of money getting your manuscript ready for publication.’
Mike’s first novel, The Ascent of Isaac Stewart, is out later this year with Cauliay Publishing.
So what do Cornerstones say to cynics who still think that literary consultancies make a lot of money out of desperate wannabes who have no chance of getting published? 'We only take on manuscripts that have potential. Yes, we do turn work away,' clarifies Helen. 'I've spent all morning turning things away. For example, I turned down a series of short stories for children because I didn't think there was a market. It doesn't mean the author cannot write. I make it clear that it is that particular manuscript we are turning away, not the writer. Another idea by the same author might have the potential to take off.'
And now I am off to finish editing my latest young adult manuscript, post appraisal ... Wish me luck!
Cornerstones Literary Consultancy www.cornerstones.co.uk
Write Words, UK Writers' Community www.writewords.org.uk
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators www.scbwi.org
Photo: Nick Parkin