I promised a while ago that I’d blog about using a literary consultancy, and I’ve finally got some free time to do just that.

Writing is a very competitive business these days. Back when I first started looking for an agent last year, most of their websites apologised for the fact it would take them 4-6 weeks to respond; now they’re mostly saying 10-12. Some of them refer to the thousands of submissions they receive a year, or the hundreds a week, and that they can only take on a handful of new authors. A few agents suggested using a Literary Consultant to review your work prior to submission, and the most frequently mentioned name was Cornerstones so I visited their website and sent them an enquiry which included the first chapter and a synopsis of Alfie Slider at their request, they want to make sure that the writing is at a stage to benefit from feedback before going any further.

I quickly got an email back from Helen, who suggested which of their options would be best for me. Obviously there was a cost involved, but I felt that it was worth investing in my work and the fees were reasonable for the service provided. I chose to go ahead, paid my fee and was married up with a reader. I printed out and sent off my full MS, and tried not to think about it for the next few weeks!

Right on schedule I got an email which included a letter and the in-depth consultancy report I’d chosen. I was quite literally just leaving the house to go on holiday, so hurriedly printed it all out and got in the car. I read as I drove along, the covering letter was very complimentary and encouraging, there were happy tears. The full report seemed a bit more critical, there were sad tears.

When I read through it again a few days later, I noticed that what I’d thought was critical wasn’t really; it was useful. By the third read through I was feeling much more positive! I got a set of highlighters and went through the whole report again, I highlighted in pink for anything I’d done well, yellow for things to think about and green where there were issues that I could do something about right away.

Once I’d fully digested the report, I arranged a Skype call with the reader and emailed over my questions. We talked for about 45 minutes, and it was a great experience to have someone with industry experience chatting about my work. What really came across in the conversation that I hadn’t gleaned from the report, is that the publishing world has really changed. Whereas a few years ago a book like Alfie would have been snapped up quickly, in the more competitive market it had to be perfect and to fit all the marketing criteria; it had to be a money making machine. The editor suggested making Alfie a bit older, say 14, and doing a re-write to maximise my publishing potential.

At that point I cried a lot of tears. A lot. My bemused husband found me snot-sobbing on the sofa and asked me this sobering question: Are you really crying because someone wants your fictional character to grow up? I stopped crying.

I gave myself some time to think about it. I talked it over with friends. I asked myself the question: What am I prepared to do, to get published?

Ultimately, I decided to make Alfie a little older (he’s now in year 6 rather than year 4), but I didn’t feel that I knew enough about secondary schools, or the lives of teenagers to make him much older than that. 14 year olds have puberty and relationships to worry about, the structure of their school day is different and they have a lot more independence.

Whilst I understand that publishers want to maximise profit, I feel the best story that I can tell has Alfie at 10-11 years old. I know that the story has great appeal to kids in the 9-12 age group, because they’ve told me that. I know that slightly younger children love having the story read to them.

The whole exercise was really valuable in helping me identify some bad writing habits that I had, and to  look at my work more critically. It showed me how to lift it above ‘good enough’, how every word matters, how every sentence should shine. It also helped me to recognise the strong points of the work I’d done, and why I’d written the story.

I reworked the story in the light of the feedback and my own thoughts. I added in some new plot twists, I corrected mistakes and buffed even the dullest sentences to a shine. I’m now sending Alfie out to agents, it’s still a nerve wracking process but I feel much more confident doing it after getting my consultancy report.