Fiona O’Rourke, finalist in the 2016 Greenbean Novel Fair, sits down with Maebh Butler to discuss an alternative way into a publishing deal.

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A literary mix between speed dating and Dragon’s Den would perhaps best describe the Greenbean Novel Fair. Fiona O’Rourke, one of the twelve finalists, describes the experience and the work leading up to the big day as something which, novel-writing aside, involves some amount of research, including a day of preparation.

“In the preparation day you got to meet the three judges that picked out the twelve finalists, and also welcomed by a member of the committee”, she explains. “Kevin Curran was there. He was kind of giving advice and talking about his experience. He gave really sound advice, and how it was for him, and what to do” (for those of you who are regular Arts and Lit readers, no doubt the vast majority of UCD students, you will remember an interview with writer, Kevin Curran, featuring in a past issue of OTwo). The Novel Fair was how Curran managed to secure a publishing deal with his debut novel, Beatsploitation.

“It started life as a list of contents in a ruck sack and a few notes about somebody living their whole life in this bottom bunk.”

So what exactly does the fair itself entail? Each finalist sits at a table and waits for one of the 16 agents or publishers to approach them. Each finalist then has a few minutes to pitch their novel to the publisher, and once the bell rings, they have to repeat the process all over again. No doubt a daunting task for anyone. What kind of questions were put to each finalist by the publishers?

“With each person I was just getting into a different narrative, based on the questions they were asking,” she says. “They did ask quite different questions. With the first person I was talking to, we ended up getting into a conversation about Northern Ireland and people going away on the 12th fortnight to get away from the marching season. He was American and he seemed to be very aware of what I was talking about.”

To put this into context, O’Rourke, who is a Northern Ireland native herself, is hoping to get her novel Have You Found Luke? published after taking part as a finalist in the Novel Fair. The book is a tale of two cities with three different points of view and it is not your “stereotypical Troubles’ story”. Instead, it “contrasts the claustrophobic nature of Belfast in ’85 where [Luke’s] father and uncle came of age, with the openness and vitality of Lisbon in 2015” where protagonist Luke has found himself getting into trouble on a different scale than that which prevailed in the Belfast of 1985.

Despite O’Rourke being a finalist, there is actually no “winner” of the Novel Fair. In fact, the publishers and agents may choose to walk away from the fair without choosing any of the finalists’ pitches. It’s a slightly negative way of looking at it, but what are the chances of a finalist’s novel being chosen for publication? “They’ve worked it out. 24 per cent have gone on to publish work, which I think is actually quite high when you look at these agents’ websites and stuff and they say the amount of manuscripts they receive every year.” Which it turns out, is really quite a lot.

The Novel Fair is essentially a publisher’s dream. Instead of banging their head against the computer, sorting through thousands and thousands of emails from hopeful writers, the 12 finalists are handed to them on a plate as their manuscripts have gone under the inspection of three highly esteemed and well skilled judges: Anthony Glavin, Martina Devlin and Margaret Hayes.

“A lot of [agents] don’t even have any websites, they don’t have emails… They’re just so well highly regarded they don’t even need to have a website.” O’Rourke explains how one agent admitted to having received in and around 2800 manuscripts in a year. With figures like these, the Novel Fair is undoubtedly an excellent opportunity for writers to get their work out there and you don’t even need to have a finished novel before entering.

“I think the deadline was back at the end of November. You had to submit 10,000 words and a 300 word synopsis. So at that point I think I’d only about 42,000 words written of the novel. So it wasn’t even a finished novel. But because I’d heard Kevin talking at the culture night in the Irish Writer’s Centre, saying if you hadn’t finished yet, as long as it’s finished by January, it’s OK. And I took heart from what he said…I was kind of inspired by that, he just seemed like a really ordinary guy, you know?”

O’Rourke’s novel began in a strange way. “It started life as a list of contents in a ruck sack and a few notes about somebody living their whole life in this bottom bunk.” The writer spent some time living in a hostel in Portugal herself, and no doubt this is where that element of the story comes from. It continued on, however, to be a short story and after receiving encouraging words from a group workshop, eventually it began to take on the shape of a novel.

“I figured, okay, for once I’ll agree. Because I never ever wanted to write a novel before. I only ever wanted to write short stories. That was my only interest… It’s kind of like people look down on short stories in a way when they go, ‘why don’t you write a book?’ as if, ‘what are you piffling about with short stories for?’”.

O’Rourke went against her own instincts though, and it turned out to be for the best, as every publisher she met with at the Novel Fair expressed at least an interest in her novel. Although not a guaranteed way into a publication deal, The Novel Fair is certainly an excellent event for up-and-coming writers to get themselves a bit of notice, and even just the experience of meeting with agents and publishers. Even if you don’t get into the final 12, they offer feedback for some of the other promising ideas. For aspiring writers out there, maybe it’s time to take a look at that old idea you have scribbled away somewhere and bring it back to life. A publishing deal may very well be on the horizon.