Mo and I first met in September 2011, about two weeks after I became an agent. Mo was a volunteer at the 2011 SCBWI British Isles conference and her official title was ‘speaker coordinator’.
M: The first three chapters of what became Zombie Goldfish, prompted by a SCBWI Slushpile Challenge prompt about Frankenstein, were written in May 2011 and I went away on the Scoobie (UK term for SCBWI’ers) retreat to try and finish it! It was nearly complete by the time I met you, but I knew it wasn’t ready to submit.
I thought, “I’m schmoozing and meeting people at the conference,” but with the idea of contacting people in February or March of the following year when the book was more polished. So I wasn’t sharking agents immediately, plus I was on duty. I was there to facilitate other people having a good time. I had booked these speakers and I didn’t want them to stand around looking bored! I wanted to make sure they had full glasses of wine and that they were having a good time.
G: So, you were in charge of making people network?
M: Yep, I was scooping up people who looked like they were lost and putting them together with other people, and explaining they might know people in common and that sort of thing. And then we met at the bar...
G: Yes, talking about people who look like they are lost...! So my memory of our first meeting – it’s my first ever conference, I’d been an agent for about two weeks. I was being my usual self in my head — “I’m okay, I’m good at stuff like this, I’m fine” — but I remember walking in, and the party was much more glam than I thought it would be. I remember standing there being a little bit intimidated and you immediately walked up and said, “Hi I’m Mo,” and then, “Would you like a drink?” You might not remember those as your first words to me, but I do!
M: Yeah, start as we mean to go on! (We are sitting with a glass of wine doing this interview)
G: Exactly. So then you walked me to the bar and got me a drink.
M: And then I remember introducing you to someone else.
G: So you were trying to dump me?
M: You were an agent, you were here to meet writers!
G: You were a writer! We did chat for a while in the end though, and we talked about a number of things... and then I finally asked, “What are you writing now?’
M: And I said, “Well it’s not really finished, but I’m writing a book about a Zombie Goldfish.”
G: You must remember my reaction? “SEND IT TO ME!!!”
M: Yes, because you had a goldfish! You told me about Brady and how he was named after a pub in NYC...
G: God, I must have been so boring.
M: No, I thought, ‘That’s weird that I’ve ended up talking to the person with a goldfish obsession.’
G: A week after the conference, you hadn’t got in touch.
M: Yes, I was in post-conference mode, and you emailed with the subject line...”Why isn’t there a fish swimming around in my inbox?”
G: So, you sent me the first 50 pages a few days later and I gave you editorial feedback and said send the final ASAP.
M: I worked on them over Christmas.
G: And you sent the ms. in late January, and I read it that morning on the train on my tiny phone screen. Then I rang you, and said “It needs a bit of work, but I love it and I absolutely want to take you on.”
M: You were really cute because you said, and I remember exactly, “I laughed out loud on a commuter train, and everyone stared, so that gives me the right to sign you up.”
G: You were taking a risk on a new agent. Nobody else saw the book. Without the conference, you might never have queried me, so I’m so pleased I went.
M: Seriously, there is a lot to be said for the first introduction from your agent not being a random email but being standing there with a drink in your hand, knowing you can have a joke with this person, a laugh with them, really get them. You get that feeling of “I think I could work with that person.” An email exchange doesn’t tell you as much.
G: That’s the key thing: I was new. This book would have been a hot commodity if you’d waited and queried in the spring when it was ready.
M: But I connected with you. I knew I could stand there and have a laugh with you over a glass of wine and that’s really important! I didn’t want a stiff agent. And you immediately sent me feedback and I agreed with it. I understood what you intended, I got your vision of the book. And I agreed. You were honest. Coming from theatre, I don’t want a million and one smiley faces. Tell me if it’s bad. I can take it!
For people going to conferences — you will meet loads of people and other writers and that’s great. It’s a non-high pressure scenario. You can turn it into a high-pressure scenario, and you can work yourself up, but it doesn’t have to be like that.
G: If you are a volunteer it’s a lot easier, isn’t it, to have interactions?
M: It’s easier as you have that other hat on. But even if you don’t, you can go around with the thought “I’m here to enjoy the conference, and everyone is just another human being.” Take the pressure off yourself.
The next SCBWI British Isles conference is 21st and 22nd November 2015. More details for follow later in the year - http://britishisles.scbwi.org/
Mo O’Hara is the author of New York Times Bestselling MY BIG FAT ZOMBIE GOLDFISH chapter book series, published by Macmillan Children’s in the U.K. and Feiwel & Friends in the U.S. The series has been translated into 7 languages so far. Mo's debut picture book, set in the Zombie Goldfish world, will publish in 2015, and a stand-alone picture book, MORE PEOPLE TO LOVE ME, will follow in 2016. As well as her stories for children, Mo has also written for radio and theatre and has performed her own comedy material in London and Edinburgh.