Sunday, August 23, 2015
From time to time, I ask our Greenhouse clients to write a piece for my blog. It’s really tough to keep it going these days on my own, and our clients have so much good stuff to tell you about the publishing industry! Sarah Aronson‘s recent writing adventures are pretty exciting, and also inspiring. Here she is to tell you all about it . . .
For a long time, I called it my “peach sorbet.” It was an idea I worked on when I was tired of thinking about my “important” project. A literary palate cleanser. Not anything serious.
For better or for worse, I was a writer who grappled with tough topics. I went for it all—unlikeable characters, themes filled with conflicts, questionable morals, provocative endings. Although I found these books grueling to write, I told myself that the work was worth it—these characters and ideas were calling me. And up until 2014, I felt pretty good about it. I had a great agent. There were editors willing to read my next WIP. My family might have been confused about why I wrote such dark, sad books, but they supported me. 100%. I was not deterred by the mixed reception my last novel received.
That changed, when teaching at Highlights in Sept 2014, I got some bad news that had followed other bad news: the editor who loved my newest WIP (a story I had taken two years to write) could not get it past the acquisitions committee.
The novel needed to go in a drawer.
I began to doubt myself.
I don’t know a writer who hasn’t experienced doubt and fear, and yet, when it happened to me, I felt unprepared. As my friend Laura Ruby says, we writers are people with thin skin. In the writing process, that can be a good thing. We feel empathy. But when you are not feeling safe? That thin skin can crush you.
I wondered if perhaps my writing career was coming to a close.
Lucky for me, I was surrounded by friends. I also had the best kind of work to do—writers to counsel—writers who trusted me to help them work on their novels. It gave me some time to think about the advice I was offering them:
Step away from the manuscript!
Try some writing exercises!
Re-imagine your story!
I also found myself talking (in an excited way) not about my serious novel but about that peach sorbet. I remembered some sage advice editor (and subsequently book doctor) Deborah Brodie once offered me. She said, “Eat dessert first. Write what makes you happy.” At the end of that retreat, I stood at the podium and read to smiling, enthusiastic faces. I made myself a challenge:
For the next six months, I was going to PLAY.
I was going to work on all the things that made me happy, books I had convinced myself I couldn’t/shouldn’t write: picture books, humor, essays, an adult novel, poetry, and most important, my peach sorbet: a chapter book about a very bad fairy godmother. I was going to write fast. I was not going to edit myself. I was going to access my subconscious with drawing and writing and listening to new music and having fun. If I liked an idea, I was going to try it.
I was going to eat a lot of dessert.
Amazing things began to happen.
As I played, I found a new voice. And confidence. And other things, too: I found that when I turned off my phone and walked without interruption, new ideas emerged. My memory map trick worked! Working with clay gave me time to think. Doodling—pencil to paper—gave me the answers to my questions.
(There is a lot of scientific evidence about the benefits of play. Studies show that when we play, we develop imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. All good things. Right?)
As Picasso once said: Every child is born an artist. The trick is remaining one as an adult.
When the challenge was over, I had written two nonfiction picture books, an essay, the beginning of an adult novel, ten picture books, and what I hoped could be the first chapter book in a series. A lot of it was terrible! But some of it wasn’t. I sent the best of it to Sarah D. Fingers crossed.
And after much more re-imagination, edits and discussions, I got my very own Happily Ever After (no wand necessary).
I am delighted and thrilled and grateful to report that my nonfiction picture book, JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG (Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster, 2017) as well as a new young chapter-book series, THE WORST FAIRY GODMOTHER EVER (Scholastic, 2017 onwards), will be hitting the shelves. Even better? I love this new voice. Even better: This brand-new work has a lot of heart and muscle.
And I am not thinking about the end of my career.
I can’t say I won’t feel doubt in the future, but for now, that internal editor is staying put. I have a box of ideas to choose from. I have officially added PLAY to my writer’s toolbox.
Please pass the cookies!
And more from Sarah A:
Want to think more about creativity, play, and the writing process? Sarah loves talking to kids and adults about the craft of writing! Email her at sarah[at]saraharonson[dot]com.
Or sign up for Sarah’s free newsletter, Monday Motivation. You can find it on her website, www.saraharonson.com, under TIPS.
Sunday, June 07, 2015
It’s out there. The idea that because an agent’s been around, doing their thing for a few years, then they aren’t looking for new talent, new writers. Not true – or at least, not for me. I always have room for that special new author who sets my world alight. And there’s nothing more exciting than the physical and emotional sensation of spotting a really special new voice, a new manuscript that touches me.
Right now, I am looking for that new talent. So far it’s been a busy year of new deals (US, translation and film) and as I write I am #2 in Publishers Marketplace’s rankings for US agents selling both MG and YA (this is only about numbers of deals, not value). And #2 in America for 6-figure deals since 2004 (I started agenting in 2008). It’s not a brag-fest; being a good agent is about much more than numbers - and author care means more to me. But maybe it’s interesting for you to know.
So now I’m on the prowl for a great new writer. Or maybe even more than one. I’m greedy like that. I want a big book. Or two. Or three.
What would this big book look like? Well, “bigness” for me isn’t necessarily about a huge deal, big sales numbers. It’s about conviction and excitement. It’s about knowing I’ve found something that I can absolutely get behind, believing it’s going to add to the sum of children’s and teen literature. That might mean it’s beautiful and literary – or that it’s a fabulous commercial idea, powerfully executed. (Since I’ve been an editor all my adult life, I can even help you get it there. I don’t expect some kind of perfection – if that even exists.)
This new author and manuscript could take many forms, but I’m also prepared to be surprised with something entirely unexpected. Based on what I KNOW I’m interested to find, here are some thoughts to get you going:
I love standout voices. Voice means the tone and language you use to get the story and its characters across, both via the narrative and dialogue. It’s not only the story you tell – it’s HOW you tell it. What voice are you finding to tell your story? That might take some experimentation, it might not always come off, but go for it. It’s probably the biggest thing that pulls me into a query/requested manuscript.
Structure and other feats of engineering:
I love interesting structures and perspectives. I rep a book that is virtually told backwards, I rep books told from multiple points of view, and I rep books with a variety of timelines within one story. Have you thought of telling your story differently through structure or perspective? Not a vital component obviously, but something to consider. Again, it’s not only about the story you tell - it’s about how you tell it.
What subjects interest me in any age group/genre?:
Some random things which intrigue me and which I love reading about:
Math, physics, and science. The ocean, ice, sea glass, fog, lighthouses, moodiness. Different countries and peoples (but only if you know what you’re talking about. ; the Middle East, France (modern-day or historical), Italy, Scandinavia, Iceland, the Nordic countries, Ireland (contemporary world, probably not ancient gods etc). Diverse characters, gender stories – but not because it’s a “trend” or mandated in some way; diversity has to spring organically from your story. Dance. Adoption. Friendship. Unreliable narrators. The real world with a strong quirk of strangeness. The line between truth and reality, past and present, right and wrong, dark and light. Big ideas: stories that might seem simple but which make you think in a new way. Ghosts and hauntings – which can be real or distinctly metaphorical. Secrets, lies, betrayal. Also, humour! It’s hard to make people laugh (but fantastic!).
Are you getting the (correct) idea that I have tons of interests?!
What I’m currently particularly seeking:
In Young Adult:
Big stories that mix genres. Perhaps alternative history, magic intervening in “ordinary” life. The surreal takes over the regular world. Epic stakes.
Dark fantasy adventure with romance.
Mystery – told in some fresh way (the thriller market is currently tough). I love the idea of a character seeing something that appears mundane but isn’t, with huge consequences, like in the adult novel THE GIRL IN THE TRAIN.
Magical realism. Again, magic meets the ordinary.
Retellings of myths from outside European culture.
Different settings, diverse characters, issues – but spun in moving and new ways.
Smart love stories that have a strong hook. Literary realistic contemporary.
Maybe historical . . . . but it has to have a protagonist who feels very relatable today and a voice that doesn’t feel stiff or false. I’m still seeking my French Revolution novel.
In Middle Grade:
Concept-led or character-led young chapter-book series with a strong and unique hook; voice is vital here. Around 10K words per book.
In older MG: fantasy adventure, perhaps with clue-solving; a great world and strong concept.
Mystery – again genre-crossing, so maybe a foot in the murder-mystery genre and one in fantasy.
Diversity again – stories of kids who haven’t had a voice.
Magical realism – magic meets the real world.
Standalone novels – classic, charming, voice driven, heartfelt. Like Rebecca Stead, Kat Yeh, Tricia Springstubb, Leila Howland. And like THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH by Ali Benjamin, coming in September from Little, Brown. Stories that are heartbreaking, timeless, inspiring, while still being about small lives.
Does this help? I hope so. My quest isn’t time-limited – it may take one month or six or even more – but I’m going to look forward to hearing from you when you’re ready.
You can do it! Wishing you a happy summer.
I purposely haven’t included book jackets; this isn’t about other people’s books - it’s about YOURS!
All the images are of things that I really love: 1) Brilliant, bold flowers 2) birds and animals 3) my windmill 4) a rich pastiche of food (in this case Iranian).
Monday, April 20, 2015
What the heck!
I agree. What the heck! isn’t exactly a profound philosophy for life – or writing. But it’s as near as I can get to the kind of carefree “Give it a shot” mindset that I love to see in authors. Because that’s the attitude that takes risks, that doesn’t mind giving it a go, even if the attempt (at whatever) is ultimately torn up.
It’s easy to try and play it safe as a writer – and I see that all the time in submissions. Ideas that are similar to ones that are out there already, tried and tested tropes, stock depictions of characters, language that is serviceable but not unique or powerful. And of course, genres that are perceived to be currently successful and in demand (though the truth may be that they were in demand, but aren’t so much any longer). I don’t see a lot of risk – but then, of course, you aren’t in the position of knowing what we agents DO see, or what I might deem exciting risk.
I know how much writers want to see agents’ wishlists. You want guidance in the dark. Just a hint of what might float our apparently capricious boat. I’m never entirely sure about wishlists, though. Once, a writer tore up their WIP and wrote something entirely based on what I said I was looking for. When she submitted it to me and I turned it down, it was clear she felt really aggrieved and that she’d been misled. “But you said in your blog you wanted . . .” Um yes, but I never meant you to totally redirect yourself to fulfil that comment, and anyway it was months, if not a year, ago!
You see what I mean about wishlists.
I’ve read three books recently that made me think about wishlists. Because none of these books would have triggered an easy categorization. Because all three of them are in some way unique, a little mesmerizing, a touch strange, and very much about language and/or structure. I don’t represent any of them, but they all reignited my excitement about being a literary agent, being a reader. And that, in short, is my wishlist. I wish to be reignited!
So what are these books? The first is THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER by Leslye Walton (Candlewick). A strange family history, a girl with wings. Violence and beauty. Magical realism that is definitely risky, definitely out there, but impossible to ignore or forget. There’s a scene that smacks you in the face because it’s so devastating . . .Whoa, now THERE’S an imagination and a risk-taker.
The second is Jandy Nelson’s Printz Award winner, I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN (Dial, Penguin). I have met Jandy, and aside from being rather beautiful, she appears to be a regular human being. Which is surprising because she writes like a cross between a mad dervish and an angel of light. Ransom Riggs said, “her pages practically glow in the dark”. It’s hard to describe this story of love and loss, pain and self-discovery, other than that it’s an explosion of language which stops you like a deer in the headlights and burns its way into your heart (sorry, but it’s also the kind of book which makes you mix metaphors.) This is a book that takes risks, big and small, on every page.
The third book is one I’m still only halfway through. THE BONE GAP by Laura Ruby (Balzer & Bray, Harper). People are going slightly nutty about this novel. Author Mike Jung does a daily Facebook post to tell people TO READ THIS BOOK, like he’s been anointed by it. Again, it’s a little strange, mysterious, magical and other-worldly; it combines beauty with really chilling scariness, and it doesn’t give you every answer you think it will. The author is telling you just enough. Booklist called it “bewitching” and that’s just the right word.
I’m not saying that any of these books are perfect. What does perfect even mean? But they light you up as a reader. They make you think about questions big and small – from the meaning of life to the use of a phrase. If you’re a writer, seeking your path, they should never be copied (as if one could) but they might open a window to a revelation of your own, authentic risk taking. Because authorial risk is very personal – you have to find your own on a road less travelled.
I can tell you many kinds of books that I’m seeking. I can say I want “contemporary with a hook” or “middle grade adventure” or a “stunning new chapter-book concept” or “an unreliable narrator”. All true. But ho hum, these narrow definitions don’t excite me much.
What I really want is to be filled with glory. To be reminded again why I have the best job in the world. Because I want to bring your voice to readers, believing it will shape their lives. Not every book can smack us in the face, but maybe, just maybe, yours could.
Today, as you sit down at your laptop, try shouting, “What the heck!” Put it all (everything that’s in you) out there, take your risk, give it a shot, stretch your creativity, your voice, your language, like an arrow from the quiver. Sure, you’re ultimately going to have to craft it like a silversmith, but first you’ve got to find your molten metal.
What the heck!
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Welcome to 2015, and welcome to Greenhouse!
I love a good quote, and this one has inspired my last few months: “Just because it’s never been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”*
Those words make me stand taller. They fill me with confidence and courage. And they help me to think in new ways that dare to be different. We don’t need to be watching others to see if we replicate them. We don’t need to be scared of trying something new. Whatever I do, whatever the Greenhouse does, I want it to be done with passion and conviction. That was the spirit with which I created the agency back in early 2008 and now, with my agent colleagues John and Polly, it’s the spirit in which we go into 2015.
As I sit here on New Year’s Eve (with a glass of brandy-laced egg-nog), I have next to me a rather remarkable telephone. It looks like a regular phone, but it’s actually VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). Among Greenhousers it’s called the Batphone. It’s special because it’s programmed with both American and British numbers. If you’re in the US you call me on a Virginia number. If you’re in the UK you use a London number; both come into the same phone.
This is just so cool to me, because it reflects the transatlantic nature of Greenhouse, and the publishing world we inhabit – where opportunities, and authors, can come from anywhere; where we regularly do business with publishers all over the world. It’s recognition that we want to make communicating as easy as possible for ALL our clients and industry contacts. The Batphone is one small example of how our agency technology changes our notions of “Just because it’s never been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
But new technology is only a means of facilitating business. The bedrock of the business itself is ancient, and it doesn’t change; it never changes. It is still that old, old wonderful thing called Story – and the talented authors who create it. That means YOU!
Let’s tinker with that quote a bit. Writers, how about this version: “Just because you’ve never done it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
Perhaps you’ve been struggling for several years to find representation. Perhaps you’ve received knock-backs. Maybe you’ve been published but you’re scared stiff of writing something new; suppose you can’t make it work a second/third/fourth time? Oh yes, I know the anxieties of the writing life!
And that’s why I’m more interested right now in encouraging and inspiring you than listing “what I’m looking for” (though I’ll also be doing that in the next week or two). Writing comes from who you are, how you feel about what you’re doing, how resilient you are to setbacks, how ready to change course. And whether you’re prepared to take some risks (whether with voice, structure, genre or concept) and say “Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
Did you know that a writing career needs major courage? Courage to begin again, to experiment, to use setbacks as a catalyst for approaching your WIP from a new direction. I’m always excited by something that feels fresh, different and ambitious – even if it doesn’t quite come off. Go for it, give it a shot – and then be prepared to work like crazy to get it right.
Maybe at the start of this new year, it’s time to do something new. Finally torch the work in progress that isn’t coming together and embark on that Passion Project you’ve been mulling for ages? Or maybe start writing some short fiction, experimenting with voice and perspective. Perhaps there’s a germ of a picturebook idea in there that needs to see the light of day. Or maybe it’s just time to get serious about writing craft; there’s a ton of resources out there.
Like a clean sheet of paper waiting to be filled, 2015 awaits us – and that’s why I love New Year’s Eve.
“Just because it hasn’t been done – or because you haven’t done it yet - doesn’t mean it can’t be done”.
Wishing you the spirit of adventure in 2015.
* I suspect this is my version of George Bernard Shaw’s “People who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
Tuesday, September 09, 2014
We’ve got two exciting announcements in the world of film and t.v.!
Tommy Wallach’s WE ALL LOOKED UP (Simon and Schuster, 2015) has been optioned by Paramount Insurge. This debut y.a. follows the lives of four teens two months before a meteor is set to pass through Earth’s orbit with a 66.6 percent chance of striking and ending all life on the planet. Davis Entertainment will be producing; the deal was co-agented by Adrian Garcia at Resolution.
Monday, November 25, 2013
It’s been a busy Fall. Three conferences and many client manuscripts (hurrah!) have made it hard to find time to blog. But I’ve missed it, so thought I’d do a little ‘state of the nation’. Or, I guess you could say, ‘the view from my desk’.
There’s been much food for thought this year. 2013 has been a tough one, and from talking to other agents and editors I sense we’re in a transition. YA has been so dominant for so long, but is feeling very saturated these days. It’s not that YA deals aren’t being done this year, but I perceive there are fewer of them, editors are being very picky, and deals are less likely to be for multiple books and six figures than they were a year or two back. Maybe some of that is due to the high number of multi-book deals done a while ago for dystopian or paranormal trilogies or series, which are still working through the publishing schedule? Maybe Books 2 and 3 aren’t performing quite as well as Book 1 (usually the case) . . . . And we have seen so many dark, high-concept novels in general acquired over the last few years that perhaps editors are feeling it’s time to start re-balancing lists a little and seeking more diversity in both age group and theme.
If you look at deal notices in both Children’s Bookshelf (subscribe free to the bulletin that comes out Tuesdays and Thursdays) and Publishers Marketplace, you’ll see far more picturebook and middle-grade deals than you would have seen a year ago. ‘The picturebook is dead’? Hah, that old chestnut sounds almost funny now, given the line-up of PB deals we’re seeing every week. And isn’t it great to see some zing back in MG again.
If you’re writing YA, don’t panic. It’s not that YA is dead – far from it – but we’ve all got to raise the bar on both ideas and execution. A great, original idea, strongly crafted, is still grounds for huge editor excitement, but it’s not the time to be complacent or derivative of trends. There’ll still be an editor feeding frenzy around a manuscript in any genre that does and says something different, which frames its emotional punch in a new way, but any manuscript we put out there is going to come under exacting scrutiny, both editorially and commercially.
So, in YA what am I seeing in abundance? Still many submissions of dystopia and paranormal, girls with powers, dead characters (eg, Grim Reapers), quite a lot of sci-fi, and many stories that concern evil and secret government projects, often biological/genetic. Also, Contemporaries that deal with suicide, abuse, and drugs. (Many, many suicide stories at the moment.)
What would I like to see in YA? The hottest item on my wishlist would be a smart contemporary romance with a strong hook. We were moving in that direction before ELEANOR AND PARK (Rainbow Rowell) but that book has certainly put a great sales imprimatur on Contemporary. As a wider guide, I also always mention NANTUCKET BLUE (Leila Howland), THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE (Leila Sales), and THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT (Jennifer E. Smith) as having the kind of fresh, romantic, modern vibe I’m seeking. Writing a story like this is much harder than it looks – it’s not enough just to have a girl go through problems and emerge knowing herself better. Sure, it’s a basic trope that in a sense never gets old, but you’ve got to frame it in some sharp new way to make it stand out. Maybe you’ll use an interesting structure or new motif in some way? And however lonely/hurt/confused (etc) your characters may or may not be, you’ve got to catch the sweetness and pain of teen love so it really touches the reader. It’s always all about character and voice!
I’m also always looking for strong international or historical settings – a context that allows you to do something fresh and impactful with teen relationships. Word of warning – it’s got to be authentic. Don’t write about places you don’t know, periods in history that you haven’t studied in years. I’m not suggesting you spend a fortune flying around the world or take a time machine back into history, but you can’t fake a story set in Africa or guess at the reign of Louis XIV. You have to immerse yourself and then cherry pick what to give your reader as you weave a real novel from your knowledge.
What else in YA? Really, I am open. A concept that stops me in my tracks in some way, with an opening that makes me sit up. And that could be high fantasy, a verse novel, the heart-stopping story of a boy in Syria, a thriller with a twist I’ve never seen before . . . Who knows what will appear, and I can’t wait to be surprised!
And then there’s middle grade.
I am definitely on the hunt for more MG. Primarily, I’m seeking a voice that stands out (so incredibly important in MG), and that does SOMETHING strongly. For example Alison DeCamp’s THE STUPENDOUS SCRAPBOOK OF (SOMEWHAT MANLY) STAN which I recently sold to Crown, made me laugh – a lot. It’s got touches of WIMPY KID, but set in the 1890s and illustrated with original adverts of the day. How cool, and I’d never seen anything like that before!
We’ve also just sold a really fun, child-friendly fantasy adventure both sides of the Pond – IVY SPARROW by Jennifer Bell. I’d never use the ‘it’s like Harry Potter’ pitch, but several editors and scouts have said it reminds them of HP in the rich invention, and immense detail, of its world building.
So, in MG what am I seeing in abundance? Stories about bullying, and many stories about animals –or told from the perspective of animals. Lots of variations on superheros. Kids going back in time to different periods of history, usually to ‘learn’ things.
What would I like to see in MG? Really, again, anything that feels new and different. It could be a lovely, classic voice and heart-wrenching story of family life and identity like A DOG CALLED HOMELESS (Sarah Lean), or it could be clever fantasy, full of puzzlement like A TANGLE OF KNOTS (Lisa Graff). Obviously, I’d have loved to find WONDER (R.J. Palacio), but equally I’d be excited to see a great adventure theme, dealt with in a new way (not just a child whose archaeologist parents take him to different parts of the world).
We still don’t see enough MG. Bring it on, folks! It’s a great time if you’re writing for this age group.
Finally, let’s not forget picturebooks.
As you know from our sub guidelines, I’m not currently open to debut PB texts – but my colleague John Cusick is, and I sell them when by authors I’ve taken on for longer, older fiction. Also, I’ll occasionally sign a client who is writing in multiple genres – including PB (eg, Martha Brockenbrough and Kat Yeh). We are doing very well with PBs these days and eagerly seeking more.
I always think that the fewer the words, the harder writing becomes. To write a great PB you have to turn your story on a dime, with not one word out of place.
What we’d like to see in PB? Everything I said in YA and MG above about ‘fresh concept’ applies here too. Also, could a child and parent read your PB thousands of times and never get tired of it? (As a parent myself, I know how important that is!) This means you need to build in ‘layers’ of meaning within your story, and a great ‘takeaway’. ‘Takeaway’ is key, and it means the ‘message’ implicit within the story. You can’t just describe a pretty scene, a special moment. What is the ‘integrity’ of the story, the heart of what you’re saying/revealing, which means the pay-off, the resolution, gives the reader something important and enduring? What do you know, understand, about life, family, kindness, happiness, meaning, at the end of the story that the young child reader didn’t know at the beginning?
Oh, and you have to do this in a very small number of words. We used to say under 1000, but now we really want a lot less than that. Can you do it in just a few hundred words? Or maybe even with no words at all!
Hey, I’m off to ask John if he will write us a special blog post about the picturebook, where we can go into more detail.
So that’s it for tonight. 2013 has been good for Greenhouse, and we’re seeing increased diversity in what publishers are seeking. However, the bar continues to be raised across the spectrum, and some manuscripts which would have sold a few years ago may not find such an easy path today. And that’s a challenge to us all – authors, agents, and editors. We have to write cleverly, develop and advise authors carefully and helpfully, and publish smartly into an ever-increasingly competitive environment. It’s about finding an edge.
I like a challenge. Do you? Keep on sending those submissions!
Pix: Shots from this Fall. 1) Me, at Fallen Leaf Lake, Nevada, where I was on faculty for SCBWI Nevada’s conference and opening to their fab mentoring program. Look at the strength of this light! NB: my legs aren’t really this huge . . . honestly. 2) Salmon, Nevada. Fascinating - they spawn and then die. But meantime, are compelled to try to swim upstream. Tragic, really. But swimming upstream against the current is what we all do, all the time, in the books industry. 3) En route to Reno in snow - if you’ve a query or ms on sub, you know all about the long,dark tunnel. Right? 4) And finally - dear Lucy, Greenhouse dachsund, passed away on Weds, November 6. She is the red one. I miss her, under my desk.