Saturday, November 28, 2015
I often get asked, “What problems do you most often see in queries and manuscripts?”
That’s a big question, so let’s narrow it down a bit and focus on openings. Are there any kinds of beginnings to manuscripts that I frequently see and which tend to turn me off?
Yes, there are! Here are six that I see all the time.
1 The breakfast.
I see this opening every day in my query inbox. It’s an obvious way to get into a story because it begins at an obvious beginning! But obvious isn’t usually a great idea when you are trying to entice a reader into your story.
Here’s an example:
“The alarm clock rang. Johnny hated getting out of bed on a Saturday so he pulled the covers back over his head. All too soon his doze was rudely interrupted by his mom calling out from downstairs. ‘Johnny, your breakfast is ready! If you don’t come down now and eat your Munchies you will miss the school bus.’
Johnny dragged himself out of bed, struggled into his jeans, rubbed a hand through his hair and trudged downstairs . . .”
When I see this opening, I know it’s going to take several pages to get me to an interesting, original place in your story. Johnny has to pour the milk, eat the Munchies, talk to his parents and siblings, get on a bus, enter his school . . . . Suddenly I’m 10 pages in. I’m not engaged because don’t we all start the day just like this? Eating cereal isn’t unusual or very interesting. Now, If the boy ate a bowl of worms that would be interesting and worth recounting. Daft example, but you see what I mean?
2 The overblown balloon
No one can blame a new author for trying very hard, and the writer of this kind of beginning can never be accused of not trying! They know they have to grab an agent/editor, so they’re going to throw everything they’ve got at the start. But the result can be like a balloon so full of air it’s about to pop.
Here’s an example:
“A poet might say that my head was exploding, nay caught in an infinite destruction of capillaries, as I mused on the futile impossibility of my existence. My ancestral home was redolent of decrepitude and my nasal passages sucked up the mouldering essence of agonized antiquity as I stood at the singularly pulchritudinous gate. . .”
Basically, the author is saying here that the protagonist has got a bad headache as he stands at the beautiful, ancient gate to his ancestral home. The meaning can be distilled into just a few words, especially if you start cutting out adjectives and adverbs.
You might think I’m kidding if I tell you I really do see openings like this, but I’ve had one in my query inbox this week that is even more high-flown than my example. I’m giving you quite an extreme case here, but “over-writing” is a big problem for new authors and I see tons of it.
Beware verbosity and be tough on those adjectives and adverbs. Do you need them? Only include an adjective if it is unexpected. So, a “hairy dog” is a redundant adjective – nearly all dogs are hairy. But a “hairless dog” conjures something we’re not expecting so the adjective is worth including.
In writing, “less is more” can be absolutely true. Muscular, lean writing can be hugely effective. That way, when you DO embellish for effect it will have real impact.
3 The Wham Bam Kerpow!!!!!!!
If you are a writer who goes for this kind of beginning, you are trying hard to grab the reader – and isn’t that what we’re always asking you to do? Hmm, let’s see how this opening reads.
“BAM! SLAM! WHAM! CRUUUUUNCH!!
The out-of-control car skidded on black ice and hit the truck head on. Glass shot everywhere, metal snapped, mirrors shot off, as the two vehicles whacked each other. The wheels spun in the silence. There was blood everywhere. Everyone was dead, mangled. Except for Sally, who climbed out and looked around her . . .”
The capitalized opening always seems to be a mandatory ingredient here. Sometimes it starts RING, RING (a telephone). Or F…! SH..! That is, major cuss words. But the aim is the same – to shock us into attention. This kind of opening is almost always a prologue, followed by a first chapter which is utterly different and usually quiet (frequently No. 1 The Breakfast – see above).
You don’t need to go full throttle to engage your reader. Sometimes a distinctive, quirky, arresting sentence – placing us at an unexpected entry-point to your story – can do wonders in piquing our interest and keeping us reading on. Also, if your opening is high drama, what is left for the story’s climax?
4 The Everything As Usual
This opening is a very different thing to Nos. 2 and 3. This author wants to start super-low key, so that she can make a contrast with the (hopefully) exciting events that will happen later. But it’s tricky, because if you start TOO low key, that noise you hear may be your reader’s head hitting the desk.
Here’s an example:
“Absolutely everything was the same as always in the town of Little Snodgrass. The bakery was selling buns, the kids were laughing on their way to the high school, and just like every other Wednesday at 10AM the traffic was crawling along. Nate met his friend Bob and they walked to school together, just like they always did. Little did they know, that everything was going to change . . .”
I see this opening a lot – or slightly less obvious variants of it. Sure, you want to keep your powder dry for what is to come, but this isn’t the best way to do it because you risk losing your reader after a few paragraphs.
5 The Info Dump
It is really hard to know how much, and what, to include in your opening chapter or two. Arguably, this is one of the toughest issues for a new writer. I suggest you play around with the pacing of information. How much do we need at the outset – and what can be dripped in as the story gathers pace?
Because this is really challenging, I often see an info dump at the start of the manuscript – a dump the author hopes will save them the tricky detail decisions later on. An example:
“’Come here right now, Cynthia Amelia Bailey Madison!’
“Rolling my eyes, I went down the stairs towards my red-haired mom who was dressed in black slacks and a blue blazer at the bottom. On the way down, I saw my reflection in the mirror and wondered why I didn’t look more like my accountant father, instead of my reflexologist mother. I hated my pale skin with freckles, my snub nose, my full lips and my strange silver-blue eyes which didn’t match my really cheap Target jeans . . .”
I have indigestion! My interest in the story has been hijacked by information I don’t need – or not yet. Description doesn’t move the story along; it is only really necessary in as much as it brings your characters to life in some interesting way. You may be in love with your characters, but you have to lead us to love them too, and that’s about show rather than tell. Get us into the story and then drip, drip, the detail in as you go.
6 The Drama Queen
I see this opening a great deal in YA. A girl (nearly always a girl, I don’t know why) is about to experience a life-changing summer, but she doesn’t know it yet. Often she’s being sent off to family/friends in Italy/ London/ Paris/ a Scottish castle and she really doesn’t want to go. She wants to be home with her friends rather than visit those sucky European destinations. But wait, amid the confusion of the airport there will be cute boys . . .
“Samantha stood crossly in the terminal, scanning the departure board. She had checked her bag and was fuming as she thought about all the parties she should be at this summer. But Mom and Dad had had to go to China to study ancient papyrus documents, so Sam was being packed off to Aunt Betty’s dismal Scottish castle. What would she do all summer in the beastly cold and mist?
“Suddenly Sam’s eye was caught by a boy who was watching her from the coffee stand. His dark eyes and mane of hair suggested mystery. Then he spoke: ‘Miss, I think you left your phone on the desk . . .’
“Wait. Was that a Scottish accent? Could he possibly be on the same flight as Sam…..?”
There are variants of this one, also in MG. The character whose parent constantly makes them move home, move state, live with grandparents. In each case, you’re underscoring “the beginning as a beginning”. Suppose you began at another place? Looking down on the clouds from the plane? After the arrival? A week later? How can you access your story in a distinctive way that gives your opening a fresh spin?
So here we have six openings that I see a lot in my queries. They’re not wrong – but they are ubiquitous. Nuttily over-the-top as my examples are, they may ring some bells for you to watch out for.
So what makes for a GREAT opening? I will have to save that for another day because it’s a big subject. But - a strong opening will likely be simple – perhaps a juxtaposition of ideas, an overturning of what the reader expects, a uniquely constructed or surprising phrase. Or even a sublimely straightforward sentence like, “I had a farm in Africa.”
And WHAM, BAM, KERPOW! Suddenly I’m in and reading.
Pix: The second two shots don’t have much to do with the theme, but I like them and I’m trying out some new editing software! I thought the owl illustrated the idea of a “bowl of worms” rather well. The duck? Uh, it’s just a duck.
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.