Saturday, November 17, 2012
This is the second in a series of posts in which I share a talk I’ve given widely around the USA over the last year or two. I hope you’ll find the posts useful, and before I begin you might like to read the first extract if you haven’t already: http://greenhouseliterary.com/index.php/blog/article/from_ordinary_to_extraordinary_part_1/. Here, I talked about ideas – in particular, what might constitute an extraordinary one (in terms of writing fiction). And again, please remember the very specific sub-title of the talk: The art of creating a great, saleable story and the craft of teasing out its full potential. My aim is to be both reflective and practical; big picture and small picture; art and craft.
So, onwards into Part 2!
After you’ve had your Big Idea - the WHAT IF that might form the foundation of your story – what else do you need?
You need a DEEPLY FELT THEME.
In other words, a strong ‘emotional driver’, which will propel your story forward and ultimately make it a satisfying and memorable reading experience. Which will turn the WHAT IF of your plot into the reader’s very own, very personal, WHAT IF as they inhabit the world, the characters, the dilemmas, you’ve created. And as your protagonist’s interior world - their dramas, confusions and choices – reflect and illuminate those of the reader him/herself, so that through your story the reader makes their own emotional journey. So that your story ends up having something strongly emotional to say - not didactically, but organically, through the action and characters.
‘What are you trying to SAY in your story?’ That’s the question, more than any other, that I ask my clients of their works in progress. I don’t mean ‘What lesson are you trying to teach the reader?’ I mean, through the power and the thrust of your storytelling, what important new understanding do you hope to open up for your reader by the time they turn the final page? How will you have shed new and unique light on love, hope, family, faith (or whatever), in such a way that they are caught up emotionally in what they’ve discovered and the journey of the heart that they’ve made?
I have said it before and I’ll say it many more times, but this is one of my favourite quotes about writing. I’ve no idea who said it, and I suspect I’ve added my own embellishments, but here it is:
In an extraordinary story, the best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters (ie, what they look like/do/say) – we discover more about ourselves.
Again: Great fiction makes us discover more about . . .ourselves.
I think the great artist Picasso was saying something very similar when he commented, ‘Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.’
My own reading persuades me on that – and I think yours will too. What personal journey did you make as you read WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech or THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green or THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie? As you read RULES by Cynthia Lord or THE REPLACEMENT by Brenna Yovanoff or WIMPY KID by Jeff Kinney.
‘Er, back up a moment,’ I hear you say. ‘Did you really mean to say WIMPY KID??? But that’s fun and funny; that’s . . . really light.’
Hah yes. But I believe that ‘truth’ can be conveyed through all kinds of stories, for all age groups, picturebooks upwards – and that includes through humour. If you’ve never read TWO WEEKS WITH THE QUEEN by Morris Gleitzman, have a look and see how closely humour can walk with poignancy; comedy with tragedy. It’s all about creating the insight, that kernel of wisdom, which makes the reader sit up and say, ‘I know exactly what they’re talking about. That’s me! I’ve been there – I AM there!’
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the best comedy is very close to pain, very close to the bone. Think about it.
Let’s regroup for a moment:
Where might your big idea, your inspired concept, come from? Your family history, the news, a documentary, a morsel overheard on train or plane . . .? Absolutely. But something else must happen as you process and blend those fragments, because writing great fiction is not simply about, or from, the intellect. It comes from your emotional responses to the world around you.
Yes, your emotional responses to the world around you.
In my previous post I mentioned iconic British author Graham Greene’s quote about stories coming from our ‘emotional compost’. Let’s expand that quote. Greene said: ‘All good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of your imagination. Your past is full of stories that have been composed in a certain way; that’s what memories are. But only when they decompose are you able to recompose them into new works of art.’
Wow. You might want to take a little time with that one. The link between memory, story, and art.
So what about that ‘deeply felt theme’; the ‘emotional driver’ I mentioned at the beginning?
The great writing teacher, Robert Olen Butler, talks about writing ‘from the white-hot center of your unconscious’ (THE PLACE WHERE YOU DREAM/Grove Press/Edited by Janet Burroway). Or, to put it another – maybe less intimidating – way: writing with passion. And I believe that however you subsequently craft it, your story must be drawn from something raw and powerful inside you. Something passionate. Something white hot.
Back in the day, I used to have a band. I wrote songs. I performed a bit. So the image I return to is that of a guitar string. As you pluck it, the string twangs and resonates. As writers, do we twang and resonate as we listen, reflect and take part in the world? How might that resonance affect your story? What do you deeply know and feel - and could you make your reader experience that understanding too?
I also believe that if you want to write with power, you may at times need to look at, interact with, draw on, the darkness within yourself.
What is your personal heart of darkness? Oh, it exists all right.
I know a writer who lost someone very close to them. It was a terrible tragedy. But that individual told me that after writing many manuscripts that didn’t get anywhere, they finally dared to access some of the almost untouchably painful experiences of the past and channel them into their writing. I don’t mean that the specific story was told in memoir-style. I just mean that some of the rawness that surrounded those feelings and events was allowed to percolate into the story in various ways. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that was the manuscript that finally found a publisher. It felt real; there was an intensity.
What is your story? What preoccupies and interests you? Whatever it is, I think that to be a writer it must come out of your head and into your heart – initially, at least. That there must be an intensity in your engagement with your characters, story, world.
One of my favourite words is ‘vocation’. It speaks of a big dream, a big mission.
I know that I have a vocation. To use all my years of editorial and business experience to help writers find their way. At the moment I have no interest in writing a novel of my own. I am the midwife to yours. Sure, it’s a job. But actually it’s a lot more than that; it’s what I know I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s why I’m driven.
I believe that as an author of fiction you also have a vocation. What is it? To deeply ‘get’ the chaos of being human and everything it comprises – the pain, the dilemmas; but also the humour and the sweetness of life. And then, from that understanding, to be able to perceive order and meaning in that chaos – so that you can then use it to create a unique story framework; a shape to the messiness of being human that will ultimately become a new work of art.
Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth. Thank you, Picasso.
In Part 3: Getting practical: You’ve decomposed the memories; turned emotional compost into a Big Idea suffused with (controlled) emotion. Now to plant some seeds (ie, get words down).
Pix: 1) A knife. And an orange. Draw your own conclusions. 2) Greenhouse window during the great Washington DC snowstorms of a couple of years back. 3) My guitar. She’s a beauty; a Yamaha semi-acoustic. 4) The heart of darkness - Vietnam war memorial, Washington DC; shot on one steaming hot summer night.
Monday, November 05, 2012
This is a post with a very important sub-title, so here’s the title in full:
FROM ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY: The art of creating a great saleable story and the craft of teasing out its full potential.
I have given this talk at various conferences around the USA in the past 2 years, and I have tended and nurtured the content, tweaking and polishing it over time. There are many nuggets in here which delight me. But now it’s time to share the love! So here is the first of several instalments, in which I’ll set out my thoughts on dreaming up, and crafting, a great story. While some bits inevitably have to change/diminish from the spoken version, I hope it will be a useful and inspiring series.
Please note, it is aimed primarily at MG and YA writers, but even if you’re a picturebook author there may be something here for you too.
So buckle up and sit back for the ride. I hope you’ll enjoy being the audience and return over the next few weeks to read the rest.
This is a talk in two halves, and I chose the title because it strikes to the heart of my daily submissions inbox.
The first half of the title: How to create a great, saleable story. ie, How do you find an amazing idea – and know if you have one?
The second half of the title: The craft of teasing out its full potential. ie, How do you then get that idea out and on to the page?
My subject is therefore both reflective and very practical.
But first, what is an extraordinary story? Well, here’s one from real life – the story of Wilfrid and Gladys - just to get the juices going: http://greenhouseliterary.com/index.php/blog/article/cheep_at_the_price/ Oh, and you might like to know that Wilfrid’s picture is at the head of this post.
The story told in this link always gives me a sharp intake of breath. What I call the HAH! factor. Why? Because it is full of the big questions, great juxtapositions, high stakes, which are the bedrock of an intense story. It has dilemmas, life and death, loss and fulfillment, despair and hope, love and sacrifice. Like an iceberg most of the story is hidden below the action I’ve described, and there are so many possible interpretations for our imaginations to fill in. What did that young Edwardian woman feel as she stood at the altar to marry the wrong brother? What were her secret thoughts when her family received the telegram telling them that Wilfrid, the brother she’d loved, was dead?
This, and so many other true stories, have taken up residence in me in what the novelist Graham Greene calls ‘the compost of my imagination’. And what Tolkien describes as ‘the leaf mould of the mind’. It makes me ponder fascinating ideas – forgiveness, redemption, the continuity of generations; courage, friendship, power. And of course my own identity. Because the girl I wrote about in ‘Cheep at the price’ was my grandmother, Gladys, and I grew up on her stories, sitting on the floor in her creaky old apartment, rolling marbles around the lid of a syrup tin and contemplating the meaning of true love and how my family came to be what it is.
But most of all, this old family story encourages empathy in me. It doesn’t set out to teach me something didactically (as so many subs that I see do). And yet, implicitly, woven through its storyline, it invites me to step into the shoes of its protagonist. And isn’t that why we encourage young people to read? So our hearts and minds should be enlarged by occupying someone else’s head space, however briefly?
That’s the kind of story that I – and, I believe, children/young people of all ages – want to read. Intense, fascinating, and memorable – on whatever level that is delivered, and to whatever age group. Whether through the medium of sophisticated YA or, in different ways, through a younger, even funny story. Whether your protagonist is facing her own untimely death or whether he’s lost his mom in a crowd, there can still be high stakes of intensity, the compelling need to see what happens next.
A great story will make the reader ask: WHAT IF THAT WERE ME? What if I were victimized? What if I were to date the wrong guy? What if I lost my teddy bear? As human beings, it’s as if we have a driving need to see others go there for us – maybe so we can practice, vicariously, living in extremis. We certainly don’t want to go there ourselves, but through the medium of YOUR story, we want to know whether WE would have found a way through and what it might have been. Would we have found the courage to climb up and keeping living – and living well?
I see many submission queries every day, and I can walk away from most of them. Why? Because I’ve seen the story before. Because it doesn’t make me care. Because it feels superficial. Or banal. Or confusing. Sometimes it’s almost as if it tries too hard or it’s overwritten – laden with adjectives and adverbs. Sometimes because a strong story concept is pulling weak writing. Or because strong writing is pulling a feeble story. And often I decide to walk away because the words don’t weave that magical, musical cadence of originality for me – as I inevitably read through my own personality and ‘emotional compost’. Even agents and editors have highly individual mental/emotional ‘leaf mould’!
The most common rejection you will receive from agents and editors is this: ‘I didn’t love it enough’. This probably feels frustratingly minimal but, deconstructed, it’s a powerful shorthand that leaps to the heart of your writing goal and process. What they’re saying is – it didn’t engage me emotionally. It didn’t make me sit forward in my seat and go HAH! And that intake of breath is ultimately the big difference between Ordinary and Extraordinary, and it tends to burst from stories with a strong foundation of WHAT IF.
To be brutally commercial, WHAT IF also has a large $ sign hanging over it. By which I mean, WHAT IF concepts feel exciting; the need to ‘see what happens next’ makes us want to read on. And that can translate into a publisher spending their acquisition dollars, because they know readers too will want to keep turning the pages. So, as you unearth your story concept, ask yourself WHAT IF questions. That may help you start thinking more boldly and outside your regular plot envelope.
Quite simply, one of the first necessities for achieving your extraordinary novel is this: a great idea, an inspired concept. Or sometimes, even an idea you can spin differently to how anyone has ever spun it before.
Just suppose a girl was to live through a day of exceptional banality, doing what teen girls do: high school/friends/mean stuff/boys/fun – only to die in an equally banal car crash that night. From the explosion, the lights, the pain, she knows she must be dead, but instead she keeps waking up to face that same day again – 7 times over – each time making different choices, discovering new insights, new pathways to understand and redeem herself. In so doing she is able to inch ever closer to experiencing love for the first time. She begins to find her courage and honesty – and move gradually towards a place where she can let go and die in peace.
That story has a huge HAH factor and it’s called BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins), which became a major NYT bestseller and turned Lauren into one of the biggest YA talents around. (Sadly, I don’t represent her!)
BEFORE I FALL is a story about regular kids, in regular places, doing regular things. Yet it takes one ordinary day and makes it extraordinary. And it’s Unique Selling Point, its intense emotional wallop, are woven into its structure in a very different and interesting way. 13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher – also a NYT bestseller – does something similar via its cleverly compressed time structure, in which Clay has to rapidly piece together the clues to the part he played in a girl’s suicide. Who knew that the subject matter of 13 REASONS could be turned into a story that has thriller-like qualities?!
Both stories portray regular lives against a context of high school and small-town America, yet both achieve something unique and compelling through clever use of structure.
But how about a very different kind of story? What if a young girl were to love the street she lives on almost more than anything else in her life? That street – Fox Street – is outwardly like any other rundown, average, idiosyncratic street in the USA. But to Mo Wren it is not only home, it’s where her mom died, and where her heart lies. So what would she do, what would she feel, if she were asked to leave it? What would it take to separate herself and start a new journey to self-discovery?
This book is called WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET by Tricia Springstubb (who I DO represent! Pub: Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins). Quiet, lyrical, small-scale and classic-toned MG, it packs a huge emotional thump, as does its sequel, MO WREN LOST AND FOUND. At the time I went on sub with it, FOX STREET didn’t check a single box that publishers would have announced that they were seeking, yet I could have sold it to many different houses. Why?
Why do all these books stay in our heads and in our hearts? Why did FOX STREET receive multiple starred reviews?
Sure, we admire, intellectually, the concepts behind them. But I believe the common denominator is that all these stories reveal in intense ways what it means to be human. To face dilemmas that call on the deepest selves of the protagonist. Interestingly, the teens who blogged about BEFORE I FALL have often said, ‘It made me want to be a better person.’ And then they told their friends to buy the book.
Mo Wren in the utterly different Fox Street makes us – and child readers – feel Mo’s potential loss, reflecting through the prism of every small or large loss we’ve ever experienced.
Here is a thought that intrigues me: Each of these books I’ve mentioned creates a big story from small lives. And then I’m reminded that my grandmother Gladys’s life in the early 1900s was also very small in physical scope, yet contained the building blocks of great fiction - big themes and very high stakes.
So here’s the good news! You don’t need to be a world traveler to write great fiction. You don’t have to climb mountains or do esoteric and expensive things. You can write gripping, fascinating and memorable stories from the stuff of small lives that are all around you.
What is your emotional compost? Have you dug into it and taken a long look? It’s not a bad place to start.
In Part 2: The deeply felt theme. A.k.a. The emotional driver of your story.
Pix: 1) My Great-Uncle Wilfrid who died Oct 1, 1917 during the battle of Passchendaele. This was taken in 1914. 2) Sargie the dachsund. Cleverly camouflaged in leaf mould.
Friday, October 26, 2012
Last night I went out for cheeseburgers with Pip Jones. We were celebrating.
Earlier this year I set up the Greenhouse Funny Prize in the UK and Ireland, a competition to find new talent in children’s writing. At Greenhouse we love all sorts of writing for children. We love edgy, biting YA fiction. We love big, clever concepts, and beautiful and heartfelt younger stories. We love quality. And there’s something that Sarah and I agreed that we didn’t see enough of: Funny. With the prize, I wanted to send the signal to new writers that agents and publishers are always looking for great funny voices, characters and concepts. I loved funny fiction as a child, and books which made me laugh were my route in to reading.
So I called up Harry who runs the Festival of Writing in York and asked if he’d sponsor the prize by giving a weekend ticket to the winner. I called up Leah Thaxton, one of the finest humour publishers, and asked if she’d be my co-judge. I called up a lot of people, and asked for their help in getting the word out. And I slightly put my head on the block by offering representation to the winner. I didn’t know what we would find, if we would even get any entries, and it felt like a bit of a risk, because really great talent doesn’t come along very often. But you have to put both feet in, don’t you?
The prize was open to residents of the UK and Ireland. Why did we limit it? We know people asked that question. The reason is simple - volume. We do everything ourselves, and we knew in the US we just couldn’t tackle the number of submissions. Maybe one day. When Sarah clones herself.
We got over 700 submissions to the prize. On judging day, Leah and I met in Nomad Books Cafe, each with a small pile of dog-eared, long-listed scripts (my pile pictured). And for a couple of hours we talked through our favourites. We drank tea, argued a bit but mostly agreed on our shortlist. When we got to the bottom of the pile, we both had our favourite to still reveal and we did it on the count of three. At the same time, out loud, our winner was Pip Jones and her book SQUISHY McFLUFF: THE INVISIBLE CAT, the story of little Ava and her adventures with her imaginary cat.
Even when we’d finished judging, and moved on to an Italian restaurant and a celebratory Negroni, we couldn’t stop reading bits out to each other. It was told in perfect rhyme, just right in every word and every meaning. And adorably, gleefully, cleverly funny as Pip creates a world where normal situations turn into brilliant and bonkers stories.
Last night Pip and I were eating cheeseburgers to celebrate her very exciting four book deal with Leah Thaxton at Faber Children’s Books. The first two SQUISHY McFLUFF books will come out in 2014, and a further two the following year, with a brilliant and inspiring marketing plan (told entirely in verse) from the team at Faber. So with milkshakes and onion rings we celebrated a great book, the right home and a job done well.
SQUISHY McFLUFF feels like a future classic to me, a forever book, and I can’t imagine a better winner for the first Greenhouse Funny Prize. I’m also working with several of the shortlisted writers, and have high hopes for their futures.
The Greenhouse UK Funny Prize has been so much fun to build and work on, and I’ll be running it again next year and every year. So if you or anyone you know is writing funny fiction for children, spread the word.
And you should be able to pre-order SQUISHY round about Feb ‘14.
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
I’ve invited London-based Greenhouse client Sarwat Chadda to write a guest post for my blog today. This week sees publication in the USA of his middle-grade epic Indian adventure, THE SAVAGE FORTRESS (Arthur Levine Books, Scholastic), which also has a sequel – THE CITY OF DEATH - publishing in 2013. Both books are also published in the UK/Commonwealth by HarperCollins, under the series title of ASH MISTRY.
Sarwat has a big place in the heart of Greenhouse; he was our very first client, and his debut, DEVIL’S KISS, was my very first deal – selling in a pre-empt to Hyperion in the USA and at auction to Puffin in the UK. It went on to be a Barnes & Noble Top 20 YA title of 2009.
In THE SAVAGE FORTRESS, Sarwat writes for a young readership for the first time. He and I shared for many months, if not years, the very special dream and history that lay behind his desire to write this story and bring it to today’s children. You can read more about the plot here: http://greenhouseliterary.com/index.php/books/ash_mistry_and_the_savage_palace/, and more about Sarwat here: www.sarwatchadda.com. Plus, of course, you can buy a copy on Amazon here!: http://www.amazon.com/Savage-Fortress-Sarwat-Chadda/dp/0545385164/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349193084&sr=1-1&keywords=the+savage+fortress!.
Now over to Sarwat to tell us more:
THE SAVAGE FORTRESS is the story of Ash Mistry, a thirteen-year-old, geeky, and all together normal and ordinary London schoolboy. Ordinary, that is, until he becomes involved in the affairs of gods and monsters and immortal wizards and demon kings, out in exotic India. It’s about the worst summer break any boy could ever have.
It’s been a book that Sarah and I worked on for a long, long time. I’d like to tell you why, and maybe, when you’re struggling with another draft of your book and wondering if the thing will ever see the light of day, this little tale may help you stay on the road.
Everything always starts with a character. But before the character there’s a need. And that need manifested itself to me in a rundown old movie theatre some time in the mid- 1970’s.
Remember this was an era before dvds, videos and Sky. If you missed the movie at the cinema, that was it. Gone. Maybe you’d catch it on the telly (we only had three channels here in the UK), but that could be ten years or more after it had come out. The bigger movies were never shown on the television.
So, my father took me to see The Jungle Book. And my life was changed. Now, it is an awesome movie, we all know that, but to a skinny brown kid growing up in London back in the 1970’s, it was an epiphany.
Brown kids could be heroes too. Even ones wearing big red diapers.
My heart swelled seeing Mowgli take on the Big Bad, Shere Khan. I sobbed when it looked like Baloo had died. I took to copying Mowgli’s mannerisms - the snort to blow his hair out of his face, the petulant crossed arms.
Fast forward about thirty years. I’ve started writing. And I look. And I look. And I look. Where are the heirs to Mowgli? Where are the other non-Caucasian children’s heroes? Sure, you can find them tucked away in ‘issues books’ but that’s not what I want. I want them riding dragons, battling monsters, being old-school heroes. How come there aren’t millions of them? Mowgli’s the biggest hero in kids’ books ever! Apologies to Harry Potter fans, but that’s how I feel.
Hence the need. A need to add a little colour to the world of bad-ass action heroes.
More than for any other reason, I wrote THE SAVAGE FORTRESS for myself. My ten-year-old self that always wanted another hero like him. Like Mowgli.
So, with that in mind, and knowing how picky my ten-year-old self was, I knew I had to do it properly. And that meant research. Which I love.
My first book (DEVIL’S KISS/Hyperion US, Penguin UK) was set in London, where I live. It helped the book no end that I was able to soak up the flavour of the streets and transplant them on to the page. My second novel (DARK GODDESS – same publishers) was set in Moscow and the story leapt into life when I was out there, discovering the city with the locals. Setting is very much a character in itself, and should be as rich, three-dimensional and vivid as anything else you put on the page. The reader must believe your world is as diverse and complex as their own. The air, the buildings and the streets all add their voice, a chorus, that sings throughout the actions of your protagonist. A building is not a building. It’s someone’s home. A temple has held joys and miseries and witnessed births and deaths. How many ghosts might linger there? How many dreams?
So I went to India. Ten-year-old Sarwat would have demanded nothing less.
I visited the Red Fort in Delhi and stood at the window where the last emperor of India watched his empire destroyed in the Indian Mutiny. I went to the temple in Varanasi where the god Shiva lit the funeral pyre. I wandered the old maharajah’s palace on the river bank with its phantom-haunted great hall and the view over the Ganges where the bodies burn.
I found the home of my story. That palace, Ramnagar, became the Savage Fortress.
India is a fairy tale made real. No need for CGI, no need for matt paintings or odd camera angles. Jaisalmer could have come straight out of the Arabian Nights. The walled city sits upon a lonely desert, its ancient alleyways taking you through ornate caravanserais where camels still carry goods from city to city.
Varanasi, the holiest city in India, is still filled with orange-robed pilgrims; a place where temples stand on every street corner and sacred cows wander at will, defying shopkeepers, tourists and traffic. You look out from the balcony and watch the funeral smoke carry away souls.
Okay, ten-year-old Sarwat?
No. I want more.
What’s not well known is that the Indian sub-continent is home to one of the first civilizations, the Harappan or Indus Valley civilization. The society was at its peak about 2000BC, but then vanished overnight. India went from being a land of complex city states to a cluster of villages. These cities are slowly being excavated, and what’s cooler than tombs and mysterious, ancient civilizations? NOTHING.
So, I went to Harappa. It’s in Pakistan and I’ve family there who I hadn’t seen in decades, but that’s another story. It’s a strange sensation walking roads and visiting houses which were last inhabited over 4000 years ago. Strange and inspirational.
The story gradually took shape. In fact, it took two years to come together, but ten- year-old Sarwat had waiting this long already, so he didn’t mind.
I’m proud of all my books, all authors are. But it’s been great meeting ten-year-old Sarwat again. Finding out what he’s into, what he wants, what he thinks life’s all about. Strange thing is, that ten year old’s concerns aren’t that much different from mine. He’s been looking for a hero, a story, which means something true to him.
And in the end, isn’t that why we write? There’s some question we want answered about ourselves, and the words we put down are the search. A long time ago I felt an outsider, disenfranchised from the culture I’d been brought up in. The role models and heroes around me didn’t reflect what I was, or could aspire to be. I know a lot of people, a lot of children, still feel that even now and I hope that the adventures of Ash Mistry will, in some small way, tell them there is a hero out there that’s different - one that’s not the cool kid, the one with the special destiny or gifts beyond those of mortal men. And most of all, I’d like to tell that ten- year-old Sarwat that at last he has the friends he was looking for.
Pix: 1) The US jacket of THE SAVAGE FORTRESS. It was edited by Cheryl Klein of Arthur Levine Books, in liaison with Nick Lake of Harper UK. 2) The palace at Varanasi and 3) the Ganges River (both shots by Sarwat). 4) The UK jacket of the same book; as you can see, it has a slightly different title for British/Commonwealth readers. This is also the edition that will publish into India. Interesting to note the different jacket styles too.
Monday, September 17, 2012
It’s Fall. A new school year. There’s a freshness in the air and an itch to find The Talent.
Who is The Talent? It’s YOU! All of you people out there labouring over your laptops, revising and doodling, swearing loudly at the wall and lobbing screwed-up manuscript pages into the trash; talking to yourselves as you wrangle your plots into submission, inching forward down those endless paragraphs with fear, sweat, and a great shining hope.
I have one message for you: Keep going!
Out here, in Agent Land, it’s an incredibly busy time of year. We, the big-game hunters, are out in force, ready to fire our Darts of Desire at manuscripts that catch our fancy. We’re out on the plains circling the wildebeest and we hear the sound of your hooves thundering in the distance.
Um, yes, you are the wildebeest. I know it’s not flattering, but what can I say?
I could sit down with you and talk for hours about what one learns as an agent – about writing, about stories, about people. About how three lines can captivate me, and why – and yet other writing can leave me untouched. About the calm certainty that lodges in my chest in the most mysterious of ways when I know I’ve found The One with my name on it. It may not have someone else’s name on it, but that doesn’t matter – it spoke to something in me. That is Agent Gold – that visceral sense of somehow having ‘come home’ to a story, a voice, that almost bypasses my intellect because I’m so sure about it, the way it imbues me with that sense of personal conviction. The certainty that I MUST represent this one. That I would march up to strangers in the street, grab them by the shirt, and tell them about this manuscript. And probably will.
But that feeling also leaves me vulnerable. Because if I feel that, then there’s almost certainly others out there – other hunters – who will be sniffing around too.
Maybe you think ‘vulnerable’ is a funny word for an agent to use. Like, hah, agents are robotic People of Power who largely only exist to mete out disappointment and hard knocks. Isn’t it we the writers who are vulnerable, you ask, not you hardened agents?
Well, I’ve got news for you. Wanting to represent an author, a story, very badly, is a painful thing – until you know you have it. There are a hundred agents out there, and I don’t want a broken heart. I have fired my golden Dart of Destiny, the dart from the quiver of my heart, at a story, a writer, and I don’t want it to be handed back to me in a couple of pieces, even if it’s on a charming plate of courteous rejection. I like to win, and that’s one reason I’m an agent.
Trust me, if you’re an author you want an agent who wants to win.
So what is it that gives me that feeling about a story? Can it be analyzed? I talk about this stuff constantly at conferences, but if I deconstruct that kind of reading experience, I will always find permutations of these ingredients:
An idea that intrigues and fascinates me, that I haven’t seen before, and which engages my interest for some reason. I often see that as early as the query letter pitch, but not always.
A voice, a voice, a voice. So I can tell that the author gets that this is music they are crafting; that words have a cadence, a rhythm. I like ambition in a writer – ambition to do something different, to be brave, to understand that this is something glorious in which they are engaged.
Characters who I would swear are real and living somewhere out there in the world. I met them, I know them, I won’t forget them, they are my friends!
A story that ends up being bigger than the sum of its parts. So it is exciting, absorbing, surprising – and yet also makes me think of big things; so there are moments when I set it aside and stare out the window, just thinking about a line, a phrase, an idea. I want your story to set off big thoughts in me, big feelings, so it leaves me with fresh insights about life, about love, about faith, about meaning – about something that will make the world feel changed. So I turn the final page and don’t want to read it too fast because then I will be bereaved.
I have felt things like this about big YA manuscripts. But I have also felt it about young fiction, which goes beyond the obvious. I have felt it about dark, scary stories that reveal a chink of light to grandeur and humanity. And I have felt it about work that is funny, but which contains the poignancy that is the shadow side of comedy.
I come with no preconceived ideas, no genre-search. I come to your query wide open to being amazed. Wide open to falling in love.
You are the wildebeest. I am the big-game hunter - but a very kind one.
Please turn your shining hooves in my direction and fly to me across the plains.
Pix: All these shots were taken in or near the Somme Valley, France, in the towns and villages made famous by the carnage of World War 1. Sadly I have no shots of wildebeest, so I) is the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont Hamel. 2) Stained glass of Amiens Cathedral. 2) One of the poppies that are everywhere in the Somme Valley. I chose these shots because they are all places of great beauty, and imbued with strong emotion. An unforgettable experience to visit.
Sunday, August 05, 2012
No blogs from me for a while now (thanks to those who said they missed me!). Vacation, catch-up, a bad cold, then busy with three deals – and counting. Those babies take time and priority!
I’ve taken on two new clients in the last month or two and have gone through literally hundreds of submissions. And realized afresh, in a more analytical way than before, that there’s a process to the decisions I make, even if parts of that process are almost unconscious. Given how capricious agents’ decisions must sometimes seem – if you’re the one seeking representation; or indeed, newly represented – I thought you might like me to extrapolate how I go about my treasure hunt for new clients. Hopefully it will provide a little insight into the way an agent (this agent, at least) sees things.
So, what happens as I click through to my submissions inbox and start scrolling and reading – or turn on my Kindle and begin a manuscript?
Welcome to Agent Sarah’s innermost secrets!
THE SPLIT PERSONALITY:
As I read, there are two people living in my head. One of them is a ‘regular’ person. The other is a ‘professional’.
Ms Regular is a creature who just lives life. She has a past, she was brought up a certain way, she has tastes and passions, loves and hates, all kinds of idiosyncratic experience of the world. She’s emotional, she loves to read, and she just dives in and . . . responds to what’s on the page. Unfettered, Ms Regular says it how it is in a primal sort of way. She can be really dismissive; she rolls her eyes and says very rude words. But she can also well up with emotion at the beauty of a phrase or giggle aloud despite being crammed into Seat 14C on an airplane with a screaming baby next door. She doesn’t ask for perfection – she’s just looking for SOMETHING.
In other words, does the writing provoke a reaction in Ms Regular (disturbed, charmed, repulsed, angry, mesmerized) – or a low-level indifference? Would she rather vacuum the house than read 10 more pages? That’s an acid test.
I love Ms Regular and listen carefully to what she says about a query or manuscript, because she speaks the truth, her own truth, and she doesn’t care a hoot what anyone else thinks – certainly not anyone in that dumb publishing industry. This girl don’t answer to no one!
When Ms Regular has read a piece of writing, I collect the response and store it in a glass vial in my mind. Often I will take that vial out later on and look at the contents again. Eg, Hmm, yes, I remember how that manuscript made me shed a tear; very interesting because that’s an unexpected reaction given I’d just worked a 12-hour day and had to pack to fly next morning . . . Hmm, significant.
Ms Professional is a very different lady – and reader. Ms Pro reads with all her faculties on red alert; her little receptors quiver in the breeze as submissions scroll by. Her job is to make great decisions for the business; ones that will lead to satisfied, successful clients and effective use of company time. This lady has to be cautious, savvy, alert, smart, and sensitive to an external marketplace. She’s a fierce one!
Ms Pro looks at the big and the small. Demons and fallen angels? On their way down. Orbs, portals and Elements? See them all the time. Fractured dystopian societies? Sorry, got them. Talking toadstools? Please, no.
This one’s pitching an 8-book series? Way too much. This young chapter book is 80,000 words? Too long. Another girl waking up from a post car-crash coma and realizes she’s actually dead? Try getting that past editors who saw it five times today alone. A good story but lacking that final tweak of distinction? Tricky, judgement call.
Ms Pro is the professional treasure-hunter, looking for a niche – for something she’s not spotted before that has roughly the dimensions (word count + age of protagonist + plot + concept + pitch + crafting) that might add up to something that could fly. She’s looking to put the ball into the pot; the ace service game; the hole in one.
If she feels she’s scented this golden beast, Ms Pro is already matching it up in her mind with a list of editors, running like tickertape through her head as she reads. And if she can’t come up with possible destinations for the manuscript? Then she’s got to go back and confront Ms Regular about her response, give it a little analysis, ask some tough questions.
OK, so I’m a schizophrenic. As I read, I’m pulling in all parts of my brain, emotions, and experience, and I’m looking for a mind-meld between Ms Regular and Ms Professional. These two readers aren’t infallible, but I respect them and they’re all I’ve got!
THE DECISION TREE:
I carry a permanent sense of strategy and timing in my head, and it comes into play as I move into the second phase of a new-client decision.
This mental tree has branches going out all over the place, giving me a map of how my next few weeks/months are likely to go. Am I about to do several deals? Do I have a big manuscript arriving in 2 months time? Am I already working very closely with new authors, which means that taking on more could be a step too far, given I prize my close relationship with existing clients?
Most importantly, does this manuscript I’m considering need work before it goes out?
Almost always, the answer to that is yes. Most new authors are not born fully fledged; they need some help finding their wings. Also, I am all about ADDING VALUE. Can I help this rough manuscript to sell? Then I will. Do I think it might sell for $10,000? Then maybe there’s a way to turn it into a $100,000 sale? And if I can help to do that, why would I not?
The problem is, that approach means work – often a lot of it. Converting the potential of a raw manuscript into real commercial value. It can mean tweaks, it can mean significant revision, it can even mean full rewrites for the author. I love this kind of interaction with writers – so stimulating, so exciting. And oh my goodness, it works!
However, experience has shown that working in editorial depth with 2 new people is the most I can do at any one time (bearing in mind I’m already very busy on behalf of existing clients). If I’m already up to my personal limit, it means that any manuscript I now take on will have to be virtually ready to go out as is. Or I must walk away.
I have a dread of having tons of clients whose work is unsold (or actually, any!). I guess it’s a cautious approach, best summed up as: Do the work, sell the manuscript, make your author very happy – and only then think about moving on. Beware overstretching and being unable to deliver.
However, if my editorial ‘bandwidth’ has vacancies I will look at submissions through a more creative lens. Is there something in the inbox (or on my Kindle) that I really think could work with some help? If the time’s right, if I have the mental space, if I’m very drawn to a particular story for some reason, then the stars align and I will hone in on it, even if there’s risk attached.
So that’s more or less it. A great big cauldron of thoughts and ‘what ifs’, judgement calls and risks, strategies and passions, caution and aplomb. Lob into that seething mass a shrug of the shoulders and ‘Well, let’s give it a shot’ and you have an idea of my process. It is simultaneously both precise and flamboyant, micro-managed and emotional.
And the bottom line? I am going to read your manuscript a lot of times if I represent it. And I am going to get to know you very, very well. To do all this without any guaranteed result or remuneration, I have to fall in love.
And love is the first and last piece of the process.
I love windows; they make me think about possibilities and boldness, openness and beginnings. These were taken in France. 1) Haha! Spotted in Barfleur, Normandy. 2) In the cathedral city of Amiens, Picardy. 3) I think this was in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy again.