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Monday, September 17, 2012

The pounding of hooves

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Sunday, August 05, 2012

WHAT I DO AND HOW I DO IT

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Pix:

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.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Time after time

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I grew up in a house built in the 1580s.

My family tree is charted back to the 1600s and includes a dude in a very fancy wig who has his own plinth in Westminster Abbey, London.

The church I used to attend was consecrated in 1094. I went to its 1000th birthday party.

Time moves very, very slowly in my bloodstream.  Born and raised in a country where most grassy hillocks conceal ancient secrets and a simple brick wall can enshrine whole layers of civilization, I see most events through a long lens. Disaster? We will rebuild. A new gimmick? The wheel will turn. Think you know it all? We’re just passing through. Everything has layers of meaning, nothing is lost, and the decades and centuries shuffle forward, forever gone but forever present.

But I also work in a very fast-changing industry. I was involved in the launch of a very early e-book list in 2007 and just look where we are now. Methods of pricing and delivery are changing before our eyes. And every time we get a contract from one particular house, the digital wording is slightly altered to reflect some new reality.

Now, we agents are on call practically every moment. We can wreck our reputations in 140 characters – the work of ten stupid seconds. And if we don’t get there first, someone else will have beaten us to it. The pressure for all of us – writers, agents, publishers, can feel relentless. We’re ruled by the tyranny of the urgent, the need to win NOW, and ‘speed is of the essence’ is even enshrined in our contracts. The temptation not to think but to act can be very strong.

Time.
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If you’ve got queries out there, it’s an agony of expectation and self-doubt. As the days crawl by, how that optimism must turn to jelly.

Time can also be one of the toughest issues for writers once they get a deal. Suddenly the speed of an offer, a negotiation, the whirlwind of announcement is over, and the long pause begins. The watching-the-paint-dry hiatus of waiting for a contract to be finalized (often several months. ‘Did I dream the whole thing?!’). The thumb-twiddling, anxious tedium of awaiting editorial notes (‘Do you think they really want this book? Suppose they’ve gone off it!?’). The nerve-racking crawl towards second revisions (‘Did she like it? Has she even read it? Suppose she DOESN’T like it?!’). And of course the shifting of tectonic plates that must happen before a print copy actually appears, bound and jacketed.

For the author it can feel like a bad case of ‘All dressed and nowhere to go’ until you lurch into the next phase, suddenly asked for a major turn-around of manuscript or proofs in a weekend when you’ve been waiting for weeks. Not quite as streamlined and elegant a process as you imagined?

You see, this is a business forever poised between frantic haste and the ponderous stretch of time, and the knack is both to accept that (usually; unless an ‘intervention’ is needed) and to use time to your advantage. Where might your dreams take you while you’re waiting? What creative ideas could pop in from your peripheral vision that you’d otherwise have ignored? What might you discover hiding down there in the deep well of the past, beneath those grassy hillocks, and how does your treasure trove intersect with the present and future?

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As Tolkien said, our creativity comes from the ‘leaf mould of the mind’.  What is in YOUR compost?

As an agent, I constantly feel the pressure to speed. To find that great novel today. And if I haven’t found it today, next week, next month, what am I doing wrong? Perhaps I should grab something I don’t really love as it rushes past me . . . .Or perhaps not.

Once I have signed a new client, how tempting it is to throw their manuscript out there and see what sticks. My client wants a deal. I want a deal.

WE WANT TO SEE WHAT WILL HAPPEN. NOW!

But this is where my thoughts about time truly do play into my process. Because it is the easiest thing in the world to be rejected. Many are. Even agented manuscripts.  And crafting a great book is an immense mental and physical challenge.

Everything I have learned about writing, about story creation and craft, has convinced me to breathe deeply, unclench my hands, and take the time a manuscript needs.  And the time a writer needs, too. After the thrills and spills of the query chase, we are now a couple, and the relationship and the work can begin out of the spotlight. How might we extract every bit of juice from the succulent fruit of plot and character? Is there a way to raise this story by 10, 20, 50 per cent? Maybe it’s ready to go straight out – but that is very rare.

If I were an editor, with a bursting Kindle of manuscripts, what would convince me to read this one – and read it before the others?

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Now it is time to shut the door and put on our aprons. Time to bake this literary pie in our peaceful, magical, painstaking oven.  And what a thrilling, revelatory process that can be. It may take a few days; it could take several months. What I can guarantee is that it will be worth it.

Do you feel the rush of panic and haste? The urge to sling your query, your manuscript, out there at high speed? If you’re working to a genuine deadline, under contract, then you do indeed need to buckle down, cut out as many distractions as you can, and find ways to beat time at its own game. Or ask for an extension. You’ll usually get it.

But if you’re not yet under contract, calm down and take your time.  Every day Julia and I receive scads of misdirected, mistake-laden queries that would have benefited from more time spent on both writing and research. They waste our time, they waste yours; they lead to regret at wasted opportunities, fruitless hours. Results can wait - just get it right.

Time. 

Maybe we’ve all listened a little too well to ‘seize the moment’. Maybe it’s time now to stop, breathe, experience the silence, know that all things will be well, and craft in peace. 

Under the wind-blown grassy hillock, there may be an Anglo Saxon ship burial. In the gnarly old brick wall , there could be a Roman mosaic full of breathtaking colour.
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If you take the time, you might spot them.

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Pix: 1) St Mary’s Church, Harrow-on-the Hill, Middlesex, GB. Consecrated in 1094. 2) and 3 and 4) ): A weird metaphorical clock, a grassy hillock and a very old brick wall. What can I say? 4) A relic from the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the UK. A true treasure trove.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

INTRODUCING FUNNY PRIZE UK CO-JUDGE

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Julia here and I’ve been working hard on the Greenhouse UK Funny Prize. We’re loving the response. Do keep spreading the word on your forums and writing groups. It’s been so helpful and shown us that there is a lot of goodwill towards this fighty, little/big Greenhouse.

I’d like to introduce you to Leah Thaxton, my co-judge on the Greenhouse Funny Prize and Egmont UK Publishing Director.

Leah spotted MR GUM author, Andy Stanton, who is just brilliant and one of the funniest children’s book writers ever. She’s also responsible for the launch of Jelly Pie, Egmont’s humour imprint and she’s publishing I AM NOT A LOSER by Jim Smith this June, which is tipped to be the new big funny series. She couldn’t be a better co-judge for funny.

As payment for the job I offered her a 30 second exclusive window on all manuscripts I send out as a result of the Funny Prize, so she wins too.

So Leah, what books made you laugh as a child?

That’s a surprisingly hard question! Roald Dahl, of course, ANT AND BEE, Edward Lear’s nonsense verse.... but I don’t remember having shelves and shelves of funny books. Lots of things did make me laugh - Scooby Doo, water fights, running under sprinklers, the jelly game, wave jumping, hiccups…

It’s been interesting though, I’ve found it hard to remember what made me laugh as a child, I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why adults find it so hard to write ‘funny’ for children....  Do we superimpose our adult sensibilities on what is funny? Happily, I think there has never been more humour written for children than now. It’s a golden era.

What do you hope to see in the Greenhouse Funny Prize?

I’m looking for a strong new voice that knows itself inside and out and confidently walks the reader through a story. Often new writers try to make every line hilarious, every situation outlandish, and I think that, ultimately, this is exhausting for the reader. To my mind, the best humorous books vary the pace, and surprise you. They might not be laugh a minute, but they are indisputably great fun and they leave both child and parent feeling good about life - and seeing the world through rainbow-coloured glasses! 

What are your thoughts about the judging?

I hope we see a great variety of humour - from slapstick to the understated and deadpan ... I hope it’s going to be difficult and we’ll be spoilt for choice. That would be a dream.

Judgement Day, I’m thinking we need to be somewhere intrinsically funny to get us in the mood ... Top of the Gherkin? A dugout at Wetlands Wildlife Centre? Barry Island? Picnic on Battersea Bandstand?

I think some advice to writers submitting work would be great. What wise words can you share?

I’d say, don’t try too hard and know your own voice and work on that! There’s no need to try to imitate someone else. Often a good starting point is taking an extraordinary character and putting them in a very ordinary situation. But most of all, have fun with it - if it doesn’t make you laugh, then something has gone wrong already! A glass of wine often helps!

Can you talk us through the judging process?

Judging is a going to be a serious business! We will need to whittle down entries to a shortlist of 8 and then battle it out between us. It might be that there is an obvious winner - but perhaps not! Taste obviously comes into it - humour can be such a personal thing. That said, when you’re judging humour for children, there are a few more criteria that come into it than if you’re rating a TV comedian over your Saturday night takeaway. For starters, will children understand the humour? Is there a match between language and complexity of ideas? Will those puns resonate for that age group? Is there a certain degree of inventiveness and devil may care?

In some ways, I don’t think the judging process will be all that different from our day job - the difference is that (hopefully!) all the scripts will be funny! I think it will be a fun day.

If you find a book you love, how are you going to claw it from Julia’s fingers?

Waterpistol, chopsticks, slight of hand, my teeth ... I’ve got a thirty second window and height to my advantage too. At the end of the day though, the bond an editor has with their author is a very special and personal one, which is why pitching for books is both nervewracking and the most envigorating thing that goes on at a publishing house. So for example, if Andy and I hadn’t got on and I didn’t share his sense of humour, I’m not sure I could ever have published his books. And I reluctantly have to respect the fact that Julia needs to place every script she takes on with the best editor she can find for that particular script, even if I do want them all to be MINE.

What made you go for the big funny books you’ve acquired in the past?

I need to fall in love with a script to want to take it on. With MR GUM, I knew it would be a diamond dazzler from the very first page. And even though Andy hadn’t actually completed it in full, it had all the hallmarks of a work of genius: it was its own thing, it was confident and a little bit cheeky. There was a cast of characters to die for, the story had heart and soul. Oh and then there was the wordplay, the madcap plot… I AM NOT A LOSER by Jim Smith is sensational in a very different way - understated, zany, dreamily loopy. I think little boys will go mad for it. And that’s what lies at the heart of all my decision-making - will kids go crazy for it, will they tell their friends.

So you’ve just started Jelly Pie. What drove you to do this?

I think it’s massively important to feed children’s appetite for fun. Egmont is particularly good at publishing humour, we have had great success with it in the past, and this is our way of telling the world we’re very serious about it! When we first launched Mr Gum, people in the industry started talking about humour as a new genre, but I don’t think that’s true, I think children have always wanted to laugh. So in fact it seemed strange that no one had ever launched a humour imprint before… I say let’s have more of it!  Bring on the Funny!

Thanks Leah. I’m already starting to see entries in the mailbox. Can’t wait for the judging.

Writers, if you’re in the UK or Ireland, unagented and working on a funny book for children, we’d love to hear from you. Click here for more details on the prize. I’d love a thousand submissions, more, so anything you can do to spread the word to your writing buddies would be wonderful. ツ

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

When life throws you rotten eggs … make lemonade.

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I shouldn’t be sitting here at my desk right now. I should be making sure my seat back is upright, my tray table is put away, and my bag is safely stowed under the seat in front of me – prior to taking off for London.  Seven precious days in my British pad, crowned by tomorrow night’s big birthday dinner for my twin boys, both amazingly and miraculously in the same country and city for 24 hours – and at the same time as me!

This is the very minute I should be taking off, but I’m not, even though I was at the airport, as commanded by United, at 7am this morning. The flight has been delayed by 9 hours - till tonight - which means I had to come home again and prepare for an overnight flight instead, meaning I’ll arrive frazzled and jetlagged tomorrow morning. When flights cost this much and time is so short, the stakes are very high and delay is hard to tolerate.

But this isn’t the only setback of the week. Last Saturday I sat down at my desk, having resigned myself to working most of that gorgeously sunny weekend. I opened my laptop, booted her up and distracted myself while she ran through her ‘updates’. But then, in a heartstopping moment, the screen went black. All the programmes had gone, nothing would open – it was a major and terminal crash, taking with it not only years of photo images, but also the mosaic of my BEA schedule. (Don’t worry – the Greenhouse functions on a remote server, so I knew that was all safe, even though I couldn’t access anything.) The timing couldn’t have been worse: preparing to go to London, followed by the Expo, followed by the SCBWI New Jersey conference – a packed and intricate few weeks, every event requiring copious preparation.

Head in hands, I tried not to hyperventilate, scream or cry.
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Back up on a borrowed laptop, the week continued to throw further challenges – notably, various bits of bad news that I had to relay to clients. How to frame things to be fair and honest; what words to use; how to empathize yet protect oneself from the negative effects of over-emotional engagement (not helpful or professional for the client or me); where to find the line between loyalty/belief in one’s client and their work, and accurately reflecting the demands of the market?

A talk I’m preparing for the NJ conference in June on ‘Contracts and Negotiations’ has made me think about the agent/client relationship. In many ways it is like a marriage, and the agency/author contract (in the case of Greenhouse, a paper agreement 1.5 pages long) is a bit like the wedding band – the outward symbol (and statement) of our mutual commitment. We are bound together in sickness and in health – through good news and through bad – unless/ until one of us decides the relationship has irretrievably broken down or we are no longer going anywhere mutually beneficial. Then divorce is an option, even if painful for both sides.

I’ve been very lucky as an agent, and I’ve had more than my fair share of good news to impart. And oh, how I love imparting it! Who wouldn’t enjoy telling people that their publication dream has been realized, that their life is about to change, that their hard work has paid off in ways that can be quite spectacular. It’s a dream job, right? (People are always telling me that.)

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But in any marriage there are setbacks and rocky bits along the way. Times of compromise and adjustment; times of darkness and confusion; times when you don’t feel listened to or truly understood. In fact, you don’t even have to be married to know that; life chucks it all at you. The frustration of delayed flights, missed connections, crashed computers, fractured ankles (one of my sons, right now), jobs you didn’t get. And even worse – illness, loss, the whole beastly litany.

You have to be strong, and flexible, and determined, and resilient, to make things work as a human being. When you get knocked down, you have to clamber back up. If one avenue seems blocked, try another. Is the door shut and bolted? So go round the back and see if you can climb in the window.  Or maybe there’s another house that’s more accessible.

My husband (and my French teacher, bless her heart) will tell you that I’m the world’s most impatient person. I want success and I want it NOW. I want to be the best, and I can’t stand being thwarted. I’ve gone back to studying French, so I work at it like a maniac – but why can’t I speak like a native NOW?  For me, the words ‘delayed gratification’ are alien life forms and my relationship with them is uneasy.

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And yet, I’m getting there, because I see time and again the fruits of taking small, careful, considered steps in the right direction. It’s why we work so hard on debut manuscripts - to give the author the best opportunity to achieve their dream. It’s why we really try to be honest about what we think will work and what won’t (so we don’t waste everyone’s time and give false hopes).

I’ve known agents who so hate imparting bad news that they just don’t return phone calls; they disengage. It’s like the boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t return messages, hoping their partner will get so frustrated that they’ll initiate the break-up for them.  To me, that is really, really cowardly, and it’s the ultimate disrespect to clients.

My sons have become much wiser than me as they’ve got older (now in their 20s), and I regularly ask their advice on just about everything. A while ago, one of them said to me: ‘Mom, I feel I can deal with anything as long as I’ve done my best, and done what I really believe is right.’

He is right on the button. As an agent, my most important quality must be integrity. Anyone can convey fabulous, happy news. Anyone can do what’s easy. But the chips are down for us as human beings when we have to deal with, come back from, or simply communicate, news that is really difficult.

So here I sit, writing a blog post on my brand-new laptop (hey, it’s WAY better than the old rig and my IT guru says it’s the fastest machine yet invented. AND he recaptured all my images and schedule. Wow, am I glad we had that crash!).

I should be on a plane, and it is confusing and weird that I’m not. But – I had been wanting to write a post for a while and couldn’t quite find my subject. Driving back from the airport this morning, I suddenly found it. And I guess I’m trying for a more sophisticated way of saying, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’

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Here’s some news: we’re all human beings. That means we’re all going to have rotten eggs and squashed tomatoes chucked at us at intervals. (Sometimes it’ll even be me doing the chucking; rest assured I’m being chucked at too.) But the million-dollar question is this:

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

ANNOUNCING THE GREENHOUSE FUNNY PRIZE - OPEN TO UK/IRISH WRITERS

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Julia here, and I’m excited about something. The UK side of the Greenhouse is running a prize in conjunction with this year’s Writer’s Workshop Festival of Writing. It will be called the Greenhouse Funny Prize.

At Greenhouse we love all sorts of writing for children. We love edgy, wincingly close-to-the-bone YA fiction, we love thrilling, commercial concepts with big surprises, and beautiful and heartfelt younger stories. I could keep going, but in short, we love quality. And there’s something that Sarah and I agree that we don’t see enough of: Funny.

I had the idea for a prize because every time I sit down with an editor and ask what they’re looking for, they generally say, ‘Funny. We need humour’. When I was little, half of my reading was humour – Dahl, the Ahlbergs, JUST WILLIAM, MR MAJEIKA, WHAT-A-MESS, FUDGE, ASTERIX. And there is loads of great humour on the market today - WIMPY KID, Andy Stanton, Lauren Child, Dave Pilkey, David Walliams. Funny is selling in the shops, publishers are wide open to it, and yet we don’t see that represented in our submissions inbox. We want more laughs.

The Greenhouse Funny prize is open to un-agented writers who are currently resident in the UK and Ireland. Entries will be judged by me and guest judge Leah Thaxton, Publishing Director of Egmont Children’s Books (and discoverer of Andy Stanton).

The winner will get an offer of representation from the Greenhouse and a full weekend ticket to the wonderful Festival of Writing that runs 7-9 September ’12 (worth £525). The winner will also be presented with a bottle of champagne at the Festival’s gala dinner on the Saturday night. The runners up will each get five of my favourite funny books, and maybe even a comedy mug.

Our judging criteria is very simple. Funny, and we are wide open to all ages. The winner may be a picture book like OLIVIA or DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS, or a young series à la HORRID HENRY, FLAT STANLEY, THE GREAT HAMSTER MASSACRE or UNDEAD PETS, or for 8-12 year olds like Lemony Snicket or RAMONA. It could even be for teen readers, like Louise Rennison, DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? or THE PRINCESS DIARIES. It’s going to be the person with funny in their DNA.

Funny is subjective, of course. Perhaps the winner will have a slow-burning, gentle wit. Perhaps a Python-esque sense of the absurd. Or maybe the concept, and the freshness and immediacy of it, will do much of the heavy lifting.

Entry guidelines:

1) To get a good sense of the voice and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 5,000 words PLUS a short description (a few lines) of the book AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the plot. The book does not need to be completed at the time of entry.

2) Please attach the 5,000 words to a word document and send your entries to If you are submitting a picture book (or shorter fiction that comes in under 5,000 words), then send the complete text in a word document. The short description of the book and outline should be in the body of the email. PLEASE NOTE: This is different to our general Greenhouse submissions policy. If submitting work to the Greenhouse in the future (outside of the Greenhouse Prize), visit the How to Submit section of the website to find our submission guidelines.

3) You must be resident in the UK or Ireland.

4) The deadline for submissions is Monday 30 July.

The shortlist will be announced Monday 6 August. We anticipate that 6 writers will be shortlisted.

The winner will be announced Monday 13 August. If we get two or more outstanding entries, we may offer representation to more than one writer.

Entrants will not be acknowledged on receipt, but all entrants will be emailed when the shortlist is announced.

I’ll confess it feels a bit disingenuous to offer representation as a prize, because when those great books come along, I’d offer to represent anyway. It also feels a bit reckless. What happens if it’s all unfunny?! But I’m confident that at least one brilliant new voice will come to me if I open my arms and say out loud, ‘Show me the funny’. I’m happy to be transparent and say this is a totally self-serving competition. We just want to wave the flag to all those new writers tapping away in their sheds and spare rooms, and say, ‘Hey! If it’s funny, send to us! That’s what we’re looking for.’

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I’ll post any updates here, so save this page in your ‘favourites’ if you’re thinking of entering. And if you could tweet/share/talk about it, we’d be ever so grateful.

Any last advice? Write for yourself, for the child in you. Write what makes you laugh. 

We’ll be looking at voice, character and concept. In a nutshell, we’re looking for originality and a writer who trusts their reader’s intelligence, whatever age they are. Really funny doesn’t feel like it’s busting a gut to be so – it’s effortless. We’re looking for someone who makes it look easy.

The little girl in the photos is my niece and she’s reading her favourite funny book. I can’t tell you how sweet it is to sit with her when she’s reading her best funny writers. She actually chuckles. I had forgotten all about chuckling. 

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