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Monday, November 05, 2012

FROM ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY: Part 1

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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.
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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?
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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.
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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?
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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.

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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.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

GREENHOUSE FUNNY PRIZE UK - UPDATE FROM JULIA

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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. wink

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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Guest post from Sarwat Chadda

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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. 

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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.
image Oh, how it throws us about!

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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