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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

OK, so go ahead and laugh

Well, I thought I’d give you all something to grin about at the start of your day, whether it is spent glued to a corporate chair or hard at work on the manuscript which you hope will change your life.

There was once a literary agent who had various anxieties in her life:  the biggest one being the vast inbox of submissions that loomed before her like an Everest of decision-making.  Oh, how well she knew that if she stepped carelessly on those submissions, she stepped on precious dreams.  In order to Get Ahead and maximise the absence out of town of the Husband (fear not, the agent was guarded at all times by a huge, slavering Hound who never left her side), the agent decided to rise particularly early one morning and attack the pile.  Clad in new red Vera Wang robe and itsy-bitsy golden ballet slippers, she skipped downstairs, flicking the switch on the coffee machine en route to letting the Hound out of the back door. But oh dear - the Hound had problems descending the slippery steps!  The agent went outside to assist - only to hear the door click shut behind her. Locked! Bolted! Impenetrable! 

Alone with Hound, the agent deliberated - what to do?  6.15am, 40 degrees, and not a neighbour (or not the only neighbour with a key) stirring! Nothing to be done but to tough it out, manifesting the spirit that once made the British Empire great. So the agent sat down on the cold concrete step, reassured the Hound that breakfast milkbones would one day be forthcoming, and waited. And waited. And waited - as tentacles of cold inched their way into her rapidly freezing bones.  There was much to think about on that step:  Is it better to look only for fully formed manuscripts (like the agent’s many competitors) or work creatively with authors in the gamble of reaching a great submission together?  How to help authors realize that finding an agent isn’t the end of the rainbow - it’s only the beginning? What is going to be the next big thing in children’s/YA fiction in the US and UK markets?  It’s amazing the things you delve into when your rear end is frozen off at the crack of dawn.

Eventually the cold became too bad for any rational thought, so the agent made an innovative decision (much akin to those set out in Gary Paulsen’s novel of survival in the wild - HATCHET). She set off (surreptitiously, creeping through the undergrowth - what girl wants to be seen clad only in Vera Wang and a pair of ballet pumps?) towards the road, making a rapid grab on the morning’s papers.  After all, we all know the value of newsprint - and I don’t mean in terms of articles on super-delegates.  Safely back at her step again, she took the papers out of their little plastic bags (one blue, one white) and put the bags on her feet as socks.  Then she fashioned a Batman cape out of the Style section of the New York Times and hunkered back down, revelling in something that could almost be termed warmth (or at least a reprieve from hypothermia). Didn’t we always know there was much to learn from people living rough in London and New York?

The roar of school buses alerted the agent to a world gradually awakening and she set off once more, this time to the neighbour’s front porch (helpfully gathering up HIS newspapers as a peace offering) where she sat in his rocking chair until a movement in the window alerted her to the presence of humanity. Yesssss! A quick ring on the door bell and baffled-looking neighbour appeared - clearly perturbed and somewhat mesmerized by the sight of a mad-looking female, hair standing on end and clad in Vera, the New York Times and plastic-bag socks - proffering him his Wall Street Journal.

A few words of explanation and all is understood. Ah yes, of course!  It’s the British lady - well, we all know she’s unusual anyway because she speaks funny, so what can you expect?

It’s amazing what excuses an agent can find to avoid the submissions inbox, isn’t it.  And, well, there’s always another day - isn’t there?

Enjoy your day, everyone. And wrap up warm.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Home from Bologna

Here’s a travel recipe to have your head flying off somewhere in space:  sleep for 4 hours (waking in panic at intervals, sure you’ve missed the plane), get up at 5.45am, fly from Bologna to Munich, then from Munich to Washington DC - seated next to a three-month-old baby, and attended by two evil stewardesses who would have fitted well in the Russian gulag. Yes, that was my day yesterday. But here I am, more or less seated at my desk again and more or less raring to go!
Bologna was a blast; I wish I could have blogged from there, but sadly the pace is much too frenzied and you really don’t get near a computer.  I know some of you would love to go to the fair, so here’s what it’s like . . . Imagine lots of enormous warehouses/exhibition halls side by side, with grassy bits and benches in between, where people can stroll or sit and munch a hasty panini. In these halls just about every children’s publisher, packager etc etc in the world has a stand, with all the agents up in the Agents’ Centre at tables or in booths. If you’re an English speaker chances are you’ll spend most time in Halls 25 and 26, with occasional forays into the European areas. Everyone creates their own schedules, but most (like me) start at 9am and go through till 5.30 with appointments every half-hour (yes, that’s about 17 sessions per day), pitching your wares to all kinds of people. For me as a transatlantic agent, my time was divided between US and UK publishers, scouts from both territories, and movie people.  Then there’s all the unscheduled meetings you have with old friends/colleagues/book cronies as you bump into them, heading rapidly to grab a cappuccino or stand in the endless bathroom queue. Yes, there’s a lot of hugging and kissing and some great reunions! The children’s industry is very small, so you tend to rediscover people in different incarnations - and lots of people were pretty interested in mine! I was pleased to be interviewed by Publishers Weekly, and the UK’s Bookseller and Publishing News. Not bad!

Come the end of the day, you head for a bus or taxi and bomb back to your hotel for (if you’re very lucky) a short rest, a change of clothes, then it’s out for drinks and dinner in one of the town’s glorious restaurants - again, either hosting or being hosted.  I had various good evenings - with Harper US and UK, and with Pocket Jeunesse from Paris, plus a great drinks party thrown by Egmont US and UK in a fabulous old building converted into a contemporary bar.  After too much great food and prosecco, you head ‘home’ to your hotel (rarely before midnight and often a good deal later), ready to fall into a coma for a few hours and start the whole thing again early next morning. Your jaw feels like it’s about to fall off after countless hours of talking, and your feet develop strange blisters from the walking, but it’s all an incredible experience. Bologna is a truly beautiful city - 16th century palazzi (is that the plural of palazzo?), the lovely old Piazza Maggiore, ancient little cobbled and colonnaded streets, top-end designer shops - and somehow even the bus drivers look like they’ve just stepped out of an Armani ad (how do Italians DO that?). And yet there’s a dark underside too: tons of graffiti, pickpocketing. But I still love it there.

So, it’s back to work now, in earnest.  I had lots of great comments about my authors and projects and I’m looking forward to following up - and of course to finding those new gems.  As one scout said to me, ‘It’s all a question of finding that must-have book’ - and that’s what it takes.  It’s got to be MUST-HAVE for a publisher; something they simply can’t bear to turn down.  With issues like the decline of the hardback in the UK and exchange-rate headaches, everyone’s under pressure and every dollar, pound or euro spent must be justified.

A small addendum.  Apologies to anyone who spotted the sordid spam that appeared on my blog in my absence.  I was mad as a hornet about it, and immediately contacted the web designers to clean things up.  Sadly, this does now mean I shall have to ‘moderate’ what appears on the blog. Don’t stop writing comments (please!) but I now have to veto them before allowing them to appear.  Isn’t it a pain? There’s always someone out there with abusive intentions, which is a great shame.

Back to my reading now - if I can overcome the jetlag for another few hours!  It’s good to be home.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Easter bits and pieces

Can I actually cope with any more triumphs? Well yes, I can, though I also have a wish right now to lie down in a sunlit field and just watch the clouds float by.  You know that feeling?
This morning I achieved my final challenge to being a true Virginia resident: YESSSSS, I passed my driving test! I wasn’t going to mention it, just in case I failed (you see, I too fear failure). Not having been tested since I was 17 back in London, it was weirdly stressful, not to mention a bit arduous memorizing that huge manual. I’m now an expert on parking distances from fire hydrants and curfew laws for under 18s.  So all this required a stop-off for a celebratory cappuccino (double shot) and a very sizeable muffin before returning to finish up a few bits of work before packing to leave for London tomorrow. I’ll be spending Easter with my family (I miss my two lovely sons like mad) before heading off to Bologna via Prague. Tough job, but somebody has to do it.

However, need I tell you that there’s already been something else to celebrate today?  The DEVIL’S KISS deal is up on Publishers Marketplace as ‘deal of the day’ and the Bookseller in the UK is including it in their pre-fair highlights.  Things like this are a real gift, and the foreign rights buzz is getting even louder. Oh, in case you wanted to know - the book sold to Hyperion in the US and Puffin in the UK; those lists share a number of major authors, including Eoin Colfer, Rick Riordan and Charlie Higson’s YOUNG BOND.  They’re a great match which is one of the reasons I’m so pleased at the outcome.  They’ll be publishing in different ways:  the hardback is pretty dead in Britain at the moment, hence Puffin’s going straight into paperback original, whereas Hyperion is going out in hardback first. It’ll be fascinating to watch the two different publishing visions unfold, and I’m meeting with Hyperion’s Donna Bray and Puffin’s Francesca Dow in Bologna to talk further.

But now I’d like to highlight two other authors I’m working with:  I’m not going to name them because I believe in lock-down privacy until an author gets a deal.  Let’s just call them Author X and Author Y. They are both female, both incredibly talented, and both incredibly different.  Author X weaves words like cobwebs; she’s a master (mistress?) of lyrical language of whom Han Nolan has said: ‘She’s a born writer. Her language feels so fresh, clean and spare - just perfect.’ I take a deep breath before I say anything to her about her work because my big boots could trample the beauty of her language and vision.  I salute your talent, Author X; keep the faith.  Author Y is brand new to me - and it’s been a highlight of my week that she chose me, the Greenhouse, instead of a New York super-agency.  I am humbled. Author Y is one of the sharpest, funniest voices I’ve read since I found Meg Cabot for the UK (and believed PRINCESS DIARIES would make a series) in 2001.  But Author Y has another gift too - for honing in on the moment of emotional truth, and that makes her so much more than just ‘another’ writer for pre-teen and teen girls.  Way to go, Author Y.

I love my authors so much it is really quite embarrassing. They have demanding day jobs, demanding kids, pressured lives - but somehow they put so much into their writing.

If you could hold on to your submissions until I’m back (preferably till mid-April) I’d appreciate it or my computer could spontaneously combust.  Apologies to those who will/have waited more than 6 weeks to hear from me. I’ve been doing way too many 12-hour days and I can’t keep up with the amount pouring in. I dream of an assistant.  Meanwhile I wish you all a lovely Easter. 

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Great news from the Greenhouse!

I’m snatching a moment from a hectic day, just to reassure you that I haven’t gone AWOL. In fact, the truth couldn’t be further from that.  This past week has been the most exciting since launch of the Greenhouse - because what I can now proudly announce to you is . . . the agency’s very first deal!  And what a deal it is. My debut author Sarwat Chadda, with whom I’ve been working since last Fall, has sold his first novel,THE DEVIL’S KISS plus a sequel, in a very major two-book deal for North America/Canada and UK/Commonwealth.  What is even more exciting about it is that it’s gone to different publishers in each territory, but with the deals done virtually simultaneously (well, with a weekend in between).  To respect the houses involved, I’ll not name them until I have their go-ahead and we’ve worked out a joint announcement, but I’m really hoping that can happen pre-Bologna, which will increase the already very substantial interest in foreign and movie rights.

It’s been a great journey for Sarwat and I since he joined the Greenhouse as, in fact, the agency’s very first signed client.  I saw his manuscript first when it was in its early stages, but after that came a long period of revision when Sarwat was incredibly resilient in the face of my editorial batterings.  Completely unfazed he turned around and virtually began again, restructuring, rewriting and coming up with all manner of great ideas and characters that were completely fresh.  He has been working on DEVIL’S KISS a long time now, but the version he completed a short while ago shows his transformation into a real writer and that has been the most exciting thing of all.  So now he begins another journey - to publication and beyond, and I can’t wait to see the next stage unfold.  In a way, it’s been a perfect example of the Greenhouse at work:  a British author living in the UK; me, his agent, living in the States; deals done at the same time in both markets at the same time,so he has leading (and equal) publishers on both continents.  Of course, that isn’t going to work for every author but it certainly worked out great this time. 

THE DEVIL’S KISS is a big, pacy, blockbusting YA novel that fits into the dark,supernatural genre but with a fresh twist.  Fifteen-year-old Billi SanGreal is co-opted (against her will) into the modern-day remnant of the Knights Templar by her father, the Grandmaster. She’s the first girl ever to be a Templar - and no wonder, given her life is an arduous round of weapons’ practice, occult lore and a heck of a lot of bruises. Billi would happily settle for being a normal high-school girl rather than secret warrior out to defeat the Unholy. Into the mix comes Michael - gorgeous, seductive and undeniably dangerous. But Michael isn’t just a heartbreaker, he’s an archangel with terrifying agenda. As the Templars ready for combat, Billi’s destiny becomes interwoven with that of Michael. Now she must choose who she wants to be. If she chooses the path of a true Templar, living out her terrifying heritage, it will destroy everything that matters to her.  And there are some things, as Billi discovers, that are much, much worse than death . . .

So I give Sarwat huge congratulations and wish him all the very best for his future as he now gets to know his new publishers.  And I’m embarking on the process of negotiating contracts and setting things up for a smooth run through to publication.  Plus of course I’m working closely with my other authors and doing my absolute utmost to achieve outcomes as satisfying as Sarwat’s. Every manuscript is different, every author is different - but one thing’s for sure:  if there’s a living, breathing way I can get my authors a good deal, a changed life, a dream that turns into reality, then I’m going to bust a gut to do it.

Hurrah from a weary, but definitely excited Sarah and the Greenhouse!

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Tao of Sarah

I have had a realization:  that I tend to use the same phrases again and again when I’m working with writers - because these principles are true for everyone who wants to create a fabulous and special novel.  I therefore offer them to you now:

1. SQUEEZE THE JUICE FROM THE FRUIT
Extract the absolute maximum from your plot and characters - and from all the special moments in your story. Make me really weep; make me laugh uproariously; make me empathize with and love your characters; amaze me with the depths and layers of your plotting; leave me desolate when I have to turn the final page because no other story I read will ever be as rich or satisfying.  Pretend you’re Jamie Oliver (or your own favourite celebrity chef):  concoct a recipe, stick your fictional orange in the juicer and start extracting!

2. LOOSE AS A GOOSE
This is a phrase that was used of British tennis player Tim Henman when he was playing at this best - those moments when he finally unclenched, lost his self-awareness, and just whacked the ball with panache and freedom. At those moments, self-defeating Tim could beat anyone!  So, lay aside your anxious notions of marketability, your crippling self-doubt, and yell ‘What the heck!’ Then start writing the story you long to tell, poured out with fire and passion. To corrupt the inspirational greetings card I saw in Wholefoods today:  What would you write if you knew you could not fail?

3. RECALCULATING! 
I’ve already told you about the Greenhouse Mini Cooper.  Well, my best friend is Mrs Garmin - the nice but fierce lady who lives in my Garmin GPS and tells me where she thinks I should go.  Occasionally I disobey Mrs Garmin because I know my route is better than hers. Then there will be an ominous silence and Mrs Garmin will say, in disapproving tones: RECALCULATING! RECALCULATING!  In the same way, if your story isn’t going in a way that feels right to you, take stock and change direction.  If necessary, start right over again.  It ain’t easy, but sometimes recalculating is the absolutely right way to go!

4. THE STRAPLINE TEST
We’ve all seen movie posters that ‘sell’ the movie with a couple of lines of sharp copy.  Two lines is just about the amount of space an editor will get when she sums up a novel for the inhouse catalogue; it’s the amount of time a sales rep will get when she sells a novel into Brains & Noble. Can you sum up your story in a pithy and engaging way in just two lines?  Try it and see.  If you can, it will reveal to you what the heart of your story really is. And when you’ve found it, work that angle to the max.  In fact, refer to #1 JUICING THE FRUIT for details.

So, forget for once that this is an impossible, capricious, mercurial, heartbreaking business where the good are not necessarily rewarded.  Get writing - and have a bit of fun! What’s the worst that can happen?

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Seedlings at the Greenhouse

Who knew an agent’s life was so sleep-deprived?  Pardon me if I just rest my eyes a moment (zzzzzz).  Fact is, there’s been a lot of midnight-oil-burning down at the Greenhouse this week:  sitting at my desk wading through your manuscripts while the rest of the civilized world is comfortably watching CSI MIAMI with a glass of wine. Actually, I’m not quite telling you the full truth - because there has been rather a lot more going on this week, with early-morning calls to London at one end of the day, and Hollywood producers engaging me in somewhat surreal conversations (featuring phrases like ‘attaching talent packages’ at the other).  It’s all go in my time-zone in the middle!
I’m not going to tell you one word about most of what I’ve been doing this week (there are times and places to spill beans), so I shall pick up a few things from your submissions that made me groan, wince, or smile over the last few days - as always, in the interests of your Higher Good. I do not mean to be unkind.  Here are some things to consider when submitting to the Greenhouse:
1. Cut and Paste:  this is an evil device which can trap the unwary.  If you are cutting and pasting your query or material into an email to send to lots of different people, make sure you actually address it to the right person. That is, me. Also, make sure you know I am an agent as opposed to anything else (like a publisher).  I guess I’d like to believe you have taken a lot of time and care to choose me, rather than sending just the same thing to 2,657 other people in the Writers Handbook; please allow me my small self-delusion!
2. Famous People:  do not liken your work to that of Philip Pullman, JK Rowling, Madeline L’Engle - or any other great writing star.  You doom yourself and me to certain disappointment because they are great simply because they are GREAT! And anyway, we already have a Pullman and a Rowling and a L’Engle. What I want is YOU - if you are brilliant.
3. Gentlemen (especially): do not adopt a flirtatious tone in order to win me over to your proposed novel.  This is not a dating agency and no, we are not a ‘match made in heaven’.  There is no clever way around the ruthless laser-beam of my totally idiosyncratic and personal literary judgements.
4. Plots:  You know, the standard of what I’m seeing is mostly pretty high; so many of you are very serious about your writing.  BUT - I lose count of the number of manuscripts I’m seeing that feature a school or home-based scenario, a bullied kid or one who doesn’t fit in/isn’t attractive enough.  In a sense there ARE no new plots, but if you’re going to write in areas that everyone else is writing in, it’s going to be very hard to stand out; you need to shine like a star.  I’d encourage you to cast your net wider and really work for a new plot angle. I don’t know exactly how you do that - but that’s why I’m an agent and not an author.
5. The Volte-Face:  If I turn down your work, don’t write straight back to me saying that actually you knew it was pretty awful, but you’ve improved a lot since you wrote that version and now you can do better.  If it isn’t the absolutely best work you’ve ever done and fervently believe you’ll ever do, don’t send it to me. Wait until it IS something that epitomises your skills.

I hope this helps. I’m trying to write you back a line or two of feedback, but it’s testing my stamina with 100+ coming in each week. I really don’t want to have to change my submission guidelines, so once again I’d say - please just send me work that is fully critiqued.

And by the way:  here’s a thought to leave you with.  Would any of you like me to run a Greenhouse writing seminar one day?  Hmm, now THAT’S a fun thought!

Happy weekend writing! (And yes, I am going to write a piece on the differences between the US and UK markets.  Thanks to my correspondent for nudging me.)

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