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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:

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!

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?

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!

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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Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Green Letter Day

This has been a week to remember. But first I have to tell you an amazing thing:  TODAY I GOT MY GREEN CARD.
Yes, you read that right.  After a journey of 13 months, during which I have been police-checked, finger-printed, vision-tested, X-rayed (twice, because first time it looked like there was a lump on my lung and that made me very undesirable as an immigrant), blood-tested (numerous times - and what is this obsession with syphilis?), financially assessed, and during which time I have produced several tons of paperwork, photos of the Greenhouse Husband and I in party hats and wedding outfits (to prove we really do know each other), and details of all my family over several decades . . . suddenly, suddenly, that little card plops into my mailbox and the stress, warnings, threats and constant anxiety are over.  Praise be - especially as now I can come and go as I choose, and do business at the Bologna Book Fair knowing I can re-enter the States afterwards without fear.  You have to be determined to make a life in the USA and right now I feel very, very proud to have got this far. 

But it’s been a milestone week in other ways too.  Early in the week Greenhouse featured in Diane Roback’s pre-Bologna previews in Publishers Weekly online.  What a fabulous coup! And it happened on the very day I submitted Greenhouse’s first major novel to about 10 US and 10 UK houses. Interest has poured in (lots of requests to read by film scouts), and I have a feeling that there might be another exciting week ahead for the Greenhouse, though I always believe in waiting until the chickens have hatched. Will keep you posted. 

Things are really fast and furious right now and I’ve decided the only solution is to clone myself. That way I’d be able to get to your queries and submissions a whole lot faster, though I am chomping my way through slowly but surely.  The quality is mostly pretty high, but it takes a lot more than that.  Your work has to leap right out at me as something really, really special - and that means potentially saleable to houses that have only a very few available slots for debut writers.  As the saying goes, Many are called but few are chosen.  Of necessity, because each client I take on represents a lot of time and commitment on my part. What is really hard to find is the big, potentially international blockbuster - the kind of work that will fire up a publishing house on both sides of the Atlantic.  Those come around very rarely and I wish I could give you a formula, but I can’t. Instead I’ll say:  think big, think global, think commercial, think dramatic, think ambitious.  You see? I knew that wouldn’t help you.

But right now, it’s my very own Green Letter/Card Day - and I’m off to celebrate! Cheers - and take care.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Mini Cooper School of Writing

So I’m safely back at my desk, with 14,672 submissions to read and an inbox that’s emitting radioactive sparks (actually, just kidding about the number of submissions: it’s really 14,671).  One email, however, has particularly stuck in my mind, and I’m hoping my correspondent won’t mind me mentioning it (in the interests of the Higher Good of other readers).  This emailer tells me that they’ve been wanting to write a book for ages and are now seeking an agent to guide them through the novel-writing process. Hmm, yes. Well actually, the best thing is really to write the novel first - BEFORE you seek an agent. But it brings me back to something I’ve mentioned before - that with so many support groups and networking opportunities available, it may be easy to forget that the real point of it all is . . . sitting down and doing the writing! 

Which brings me to what I shall call the Mini Cooper School of Writing.  You see, when I first came to the States last Fall, my husband very kindly sold the ‘man-car’ (a big black thing) and we invested in a snappy red-and-black Mini Cooper (please note, it does about 40 miles to the gallon which makes it quite a suitable Greenhouse vehicle).  Boy, that is one sweet motor! One touch of my cowboy boot to the accelerator and those minivans are history . . . But I digress. The thing is, after toy-town Britain, driving here seemed very scary: such huge highways, so many lanes, so few road signs. It seemed all too likely that I’d be swept off down to Richmond or somewhere, never to be seen again. So, I spent a lot of time memorising maps, learning road names and even programming the Garmin - anything rather than actually venture out on to the streets! Until suddenly I got it:  making mistakes was not only inevitable, it was actually the only way I was going to learn.  There was no way around getting hooted occasionally at the lights or having rude signs made at me when I chose the wrong filter lane. It was all simply a necessary part of gaining confidence - and making sure I never made the same mistake twice. And gradually, very gradually, I’ve improved.

So don’t be scared.  Boot up the computer, work out your plot and get writing.  It may be rubbish, but in six months time you may be capable of something better than rubbish.  Expose your writing to your harshest critic and keep working and working to improve it; be prepared to tear it up and start again if you’re not 100% happy with it. Don’t jump to find an agent - regard yourself as a writing in training, apprenticed to your craft. After all, if you were learning to paint would you think yourself ready to exhibit in a few weeks?

Put your pedal to the metal and get going. It’s a Mini Cooper world! 

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

My bags are packed, I’m ready to go . . .

Blogging is an extraordinary thing. Now the Greenhouse is ‘out there’ and submissions are pouring in (about 40 today and counting; do I laugh? do I have a nervous breakdown?), I’m starting to get the sense of an embryonic GH community developing.  It’s an amazing feeling - so many people I’ve never met opening the Greenhouse door and peeking in.  So, whether you’re from Wyoming or Wolverhampton, Denver or Dorset, a warm welcome to you! I do hope you’re enjoying the site and that your writing is producing some new green shoots as a result.

I expect you’re expecting an insightful word from me on the state of the literary scene. Well, I’m afraid it ain’t going to happen tonight because literary agents are real people too. Here I am with a half-packed suitcase, papers everywhere, and on course to get a flight back to the US tomorrow that has had to be postponed by a day due to unbelievable numbers of crises (today’s: a large crack developing across the ceiling that has needed emergency treatment from a builder before it falls down). I’m looking forward to getting back to Greenhouse HQ and looking through your submissions to the comforting backdrop of the snoring Greenhouse hound. There are many excitements coming up:  1) a long-awaited manuscript to read on the plane by a really talented new writer 2) a second new author I’m dying to sign up and 3) a Big Book going out to publishers at the end of February. Plus 4) the manic countdown to Bologna just beginning. All pretty cool, eh!

Have to admit, it’s not been an easy week. So a big thank you to Robert from Who-Knows-Where for sending me the kindest of notes.  Cheers! (As we British like to say.)

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

SCBWI: From New York to London

Hi there, y’all, from a cold and bleak London, where the sky today hung heavy as white lead. It’s been a crazy few days - two cities, two flights, but one common thread:  SCBWI (for anyone who doesn’t know, this stands for the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators).  New York was a hectic weekend and my first taste of the SCBWI US Winter Conference. The size, impact and diversity of SCBWI US is quite inspiring, and it was great to meet so many old and new friends, from SCBWI organisers to publishers to authors and illustrators. There’s no doubt that if you’re an American would-be writer, there’s no shortage of support and guidance available - all fabulous, so long as it doesn’t stand in the way of actually writing! Highlights of the conference had to be author Carolyn Mackler’s funny and touching speech about her journey as a writer, and Susan Patron’s disarming story of her life-changing year as a Newbery winner for THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY.
Then it was a flight home (delayed,and returning to a power failure!), a quick unpack and repack of suitcases, and back to the airport the next morning for my flight to London - my first trip back for four months (thanks to US immigration) and a reunion with much-missed family as well as business meetings.  But the highlight of the trip must surely be last night’s reception at Foyles in Charing X Road (London’s most famous bookstore) for the twelve winners of SCBWI UK’s very first ‘Undiscovered Voices’ writing competition (sponsored by my parent company) for which I was one of the judges last Fall.  Wonderful David Almond (author of SKELLIG, among many other award-winning novels) spoke about his own at times bumpy journey along the road to publication, and I really believe he had a word for every aspiring author in the room who has started to face that unpredictable rollercoaster ride. It was lovely to see twelve newly recognized writers finding their feet and published for the very first time in the special anthology that has been put together to showcase their work. Good luck to you all!
So here’s to the wonderful SCBWI, all branches thereof, and huge thanks to an organization that does so much to promote writing for children and teens around the world.  And I’ll see you all again soon - back at my desk in the Commonwealth of Virginia!

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