Monday, November 25, 2013
It’s been a busy Fall. Three conferences and many client manuscripts (hurrah!) have made it hard to find time to blog. But I’ve missed it, so thought I’d do a little ‘state of the nation’. Or, I guess you could say, ‘the view from my desk’.
There’s been much food for thought this year. 2013 has been a tough one, and from talking to other agents and editors I sense we’re in a transition. YA has been so dominant for so long, but is feeling very saturated these days. It’s not that YA deals aren’t being done this year, but I perceive there are fewer of them, editors are being very picky, and deals are less likely to be for multiple books and six figures than they were a year or two back. Maybe some of that is due to the high number of multi-book deals done a while ago for dystopian or paranormal trilogies or series, which are still working through the publishing schedule? Maybe Books 2 and 3 aren’t performing quite as well as Book 1 (usually the case) . . . . And we have seen so many dark, high-concept novels in general acquired over the last few years that perhaps editors are feeling it’s time to start re-balancing lists a little and seeking more diversity in both age group and theme.
If you look at deal notices in both Children’s Bookshelf (subscribe free to the bulletin that comes out Tuesdays and Thursdays) and Publishers Marketplace, you’ll see far more picturebook and middle-grade deals than you would have seen a year ago. ‘The picturebook is dead’? Hah, that old chestnut sounds almost funny now, given the line-up of PB deals we’re seeing every week. And isn’t it great to see some zing back in MG again.
If you’re writing YA, don’t panic. It’s not that YA is dead – far from it – but we’ve all got to raise the bar on both ideas and execution. A great, original idea, strongly crafted, is still grounds for huge editor excitement, but it’s not the time to be complacent or derivative of trends. There’ll still be an editor feeding frenzy around a manuscript in any genre that does and says something different, which frames its emotional punch in a new way, but any manuscript we put out there is going to come under exacting scrutiny, both editorially and commercially.
So, in YA what am I seeing in abundance? Still many submissions of dystopia and paranormal, girls with powers, dead characters (eg, Grim Reapers), quite a lot of sci-fi, and many stories that concern evil and secret government projects, often biological/genetic. Also, Contemporaries that deal with suicide, abuse, and drugs. (Many, many suicide stories at the moment.)
What would I like to see in YA? The hottest item on my wishlist would be a smart contemporary romance with a strong hook. We were moving in that direction before ELEANOR AND PARK (Rainbow Rowell) but that book has certainly put a great sales imprimatur on Contemporary. As a wider guide, I also always mention NANTUCKET BLUE (Leila Howland), THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE (Leila Sales), and THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT (Jennifer E. Smith) as having the kind of fresh, romantic, modern vibe I’m seeking. Writing a story like this is much harder than it looks – it’s not enough just to have a girl go through problems and emerge knowing herself better. Sure, it’s a basic trope that in a sense never gets old, but you’ve got to frame it in some sharp new way to make it stand out. Maybe you’ll use an interesting structure or new motif in some way? And however lonely/hurt/confused (etc) your characters may or may not be, you’ve got to catch the sweetness and pain of teen love so it really touches the reader. It’s always all about character and voice!
I’m also always looking for strong international or historical settings – a context that allows you to do something fresh and impactful with teen relationships. Word of warning – it’s got to be authentic. Don’t write about places you don’t know, periods in history that you haven’t studied in years. I’m not suggesting you spend a fortune flying around the world or take a time machine back into history, but you can’t fake a story set in Africa or guess at the reign of Louis XIV. You have to immerse yourself and then cherry pick what to give your reader as you weave a real novel from your knowledge.
What else in YA? Really, I am open. A concept that stops me in my tracks in some way, with an opening that makes me sit up. And that could be high fantasy, a verse novel, the heart-stopping story of a boy in Syria, a thriller with a twist I’ve never seen before . . . Who knows what will appear, and I can’t wait to be surprised!
And then there’s middle grade.
I am definitely on the hunt for more MG. Primarily, I’m seeking a voice that stands out (so incredibly important in MG), and that does SOMETHING strongly. For example Alison DeCamp’s THE STUPENDOUS SCRAPBOOK OF (SOMEWHAT MANLY) STAN which I recently sold to Crown, made me laugh – a lot. It’s got touches of WIMPY KID, but set in the 1890s and illustrated with original adverts of the day. How cool, and I’d never seen anything like that before!
We’ve also just sold a really fun, child-friendly fantasy adventure both sides of the Pond – IVY SPARROW by Jennifer Bell. I’d never use the ‘it’s like Harry Potter’ pitch, but several editors and scouts have said it reminds them of HP in the rich invention, and immense detail, of its world building.
So, in MG what am I seeing in abundance? Stories about bullying, and many stories about animals –or told from the perspective of animals. Lots of variations on superheros. Kids going back in time to different periods of history, usually to ‘learn’ things.
What would I like to see in MG? Really, again, anything that feels new and different. It could be a lovely, classic voice and heart-wrenching story of family life and identity like A DOG CALLED HOMELESS (Sarah Lean), or it could be clever fantasy, full of puzzlement like A TANGLE OF KNOTS (Lisa Graff). Obviously, I’d have loved to find WONDER (R.J. Palacio), but equally I’d be excited to see a great adventure theme, dealt with in a new way (not just a child whose archaeologist parents take him to different parts of the world).
We still don’t see enough MG. Bring it on, folks! It’s a great time if you’re writing for this age group.
Finally, let’s not forget picturebooks.
As you know from our sub guidelines, I’m not currently open to debut PB texts – but my colleague John Cusick is, and I sell them when by authors I’ve taken on for longer, older fiction. Also, I’ll occasionally sign a client who is writing in multiple genres – including PB (eg, Martha Brockenbrough and Kat Yeh). We are doing very well with PBs these days and eagerly seeking more.
I always think that the fewer the words, the harder writing becomes. To write a great PB you have to turn your story on a dime, with not one word out of place.
What we’d like to see in PB? Everything I said in YA and MG above about ‘fresh concept’ applies here too. Also, could a child and parent read your PB thousands of times and never get tired of it? (As a parent myself, I know how important that is!) This means you need to build in ‘layers’ of meaning within your story, and a great ‘takeaway’. ‘Takeaway’ is key, and it means the ‘message’ implicit within the story. You can’t just describe a pretty scene, a special moment. What is the ‘integrity’ of the story, the heart of what you’re saying/revealing, which means the pay-off, the resolution, gives the reader something important and enduring? What do you know, understand, about life, family, kindness, happiness, meaning, at the end of the story that the young child reader didn’t know at the beginning?
Oh, and you have to do this in a very small number of words. We used to say under 1000, but now we really want a lot less than that. Can you do it in just a few hundred words? Or maybe even with no words at all!
Hey, I’m off to ask John if he will write us a special blog post about the picturebook, where we can go into more detail.
So that’s it for tonight. 2013 has been good for Greenhouse, and we’re seeing increased diversity in what publishers are seeking. However, the bar continues to be raised across the spectrum, and some manuscripts which would have sold a few years ago may not find such an easy path today. And that’s a challenge to us all – authors, agents, and editors. We have to write cleverly, develop and advise authors carefully and helpfully, and publish smartly into an ever-increasingly competitive environment. It’s about finding an edge.
I like a challenge. Do you? Keep on sending those submissions!
Pix: Shots from this Fall. 1) Me, at Fallen Leaf Lake, Nevada, where I was on faculty for SCBWI Nevada’s conference and opening to their fab mentoring program. Look at the strength of this light! NB: my legs aren’t really this huge . . . honestly. 2) Salmon, Nevada. Fascinating - they spawn and then die. But meantime, are compelled to try to swim upstream. Tragic, really. But swimming upstream against the current is what we all do, all the time, in the books industry. 3) En route to Reno in snow - if you’ve a query or ms on sub, you know all about the long,dark tunnel. Right? 4) And finally - dear Lucy, Greenhouse dachsund, passed away on Weds, November 6. She is the red one. I miss her, under my desk.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Annemarie O’Brien’s debut middle-grade novel, LARA’S GIFT, publishes this month with Knopf, an imprint of Random House. She’s currently in the middle of a blog tour publicizing the book, so I’m delighted to welcome her to my blog today and ask her a few questions about her writing career and her gorgeous book.
When did you start writing and how/where did you learn to craft a novel? Did it come easily to you?
I actually started writing short stories in Russian while I was living in Bosnia. It was my attempt at strengthening my Russian language skills. My Russian professor liked them so much, he recommended that I get them published. I thought it would be easier to write in my native language of English. So when I retired from my overseas work in 1998 and moved to the San Fran area, I started taking writing classes at UC Berkeley and Stanford. I did that for about five years and then decided to get an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. VCFA is where I really jumped a few levels in my craft and developed the kind of skills to foster continued growth. Some parts of writing came to me easily like building a plot and structuring my story. I had to work at setting, evoking sensory details, and internal character arc development.
LARA’S GIFT is your first novel. We’d love you to tell us what it’s about.
I’d like to borrow a quote from Kathi Appelt, Newbery Honor author of THE UNDERNEATH:
“LARA’S GIFT makes a reader believe in the power of intuition, family, and fighting for one’s true calling. LARA’S GIFT is a gift to anyone who loves adventure, a good story and above all, a beloved dog.”
You lived in Russia for some years. What was that like and in what way did the experience inspire you to write LARA’S GIFT?
Russia is a magical place. It is rich in music, literature, the arts, science, and history. My first visit was during the cold war when the United States and the former Soviet Union were at odds politically, socially, and economically. And while our governments didn’t see eye-to-eye, I found that I connected with Russians easily. I couldn’t understand why our countries were “at war” on so many issues when the people I met were warm, welcoming, and highly intellectual. Living and working there forced me to think and question so many things. This experience forced me to open up my mind and grow personally and professionally. That kind of growth was like a disease that spread and fed off of the experiences I put myself in. The kind of experiences that challenged me. So many of my family and friends had funny notions of what Russia was all about back then and used to joke with me about it. Few of them could understand my interest to work there. I wanted to change those kinds of perceptions and felt that Lara and Zar’s story needed to be told to show another face of Russia.
What are the themes in the story that most excite and interest you, and what aspect of the story did you enjoy writing most?
Good question, Sarah. I actually wasn’t aware of the theme in LARA’S GIFT until well after the copyedit process. And then one day, it dawned on me that the theme mirrors what my father instilled in me as a kid. He always told me that I could do whatever I wanted, if I put my mind to it. He also told me to follow my heart and happiness would follow. He also said that I should trust in the gifts I have. These are all things I believed in growing up. They weren’t necessarily things I ever talked about. I just led my life this way unconsciously. So if there’s one thing I hope my readers walk away with after reading LARA’S GIFT, it would be a newfound sense in themselves to pursue life following your heart and passion. Everyone should lead life following his/her own dreams. Had I followed my father’s dream of where he thought I would have or should have landed, I’d be an engineer, just like him! Fortunately, for good or bad, he let me be me and the engineering world is better off for it.
I enjoyed developing Zar’s character on the page most, as well as the bond he has with Lara.
You have two Borzoi dogs! Tell us about them – what is it about these large, elegant dogs that fascinates you so much?
I’ve also got a Silken Windhound puppy (looks like a smaller borzoi) named Zeus! It gets a little crazy in our house with the puppy stirring things up!
This is a tough question because there are so many reasons why I fell in love with borzoi. I suppose part of it is because they are calm and gentle and complement the quiet, yet active, lifestyle I strive to create around me. I suspect the biggest reason is linked to the bond I had with my first borzoi, Dasha. I got her at a time when I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Those years were the foundation that led me to where I am today. I had to make big choices and Dasha was always right there by my side supporting me every step of the way. It’s this last quality of loyalty that I wanted to reveal in Zar’s character, as well as his love of Lara and vice versa.
What will you be doing to promote LARA’S GIFT?
My first big book launch party will be in Piedmont, California on September 6 at 7pm. It will be hosted by Havens Elementary School and Books Inc. I will also go to Forbes Library in my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts to do an author event on September 21 from 2-4pm and at The King’s English in Salt Lake City, Utah on September 28 at 2pm. I also plan to do events in Kauai, Philadelphia, Iowa, and the greater San Fran Bay area. If everything works out, I hope to be in Manila and Palau next spring to do school visits and author events.
Are you currently working on another novel – and if so, what is it?
While I have a number of story ideas in my head and some jotted down in files, my focus at the moment is on two stories. The first one is set in Thailand and is in the final throes of revision. Without giving too much away (call me superstitious!) this story came to me in a dream that likely rooted itself out of one of my biggest fears.
I am also currently in research mode for the companion story to LARA’S GIFT. This story is set primarily in the Gorbachev era and draws greatly from my own experience living and working in Russia at that time. Since my whole world revolved around Russia and all of its changes during the 1980s thru the 90s, I suspect this story will have a lot of heart, as well as come more easily to me.
Finally, there’s a great tradition of fiction about dogs. Are there any other great dog novels that you particularly love?
Recently, I have enjoyed A DOG CALLED HOMELESS by Sarah Lean, THE DOGS OF WINTER by Bobbie Pyron, THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt, LITTLE DOG, LOST by Marion Dane Bauer, as well as THE DOG DIARIES series by Kate Klimo.
My favorites as a kid were LASSIE COME HOME, 101 DALMATIONS, and LADY AND THE TRAMP.
I’m always looking for good dog books! I blog about them on Dog Reads which features interviews with authors who’ve written a dog story for children. If you know of one or have written one, please contact me through my web page (below).
How can we find out more about you and the book (and buy a copy?!) ?
Here are some useful links:
Web page: www.annemarieobrienauthor.com
Book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whcIDqxCq9g
Thanks, Annemarie! We’re all wishing you and the book tons of success.
Pix: 1) Jacket of LARA’S GIFT 2) Annemarie - and her gorgeous dogs 3) A cheeky little pic of one of the Greenhouse dogs (Sargie, the wire-haired Dachsund) crept in here! Couldn’t resist.
Monday, May 27, 2013
I talk a lot with my clients about plotting, and we often get involved in editorial work and revisions on manuscripts before they go on submission. When new author Elle Cosimano entered my life with her query in February 2011, she had a strong idea and the makings of a great voice, but was about to embark on a journey into the wonders (and challenges) of intricate and high-stakes plotting. A journey that led to her gripping and emotionally powerful thriller, NEARLY GONE, being preempted in a 2-book deal by Kathy Dawson, a legendary and award-winning Penguin publisher. Kathy now has her own imprint, Kathy Dawson Books, and NEARLY GONE will be on her high-profile launch list which publishes in early 2014. You can read more about Elle Cosimano here.
Now Elle shares her thoughts on what she learned about plotting while writing and revising NEARLY GONE . . .
This post is about high-stakes plotting.
This post is not about:
A) gratuitous violence,
B) exploding muscle cars, or
C) ridiculous sums of ransom money.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “I write quiet works of literary fiction, and the importance of high-stakes plotting does not apply to me,” then the answer is D) sit your lyrical ass down and keep reading. This post pertains to all of us.
Don’t get me wrong.
I get it. If you were to Google “high-stakes plotting”, you’d come away with pages of examples of “loss” in the form of death and destruction, and “gain” measured in simple monetary terms. These only serve to further our very black-and-white understanding of literary versus commercial fiction. I argue that the two, when done well, aren’t as mutually exclusive as we are led to believe.
So if A + B + C does not equal a high-stakes plot, then what does?
Forget wooden vampire-obliterating sticks for a moment, or the mountain of chips on a poker table. All good examples of stakes, but these aren’t the kind we’re talking about.
When it comes to plot, we define “stakes” as personal or emotional concerns of value. Notice, there is no quantifiable thing. Because we are not measuring an object to be won or lost, but rather the value of its emotional resonance. Heightening stakes is not about increasing the value of the physical things our characters want or stand to lose. It’s about tying those things to a deeper yearning – assigning each gain and loss a devastating or life-changing emotional impact.
In his book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Robert Olen Butler says, “Desire is the driving force behind plot. The character yearns, the character does something in pursuit of that yearning, and some force or other will block the attempt to fulfill that yearning. …You cannot find a book on the bestseller list without a central character who clearly wants something, is driving for something, has a clear objective… You name the genre. Every story has a character full of desire.”
When I embarked on my first full re-write of Nearly Gone, Sarah (my agent) asked me, “What does your character want?” This was a transformative revelation for me. My character had been doing all these things – going through all these motions without any true sense of destination. The plot was fuzzy. It lacked direction, because the end goal didn’t resonate deeply enough to drive it. Truly knowing my characters meant not only understanding what they wanted, but why. I had yet to fully grasp what their physical wants and goals represented to them. What they yearned for—whether it be identity, a place in the universe, redemption, or connection with another—and what they were willing to risk for it. I had to dig beneath the surface to reveal a yearning strong enough to hold together a plot, and hold a reader’s attention.
Heightened stakes don’t have to do more. They have to mean more. They’re anchored in the character’s innermost fears and deepest desires. They make the reader care, so that we sit up and take notice when those desires are threatened.
And threatened they must be.
Because antagonists yearn, too. They have their own stakes, their own desires. Conflict lies at the intersection of these opposing desires. It’s this balance between the main character, and the counterbalance of a person or the world or events standing in her way that creates tension, and gives the plot focus.
Perhaps our misunderstanding of high-stakes plotting lies in the name we’ve assigned to it. Maybe if we called it deep-stakes plotting, we’d stop building stories on mountains of meaningless events, and look beneath, at the white-hot human core of them, to find the stuff worth risking for. The real gems are hidden inside.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
There’s been a lot of change in my life over the last few years.
As some people know, five years ago I took the huge decision to move to the USA, marry an American guy, and create the Greenhouse. It was heart-stoppingly scary. I had everything in place back in London: a great job, a family, friends, and decades of continuity in a place where I was deeply rooted and at ease. Suppose I couldn’t make it work in America? Suppose I failed? Suppose I wasn’t happy? There are a lot of ‘What If’s’ in that situation, and your imagination comes up with the very worst scenarios.
About 18 months ago, some more things changed when I took other, smaller decisions. I asked myself what I wanted to achieve in my life outside of work. The answers? I wanted to be able to speak French fluently, and I wanted to learn to run.
Now the change timeline comes closer. In January I decided I wanted to learn to dance . . . And then my husband lost his job on our first day back in the office after the Christmas break.
There are different kinds of change: the ones you seek out and nurture – and the ones that fall on you like a ton of bricks, making you question and reassess. But really, all change makes you dig deep and get out of your comfort zone. If you want to speak French like a native you’re going to need time, practice and a ton of work. If you want to run, you are going to have to build up your stamina incrementally. And if you want to dance salsa, you’ll risk making a fool of yourself with people who make fancy footwork look easy.
If you lose your job? You’re going to do all the practical stuff to find a new one, while also hanging on to self-belief and faith that it will turn out to have been all for the good.
Do I make this sound easy? There were some days back in January when I’d be talking with clients and know my reserves of encouragement and cheer were running low. (Um, I don’t think they knew that.)
Three weeks ago another piece of change happened. I was wandering around the National Gallery in London look at Impressionist art when my cell phone rang. It was our lovely UK agent Julia Churchill, telling me she’d been made an offer she just couldn’t refuse, by an old-established London literary agency, and that very sadly she had to leave Greenhouse.
Shushed by the security guard, I dived out into the lobby, sat down on the marble floor and (I must admit) put my head in my hands as I tried to hear what Julia was telling me. It was a shock, but not entirely unexpected. Greenhouse has attracted attention both sides of the Pond, for our energy and succession of debut deals, for our Funny Prize, for our openness and collaborative style. I knew other companies were sniffing around. But what you know intellectually doesn’t always moderate your instant emotional response as your brain gives you a lightning-fast tour of what you’re going to have to do – and fast.
We are sorry to lose Julia. She and I have worked closely together for four years, ever since I appointed her in early 2009, and it’s been exciting and a lot of fun, building the agency’s client base, interacting on transatlantic deals, and riding the agent rollercoaster together. I will miss her.
However, three weeks on, change has begun to work its magic. My new US colleague John Cusick has announced his first deal for Greenhouse, and I have three deals of my own brewing. We are 10 days away from the Bologna Book Fair with packed schedules, and I’m really excited to do my first fair with John. It will be different. It will be interesting. Together we have our own style, and that is fun to discover. What new relationships will we make? What new opportunities will come our way? I love that he’s good at stuff I’m not good at; that he knows different people to me.
We’ve just rejigged our submission guidelines and are tweaking the Greenhouse website.
And the UK? For now I’m looking at subs from that market (alongside my US ones) - I already rep Americans AND Brits. And I’m talking to people about the position we have to offer a new agent in London. Can’t say more about that yet, but my fingers are crossed. I know who I’m after. They will be Greenhousey; smart, creative, driven, editorially strong, open, kind – and with a great contacts book.
The one thing I know about change is that it happens, and everything depends on how we respond to its challenges. As writers, we need to get out there and seize it. If you don’t change, you don’t grow. If you run from rejection and revision, you’ll never discover their lessons. If you don’t drive through the disappointment, you’ll get stuck in self-pity. There is a secret shining ruby at the heart of the most painful setbacks, but somehow we’ve got to open that black velvet bag and make the glowing jewel our own.
So now it’s March. Last week I bought my first pair of ‘real’ running shoes and took them down to the track. I can run two miles now and I’ve got a bit of muscle. Sure, girls in Lycra power past me, but who cares?
I’ve got a bunch of friends who speak French, and I spend my Saturday afternoons with them chatting away about everything and nothing. There’s a lot of laughter.
Every Monday night I learn to dance with my salsa posse. And when David-with-the-trilby spins me around, I giggle like a maniac. One day I’d like to go to a real dance. I’ve decided that I will.
This week my husband set off for his new office and has admitted that he never much enjoyed the old one, anyway. It was kind of boring. I see the new spring in his step.
Here’s what I know. Change is out there, and it’s coming for us all. Maybe it’s even time to seek it out. In your writing. In your life.
There’s a black velvet bag in your hand. It looks scary and unknown. But I guarantee you there’s a shining ruby inside.
Pix: 1) Frenchman’s Creek, Cornwall, England (as made famous by Daphne du Maurier) 2) So French - cafe chairs in Amiens 3) Quoi?! A crazy sign in Northern France. But isn’t life about change? 4) The ruby. Seek that baby out!
Monday, February 11, 2013
We’ve just opened the doors on the Funny Prize for 2013. Last year was so much fun, and we found such a star in Pip Jones and her young series SQUISHY McFLUFF (pictured celebrating her deal with Julia), that this year we’re running it again, and opening it up to the US and Canada.
It’s going to be even bigger, with a winner in both the UK and North America.
The prize is representation by the Greenhouse, and in the UK you’ll also get a ticket to the fabulous Festival of Writing in York.
The winner may be a picture book like SQUISHY McFLUFF or THIS IS NOT MY HAT, or a young series à la HORRID HENRY, or for 8-12 year olds like M.T. Anderson’s WHALES ON STILTS. It could even be for teen readers like ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL or THE PRINCESS DIARIES.
The Greenhouse is looking for funny, and we’re wide open to all ages. Tell your friends, spread the word, the Greenhouse Funny Prize is open, and you can find all you need to know here.
We thought an interview with Pip Jones would be a great way to open this year’s prize, and pull the curtains back on what the last six months has held.
Pip, tell us about you and your writing. Is SQUISHY McFLUFF the first book you’ve written?
I write for a living now. I used to edit magazines, but writing was all I ever really wanted to do, and I remembered that when I left my job having had two babies in the space of 13 months. It seemed like a good time to try to be what I always wanted to be.
SQUISHY McFLUFF, THE INVISIBLE CAT was the first book I’d written since MaxBurger, which was a children’s book I wrote for my communication studies A-Level. I never did anything with that. But I got an A, actually, maybe I should dig it out!
How did SQUISHY come about? Did you know it was good?!
‘They’ do say you should write about what you know, so when I started feature writing, I concentrated on parenting. I had an endless source of material with two very little girls. SQUISHY McFLUFF actually started off as a story just called The Invisible Cat, and it was a re-jig of a column I’d written about my daughter Ava’s imaginary kitten. So Squishy was, erm, ‘real’ in that sense. I loved it when I’d done it, but I definitely didn’t know if it was good enough. I wanted to find out though. I actually enjoyed writing it so much, that I pushed on and wrote two more stories before anyone even looked at the first one.
How did you find out about the Funny Prize?
I was feeling a bit frustrated about how I could the right person to look at my texts, and the right person to like them. So I was browsing the web, looking for a forum where I could chat with other writers, and also for somewhere I could get the stories professionally appraised. I was on The Writers’ Workshop website when I noticed the advert for the Greenhouse Funny Prize, so I clicked on it. I think there were only about 10 days ‘til the deadline, but by then I had six Squishy McFluff stories done and ready to roll, and I thought, sod it, I’ll send all of ‘em!
What were your expectations entering?
I spent a morning formatting the stories correctly and pinging them over one-by-one – I was really keen to enter. But then after I’d sent them, I decided that a) it looked completely desperate sending in all six and b) I had no chance because the co-judge Leah Thaxton had discovered Andy Stanton’s MR GUM – and he is soooo funny.
Did you have the dates in your diary?
No. I think it was only a month or so until the shortlist was due to be announced, but I’d talked myself down off the cloud where I might get anywhere in the competition and had forgotten about it.
Was it a surprise to hear you’d been shortlisted?
Er, yeah! Actually, what happened was I got back from dropping Ava and Ruby off at nursery, made a coffee, looked at my emails, thought about starting work, then decided to faff about on Twitter for an hour, as you do. And I saw that Julia Churchill had followed me. It didn’t click for a second. Then ‘Greenhouse’ jumped out and I thought: ‘Noooo...?!’ Julia called me 25 minutes later to say I’d been shortlisted.
How did you celebrate when you won?
I think I cried a bit when Julia telephoned me, which was a little embarrassing, but she pretended not to notice. Then I demanded my partner Dan come back from the hospital where he was having his hand fixed (I felt a bit bad about that after, but he did have time to get it strapped up), then I called my mum, then I ditched work for the day and Dan and I went for a big lunch and sat in the sun with a bottle of wine.
Your prize was representation by the Greenhouse, and also a ticket to The Festival of Writing in York. How was that?
Fab, I met loads of interesting people, and attended many talks and workshops. I learned a lot that weekend. I came back feeling really invigorated about what else I could do. People who go get a lot from it, I think it fires their passion and determination, and it’s a great opportunity for them to get advice direct from people in the industry.
What happened after the prize was announced?
Soon after I went to meet Julia and just about managed to resist squealing and squeezing her ‘til she went purple. We had lunch, and Julia told me about her ideas for McFluff. Also, I suddenly found myself entering into a different author-y world, connecting with people on Twitter and so on. And Squishy McFluff was being talked about online, on people’s blogs. It was a bit surreal, like reading about someone else’s invisible cat.
How was it when you went in to the Faber and Faber offices to meet the team?
About a week after Leah had received the manuscripts, she invited Julia and I in for what she said would be a creative chat. I think I expected it to be a bit like an interview, for them to see if Squishy McFluff and I had legs, as it were. To say it wasn’t quite like that would be an understatement – I was floored, I felt wooed. There was a cat basket in the corner of the room, bearing Squishy McFluff’s name. Rebecca Lee (an editor at Faber Children’s) had made invisible cat cupcakes. And Leah had a table full of children’s books and was talking about illustration style, format, when Squishy McFluff might publish. And she said she intended to make an offer.
Tell us about Faber’s offer.
Faber’s offer was absolutely brilliant. I mean, any offer would be brilliant, but it was written almost entirely in rhyme, which was very funny (and it scanned very well!). It made me feel quite emotional, that Faber was pitching to me, asking me if they could have SQUISHY McFLUFF in their stable.
Squishy McFluff was entered into the prize as picture books, but they’re publishing as something slightly different. How did that come about?
Yes, they’re not quite what I thought they were! Actually, I sort of knew when I entered that the stories were too long to be standard picture books, but I didn’t know what else to call them. I didn’t know at the time there was a different format in which they could be published. So they’re going to bridge a gap between picture book and early reader, and each book will be split into three sections. They’re for 4-7 year olds, so at first children will have the stories read to them, and hopefully they’ll soon be reading them by themselves. I love that idea.
What’s the timeline?
One whole year from now the first book will be published! The text for SQUISHY McFLUFF, THE INVISIBLE CAT is done and with Faber (I had to extend it to fit the format, I had to double the length actually). The people at Faber are currently searching for the perfect illustrator, and it’ll be so exciting to see what Squishy McFluff and Ava look like. After that, it’ll all start being put together. I’m blogging about the whole process as it goes, and as I learn – I’m hoping this year’s Funny Prize entrants might enjoy reading about how it all happens. The second book (I’m working on the text now) will come out in August 2014, and there will be two more books, in February and August 2015.
What are you enjoying most about this process?
Well, I just love writing these stories. Few things make me happier actually, and I can sit down and do a solid eight-hour day on them without feeling jaded (although the rhyming in my head does send me a bit doolally). They make me laugh and they make me cry – the stories are funny, but I hope they also have quite a sweet take on the family dynamic. I don’t expect them to make other people cry though! I’m close to them because they’re based in truth, on my own children, my own family. The best thing of all is that I used to feel, when I was writing McFLUFF, that I was bunking off ‘real’ work, that I was indulging myself. Now when I write them, I am legitimately working, and doing something I love. How lucky am I?
What have been the biggest highlights or surprises?
Being shortlisted! Winning the prize! Getting the offer! Those are the highlights of course. Maybe the biggest surprise has been finding, and using in context, the perfect rhyme for ‘pigeon’.
Can you give us a burst of SQUISHY?
How about the beginning? I wrote the first two lines as one sentence, but I realised if I split the sentence in two, I had a rhyme. They were the whole reason that SQUISHY McFLUFF became a story told in verse:
As Ava played out in the garden one day
When the air was all foggy, the sky rather grey
Something appeared (or rather, did not)
From among the wet leaves in the vegetable plot
The marvellous creature was fluffy and tiny
As cute as a button, with eyes big and shiny
A tail that swished proudly, first this way, then that
A fabulous, friendly, invisible cat!
Thanks Pip, we love Squishy and Ava!
Pip is blogging about the process of getting published on her website, so do go and say hello.
If you’re writing funny, we’d love to see your work, from picture books right up to young adult fiction. All details for the Funny Prize are here.
What are you waiting for?! Show us the funny!
Sunday, January 20, 2013
A belated welcome to 2013 in the Greenhouse.
We’re in rip-roaring form over here in our cosy glass house. The sun’s warm on the panes, the soil is fertile, the scent of growing plants is rich in the air (oh, I love a good metaphor) . . . and we hope some of you will be joining us this year for the writing adventure of your lives.
Our big news is out there, but here it is again:
We’re delighted to welcome John Cusick as a new Greenhouse agent representing North American writers and eager to build his client list in middle grade and YA. Between us, John and I will be notching up the miles this year around America and beyond, speaking at conferences, attending trade events, and generally out and about meeting writers and editors, scouts and film people. Take a look here to see if either of us will be coming to an event near YOU. We’d love to meet you, love to receive your queries. We are banking on people like you sending us great stories.
In the coming weeks and months you’ll be discovering a lot more about John, his literary tastes, and I’ll get him to do a guest post on this blog very soon. Should you submit your work to me or him? He’s maybe a touch more geared to writing for boys than me, but please don’t polarize us too much. We’re both seeking great writing in all genres, we both like a really wide range of styles and voices - and if we think a manuscript would better suit each other, then don’t worry - we talk all the time and can be flexible. So, take your choice. The cool charismatic guy with the specs or . . . . me. Now there’s a dilemma!
Development #2 this January is that at last we are going to be Plunging into Picturebooks. Well, maybe not plunging; that makes it sound too easy in a tough marketplace. Rather, easing ourselves in with elegance. We’ve been repping a few PBs along the way already, but now Julia will specifically be seeking debut PBs from both US and UK authors (previously she’s only been repping UK/Commonwealth writers). It’s going to be a bit organic. I already rep PBs by authors I’ve taken on for older fiction, and that won’t change. But Julia will be the one to go to with specifically debut texts. Julia’s an ace talent-sniffer, and her nose is to the ground. Again, go to How to Submit to find out more.
So why changes now? What’s different about 2013?
As we moved through 2012 I knew that Greenhouse, at 4+ years old, was growing fast. We had opportunities coming at us from all directions and milestones that felt really significant. It was time to branch out and say even more strongly, ‘Here we are! Good things are happening in Greenhouse!’
Our clients have really been out there in the last few months. S.D. Crockett’s AFTER THE SNOW in Kirkus Best of 2012 and now shortlisted for the prestigious Morris Award in the US, plus longlisted for the Brandford Boase first-novel award in the UK, along with Sarah Lean’s A DOG CALLED HOMELESS. A slew of starred reviews for Erica L Scheidt’s haunting USES FOR BOYS, Brenna Yovanoff’s PAPER VALENTINE, Blythe Woolston’s razor-sharp thriller BLACK HELICOPTERS, and Sarwat Chadda’s epic Indian blockbuster THE SAVAGE FORTRESS. Megan Miranda’s FRACTURE continued its great run with Best of YA 2012 in the Boston Globe and nomination for Teen Reads of the Year, with Megan’s second novel, HYSTERIA, achieving a VOYA Perfect 10.
As we go into 2013 we have an exciting TV deal in the offing, as well as our first book deals of the year about to announce. In an incredibly competitive marketplace, the hard work of our authors is paying off in both the US and UK, and around the world in foreign rights sales.
So that’s why it was time to grow.
But what does that all mean for you? If you’re a new writer, I know how these great achievements can feel impossibly remote. Like these great authors I mention are an alien species, so different to you that you can barely relate because they’re sitting up there on Mount Olympus and you’re down in a puddle at the bottom of the hill. In fact, when you’re struggling to write your first novel, hearing of others’ success probably makes you feel a bit queasy.
But that’s where you may have it wrong. All our authors began with a query. One little query that landed in our inbox. All of them struggled to craft that query, write an interesting pitch, and stumble through a few lines about themselves. All of them wrote a bit, hit delete, tore their hair out, ate chocolate (repeat), and struggled out a few more lines maybe just a bit better than the first lot. All of them wobbled through how to create a story, how to write some lines about a character that weren’t cliched.
Our authors are just like you. Sure they have talent, but they also persevered (ie, Rome was not built in a day). And persevering is a big, big part of the writing equation. No one said writing was easy, and it isn’t – if it was, everyone would be lording it over the NYT Bestseller list or winning the Newbery or Carnegie Medals. You’ve got to keep getting back on that horse, learning and developing, looking for new ideas and the words to make them come alive.
We are excited for 2013. There will be thrills. There will no doubt be a few spills. But that’s how the business goes, and if you’re in the Greenhouse we walk the twisty road with you in all weathers.
Are you writing? Please keep going. Without you there isn’t a literary agency. Without you we’re sitting around twiddling our thumbs. Our authors are everything, and we need you and your stories.
Hoping to see you in the query inbox when you’re ready. Happy writing in 2013 - and let’s live it to the max, like we’ve got nothing to lose.
Pix: 1) Growing grapes in a Virginian vineyard. 2) BLACK HELICOPTERS by Blythe Woolston (Candlewick) 3) HYSTERIA by Megan Miranda (Walker) 4) The Colisseum. Rome. You see, it really wasn’t built in a day.