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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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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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