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Friday, April 25, 2008

Reaching into the jewel box

So I’m approaching the end of a week where I spent a lot of time on your queries and submissions. Can you imagine what this aspect of agenting is like?  Come into the Greenhouse with me and I’ll show you!

I open my inbox and look up the list - it feels vertiginously high. So many names, titles - and pleas. At times 25 per day arriving; 10 while I sleep (from other timezones). For every one I deal with, more instantly appear, sliding into my ether insistently and urgently.  So many people for whom this means so much, and who will open my response with both hope and dread. For each one, they are the ONLY one - none of the others matter. Writing is a solitary business, and in that first interface between author and agent no one else can go there for you. Yes, it’s quite a responsibility and not one I take lightly. 

I click on the first message and scan it rapidly - digesting the ‘query’ as it has come to be called.  I don’t see a query - I see and hear a person trying to communicate the essence of what may have taken them months or even years to create. Usually they’ve told me too much - paragraphs of content, a story that in paraphrase is unwieldy, so much to absorb quickly and with my eye on so many things:  Is this a great concept? Who is it aimed at?  Is there a market?  Is it derivative? And what does the literary task of query-writing tell me about the author? Usually a great deal. Some are sloppy, some are charming, some are desperate, some can’t spell . . . but others are masterpieces of precision. But this isn’t about the query email. No first novel was ever bought (or represented) on a query; this is all about the writing.  And as I click on the attachment (or scroll down to text) there is nowhere to hide - not in the courses you’ve taken, or even the prizes you’ve won.  This is me, the reader, responding to the impact that your first few pages will make - and in that, I mirror the editors you would encounter at publishing houses, and ultimately the young person who needs a reason to choose your work off a shelf rather than someone else’s. There is no grand conspiracy to shut new authors out of the publishing industry - it’s a business desperate for new talent, hungry as a vampire for fresh blood. And every submission I open could be the one; the one that will make me slowly take my feet off the desk and sit up, nerve-ends sizzling with excitement.

So what are the rules for all this?  Yes, you guessed it. There ARE no rules - but there are some really reliable suggestions. Here are just three:

1. SHOW DON’T TELL
You’ll find this in my Top Tips and I recommend that you tattoo it on your forehead, wear it on a sign around your neck, so you will never forget.  Because a huge proportion of submissions I read fall at this hurdle.  If you (or your characters) just tell the reader all about everything - the world you’ve created, your characters, what they think and feel - it will inevitably feel dull, dull, dull. Instead, try to let your world come to life in a more nuanced way, from the inside out, letting your characters SHOW for themselves what they feel, how they respond, what their lives are like. You can achieve this in so many ways - by the language you use, the expression on your character’s face, their mannerisms . . .  Let your characters bring themselves to life so they practically burst off the page - don’t just TELL the reader about them.  Work on this and you’ll improve your writing massively, I promise.

2. THE MOVIE OF THE MIND
Yes, reading is the movie playing in your mind. That visualization is a magical process, so don’t break the spell. You want to make it really, really hard for the reader to quit.  So be careful to avoid clunky phrasing, repeated words, writing that lacks rhythm.  Shut your eyes, sit back and let yourself hear the cadence of what you’ve written. Care about every word you write - nothing should be redundant or ill-considered; your spell needs to be woven with every word.  There’s a great review quote (quite possibly, though I guess not necessarily, written by a woman!) on the cover of the UK edition of Jennifer Donnelly’s A GATHERING LIGHT:  ‘If George Clooney had walked into the room I would have told him to come back later when I’d finished.’ Could the same be said about YOUR writing? (If George doesn’t light your fire, I’ll let you replace him with Angelina or Jessica . . . )

3. A GOOD IDEA FOR A STORY IS THE ONE YOU *HAVE* TO TELL
Now quite a few people seem to think a good idea is broadly one that is selling rather successfully right now. Folks, you’ll have to do better than that.  The best idea for you is going to be the one that you totally fall in love with telling.  Start with the passion and work forwards.  Worry less about marketability.  There are some really quirky books that have gone on to do very well. Who’d have thought of Sharon Creech’s LOVE THAT DOG or Guus Kuijer’s sublime little novella THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING (Arthur Levine Books US/ Querido in Netherlands). In fact, the market LOVES work that is distinct and different. What is YOUR story and how are you going to tell it?  Don’t be in a hurry to send off your query; regard yourself as a writer first of all, a reader secondly, and only thirdly a submitter (thanks to Andrew Karre of Flux for that little one). How long did it take Joshua Bell to learn to play the violin? I rest my case. You are a student of the art of writing; this is going to be a long, long apprenticeship.

So what has the ‘jewel box’ of my title got to do with all this?  Well, before you is a box of treasures - richly sparkling gems.  Those gems are words - vibrant, potent, limitless in wealth and possibility.  Pick them up and handle them; roll them around and watch the light shine through them; catch that deeply resonant colour as it illuminates everything before it.  Fall in love with language; weave your emeralds, rubies and diamonds into magic.  And I promise you, I won’t log off when I find your name in my inbox.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

LIBF to Virginia

Yes, it’s been LIBF this week. For those new to the international trade circuit, that’s the London International Book Fair - a seething hurly-burly of an event at Earls Court that brings together all the publishing/selling community, including a fair number of Americans who make the trek over (no doubt to wonder where their dollars have gone as they deal with London prices!). This year I didn’t need to attend - much more important for me to be here building my client list. But my Rights People posse were of course flying the Greenhouse flag at LIBF, and it’s been great to see that Alex has finalized fabulous deals in Germany, Italy and France (all top houses) for DEVIL’S KISS.  Oh, and we’re also expecting Brazil and Greece to follow in the next few days. That’s the first crop - rights sales can take several months (or even longer) to come in from the smaller territories, so I’m sure we’ll reach a substantial figure by the time it’s all done.

I love the international side of this business. My publishing training (at a house that put huge emphasis on foreign markets) really drilled into me the importance of a global vision, and that’s what I love most: finding projects that I believe have the ‘legs’ to work in many different territories. Of course not all books will work in all places - and you can find great success by being a bestseller in even one market - but there’s no doubt that you hit the jackpot when you’re wanted all over the world.

So that’s why I’ve spent the week so far working editorially on a project which fits that description. I take the view that if I love an author and I’m going to try to get them a deal, then I’m going to get them the very BEST deal I can. And that means work! Because I want as many editors as possible to fall in love with the writing - and that means getting it as finished as possible.  There are editors out there who see potential and are prepared to put in creative time and vision; but it’s often hard to get houses to commit without showing them something reasonably polished. It’s all too easy for them to reject a manuscript because it’s just too much work to get it into shape.  So, at moments like these I slip very comfortably back into ‘editor mode’ to work closely on texts - and what fun that is. The best writers (and I don’t necessarily mean the most experienced) are those who can take your suggestions and burst back with something much better, funnier, cleverer than you had thought of; who use your comments as a springboard for fresh ideas of their own.  And that’s when you can see a writer really develop and find their wings. Now THAT is exciting! 

This kind of agenting is very time-consuming and I know I can’t work with many people in this way, so I also want to find the ‘ready-to-go’ manuscripts too. Somehow that’s a lot harder and I’d love to be able to write editorial reports for a lot of people, as I see great ideas that could be fantasic if they were deconstructed and rebuilt with a sharper focus.

So what is the kind of story that can work in different markets?  Well, I’d say that ‘high-concept’ ones are likely to be contenders - a really clear, fresh, sharply focused storyline that reaches beyond its geographical setting.  Yes, paranormal romance is doing well as a genre, but there’s an awful lot out there (and more coming all the time), so if you’re venturing into that area it’s really got to leap off the page. Most of all, in whatever genre you choose, it’s the WRITING that counts (can I emphasize that 50 times over?). The ability to make the reader see things in a wholly new way, to feel strong emotions, to ‘see’ your characters so clearly that they become real.  This kind of writing is genre- and territory-busting and it’s what everyone is crying out for - whether they live in Birmingham, England, or Birmingham, Alabama. Or even Brazil.

Happy writing, folks!

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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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