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Monday, September 22, 2008

And the word for the week is . . .


How could it not be, when I’ve spent most of the past week a) sympathizing with writers struggling with it b) waiting for writers to show me the fruits of it, and c) cudgelling my brains to produce notes that will enable writers to embark upon it.

Yes, Revision is a big, dark, scary word.  It is the Voldemort of writing.  It is the mountain range that stands between the author and an agent.  Between the author and a deal.  Between the author and the nirvana that awaits beyond the magical ‘delivery and acceptance’ clause in their contract - when finally, finally the manuscript passes from being the author’s responsibility and into the hands of the copy-editor, the production department.  Revision - once, twice, three times? Whose counting? - is what comes before the final immense, incredible sigh of relief.

Everyone is frightened of revision, deep down.  Because it means pulling up everything you’ve carefully put together thus far and opening it up once again to the cold and dispassionate light of analysis, rigour and logic.  When any carefully ignored omissions, obfuscations, self-delusions, denials, wobbly bits and messes are forced to meet their nemesis.  Who wants that, when it’s so much easier to keep a few dark corners where the light never shines?  Yes, revision is painful, frustrating and scary, because like a knitted sweater, when you pull out one thread the whole careful ‘knit one, pearl one’ of your beautiful creation can come unravelled in ways you never imagined.  You thought the requisite revision was small, tightly contained, manageable - the sort of hole that might be covered by an orderly little patch, like a puncture in a bicycle tyre. But when you take your gloves off and start getting your hands dirty - changing things, digging deeper - lo and behold, you find not only has the tyre collapsed, but the entire bicycle has folded up and died under you.

This, my friends, is the process and the life to which you have signed up.  It is the way of the professional author, and it is the path of any writer who aspires to be good.  Or great. However tough it is, the more you can open yourself to looking rigorously and honestly at your work and being prepared to rethink, the better the end result is likely to be.  And the less likely you are to be overly ‘precious’ about your writing and creativity. Publishers (and agents) love to deal with authors who will look objectively and exactingly at their work, and who are prepared to be guided in ways to make it even better.

Who do you know who can help you to revise?  Many of you belong to critique groups and that’s a great way to go, enlisting the frank comments and sympathetic support (both being vital) of tried and trusted writer friends whom you respect. But if you don’t know a group like this which you could join, cast about for people you know (probably not family) whose judgement you believe in, and who preferably have some level of knowledge of the market.  People often write to me saying they tried out their story on their children, or on a class at school. Listen to what those children say, but don’t necessarily believe that they will be the best or only arbiters.  All children love to be read to, and the extra dimension of an adult investing time and ‘live performance’ can transform any work of fiction into something superlative.  What you really need, ultimately, are the opinions of those who spend their lives working in the contemporary book scene in whatever capacity - who are used to dissecting plot, who understand the difference between characters that leap off the page and ones that remain two-dimensional, and who are attuned to hearing the cadence of language. If you come upon such a person, make them your best friend!

There are great rewards for those who revise, revise and revise again.  With the right kind of advice and a willingness to learn and rethink, your grasp of your craft will develop and mature, and before too long you’ll be looking back with a hand clapped to your forehead as you yell, ‘That thing I wrote six months ago? How on earth could I ever have written such embarrassing tosh?!’

It’s a bit like my Canon Rebel xti camera.  When I first got this beauteous piece of technology I hardly dared to touch it.  I studied the book for hours, gingerly prodding buttons every now and then.  Six months on I was swaggering around talking about ISO and aperture and shutter speeds (much to everyone’s irritation). I’m still no expert, and I still take some extremely wonky pictures at times, but I’m a million times better than I was.  And if I wanted to be a professional photographer?  Well, I’d do a lot of research and get myself on to the best possible course I could find and pay for, with all speed. Is writing so much different? It is craft. It is art. It is music. It is philosophy and psychology. It is structure, It is all things creative and analytical, all rolled into one form.  It is well worth learning in any way you possibly can - whether from good teachers on simply ‘on the job’.

REVISION. It is a writer’s best friend.  Don’t be afraid of it.  No author ever got there without it.  Be of good courage. 

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

100,000 and counting

This weekend has seen a milestone that I’ve been watching approach for some while.  We finally made it on Friday night - 100,000 page hits on the Greenhouse website.

Even allowing for the fact that 10,000 of those are probably my own (well, I LIKE looking at the site. I’m proud, OK?), that does suggest that quite a lot of people - from all over the world - have been dropping in to see what’s going on. In fact, I can almost watch the numbers going up as I sit at mission control; we’re currently at 100,969, so that’s a whole lot more who’ve popped in today!

I guess this is therefore a good moment to declare today the end of the beginning (most definitely not the beginning of the end). The end of that sense of being the new kid on the block who was constantly having to say, ‘Hi, pleased to meet you. This is what I have to offer’ time and time again. Yes, the certificate on the wall behind my head that says the Greenhouse became a Virginia corporation on January 24, 2008 now makes me feel positively venerable.

So it’s time to think about making some changes - not least to my submission policy, which is currently under discussion.  One thing I can tell you is that I’ll be saying goodbye to hard-copy submissions in favour of electronic (so if you’re about to submit something, PLEASE, PLEASE send it electronically and, for the moment, according to the existing site guidelines).  With a business called Greenhouse it makes absolute sense to be as paper-free as possible. 

But the magic 100K figure has made me think about other numbers of achievements that have taken place since Greenhouse’s start date.  I share them with you now.  Please note, some of these are highly accurate and some are . . . well, a little more creative. I leave you to guess which are which.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Greenhouse’s post-1/24 mathematical blog!

Number of queries received and perused: about 3,000-3,500

Number of authors launched into book deals:  5

Number of blueberry muffins Sarah has consumed in the interests of ‘easing her into reading’: 60

Number of postmen collapsed under the weight of mail and now requiring hip replacements: 3

Number of mind-bendingly slow ‘walkies’ undertaken with the Hound, in which every blade of grass has been sniffed and contemplated:  420

Number of grey hairs Sarah has gained and now has to conceal:  Sorry, that is not information you need to have.

Number of times Blackberry has been peeked at in the middle of the night:  Sssssh, that’s our secret, and if I tell you you may think I’m insane.

Number of times Sarah has said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t represent picturebooks’: 987

Number of times someone, anyone, has said, ‘Ha ha, Britain and the USA are two nations divided by a common language!’:  23

Number of frappuccinos (mocha, low-cal sugar replacement, skim milk, hold the whip cream) consumed by Sarah in the interests of ‘easing her into reading’ [NB: See muffin item above]): 60 (NB: Greenhouse Husband says, ‘7 billion’)

Number of people who have believed they and I were a ‘match made in heaven’:  16?

Number of times Sarah has fallen on the floor simultaneously laughing and weeping, while punching the air and screeching ‘YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!’:  1

Number of weekends Sarah has not worked in some shape or form:  0

Number of times Sarah has been caught talking earnestly to herself, while considering some thorny plot point:  7 (NB: I’m good at not getting caught.)

Number of times the phrase ‘Squeeze the juice from the fruit’ has been said:  147

Maximum number of Vermont chocolates consumed in any one evening while looking at submissions:  8 (Do not try this at home without help on hand.  Those babies are rich.)

Number of queries received focusing on corpses, brothels, and automatic weaponry in the Chechen War: 1 (it was not for teens. And actually, not really in English.)

Number of MFA courses addressed: 2 (give me time, give me time)

Number of times Sarah has crossed the Atlantic: 4

Number of times a nervous breakdown/heart attack/general collapse has been narrowly avoided following the sighting of a deceased black snake:  2

Number of times Sarah has been locked out and worn plastic bags on her feet to avoid hypothermia: 1

Number of times the phrase ‘Show, don’t tell!’ has been proclaimed:  1,349

Number of friends, old and new, in the industry and book community who have helped and supported Sarah as she found her feet in the USA:  A number.  You know who you are.  x

Number of would-be writers who have brightened Sarah’s day, charmed her with their kindness, raised her spirits, made her smile, come back with such grace after being rejected - and generally made her feel this is a great business to be in:  Too many to count.

Number of Saturday nights spent writing blog posts:  Many.  And this is one!

On which note I wish you a happy weekend, one and all, wherever you may be.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

A flood and a deal

As I write this, the Greenhouse is about to float away on the monsoon known as Tropical Storm Hanna. There are floods on the roads, waterfalls in the yards, and a Hound that smells so bad from his brief outing in the rain that he will thenceforth be known as Stinker (a name he richly deserves at the best of times). So it’s a good afternoon to stay inside and catch up with the welter of things that just don’t get done during the crazy, hectic week:  booking flights, downloading Skype (watch this space, I’m going to be doing a monthly podcast from October for my agent mate Peter Cox’s Litopia After Dark series, which discusses industry issues.  I’ll let you know when I’m on and you can listen to me via the internet!), creating and printing notes on my authors/books for this week’s trip to New York, and finalizing some appointments. Then of course there are the ever-present submissions to unpack from their envelopes and stack in an orderly pile on the floor (the only space left), waiting for the next patch of time when I can concentrate on them.

Yes, I’m off to New York early Monday morning until Wednesday night.  It should be great - I’m meeting three Greenhouse authors there and will be joining two on their first visits to their publishers.  Now, I think you can imagine what an exciting moment that is for any debut author, and I feel like a proud parent on the first day of school (do you have your lunchbox?  Does your uniform fit?). But it’s also a scary moment too for a new author - for the first time they’re out in the real, commercial world of the book industry, under a contract, and feeling a pressure they’ve not felt before.  So it’s great to know that we’re working with some lovely editors who manage to be not only very professional, but also very understanding and supportive.  There’s no doubt about it, this is a great business to be in - people work incredibly hard, but there’s so much fun involved too. And most people are just plain nice!

I’ll also be meeting with lots of editors on my own, seeing a few for the first time, but also getting better acquainted with others.  This process is so important.  A book can stand or fall on the personal passion of one editor who leaps in and champions a novel within their publishing house.  And everyone has different taste.  What I want to know, and keep up to date with, is what individual editors are seeking right now - what they already have and don’t need more of, and what they’d love to find.  So these appointments are often less about me presenting manuscripts than just listening and making notes as editors talk about their lists.  When I submit a novel I usually pick about twelve editors (occasionally more than one within the same house, but different imprints) to send to, so each one represents a very careful decision on my part. 

So that gives you a feel for my week ahead.  But the week just past has been an exciting one.  The biggest thing has been that - hurrah! - I have sold US/Canadian rights in Teresa Harris’s debut middle-grade novel, TREASURE IN THE PAST TENSE, to Dinah Stevenson at Clarion, part of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt group. I first met Teresa in July when I was a panellist at the alumni conference of the MFA program at Vermont College.  We bumped into each other very early on and seemed to keep being in the same place at the same time - not least down in the local coffee shop where we had a rather good chat about a book we both loved - Donna Tartt’s SECRET HISTORY.  At the cocktail party hosted by Greenhouse, a couple of students also came up and surreptitiously whispered in my ear, ‘Teresa is amazing - you should see her writing!’ So when I got back to my desk and Teresa wrote to me about TREASURE IN THE PAST TENSE, my interest was well and truly piqued. It’s already posted on the ‘Our Authors’ section of the site, but here’s the story in a nutshell:

Treasure Daniels hasn’t had a real home for four years, since her dad left. Ever since then, her mom has been on the run - from herself, and from all the people to whom she owes money.  But tough as life is for Treasure and her little sister, they really don’t want to obey Grandma Celeste and go stay with evil old Great-aunt Grace in Black Lake, Virginia.  Sure enough, Grace is even worse than Treasure had feared, with her endless cigarettes, her depressing house, and her four-hour church services on Sundays. And Black Lake is a town where segregation still lingers.  It doesn’t take long for Treasure to have had enough and to want out.  But then something unexpected happens and Treasure witnesses Grace standing up for her in a way she can hardly believe.  Suddenly Black Lake starts looking a little different, and Treasure realizes that after running for so many years, she’s finally found a home - and a real family - where she’d least expected.

TREASURE IN THE PAST TENSE is really special - insightful, charming, and memorable.  It will be great to see how the novel grows over the next few months as Teresa develops the story still further with such a high-calibre and challenging publisher as Dinah Stevenson.

Oh my goodness, I do believe it has stopped raining.  Perhaps I won’t have to float off to New York in an Ark with Stinker after all.  Enjoy the weekend, wherever you are, and take care if you’ve some bad weather around.  Cheers!

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Query and submission tips on Labor Day!

Hi there - and happy Labor Day to anyone reading this in the USA.  Sympathies to you Brits, who are back at work right now - no doubt not having the kind of weather we’re enjoying today in Virginia. 

To any of you affected by Gustav - just to say I’m thinking of you a lot.  Take care.  I’ve only experienced one hurricane - the legendary British one of 1987, which did so much long-term damage to ancient woodland, and which meant that a certain weather forecaster named Mr Fish (yes, really) would never, ever recover from the embarrassment of having got the forecast so fantastically, appallingly wrong!

It’s been a great Labor Day weekend so far for me. I’m still proud of my kayaking achievements - eight miles down the Shenandoah River in faster-moving water than I’ve experienced before, including several Class 2 rapids and a little drop called The Ledge.  I could also show you the egg-shaped lump on my head from a close encounter with a fallen tree, thanks to certain ‘navigational issues’ pertaining to the Greenhouse Husband.  But let’s not go there.  The journey downriver was fabulous - the lofty, silent mountains above, hawks wheeling overhead, great grey herons flapping out in front of me, and hundreds of snapping turtles slipping off their rocks and branches as we paddled past.  What an amazing country this is - I am incredibly lucky to be here and experiencing such things. 

There have been changes out in the yard, with the final erection of the Purple Martin House.  For those of you who, like me, don’t know much about these birds, I’m told they eat the mozzies, which sounds excellent since I seem to be a favourite mozzie target. But the accommodation we are offering the PMs is quite superlative:  a pagoda-like home about 18-feet from the ground, offering stylish modern living for up to twelve birdie families, complete with mini-railing lest they topple off while sunbathing.  If any of you has experience of PMs and their habits, do please post a comment.

HOWEVER.  I am a busy literary agent and you are busy writers, so having softened you up with my Labor Day fun, I shall now move on to more serious issues.  Yes, this is a good-cop, bad-cop blog!

Greetings to any of you who have found this site having seen the Greenhouse listed in Writers Digest recently. That listing appeared the day I left for ‘vacation’ (note quote marks), and I didn’t know it was coming. As a result, several hundred submissions have poured in during the past two or three weeks.  Thanks for these - I’m trying to deal with them as efficiently as possibly, though apologies are due to some of you whose full manuscripts I promised to read a while ago but just haven’t been able to get to yet.  Sometimes the volume is a bit overwhelming, but I know how hard it is to wait when you’ve work out on submission to an agent.

Most of you send me great emails or letters - well constructed, clear, interesting, and often very charming.  However, there are some repeated issues that I want to point out if you are thinking of submitting to me.  In due course I’m going to be making some changes to the submission info on the site, but here are ten tips for now:

1. I don’t represent picturebook texts, which would include very young rhyming stories, counting books - or anything else pre-school. I also don’t seek overtly religious work, writing for adults, or illustrators.  I’m also not looking for short stories. Yes, I am in theory interested in young chapter books, but the truth is it would have to be fantastic and probably a character-based series (the market is so crowded and overpublished). 

2. I am therefore most interested in middle grade or teenage fiction.

3. I know you want to be sure your submission has arrived safely, but PLEASE don’t send a package by a means that requires collection or signature on delivery, or that can only be returned via the Post Office. I may be away, or out, and I won’t drive miles to collect or return your package. Sorry, can’t be done.  And I don’t prioritise work that is sent special delivery - I invariably take submissions in date order (exceptions being if I’ve met someone and already have some relationship with them, or if a submission really leaps out at me).

4. Yes, you can send either by email or snail mail, but I’d actually prefer email because I’m set up to deal with it swiftly.  I am probably the only agent in the nation who currently accepts email attachments.  I am reviewing that, but will let you know if it changes. 

5.  Many of you only send ‘queries’ - ie, an email or letter with no sample writing, despite me offering to look at your material.  If your query is emailed then fine, I can get straight back to you if I like the sound of it.  It it is snail-mailed I’ll almost certainly reject it - I can’t spare the time for back-and-forth hard-copy correspondence.

6. PLEASE BE CAREFUL when you email.  I receive emails that get my name wrong, that are cc’d to other agents, that are clearly bulk-sent, that don’t even make it clear what you are asking me to do.  Can you imagine how badly this comes across? I try to spend time carefully reading your communication.  Why should I if you aren’t careful in addressing me or if I’m very obviously just one of hundreds?  Don’t submit your work before you’ve revised and revised, and then strategise your choices of agent very carefully.  I can tell an enormous amount about you and your attitude to your work from your initial enquiry.

7. PLEASE BE CAREFUL when you snail-mail.  I’ve had packages that contain no letter, or no SASE (and no email as an alternative means of response). In these cases I don’t reply.

8.  Please do not send me multiple submissions (eg, two manuscripts in two packages at the same time).  And please don’t whiz me another story the instant I’ve rejected your first.  I have to presume you’re sending me your very best work first time around.  If I’ve sent you a really encouraging reply than fair enough, send me something else a few months later, but don’t immediately respond ‘Actually the thing I sent you first was rubbish, so now I’m sending you what is REALLY my best writing.’ I try to be fair to everyone and take submissions chronologically, and it isn’t fair to everyone else if one person inundates me.

9. Don’t try to be clever-clever in how you introduce yourself.  I don’t respond any better to sassy, provocative statements (in fact, that really puts me off), so just set out your wares clearly and concisely. I’m reading fast and trying to get rapidly to the kernel of what you have to tell me.

10.  Phew, I’m just about at the end. So here’s my final tip:  Be careful and considered in all the ways you approach your writing. Yes, I know there are examples of people submitting to 250 agents and then being taken on by #251, but those must be incredibly rare.  If you are being rejected constantly then take time out and review your writing - perhaps going back to your critique group or sharing the manuscript with trusted writer friends.  Be prepared to make radical changes or even start again.  Professional writers, and writers who get that fabulous first deal, nearly always have to do extensive revision, so start getting used to that now. Read a lot, write a lot - and only submit a long way down the tracks. 

Have a great Labor Day, Americans.  And happy Monday, Brits.  And to all of you with children, good luck as you get them back to school for the new year.  I know first hand how vital for work those hours can be once you’re back on the school schedule.  New school year, new beginnings - good luck with the writing! 

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