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Monday, June 29, 2009

The heron and the fish!

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This photograph may look like it’s a picture of a lonely heron holding out for a fish amid the tumult of Great Falls (Maryland), after a Spring of incessant rain.

It’s actually a picture of me (and Julia – you’ll have to imagine there’s a second little heron) watching the Greenhouse submissions pour into our inbox.

They arrive in ever greater numbers, and thank you for them. Hold my Blackberry in your hand and you see them slink in silently throughout the day across the timezones from the East Coast, then in the evening from the West Coast, then during my night and morning from the UK and Europe. There is probably no hour, day or night, when a submission for Greenhouse isn’t arriving for either Julia or I. Surely, I think, we must reach a point where everyone who’s going to write a novel has sent it? But no, and it’s the same every day of the year – even Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, the height of summer . . . you writers sure do have some energy!

So this week I thought I’d focus on submissions, not having mentioned them for a while and because I’ve also looked at lots recently.

The first thing I want to say is that they are ALL taken seriously.  We open every one knowing that this moment, this writer, this work, could be crucial – here could be the fish that the heron has sought for so long! The next one we open and read could be the mega-seller of tomorrow and we dare not miss it, because the bestseller of 2012 will probably come just like this – silently, without bells and whistles.  That is the focus we bring to you, so you should never feel your submission will be overlooked.  Our commercial (and literary) antennae are waving in the wind as we read, all ready to pick up a whiff of possibility.

So what can you do to help yourself – and to help us?  Because I see the same things again and again and again in submissions, I’m going to give you my top tips for submitting, though I admit that this is initially going to look more like a list of what NOT to do. I apologize in advance if I hurt anyone’s feelings, but some things just have to be said.  Here goes:

1. Always do what the agency (and I mean ANY agency, not just ours) asks you to do in terms of submission. And to find out what that is, read their website – don’t just take info from either a hard-copy or online guide. Both of these (especially the hard copy) can be out of date.  Greenhouse changed its submission guidelines in September 08 – to e-submissions only – but we’re still getting paper submissions, often without either SASE or email address.  And I still get attachments, which we also don’t accept.  I reply to what I can, but it’s frustrating and time-consuming – and there’s no way we have time to write snail-mail letters back to you.

2. Only submit the kind of work the agency says it’s interested in. I receive adult fiction, religious work, short stories, picturebooks, illustrations, even TV scripts – all of which we don’t represent. If you see any listing that says we take adult work, please let me know. Probably 20% of submissions we get are for genres that we don’t represent.

3. Beware cut and paste! I laugh a lot when I’m addressed as Dan Lazar (that was the latest), the Prospect Agency etc etc.  Or when people tell me they are enclosing an SASE (with their email). Also, I’d like to announce that my name is SARAH DAVIES, not Sara Davis, because multitudes arrive with my name wrong (in fact, one has just arrived even as I write this). It’s not a life-and-death thing, but would you like constantly to be addressed by the wrong name? Especially when writers are telling me they’ve read our website and are sure I’m the perfect agent for them.

4. Around 50% of submissions open with either a) a character getting up in the morning (often eating breakfast) or b) moving house or c) a dream. Sometimes all these together. I’m not saying this is wrong, exactly – I’m just saying try for a more original opener. Oh, and another 10% start with a loud noise: WHAM, BAM, POW, CRASH, RRRRING!

5. Less is so often more. Don’t overwrite your first sentence in an attempt to be attention-grabbing. Eg, ‘The tumultuous pain rampaged through every seething capillary like a mallet pounding on Lucifer’s anvil.’ How about this instead: ‘My head hurt.’ Your reader’s attention is not seized by adjectives and adverbs; it’s all in the expectation you set up. How about this line: ‘I had a farm in Africa’.  It takes confidence and skill to write with simplicity.

6. If you are going to write about ‘a girl with powers’, you will have to be a great writer and have a particularly great plot.  Yes, supernatural, dark stuff is very commercial, but you’re in a zone where you’ve got huge competition right now. Those ‘powers’ are going to have to be really original and well depicted.

7. Be careful of making comparisons between yourself and any top author, whether it be Pullman, Meyer, Salinger, Rowling etc etc. You immediately set the bar so high for yourself you’re doomed not to measure up. And anyway, we already have all those great authors – what we’re looking for is someone new!

8. If I turn you down (which I try to do courteously) don’t rush back to tell me ‘Then you’ve missed out on something amazing and it’s your loss’.  And please don’t immediately send another submission, and then another, as if we’re robots who have no other deserving authors awaiting our attention. If you have another work to show us, then drop us a little note first asking if we’d like to see something more from you. If we liked the writing in your first piece (but didn’t love the plot) we’ll say yes, but don’t just blitz us and then chase us up if we don’t respond. You are submitting to people, not a ‘process’.

9. Beware writing/submitting massive work. I flinch when I see that someone’s written 100,000+ words. And also if you say your submission is the first in a 7-book series, of which you’ve already written numbers 1-6. (The one exception to this might be if it’s a very young, high-concept series.) It’s going to be hard to sell a huge debut novel, and publishers are going to be wary of committing to a long series. Much better to get the first book absolutely right, though you could map out a second if you want and maybe even write a one-page outline. The problem is, if you do rush ahead and write all these sequential novels, what happens if you get a deal and your editor wants a complete rewrite of Book 1 – as they almost certainly will. Suddenly you’ll find that all the other stories don’t work because the foundations were wrong.

10.It’s good (of course) to engage our interest from the start, but you don’t need to ask us ghastly questions in the first few sentences of your query.  Eg, ‘Have you ever wondered, Ms Davies, how it would feel if your children were slaughtered by a serial killer?’ Or ‘Can you imagine, Ms Churchill, the sensations you’d have if your entrails were pulled out through your nostrils and eaten by crows?’ No, I haven’t, and she can’t, thank you very much, and we don’t intend to start now.

11 Please don’t send either a) a two-line query without even giving your name at the end (because you’ve sent the attachment – hah! - to 5000 other agents and it’s a pain to write personally) or b) write a query the length of War and Peace, containing every twist and turn of your plot. A page-length query suffices nicely.

12 We give you the chance to show us your fabulous writing and request five opening pages to be pasted into your email. So why do so many submissions contain no writing?  It is your chance to shine! Plus, if we like your query we then have to email back again and ask for some writing – again, when we’re trying to make decisions on so many submissions in a timely way, this is frustrating (and it can be easier just to say no without asking for the writing).

13 Don’t outline at length your ambitions for a movie, TV series, or global merchandising deal (unless of course you have some outstanding qualification for being able to make these happen). Everything starts for us with the writing, and the book. If we sign you up and get you a book deal then other things at least become possible.

14. We are not enthusiastic about work that teaches children ‘lessons’. Of course, every great story will have meaning and depth, and leave the reader with things to think about. It’s also true that ‘the best fiction teaches us more about ourselves than about the characters’.  But writing that heavy-handedly aims to ‘educate children about life’ isn’t for us. We believe children and teens deserve entertainment without a barely hidden agenda.  (Besides, I tend to think it’s we adults who need ‘educating’ rather than children, but that’s another issue . . . )

15. We also aren’t interested in fairy stories.  And while both Julia and I adore animals, especially dogs and cats, the truth is that there are tons of animal stories (and anthropomorphic animals) around, and your work is going to have to be really original, quirky and strong for us a to find a home for short, young, animal-centric fiction.

Now you hate me. Well, I hope not because we do try really hard to read your work carefully and get back to you (yes, we know you need closure, even though our ‘official’ guidelines say we only respond to those we want to take further).

So far it’s all been negative – but what do we actually WANT you to do in your query?

1. Read our submission guidelines – and follow them.

2. Remember we are only human and we are looking at around 100 per week (on top of all the other work we do).

3. Keep your query short and concise, giving us rapidly the key points we need to know: length, target market, one-paragraph plot outline, short bio of yourself.

4. Try to write simply and effectively, with an interesting, original start (remembering that you are mainly setting up the reader’s expectation of what will follow).

5. If you’ve got other stories in the pipeline and we’ve rejected you, don’t just send more – ask us first if we’d like to see something else you’ve written.

6. Do your homework. Are we the right agents for you? Approach all agents individually and carefully. Because when you get the details right, it makes us sure you’ll also be a meticulous writer.

Do all this and we’re delighted to hear from you. And as two little herons staring into the foaming torrent beneath, we’ll be all poised to swoop down and pluck the plump fish. And that fish could be YOU!

Oh, and just a couple of little afterthoughts:  To the gentleman (presumably) who enquired, on a certain writers’ chat board, as to my marital status?  Yes, I am married and my husband is VERY FIERCE, so you’re out of luck, though your interest is flattering. And to the tiny minority of you who are absolutely and genuinely terrifying, please note - I have a huge dog, with slavering jaws and a taste for human flesh. Honestly.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And now from Julia Churchill, over in London . . .

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What is it about books?

At some point in 1983 the pictures in my childhood album start featuring a new motif. All of a sudden there’s a book in every photo. That’s me in the pink dress, reading Noddy to my grandmother.

Like many of you, I was a big reader as a little one. I’ve just spent a couple of days with my seven-year-old niece and she reminded me of that fierceness of feeling I had for books when I was her age. Can you remember learning how to read? It was so hard. The panicky tears, the pudgy, balled fists, lots of stamping and stubbornness. And then click. So begins a life-long love.

There is a headiness to those first few years of reading. I see it in my niece. Finding the right buy in a bookshop comes with all the fervour of a particularly high-stakes Easter-egg hunt. Those shimmering pink covers, those cover-mount giveaways and deliciously packaged, and oh-so-collectible, series reads. She carries her book out of the shop like it’s her most beloved piece of jewelry.

As a five year old, every Wednesday afternoon I’d practically hyperventilate with excitement before my trip to Battersea Library in London. Meg and Mog, Where The Wild Ones Are, Dr Seuss. And then later The Worst Witch, an Asterix and Tintin obsession, Sweet Valley High, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton – who was contraband in school. Of course, the classics; The Secret Garden, The Borrowers, Narnia. Then, in come James Herbert, Stephen King and Jilly Cooper.

Can you remember your favourites? The ones that appealed to the bonkers five year old in you, the adventure-hungry eight year-old - the push, shove and wanderlust of the thirteenth year? Or the first time you realized that books could be very, very scary? Goosebumps, for me. The first book that made you sob till you were sick? Watership Down.

Storytelling used to be cave paintings and tree carvings, dance and song, and stories passed down the generations in front of the hearth. It was social. When I watch my niece read, I realize that books are also about the opposite. They’re about unplugging from the grid. She’s unplugging from computer games, TV, white-noise and household chatter. She’s withdrawing from us and occupying some space elsewhere.

In those early years books mean independence and taking control. They’re about important, grown-up, decisions in shops and libraries. They’re about new and fierce loyalties to characters and authors. Once you learn to read, a five-hour car journey isn’t the purgatory it was before. It’s transformed into midnight feasts and sea swimming competitions at Mallory Towers or sharks, desert islands and treasure hunts with The Hardy Boys.

When my niece and I get back from the bookshop she sits on the sofa, cracks the spine on her book and off she goes. She’s so focused on the faraway, her forehead is scrunched and I can almost hear her brain buzzing. She’s reading a bit above her age and I know the story has some scary bits. She looks so brave to me with her little white knuckles and her mind a million miles away. She makes me think of everything books gave me when I was little. I can see her heading past the blurred edges of the map and I realise that in that moment I’m watching her grow up.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Shooting for the moon

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Last Saturday night I sat outside a diner on New York’s 7th Avenue, eating cheesecake and smiling up at the moon.

It has been one of the best weeks in the short history of the Greenhouse – packed with progress, excitement, and affirmation that we’re doing some things right and are truly on our way.  Alone in the city on that warm night, and staring up at that moon, I was suddenly ‘surprised by joy’ – as C.S. Lewis once said.

Let’s go back to where my last blog post ended, with me wearily slumped over my keyboard in England. I arrived back in the US Tuesday lunchtime, unpacked and sat straight down at my desk, where (apart from a few muddled hours of sleep – I dream constantly about not having plane tickets) I more or less stayed until 7.30pm the following night, when I finally settled the deal that dominated my British trip.

After an enormous amount of interest among US publishers, and a number bidding in a big auction that finally went to ‘best offers’, Brenna Yovanoff’s debut YA novel, FE (not Fae or Fey, please note – FE is the chemical symbol for iron) will be published by the team at Razorbill, Lexa Hillyer and Ben Schrank, in a 2-book deal.  For any of you who don’t know, Razorbill is the teen imprint of Penguin US and the people behind the NYT blockbuster, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher. Razorbill loved FE from the start, and I knew this was a very special acquisition for them.

I’ll be posting details of Brenna and the book on the Author section of this site as soon as I can, but I can tell you that Brenna’s voice is elegant and strange, and her story is darkly compelling.  I can practically guarantee that there will be considerable international interest in it.

The hero of the story is Mackie Doyle, a brooding, bass-playing teenager who seems like everyone else in the perfect town of Gentry, but who is hiding a big secret: he is a Replacement, left in the crib of a human baby 16 years ago.  Now, the dark side – those who live under the Hill – wants him back, and Mackie must decide where he really belongs.  Will finding love with feisty, vulnerable Tait finally make him worthy of the human world?

I know many of you aspiring writers must at times doubt that you can find representation through the usual agency submission process. You are one of thousands, and I’m sure you wonder if agents even look properly at your material.  Well, Brenna’s story may encourage you.  She appeared in my inbox last August when I was especially inundated. Her submission immediately made me sit up (something in the way she expressed herself?), I asked to see her whole manuscript, and we then began an editorial process together that resulted in the complete rewrite that went out to US publishers this May – so nine months after our first encounter.  Brenna is a star at revision, a big talent, and it’s been an exciting journey to see FE develop.

Deal done, up at 5am the following morning to fly to New York – only to sit on the tarmac for ages due to fog at La Guardia.  Frustrated, I felt my Blackberry vibrate, took a quick look – and saw we’d had an offer on another project.  Hooray!

A day whirling around New York, seeing a bevy of editors, then off to BEA (see photo). If you’ve never visited the Expo, let’s just say it’s vast, it’s sensory overload, it’s the entire US book industry clamouring at each other in a comparatively small area. You walk miles, you regret wearing heels, you think you may start hallucinating, you think, ‘Why don’t those &*%! [expletives deleted] drummers just SHUT UP!’ and ‘Oh, there’s NEIL GAIMAN’ as you’re swept past the booth where a semi-naked lady is handing out fliers . . .  Grabbed a bagel at the Children’s Author Breakfast, repressed a huge urge (unlike Tomie dePaola) to sing ‘The Hills Are Alive . . .’ when Julie Andrews spoke, and then enjoyed ten minutes alone with Meg Cabot (in glorious lime-green dress) for the first time since I stopped being her publisher at Macmillan UK. (Oh, did I ever tell you I stayed with Meg at her house in Key West?  But that’s another story, which will never be told.)

On to numerous other publisher appointments (lovely to at last meet Nicole Geiger from Tricycle in California, and Richard Florest from Weinstein Books). Then Greenhouse author Sarwat Chadda (DEVIL’S KISS) appeared, flanked by his Hyperion entourage. Chosen as one of the Fall’s breakout YA authors, Sarwat had been flown out to NYC from London for this year’s new YA Buzz Panels, chaired by Scholastic editor/author David Levithan. Big thrill to hear Ari Lewin of Hyperion talking about DK at the first panel (to a huge audience – not even standing-room only), and then to watch Sarwat himself talk about the book next day on the Author panel – the lone Brit amid a bunch of up-and-coming American authors. Not the easiest forum, especially with all the noise and exposure of the Downtown Stage where anyone passing could listen in.

Then on with Sarwat to meet Tim Ditlow, his audio publisher from Brilliance – and a great chat with the head of Amazon Books division.  By which time I think both Sarwat and I were wondering what incoherent insanity was coming out of our mouths. As we parted ways (both flying back early next morning – him to UK, me to DC), I headed straight for an unoccupied table to vacuum up a large cappuccino and blueberry muffin in peace – only to find myself in (unsolicited) discussion with a doctor specializing in pediatric medicine and seeking a literary agent . . .  Aaaagh.

For me, BEA ended with Egmont’s lovely first-anniversary party. Very nice canapés, amazing band! Since they are publishing our Alexandra Diaz’s OF ALL THE STUPID THINGS this was a chance to celebrate with a team that is one of New York’s nicest – Elizabeth Law, Regina Griffin, Doug Pocock (and to meet Greg Ferguson and Alison Weiss for the first time). Greenhouse and Egmont US were born about the same time, so there’s always been a bit of a connection between us.

Pitched up back home Sunday afternoon – surprisingly sprightly, though I do say so myself.  And more good things waiting for me:  fabulous and classy advance proofs of Val Patterson’s THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE and Lindsey Leavitt’s PRINCESS FOR HIRE.  A final jacket image for OF ALL THE STUPID THINGS (see the Author section on site), and a really attractive and commercial author website-in-the making from Harriet Goodwin, nearly ready to go live.

So what do you think I did on Sunday night?  The Husband (bless him, for without him most things domestic would collapse) had got tickets to the open-air concert venue at Wolf Trap to see Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, and SHAWN COLVIN in concert.  Shawn is in capital letters because she is one of my all-time favourite singer-songwriters who really inspired me to sing in the 1990s. She is everything I’d like to be musically – great lyricist, great guitarist. Oh, and she’s beautiful too.

As we sat there on a rug, on that warm, perfect night, I drank a glass of wine, thought about the week - and felt full of joy at how good the world is. Remember this, Sarah, I thought. Remember this. And I smiled up at the moon. 

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