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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nearly but not quite

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This photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge, taken on the way down from the Marin Headland, was judged last week in my very first photographic competition. Judged - and found wanting. The verdict? Nearly Good Enough But Not Quite. Which is a generous way of saying – it was bumped off in the first round. Reason being, ‘there wasn’t enough definition because of the mist’.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE WASN’T ENOUGH DEFINITION? THE MIST WAS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE SHOT!  WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU, JUDGE? ARE YOU A COMPLETE FOOL??????

You see, I too am no stranger to rejection or the outrage that comes with it, that someone clearly incompetent has sat in judgement over one’s work. I’d have done a lot better with a different shot, I think; that one of the flower. Or with a different judge. Preferably one who isn’t an utter moron.

So if you are a rejected author I don’t blame you for muttering under your breath or sticking pins into a voodoo doll that looks just like me – it’s all part of the process, and at least I can empathize because I too have a passion, photography, in which I truly wish to excel. Of course I’m delighted for those people who win the prizes. It’s just annoying that their shots aren’t nearly as good as mine . . . . . . . . . .

Submissions that I read tend to fall into three categories.  The first two are relatively easy to deal with: 1) those I feel confident are not for me and 2) those with which I wholeheartedly fall in love. Category 3) - those I have to think very hard about - is hardest by far, often requiring a lot of a) scrutinizing b) agonizing c) toing and froing d) experimental revising. Some of these submissions work out famously in the end – either for me or another agent. Others don’t, for a myriad of reasons. These are the Nearly But Not Quites, and if I don’t manage to work through the problems and ultimately take them on, I always remember them and look on Publishers Marketplace to see if they’ve sold. That has happened rarely, but you can be sure I’d be beating my head on the wall to have missed out (competitive, moi? Is the Pope a Catholic?).

What are the hallmarks of a NBNQ? Tricky, because they’re different every time and that’s what makes the decision so tough. But here are a few of the dilemmas I’ve faced in manuscripts, and what I’ve done about them:

Issue: A storyline that has an unusually commercial and conceptual edge to it, but where the actual plotting is so haywire that I can’t see a logical way to resolve the problems. Action: Suggest a brainstorm with the author to see if fresh thinking can ensue. That can lead to radical deconstruction/reconstruction of the story, but that might be just the thing that’s needed to preserve the great concept; working it through in a completely different way.

Issue: A premise that is quirky and really original, but aimed at what I feel is the wrong age group. A YA novel or a middle-grade novel? Such a vital decision in how the whole thing is skewed and whether or not it finds a market.  Action:  Gently introduce the possibility that the story would be better re-framed for the different age group (NB: This advice preferably administered with some form of sedative.)

Issue: An interesting and original premise and a plot that hangs together. But the voice just falls short, which means the whole thing doesn’t quite hit that sweet spot where I can be confident an editor will lose their heart to it. Action: Tricky one, this, because issues of voice can be so intangible – it’s like grabbing a cloud. Identify the heart of the story where the emotional impact lies, then suggest moments where a new and significant focus might fall. This may help the writer to lift those key scenes or bits of dialogue into something fresh and memorable.

Issue:  Amazing writing, lyrical and original. But plot bursting with characters and incident in a way that overloads a story that would be more impactful if more spare. Action:  Suggest taking out a whole character and strand; so basically, strip it down. (Again, Prozac is good to have on hand. But hey, this one – from my publishing days - ultimately went on to be shortlisted for a major literary award so je ne regrette rien . . . )

Issue: Fresh writing, fresh concept, an essence of real charm. But grammar, punctuation and phrasing chaotic and reading the manuscript is like being in a car crash. Action:  Roll up the sleeves, put on the apron, get out the heavy-lifting gear and dig in, sentence by sentence, because this one is going to require a LOT of involvement – and tact. But you know what? It could be worth it for all concerned, in the long run.

Issue: There’s something really interesting here – good tone, an arresting idea, something I’ve not seen before. But the major potential of this premise is somehow being missed; it’s all too shallow and many obvious moments (to me) are being missed. Action: provide some notes that are primarily in the form of questions, so that issues underlying the story are opened right up for further thought.  OK, everyone laughed when I talked at SCBWI LA about ‘squeezing the juice from the fruit’, but any and every story will be way more absorbing if you get out that juicer and SQUEEZE THE JUICE FROM THE FRUIT. In other words, know your backstory; become intimate with your characters; think through the implications of every single aspect of your story. Is it funny? Then it can be funnier. Is it emotionally powerful? Then make me reach for the Kleenex.

Issue:  Good writing, well put together story, all very sound. But just not . . . captivating? A bit derivative of other stories around? Action: Another very tough one, because captivating is what it has to be. If I have a particular reason for needing this one to work, I again might suggest a brainstorm to see if there are more layers, ideas, elements that could be added to increase the depth and breadth of the story. It’s not a question of ‘Is this good enough?’ It has to be truly standout.

So, those are a few everyday dilemmas from the editorial ‘to do’ list. How deliciously simple it would be if manuscripts could be tested with a piece of litmus paper. Red – it’s a winner. Blue – back off. But there’s only the patient trial and error, the test it and see, the have another go, the maybe it will – of editorial work and consideration. And all I can really do is read like a READER, not just like an AGENT. Read so I let the story and the writing speak to my heart, not just to what I think the market might want right now. Read so I hear it and feel it. And that’s when I make decisions I know I can live with, whatever the outcome.

Nearly But Not Quite. It hurts, doesn’t it. But there’s a way forward from being a NBNQ – and that’s the slow, steady learning and development. If not this photograph then maybe another. If not this story then maybe the next.

I shall probably never be an award-winning photographer, but I might just possibly get an Honourable Mention in a little local competition one day. Then I’ll aim higher. And dare to dream. How about you?

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A muffin moment

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It’s been a cross week (and more) in the books industry. Wal-Mart, Amazon and Target slashing prices in a bestsellers war (with potentially dire effects on independents who can’t drop prices like that), and now Sears joining in to reward customers who buy from those companies. Accusations at Frankfurt of advance-fixing among European publishers. Heated debates on whether or not STITCHES is truly a young-adult title and therefore worthy of its National Book Award finalist status.

Plus, of course, my very own bit of bad temper reserved for US publishers who refuse to recognize territorial exclusivity in the countries that make up the Commonwealth – a vital part of any potential deal for a UK house (for example, if you can’t grant the UK exclusivity in India, they may well not buy the book, thus losing a deal for the author). Sorry, but it makes me mad when you redraw the globe in a way that contravenes my authors’ best interests!

Yes, as always this crazy industry exists on the hard and barren rock face between the toughest of commercial interests and the most sensitive kind of creativity. As an agent I’ve got to have two distinct lobes in my brain – one that is gimlet-eyed, flinty, pusillanimous (don’t you love that word?) . . . . in a courteous kind of way. And one that is attuned to the slightest nuance of a sentence, that revels in imagery, and that sees and hears the spark distinguishing the very best writing from the dull and plodding. I’ve got to think of ways we could turn a plot inside out so that it works better, suggest a new strand that would leave the reader with a fresh perception of humanity, and come up with a title that will make a weary editor’s hand reach for your manuscript as it piles off the printer. But I’ve also got to dig in, arms crossed, sturdy as the Rock of Gibraltar, for the contractual points that really, really matter. Welcome to my world – metaphor meets high-discount royalty rates!

So why the choccy muffins and candles? Because you know what . . . . it’s a pretty good life and I’ve got things to celebrate. It was two years ago - on October 13, 2007 - that I got on the plane from London and arrived (distinctly tremulous, but concealing it well) in Washington DC.  I had two suitcases - and an absolute certainty that this was a defining moment in my life and nothing would ever be the same again. And hey, I was right!

In the last two years the Greenhouse has taken off and established itself on both the US and UK scene. Two years of making a few people very, very happy (by signing them up and selling their work) and many people really quite miserable (by rejecting them). The second part is always horrid and can’t be avoided. But it’s also been two years of getting to know writers in a whole new way, grappling with plot, rediscovering the essence of story, speaking to groups large and small around the USA, and becoming recognized as an agency that only sends out quality work. What an adventure it has been!

We are constantly growing and morphing and I hope you’re enjoying the revamped website. We’re pretty excited about it – the depth and range of information we’re aiming to provide, the publicity opportunities that shine a light on our authors, as well as useful titbits (we hope) for all you new writers out there. We’ve already got plans for where we go from here, but meanwhile I hope you’ve spotted the new News page which highlights just how much is going on all the time at Greenhouse.

Look, let’s forget the grumpiness and think mellow thoughts. It is what it is. The business will change and develop over the coming years in ways large and small, and many of them will be outside our control and as unstoppable as a glacier. But good stories will continue, whether told around the fireside in a forest, or read on the 7:00 am commuter train from Union Square, DC to Penn Street, New York, or from Basingstoke to London. And that’s where we come in – you writing, and us helping to get you to story-thirsty people.

Talking of ‘thirsty’, it’s that time of day. How about we all get a cup of tea and relax with a muffin. After all, there’s nothing like a bit of choccy cake to cheer one up. And let’s face it, we deserve it! 

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

17 things for sure

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There are so many things that I don’t know. For example, anything about chemistry. Or how someone could shoot a sea lion for fun. Or what would be the best solution in the Middle East. Or where the last twenty years just went.
So it’s reassuring to realize that there are some things I DO know for sure. And here are a few of them – in no particular order, because isn’t life just like that?

1 I should never, ever take a vacation.  I absolutely can’t spare the time. I say this because I got back a week ago from my first real vacation since arriving in the USA in 2007. San Francisco was everything I had hoped and more – but let’s just say the tsunami warning sign on the ‘17 Mile Drive’ perfectly summed up the state of my inbox when I got back.

2 I must always remember to take vacations. You can’t stay alert and inspired and insightful in this business without occasionally wrenching your eyes away, watching pelicans swooping over a lake, and thinking other thoughts. An exhausted agent is a no-good agent!

3 Sometimes the things you know are contradictions. See above.

4 The Greenhouse website is . . . somewhat exciting.  If you’ve been a regular visitor to this site, you’ll have spotted our new dedicated Youtube channel and redeveloped Author section. Do have a look around. Our aim is to keep it current, fresh and relevant, and we see it as the heart of how we project Greenhouse to the writing world. We’re working on a News page right now, and already fantasizing about Phase 3 of the site. We intend to keep it growing and developing, doing our best to inform aspiring writers and promote our clients. Virtually all our authors now have interviews posted on the site, and our aim is for all to have Youtube trailers in due course.

5 Like Jude Law (interviewed during his run as Hamlet), we don’t believe in reviews. Oh, except when they are good.  Hooray for Val Patterson’s in Booklist: ‘In her memorable first-person voice, filled with the minute observations of a young artist, Cyan sketches out with believable detail the beautiful setting, the unspoken family tension, and her fragile recovery of hope after loss.’ Have you read THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE?  It’s just out, and you can read Val’s interview in our Author section.

6 You just can’t have too many animals.  We have adopted a 319-pound sea lion called Chippy who was nursed back to health at the Sea Mammal Center on the Marin Headlands. He had been shot and somehow managed to swim up a river and climb on to a police car. Fortunately Chippy hasn’t actually moved in with us. Somewhere out there in the wild ocean, he is honking and playing in the surf. Go, Chippy, go!

7 You can’t help but be excited by film stuff.  My August trip to LA was productive.  We now have leading Hollywood co-agents on board for two of our authors, and a third is on the way. We don’t work with one agency on film rights – we have close contacts with a small number who get first look at our projects. What happens is that if we sell film/TV rights, the Greenhouse commission is split with the co-agent and our film attorney, who thrashes out the deal.  Which all means you get great representation, minus the stress. 

8 We love new Greenhouse clients.  Welcome to Winifred Conkling from Northern Virginia, whose fictionalized version of a true story – working title, SYLVIA AND AKI – has sold to Tricycle Press. The book will be based on the story of two girls – one Hispanic, one Japanese – whose lives briefly intertwined during World War II, when a landmark lawsuit made waves in the California school system. This is a different kind of book for Greenhouse, but a story we agreed needed to be told.

9 It is hard to imagine a more extraordinary sight than the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from a pillow of cloud. Ethereal, mysterious – and a photographer’s paradise. Hence my 350 pix.

10 Everyone needs encouragement, even literary agents (believe it or not). Lots of you are encouragers.  But my personal award for Encourager in Chief goes to lovely Ellen Braaf – SCBWI Regional Adviser for the Mid-Atlantic region. Ellen welcomed me to this area two years ago, she has helped me in so many ways, and she never fails to encourage me every time we meet. Like last Friday when Valerie Patterson and I spoke at the Northern Virginia Writers group (affiliated to the Writers’ Center in Bethesda). It is hard to imagine how many literary people Ellen must have quietly encouraged over the years.

11 Never do Pilates on a mat next to a girl less than half your age, who is part prima ballerina and part gazelle. I know because I have to do it. She is gorgeous, she is supple and toned, she is immaculate and lycra-clad, and she never has a hair out of place. As ‘some people’ collapse groaning, she is smiling sweetly and doing every torturous move to perfection. I may have to thump her in her ‘core’.

12 Death is the new black. It’s amazing how many submissions I’m seeing that involve Death. Hot dead guys. Girls who become dead. Books of the dead. Death is alive (so to speak) and attends my high school. Whole families wiped out. It’s carnage out here in the submissions, I tell you. We’re perennially fascinated and repelled by death; or maybe it’s where we explore when we recognize the vampire and shapeshifter glut.

13 I love New York.  And I’m off there Wednesday through Friday. Seeing lots of editors, lunching with Donna Bray of Balzer & Bray; dining with author Teresa Harris (TREASURE IN THE PAST TENSE; Clarion 2010); meeting up with Sarwat Chadda of DEVIL’S KISS, who’s been touring the US for 2 weeks courtesy of his publisher, Hyperion. The tour ends with a launch party at Books of Wonder in New York on Thursday.

14 Titles are extremely important.  The power of a good title cannot be overstated. It can almost sell a book for you.  Titles tend either to come instantly and easily - or they are incredibly hard to get right.  Brenna Yovanoff’s novel FE will now be titled THE REPLACEMENT in the USA (Simon & Schuster are still deliberating the final title in the UK/Commonwealth). FE was an intriguing title but it was ambiguous (it was actually the chemical symbol for iron, not any permutation of fey or fae etc). THE REPLACEMENT is clear and strong, perfectly sums up the plot, is easier to pitch both at home and abroad, and allows for a market of both girls and boys.

15 City Lights in San Francisco’s North Beach is a fantastic book store. Small and idiosyncratic, full of nooks and crannies, it has lots of political works, belles lettres and history – and a nice little children’s section. Around the corner is Vesuvio, the bar frequented by Jack Kerouac and Dylan Thomas.  Go and buy a book and breathe in that delectable indie booky aroma.

16 Sometimes you just have to laugh.  Which is what I thought when I saw the four submission emails from one writer – all with attachments [we don’t now accept attachments].  ‘I am not breaking your submission guidelines; I am reinterpreting them for our possible mutual benefit.’ Thank you, sir, for making me sit back in my seat and laugh. (But you can probably imagine what happened next . . . )

17 10:00 PM is too late to be sitting at my desk.  Good night and see you soon!

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