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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Julia’s Wishlist

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Sarah has asked me to host this week’s blog entry and I’m taking it as an opportunity to cosmic order!

Reading Sarah’s post about the US market and what she’s looking for, it strikes me that there are some similarities with what’s going on over here in the UK.

Right now is a watershed moment for young adult fiction - the TWILIGHT effect. Based on the theory that over here we roll a bit slower than the US in terms of our big trends, we’ve been predicting a major growth in the UK YA market for quite some time. It’s now underway as more books in this age range are being sought, acquired and published by UK children’s book publishers. Even some adult publishers are starting YA imprints to capitalize on this development.

All this is hugely exciting.  A section of the market, that has for so long been resistant, has opened up. This means that the business has had its eyes trained on YA for the last 18 months or so and the middle grade – the 8-12 heartland - has been overlooked. We’re going to see opportunities opening up in this area.

The feeding frenzy for YA paranormal is still on, though there’s a little less blood in the water. But I’d love to find a 9+ adventure that brings in the darkness and threat of these great, older paranormal stories. There will be a drip-down starting soon and I’m keeping my eye on it.

Like Sarah, I’m looking for extraordinary what-if scenarios - a book with a really natty proposition. I can’t wait to read MR MUMBLES: INVISIBLE FIENDS. What if your imaginary childhood friend turns up years later and wants to kill you? And I’m loving GONE. What if, in the blink of an eye, everyone over the age of 15 disappears and no one knows why? Or what if you wake up one morning and find that a wall has been built all the way round the world, cutting your house in two and separating you from your family on the other side? Actually, I don’t think that is a book yet. I’ve just come back from a weekend in Berlin, celebrating the fall of the wall, and it struck me that this might be a powerful, resonant premise for a story.

I have had my eyes raised to the planets recently. I’ve got a theory that space is the next big thing. There’s the scent of dystopian, post-apocalyptic, end-of-days in the air. Fear of future, fear of meltdown. And the logical step from there is leaving the burned-out shell and taking to the skies. I’m looking for a space book. And I’m not looking for nifty gadgets but a big, dark story about mankind looking our greatest fears in the face.

I’m hearing a lot of editors asking for books for girls about friends, families and feelings in the Cathy Cassidy/Jacqueline Wilson vein. There’s always real hunger for new voices in that market. And also something older, and laugh-out-loud funny for young teenage girls - like the Georgia Nicholson books.

So that’s my cosmic order posted. I do need to say though, that I’m wide open to anything else: a great chapter book series for 5-7’s with a really natty concept or something as funny, offbeat and irresistible as MR GUM. People talk about hooks in books, but voice is the true hook. It’s the human contact. So I’d love a stand-alone story with a great concept and a voice that connects with me and imprints upon me - HOW I LIVE NOW, THE BOOK THIEF, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO. Greedy, moi?

The most exciting moment in my job is when I’m reading a submission and my professional eye loses focus for a minute. I stop appraising the manuscript and for a second I’m a reader, invested in the story and asking myself ‘What is going to happen next?’ So yes, I have a list of stories I’d love to see, but really all I am looking for is that moment when the shift happens - all of a sudden I become a fan, rather than an agent. The moment that I start to see through the page and beyond the words to the scenes, characters, feelings and drama below - that’s what I’m looking for.

If you’re based in Great Britain, Ireland, Australia/New Zealand or Europe and you’ve got a children’s book to share, do submit it to me. Submissions are a treasure hunt and I can’t wait to see the next glint of jewels in the sand.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Skinny

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Skinny. 

What I used to be, but am no longer. Which makes my mom very happy.

My favourite jeans. Especially the new Gap cords (excellent with boots).

The cappuccino I must remember to ask for but frequently forget.

The muffin that is apparently going to reduce you rather than expand you. (What is this thing made of – flavoured air?)

The sliver of time between one incredibly hectic week and the next. In this case, a few hours, which have comprised excitements like the removal of a picked-over deer carcass from the backyard. The Greenhouse certainly lives up to its name – there’s a lot of nature, red in tooth and claw, in these parts.

But moving swiftly on from festering entrails . . .

Skinny is a big word right now, but today I want to give you another version of the word - the skinny on what kinds of manuscripts I am particularly looking for at the moment. This menu (tall, vente, grande, you might say) partly comes from my meetings with editors in New York last week, partly from what I see (or don’t see) in my own submissions inbox, and partly from my own tastes and interests.

Before I even start, I have to say that there are absolutely no rules here. I am quite capable of saying I want one thing and then taking on another – simply because the biggest driver of all is quality writing, quality voice, quality plot, quality craft. Where all those elements come together, all other considerations are overturned. The most repeated word on any publisher wish-list is this: voice. Voice, voice, voice. And when voice meets amazing storyline, my heart starts to leap, whatever age group and whatever genre.

With all this in mind, here is Sarah’s Skinny as it stands right now, looking down the barrel of the week of November 16:

I would love to find a very funny book for middle-grade boys. Funny as in clever, smart and laugh out loud (rather than simply relying on the tried-and-tested boy-shorthand of farts and slapstick, which aren’t quite enough). Basically, almost every publisher right now wishes they had WIMPY KID. But they can’t have WIMPY KID, so they’d like something equally funny, absolutely non-derivative, and great in its own right. Funny writers are very hard to find, so if you are someone, or know someone, who is great at comedy – stand up, screenwriting, who knows what – it’s a good time to test out that voice and get in touch.

I believe there is a market right now for beautifully voiced, middle-grade fiction for girls. Fiction with a classic quality; the kind of story children today will still remember when they are thirty because it somehow sums up their childhood. Writing that is wonderful to read, has longevity, and that you can’t help but pass from hand to hand. I don’t just look for ‘what’s hot today’ – I love writing that has a good story, but which feels timeless because it is beautifully delivered. This novel might also have a strong sense of family and warmth?

I would love to find a bold, brilliant, heart-stopping story set in another part of the world. What would life be like growing up on the West Bank, for example, on either side of the apartheid wall; what would friendship be like between children from radically different viewpoints? How does it feel to grow up a part of political events far outside your control – for your small life to play out against that backdrop, where violence is a daily possibility? Where maybe, in fictional terms, in story arc, that child could play a part in some small piece of change? This story is not going to grow on trees – it would need so much authenticity and I know I may never find it, but there’s no harm dreaming. Maybe you are the one person out there, with your unique background, to write this?

Next up: I think there is a shortage of really child-friendly ideas and I’d love to find a middle-grade project answering to that description. Fun, pacy, adventurous, exciting, relatable. I’m open to what form this might take, but I’m prompted by Greenhouse author Harriet Goodwin’s shortlisting in the ‘book I couldn’t put down’ category of the UK’s Blue Peter Book Awards. I love that idea – the book I couldn’t put down. What more can we ask for – the book a child just can’t bear to relinquish. Isn’t that what turned YOU into a reader?

It’s true that so far the skinny has chiefly applied to middle-grade fiction, because most editors right now are looking to redress imbalance in their lists. There has been such a boom in YA that it’s become very hard to find great middle grade. Please note – no one is saying publishers won’t buy any YA – they do and they are – but publicly they are announcing a need for middle grade, and I would love to see more because it is definitely the minority of the submissions I receive.

But if you ARE writing for teens, what might particularly leap out at me?

As I said last week, I would personally love to find a big, ambitious novel that in some way relates/addresses/comments on ideas that are around us at the moment – that casts a light on how we feel about the world right now. Maybe – rage in society; the failure of financial systems; insecurity; racial tension; fear of the future; war . . . .  This is very vague, I know, but this is a novel of depth and layers and big ideas. Yes, it might well be bleak and futuristic, but if so it has to feel really fresh because we’re starting to see a lot of fiction set in future times.

Dark fiction: It is still overwhelmingly what new writers are bringing into my inbox. Which is fine, if the storyline feels really new and special.  I have become very interested in the idea of ‘What If’ stories, and perhaps that will help you to focus your plot?  For example, what if a girl woke from a coma and realized she didn’t fit in her own body and her own life? THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX.  What if a weird virus has made the dead en masse come back as predators? THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH. What if a girl committed suicide, but before doing so sent out a box of 13 tapes to those she wanted to implicate?  THIRTEEN REASONS WHY.  WHAT IF enables you to think strange thoughts, create a weird scenario – and then solve it. WHAT IF is about mystery and suspense, and that’s something we all enjoy.

Historical fiction: People ask me constantly whether I’m interested in the historical genre. I always say I don’t assess by genre, I look at the character, voice and writing. If you can create a mysterious, mesmerizing story like Jennifer Donnelly’s A GATHERING LIGHT or the child-friendly tension and colour of Sally Gardner’s THE RED NECKLACE – then yes, I’d LOVE a historical novel, with rustling silk, suppressed emotion, but ideas that resonate in our contemporary world.

I’d also love to find a wonderful love story – authentic, moving and bold.  This might be a story of gay love, because there are very few in fiction, but many in the real world. If you want to write this, the characters will be fully realized and not token, and they will touch us for reasons other than their orientation.

Does this help? I hope so, because the skinny sliver I can give to this week’s post has expired and now it’s back to contracts, inbox and editing. But fortunately no deer carcass.

Wishing you all a productive and WHAT-IF kind of week.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

The good, the bad and the hopeful

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I’m constantly thinking of topics I must blog about.  Sensible topics, which will be instructional, functional, knowledge-enhancing; the growing toolkit into which you will be able to delve as writers. ‘Ah, here’s just what I need,’ you’ll say – ‘a leaf blower, a power-saw.’ (You’ll understand, of course, that I’m talking in metaphors here.)

And then, just as I’m mentally constructing my utilitarian piece of prose – a cool dissection of royalty rates; an exposition on ‘out of print’ clauses; an exegesis on the perfect opening line to a novel – something will happen to throw me right off and I’ll find myself with a heart chock full of something quite different.

And that’s where I am today - this brilliant, rip-roaring, sky-blue Fall afternoon. The crisp golden leaves crunch like cookies under my boots, and shafts of lemon light strew themselves across the dust-haven of my desk. No one would be in their office right now unless they were certifiably insane. (Or a literary agent.) It’s a day to crunch sharp apples, kick acorns for the sheer hell of it, and run whooping through banks of fallen leaves, a crazy dog at your heels.

Today is a day of glory – and it’s a day of deep black. It’s a day when I put my head in my hands because of what’s been in my newspaper this week; because of the complicated, unpredictable, confusing, unfair, infuriating mess of life on earth. I could say a million things about politics, religion, money, bigotry, cruelty, stupidity and much more, but of course I won’t. Because that is not what the Greenhouse is about, and the last thing the world needs is another pundit.

So I shall say it the best way I can. Who out there can write me a novel – a big, clever, glorious, stylish novel – which will speak to me, and the millions of young people who surely must long to leap onto a life raft and paddle away to another planet? A novel with big ideas rendered in an accessible way; a layered story that asks the big questions of life and philosophy; a story that can make us laugh and cry; make us feel and sense and bear to live with the human conundrum. I know it’s out there somewhere, and I long to represent it in all its daring beauty.

In Britain this week a girl went to prison because she smashed into, and killed, another girl – while texting. But hey, the dead girl had been texting too. (If only good and bad, right and wrong, were as clear as we used to find them.) In the USA thirteen people died in a storm of bullets – and the ramifications will be huge. Afghanistan is a giant, whopping muddle. The massive new house down the road, a masterpiece of ostentation, is weed strewn and apparently vacant –can it really have been repossessed just months after being occupied? And so the list of dreary confusion, the secret stories of shame and loneliness and failure, continues.

The world is awash with blathering blogs, advice, chatter, criticism – and a fair bit of vile, spewing, self-righteous hatred.

So what might we writers do? The pen is mightier than the sword. Skip that – the world of ideas is mightier than the darkness.  Compassion, creativity, insight are our candlelight. Because the Word is - has always has been - the light in that darkness.

So write.

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