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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The agenting Olympics

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Agenting has a lot in common with the Olympics.  A sometimes cold and hostile environment, other times boiling heat; a lot of standing around, then you’re off – slaloming your way around poles in the fog or belting round the short track on one skate.  There’s the leaping around with shining delight at the foot of the piste – and sometimes the slow, quiet trudge back to the dressing room to take a break, nurse a wound, and have a lie down in private. But most of all there’s the constant effort and application, keeping the focus, waiting to perform the triple-toe loop at just the right moment.

Things have always moved fast in the agenting world, but after just two years in this business (as opposed to more than 25 years on the other side of the desk) I would say it’s speeded up even more in the past few months. It’s common now to receive a submission on a Friday, read it by the Monday – and hear that the writer has already received an offer of representation. There’s a lot of us out there looking for you, and of course you don’t necessarily submit to all your chosen agents at the same time.  So I’m getting down on bended knee here and asking – can you please send out all your submissions on one day? OR BETTER STILL, JUST SUBMIT EVERYTHING TO ME AND ONLY ME?

Doh, I didn’t think you’d go for that one, but worth a shot, eh? Oh yes, we love exclusives and referrals, and when we get either we move like Apolo Ohno!

At Greenhouse we generally respond quite quickly to all queries, but if we get as far as reading your full manuscript we do like to have a good think (and ideally read a manuscript more than once) before making the big commitment of representation.  And for me that means that reading once on Kindle and then printing the manuscript out, putting my feet up on the desk, grabbing my Post-It notes and pencil, and studying the work in the old-fashioned way. How would we work on this? How would I pitch it? Which editors would like it? I don’t always have this kind of leisure - if there are other agents in the picture – so I’m welded to Blackberry and Kindle at all times. Best example of this was a few weeks ago, coming home to DC from New York on the Acela train. The BB flashed to say I had a new message. I read it instantly and found it was from a writer I’d been in touch with nearly a year ago – she’d done a revision and it was attached.  Whoopee! I instantly sent it to my Kindle and had read most of the manuscript by the time I arrived at Union Station.

Several new clients have joined us recently, which is exciting – all very different, and a wide spectrum of writing, from the young and delightfully funny, to bleak and edgy young adult.  At this point I won’t mention any names because all are in different stages of revision, and I think it’s less pressured for new writers to work in peace without their name being ‘out there’ as they labour with edits. But it’s really exciting to see these debut authors coming on, enjoying their writing, and challenging themselves to develop their stories in bold new ways. They’re on their way to their first Olympics, they are medal contenders against a tough field, and it’s the work done day by day over the next weeks and months that’s going to count. Work those muscles, stretch and bend, push yourself to the limit!
The pace is hotting up in other ways too.  Just back from a great conference at lovely Asilomar, Monterey, where I made lots of new friends among both writers and faculty (see photo; I’m in yellow, pontificating as usual). Ari Lewin of Hyperion, Tracy Gates of Viking, AnneMarie Anderson of Scholastic among the publishers, and fellow agent Ken Wright of Writers House (not a bad double act!). Writers Gary Schmidt (who gave a fabulous talk), Liza Ketchum (www.lizaketchum.com) and Ellen Klages (www.ellenklages.com) added all kinds of great insights. And then, of course, there was funny Greg Pincus, social-networking expert. Oh, and lots more great people. If you were at Asilomar and are dropping into my blog, a big hello and thanks from me; do leave me a comment!

Sometimes there are big upsets at the Olympics, and the little guy can triumph unexpectedly.  Greenhouse came up from nowhere and has muscled its way into the running, so we believe in start-ups and small beginnings. In which spirit, do take a look at brand-new British indie children’s publisher Nosy Crow.  www.nosycrow.com.  Made up of four of my former London colleagues/friends, Nosy Crow has just opened its doors for business over in the UK and I wish them all the very best under their powerhouse leader, Kate Wilson.  I’m willing to bet we’ll be seeing a lot of their titles on sale in the US in the coming years, and it’s great to have a bold new independent player on the scene. Do drop in on their site; you can say I sent you!  I know they’d really appreciate your encouragement as they enter what is only their second week in business.

So now it’s full steam ahead through the spring.  Bologna is looming – both SCBWI conference and trade fair – and I’ve got a full conference schedule coming up after that: New England in May, Montana in September, then Miami, Atlanta and Seattle in the first quarter of 2011.  Do you live in any of those areas? If so, I hope to meet you.

The Olympics are tough stuff. If you want to be a medal-winning agent you need to work harder, respond faster and care one hundred per cent.  You know why? 

Because in the agenting Olympics, if you snooze, you luge*.

(*Which is, I know, exceedingly lame.)

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

February is the cruellest month . . . .

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Snow! Ice! Madness and mayhem! 

A-P-O-C-A-L-Y-P-S-E!

Welcome to the past 10 days in Washington DC/Northern Virginia. A land of snowbanks four feet high, whipping whiteout winds, strange gnarly icicles hanging like sharpened troll’s teeth. And the slow sliding trudge back and forth down skating-rink streets where only the sound of snowblowers breaks the silence.

It’s been a strange old time, I can tell you.  And even stranger if you’re a British émigré, used to cries of ARMAGEDDON over nothing more than one inch of the white stuff. Face pressed against the glass I watched as inexorably it rose – 12 inches, 20 inches, 26 inches, 32 inches; a brief respite then 11 inches more. . . .  Like a white invader – snapping the pole of our housemartin residence, trickling into the walls with ominous sibilance, sliced like a two-foot shining wedding cake along the driveway. Outside, the modest crossroads have become the mountains of the moon – our very own Alaska. And somewhere in the whiteness you’ll find Wee Man [see earlier posts], hurling his curly ice-balled self into snowdrifts, as plucky and up-for-it as a deranged (and miniature) husky.

So a lot of work has been done in the past 10 days – the rush from desk to window, Kindle to shovel, camera to pencil – as I’ve snowplowed my way through manuscript critiques for Asilomar, against-the-clock edits on several manuscripts (I never like to keep expectant authors waiting long), speech preparation, submissions, reading, finance bits and bobs, another about-to-be-confirmed German deal - and much more.  Do you want to know how hard agents work? Well, I’d better not mention the hours that are standard for me, but you can probably take a guess. Nothing comes from nothing in this business and if you want to make a mark, you can expect to work like a dog (no offence to the Wee Man).

I’ve also been thinking about communication during this period. I’m terrible at being shut in; I’m a chatty/mingling/convivial kind of person, and having my way barred by roads my Mini can’t traverse is profoundly frustrating. I get cross, I get antsy, I want to bust out.  So I’ve been profoundly grateful for the companionship of the internet and all its sociable delights and distractions.

One of the questions people always ask at conferences and in interviews is: how important is social networking, blogging, tweeting etc?  Is it vital to a new writer? Should I have a web presence? WHAT SHOULD I BE DOING AND AM I NOT DOING SOMETHING I SHOULD BE DOING AND AM I THEREFORE DOOOOOMED???

What I want to say is . . . . calm down. As Dame Julian of Norwich (an English medieval mystic lady) said, ‘All things will be well.’ And it’s true.  If you have a great concept, if you write strongly and with passion, if you have a grasp of structure, character and pace . . . . then an agent on red alert will find you, whether or not your name has ever appeared in cyberspace. It’s true that not every agent will feel a conviction about your work (unless you’re one of the few), it’s true that some will miss you because they couldn’t get there in time, but if you approach submission with thoughtful diligence you will make it, tweet or no tweet.

My personal view is that until you have a deal it doesn’t matter too much whether you have a website or not, though I know some may disagree with that and it does depend on a) how great the site is b) how gifted a self-promoter you are and c) whether you’re prepared to invest time, care and money before you have any guarantee of an actual audience. There are some benefits to NOT having an online presence before you have the deal - because post deal you can exactly target your site to the correct audience, rather than doing a tricky about shift from addressing your peer-group writers to addressing an actual readership of kids. And that’s something important to bear in mind – your readers/visitors are going to be completely different after the deal than before.  After the deal you want a colourful, fun, informative, possibly interactive site that will lure young people who’ve enjoyed your book – plus you can use it to post school visits, new books, interviews/reviews, etc etc.

I think the online mantra should always be: Who is my audience? Am I catering to that audience as well as I possibly can?

I guess I’m ambivalent about social networking.  Basically, if you’re a published author (or soon to be published), anything that builds your fanbase is a good idea and strongly recommended. And, of course, it’s good to be savvy and informed about the industry you aspire to join. However, I’m not sure there is necessarily huge pre-deal promotional worth in Facebooking, tweeting, blogging et al – it’s fun, it’s useful if you get widely picked up/followed/read, but reading posts by an aspiring author has never changed my decision about taking someone on as a client. 

For me, it all comes down to the writing because that’s where the rubber hits the road.  I want authors who first and foremost work energetically on their craft, glory in language, take joy in a fabulous story well told.  The rest – the promotional stuff – can be put in place after we get you a deal.

I always look at links that writers include in queries – they can be very interesting and revealing. In a blog-filled world I love to see writing that is fresh, funny, moving or just plain interesting; writing that complements your fiction skills and underscores just how standout you really are. Again, it wouldn’t change my decision about you, but be wary of enumerating your rejections, documenting the endless struggle – you are out there in cyberspace for posterity, and any agent or editor you query is almost certainly going to drop in if you include a link. Is this the face you most want to present?

You know what? I don’t tweet. I blog because I love to write, and because I want to tell you a bit about what lies behind Greenhouse. But everything I really want to say requires a lot more words than the hiccup of a tweet. Julia tweets useful tips and quotes from this site (look left!), but she and I have always been very clear that Greenhouse tweeting should give you inspirational good value – a word of wisdom; a writerly ‘thought for the day’.  Do you want banality from us? I think not.

This may be an unexpected thing to say in 2010, but I shall say it anyway.  Are you ready for my heresy? OK, here it is:

There are so many random words flying around cyberspace. We are in an eternal babble so loud we can hardly hear ourselves think.  There is a frenzy of chatter assaulting our inner ears. Where is the still, small voice?  Because just possibly the essence of creativity lies in that small pure sound if we can only hear it.

There are icicles outside my window. Strong, strange and mesmerizing. Drip by drip, night by frozen night, they have grown – crystalline, sharp and beautiful as a razor. It took time, it was hard to see it happen, but when I looked today they were bigger still.
How do we grow as writers? How do we become all we long to be? How do we take ourselves and our words into the world?

Could there be more in a drip than a tweet?

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