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Saturday, July 31, 2010

A peach of an agent

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Is this how the agent search makes you feel? Like a rather bruised ‘second’ – a soft fruit just a little past it sell-by date? Maybe you’re even tempted to include a PS in your latest query: ‘Please, please buy me. I won’t cost much, honest!’

Finding an agent for your work must be like the seventh ring of hell. Every knock, every well-placed kick makes it just a little harder to struggle up again, but somehow you know you must keep venturing back into that fiery torment.

What you may not realize is that everyone in this industry – author, agent, editor, publisher, scout – has experienced the pain of an arrow to the heart. Many. And probably more recently than you know. This is a business that is intensely competitive at every level. It is not a science, but a mixture of business and art. Opinions can be very subjective, and decisions can be influenced by very subliminal, often unconscious factors.

I have administered pain to a number of people this week – and I’m talking editors – as I resolved a very big deal (more on that soon). Not everyone could get this book and author, however hard they tried, however good they were. Some people had to lose in order for one to win.

It is hard to administer rejection – and it is hard to receive it (and I have).  Look, in the world of publishing, we all bleed some time. And you might not believe how involved, how committed, how emotional, we professionals can get when we want a particular book and author. We may tell you that it’s all business, but the truth is – we really, really feel it. We’ve just trained ourselves to kick the wall in private and sound philosophical in public!

But to every rejection there is an antithesis. The one who wins. And don’t we all want to be that winner! Courted and admired, the centre of everyone’s attention, success is a fabulous feeling – even if we know we can’t stay forever in that circle of light.

With ever more agents on the children’s/YA scene (I can count 10 new ones in the past year without even trying), the most standout new writers will increasingly experience the thrilling, bewildering fluster of The Agent Battle.  When a number of us – the biggest one I’ve been in so far has included NINE agents - turn our guided-missile charm on a debut author.  We all want her/him, we all know how well we could sell him/her, and even more importantly – we have fallen in love! This person has beguiled us, seduced us, thrilled us with their story – AND WE JUST HAVE TO HAVE IT!

For the author this can feel like a ‘be careful what you wish for ‘situation. Look,you wanted an agent – but how do you decide between five or TEN? And what happens when you realize you haven’t a clue how to make the decision and don’t even know what questions to ask?

And perhaps, horror of horrors, you realize these agents of ice-cold repute are actually REAL PEOPLE who FEEL THINGS. Perish the thought, but (let’s whisper this) they are actually quite nice! How will you say no to them?

Now, after all that dreaming, you finally have to put your eggs (or melons) in one basket.

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So, here are my thoughts – as objective as possible – on what you should look for when choosing between agents:

1 Do you like this person and feel comfortable chatting with them? Is there some level of personal chemistry?  If the agent feels seriously intimidating to you, analyse it (don’t mistake intimidation for your natural shyness in this new milieu) and if you know in your heart that you’re always going to be scared of this individual, they’re not right for you.

2 Don’t go ga-ga just because of a Big Name (agent or agency). Small agencies can do a great job; start-ups can be powerhouses. You could be a big star on a boutique list, but a little overlooked on a list of huge clients.

3 Trawl online for interviews and information about the agent. Most of us are all over the web. Talk to the agent’s client(s) – BUT please remember we can’t be constantly putting people in touch with our clients, so be considerate. [I once asked a client to email a prospective author on my behalf – at the author’s request. My client’s message was never even acknowledged.  This is embarrassing and time-wasting. Please be respectful.]

4 If you know in your heart of hearts that you’ve had an offer from the agent you want, don’t put the rest of us through flaming hoops that can take several weeks of work and stress. Be thorough, analyse your own heart and mind, and then make the decision.

5 Make sure you go with an agent working in your area – but don’t think because your book is YA, you should go with someone who exclusively sells YA. At Greenhouse we like to represent a range of ages and genres within children’s/teen fiction – look, we all sell to the same editors. Just because an agent reps five major authors doing the same kind of thing as you, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best home for your book. I like to take on people who are contrasting and offer something a bit different within the agency.

6 VERY IMPORTANT - CONTRACTS: Prioritize asking about contracts. I have concerns over the lack of contracts knowledge around. At Greenhouse (and all other good agencies) contracts are hugely important. I work closely with a contracts colleague (Kevin – aka The Smiling Assassin) who has 20+ years of corporate transatlantic contract experience. And I myself have been negotiating contracts at least that time (big and small, with publishers and media lawyers). Every line is important to us. A deal is not just about up-front money; you need precision and detail throughout your agreement. It should optimize your success – and protect you if things go wrong.

7 VERY IMPORTANT – FOREIGN/SUBSIDIARY RIGHTS:  At Greenhouse we put great value on all foreign and subsidiary rights, including both halves of the English-language equation North America/ UK and Commonwealth (depending whether you are a Brit or American reading this). There are very, very few occasions when we will grant more than North America to a US house or UK/Comm to a British house. Why? Because reserving the other rights for you and selling them ourselves will make you considerably more money in the long run, particularly if your book is likely to be of international interest.

This is a complicated argument and I’m happy to return to it later in more detail, but I worry when I see agents giving away World rights every time. Again, a deal is not just about that up-front advance.  Will your agent approach your interests with care, patience and meticulousness – not just a mad rush to agree terms and post a deal?

8 Look for an agent interested in your long-term career, not just your first book.  Of course, we can’t guarantee you will follow up with a second (or third etc) as commercially viable as your first, but listen to whether the agent talks about ‘representing authors’ or just projects. You want to stick with this agent for a good, long time – they will become one of the most significant people in your life.

9 I forgot this first time around, so just doing an ‘edit’ to make sure it’s included. VERY IMPORTANT: Will the agent return your phone calls and emails?  I see an increasing number of ‘exiles’ from other agencies appearing in my submissions inbox. Why? The biggest reason cited is non-communication. Non-communication during submission process, and on ordinary follow-up stuff. The writing life can be anxious, isolated and stressful - you need someone who will be your ‘professional friend’, reassuring you and answering you in a timely way. Obviously that doesn’t mean you pester your agent constantly about nothing (balance, people!), but if your question/request is reasonable and necessary then your agent should reply fairly rapidly - if only to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t get to it now, but I should be able to get to it next week - or whenever.’ You are not the only star in the firmament, but your agent should make you feel like you are!

So, the Big Decision. Are you going to be in a safe pair of hands? Will your agency help you grow into a ripe and delectable fruit?  Nothing in life is guaranteed, but if you feel a strong confidence that they will, then banish paralysis and jump with bold excitement.

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Finally, I’m off on vacation this coming week until later in August. As you’ll see on our submission guidelines, Julia will be taking over the North-American queries inbox while I’m away. You are very lucky because she has fantastic taste, loves a great story, and you can be sure we’ll be discussing submissions of special interest on my return.

Enjoy a fruity, tasty, and very successful summer!

PS:  Photos taken at Del Ray Farmers’ Market, Northern Virginia

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The big, big sky of craft

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Last summer I ate pancakes with Jandy Nelson.

We were staying at Betsy’s, a delightfully eccentric guest house down the road from Vermont College of the Fine Arts in Montpelier. A group of us were round the homespun table, laden with Vermont-style breakfast goodies. I’m kind of rough that time in the morning, but raised my bleary eyes from the maple syrup long enough to say to my neighbor, ‘Hi, I’m Sarah, who are you?’

She beamed her big smile, swished her glorious hair and told me she was Jandy.

Jandy?! Jandy as in Nelson? As in author of THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE which everyone was talking about and which had just sold to Dial and Walker UK? The very same. 

Caramba, it was the breakfast motherlode!

That book has been on my wishlist for months, and I finally bought it the other day, along with a mouth-watering stack of others: Kathi Appelt’s KEEPER, Patrick Ness’s THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO. And one illicit pleasure – THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters. (Illicit because adult reading is sequestered to vacations only – pressure of the industry forces this.) Even more slip-smackingly good, these are REAL BOOKS, all glossy jackets and creamy, strokeable paper. Take that, boring old Kindle, you utilitarian and dreary text purveyor!

I opened SKY with reverence. Jandy Nelson has an MFA in poetry; an MFA in writing fiction for children and teens. She’s loaded with learning, she’s smart as a whippet, beautiful as a flag – oh, and in her spare time she’s a literary agent. (Do you ever feel a little . . . inadequate?)

This book is gorgeous.  Every word is to be savoured. Every word has intent. If character were a suitcase waiting to be filled with language, then Jandy’s travel items are packed to the brim with brightly coloured garments.  You can tell she’s a poet – she writes with miraculous concision, and personality and originality burst out of every line like a peony.  Good grief, even her Acknowledgements are sumptuous!

THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE is just one lesson among many in the art of writing.  Considering every word. Avoiding cliché as if it’s leprous. Not relying on overwriting – ie, barrages of adjectives and adverbs in an attempt to make the writing ‘powerful’. Deftly wielding your literary paintbrush to create character. Showing, showing, showing rather than just telling your reader.  Finding new ways to bring to life a subject (loss of a sibling) that has been fictionalized many times before, so the reader feels it’s brand new. Making us see the world in a different way.

If you’re a new writer, you won’t learn everything in this book, but you can learn a heck of a lot.

THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE has been retrospectively added to my list of ‘best books of 2009’.  And because I like supporting great new authors, here’s the Amazon link so you can flourish your credit cards: http://www.amazon.com/Sky-Everywhere-Jandy-Nelson/dp/0803734956/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1279640688&sr=1-1

Reading excellent books is essential, I find. A kind of cleansing of the palate; a reminder of how a great claret really tastes. Why we are doing what we do, and how we can do it better.  And to that end I’m also starting to study the craft of writing myself, so that I can better help you guys who are toiling in the vineyards. I know lots of you enjoyed my HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL series (see back issues of blog) and have said how little access you have to this kind of advice. So let’s try to keep it going as and when we can.
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I have just started on FROM WHERE YOU DREAM – The Process of Writing Fiction – by Robert Olen Butler. It comes highly recommended by many ‘serious’ writers, including Greenhouse clients, so I offer it up to you also as a learning tool.

I love this early quote: ‘Before I wrote my first published book , I wrote literally a million words of absolute dreck. Five god-awful novels, forty dreadful short stories, and a dozen truly terrible full-length plays. I made all those fatal errors of process I would bet my mortgage you’re making now.  I want to help you get around that. But you’ve got to open up and listen to me about this.’

OK, Mr Butler, Pulitzer-Prize winner. I am all ears – for the myriad aspiring writers who frequent this Greenhouse site. For the hundreds of manuscripts I read each year. For the thousands of submissions that arrive in the same timespan.  For the very, very few whom we can truly launch into a new career as a professional author.

Bring it on, Mr Butler. We’re ready to learn about craft while kneeling in the vicinity of your shoes.

And here’s to you, Jandy Nelson, whose sky is spacious, glowing, and indeed everywhere.

We are ready to learn.

P.S. For those of you who are interested: The big-sky shots on this post are 1) me on the cliff path in Dorset, England, looking across to Lyme Regis.  2) Somewhere off the California coast, near Monterey.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 6 - The Final Mystery Ingredient!

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The dog days of summer are here and temperatures are soaring. Early-morning mist hangs limpid over the meandering river. I could stare are the greens of the foliage all day and never count the colours. And even the dogs themselves – in this case, Greenhouse intern Wee Man – give up all frolicking in favour of a cooling snooze with a stuffed duck.

It’s time to drift off to sleep in a deck chair, straw hat clamped on head, frozen Marguerita in hand . . .

Or is it? Aha no, because the Greenhouse rarely sleeps, and the job of writing and revising, writing and revising, is never done for you writers looking to claim your spot in the publishing sun. In fact, what is clear is that since I was accepted as a member of AAR (the Association of Authors’ Representatives) a short while ago, even MORE of you are finding us and submitting to Greenhouse!  A big welcome to anyone reading my blog for the first time who discovered us via the AAR website – great to have you with us.

You join us as we’ve nearly finished my mini-series of posts on the huge issue of ‘writing the breakout novel’, covering the need for an inspired concept, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes plotting, a deeply felt theme and vivid settings. If you didn’t catch the earlier ones, just scroll back and you’ll find them.

In theory we’ve finished. But have we really, because in reality there needs to be something else. A magical extra. An X factor. A ‘je ne sais quoi’ that will lift your story into another dimension and pick it out from the pack. What I wonder, could that extra va-va-voom be?
Can you guess? It’s the word I mutter constantly. And the word the Greenhouse Husband is so weary of hearing that he’s actually promised to thump me with a frying pan if I say it again in his presence.

Yes, it is . . .

VOICE.

Doh, most of you guessed it, didn’t you.

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VOICE. VOICE. VOICE. VOICE. That elusive individuality which makes a story sing. Which makes the text run musically through your head as you read. Which apparently effortlessly evokes a sense of time and place, underscoring what kind of story you are reading. Lyrical and strange? Staccato and breathless? Folksy and rural? Gritty, tense and urban? Almost subliminally you absorb voice as you read and it can give a whole other level of meaning to the words that run along a page.

And here things get tricky. Because you’re going to ask me to teach you how to create voice – and I wish I could, but am not sure I’m able. What I CAN tell you, from many years of observation, is that I believe it has something to do with ear, and with listening acutely. I believe that some people have a natural ear for language and its flavor - what language is DOING and the why and how of that.  And in some way I think this echoes musicality – some of us have great ears, naturally repeating any rhythm and melody - and some of us just find it much, much tougher.

But what I DO think is that we can all improve our ears as we practice listening! Try concentrating on a great sentence, how it rises and falls; its cadences.  Sit back and listen to it as if you’re listening to Chopin or Lady Gaga, The Doors or the Jonas Brothers (look, I am trying to be eclectic!) .

Language is not a lumpen clod-like thing (unless you want it to be for some particular literary reason). It is beautiful, persuasive, agitating, breathtaking, melodious, and subliminal in its messages. What is the subliminal sub-text contained within the writing of YOUR story?

And here’s some homework for you. What books stand out to you as having a particularly strong and significant voice?  Send a comment with any observations you have on voice and I’ll post it for the benefit of all.  And if any MFA or MA grads are reading this, please feel free to give us the benefit of your wisdom on the subject!

I’ll start things off with suggesting WAITING FOR NORMAL by Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins USA), which I just read and loved. For me the simplicity and naivete of the voice perfectly carried this wise, heartbreaking, courageous story of a girl’s struggle to cope with an errant mother and uncertain future.  What a gem of a book, perfectly told!

So, voice.

Ears. Music. Listening. Capturing. Subliminal.

Keep your ears waggling and your heart on full alert to receive from the world around you. Then breathe it out, on to your screen, on to your page.

And here endeth our series of The Breakout Novel.

Enjoy this glorious summer and stay cool!

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