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Monday, August 23, 2010

Just the two of us

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It’s summer time, and the livin’ is easy.

Well, sort of. Actually, Julia and I are very hard at work, with record numbers of submissions, lots of interesting projects circling, and, as you know, some fine deals under our belts in the last few weeks. This is a business that never sleeps!

But just for fun, we thought we’d ask ourselves some of the questions you might ask us, if you could. We know that lots of you wonder, ‘Who are these agents? How do they think? Would I like them?’ Well, here are a few fun tasters into what makes us both tick.

As some of you will know, I’m also just back from vacation, so the photos are just a few of the characters I met on my travels this summer. Enjoy!

What sort of student were you at high school and how have you changed since then?

SARAH:  Shy, diffident and lacking in confidence – which made me appear very lazy. Then at 16 I started to bloom. I found one thing I could do well (English) and it was transformative. I was not expected to achieve anything, and I determined to prove everyone wrong. That has motivated me ever since.

JULIA: A bit naughty but solid. Nothing’s changed.

Think of one individual who has had the greatest impact on your career path. Who was it and why.

JULIA: My mother: a great businesswoman and entrepreneur. She left Holland when she was 16, came to London and set up a business that became one of the top PR firms in Europe. 99% of what she says is right.

SARAH: Mrs Cowley, my English teacher from ages 16-18. She was completely different to any teacher I’d had before – passionate about her subject and aiming very high. She showed me a vision of my future, which was literature.

What novel has had the greatest effect on you in your life and why (only allowed one, sorry we’re ruthless!)?

SARAH: Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS in my early teens. I was awestruck. How could it be possible to write something like this???

JULIA: THE RATS by James Herbert. I read it much too young and the effect wasn’t wholly positive. Nightmares for years. But it did give me a love of horror that has proved useful.

What job would you have done if you hadn’t become a literary agent and why?

JULIA: Chef. I love that the deadlines during service are twenty minutes at most. And a walk-in fridge is a great place to cool off.

SARAH: Singer or psychotherapist. I performed a lot as singer-songwriter in the early 90s (complete with leather pants and long red hair). I also studied psychotherapy to diploma level.

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What do you love most and dislike most about your job?

SARAH:  I love telling a writer they have a deal – especially a debut author. I get as emotional as they do. I hate it when things don’t work out with a publisher but you come so, so close. You need nerves of steel in this business (or you need to pretend you have them).

JULIA: Giving the good news and giving the bad news. Also finding those books in my submissions box: The manuscripts that get you cancelling your dinner plans and keep you up till dawn.

If I had a debut author’s manuscript and a red pencil in my hand I’d be most likely to . . .

JULIA: Take out the ‘telling’. It’s amazing how red-penning all the telling can bring a scene to life.

SARAH: Cut out a lot of adjectives and adverbs. Writing more sparely can give your story greater impact because both your characters and world have some breathing room.

You’re sitting at your desk, banging your head on the wall with frustration. What is most likely to be the cause?

SARAH:  The server going down. Or editors not replying.

JULIA: Technology going wrong.

What would you most like to do if you had a day off work?

JULIA: Get my boots on and go for a hike. Or go to the cinema twice in the afternoon.

SARAH: Hiking in a wild place or going round an ancient castle or historic building. With my faithful Canon at the ready, of course.

Yum, yum. Favorite food and drink?

SARAH: Cake!  Apple cake. Blueberry muffins. Chocolate roulade. Carrot cake. Even scones, with fresh raspberry and walnuts.  Sadly, I also like wearing my jeans so I eat a lot of fantasy cake. (And by the way, Julia is weird. See below.)

JULIA: Raw herring, soft roll, chopped onions.

You’ve won a prize of a vacation in any place of your choice. Where would you pick and what sort of trip would it be?

JULIA: Up a mountain. Any mountain. Go Capricorn!

SARAH:  Somewhere with big views and wild scenery where I can think about the meaning of life.  I’d love to go out west and see the really big mountains.

If you could find three great new novels to represent right now, what genres and age groups would you pick?

SARAH: I’d love to find a thriller with a fantastic ‘what if’ concept that turns on a dime.  A great, spare, amazing love story that does something new. Stylish, quirky, brilliantly voiced younger fiction.

JULIA: I’d love some horror with a great premise. A thriller with a great premise. A love story with a great premise! Any age.

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There are tons of agents and agencies in the world. Tell us why you think an author should choose Greenhouse to represent them? 

JULIA: We both work hard, and creatively, editorially. We share each other’s skills. We are the only transatlantic children’s book agency. If I was an author, I’d want to have an agent on both sides of the Atlantic – and Greenhouse offers that (with incredible results).

SARAH: We’ve made Greenhouse fly in just 2+ years, in an intensely competitive environment and from a standing start. I believe that underscores both our energy and our skill. Plus we have a passion for subsidiary rights (vital in today’s marketplace) and a wealth of transatlantic knowledge which can be highly advantageous to clients.

With which fictional character (adults as well as children’s books) do you most identify and why?

SARAH: Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell). I’d always been fascinated by her, and then some years ago one of my publishing staff said I reminded her of Kay (tough on the outside, gentle on the inside, apparently!).

JULIA: According to those facebook quizzes: Jack Bauer!

What is the one writing tip you would choose to share with a new writer?

JULIA: Keep at it.

SARAH: Be at peace. And listen.

Publishers – love ‘em or hate ‘em?

SARAH: Love ‘em, a lot. On a professional level we must hold them to the highest standards. But on a personal level I know the huge workload, the unrelenting meetings, the financial constraints they are under. It’s a tough job and it’s getting tougher, with fewer staff, higher targets for books, every decision under a microscope. We try hard to be collaborative rather than confrontational.

JULIA:Love ‘em. As an agent, I have the publishing teams that I love to work with, from editor right through to sales and marketing: The dream teams. And those dream teams come because everyone works together and there’s trust, respect and openness. We’re all on the same side after all.

Which novel(s) published in the last year would you have most liked to represent (but didn’t)?

JULIA: GONE by Michael Grant. Oh, and THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin. That is an epic book.

SARAH:  THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Obviously not YA, but somehow I’d have made a case! In YA, I’d have loved to land MATCHED (Allie Condie) which pubs this Fall.

Greenhouse is a relatively young agency (2+ years old).  Where would you like the agency to be in five years time?

SARAH: The top destination in both US and UK for authors seeking representation in children’s/teen, and a byword for author care and great results. Ambitious? Moi?

JULIA:Unchanged in terms of our values and strengths - but bigger.

Describe yourself in three words.

JULIA: I asked my best friend for these: Enthusiastic, supportive and creative.

SARAH:  Driven, energetic and contemplative.

Name one thing you do that really annoys your nearest and dearest.

SARAH: Looking at my Blackberry constantly. Chewing Orbit gum and leaving it in disgusting places when the phone rings. (I know, it’s repulsive.)

JULIA:  A taste for trashy magazines.

Describe your style of agenting in one sentence.

JULIA: Honest. I don’t like the feeling of being ‘handled’: I always want the truth. That’s what I seek out and expect from others so that’s what I give my authors. The job is a huge privilege: I’m on the front line of people’s careers, seeing and knowing things that they might not, so it’s only right that I say things as they are.

SARAH:  Energetic, straight, and caring.  I have worked with authors ever since I graduated from college (that’s a long time ago!) and I understand what this precarious industry feels like. Writers want my best efforts, they want to be able to trust what I say, but they also need kindness. Courtesy is a big word with me.

What are the hallmarks of the query email you’d most like to find in your inbox?

SARAH: It will follow our guidelines (see website) and be clear, straightforward and concise. It will also entice with a short outline of an irresistibly compelling plot.

JULIA: I think the strength of a query is all about the strength of the premise. So I’m looking for a great premise that has focus, clarity and freshness.

What is the biggest no-no you are likely to find in a query?

JULIA: Starting with an alarm-clock, waking up and then breakfast. In most cases, the decision the writer has made is to start their story on the morning the action starts, rather than to start in their story.

SARAH: I agree with Julia on alarm clocks. In terms of the query, I don’t like bragging. The best writers don’t, I think, boast constantly about their brilliance because they’re too busy thinking about how they might be even better.

Animals are important to both of you. What was your first pet and how did you feel about him/her?  If you could get any new pet now, what would you choose?

SARAH: First pet was a hamster called Hamlet. Now we have two dogs (standard Dachsunds) who are very loving, funny and unbelievably stubborn. My husband is dog crazy and we have to speak every pooch we meet in the street. We’d love another Golden Retriever one day – probably a boy called Nelson.

JULIA: Bertie (real name Alberta) was my first pet. She was an English Bull Terrier. Really tough looking and all muscle. I was a baby when she joined the family and I used to pull her tail, try to ride her and eat her food and she never got annoyed. And she once attacked a flasher at the playground. She was very cool.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Holiday snaps and revision questions

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Sarah’s in deepest Cornwall on holiday this week, so I’m taking over blog duty.

I thought I’d pose some revision questions to help with any self-editing that some of you might be doing. I’m just back from holiday myself, so as a treat, I’ll cut my questions with some snaps from the Canaries.

Does your main story arc take off soon enough? In those first pages and chapters a reader is looking to see where the story is pointed. We’re looking for intent.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, which I’ve just reread, has a great first scene. Christopher finds a dead dog, speared with a pitchfork on his neighbour’s lawn. If the reader knows where the story is pointed, it’s much harder to get lost, lose interest and put the book down. Show your reader due North right from the start.

Do you start with backstory? If so, do it with caution. With backstory you might have trouble hooking your reader. Start in a scene, with a character and a challenge. Browsing first chapters in a bookshop, you’ll see a lot of books start with jeopardy: A chase, a crash, an argument, a dilemma – a mini-drama to hook the reader in.

What do you reveal about your main character in the first few pages? Make a list of what is shown about this character. They should be compelling. Why do they matter? Why are they unique? If there’s a baddy, what’s their USP? My all-time favourite baddy is Cruella De Vil: A woman who makes coats from Dalmatian puppies. What a motif! Give your baddy something extra.

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Does every scene need to be there? Does everything develop story, character or theme? Don’t give your reader a chance to look away. John Grisham gives a great piece of writing advice. He says imagine that your reader is sitting opposite you as you write, and you can’t let them look away for a second. If a scene can come out without having an impact on the plot, then question its role. Keep the pedal to the metal!

Do you end your chapters at a good spot – a hook or a high point maybe? Are you entering scenes at the right moment? Take a look at each scene. What’s the latest point you could start? And the earliest point you could leave? Those could well be the cut points.

Have you read your dialogue aloud? Or even better, get someone else to read it aloud and listen to them. If they stumble over it, so will you reader. Does it sound like something your character would say? Maybe highlight and read one character’s dialogue to make sure you’ve pitched each voice just right. Dialogue is difficult. Master it.

Are there too many characters? Is there an overload early on that might bamboozle the reader? If you think there could be, maybe combine two people into one. Do your character names stand out or are they samey?

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Is there enough conflict? Conflict holds pace. What is at stake in your story? If the main character doesn’t achieve that goal, what will happen? Does it matter? It must. Is there a cause and effect relationship in the storytelling, in the achievement of the goal? Do actions have consequences?

Have you trusted your reader? I bet the best books you’ve read have made you feel clever, and made you stretch and occupy some space in the reading. Show, don’t tell. That gives the reader a place in your story.

Is your character growing? Does he/she have an emotional arc as well as an outer journey? Do incidental characters have an arc? Kurt Vonnegut said “every character must want something, even if it’s only a glass of water”. What do your characters want?

Is there too much description? As Lombardi says, “There’s a fine line between lush description and the kind that chokes the reader”. Avoid clichés. Don’t overwrite.

Is your point of view consistent? Decide from the outset who is telling the story and stick to it. Be aware if you’re writing from multiple POVs, you’ve set yourself a big challenge. When it works it’s wonderful, but often a reader will favour one POV/ character/story and then come to resent the other(s). If you favour one storyline, your reader probably will to. So address that head on. And remember that each POV needs to feel and sound different.

At the key moments – the pivots, the shocks, the thrills, the bits with feeling – have you squeezed the juice from the fruit? You know where the buttons are in your story. Press them.

And a piece of computer advice. Back everything up! Twice!

People often ask me for advice on how to find an agent. My number one piece of advice is finish the book. Two reasons for that. First, agents operate at top speed when something great comes along. The last author I signed up was Jeyn Roberts who wrote the storming thriller THE DARK INSIDE. I signed her up at four o’clock in the morning after taking her manuscript home seven hours earlier. She was in Korea though, so it wasn’t her four o’clock. The point is we can be like truffle pigs on the scent (see picture), and once we’ve got that scent we charge.

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The second reason I say wait before submitting work to an agent: If you’ve finished your book, taken a break from it, worked on it, looked at the whole and improved it as whole, those first pages and first chapters are going to be stronger. You will know clearly what your book is and where it needs to go – and you’re going to get there more effectively.

Hope this provides some help. It’s been a great month for Greenhouse so far: The transatlantic double for Jeyn Roberts, a picture book deal, GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, for Stephen Davies and a few great things in the cooker…

Happy holidays. And don’t work too hard!

Julia

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