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Friday, September 17, 2010

How to make an agent happy


Look, you don’t have to tell me. I know perfectly well that every morning you climb out of bed and say to yourself, ‘Hmm, how I can bring a little joy to the heart of a literary agent today?’

Because of course I’m besieged by people asking just that question (and because I’m obviously a massive, rampant liar), I thought I would write about that very thing – agently happiness.

What makes me happy? Well, to give us a kickstart, I’ve posted photos here that all illustrate things that give me a warm, bubbling sense of joy. Take this first shot. It was taken on my birthday this August – one of the most perfect days this year in all senses – as I walked over this glorious headland with two of my favourite people in the world (and yes, the guy in the white T-shirt is one of my sons). We rambled down to a tiny shingle beach and sprawled in the sun chatting, before winding our way back through fragrant plants and subtropical palms to a wonderful dinner overlooking the ocean.

As an agent there are also things that make me very happy and things that make me just the opposite. However, since we must always major on the positive, let’s go straight to the AHQ (you’ve heard of IQ and EQ? Well AHQ is Agent Happiness Quotient).

Top of the AHQ list would have to be DOING DEALS.  Yes, I am a deal hog. Love ‘em, just love ‘em – love the whole process. The set-up (helping my author get their manuscript into the best possible shape), finessing my submission list and my pitch, receiving feedback from editors – and then that glorious, exhilarating moment when an offer comes in! There’s nothing to beat it, it’s addictive and thrilling, as is everything thereafter as I strategize and hone it all to get the best result for my author.

So this last week (one of our busiest yet) has been a rush of pure adrenaline.  A new US deal for Michael Ford’s THE POISONED HOUSE, sold to Whitman – all the more satisfying because Michael already has a UK deal for the book. Then our first bookclub sub-licence, for Lindsey Leavitt’s PRINCESS FOR HIRE (club/fair rights sold to Scholastic US). 

And then comes our piece de resistance - selling debut author Talia Vance in two deals, to two houses, on the same day (! Her YA thriller SPIES AND PREJUDICE to Elizabeth Law at Egmont, and her big punchy Celtic paranormal YA BANDIA in a two-book deal to Flux, who are doing so much to bring great teen fiction to US readers.  Hooray to Talia for a great result – and surely a new name that we will all be watching as we move towards publication of her first two books in 2012.

image So this has been a strenuous week, to put it mildly, but one full of elements that would delight any agent.

Deals are the icing on the cake, but where does the AHQ lie in terms of submissions and manuscripts in general (whether by submitters or more established writers)?  I’ve dealt with so much of this in recent posts, so won’t revisit all of it here.  However, there ARE some slightly different elements worth mentioning – notably what I think of as the MACRO and the MICRO of your presentation of yourself.

The MACRO – by which I mean that yes, it’s important to pay attention to the marketplace, your readership, your story arc (that there’s a very definite shape to what you’re trying to say about your characters) – everything that constitutes the ‘big picture’ of what you are doing.

However, it’s the MICRO that is currently occupying my thoughts a great deal. What do I mean?

I mean that it makes me really, really happy when writers are very precise in what they do. Every line, the choice of every word, is important in making your story sing and fly (don’t you love how I mix metaphors with gay abandon?).  It’s so important that you read and reread to make sure your phrasing, your grammar, your spelling, don’t make your reader trip and stumble as they try to get immersed in your story. If I stumble as I read your work, then an editor will also stumble – and stumbling is one step away from disengaging. And disengaging could be one step away from saying, ‘Actually, I think I’ll pass this time.’

I see a lot of queries and manuscripts that are littered with typos – often not only first lines, but even the email heading (even my name)!  That doesn’t make me happy – it makes me sad, because I know a writer has put so much time and effort into their work and has such high hopes, and yet haste is sending them out of the starting gate making an immediately bad impression.

In practical terms, how can you help yourself? Here are practical tips, culled from years in this business – and many, many mistakes of my own along the way. (NB: Remind me to tell you about the absolute corker of a mistake I made in my very first job . . . .)

1. Slow down.  Did you catch that? SLOW DOWN. There is far too much rush and unnecessary haste in this business – often deliberately generated due to that little thing called ‘hype’. We will all still be here, doing what we do, in a week or a month. It is rare that there isn’t time to breathe deeply and re-read once more.

2. LOOK WITH SEEING EYES .  Er, what? This is the phrase an old mentor of mine used to use and it’s really helpful. Don’t just let your eyes travel over the page in a glazed kind of way – really LOOK for mistakes (and presume there will be some).

3. Use Spell Check if you must. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of Spell Check - I believe I should be improving my spelling and vocabulary all the time anyway. But if you don’t trust your spelling, then SPELL CHECK!

4. Keep a very big dictionary by your desk and use it.  You may THINK you know how to spell something, but if in any doubt, check it! 

5.  If you want to check a small piece of text, read with a ruler under each line. It will force your eyes to slow down. 

6. Do your research. Never just fire off submissions to all and sundry, without being absolutely certain why you’re sending to that particular person.

7. Don’t send submissions when you are very tired, stressed, or you’ve already done 20 and are punch drunk.  If necessary, send a couple at a time and then take a break.

8. Be particularly careful when you merge different drafts of your story. All too easy to find the versions don’t quite marry up. Always reread so the final version is seamless.

9. Don’t get so excited by a request for a partial or full manuscript that you send the wrong draft! Oh, how often that happens and most agents won’t have time to reread.

10. Take time out of your day – however brief – to pause and stretch and walk and breathe calmly.  My day always starts with a brisk walk. I look at the early mist hanging over the lake; I stare up at the Canada geese; I draft things in my head, and make plans, as I stride along.

11. Remember that all things will be well. Fortunately, this business is not life or death (though I know it often feels like it!).

I do hope these are useful thoughts. Plus you know that when you incorporate all those points in your writing, I will indeed be a very, very happy agent and delighted to make your acquaintance!

What makes YOU happy?  I am made happy by family, dogs, walking, taking photographs, playing ping pong, eating cheese (and cake, but I’m in denial) – and lovely writing, delivered with care and thought.

As Fall gets underway, here’s to happy agents (and writers) everywhere!


(Photos: Mullion Head, Cornwall, South-West England; Lucy - former showdog and Greenhouse Hound #1; Ping-pong bat - used for venting with both sneaky shots and smashes.)

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Saturday, September 04, 2010

Cheep at the price


I struggle with banality. I struggle with reading it; I struggle with writing it. I struggle constantly with how to avoid it so that everything I write is interesting, crisp, original and effective. I fail constantly, I know.

In the week that I became a fully feathered member of Twitter, the challenge is there on a daily basis: how to craft something that short, that fast, and yet be illuminating and important.

In what has been my personal TweetWeek, a story has been going round and round my head.

There was a girl. Strikingly attractive, with strong, clear eyes, she made you turn towards her when she entered a room. Smart and just a bit flirtatious, she was full of panache and sparkle, despite the rigid grip of her corsets and the grab of clips on her long dark hair.

She ‘walked out’ with a man called Joe. He was quite a few years older than her, tall and upstanding. His stiff collar emphasized the ramrod of his back, the restraint of his speech, the frown of his considered manners. Joe was a catch, with ambitions far away, a world to conquer, and he needed a desirable young woman at his side. How could she say no? It would have been a dereliction of duty, of common sense, to say no when it was high time she stepped away from her father’s protection.  A ring was given and accepted.

And then she met his brother. Ten years younger than Joe, Wilfrid was a young doctor – an obstetrician and anaesthetist - who spoke with his hands and smiled with his eyes.  He was so much more . . . like her? Or perhaps just so much more in general. Somehow, in this world of formality, they knew. How could this happen? It was never expected, and it could never be accepted. In trepidation she asked her father – could she change her mind? Could she be with Wilfrid and not Joe? She had made a mistake – surely she would not have to pay with the rest of her life?

Her father, all mutton chops and implacable as an oak, told her straight. ‘Daughter, you gave your word. There is no way out when you’ve plighted your troth.  You are Joe’s, and Joe is yours, until death do you part.’

They married, and war broke out. Wilfrid volunteered immediately and headed to France, now a temporary captain who would lead a team of medics and stretcher bearers into the vilest hell-holes on earth.  Through the Somme, Arras, Messines Ridge, to Passchendaele and Ypres, he toiled in the mud among mangled men with their limbs blown off , corpses impaled like rotting rats in the filth. Wilfrid’s life seemed charmed as he dodged and dived, and he became known as a man of great courage and humanity, even under fire, and he had total dedication to gathering in the wounded who lay gasping in the earsplitting loneliness of night. He was awarded the Military Cross, one of war’s highest honours.

A few weeks later, on October 1, 1917, at around dusk, Wilfrid set off into No Man’s Land, a sergeant at his side. They were the nearest aid post and men were out there, terribly injured; a few minutes or maybe hours would decide whether they lived or died. Ill-prepared, the two men stumbled in the gathering dark, losing their way – and found themselves much too near an enemy position. Flinging themselves into a shell-hole they pondered what to do. Run like crazy – or wait till nightfall and slip away. Wilfrid as captain was the decider, and he was always going to run rather than wait.

Five steps out of the hole and he was hit, straight in the chest, by a sniper’s bullet. There were no words, no grand ending – just instant death in the dark slop of mud.

The girl was devastated when she heard. She wrote to everyone she could think of to find out what had happened to Wilfrid. Exactly how he died, where he was, what he said, and where his last resting place would be. And answers came back – from his commanding officer, the sergeant who had been there and lived, from the men with whom he served. Wilfrid was someone special and irreplaceable and it was a terrible blow.

The years went by. Joe left the girl, and their three children, for someone much younger. She struggled home alone from India, impecunious, striving to make ends meet in a time when women generally didn’t do things alone. Joe didn’t really honour his commitments, he proved elusive, and the endless shuffle for resources became a defining mark of the passing years.

My grandmother – because that’s whom the girl was – died on Armistice Day in 1985. I often sat and listened to her stories – of two world wars, two men called Joe and Wilfrid, her years in India, the sinking of the Titanic – and so much more.  But I was always fascinated by the decisions she had to make and the life she might have had with her young doctor, if he had lived, if she could have followed her heart and not the cold conventions of her time.

And now I have an envelope of letters – so flimsy and aged I must handle them with the utmost care. Letters from that sergeant who was with Wilfrid when he fell. Cuttings from the newspaper, including a photograph of Wilfrid, looking out at me with his kind, steady eyes.

In 2002, clad in a bright-yellow rain poncho, I squelched through a monsoon up a muddy hillside in Sri Lanka’s northern tea country. After a quest of several weeks, and guided only by one cryptic letter and a cracked sepia photograph, I had tracked down Joe’s grave.  As I stood there, a world away from everything I knew, I felt profoundly moved. I had come so far and in some way had found my grandfather, a man I never knew but who had such a deep effect on my family for so many years. I wanted to know him and understand him – and perhaps thank him, because whatever else he did or didn’t do in life, I wouldn’t have been me without him.

And now, thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I know exactly where Wilfrid lies too, in a small cemetery down a quiet lane in what was Flanders, now Belgium. I know that before too long I am going to find him and tell him I bring love from several generations of our family, including my sons whom I’m certain he would have liked. Wilfrid is not forgotten, we have handed on his story, and to be remembered and talked about three generations after his death is the only and best gift we can ever give him.

This is one of my stories. What are yours and how will you tell them? Because from this texture comes the novels we will write and how we will choose to write them.

So perhaps you can see my problems with Twitter. A few ‘characters’ – 140 - to tell the story?  My lip curls. But I’ll keep trying, so please be gentle. And should you wish to join me in my quest, you can find me here -

(Photographs:  Flower - Meadowlark Gardens, Northern Virginia.  Candles:  The Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.)


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