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Friday, February 18, 2011

Springing

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It has been a silent time in blog-land. Sorry about that, but I’ve always taken the view that blogging/social networking has to take second place to the obligations of client representation. How can one justify musing and pontificating in cyberspace when a client’s waiting for editorial notes or progress on their deal? Doesn’t seem right to me.  But hey, I’ve missed the musing and pontificating,so Sarah the Blogger is back in town!

What have we been up to? 2011 has begun at a cracking pace and Julia and I are really excited about how the agency’s developing as it enters its third year (ONLY THREE YEARS!?  I hear you say. HAVEN’T THOSE PEOPLE BEEN AROUND FOREVER???) Yes, it’s coming up to three years in March that Greenhouse did its very first deal, for Sarwat Chadda’s DEVIL’S KISS, and now the green shoots can be seen all over the place. Not least for Sarwat himself as we’ve just announced the sale to HarperCollins – at auction – of UK/Commonwealth rights in his epic new Indian adventure series, THE ASH MISTRY CHRONICLES, mixing a contemporary Indian setting with the vast mythology of that great country which, as far as we know, has never been done in children’s fiction before.  Think Percy Jackson meets Indiana Jones on the Indian sub-continent! And good news about North American rights is on the horizon . . .

Another storming piece of news is that one of my favourite authors has just joined the Greenhouse and we are very honoured to have her with us.

Scotland-based Julie Bertagna is the author of a number of books for children and Young Adults, in particular her award-winning, critically acclaimed EXODUS trilogy (see the jacket image), published by Macmillan in the UK and Walker in the USA. The third book, AURORA, publishes in the UK this coming June.

As well as being far ahead of the pack in writing a dystopian epic - years before anyone else thought it was remotely cool or interesting - in this trilogy Julie has crafted three beautifully written, heart-wrenching stories of courage, adventure and survival, so if you haven’t read them go and do so forthwith! As well as being shortlisted for the prestigious Whitbread Award (now the Costa), EXODUS achieved a slew of shortlistings and some stellar reviews. How’s this one from the Guardian: ‘A miracle of a novel . . . a book you will remember for the rest of your life’. Click through this link to see lots more reviews.  http://www.juliebertagna.com/start.html. We can’t wait to see where Julie goes from here and are thrilled to join her on this new phase of her journey.

We continue to love discovering new debut authors (and are receiving record numbers of submissions), but it’s also very exciting to see existing clients starting to build a track record and achieve new deals for the future.

In the past week Tricia Springstubb (author of multi-star-reviewed WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET) has confirmed a new 2-book deal with Candlewick – publishers of her younger work – for a sweet, funny, wise young chapter-book series provisionally titled CODY.  And Anne-Marie Conway (author of STARMAKERS series about a drama club) has achieved a second deal with Usborne for an intriguing new standalone novel, BUTTERFLY SUMMER.

Outside my window the weather is balmy and we’re temporarily thinking SPRINGTIME! And springtime means one very big event – the Bologna Book Fair, happening in Italy at the end of March. A lot of prep goes into Bologna, and Julia and I have been very busy sorting out our back-to-back schedule of appointments, where for three solid days we network, pitch and tantalize UK, US and European publishers with our feast of wares – both existing clients and, very importantly, new work just coming on to our map. This is the place where scouts, editors, film people – and everyone and anyone with an interest in the children’s/YA books industry around the world – gathers to see what’s coming up that might be hot. Julia and I have a lot of visitors coming to our humble table this year, and that makes us very happy. These people don’t waste their time – we don’t only want Greenhouse to be hot, we want to be the hottest of the hot!
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Oh, and did I also mention that Bologna is one of the great gastronomic capitals of Italy (if not the world)?  Did I mention the prosecco? The midnight walks over medieval cobblestones in unsuitable heels?  The heady overload of talking, air-kissing, pasta, ancient beauty, Blackberry-checking? The falling into bed much too late/early only to lie there with head spinning as the sounds and light of Italy filter through the shutters?  Every year the Bologna Book Fair refreshes and reinvigorates our vision of this extraordinary international business.

It also reminds us very forcibly of the value of a great pitch to your work. I wish you could watch as Julia and I start each appointment because you would learn some interesting things about fiction and the marketplace.

An editor – usually very senior, since only senior people get to travel – sits down opposite us. We exchange greetings, catch up on news, and then we dive in. As we pitch a story we watch – close up – as the editor reacts. We see the eyes light up – or close down. We see the surreptitious glance at the watch under the table (time to move on), the distracted flick of the eyes (boring), the barely concealed snort (we’ve been pitched an identical story 10 times today already) – but also the great moment when our visitor laughs and sits up taller or leans across the table and scribbles notes. 

This, my friends, is where the pedal is put to the metal! While stories are obviously so much about the writing, the fact is a unique pitch, a fresh concept, a great title are crucial in grabbing the attention of these inundated industry professionals. The Bologna experience is an intensifying of the process we go through all the time as we select, hone and then present your work to the trade.  It’s got to have a Unique Selling Point, a hook – as well as the quality of writing to support all that.

Three years on, the Greenhouse is blooming – and we’re thrilled to be off to Italy next month for the greatest show in town. And we’ll tell you more about that after the fair.

Meanwhile, take care and enjoy those first buds of spring if they’re springing anywhere near you!

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Pix:  1) Macmillan UK’s stunning rejacket of Julie Bertagna’s EXODUS 2) marking the height of flood waters in Florence, Italy (or possibly an apt comment on the level of Greenhouse submissions) 3) The fanciest Easter eggs you ever will see, Florence

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Julia’s Guest Post

Hello from London!

Greenhouse is going interactive this week with a Q & A session. We asked our facebook and twitter friends to pose their burning questions about the business of writing for children.  So here you go!  And if you’ve got any questions, post them in the comments box and we’ll do another session later in the year.

Trends change and I’m always afraid of submitting a genre you were only interested in last month.

Prevailing trends in books don’t just snap in and out – they can run for years. And while one genre can have a popularity surge (say paranormal romance or dark future/dystopian), this is a big industry with a broad spectrum of books being sought, acquired and published.

Also, we tend to look for books that are evergreen rather than ‘on trend’. Genre is just the frame it sits in – it matters, but story/character/voice matter so much more.

What genre are you particularly interested in at the moment and, more to the point, what aren’t you interested in?

We don’t handle poetry. But at the end of last year I took on a verse novel by Sarah Crossan, called THE WEIGHT OF WATER. Why did we take it on? Because we couldn’t have not taken it on – it was just too beautiful/unusual/powerful to turn down. A lot of publishers really wanted this book and I’m delighted to say Sarah is now happily ensconced in the Bloomsbury stable and will publish in Jan 2012.

This job is always a surprise. You never know what’s going to come in and change your mind. So I won’t say what I’m not interested in – because that feels like throwing down the gauntlet to the universe.

But I’d love to see some great thrillers! And I have a sense that we will sell something historical this year – but that is just looking at tea-leaves.

We aren’t looking for non-fiction, short stories, educational or religious/inspirational work, poetry, pre-school/novelty material, screenplays or writing aimed at adults.

Apart from bad spelling and punctuation, what puts you off in a submission letter?

It makes more sense to think in terms of what excites me in a submission letter. And that’s a pitch that has clarity, focus and intent. Here’s part of SD Crockett’s original query to us for AFTER THE SNOW, which will publish in 2012 (Macmillan UK/Feiwell and Friends US).

Set in 2059 in the perpetual winter of a post climate-change Britain; AFTER THE SNOW, is a coming of age story charting the awakenings of humanity in its protagonist, fifteen year old Willo Blake – a wild ‘straggler-kid’ – journeying across the snow covered Welsh hills to the sprawling mega-city of Manchester, in search of his lost father.

Born on the mountains, Willo has never known a life outside the freezing wilderness of Snowdonia. Informed only by books found in the abandoned farmhouse where they live and fragments of knowledge about the past gleaned from his bitter yet idealistic father, Willo spends his time trapping mountain hare, high up in the hills, where he has his secret shrine to the dog spirit that lives as a guiding voice in his head.

When his family is mysteriously taken away, Willo sets off across the hills to find them. He meets a girl, Mary, who travels with him to the city.

Willo’s journey into the dimming world of the dystopian society emerging in the city, and his relationship with Mary, is a journey of awakening empathy and hope for the future. 

I read that query and I knew this was a writer who knew what they were doing. Focus. Clarity. Intent. And take a look at a fragment from my submission pitch below.

2059. The snow begins to fall. Only the few are prepared. A new ice-age has begun.

Born after the snows, fifteen-year-old straggler kid Willo Blake has never known a life outside hunting and trapping in the hills. When his family mysteriously disappears, leaving him alone on a freezing mountain, Willo sets off into the unknown to find them.

Meanwhile, across Britain, outlawed followers of survivalist John Blovyn are planning an escape to the fabled Islands talked of in a revolutionary book.

When Willo meets an abandoned girl on his trek across the hills, his world collides with outlaws and halfmen on an epic journey that leads him to the new world of the city – a place where the dog spirit inside his head cannot help him.

AFTER THE SNOW is a journey of betrayal and violence. A journey of awakening love and humanity. A journey that changes everything Willo ever thought he knew.

It’s pretty much the same as SD’s original pitch – which says a lot about the quality/clarity of her concept.

A lot is made of starting with a great sentence and in the thick of action. Is this always necessary or can it be overdone?

We love a natty first sentence – because it’s evidence of skill and it does some heavy-lifting. But really the job of a first sentence is to get you to read the second sentence. A razor-sharp proposition in the first line is great – but it needs to be true to the book.

There are so many different ways to be a great writer and some first pages have a slower burn to them. It doesn’t mean that they don’t sing like a prayer bowl.

Agents usually ask for three chapters but Greenhouse only one so does good writing stand out immediately in a few pages?

Yes!

What do editors want to see more of… and less of?

Sarah and I are off to the Bologna Book Fair in March. We will sit at our desk in the Agents’ Centre, with a few tangerines to fight off scurvy, and we’ll have eight hours of back-to-back half-hour meetings for three days. At Bologna we catch up with all the editors, we talk through any issues, we pitch new projects and we find out what everyone is looking for. And we always get the same answer to that question: ‘Something wonderful!’

Sometimes an editor might be getting a bit bald on one area of their list, maybe it’s got too ‘pink’ (pre-teen girls) or too boysy or too heavy on a certain core area. In which case the editor will be actively seeking to correct the balance on their list. And when that happens it’s important we know about it – so we can take advantage of it.

But on the whole, ‘something wonderful’ is as specific as it gets. And it couldn’t really be any other way – otherwise the industry would just chase its tail. What makes this such an exciting business is that we don’t know what’s coming next, what will work, what strange, new chunk of words will get some wind behind it in the marketplace. All we know for sure is that somewhere it is being written. And Sarah and I just hope it comes to us and we’re ready to catch it!

What do you advise writers who want to write for variety of age groups (including, say, young kids + YA as well as kids & adults)?

We say great! It’s rare to be so multi-skilled and a few of our authors write across the age-groups.

Also, sometimes a long-term career isn’t made by doing one thing. It’s made by doing a few things and seeing what works.

In terms of advice for submitting work, focus is important. When I get a submission that has a couple of different projects in it and the author doesn’t seem to know where their age-core is, then I won’t have much patience with it. We need a clear message in a submission.

What do you think about multiple POV? Given that publishers are so keen on ‘voice’, do you think it’s advisable to steer clear from using more than one narrator?

It’s generally easier for a reader to stay with a story/engage with a character if it’s told from one POV, yes. DARK INSIDE by Greenhouse author Jeyn Roberts is told from four points of view – with an occasional fifth. I signed her up at four in the morning after reading her manuscript in one breathless sitting. Talent makes difficult things look easy – and because of that Sarah and I try not to be prescriptive. I would say, though, that if you’re writing for younger children, then think harder about moving POV. And for any age-group, probably don’t head-hop in single scenes.

If you are writing from multiple POV, be aware that you’ve set yourself a difficult task. Often when I read a book with multiple POV’s I come to favour one storyline/character/voice and then I resent the others. If you, as the writer, find yourself favouring one character’s story, then your reader probably will too. And that’s trouble.

How do I know when my book is ready to send out?

Only you can know if you’ve taken your book as far as you can. The first rule of BOOK CLUB – don’t send it out in a hurry. And if you think the middle is soggy, a plot line is forced or the ending is a disappointment, you’re probably right. So set it aside for as long as you can handle and come back to it with a fresh brain. In fact, even if you think it’s spot-on, take a time-out.

If I blog / tweet will it help me get an agent / get published / sell more books?

That’s a good one. Quite a few of our authors were originally connected through writers’ boards, the blogosphere and twitter/facebook.

There’s real benefit in being engaged and part of a community, not least because writing is a solitary business, with plenty of rejection, that family and friends might not understand. The writing community is so supportive, generous and caring of its people – published and unpublished. That has enormous value. You can find a beta reader to critique your work, or some quality advice from someone who’s been through it. So on a personal level that gives an author a lot.

But in terms of getting published, no, I don’t think it helps. What matters is a good book. If I get a submission from a blogger, I don’t read their blog, I read their submission.

Once a book has been published, the internet has huge marketing value for a writer with drive and initiative – and yes, it does help you sell books and connect with readers. But that’s another blog post!

If you’re investing time in a blog solely in order to attract agents, then shut it down. Agents work with manuscripts, looking for glimmers of gold in the pan. They aren’t looking at who’s tied up in the social networks and who hauls the most ‘friends’.

Unpubbed writers posting Work-in-Progress excerpts or summaries on their blogs: yay or nay?

WIP’s are classified in my book – they’re privileged information. In any business it’s better to keep your cards close to your chest until there’s real value in showing them.

If you’ve got any more questions about the business, then let us know in the comments section. We’ll do another Q & A soon.

Bye for now and thanks for dropping by!

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