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Sunday, May 29, 2011

The buzz of summer

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Firstly, I should say – for the avoidance of doubt – that this photo has nothing to do with anything bookish. I just wanted to give you an image of summer coming; a young Greenhouse dachshund enjoying himself. We have to keep things in perspective, right?

Just back from nearly a week in New York, seeing editors, chatting with other agents, and hauling my weary self around the alternately chilly/stuffy vastness of BEA.  If there were prizes for the world’s least popular buildings, the Javits Center would be right up there.

Tempted to go to BEA one year? Sure, you can pick up ARCs and go to signings, but a weird kind of hallucinogenic disorientation sets in once you’ve shoved your way through the tightly packed millions, without natural light, for eight hours or more.  And the bathroom line? Are you female? Forget it. Anyway, you’ll be fine, since the lines to buy coffee are several miles long so your liquid intake will be minimal.

Whinge, whinge.  But in spite of the Javits, it was a great trip – met lots of new people, went to the brilliant Macmillan and HarperCollins parties, breakfasted with editor Erica Sussman of Harper, lunched with editors Alexandra Penfold (S&S;) and Stacie Barney (Putnam), dined with my agent buddy Jennifer Laughran and colleagues from Rights People who were in town . . . .  Oh, and lots more good stuff.

(Sorry, I know it sounds like a gastronomic tour of New York and you wouldn’t be far wrong.)

So what is the good word from the Big Apple this month? What are all those editors seeking – what’s hot and what’s not?

Well, the first thing I have to tell you – as always – is that if your manuscript is great it will sell. Which will make you roll your eyes with frustration, obviously.  Every ‘rule’ is ripe to be broken if you present me with a great, original concept and quality writing, and it’s the pairing of those two factors that everyone seeks.

Editors will tell you that dystopia is getting really tricky – so much is starting to publish, there are some serious frontrunners in terms of sales (obviously THE HUNGER GAMES and MATCHED, but now DIVERGENT is making inroads on the NYT Bestsellers), and lots more publishing later this year and next.

And yet . . . . a couple of weeks ago I did a major six-figure, 3-book deal for Sarah Crossan’s YA novel BREATHE (sold to Virginia Duncan/Martha Mihalick at Greenwillow, HarperCollins), and my email has been ablaze with film interest. We’re also about to announce a deal for UK/Commonwealth this coming week (congratulations, Julia, for that one!).

So what does BREATHE have that other futuristic manuscripts don’t?  For starters, a great concept – a world without trees where oxygen has become a valuable commodity, where the rich breathe easily, the poor struggle painfully with thin air, and where wrongdoers and misfits are thrown out of the inhabited glass pod to suffocate alone.

Told from the perspectives of three teens who set out into the Outlands beyond the pod, with just two days of oxygen in their tanks, it’s an exciting and very original story. And yes, the writing is really strong. In fact, Julia previously sold this author’s debut verse novel to Bloomsbury UK, so she is a writer with considerable range.

What am I saying therefore about dystopian/speculative/futuristic fiction? I’m saying great deals can still be done – if your premise truly feels new and if you match that with compelling writing. There’s GOT to be something unique about your story or it’s in danger of getting stuck at query stage.
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Take a look at the books highlighted at the BEA YA Buzz Panel. As PW says, ‘This fall, it’s all about multi-layered thrills, chills, adventure, and romance, mixed in with the paranormal.’

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/47431-bea-2011-ya-buzz-panel-rocks-javits.html

This small selection of big up-and-comings underscores what editors are saying to me – that they’re in search of work that crosses, or rather blends, genres. Dystopian and magic; paranormal/witchcraft and history; love triangles and steampunk; futuristic thrillers etc etc.

There’s also a bit of a vogue for stories that ‘mess with time’ – perhaps influenced to some extent by the success of Lauren Oliver’s BEFORE I FALL.  The idea of a life unraveling and being put back together; revisiting the past.

And what about middle grade? It’s tough. All editors are saying how much they want it, but it’s got to be pitch perfect or they’ll reject it. They’re seeking the big ones, because MG is slower burn, slower build in terms of readership and sales.

Again here, it’s the ‘big’ story that is triumphing; the big canvas, the grand and imaginative ideas.  As PW says, ‘MG can have all the action, wonder, and power of books published for older readers.’ Take a look at the five books featured on the BEA MG Buzz Panel:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/47432-bea-2011-a-bea-first-a-middle-grade-buzz-panel.html

So where does this leave contemporary, real-world fiction in both MG and YA? Again, it’s not easy at the moment – to break through your novel in this area has got to have a real hook, disarming and quality writing, and characters who make that leap into the reader’s heart and head. But editors DO want to find contemporary stories to balance out their list – IF it’s really something that pops. Take, for example, Sheila O’Connor’s evocative, memorable and mysterious SPARROW ROAD, which Stacie Barney just sent me and which I’m already halfway through. A true delight.

Feeling down? Feeling like you can’t do it? Persevere, but wait till you have a really, really good idea for your story – and then make sure you know how best to get that story down on your screen. And even if you don’t hit the sweet spot the first five times, your sixth might get there. It’s been known to happen - and don’t forget that all those lofty BEA Buzz picks were once writers stumbling to find their way and their story.

Enjoy your holiday weekend. It’s a scorcher here!

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Pix: 1) A dachsund + a river = a mess.  2) The roof of Javits Center; a metaphor and image of how you feel when you’re stuck in there for hours.  3) Continuing the abstract, design theme: a strange plant unfurling at the National Arboretum, DC; also a metaphor for your buzzy manuscript opening up.

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Friday, May 06, 2011

Keeping it positive

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It’s been a crazy Spring – tons of travel, arguably too many conferences (despite all three being very good), and a succession of deals coming from the Greenhouse both at home and abroad.  It’s all great, we are awash with opportunity, but it’s taken a toll on blogging. I’m very happy to have a period of quiet through May and June and will hopefully be able to return to my habit of blogging weekly. I’ve missed it!

To see what we’ve been up to in more detail, do make sure to follow us on Facebook – our address is http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Greenhouse-Literary-Agency/359292813053.

The overwhelming feeling I have this Spring, as we slide into Summer, is one of positivity and energy. In honour of that, all the pics on this post are of things that make me feel outstandingly excited and positive.  See below to find out more about them!

Let’s start with Bologna, which was great and we had lots of lovely comments about our upcoming titles and the books/authors we’ve already sold.  Industry professionals around the world seem to be liking our taste and what we offer – very encouraging to have so much affirmation that we’re on the right track.

Given how buoyant things feel generally, it took me by surprise when I was asked to do an online interview a while ago that felt quite gloomy in tone.  There were questions like, ‘Now editors don’t edit as much, how do you manage/deal with …. Etc etc.’ ‘Now publishers are paying smaller advances, how do you manage/deal with . . . .etc etc.’

It brought me up short because anyone who hangs around Twitter will know that many editors are hard at work editing at weekends, and the experience of our authors is overwhelmingly that today’s editors are incredibly precise, rigorous and dedicated as they go over and over texts in often multiple revisions. Plots are dismembered and reincarnated, editorial axes are taken (painfully) to dead wood, and no detail is spared in the exacting quest for the best possible manuscript.

I hate this negative stuff about editors – most do their utmost, often at considerable personal sacrifice of time and leisure, and we should give them a loud cheer for going beyond the call of duty (especially since not many are exactly earning a bomb of money). However arduous and scary a major revision can feel, all our authors have ultimately been delighted that they were asked/cajoled/persuaded into getting dug into their stories again and again. You will meet very few writers who won’t one day say, IT WAS ALL WORTH IT!

The thing about publishers paying ‘smaller advances’?  Well, I’d only say subscribe to Publishers Marketplace and you’ll see no shortage of deals being done – again a great feeling of acquisition energy. I recently had two publishers in one week contacting me to say, ‘We have money to spend, what can you sell us?’ And several more emailing: ‘It’s Spring – bear us in mind for any great manuscripts.’ While we shouldn’t get too fixated on those 6-figure deals, they are popping up everywhere too! Realistic advances? I can live with that – and your first royalty statement (ie, what is unearned) won’t look so terrifying either.

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A pervasive sense of gloom can also be detected at times in my submissions inbox – a small percentage of (usually scrappy) queries written by people who say things like, ‘I know the submission process is all a lottery. My chances of being picked for representation are about a million to one.’

I want to grab those people, give them a shake – and then put a kindly arm around their defeated shoulders.  No – it’s NOT a lottery. It’s a weird, commercial kind of meritocracy, where writing skill, great ideas, WILL be spotted and ultimately win out. However, there’s one big proviso:  the submission in question has to be something I personally feel I can sell, at a time when I can do it, and you the writer, full justice.

At my conferences this Spring I’ve talked about novelist Graham Greene’s theory of ‘emotional compost’.  That each of us has our own personal history, experience, attitudes, perception, tastes – and that we READ from that place (authors WRITE from there too).  This means that we all react to stories differently; even editors and agents have a surprising range of opinions about the same manuscript.  So what I’m trying to say is – I can only take on the small number of manuscripts that hit that sweet spot for me personally - and I will inevitably make different decisions to other agents on some work. 

The decisions we make have nothing to do with the writer’s worth as a human being (though I’m guessing it must sometimes feel like that as most rejections and setbacks in life do). They are commercial decisions and very carefully considered.
But not, for one moment, is the submission system a lottery!  If you write something fabulous and unique, we – or another agent – will find it. And it’s worth reiterating that virtually all the authors Greenhouse represents came to us through a simple query.

The sun is shining. I was in London for the royal wedding and saw all the country come together in thousands of parties – in parks, pubs, and streets.  I saw a gorgeous wedding dress on a beautiful girl – and some truly insane hats. I stood in a field in the deepest English countryside waving my cellphone in the air to catch a signal and a call from New York that would transform the life of a debut author thousands of miles away.

Positive?  You bet I am.

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Pix:  Sarah’s gallery of positivity: 1) Royal Wedding pic sneaked into a hair stylist’s window in my English home town; what fun that day was!  2) A foal, one hour old, in my favourite English village; such a happy memory. 3) The most gigantic piece of carrot cake, consumed with ease in the sunshine beside a pebbly beach. All the sweeter since I haven’t allowed myself cakes in weeks. FANTASTIC!!

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