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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Things I heard in New York

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I made one of my regular pilgrimages to New York last week. Two Greenhouse authors were in town too, seeing their publishers – Jeyn Roberts/DARK INSIDE (S&S;) and Erica Scheidt/USES FOR BOYS (St Martin’s Press) – so it was great to be able to spend time with them both, as well as hear all about the promotional plans in place for their books.

However, most of my time was spent seeing editors – lots of them, at a variety of publishing houses. As well as catching up on news of particular shared authors, meetings like this are a vital way in which agents stay current with the marketplace and who is looking for what and why.  Editors are constantly in touch with the major retailers – what’s moving off the shelf and what’s not; which jackets are working and which aren’t etc. But they also have a huge number of manuscripts passing across their desks and have the best overview of Submissions Land. While I keep a very close eye on what’s actually selling in deals, I inevitably only get to make my choices from what’s coming in to me from writers like you. Editors get to see what’s coming from an enormous range of agents.

So what did I learn?

There’s always a big surge in manuscript submissions to editors post Labor Day (lots of agents don’t submit during August). This year the surge has been a bit disappointing, lots of editors saying they’re seeing the same old, same old. Paranormal. Dystopian. Rather dull contemporary YA. Not much great MG, which is a pain as YA is getting so saturated.

Basically, editors want to see Something They’ve Never Seen Before. Easy, right!?

Haha, can you hear my hollow laugh? You have to write it, and I have to find it, so it’s far from easy all round. Let’s have a shot at extrapolating what they might mean.

YA

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Contemporary (ie, realistic): Editors were mixed about this. Some said it was a really tough sell, some would like to see more. General consensus is that it needs a fab hook, whether it’s dark or light. If the former it needs to be edgy and intriguing. If the latter, it needs a voice that pops with charm, humour, and that special something that makes us love the characters. There’s a ton of admiration around for our very own Lindsey Leavitt who has just the right touch in both MG and YA. We also had a lot of houses bidding for Donna Cooner’s SKINNY, which has all the above qualities in spades. The other book repeatedly mentioned is ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins. Real-world romance – deliciously, delightfully unfolding as part of a gripping contemporary story – is really hard to find, but we’re all seeking it.

Paranormal: I’m still seeing lots of vampire/demons/angels submissions. While it would be stupid to say NEVER EVER to these themes (in this business all rules can be broken), by and large that ship has sailed.  There are just too many stories out there already in which girls fall for demons/dark angels. One editor told me she actually ‘feels sick’ when she sees another one! The big exception to this is if you can combine paranormal with another genre – eg, paranormal meets historical; paranormal meets sci-fi etc. If you can surprise us with a combination of elements we’ve not seen before, you could be right on the button. Lots of editors went for Jessica Spotswood’s BORN WICKED, which does this.

Dystopian: Ditto. So many houses are already bought up in this area and have a lot of exposure in advances – often on books still to publish in 2012, or with sequels. Can they all work commercially? I have a feeling we’ll be seeing the sheep sorted from the goats – some titles pushing through to success, others lagging. I’m still seeing a fair number of subs featuring things like divided societies, haves and have-nots, viruses, dome cities etc. Again, if you’re going to break in and persuade a publisher to part with dollars, you’ve got to bring something really fresh to the dystopian table.

So where do I think there IS a niche to be filled in YA?

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Thrillers: Quite a few editors said they’d love to find an edgy, dark, clever thriller with a clear and strong hook. Which is great, because I love stories like that too and Greenhouse has done some strong deals in this area. Megan Miranda’s FRACTURE yesterday received a fantastic starred review in PW. SLIDE by Jill Hathaway pubs in March 2012 and is a thrill ride of a read – and a major lead for Balzer & Bray. If you can come up with pacy, clever, zigzag plotting with false trails and drama aplenty, then thrillers have legs right now, internationally as well as domestically.

Sci-Fi: I’m starting to see a steady trickle of sci-fi stories in my inbox and I’m actually just signing a new client whose debut novel falls in this area and has a unique premise. I feel sci-fi should have red warning lights attached to it because it is DIFFICULT! As Anica Rissi of Simon Pulse said, ‘It must be more FI than SCI.’ ie, Don’t overload it with gadgets and gizmos, and keep the human drama central. Setting your story off-planet is just a way of finding a new backdrop for a story encompassing recognizable ingredients – love, betrayal, intrigue etc. And it must have really high stakes.  The ones to beat are ACROSS THE UNIVERSE and GLOW.

Historical: Most historical fiction we see is dry and stiff.  But I do think there’s a new wave coming and that was echoed by many editors. I call it ‘sexy historical’ and for me it’s all about those high stakes and lush settings. We saw it with THE LUXE, I believe we’ll see it with Katherine Longshore’s GILT, and I’m excited to hear that Philippa Gregory has just agreed a four-book deal with S&S;.  I would LOVE to find something in this area, but I’m not talking about little drummer boys in the Revolutionary War; I’m talking about a protagonist (female) who speaks with a strong contemporary voice, yet set against an authentic backdrop of another time. I want rustling silk, corsets, bad boys, lost reputations, forbidden love across social divides, gorgeously lavish houses that conceal secrets . . . . The French Revolution would be a great setting to mine as would World War I.

Why is this so difficult to write? Because you must have a very strong grasp of the period you’re writing about – strong enough to use exactly the right amount of detail – yet mix that with a character who feels very fresh and NOW. It’s a fine line between stiff/historic language and a voice that is accessible/fresh, yet never anachronistic.

Horror: Yes, definitely – if the relationships are kept central. (Sorry, I keep banging that drum.) You can’t just create a gore-fest, it’s got to have charm and individuality. The one making news is ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake, which has wit, a tremendous ghost, as well as a lot of blood.

Unique perspectives: Editors are strongly seeking stories that are told in fresh and intriguing ways. My NYC trip persuaded me that we could have sold Blythe Woolston’s BLACK HELICOPTERS (preempted by Candlewick in the US and Walker in the UK) about 15 times over. Not only is it a unique psychological thriller with teeth, but it’s also told in a non-sequential way, which means the reader has to piece together what happened to the protagonist before she arrived at Page 1 of the book.  It’s clever, it’s painful, but the story unfolds in an unexpected way – which makes it really HOT right now.

Big and small worlds:  Some editors are naturally drawn to epic worlds (dystopian, sci-fi, heaven/hell etc), but others like very small worlds portraying fractured, finely drawn characters. Erica Scheidt’s USES FOR BOYS turned a lot of editorial heads when it went on sub.  Spare, devastating, so finely drawn there’s a lot of white space on the page, it tells the story of a fractured life and makes few concessions to the reader, who is left to judge and decide what they think of Anna, the protagonist, for themselves. It’s not a verse novel, but it has the punch of one because of its short word count and memorable lines. While the edgy content was tricky for some, editors really responded to the uniqueness of the voice and approach. Yes, there’s definitely room for the small scale as well as the large!

Middle Grade

MG is typically a ‘slower burn’ than YA in terms of sales, but everyone’s looking for it to re-balance their lists a bit. What would make a great MG project right now?

I have a new author’s debut manuscript on sub at the moment and it’s getting a lot of early interest. While I can’t tell you the plot, I can say that it weaves elements together in a surprising and fresh new way, the writing is crisp and funny, and the characters strong. It delivers adventure, humour and heart – and that is the MG motherlode.

We’re very excited about Sarwat Chadda’s THE SAVAGE PALACE (ASH MISTRY AND THE SAVAGE PALACE in the UK) which pubs in 2012, the first in a new series blending adventure with Indian mythology. Great action, strong characters, unique angle. Again, it delivers in a big way, plus it’s going to hook both boys and girls, which is an added plus as it broadens the potential market. There are many editors out there seeking MG for boys - funny or exciting and preferably both.

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On very different lines, Shawn Stout’s PENELOPE CRUMB speaks to young girl readers, with a gorgeous, funny voice and so much charm. Philomel are really excited about this new girl character. Authors who delight in terms of voice are always in demand, but in this young fic area a strong voice is mandatory. The same applies to Sarah Lean’s A DOG CALLED HOMELESS – again, one I think we could have sold to many houses if it hadn’t been preempted by Katherine Tegen at Harper. Poignant, beautifully crafted and featuring a fabulous dog, it made me cry and it made me smile. It’s a delight!

That’s all I’ve got time for now, but do hope it’s useful. If you think you’ve got something answering to the descriptions on my Wanted list, please do query me!

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

A case of the Saggy-Baggies

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There is a sorry complaint that affects way too many manuscripts – even some of the best debuts that we see. Like Dutch Elm Disease or Athlete’s Foot this malady can overcome something great (a tree, a foot, a story!) and turn it somewhat rotten at the core.  It can sap your potential, spoil your chances, and leave you with a heck of a lot of sorting out to do.

The complaint in question? I call it the Saggy-Baggies, and it’s defined in my Medical Dictionary of Literary Boo-Boo’s as ‘an unfortunate loss of pace, a collapse into mushiness, a slow sprawl in a bog of treacle’. 

The saddest thing about the Saggy-Baggies?  It can affect stories that start out with great potential, where I’m on the edge of my seat thinking I’ve found a nugget . . . . only to run into a swamp further on in the manuscript. If the story doesn’t start out strongly I don’t get far enough to experience the sag, and that’s why it’s so important to look more deeply at the causes of the disease - with Doctor Sarah at your side.

The most dangerous aspect of the Saggy-Baggies is that your reader will suddenly experience an urgent need to make a cup of tea, water the plants, visit the bathroom or walk the dogs – instead of persevering with your manuscript. Why? Because going through their mind is, ‘Where is this story going and do I really care?’ We feel we’re losing our way in scenes and dialogue that don’t seem to contribute much to the forward momentum of the story. We may even start feeling downright confused.

What are the causes of this malaise?

I speak at a lot of conferences around the country. In both my 2010 speech ‘How to write a breakout novel’ and my 2011 ‘From Ordinary to extraordinary: the art of creating a great saleable story and the craft of teasing out its full potential’, I have banged on endlessly about the importance of two things. The first is CONCEPT. The second is HIGH STAKES.

In other words, the first thing you need for your novel is the foundation stone of a really great idea – something original and twisty that hasn’t been done before. Without that central idea and a strong notion of how you’re going to plot it on the page, you’re going to be writing in an uncharted wasteland where your typing fingers potentially run away with you. Of course, setting off with no route map may yield unexpected diversionary treasures – but there’s a strong likelihood that lack of pre-planning will also ultimately run you into a swamp.

You know the Iditarod – that formidable dog-sled race through Alaska? Would you set out without a good set of dogs, moose-slaying weapons, or food to get you through a blizzard? Of course not, and the same kind of planning needs to be brought to bear on your writing journey. Know where you’re trying to go and roughly how you aim to get there.

High stakes – what does this mean? It means that your protagonist needs to have something they want to achieve, they MUST achieve, more than anything else in the world.  That thing must matter hugely to them – and it must also come to matter hugely to the reader. In fact, your main character themselves must ALSO rapidly come to matter to the reader. If they don’t, we will be bored and feel we don’t care if they achieve their goal or not.  In fact, we will soon lay down the manuscript, shrug our shoulders and discover an urgent need to clean out the cooker, which we’ve been meaning to do for months.

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So, your goal is to keep your reader with you at all costs. If you can do that, and we really care about your protagonist’s deepest desire (their ‘high stakes’), we will experience the thwarting of that desire (which is basically what needs to happen as your plot unfolds) as both tense and exciting. We will become invested in the outcome, desperate to see the character succeed in overcoming all odds in the end. Will they defeat the demons (whether real or inner)? Will they get the hot guy? Will they find their place in the world? There are lots of possible high stakes, both physical and mental, and your job as puppet-master is to make sure we stay enthralled till the end of the show.

It sounds so simple - so why is it easy to lose your way? One big reason is the temptation to put in too much. ie, Lots of stuff going on or being discussed, but which doesn’t do enough to answer the three big questions: 1) What does the character want more than anything else?  2) Why do they want to achieve that? And 3) How are they going to do it?  What you put in MUST play a part in unfolding/revealing the answers to those questions. If you lose sight of the high stakes, those key questions, your story is likely to get the Saggy-Baggies.

When you get a cold you get some nasty symptoms – a runny nose, sore throat and maybe a fever.  If your manuscript has the Saggy-Baggies there are a couple of indicators you may spot.

Firstly, keep an eye on length. While I agree there are in theory no ‘rules’ about word count, my experience suggests that very long manuscripts are likely to be saggy-baggy. As an agent I’ve never yet met a YA novel over c. 90,000 words that wouldn’t have been improved by cutting and tightening. I’m not saying long manuscripts can’t be sold, but the greater the word count the more I’m looking to see if the pace is maintained.

Secondly, take a long, hard look at your pitch (I recommend writing the pitch before you start writing the story). Is your concept strong and clear? Does the pitch have a neat and crystalline shape to it – or is it a splurge of disconnected ideas? At Greenhouse we look at pitches every day and the best ones stand out a mile because they are so ‘clean’ – clear, interesting and tight.

You CAN avoid the Saggy-Baggies! Know what your story is and how you want to tell it.  Identify your high stakes – the driving need and desire of your protagonist. Make sure everything you include serves to push the story forward with tension and pace.

And when you’ve finished writing? Put your manuscript away in a drawer for a while. Come back to it fresh and with (as far as possible) the eye of someone who’s never seen it before. Read it carefully, asking yourself tough questions. Does it really keep your interest? Do you think it is unputdownable? Do some scenes or conversations or chunks of description feel redundant? Does it sag and bag – even a little? Perhaps you have a critique buddy who can ask the same questions.

The good news is, it’s never too late to get out your medical kit – the scalpel, the scissors, the Band-Aids. The Saggy-Baggies is a nasty ailment to be sure – but it doesn’t need to be terminal.

Best wishes for healthy writing,

Doc Sarah

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Pix: All the images are of pursuits where Saggy-Bagginess must be avoided at all costs. 1) One of the biggest lighthouses in France 2) Flying formation with the Red Arrows over Cornwall 3) Smacking a ping-pong ball.

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