As promised, here’s another post borne out of the fantastic SCBWI conference held in Winchester at the end of last year. This time it is to share words of wisdom, hints, tips and an agent’s insider perspective in to the world of trying to be published in children’s fiction. The keynote speaker was Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency and her talk was both enlightening and inspirational for those of us plugging away with our writing for children and young adults. I hope you similarly find some of the following to be of interest…
In 2007 Sarah had been working in UK publishing for many years but was engaged to an American and felt it was time to move on. She saw this as an opportunity to create a transatlantic literary agency and so The Greenhouse Literary Agency was born. They have around 70 clients, are also very active in the film and TV world and love to nurture talent. Their mantra is ‘we represent authors and not just books’.
She views them as talent spotters, but also as developers of talent. Writing comes out of who you are, “you could give me half a page of writing by any of my clients and I think I could tell who wrote it.”
Voice is the first thing they look at and they use this to base their decision as to whether or not to go on and take on a client. “Train yourself to pick up colour and cadence of voice as if you were Mozart. Everyone can improve their voice and listening is the best way to do it.”
So what does it take to succeed in today’s marketplace?
They receive between 10,000 to 15,000 submissions per year so potential authors need to produce something that is seriously attention grabbing. Ask yourself, ‘how do I find my edge?’ The most common rejection is, ‘I didn’t love it enough’. Therefore, how can you write something that can get under the skin of the publisher?
If you aren’t writing because you love it and really can’t not write, then the business can really sap your spirit – it’s as much about passion as it is anything else.
Two words dominate every day of her life (and also where she chooses to invest her time, as time is the most difficult thing to manage as an agent):
CONCEPT & CRAFT
These come before everything.
So, what is an inspired concept – how do you know if you have one, and are there any ways to help you find one? Is there something that makes you sit up? It’s simple and easy to describe. ‘Almost viral’.
One key could be a useful little phrase – ‘what if’. (Perhaps it can be based on something that hasn’t happened but could have). This can help writers think in less predictable ways.
Any concept, as with the writing itself, needs to have big emotional and intellectual scope.
Look at the tip of the story iceberg and know that underneath the water everything else is waiting to be discovered and explored.
Does the concept give you enough to work with or is it too thin?
A great concept is a ‘hook’ – when you pitch your book you are going fishing to catch agents and they need that hook to catch editors.
The good news is that agents are desperate to be hooked and are looking all the time. Notice people’s body language and you will soon pick up who is hooked by your concept.
What should we be thinking of before we even begin to write? At this point I think one of Sarah’s presentation slides summarises it perfectly:
Plant seeds of writing – things to think about before you even begin to write:
Conflict and character – need to try and know your character at a deep level and certainly before you write page 1. For writers this starts way before the actual writing – characters are real, they exist.
Also consider the sense of place as this can give a wonderful sense of reality.
Build a story on great foundations. Maximise how efficiently you work – writing to find your story is very time consuming although it may work for some people, but best to have an idea of your story before you start. A rudimentary outline can help you home in on what you’re trying to do. Try to write with focussed intention so you know what you’re trying to achieve. Experiment with structure, point of view, tense. Write three chapters then stop and look again. Who is story for? Age group and core reader?
Your goal as a writer is to sprinkle fairly dust over your topic, not tell everything you know. You are looking for a reaction. What are you trying to say? What are you going to leave the reader with after the final page? (But not in a didactic way).
One of the key things that will be embedded in a great concept is HIGH STAKES. What you give us has to matter, you have to make it matter. A great story will make a reader ask, ‘what if I was in that position, what would I do?’ From her many years as an agent she knows that we have a driving need to have others go there for us. Many submissions they see don’t have high enough stakes.
There are elements of the thriller in every story and it is the writer’s job to make us turn the page.
Try to spin an idea differently to how anyone else has spun it before. E.g. Jay Asher’s ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ stands apart because the girl in question is almost entirely off stage and it’s all about the aftermath. It also has a compressed time frame so it reads like a thriller rather than an issues led story.
Another example is Lauren Oliver’s ‘Before I fall’, where the protagonist comes back to live her final day six times over, and each time comes closer to understanding herself/being compassionate/learning to love, until she’s ready to let go.
Both stories reveal in a deep sense what it feels like to be human.
Writers need a great idea, but it needs to feed through to something else, so needs to have a deeply felt theme – people have to relate to the story and its underlying characters.
One of Sarah’s favourite quotes is, ‘In an extraordinary story, in the very best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters, we discover more about ourselves.’
Other notable quotes come from Picasso, who said, ‘Art is the lie that enables us to discover the truth’, and L P Hartley, ‘It’s better to write about things you feel than about what you know.’
Writing great fiction isn’t about, or from, your intellect, it’s about your emotional response.
“Write something without any expectation of someone reading it and write from the white hot centre of your subconscious.” However you write your story it has to come from a place of passion inside.
Your story needs to give you a USP – without this it will struggle to stand out and editors would struggle to put it across to booksellers. The aim is to deeply get the chaos of being human and everything it comprises and then be able to create a unique story framework to create order from the chaos.
Consider finding new ways to see things. ‘Significant detail’ is important – pick out the specific to create the emotional impact. This puts me in mind of the famous quote by Anton Chekhov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (One of my own favourites).
Stay current – read and read but don’t be derivative. (It’s also useful to keep abreast of what is happening – subscribe to the Bookseller?)
- Wow factor
- What if?
- Big questions
- High stakes
- Spinning ideas differently
- A deeply felt theme
“Write it, put it away and forget about it, then when you get it out again ask yourself these revision questions”.
Sarah often says to clients when they’re out on submission to not write for two weeks as she feels they also need ‘thinking time’.
I’ll leave you with this thought…
“Go to your desk as if it’s the last day of your life, and then write as if you have all the time in the world”.