Reaching into the jewel box

April 25, 2008

So I’m approaching the end of a week where I spent a lot of time on your queries and submissions. Can you imagine what this aspect of agenting is like? Come into the Greenhouse with me and I’ll show you!
I open my inbox and look up the list – it feels vertiginously high. So many names, titles – and pleas. At times 25 per day arriving; 10 while I sleep (from other timezones). For every one I deal with, more instantly appear, sliding into my ether insistently and urgently. So many people for whom this means so much, and who will open my response with both hope and dread. For each one, they are the ONLY one – none of the others matter. Writing is a solitary business, and in that first interface between author and agent no one else can go there for you. Yes, it’s quite a responsibility and not one I take lightly.

I click on the first message and scan it rapidly – digesting the ‘query’ as it has come to be called. I don’t see a query – I see and hear a person trying to communicate the essence of what may have taken them months or even years to create. Usually they’ve told me too much – paragraphs of content, a story that in paraphrase is unwieldy, so much to absorb quickly and with my eye on so many things: Is this a great concept? Who is it aimed at? Is there a market? Is it derivative? And what does the literary task of query-writing tell me about the author? Usually a great deal. Some are sloppy, some are charming, some are desperate, some can’t spell . . . but others are masterpieces of precision. But this isn’t about the query email. No first novel was ever bought (or represented) on a query; this is all about the writing. And as I click on the attachment (or scroll down to text) there is nowhere to hide – not in the courses you’ve taken, or even the prizes you’ve won. This is me, the reader, responding to the impact that your first few pages will make – and in that, I mirror the editors you would encounter at publishing houses, and ultimately the young person who needs a reason to choose your work off a shelf rather than someone else’s. There is no grand conspiracy to shut new authors out of the publishing industry – it’s a business desperate for new talent, hungry as a vampire for fresh blood. And every submission I open could be the one; the one that will make me slowly take my feet off the desk and sit up, nerve-ends sizzling with excitement.

So what are the rules for all this? Yes, you guessed it. There ARE no rules – but there are some really reliable suggestions. Here are just three:

You’ll find this in my Top Tips and I recommend that you tattoo it on your forehead, wear it on a sign around your neck, so you will never forget. Because a huge proportion of submissions I read fall at this hurdle. If you (or your characters) just tell the reader all about everything – the world you’ve created, your characters, what they think and feel – it will inevitably feel dull, dull, dull. Instead, try to let your world come to life in a more nuanced way, from the inside out, letting your characters SHOW for themselves what they feel, how they respond, what their lives are like. You can achieve this in so many ways – by the language you use, the expression on your character’s face, their mannerisms . . . Let your characters bring themselves to life so they practically burst off the page – don’t just TELL the reader about them. Work on this and you’ll improve your writing massively, I promise.

Yes, reading is the movie playing in your mind. That visualization is a magical process, so don’t break the spell. You want to make it really, really hard for the reader to quit. So be careful to avoid clunky phrasing, repeated words, writing that lacks rhythm. Shut your eyes, sit back and let yourself hear the cadence of what you’ve written. Care about every word you write – nothing should be redundant or ill-considered; your spell needs to be woven with every word. There’s a great review quote (quite possibly, though I guess not necessarily, written by a woman!) on the cover of the UK edition of Jennifer Donnelly’s A GATHERING LIGHT: ‘If George Clooney had walked into the room I would have told him to come back later when I’d finished.’ Could the same be said about YOUR writing? (If George doesn’t light your fire, I’ll let you replace him with Angelina or Jessica . . . )

Now quite a few people seem to think a good idea is broadly one that is selling rather successfully right now. Folks, you’ll have to do better than that. The best idea for you is going to be the one that you totally fall in love with telling. Start with the passion and work forwards. Worry less about marketability. There are some really quirky books that have gone on to do very well. Who’d have thought of Sharon Creech’s LOVE THAT DOG or Guus Kuijer’s sublime little novella THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING (Arthur Levine Books US/ Querido in Netherlands). In fact, the market LOVES work that is distinct and different. What is YOUR story and how are you going to tell it? Don’t be in a hurry to send off your query; regard yourself as a writer first of all, a reader secondly, and only thirdly a submitter (thanks to Andrew Karre of Flux for that little one). How long did it take Joshua Bell to learn to play the violin? I rest my case. You are a student of the art of writing; this is going to be a long, long apprenticeship.

So what has the ‘jewel box’ of my title got to do with all this? Well, before you is a box of treasures – richly sparkling gems. Those gems are words – vibrant, potent, limitless in wealth and possibility. Pick them up and handle them; roll them around and watch the light shine through them; catch that deeply resonant colour as it illuminates everything before it. Fall in love with language; weave your emeralds, rubies and diamonds into magic. And I promise you, I won’t log off when I find your name in my inbox.