The heron and the fish!

June 29, 2009

This photograph may look like it’s a picture of a lonely heron holding out for a fish amid the tumult of Great Falls (Maryland), after a Spring of incessant rain.
It’s actually a picture of me (and Julia – you’ll have to imagine there’s a second little heron) watching the Greenhouse submissions pour into our inbox.

They arrive in ever greater numbers, and thank you for them. Hold my Blackberry in your hand and you see them slink in silently throughout the day across the timezones from the East Coast, then in the evening from the West Coast, then during my night and morning from the UK and Europe. There is probably no hour, day or night, when a submission for Greenhouse isn’t arriving for either Julia or I. Surely, I think, we must reach a point where everyone who’s going to write a novel has sent it? But no, and it’s the same every day of the year – even Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, the height of summer . . . you writers sure do have some energy!

So this week I thought I’d focus on submissions, not having mentioned them for a while and because I’ve also looked at lots recently.

The first thing I want to say is that they are ALL taken seriously. We open every one knowing that this moment, this writer, this work, could be crucial – here could be the fish that the heron has sought for so long! The next one we open and read could be the mega-seller of tomorrow and we dare not miss it, because the bestseller of 2012 will probably come just like this – silently, without bells and whistles. That is the focus we bring to you, so you should never feel your submission will be overlooked. Our commercial (and literary) antennae are waving in the wind as we read, all ready to pick up a whiff of possibility.

So what can you do to help yourself – and to help us? Because I see the same things again and again and again in submissions, I’m going to give you my top tips for submitting, though I admit that this is initially going to look more like a list of what NOT to do. I apologize in advance if I hurt anyone’s feelings, but some things just have to be said. Here goes:

1. Always do what the agency (and I mean ANY agency, not just ours) asks you to do in terms of submission. And to find out what that is, read their website – don’t just take info from either a hard-copy or online guide. Both of these (especially the hard copy) can be out of date. Greenhouse changed its submission guidelines in September 08 – to e-submissions only – but we’re still getting paper submissions, often without either SASE or email address. And I still get attachments, which we also don’t accept. I reply to what I can, but it’s frustrating and time-consuming – and there’s no way we have time to write snail-mail letters back to you.

2. Only submit the kind of work the agency says it’s interested in. I receive adult fiction, religious work, short stories, picturebooks, illustrations, even TV scripts – all of which we don’t represent. If you see any listing that says we take adult work, please let me know. Probably 20% of submissions we get are for genres that we don’t represent.

3. Beware cut and paste! I laugh a lot when I’m addressed as Dan Lazar (that was the latest), the Prospect Agency etc etc. Or when people tell me they are enclosing an SASE (with their email). Also, I’d like to announce that my name is SARAH DAVIES, not Sara Davis, because multitudes arrive with my name wrong (in fact, one has just arrived even as I write this). It’s not a life-and-death thing, but would you like constantly to be addressed by the wrong name? Especially when writers are telling me they’ve read our website and are sure I’m the perfect agent for them.

4. Around 50% of submissions open with either a) a character getting up in the morning (often eating breakfast) or b) moving house or c) a dream. Sometimes all these together. I’m not saying this is wrong, exactly – I’m just saying try for a more original opener. Oh, and another 10% start with a loud noise: WHAM, BAM, POW, CRASH, RRRRING!

5. Less is so often more. Don’t overwrite your first sentence in an attempt to be attention-grabbing. Eg, ‘The tumultuous pain rampaged through every seething capillary like a mallet pounding on Lucifer’s anvil.’ How about this instead: ‘My head hurt.’ Your reader’s attention is not seized by adjectives and adverbs; it’s all in the expectation you set up. How about this line: ‘I had a farm in Africa’. It takes confidence and skill to write with simplicity.

6. If you are going to write about ‘a girl with powers’, you will have to be a great writer and have a particularly great plot. Yes, supernatural, dark stuff is very commercial, but you’re in a zone where you’ve got huge competition right now. Those ‘powers’ are going to have to be really original and well depicted.

7. Be careful of making comparisons between yourself and any top author, whether it be Pullman, Meyer, Salinger, Rowling etc etc. You immediately set the bar so high for yourself you’re doomed not to measure up. And anyway, we already have all those great authors – what we’re looking for is someone new!

8. If I turn you down (which I try to do courteously) don’t rush back to tell me ‘Then you’ve missed out on something amazing and it’s your loss’. And please don’t immediately send another submission, and then another, as if we’re robots who have no other deserving authors awaiting our attention. If you have another work to show us, then drop us a little note first asking if we’d like to see something more from you. If we liked the writing in your first piece (but didn’t love the plot) we’ll say yes, but don’t just blitz us and then chase us up if we don’t respond. You are submitting to people, not a ‘process’.

9. Beware writing/submitting massive work. I flinch when I see that someone’s written 100,000+ words. And also if you say your submission is the first in a 7-book series, of which you’ve already written numbers 1-6. (The one exception to this might be if it’s a very young, high-concept series.) It’s going to be hard to sell a huge debut novel, and publishers are going to be wary of committing to a long series. Much better to get the first book absolutely right, though you could map out a second if you want and maybe even write a one-page outline. The problem is, if you do rush ahead and write all these sequential novels, what happens if you get a deal and your editor wants a complete rewrite of Book 1 – as they almost certainly will. Suddenly you’ll find that all the other stories don’t work because the foundations were wrong.

10.It’s good (of course) to engage our interest from the start, but you don’t need to ask us ghastly questions in the first few sentences of your query. Eg, ‘Have you ever wondered, Ms Davies, how it would feel if your children were slaughtered by a serial killer?’ Or ‘Can you imagine, Ms Churchill, the sensations you’d have if your entrails were pulled out through your nostrils and eaten by crows?’ No, I haven’t, and she can’t, thank you very much, and we don’t intend to start now.

11 Please don’t send either a) a two-line query without even giving your name at the end (because you’ve sent the attachment – hah! – to 5000 other agents and it’s a pain to write personally) or b) write a query the length of War and Peace, containing every twist and turn of your plot. A page-length query suffices nicely.

12 We give you the chance to show us your fabulous writing and request five opening pages to be pasted into your email. So why do so many submissions contain no writing? It is your chance to shine! Plus, if we like your query we then have to email back again and ask for some writing – again, when we’re trying to make decisions on so many submissions in a timely way, this is frustrating (and it can be easier just to say no without asking for the writing).

13 Don’t outline at length your ambitions for a movie, TV series, or global merchandising deal (unless of course you have some outstanding qualification for being able to make these happen). Everything starts for us with the writing, and the book. If we sign you up and get you a book deal then other things at least become possible.

14. We are not enthusiastic about work that teaches children ‘lessons’. Of course, every great story will have meaning and depth, and leave the reader with things to think about. It’s also true that ‘the best fiction teaches us more about ourselves than about the characters’. But writing that heavy-handedly aims to ‘educate children about life’ isn’t for us. We believe children and teens deserve entertainment without a barely hidden agenda. (Besides, I tend to think it’s we adults who need ‘educating’ rather than children, but that’s another issue . . . )

15. We also aren’t interested in fairy stories. And while both Julia and I adore animals, especially dogs and cats, the truth is that there are tons of animal stories (and anthropomorphic animals) around, and your work is going to have to be really original, quirky and strong for us a to find a home for short, young, animal-centric fiction.

Now you hate me. Well, I hope not because we do try really hard to read your work carefully and get back to you (yes, we know you need closure, even though our ‘official’ guidelines say we only respond to those we want to take further).

So far it’s all been negative – but what do we actually WANT you to do in your query?

1. Read our submission guidelines – and follow them.

2. Remember we are only human and we are looking at around 100 per week (on top of all the other work we do).

3. Keep your query short and concise, giving us rapidly the key points we need to know: length, target market, one-paragraph plot outline, short bio of yourself.

4. Try to write simply and effectively, with an interesting, original start (remembering that you are mainly setting up the reader’s expectation of what will follow).

5. If you’ve got other stories in the pipeline and we’ve rejected you, don’t just send more – ask us first if we’d like to see something else you’ve written.

6. Do your homework. Are we the right agents for you? Approach all agents individually and carefully. Because when you get the details right, it makes us sure you’ll also be a meticulous writer.

Do all this and we’re delighted to hear from you. And as two little herons staring into the foaming torrent beneath, we’ll be all poised to swoop down and pluck the plump fish. And that fish could be YOU!

Oh, and just a couple of little afterthoughts: To the gentleman (presumably) who enquired, on a certain writers’ chat board, as to my marital status? Yes, I am married and my husband is VERY FIERCE, so you’re out of luck, though your interest is flattering. And to the tiny minority of you who are absolutely and genuinely terrifying, please note – I have a huge dog, with slavering jaws and a taste for human flesh. Honestly.