February is the cruellest month . . . .

February 13, 2010

Snow! Ice! Madness and mayhem!

Welcome to the past 10 days in Washington DC/Northern Virginia. A land of snowbanks four feet high, whipping whiteout winds, strange gnarly icicles hanging like sharpened troll’s teeth. And the slow sliding trudge back and forth down skating-rink streets where only the sound of snowblowers breaks the silence.

It’s been a strange old time, I can tell you. And even stranger if you’re a British émigré, used to cries of ARMAGEDDON over nothing more than one inch of the white stuff. Face pressed against the glass I watched as inexorably it rose – 12 inches, 20 inches, 26 inches, 32 inches; a brief respite then 11 inches more. . . . Like a white invader – snapping the pole of our housemartin residence, trickling into the walls with ominous sibilance, sliced like a two-foot shining wedding cake along the driveway. Outside, the modest crossroads have become the mountains of the moon – our very own Alaska. And somewhere in the whiteness you’ll find Wee Man [see earlier posts], hurling his curly ice-balled self into snowdrifts, as plucky and up-for-it as a deranged (and miniature) husky.

So a lot of work has been done in the past 10 days – the rush from desk to window, Kindle to shovel, camera to pencil – as I’ve snowplowed my way through manuscript critiques for Asilomar, against-the-clock edits on several manuscripts (I never like to keep expectant authors waiting long), speech preparation, submissions, reading, finance bits and bobs, another about-to-be-confirmed German deal – and much more. Do you want to know how hard agents work? Well, I’d better not mention the hours that are standard for me, but you can probably take a guess. Nothing comes from nothing in this business and if you want to make a mark, you can expect to work like a dog (no offence to the Wee Man).

I’ve also been thinking about communication during this period. I’m terrible at being shut in; I’m a chatty/mingling/convivial kind of person, and having my way barred by roads my Mini can’t traverse is profoundly frustrating. I get cross, I get antsy, I want to bust out. So I’ve been profoundly grateful for the companionship of the internet and all its sociable delights and distractions.

One of the questions people always ask at conferences and in interviews is: how important is social networking, blogging, tweeting etc? Is it vital to a new writer? Should I have a web presence? WHAT SHOULD I BE DOING AND AM I NOT DOING SOMETHING I SHOULD BE DOING AND AM I THEREFORE DOOOOOMED???

What I want to say is . . . . calm down. As Dame Julian of Norwich (an English medieval mystic lady) said, ‘All things will be well.’ And it’s true. If you have a great concept, if you write strongly and with passion, if you have a grasp of structure, character and pace . . . . then an agent on red alert will find you, whether or not your name has ever appeared in cyberspace. It’s true that not every agent will feel a conviction about your work (unless you’re one of the few), it’s true that some will miss you because they couldn’t get there in time, but if you approach submission with thoughtful diligence you will make it, tweet or no tweet.

My personal view is that until you have a deal it doesn’t matter too much whether you have a website or not, though I know some may disagree with that and it does depend on a) how great the site is b) how gifted a self-promoter you are and c) whether you’re prepared to invest time, care and money before you have any guarantee of an actual audience. There are some benefits to NOT having an online presence before you have the deal – because post deal you can exactly target your site to the correct audience, rather than doing a tricky about shift from addressing your peer-group writers to addressing an actual readership of kids. And that’s something important to bear in mind – your readers/visitors are going to be completely different after the deal than before. After the deal you want a colourful, fun, informative, possibly interactive site that will lure young people who’ve enjoyed your book – plus you can use it to post school visits, new books, interviews/reviews, etc etc.

I think the online mantra should always be: Who is my audience? Am I catering to that audience as well as I possibly can?

I guess I’m ambivalent about social networking. Basically, if you’re a published author (or soon to be published), anything that builds your fanbase is a good idea and strongly recommended. And, of course, it’s good to be savvy and informed about the industry you aspire to join. However, I’m not sure there is necessarily huge pre-deal promotional worth in Facebooking, tweeting, blogging et al – it’s fun, it’s useful if you get widely picked up/followed/read, but reading posts by an aspiring author has never changed my decision about taking someone on as a client.

For me, it all comes down to the writing because that’s where the rubber hits the road. I want authors who first and foremost work energetically on their craft, glory in language, take joy in a fabulous story well told. The rest – the promotional stuff – can be put in place after we get you a deal.

I always look at links that writers include in queries – they can be very interesting and revealing. In a blog-filled world I love to see writing that is fresh, funny, moving or just plain interesting; writing that complements your fiction skills and underscores just how standout you really are. Again, it wouldn’t change my decision about you, but be wary of enumerating your rejections, documenting the endless struggle – you are out there in cyberspace for posterity, and any agent or editor you query is almost certainly going to drop in if you include a link. Is this the face you most want to present?

You know what? I don’t tweet. I blog because I love to write, and because I want to tell you a bit about what lies behind Greenhouse. But everything I really want to say requires a lot more words than the hiccup of a tweet. Julia tweets useful tips and quotes from this site (look left!), but she and I have always been very clear that Greenhouse tweeting should give you inspirational good value – a word of wisdom; a writerly ‘thought for the day’. Do you want banality from us? I think not.

This may be an unexpected thing to say in 2010, but I shall say it anyway. Are you ready for my heresy? OK, here it is:

There are so many random words flying around cyberspace. We are in an eternal babble so loud we can hardly hear ourselves think. There is a frenzy of chatter assaulting our inner ears. Where is the still, small voice? Because just possibly the essence of creativity lies in that small pure sound if we can only hear it.

There are icicles outside my window. Strong, strange and mesmerizing. Drip by drip, night by frozen night, they have grown – crystalline, sharp and beautiful as a razor. It took time, it was hard to see it happen, but when I looked today they were bigger still.
How do we grow as writers? How do we become all we long to be? How do we take ourselves and our words into the world?

Could there be more in a drip than a tweet?