On Sunday, at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn I met a true New York icon, Spike Lee. With his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, he wrote the picture book Giant Steps to Change the World, illustrated by my client Sean Qualls. Tonya read the book while Sean showed the audience his artwork and the three then answered questions from adults and kids alike and signed books for their fans.
The topic of today's blog post... What I Really Want to Do is Direct (thought I'd sneak in a plug for my client's book by drawing a connection with Spike Lee. Tricky, huh? Buy Giant Steps to Change the World wherever books are sold).
A couple of entries ago, I said that I would tell you about my ninth and tenth 2011 resolutions in a later post. Well, the time has come...
9. Write the picture book already.
For YEARS I have had a picture book title in my head. I even wrote down the first line once, but I have never attempted to write the next line and certainly not the whole manuscript (or revise that non-existent complete manuscript to my satisfaction). Why not? I know from working with so many picture book creators that crafting a picture book is the work of a certain kind of brilliance. I worry that trying my hand at writing a picture book would send the wrong message to those clients. Would they find it disrespectful that I should dare to think I could do what they do? For so long I have said that I'm not a writer, I'm not the one to create a great character or start a story and carry it through to resolution; I'm skilled at helping writers and advocating for their careers. Am I to be one of the fools who attempts to write a picture book but doesn't realize how difficult it is to write a successful one? All of these are real concerns of mine, but to be honest...the biggest impediment has been the fear that it won't be any good...and if it's no good what does that say about me as a representative of children's book authors. But as Sondheim wrote in Company "Don't be afraid it won't be perfect...the only thing to be afraid of really is that it won't be."
All that to say... My ninth resolution is to write the picture book already. And not to wait until Dec. 31st to do it. I am challenging myself to sit down and write a draft when I have the time and head space to do it and to revise and tinker with it some as well. The goal is not to make it perfect or make it sell, but to be active with it in 2011 so it doesn't eternally become relegated to the "this idea I have" folder in my mind.
10. Actively pursue more Middle Grade and YA fiction projects / represent more novelists. Unlike most agents, author/illustrators comprise the majority of my client list. I treasure being a part of the picture book world and enjoy its rewards (see my last post on The Caldecott Call). But yes, I am also actively looking for more fiction to round out my list.
What am I looking for?
*I have many author/illustrator clients who have expanded their audience by creating graphic novels or highly illustrated book for older readers alongside their picture books as Grace has done with the Year of books, Ling & Ting, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (see also Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady series and Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn). I think the use of “beyond the spot” illustration in middle grade fiction (and to a lesser degree in YA fiction) will continue to grow. I would welcome submissions of this ilk. Of course, Jeff Kinney makes it look simple…but it’s not. I am looking only for submissions in this category from true author/illustrators. I am not looking for another diary or journal format book for older readers, but an original piece of fiction in which the art naturally tells part of and enhances the story. I love when art adds humor to a funny book like in The Strange Case of Origami Yoda or gives further insight into a character in more serious fiction such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.
*Humor: I think there is room in this market for more laugh-evoking fiction. I am not looking for potty humor (unless you are Dav Pilkey, don’t try it) or adults writing what they *think* kids will find funny (how irksome it can be to hear the writer coming through a first person child narrator). King Dork by Frank Portman and An Abundance of Katherines by John Green come to mind as great examples of humor in YA. The True Meaning of Smekday is a personal favorite for middle grade readers in addition to Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s in-the-works Platypus Police Squad series. Perhaps even better are books that can make you laugh out loud AND tug at your heartstrings, like Lisa Railsback’s Noonie’s Masterpiece.
*Retellings: I am a sucker for a great, unique retelling. I’m not talking about Austen (can you get better than Clueless? Plus, I already have Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland on my list) or Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, or other Shakespeare usual suspects. My client, Pamela Keyes, debuted as a YA author last fall with The Jumbee, a retelling of the Phantom of the Opera set in the Caribbean in modern day. And how about Neil Gaiman’s version of The Jungle Book, the Newbery Medal winning, The Graveyard Book? That’s what I am looking for.
*Interesting settings and places in time: I am not looking for the next civil war, depression, Holocaust or 1960s story. I am looking for the next Al Capone Does My Shirts, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Ninth Ward, Revolution or the upcoming Bird In a Box by my client, Andrea Davis Pinkney. That doesn’t mean send me manuscripts about Alcatraz, Evolution, Katrina, France, and Joe Louis. Like the titles, I listed, I want manuscripts that exhibit personal stories that a 21st century reader can still relate to with fully developed (not stock) characters. I want to see a rarely used locale, time period or historical event shaping the story and the protagonist without dominating the text.
*Wow this author can write: While it can be difficult to sell a straight, contemporary middle grade or YA novel in this publishing climate there are books that are so wonderfully written that they cannot be ignored. If you can write as well Tim Tharp, Sara Zarr, or Francisco X. Stork, please be in touch immediately.
*Plot matters: Yes we need to like a character, and “voice” can separate a submission from the stacks, but when a writer can sustain a tight, page-turning plot…that’s the jackpot. Great examples of such successes are Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta and Paper Towns by John Green.
*High-concept: This is what most agents are looking for and is much harder to define. A lot of high concept books are becoming the “Big Books” that publishers want. Paranormal Romance and Dystopian titles can be considered high concept, but I am not looking for manuscripts in those categories. The Invention of Hugo Cabret with its use of wordless spreads almost like silent movie stills is definitely a high concept book. Of course, format innovation is not the only way to yield a high concept label. Some of my favorite books are the Lemony Snicket books which set themselves apart not only through their great packaging but also through tone, narration, and word choice that couldn’t be found in other children’s books published at the time. To be clear, high-concept doesn’t always mean high-art. There are entertaining, independent reads that are definitely high-concept.
High-concept to me also means something more substantive than a hook. I am probably not the right agent for a simple YA love story with the twist being that the guy is a fallen angel. If you can tell me not just that your manuscript “is great for readers who like Harry Potter,” but give me a very clear idea and make me want to read the book with a simple, specific phrase or tagline, that’s great. Also quick comparisons help (ex. Frog & Toad meets Law & Order was used in my pitch to editors for Platypus Police Squad).
Let me also be clear that I am not looking for high-fantasy, very technical science fiction, horror, issue novels, or quiet coming of age fiction. I am not commenting on the value of manuscripts that fall into these categories; I am telling you that I am not the best agent for such work. In fact, I tend not to gravitate toward genre fiction, but genre bending fiction (like the part satire, part mystery, part contemporary YA The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart).
(Quick practical matter) If you choose to submit a novel to me, please follow my submission guidelines which can be found on my page at Publisher’s Marketplace. Here you will also find further information about my client list (please note: I do not post all deals on this site). More information on Writers House can be found at our website www.writershouse.com. Please do NOT send me specific questions about your work or my submission process (or what I said in this post). I simply do not have time to answer those questions individually. Non-client writers should only email me if with their submission. Also, if your manuscript falls into one of the categories that I said I am not interested in seeing, please understand that this is a matter of personal taste and needs. I ask you not to send me your work “just in case” I might make an exception. There may very well be another agent who is the right match for you. I wish everyone the best of luck in finding the right home for their work.
The phrase “what I really want to do is direct” can connote a lack of appreciation for the success one has achieved in their current vocation. I picture it said by someone incapable and received with an eye roll. I want to make clear that I love working with author/illustrators and that my call for novelists does not mean I am abandoning those clients who I have been working with for years or the medium they use to express themselves. Far from it. Instead, I am looking to stretch different agenting muscles and fill what seems to be a curiously open section of my list. As for writing my own manuscript, if you ask “will it take you away from full devotion to representing your clients?” Did I just roll my eyes? Sorry.
This will be my last weekly blog entry (at least for Tuesdays and for now). Next week, we welcome back Blue Rose Girls regular, Anna Alter, from her maternity leave. I have really enjoyed filling in for Anna here and hope my entries have been helpful and fun for you to read. I do hope to do some guest posts in the future. If there are specific topics you would like me to explore, please leave suggestions in the comments.
Rebecca Sherman is a fabulous agent with over 9 years of experience at Writer's House. Her clients include Lunch Lady author/illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka, the Scott O'Dell Award Winner Matt Phelan, Caldecott Honor Illustrator Brian Pinkney and Blue Rose Girls Anna Alter and Grace Lin. You can follow Rebecca on twitter @rebeccagent.