Thursday, February 26, 2009
When I went to an English boarding school, the other kids paid a lot of attention to me and my writing -- now I think they were just being polite to the only American and one of the youngest children in the school. But at the time, I took their reaction for granted. OF COURSE, other kids liked my stories! They were great! I always assumed other children would like me; I assumed (with good reason) that most adults wouldn't. So I was surprised when my teachers praised my writing, too. The headmistress, though, was another matter.
The Headmistress of this school had an aristocratic authority that kept everyone -- even me, determined as I was to be unimpressed by anyone or anything English -- in awe of her. She moved and inclined her head like a queen -- and she seemed like one, even though she usually wore baggy tweeds. Her back was always straight, from the posture board her governess made her wear, she told us once. She had long thick white/grey hair worn up, always, except when she emerged from her bedroom to reprove us for talking after Lights Out. Then it was in one long thick braid. Classical Greek statues look straight out over noses like hers; her eyes were round and deep blue --almost violet. I thought she was beautiful, and I was a little afraid of her, too: she didn't like me much.
The only times we'd ever talked alone until Hobby Day were when I was in trouble for something: breaking a window, running away, organizing the whole class to misbehave, stuff like that. (To anyone who has read Blow Out the Moon -- there were more of these incidents than I could fit into the book.)
Every year on Hobby Day everyone put things they'd made in the Art Room, and all the teachers and other students looked at them. I put in a thirty-two page story. I was very proud of it -- especially, of how long it was. In fact, it's a really bad story about some children who hide in the forest with their mother during World War II. It's online now because at a school visit (after the kids had asked to hear it and I had said no, it was really bad -- this is not false modesty: some of my early stories WERE good, but this one isn't), someone said,
"Why don't you put it on your Web site -- so we can see how much you improved?"
By the time I'd entered it in Hobby Day,
I think everyone in the school had read it, everyone except the Headmistress, whom we called Marza. "Marza" was, supposedly, the Greek word for mother.
Marza didn’t say anything when she saw the story, but when she left the Art Room, she took it with her. The next day after prayers she said she wanted to see me in her office. Usually, only seniors were called in there and even they weren’t called in often. Everyone looked at me, wondering.
When I went in, she was at her desk, sitting up very straight. She motioned for me to stand right next to her so I did. My story was on the desk in front of her. I was standing so close to her that I could see right into her eyes. I was a little scared — they looked so serious.
“I read your story,” she said, “and it was a good story. However — you made one mistake.”
My throat started to hurt the way it does when you’re about to cry and trying hard not to. I’d been so proud of the story and I had wanted her to like it so much and she didn’t — I’d said something terrible, wrong, I could tell by the way she was looking at me.
She drew herself up proudly, like a Queen, and said:
“The Germans never landed in England.”
I started to cry — I didn’t know why saying they had was so bad, but I understood that it was a terrible thing to have done.
“No foreign army has ever invaded us,” she said. “They have often tried, they have never succeeded.”
She talked more and said a poem about “this little world, this precious stone set in a silver sea” and “moat” and “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
I tried to stop crying and listen properly but I couldn’t, I’d wanted that story to be good so badly. She stopped talking and pulled me onto her lap.
Finally I stopped crying. I sat up straight and pulled my handkerchief out of my sleeve (in England then all children carried handkerchiefs tucked into the sleeve of their sweaters). Marza looked at it and I did, too: a crumpled ball, wet in some places, stiff yellow green in others. Gently, she tucked it back into my sleeve.
“Most wet and uncomfy,” she said.
She handed me a clean one and I blew my nose and dried my eyes and the rest of my face.
“There, that’s better, isn’t it?” Marza said. She smiled and gave me a little squeeze. “Off you go — and it IS a good story, you know.”
When I walked back to my form room I felt proud of my writing again. “The Richardsons” was a good story. Marza liked it.
And I thought about the rest: It was odd — I never would have thought of Marza as cuddling anyone. She didn’t make me feel embarrassed about crying, or the handkerchief — it must have looked disgusting to her, but she didn’t make a face or a disgusted comment, she acted as though it — and my crying — were perfectly all right.
That, I think, is the first time I really got what being truly polite means: thinking about how other people feel and acting in the way that will make them feel best.
Before that, I had admired Marza but I had been a little bit afraid of her, too. From then on, I wasn’t afraid of her anymore, maybe in awe of her — she was a true lady. And after that, whenever I heard or read the phrase “a great lady,” I thought of her.
When I left the school, she wrote to my parents and said, in part: "If she does not become a well-known writer, I shall be very much surprised."
Marza, many years later -- her hair is much messier, and her smile much warmer, than they were when I knew her. I've always been glad I went back to the school as an adult to thank her and tell her what her encouragement meant to me.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
What led you to become an agent for children’s books? Actually, as far as my professional life goes, all I’ve ever done is work in some capacity as an agent for children’s literature. As you’ll notice in my bio above, my background is in finance, but I gladly made an abrupt turn off of that road after I graduated from college with a degree in Philosophy in 2001. This may even be the first time since I made that decision some 5 years ago, that my father is not shaking his head about chasing my dream instead of going into the family business. : )
I began as an intern at Random House during college, working and observing some of the greatest editors in the business, while also subconsciously being sent the message that I wanted my role in publishing to be that of the advocacy and protection of authors and illustrators. Soon after, I worked for a brief stint in the children’s area of Sterling Lord, and then received an enormous break getting the job as the second assistant to my now late and legendary mentor, Marilyn E. Marlow of Curtis Brown. I was her assistant for the last three years of her life. Any Google search or inquiry to editors with a sense of history will tell you not only of Marilyn’s prowess, discovering THE CHOCOLATE WAR and THE OUTSIDERS, among many, many others, but also of her reputation as a tough but honest broker and overwhelming supporter of her clients and the field in general. It is her legacy of honesty and creative negotiating that I attempt to emulate.
Too, I’d hate to leave out all that I learned from Marilyn’s protégé, the enormously talented Elizabeth Harding, now the VP of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
Can you tell us more about the makeup of your list? You represent both debut authors and some beloved classics and estates -- Do you find that it is a different job representing an established author versus a new author? How many new clients do you take on? First and foremost, I don’t have a set number of new clients I take on. While I am being selective, I have recently added up and coming illustrator, Noah Z. Jones to my list, and I’m always on the look-out for break-out novels in just about any genre except historical fiction. I have also had enormous luck with the discovery pile, having found there and sold at least three debut novels that I can think of off the top of my head. I am always seeking new talent. Being a relatively young guy myself (depends who you ask : ) my goal is to represent authors--not books, and to grow old and grey with all of my clients, as I try day-in day-out to help them become household names.
Indeed, the representation of estates or legacies, as I prefer to call them, is a different kind of work, but no less rewarding. Finding new opportunities and helping publishers keep a vested interest in what would be considered backlist is often a tricky proposition. It takes much vigilance to constantly be cognizant of anniversaries, suggestions for special editions, reprints, and the like. Nevertheless, having the opportunity to give a new generation of young readers a chance to read some of the out-of-print or lesser known works of prominent authors is quite a thrill. There is such an (understandable) emphasis on what Ezra Pound might refer to as “the new” in all of publishing, so looking after legacies means a whole lot more than waiting for a publisher to send checks for evergreen books. Representing estates has also proved to be great training in dealing with the families of authors who have passed away, as well as navigating the leverage (not to mention having the ear of those highest on the proverbial totem pole) that comes with representing some of the larger names in the business.
Do you take on an editing role with your author’s as well? How much editing happens before submission? Usually with new clients, I am quite hands on. For some of the veterans, I am less so. I try to be involved as much as the client wants me to be. Especially in the case of debuts, I work to shape a manuscript so that we can avoid many of the pitfalls of the first novel. So, in essence, nothing goes out until my client and I are both in full agreement that it is ready to be seen by the editorial world.
The Crowe’s Nest authors want to know if you get a sense when something's going to be big when you first read it? What do you think are the elements of a "big" book? I abhor the classification, “big book”. I do not represent mid-list authors and publishers know that when they get involved with me or my authors. To answer your question, the way I’ve always known it to be, is that realizing you have what it takes to succeed as an agent is much like learning a foreign language. Sadly, I don’t speak one, but what I gather from those who do is that as one is really learning that second or third language, they begin to dream in it. The same goes for an agent reading a hot manuscript they love. The agent should really have the name or names of editors who they think might be a fit for the project popping into his or her brain as they read. This is usually the big sign for me that an author and I may be a match. The role of the agent, in addition to having a responsive, detailed, and honest relationship with their authors, is to be up on the publishing scene, know editors’ likes and dislikes, and act as a matchmaker. This, to me, is the real art of what we do. Of course, this is all in addition to the importance of knowing how to negotiate each and every point of a contract. All of these points have most certainly been instilled or beaten, as it were, into me by the agents I most respect.
Can you share a success story with us- a book you found in the slush pile and how you sold it? There is a debut novel, formerly titled, HOW TO COOK AND EAT CHILDREN by Keith McGowan. The title is now, I believe, THE WITCH’S TALE. Naturally, when I saw the original title, I was intrigued and called up Keith to ask for the entire manuscript. I finished the manuscript and loved it. I knew it needed some work, so he and I did two or three rounds of revisions together before going out on submission. This is always an exciting, but at once harrowing experience, in that you’ve taken much time working with the author, and the author has taken much time working on the book just to enter into a process in which the outcome is unknown. I think Sara will agree, that as agents, there are always things you’ve read and loved, but could simply not sell. Sadly, agents are not miracle-workers. Rather, they are matchmakers. Only once so far, in my short career, have I talked an editor into buying a book. That’s a story for another time, and certainly the exception—not the rule. As for Keith McGowan’s debut novel, I am proud to report it was pre-empted by Christy Ottaviano at Holt, and is the lead title on her Christy Ottaviano Books imprint. Look for it soon!
Please tell us about some of your spring books- what we should look out for. THE WITCH’S JOURNAL by Keith McGowan – Holt. NEED by Carrie Jones – Bloomsbury. EVERYTHING IS FINE by Ann Dee Ellis – Little Brown. WABI SABI by Ed Young – Little Brown and TSUNAMI by Ed Young - Philomel. ADIOS OSCAR by Peter Elwell - Scholastic. MATISSE ON THE LOOSE by G.B. Bragg – Delacorte. SURF MULES by G. Neri – Putnam. The beautiful reissue of THE AUSTIN CHRONICLES series by Madeleine L’Engle along with the second coming of her YA novel, CAMILLA, referred to as the female CATCHER IN THE RYE. (FSG) DIRTY LAUNDRY by Daniel Ehrenhaft – Harper Teen. ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN, SUPER SLEUTH by Donald J. Sobol – Dutton. I could go on…
Is what you are “looking for now” more dependent on what you see as being the type of work that will sell in today's market, or more about a type of work/author that you feel is missing from your list? I have to say, I have never taken on clients with market conditions in mind ever before, and I don’t plan to even in these dire economic times. As Christopher Morley said, “There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love.” I have always operated via visceral gut reactions to a writer’s prose or story. Anything short of that, I believe puts the author and his or her agent in a bad, sexless marriage, if you will. Some of the best advice I’ve received over the years has been simply that you must be absolutely be in love with a project in order to advocate for it effectively.
How should writers query you? I’m still a snail mail guy, although I imagine that won’t last much longer. Nevertheless, for at least 2009, queries can be sent to me via regular mail to McIntosh & Otis, Inc., Attn: Edward Necarsulmer IV, 353 Lexington Avenue, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10016. Please include a synopsis and the first two chapters of a novel, or the entire manuscript if sending a picture book. Please include a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope.
My talented and lovely assistant, Abigail and I read everything that comes in. As many houses are now closed to unsolicited submissions, our work load has nearly doubled in the past year. So please bear with us and be patient. Most of all, keep writing and never give up. In the words of our unofficial poet laureate, Bob Dylan, “When you feel in your gut what you are and then dynamically pursue it – don’t back down and don’t give up – then you’re going to mystify a lot of folks.”
Thank you, Edward!
Friday, February 20, 2009
A&M: Alexa is in the middle of a major revision, and you went through three major revisions with Megan. Did you know that these were going to be major revisions when you acquired our books? Did you see potential for something in these books, and does that play a big part in your acquisition decisions?
ES: When I decide to acquire a book, I have a pretty clear idea of the changes I’m going to suggest. So I like to talk to authors first, to make sure we have a similar vision. I’d never take on a project if I didn’t totally believe in the author! But sometimes a revision will reveal new possibilities in the story that weren’t present in the previous draft, and the original vision evolves. I’ve learned that you can’t really see what will culminate from the revision process until the book is bound. It’s a splendid thing. Sometimes it takes a few rounds and a book has to move back a list, but I think it’s always worth it.
A&M: We both feel like we took most of your suggestions. What percentage do you expect an author to take? What do you do when there are disagreements?
ES: That’s so funny! I often reread my letters and think, "Thank god she didn't agree with me on that one." I write really long editorial letters with plenty of suggestions, but my real aim is to show authors potential in their stories they might not have realized. Sometimes they’re good ideas in themselves. But usually it’s the back-and-forth that propels the evolution of a story. One of the most moving ironies in Meg’s book, Secrets of Truth & Beauty, emerged from her resistance to certain suggestions and partial acceptance of others.
When I have concerns about what I perceive to be real flaws in a story, I try to back them up by sharing the manuscript with a colleague who isn’t as close to it as I am. Extra insight from a disinterested party almost never fails to open up solutions.
A&M: Megan tends to work quickly, while Alexa takes more time to work through her writing and edits. Is there a difference between how you work with these different kinds of writers? Can you tell ahead of time what kind of writer you might be dealing with?
ES: Pace isn't a big issue for me as long as an author has a realistic idea of how quickly she can deliver a first revision once she’s received my first edit. I usually get a sense of an author’s revision style during our phone chat about the first edit letter, and at that point I decide which list to put the book on. It hasn’t seemed to affect my editorial process that much.
A&M: Sometimes when reading other writer's works, it seems like the easiest way to "help" would be to just jump in and rewrite for them. Do you ever have the urge to do that, and, if so, how do you stop yourself?
ES: I guess that’s the fundamental challenge of editing—figuring out the best way to draw out an author’s best writing through thoughtful questions and comments. It takes trust and patience and mad articulation skills. I’m still learning! My approach evolves with every project.
A&M: Megan's book was one of the first you acquired and edited on your own, and now you've worked on Alexa's. Though it's been less than two years, is there anything you have learned along the way about revising with an author?
ES: So many things! I don't know where to start. I guess the most important thing I've learned is that positive feedback is an author's best resource. Absolutely by far. I've also learned that in a first edit, general feedback and questions are usually more helpful than detailed suggestions. Then in the second edit I offer more specific ideas for things that I think still need development.
A&M: We think you have a great sense of the book as a whole as well as the little details. Where does that overarching sense come from? We theorized that it came from your own writing experience, but wanted to hear your take?
ES: That’s about the nicest thing you could say to me! I don’t have a lot of fiction-writing experience, but I read a lot, and I have an oddball family who loves to tell stories. I also have a pretty vast reservoir of humiliating memories. (Humiliation is an amazing eye-opener!) All these things help me find interesting tensions and themes as I read manuscripts. It’s thrilling when a story crystallizes feelings I’d never been able to articulate—that’s why I love YA so much. The protagonists are so smart and so honest, and they’re just discovering how bizarre the world is; I love to see how they grow. I guess that’s where the narrative arc really pops out to me, that dramatic rounding the bend. All the books I’ve acquired so far have protagonists I deeply empathize with, and that empathy guides me quite a bit as an editor.
Thank you, Emily!
Thursday, February 12, 2009
When I get the envelope in the mail, I fear the editorial letter. Oops, not quite love, is it? After I’ve opened the envelope and read my editor’s comments, I dislike the editorial letter just a teeny tiny bit. Really not love then. After I’ve had a few days to let all the suggestions sink in, I tolerate the editorial letter. Okay, we’re getting there. After I’ve opened the manuscript and started the work and realize I really CAN do it, I like the editorial letter. And at some point, it varies with each manuscript, I figure out that what my editor wants is making the book so much better and I really do adore that once feared editorial letter. Yes, here we are, hearts and chocolate and red roses all the way.
I’ve heard unpublished writers talk about doing revisions for an editor, and some of them find it surprising how many changes an editor might ask for and wonder if an author ever feels resentful about it.
Obviously I can’t speak for all authors, but I can share my thoughts on this topic. Do I wish I wrote books that were perfect from the words “Chapter 1?” Well, that would certainly be nice. But I don’t. And that is the first step to loving editorial letters – accepting that we all have strengths and weaknesses. A good editor will allow us to write to our strengths, but will make us stretch and grow in regards to our weaknesses. And a really good editor will do it in such a way that we don’t feel bad the book was flawed when we turned it over, but instead happy we now have an opportunity to make a good book great.
For me, the hardest part of doing the revisions at first is just opening the document and starting. It can be overwhelming, because you have this letter of all the things you’re supposed to work on. I’ve talked to authors about how they approach making the changes and many, including myself, start by going through and making some of the changes that are marked on the manuscript itself. These are usually quick and easy fixes, and doing this is like dipping your toes into the revision pool instead of diving in from a high cliff.
Ultimately, I guess I view the editorial letter as a gift. I want my book to be the best it can be. An editor’s suggestions are going to help me get there. And I should add here that although Sara (the agent here at the Crowe’s Nest) doesn’t do a formal letter, when we submit something to her, she offers editorial advice as well so we can make the manuscript strong before submission. Her suggestions have always been spot-on and I appreciate her critical eye as well.
I’ve just about finished up my revisions for a mid-grade novel coming out in Spring 2010. In a couple of months, I’ll be getting the editorial letter for my next young adult novel. And you know what? I can’t wait!!!
Monday, February 9, 2009
More than two years ago, Sara found a home for my novel Shadowed Summer, and I'm so excited to say that tomorrow, it becomes a real live book on shelves everywhere!
To celebrate this debut, I'm giving away three Extremely Haunted Gift Bags. In them, you'll find signed books, oils from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, Tabasco candies, t-shirts, and more. And just for readers of this blog, if you put in the code CAW, I'll double your entries.
Thank you so much, Sara- you turned a screenwriter into a novelist, and I'm so grateful!
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
The 2010 YA/MG Debut group THE TENNERS (Nester, Heidi R. Kling is co-moderator) is hosting a new interview series with the hottest new authors of 2009, the 2009 Debutantes (aka: FeastofAwesome.com) starting today called DEBREVIEWS.
Our first Debreview stars Jenny Moss, author of WINNIE'S WAR, in a lively interview by Tenner Irene Latham.
The Tenners will host the entire interview series this year and will highlight over 30 MG/YA debut authors!
Please join us and read about the latest and fabulous new group of authors!
Now down to basics. Here’s the mechanics of our group. We meet in a library study room. Each member takes a turn hosting the meeting. The host reserves the space, provides a very light snack (remembering food is not allowed in the library), and keeps track of the time during our meeting. The host also sends an email out with meeting information for everyone to respond whether they are coming and if they are reading.
There are seven people in my regular monthly critique group, WOW, Writers on Wednesdays. We begin our meeting with short news about ourselves pertaining to our writing. We then choose cards to see who reads first and then proceed in order. Each reader is allowed to present five pages to the group, but can choose not to read and instead discuss any writing issues. Copies of those five pages are handed out to everyone and the author reads aloud while everyone writes notes on their copies. After the selection is read, we go around the table with comments on the body of the work. Each member hands the copies back to the author with their comments.
We leave the meeting with fresh energy to revise and inspiration to proceed. More than once I've been so excited about my manuscript that I’ve had to pull my car over and jot down an idea.
Writing groups, whether online or in person, help improve your own writing and your writing habits. Just knowing you have a monthly meeting looming ahead helps to spur along your writing. It brings you into a community...and don't we all need that?