“I will buy one book.”
*walks into Books Are Magic bookstore in Brooklyn*
Me: “I will buy five books.”
“I will buy one book.”
*walks into Books Are Magic bookstore in Brooklyn*
Me: “I will buy five books.”
Family members: avert your eyes.
Everyone else: feast your eyes on (most of) the books I’m giving for Christmas this year.
This is what happens when you work from home and you’re trying to give a video interview about the publishing industry but your cat needs some affection.
When I go through busy, stressful seasons, I tend to bake a lot. “Stress-baking” was what one of my roommates in college called it. During final exams my kitchen sink would be full of bowls and spatulas and measuring cups, and the counters would be full of brownies and chocolate chip cookies and lemon lavender shortbread.
Recently, it’s been a busy time in both my professional and personal life, and whenever I get stressed or overwhelmed, I end up in my kitchen with my hair up in a messy bun, just like my younger self did.
Most recently I tried my hand at a classic Swedish cookie called drömmar. The literal English translation for drömmar is “dreams” and the cookie itself is most commonly referred to as the “Swedish Dream cookie.” The recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baker’s ammonia (also called hornsalt or ammonium carbonate.) I had to special order it on Amazon, and when it came in the mail I opened it up and took a sniff and immediately started coughing. It smells terrible. Like high school chemistry class chemicals, or YMCA pool water.
While I mixed together the ingredients—butter and flour and sugar and vanilla and oil, and then added in the teaspoon of hornsalt, I thought, “There is no way these are not going to taste like YMCA pool water.” While they all baked together in the oven, the kitchen filled with the bitter fumes that made my eyes sting, and I again thought: “There is no way these are not going to taste like YMCA pool water.”
But after I pulled them out of the oven, and let them cool, I tried one and felt like my entire body melted into a pile of sugary buttery goo. They’re truly such little dreams come true. Like buttery pillows you want to rest your head on at night. The hornsalt is the crucial ingredient to get the right texture. And, for the record, they did not at all taste like YMCA pool water.
And you know I can’t help but think: this is exactly what writing is like. Right?
When you begin, you have the goal and intention to make something delicious. But as things get going, as you mix things together, things don’t smell like how you want them to. Doubt creeps in and you begin to think: “There is no way this is not going to read like whatever the literary version of YMCA pool water is.” But the beginning is always icky. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls this the “sh*tty first draft. ” But you can’t get to the dreamy final draft without it. And you have to hang in there during the sting and the stink and trust that the editorial process—and perhaps a critique group’s help—will bake out the yuck.
Because you can’t reach your dreams without a little bit of hornsalt.
Drömmar Swedish Dream Cookies
(Recipe thanks to “Cultures of the World: Sweden” published by Cavendish Square in 2015)
1 stick unsalted butter, softened.
1 1.4 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. baker’s ammonia, also called hornsalt or powdered ammonium carbonate
1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
In the bowl or mixer, beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Slowly add the oil with the mixer on low speed. Add in the baker’s ammonia and flour and beat until combined. The dough will be on the drier side. Form 1-inch balls and place 2 inches apart on the baking sheet.
Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until cookies have just begun to set. Let cookies cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes and then transfer cookies to a wire cooking rack and let cool completely.
Note from Adria: I’ve seen other recipes which include coconut, but I’m not one for coconut. I’ve also seen recipes call for almond extract rather than vanilla, which I’m going to try next time!
Please welcome Natalie Grazian, our newest agent, who recently relocated to Seattle from San Diego. Natalie is smart, witty, and lovely. She represents Adult Fiction projects, from commercial to literary, and has a special lean toward fiction with speculative elements. You can direct your queries to email@example.com. You can read about her submission policies here. Her official website bio is below:
As the latest on staff, Natalie is eager to build her adult fiction list. She is currently accepting queries for commercial, upmarket, and literary adult fiction.
Natalie has a BA in English and Minor in Spanish from Santa Clara University. Upon graduating, she worked as a sales representative for W. W. Norton & Co. and interned for two literary agencies, including Martin Literary & Media Management. For two years, Natalie was the Fiction Editor of The Santa Clara Review, the oldest literary magazine on the West Coast.
She’s thrilled to join MLM and fully realize her passion for working with authors and bringing their stories to life. She has a knack for collaborative manuscript development, extensive insight into the publishing world, and an irrepressible drive to see her clients’ work at the bookstore.
Natalie would love it if you sent her contemporary fantasy (in the vein of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians). She’s drawn to dark comedy that still carries a beating heart—because at the end of the day, she turns to books to find humanity. She is highly interested in reimagined myths and fairytales from different cultures, historical fiction, and a good quest narrative in any genre. More than anything, she looks for complex characters who make the unrelatable relatable, and for a smart, distinctive narrative voice. At this time, she’s not seeking military thrillers, sports stories, or romance novels.
Natalie grew up in sunny San Diego, which she recalls wistfully from time to time, but not too often. She’s taken to Seattle like a duck to water. When she isn’t lost in a book, she might be writing stories or doing any number of bipedal activities in the mountainous Pacific Northwest. She is distrustful of any purse that can’t fit a slim paperback. Or two. Natalie tweets at @NatalieGrazian.
IN PURSUIT OF DELIGHT
My mission statement, which you can read at the top of my Manuscript Wish List post, specifies that I look for books that delight readers.
On my introductory phone calls with writers, I always read this mission statement so they can get a sense for who I am as a person, agent, and reader. And so they can see why I gravitated toward their work.
On a phone call with a writer recently, I mentioned that I found her work particularly delightful, and I thought readers would too. “Delightful projects are tough to find,” I explained.
“Really?” she asked in disbelief.
It seems that most of the picture book submissions that cross my desk are either too serious, or too didactic. They’re out to teach, inform, or carry out their agenda, and the story gets lost in the lesson. They lack delight. If you’re not sure what delight looks like, it looks like this: kids giggling, cackling at times, kids gasping, kids cheering as the story is being read aloud to them. Delight is NOT watered down commercialism-fueled projects with no substance, or a trend-chasing concept. It’s a story filled with twists and turns and all the good stuff.
I particularly love working with librarians and teachers, because I feel like they have their fingers on the pulse of what kids find delightful. They’re surrounded by kids so they can’t forget what it is that kids like. When they write, they’re not writing with a hypothetical child in mind. They’re writing with specific names and faces in mind. Real life wiggly kids with sticky hands who want to be delighted by stories, rather than scolded by them.
I’m hoping to spend the rest of my career in pursuit of delight.
I went to Baltimore for the first time a couple weeks ago because my dad was having a rare heart surgery at Johns Hopkins hospital. We had the weekend before the surgery to wine, dine, and explore the city. And folks? It was glorious. Brick buildings, gorgeous churches, cobblestone roads, amazing restaurants, and the kindest people.
But the most glorious part of Baltimore had to do with books. I mean…
Exhibit A: This Barnes & Noble just a few blocks from out hotel. Amazing. I bought two creepy YA books that I can’t wait to read.
Exhibit B: George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University. Pinch me.
There’s a lot that goes into reading and evaluating a project that shows up in my inbox. One of the tools I utilize is called a “5 in 5 Rule.” This is a tool I use when approaching novel submissions in particular.
My 5 in 5 Rule: if I can’t instantly think of 5 specific names of editors I’d send a project to within reading 5 chapters of a manuscript, I pass.
There’s so much throwing-spaghetti-against-the-wall-and-seeing-what-sticks in publishing. And though I’m guilty of spastically throwing just as much spaghetti as the next agent, I’m striving to—more and more—send out tighter submission lists that are as personal and specific as possible. I want to find the right wall and the right spaghetti. Some editors are brick walls, some are paneled walls, some like whole grain spaghetti, some like gluten free. Okay, this analogy is falling apart. But you know what I mean—hopefully. (Also, going to Olive Garden to carboload real quick. BRB.)
I also use this 5 in R Rule because I only want to take on projects if I think I can be the best advocate possible for a writer. And sometimes, this means I pass on great writing. I did recently, in fact. And, likely, I will again soon. But if I don’t have the right set of contacts for a project, I could be setting up the writer—and myself—for failure or disappointment.
So while I know that a pass from an agent can feel like the worst rejection ever that stings, remember that these is nuance to these decisions. And when one agent comes up empty, there’s another one out there brimming with ideas.