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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Mini Cooper School of Writing

So I’m safely back at my desk, with 14,672 submissions to read and an inbox that’s emitting radioactive sparks (actually, just kidding about the number of submissions: it’s really 14,671).  One email, however, has particularly stuck in my mind, and I’m hoping my correspondent won’t mind me mentioning it (in the interests of the Higher Good of other readers).  This emailer tells me that they’ve been wanting to write a book for ages and are now seeking an agent to guide them through the novel-writing process. Hmm, yes. Well actually, the best thing is really to write the novel first - BEFORE you seek an agent. But it brings me back to something I’ve mentioned before - that with so many support groups and networking opportunities available, it may be easy to forget that the real point of it all is . . . sitting down and doing the writing! 

Which brings me to what I shall call the Mini Cooper School of Writing.  You see, when I first came to the States last Fall, my husband very kindly sold the ‘man-car’ (a big black thing) and we invested in a snappy red-and-black Mini Cooper (please note, it does about 40 miles to the gallon which makes it quite a suitable Greenhouse vehicle).  Boy, that is one sweet motor! One touch of my cowboy boot to the accelerator and those minivans are history . . . But I digress. The thing is, after toy-town Britain, driving here seemed very scary: such huge highways, so many lanes, so few road signs. It seemed all too likely that I’d be swept off down to Richmond or somewhere, never to be seen again. So, I spent a lot of time memorising maps, learning road names and even programming the Garmin - anything rather than actually venture out on to the streets! Until suddenly I got it:  making mistakes was not only inevitable, it was actually the only way I was going to learn.  There was no way around getting hooted occasionally at the lights or having rude signs made at me when I chose the wrong filter lane. It was all simply a necessary part of gaining confidence - and making sure I never made the same mistake twice. And gradually, very gradually, I’ve improved.

So don’t be scared.  Boot up the computer, work out your plot and get writing.  It may be rubbish, but in six months time you may be capable of something better than rubbish.  Expose your writing to your harshest critic and keep working and working to improve it; be prepared to tear it up and start again if you’re not 100% happy with it. Don’t jump to find an agent - regard yourself as a writing in training, apprenticed to your craft. After all, if you were learning to paint would you think yourself ready to exhibit in a few weeks?

Put your pedal to the metal and get going. It’s a Mini Cooper world! 

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

My bags are packed, I’m ready to go . . .

Blogging is an extraordinary thing. Now the Greenhouse is ‘out there’ and submissions are pouring in (about 40 today and counting; do I laugh? do I have a nervous breakdown?), I’m starting to get the sense of an embryonic GH community developing.  It’s an amazing feeling - so many people I’ve never met opening the Greenhouse door and peeking in.  So, whether you’re from Wyoming or Wolverhampton, Denver or Dorset, a warm welcome to you! I do hope you’re enjoying the site and that your writing is producing some new green shoots as a result.

I expect you’re expecting an insightful word from me on the state of the literary scene. Well, I’m afraid it ain’t going to happen tonight because literary agents are real people too. Here I am with a half-packed suitcase, papers everywhere, and on course to get a flight back to the US tomorrow that has had to be postponed by a day due to unbelievable numbers of crises (today’s: a large crack developing across the ceiling that has needed emergency treatment from a builder before it falls down). I’m looking forward to getting back to Greenhouse HQ and looking through your submissions to the comforting backdrop of the snoring Greenhouse hound. There are many excitements coming up:  1) a long-awaited manuscript to read on the plane by a really talented new writer 2) a second new author I’m dying to sign up and 3) a Big Book going out to publishers at the end of February. Plus 4) the manic countdown to Bologna just beginning. All pretty cool, eh!

Have to admit, it’s not been an easy week. So a big thank you to Robert from Who-Knows-Where for sending me the kindest of notes.  Cheers! (As we British like to say.)

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

SCBWI: From New York to London

Hi there, y’all, from a cold and bleak London, where the sky today hung heavy as white lead. It’s been a crazy few days - two cities, two flights, but one common thread:  SCBWI (for anyone who doesn’t know, this stands for the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators).  New York was a hectic weekend and my first taste of the SCBWI US Winter Conference. The size, impact and diversity of SCBWI US is quite inspiring, and it was great to meet so many old and new friends, from SCBWI organisers to publishers to authors and illustrators. There’s no doubt that if you’re an American would-be writer, there’s no shortage of support and guidance available - all fabulous, so long as it doesn’t stand in the way of actually writing! Highlights of the conference had to be author Carolyn Mackler’s funny and touching speech about her journey as a writer, and Susan Patron’s disarming story of her life-changing year as a Newbery winner for THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY.
Then it was a flight home (delayed,and returning to a power failure!), a quick unpack and repack of suitcases, and back to the airport the next morning for my flight to London - my first trip back for four months (thanks to US immigration) and a reunion with much-missed family as well as business meetings.  But the highlight of the trip must surely be last night’s reception at Foyles in Charing X Road (London’s most famous bookstore) for the twelve winners of SCBWI UK’s very first ‘Undiscovered Voices’ writing competition (sponsored by my parent company) for which I was one of the judges last Fall.  Wonderful David Almond (author of SKELLIG, among many other award-winning novels) spoke about his own at times bumpy journey along the road to publication, and I really believe he had a word for every aspiring author in the room who has started to face that unpredictable rollercoaster ride. It was lovely to see twelve newly recognized writers finding their feet and published for the very first time in the special anthology that has been put together to showcase their work. Good luck to you all!
So here’s to the wonderful SCBWI, all branches thereof, and huge thanks to an organization that does so much to promote writing for children and teens around the world.  And I’ll see you all again soon - back at my desk in the Commonwealth of Virginia!

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Because reading can change a life

There was a fascinating article in the Washington Post this week - the author (appropriately enough, Thomas Washington) an upper-school head librarian in nearby McLean. Quoting the usual dire statistics about literacy and reading (less than a third of 13 year olds are daily readers; the percentage of ‘non-readers’ at age 17 has doubled in the last 20 years to 19% in 2004; multi-tasking kids can’t focus on any item for longer than nine minutes), Washington concludes that the tipping point in information overload has finally tipped, that we’ve turned into searchers rather than readers, and that none of us is immune from the daily barrage of information, emails, documents and other literature that has to be scanned at speed if we’re to keep up, to distil what is crucial, in order to move on to the next task. He quotes Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff: ‘Increasingly we deal in atomized bits of information, the hors d’oeuvres of education.’ And which of us grown-ups could say we’re immune?

He’s right - it’s very hard nowadays to take time to admire form, rhythm and content. Did it used to be different? Yes, I think it did.  Whereas high school ‘texts’ are now so much about comprehension in sliced-up form, I remember reading incredibly widely during my final two years at school, keeping a special book to log what I’d read.  Did it seem terribly difficult to fit it in? Not really; and yet I know most schoolkids today would find that kind of eclectic reading virtually impossible amid all the testing.

So what should we agents and publishers make of it? Does it really matter what books hit the shelves if no one’s really concentrating on them anyway? Yes, yes and yes, it does matter.  Because out there words ARE hitting the spot - and they can change lives. For me, discovering a passion for books and a delight in language as a young teenager brought me self-belief - and a brilliant jewel box of meaning that I could play with and savour. Language liberated me and empowered me - and a few years later gave me my path in life. Good stories take you to faraway places, they make you wise beyond your experience, and they give you friends you would never have had otherwise.  Am I just living in the past? Has that world totally vanished?  No, because our neighbours’ daughter Miriam is just like I was - hungry to read, thrilled by words, and in awe of great writers.

So to Miriam - and to all the young people out there who are finding themselves through words . . . Keep reading! It will change your life. 

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