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Saturday, August 23, 2008

My life in a box

It was there waiting for me when I got back.  A vast, sprawling, filthy tip of mess, piled in heaps around the pristine spare bedroom of my English home. Exploding trash bags of notes from my schooldays; dust-laden boxes of yellowed books; mouldering suitcases stuffed with ancient cards and letters. The abandoned detritus of the family loft, of my life, dumped with me for sorting and disposal.

I stood there, exhausted and weirdly emotional after the all-night flight from Washington DC.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed in those first surreal moments of readjustment, and dirt and mess always get me down.

A short sleep, a search for elbow-length rubber gloves and grubby apron, and I was back. The task: to sort the heap into three piles - one for the trash, one for the charity shop, one for keeping.  One task, but a thousand surprises, a thousand decisions, and some heart-stabbing reunions.  As I sifted and sorted I found myself making a journey back in time, to the roots of who I am and how I came to be here. These are some of the things that made it into the ‘keeping’ box.

My granny’s vintage black evening gloves that button up to the elbow.  My granny was born in 1889 and through her I saw some of the big events of history.  The sinking of the Titanic, the death of her fiance at Ypres, the Blitz as she took cover on the back steps and down in the air-raid shelter.  Her life in India with my grandfather who grew tobacco and shot big game in an age when it was fine to slay beautiful wild animals; the near-death of both my grandparents in local uprisings. And then - her solo voyage to America where she worked as a governess at a time when women didn’t really do that sort of thing. She was bold and charismatic, she was fanatically parsimonious (hanging her teabags on a little washing line so they could dry out and be reused) - but she was always immaculately dressed and never, ever scrimped on her expensive face cream, even when she was 95 and far beyond the help of L’Oreal.

The books I wrote. Yes, I was an author at the age of six!  I frequently announced that I was off to write another work.  And here they are - THE GRRL, THE MOUS AND THE HORSE. And the highly illustrated SALLY’S RIDING SCHOOL. Piles of notebooks filled with my huge writing and crayoned drawings.

A teddy bear named Benjamin Bernard Saunders. Benjamin belonged to my big sister.  His cousin, George James Robinson, was mine, and a polar bear by ethnicity.  George resides in Virginia where he still sports his natty, knitted school uniform.  Under Big Sister’s instructions we lined up the bears (and their friends) in ‘classrooms’ made from wooden bricks and gave them endless tests.  Poor George James usually had ‘could do better’ against his feeble efforts (Big Sister didn’t mess around). Oh, and here are their tiny school bags and minute work-books which we made.  And in which I see Big Sister wrote the names of all the boys she liked.  (I’ve decided she must have been an early developer.)

The vocational guidance test I was made to take when I was fourteen, when I had already understood, through frequent repetition, that I’d very likely never amount to anything.  In pages of detail I glean that I was deemed to be extrovert, should work in a team, and preferably in the field of literature.  Hah!

Aged copies of BLACK BEAUTY (horses! suffering! triumph!), HEIDI (oh those golden curls! Drinking milk out of a bowl!), TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and CATCHER IN THE RYE.  All awesome! MOCKINGBIRD turning me from a child reader into an adolescent one.

My degree certificate from ‘Universitas Cambrensis’. The University of Wales.  Perched a few feet from the wild Irish Sea, my hall of residence experienced the highest wind speeds ever recorded in Britain.  We would wake to find seaweed stuck to our fourth-floor window, and I would labour up the seaside promenade hefting book bags packed with Beowulf (in the original Anglo Saxon), Chaucer, Melville, Faulkner, Dickens and (my favourite) E.M. Forster.

A Teach-Yourself Welsh book. Unsurprisingly.  My husband calls it ‘the language without vowels’ (or is it more that the vowels are in quite the wrong place?).  Impenetrable and crazily Celtic, it reminds me not only of my friends for whom Welsh is their first language, but also of some of my favourite places in the world: the little towns of Dolgellau and Beddgelert; the wild craggy mountains of Cader Idris and Snowdon. They say that if you spend the night alone on Cader you’ll wake insane in the morning, and I’m not surprised.

A smelly, yellowed copy of James Joyce’s ULYSSES.  I held the English Department’s record for having read this punctuation-less book FOUR times.  If you can beat that madness, I promise to buy you a pint of Guinness, should we ever meet.

And then the motherlode.  Or perhaps I should say fatherlode.  A cassette tape recorded by my father in 1981, outlining his feelings for me.  I haven’t heard his voice for nearly twelve years (he died in 1997) and still dare not play the tape.  A difficult man, a difficult relationship, but as a child I would sit on the floor surrounded by his books which I pulled from the old mahogany bookcase.  A man who created a business from nothing and ended up advising, and taking tea, with the Royal Family. Who died with more than 4000 books crammed into his stone cottage in the far west of England.  Books in the kitchen cupboards (no food), the airing cupboard, under the bath, in the bedroom closets.  Who in the final years of his life wrote Cold-War thrillers, was taken on by a top London literary agent - and yet never got a book deal. Who delighted in the delicious irony that his daughter was a publisher, though he could never understand why on earth I wasted my time on children’s books (’So when are you going to get a job doing PROPER books?’). And I sit and wonder - what would he say if he knew I was to become a literary agent, that I would move to America, that I would start a business.  And I find myself laughing because I know he would have been thrilled and amazed, no doubt boring his friends half to death about it.

So I close the box and prepare to push it under the bed, there to gather dust along with someone’s old sleeping bag, a sun lounger, my guitar amp (which is a story for another day).  But I think about my journey and how I got here - the stories of my family and their journeys that they bequeathed to me. The hard work, the struggles, the surprises, the dreams - the odd heroic failure - that have got me this far and to this place.  And I wonder - what would be in the box of your life?  What has been your journey and the story you have to tell?

I start thinking about packing to go home to the States on Tuesday.  Two homes, two countries, but a box under the bed that marks the milestones. 

Wishing you peace on your journey. 

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Last minute excitements

I don’t know why, but deals always seem to come to fruition just as I’m about to go off travelling.  Take today, for example.  I’m leaving for vacation tomorrow evening (back August 26) and have done virtually nothing to get ready.  The suitcase is still in the basement, the socks are still in the dryer, and I’m trying to get my head round the idea of going somewhere cold and rainy.  You’d think I’d know all about that kind of climate, but it’s amazing how soon you forget that there are parts of the world where people don’t live in shorts all summer.

So anyway, there I am, thinking towards the Big Pack. And slowly but surely, all the weeks and months of planning and strategy come together to mark today as the day when I shall sell my fourth debut author - the very wonderful Valerie Patterson.

I first encountered Valerie several months ago when I moved to Virginia. Ellen Braaf, head of the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI (my local branch), mentioned that she knew a very talented author whom I should probably seek out.  I did so (of course) and Valerie became one of my very first Greenhouse authors.  As soon as I read her elegant, evocative writing I knew I had found someone with a very special talent, and an extraordinary ear for the nuances of character, motivation, and language. Here was someone who I felt so richly deserved to be published, and I was really excited to have the opportunity to help her get there if I could.

Gradually, over several months, Val’s novel developed and changed in small but significant ways.  The title changed - to THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE - which we felt reflected the evocative style of the story. As I mentioned the title to publishers at Bologna and New York I could see editors respond to it, which was a great sign.  Finally, about three weeks ago I sent the manuscript out - and today have conducted a ‘best offers’ mini-auction between two great houses that have a fine track record for developing the best literary talent.  Both editors who went for it absolutely loved BLUE and it was wonderful to hear their passsion for Valerie’s writing.  But we had to find a winner - and that winner was confirmed today as Jennifer Wingertzahn of Clarion, who will publish THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE either in Fall 09 or Spring 2010.  Even better, this was a two-book deal, which means that Valerie is really setting off on a professional writing adventure that we hope and believe will carry her forward into increasing success in the future.

THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE is a beautifully wrought debut.  Han Nolan, winner of the National Book Award, describes Valerie as ‘a born writer.  Her language feels so fresh, clean and spare - just perfect.’ Now that is some endorsement!

The story is about 15-year-old Cyan - named after the colour blue by her artist mother.  And blue, in all its shades, is how it feels for Cyan to be back on the island of Curacao one year after the terrible loss of her father at sea. Expected to play host to a potential new stepsister - as perfectly pink as Cyan knows she can never be - the past and future are coloured by mystery.  Did her mother drive Cyan’s father away? Why were an ice bucket and two glasses found on his overturned sailing boat? And why does local boy Mayur say that he alone can tell Cyan the truth? With a gulf as wide as the Caribbean between her mother and herself, Cyan must explore the depths of the colour blue - the blue of sadness, the sea, the horizon, and ultimately herself - in this exquisitely told story of family love, betrayal, and hope. 

This is a very special story and I am so happy tonight that Valerie is going to be published.  It’s a long journey for most writers and each deserves their time in the sun at a moment like this.  So well done, Valerie, and I can’t wait to see how the future unfolds.

Raise a virtual glass, everyone, to THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE!

So now I’m off down to the basement to find the suitcase and throw in some clothes.  And a raincoat.  And some large boots.  Take care - I’ll see you when I’m back from vacation.  And don’t forget - enjoy your writing!

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Packages and presents

What does the word ‘package’ mean to you?  A mysterious box, gift-wrapped with pretty paper and tied with an elegant ribbon?  Today I’m thinking excitedly about packages - and hoping some might appear later.  Sssh, it’s my birthday, and somehow I never get too old to be pleased about that! 

But publishers have something else in mind when they use the word ‘package’ - as they do quite a lot. Because to a publisher the package is everything you see, touch and feel as you hold a finished book.  It’s the culmination of the entire vision that the editor - and all the rest of the team - had for the work.  The package can comprise many things, including (and always most importantly) the jacket. Illustrations, format, dimensions, paper, and typeface (including spacing on the page) will also be considered.  Sometimes much more esoteric and individual specifications come into the mix:  whether to include extras like a ribbon bookmark, coloured edges to the paper, head and tail bands (the funny little coloured bits you see on quality hardbacks where the paper abuts the papercase on top and bottom).  All these bits and pieces go into the costing mix and produce a set of figures that will help to determine the profitability of the book, where it should be printed, how fast reprints can be produced - and often what its retail price should be. The decisions can be very difficult to make.  Add too many bits and pieces and you can radically diminish profitability; add too few and you can lose that ‘standout’ potential on the shelf that could help to achieve higher sales. It’s a balance, and somewhere there will be a senior person muttering, ‘If you DO add ...... [fill in the blank] are we REALLY going to sell 5000 more???’ These are the fraught conversations that happen very frequently in publishing offices around the globe as editors, production executives, sales people and art departments come at issues with different agendas and equally strong feelings!

Sometimes, and in a perfect world, the entire vision for the book will be thought through on acquisition.  That’s a very clever thing to do because then the publisher can offer a very accurate sum for rights in the book - a sum based on projected sales and incorporating all costs and overheads.  But more often the vision appears more gradually, and through many meetings and discussions between departments. Often there are false starts as one aspect doesn’t look quite right and has to be rethought - even at a very late stage.  Chief priority (and often bugbear) is the jacket, which more than anything else creates the image for the book.  There are so many possibilities: jackets with flaps, paperback covers, double covers, different ‘finishes’ (glossy and shiny; matt and smooth; sparkly foil, embossing, fuzzy textures, holographic - even ‘scratch and sniff’!), all of which are used to create different effects, but which come at a high price.

The first step on the jacket journey will be when the editor comes up with a ‘brief’ for the Art Department - usually months before publication.  The brief will give an outline of the book’s content, some thoughts on style, age group, genre.  From this a designer will come up with a range of possibilities, often very different, which will then be spread out on a table and scrutinized, pondered, and discussed (argued over?) at length. One ‘look’ may then be chosen, or the designer may even go away to produce more samples.  But at some point a course will be set and suddenly the book’s ‘personality’ will begin to take shape. More discussions will take place over typography and finishes - and sometimes, even at the last possible moment, the whole thing will be ditched and begun again.  It’s such an important thing that one seriously negative comment from a key buyer can mean a hasty rethink.  The old saying, ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ has got it all wrong.  Books are absolutely judged by their covers!

Lots of knowledge goes into the creation of the ‘package’.  What else is out there in the market.  What your competitors are doing.  Whether you want the book to aim straight at boys or girls - or both genders. Whether it’s an upscale literary work that is all about the text - or whether there’s a particularly marketable ‘hook’ that suggests a strong look. Whatever the range of factors, the decisions will always aim at making the book stand out from the pack, convey a strong sense of content - and yet still be capable of competitive pricing (because if the book is priced too high you’re doomed anyway!).

So that’s a little introduction to packages, though there is much more to be said about the process. Meanwhile, I think I hear the postman at the door.  Maybe there’ll be a package - and maybe it will be for me!  Have a happy day, everyone. 

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Hotties and other beautiful people

In the course of my reading this past week, I’ve encountered a number of . . . attractive people.  To be more specific:  A whole lotta hot guys, who have a number of anatomical things in common. I’ll list a few: rippling six packs; rock-hard abs; sun-flecked blond hair; emerald-chip eyes; square jawlines; strong chins; cute grins.  These guys are invariably ‘jocks’, and invariably quarterbacks.  However, given they are clearly God’s chosen ones (being a jock and a quarterback seems to guarantee that apparently; all so hard for a British girl to grasp . . . ), these hunks of walking perfection are invariably Not Very Nice.  Or if they are, well, frankly, they’re a bit dim.  Or maybe they’re even trying to break out of their own stereotype because they’re just plain misunderstood.  And what is the point of all those muscles, of being ‘drop-dead gorgeous’, if you’re Mr Misunderstood?  Yes, it’s very hard being beautiful!

But their female counterparts also stride sassily into my life at times.  Girls with lean, tanned limbs; endless legs; sun-flecked blonde hair that is subject to much tossing; big blue eyes (huh!  Guys get the emerald chips, girls get the ‘bottomless pools’ of blue.  Call that fair?), and cute smiles (it seems that girls can smile - grinning clearly unfeminine). These visions will usually be loaded with cash.  A lot of them will be athletes who think nothing of running marathons; some of they may even be cheerleaders.  But once again, these beauties are invariably Not Very Nice - because with great beauty comes a lack of moral fibre, it seems.  Except in those who are simply too sweet, too genuine, too distracted to recognize their own beauty - which may then have to be pointed out to them by their much frumpier, fatter, less desirable/socially successful friend.

Invariably, these characters share a certain vocabulary.  There will be a touch of ‘Earth to Cassie/Sophie/Amy’, a hint of ‘OMG!’, a dollop of ‘Like, hey, oh yeah, kinda’.

And meanwhile Sarah sits at her desk, glasses perched on nose, paper stacked in front of her, sliding steadily downwards as she loses her tenuous grip on sanity and finally slumps to the floor.  It’s not always easy reading work for teens in an age where CLIQUE, A-LIST, GOSSIP GIRL, and many more sit pinkly on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Because unless you are a real whiz at bringing fresh life to characters we feel we’ve met before, it can be very tough to make an impact.

There’s nothing at all wrong with writing for a cool teenage audience, but somehow, if possible, you’ve got to overturn the stereotypes and do something new and funky of your own with the genre.  However you hear kids speak out there on the streets, in the schools, in Starbucks, you’ve got to capture that in a way that’s going to be arresting and different and set you apart from everything else out there. And however kids actually speak, it all stands out far more on the page than it does in real life.  That is, there’s a BIG difference between the impact of the written word and the impact of conversation (hence one swear word has vast impact in a text, whereas you may not even notice it in a verbal exchange).  Try to find a new concept for your story, a fresh voice, a more distinct and fully realized set of characters (as three dimensional as possible), and don’t try to emulate successful series that are currently selling out in the shops because that is surely going to be derivative writing.

Is it possible to do something new with the ‘high school novel’?  Well yes, it is.  I read one manuscript this week that hit a really fresh note for me.  I can’t tell you too much about it, and it was far from perfect, but there was something structurally, linguistically, and stylistically different that made me stop in my tracks.  I don’t know yet if it will be something I’ll represent, but I do know it gave me hope that there really ARE new ways to evoke that contemporary teenage world and make me see it in a different light. 

So give it a shot and see what happens.  And meanwhile, hey, OMG!, I’ve like gotta go, guys, yeah?.  I’m off to the pool with a hottie jock!*

*Aka, the Greenhouse Husband. smile

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