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Friday, October 31, 2008

Return of the pumpkins

You must have been wondering where I’d got to.  Did I vanish in a puff of smoke? Or fall into a pile of submissions never to be seen again?  Well, the latter is always very possible (except they’re all electronic now), but the truth is - I’m just emerging from probably the busiest few weeks I’ve had since launching Greenhouse. 

If you caught my last blog post, you’ll know I was about to speak at Storyville in London.  Yes, it all went pretty well and it was lovely to see several friendly faces in the audience - though actually quite hard to see ANYONE, given the venue was the very cool and stylish basement of a London club, all tricked out with red and black leather and some very low lighting. Oh, and did I mention I was filmed as I spoke?  Hmm, yes, that did come as a surprise, but thankfully I soon forgot about the camera.  Best bit of the evening for me was the ‘pitching’.  After my talk, aspiring writers came up on to the stage one by one, sat down and simply pitched their novel to me.  Very stimulating and interesting because I had to give instant feedback on their concepts and ideas - not dissimilar, I guess, from the fast decisions agents have to make reading queries (though at least I do suggest you paste some pages of your text into your query so I can get a sense of your writing as well).

Straight home from Storyville to finish packing and then on to the plane home to the USA next morning (basically, where am I? What day is it?).  And everything just coming together nicely to sell Alexandra Diaz’s debut young-adult novel, OF ALL THE STUPID THINGS, to Elizabeth Law at Egmont US.  Alexandra is a very ‘Greenhousy’ (please note new adjective) writer in that she’s American, but living at the moment in England where she took her postgraduate degree in writing for young people at Bath Spa University (very good course - it’s produced a number of great writers, and agents keep a close eye on alumni). OF ALL THE STUPID THINGS is a fast-moving, thought-provoking, very commercial novel told from multiple perspectives, so you really get inside the heads of Tara, Whitney Blaire, and Pinkie - three 16 year olds who’ve been friends forever. In the course of the novel each girl has their own very individual rite of passage, but the story focuses particularly on Tara, whose growing fascination/obsession with new-girl Riley not only threatens to overturn these old friendships, but also makes Tara question herself and her identity in new ways.  It’s a great story, and I’m sure Alexandra will find Elizabeth Law’s editorial gifts (and incredible wit and warmth!) a joy to work with on this dynamic new Egmont list. 

Then Saturday it was off to the SCBWI mid-Atlantic annual conference at Arlington - a wonderful day where I had the privilege of speaking to what looked like 200-300 delegates, as well as thoroughly enjoying doing one-on-one manuscript critiques with ten writers. Not only was it just about the best organized conference I’ve ever attended (Ellen Braaf, Erin Teagan, and Sydney Dunlap left no detail unplanned - and GH author Val Patterson’s lunchtime food was beyond yummy!), but I also thoroughly enjoyed meeting and chatting with a range of editors - Jill Santoplo of Balzer & Bray, Harper; Allison Wortche of Knopf; Marilyn Mark, Marshall Cavendish; Alvina Ling, Little Brown - but also (roll on the drums) spending time chatting with lovely, funny author Jane Yolen.

Fell into a stupor of mindless fatigue on Sunday; no idea what happened on Monday.  And then off to New York on Tuesday, where my friend (and Book Doctor to the Stars) Deborah Brodie (www.deborahbrodie.com) had given me the great opportunity of being part of a panel addressing MFA students and alumni of the children’s writing course at New School.  Very good experience. and lovely to meet my co-panellists, editor Harold Underdown and agent Kenneth Wright of Writers House.  Then on to three great meetings with New York editors the following day - breakfast with lovely Molly O’Neill of Bowen Press, Harper (good cake, good coffee, VERY interesting chat!); lunch with clever Anica Rissi of Simon Pulse (very good noodles, equally interesting chat!); afternoon with one-of-a-kind, style-queen Aimee Friedman of Scholastic.

And guess what?  Throughout all these meetings in New York I was making my way slowly through the increasingly dog-eared, Starbucks-stained manuscript (and final revision) of a novel by a certain new writer, whom I’ve been working with for a few months.  And it is GREAT!  And that’s the best news of all; I feel a submission coming on! 

So now I’m back at my desk again, with the autumn sun turning the leaves glorious shades of gold, red, and green outside my window.  Mr Pumpkin is carved and sitting out on the front porch, all ready to welcome the streams of Halloween trick-or-treaters a little later.  I’m so pleased to be home, it’s ridiculous.  And right now I feel like I never want to travel anywhere again. Ever. Because back on October 13 I celebrated the first anniversary of my arrival in the USA.  And last Monday, October 27, the GH Husband and I celebrated our first year of marriage. It has been an astonishing year of adventure. I salute you, Mr Pumpkin, and your very special month of October.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Two nations divided by . . .

People quite often marvel at the unmitigated glamour of my life.  Homes in both the USA and UK?  Flying across the Atlantic? Nipping around New York and London in pursuit of the literary life?  Well, I hardly like to complain, but wish you could see me now: clad in a ratty pair of track-pants and striped apron, my big blue rubber squeegee mop drying out from having cleaned the bathroom floor, the contents of my suitcase strewn across the bedroom, and piles of papers around me as I’ve been practising my Big Speech for tonight.  Oh, sorry, did I forget to tell you?  I’m actually in London, where I’m the ‘top transatlantic literary agent’ who’s speaking for about an hour at Storyville, part of the Big Leap professional development company, which hosts lectures on writing themes each month.  People are paying a fair sum (no pressure, folks, no pressure) to come and hear me, and I’ve been warned to stick diligently to the topic or there could be some complaints.  Actually, I’m quite looking forward to it (or will do once I’ve got the first few sentences out of the way), but there’s a degree of stress here, since I’m also opening speaker for the SCBWI mid-Atlantic conference over in Arlington on Saturday (yes that’s right, with the small matter of a flight and a touch of jetlag in between!).  As my old mother said on the phone just now, ‘You’ve got to remember you’re not as young as you were, dear.’ Thanks, Mother! Don’t you love them?

As always, it’s good to be over here, if somewhat schizophrenic.  I’m pleased to be able to tell you that the price of gas has dropped dramatically - it’s now $6.77 per gallon, so a wonderful decrease from the $7.76 it was last time I was over.  (Of course, we think in litres over here, so I did the math based on yesterday’s exchange rate.) Does that make you feel better, Americans, as you fill your tank? Yes, I thought it would!  The news over here is just as bleak however - full of homes being repossessed, negative equity, and the plight of those whose assets have been frozen in various banks of Icelandic origin (including my sons - great savings advice having been given by their mother some time ago, in easier economic times).  Plus I’m concerned about my old friend who is struggling to keep his business (partly based on the housing market) afloat, by reducing his staff by one-fifth.  Of course, everyone blames him for it all (’I hope you die and your children too,’ as one of the outgoing staff members said sweetly); and the Conservative Party (headed by David Cameron) here are trying to make the case for PM Gordon Brown being responsible for the entire global economic collapse.  Nice try, Mr Cameron.  So the moral of the story must be that everyone wants someone to blame; everyone has an axe to grind. It’s always very interesting seeing the news from a different perspective - not least US election news, which is dominating the media here.  As my Ma muttered the other day, ‘I hope they’re thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about them.’ So, if you’re reading this and you live in America, I’d be really grateful if you could possibly think about Britain right now for a sustained period of time (about 10 minutes would do it), so I can reassure my mother! 

But now I must end this less-than-crafted piece of prose and do a few hundred more jobs before I shoot out the door and on to the Underground. Not least I must make sure my glamorous persona is firmly back in place, which may require several vats of make-up. There’s never a dull moment as a ‘top transatlantic literary agent’ and I’m just setting the stage for an auction for a first novel by a young debut writer I’m representing.  I’ll tell you more about her in due course, but I can tell you that she’s American but lives in England, which is rather interesting.  It looks like we have three New York houses offering, so no doubt I’ll be online or on the phone late tonight (given the time differential) when I’m back from the Big Speech.

Take care, everyone, and cheerio from autumnal, chilly London.  Not only are we ‘two nations divided by a common language’ but also, it seems, ‘two nations divided by a sizeable difference in gas prices’!  But hey, there’s a lot to be thankful for. Right?

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Life in the Spotlight:  Part I

The case is black and heavy. I snap open the catches and raise the lid.  There it is - my old friend; the sweetest guitar you ever will see.  The golden wood is satin under my fingers, the piney aroma still magical.  I pick it up, lay it across my legs, and my left hand finds the old shapes; the strong bar of F; triangular D; the small contortions of a minor seventh.  I shut my eyes and start to sing.  And suddenly, I’m back.

*********
There’s fear down here in the shadows, at the foot of the steps.  I wipe my hands, slick with sweat, on my black pants, feeling the reassuring weight of the guitar against my leg.  The boys are behind me - drum, bass, and keyboards - but this is my show; my songs, my lyrics, my life exposed.  My neck on the line for people who couldn’t care less.

Suddenly we’re on, and I stride up the steps into the circle of light.  I’m a moth to this flame. It’s who I am; my identity, my dream.  There’s fear, thrill, and suddenly the intoxicating rush as my voice soars through the microphone and into the blackness.  They’re out there somewhere - I can hear the chink of glasses, the spikes of laughter, the low rumble of conversation.  But here there’s no audience, just me throwing my heart out there into the dark.

I knew when I was young that I could do it.  Armed with my first guitar I conquered the school assembly hall - the shocked, upturned faces of kids who only knew me as lousy at math, and a little too plump.  Then the talent shows, dinner parties, churches, weddings - and much later, getting serious.  Lugging heavy equipment across muddy festival fields; smoky late-night bars and clubs in seedy parts of London; bits and pieces of session work.  Pushing and fighting to be heard, to be better, to be the real thing.  Sarah, the singer-songwriter: ‘I’ve walked this stage, I’ve learned my lines, I’ve played this part oh so many times, and now nothing feels right.’

With two small children this is tough, tough, tough.  You were supposed to do this in your teens, not your thirties, for goodness sake.  Now you should be home, quietly toeing the line and packing the kids’ lunchboxes, not singing sad songs about Sarajevo to crowds of strangers at midnight.  And gradually I start to know that it isn’t going to happen.  That I’m not only not bad - I’m actually pretty good.  But I’m not good enough to be the very best.  And the very best is all that matters.

Slowly, very painfully, I make my way back - and forward; to my real career, the one that rewards me and takes me to the other places I want to go.  To language, to expression, to fulfilment and security - a different path, but in some way, only fully understood much later, a path that is more truly me.

*********

I put the guitar back in the case, close the lid and snap it shut.  I turn off the light and walk away.  It took years for this not to hurt, but now I’ve made my peace with the past.

So do you see now how I understand you?  I WAS you.

To be continued

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

4 of the best

There are good reasons why I normally do a blog post on Saturday nights - because if I don’t, it just doesn’t happen once the week gets underway. And this week is especially busy, with lots of reading, a submission, contractual stuff, and thinking towards (a.k.a. worrying about/prevaricating) the various upcoming speeches, on both continents, I’ve not yet started preparing. So a bit of midnight-oil is being burned most nights as the rain gently patters down outside the plantation shutters of the Greenhouse.

But I wanted to let you know that I’ve been reading some excellent books recently.  Have you?  Would you like to tell us about them? I’ve also read some that just haven’t really excited me, despite expectations (or the amount of money I know was paid for them!). It’s a very subjective thing, isn’t it - what you love and what you don’t. The extent to which agents and editors disagree with each other might also surprise you, because yes, we do sit down and chat quite passionately about books when we meet up.  As a publisher I was in many an editorial meeting where someone would be looking completely baffled as another person extolled the virtues of a particular manuscript. But this range of opinions is a good thing. Because if we all agreed it would lead to an incredibly narrow publishing scene with everyone fighting for exactly the same book and rejecting all the rest.  So hurrah for diversity, idiosyncracy, and that weird thing called ‘personal taste’!

Would you like to know which books have lit my fire recently?  Here are four:

Top of the list has to be THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins.  Yes, yes, I know, you’ve all heard lots about this one and everybody’s going on about it. But there’s a reason why.  It’s fabulous! Every now and then I read a book that makes me think, ‘How come no one has come up with this idea before?’ Or even better: ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’ This is one of those. Set in a dystopic future when North America is in ruins, a new nation called Panem has emerged. At its centre is a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Every year the Capitol exerts its power by choosing one boy and one girl from each district to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. When 16-year-old Katniss steps forward to take her little sister’s place, she knows she’s going to die. However, Katniss is a survivor and almost without meaning to she becomes a serious contender.  But to win she’s going to have to make terrible choices between survival, her humanity, and love.

Fantastic because:  It’s a great concept - strong, original, convincing, and oh so dark. It weaves moral issues with questions about the media and political power, while giving us a growing love story at its heart. Plus the writing is taut and pacy.  (Oh, it’s also pretty violent.)

Next I’m going to choose the very different AUDREY, WAIT! by Robin Benway. Again, it’s a ‘Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?’ kind of book.  When Audrey decides to break up with her less-than-attentive boyfriend Evan, a wannabe rock star, she little dreams that he’s going to write a song about it.  A song that proves to be extraordinarily catchy. In fact, a song that blasts its way up the charts and launches Evan and his band to big-time success. But what happens when you’re the heroine (oh no, make that the villain) of the song, and everyone suddenly wants to know you and blame you for the break-up?  Now Audrey’s world famous - and suddenly fame doesn’t quite look all it’s cut out to be! (Please note: lots of ‘bad’ language here.)

Fantastic because:  It’s a great concept (again) - smart, funny, and instantly makes the reader wonder, ‘Suppose that was me?’ Plus the voice is fresh and genuinely funny, in a genre where you’d think it’s all been done before.

Third up is a book by one of my favourite, tip-top authors. It’s HERE LIES ARTHUR by Philip Reeve.  Yes, that’s the Philip Reeve of the awesome MORTAL ENGINES quartet, the last of which - A DARKLING PLAIN - won the Carnegie (Britain’s equivalent of the Newbery).  HLA is set around AD 500, when people in Britain spoke a language similar to Welsh and when the country was torn apart by feuding war-bands, including one led by a brutish soldier named Arthur.  When the bard Myrddin sees Gwyna’s swimming abilities, he rescues her and takes her in, immediately seeing a way he can ‘magically’ turn Arthur into not only the most powerful leader of his day, but also an awe-inspiring hero. But as Arthur’s power grows, Gwyna’s life becomes increasingly dangerous as she’s turned from a slave-girl into first a boy, then a goddess, and finally a spy. Can Gwyna survive these perilous times? Is Myrddin really on Gwyna’s side?  And is Arthur quite the hero that legend has made him out to be?

Fantastic because:  It’s a great concept (er, have you heard this before?) - but vintage Reeve in the skillful interweaving of historical erudition with a child’s-eye view of a virtually unknown period of history. Truly masterful, it gives a completely fresh insight on the age-old story of Arthur and how it might have come to be.  Plus (also vintage Reeve) every word is crafted, every word counts, and some sentences you just have to pause and reread.

And finally, I’m picking THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, the bestselling teen novel that many of you may have read.  Clay gets home from school to find a strange box with his name on it.  Inside are some cassette tapes, recorded by Hannah Baker - the girl he once went out with - who committed suicide a few weeks before.  Hannah’s voice tells Clay that there are thirteen reasons why she ended her life, and Clay is one of them. Following Hannah’s voice he roams the town that night - and starts to understand Hannah’s pain and the truth about himself.  Truth he never wanted to face.

Fantastic because:  What a superb concept - tight, clever, and enabling the author to create an incredibly powerful story taking place over a short period of time for maximum intensity. This is a thriller, but with a real beating heart.  Plus the writing is effective and spare.

Four books for the month of September. Four books I really enjoyed and admired.  How about you?

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