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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Giving the mundane its beautiful due

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Not my words (oh, that I might be so eloquent) but those of John Updike, whose death was announced this week.  But what a wonderful phrase to describe the high calling of writers, whose job it is to memorialize and bring to luminous signficance the small everyday worlds that we all inhabit. And what a reminder as we struggle with the issues that dominate our time and attention - whether it be chores, getting the children to school (or keeping them entertained at home on snow days), battling with getting Page 26, paragraph 3,
line 6 absolutely perfect, opening the mail/inbox to yet another request or rejection . . . Yes, most of our lives are very mundane - but when seen through the eyes of a writer, there is also beauty to be found.

All this is in my mind as I move at speed through an incredibly busy couple of weeks, just about keeping my head above water.  Or perhaps I should say above the snowline, since we’ve been ‘deep and crisp and even’ here since Monday. Not good when your vehicle is the fabled red-and-black Mini Cooper with teeny-tiny wheels, no 4-wheel drive, and a distinctly stunted stature next to the mighty pick-up trucks that stare down at us from a great height. So I’ve been staying in, ploughing through a ton of stuff - concluding a contract that’s taken months to negotiate (but all the better for waiting), making a couple of submissions to publishers, doing a lot of reading, talking to a prospective author about her manuscript, helping my Rights People colleagues prepare materials for Bologna - and talking daily to Julia Churchill who started on Monday over in our London office.  It’s a lot of fun having Julia on board and, as you Brits will discover (if you’re lucky enough to have her sign you up), she’s got a pretty good sense of humour and a great turn of phrase!  You’ll find out a lot more about Julia next week when I’ll be interviewing her on this blog, by which time you should also spot some amendments to the Greenhouse website to reflect her arrival.

But it’s not just the weekdays that are packed - it’s weekends too at the moment.  Last weekend’s trip to Florida for the annual conference of the Space Coast Writers’ Guild was quite a treat - not only because of the gorgeously balmy weather or my fleeting moments of dreaming solitude on the white sands of Cocoa Beach, but also because I met some really tremendous people there. Many aspiring and highly committed writers (lots of one-on-one sessions listening to pitches), agents like Deidre Knight and Lucienne Diver of The Knight Agency, Jennifer Schober of Spencerhill Associates (hi, Jennifer!), Mary Sue Seymour - and more.  And then there were the editors - Alyson Day of HarperCollins and Dedi Felman of Simon & Schuster.  It’s always great fun to get together with others in the industry and shoot the breeze informally, but we also joined forces for a panel in which we all pitched in to answers writers’ questions about the publishing business. 

So now it’s nearing the end of another hectic week and I’m packing my bag again to fly to New York at 5 am tomorrow. YES, I REALLY DID SAY FIVE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING. My New York trips are always busy and this is no exception as I grab a cab from the airport to the offices of Farrar Straus to see various editors, then to Harper to see Michelle Corpora of Greenwillow, moving swiftly on to Clarion’s Jennifer Wingertzahn via a stop-off with new Hyperion publisher Stephanie Lurie (fairly recently moved from Dutton). Alisha Niehaus of Dial rounds off the afternoon before we both head down to the pre-conference cocktail party that launches SCBWI’s Winter Conference. 

But I’m still lingering over the passing of John Updike and the eloquence of his words, quoted by the New York Times yesterday. 

‘To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process.  To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.’

I bid you good day and the most pleasant of weekends.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

There ain’t no Don - without a John!

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You can learn a lot of things from an Inauguration.  Things like the unique wonder of the Constitution.  The colourful weave of centuries of history.  The truth that you can usually reach your destination in the end - if you try hard enough, and wait long enough. And that life is big and amazing, and that something (or someone) extraordinary can grow from the smallest and most unlikely of beginnings. You can learn that there is power in believing and striving and longing. And that there is always, always hope.

You can also learn that it’s no use going to the Washington Mall on a frigid January day, in the company of two million other people, unless you can locate a bathroom.  Because without a bathroom, and with a steaming hot, double-shot cappuccino inside you, you may be doomed.  DOOMED, I tell you. DOOMED.

You see, without the small necessities, the big wonders can rapidly lose their gloss. Without Mr Don and his 7000 Johns you may as well cancel your travel plans and stay home with the TV set, because for you the Inauguration will metamorphose from a glorious celebration of this nation’s finest moment to an alarming rush through the crowds to the nearest museum that will let you in to its amenities.  And that, presidential supporters, will not be fun!

Yes, we DC residents have become very knowledgeable about these matters; the Post has been full of little else.  Will 7000 be enough?  Is there the statistical evidence to support that figure? What fate may befall this great city if there’s been an underestimate? We are bombarded with interviews with Mr Don’s employees and are well versed in their various skills (none of which you need to hear about, since they include ‘suctioning’). We’ve read the career resumes that have brought them to this high point in their professional lives.

Today I ventured into the city to preview the Inauguration - and the Johns themselves (if you’re unlucky enough to have opened this post before a photo is attached, then please return shortly as all will be explained).  Striding at speed through the frozen city, clad in furry Uggs, giant Puffa jacket and copious layers, I took in the majesty and thrill of this great forthcoming event. Barriers were broken down as strangers laughed and chatted, photographing each other against backdrops of flags and banners, monuments and memorials, while enterprising entrepreneurs attempted to seduce them to spend two dollars for a photo alongside a cardboard cutout of the president-to-be.

But I am a literary agent from top to toe, even in the freezing wind of a winter’s day.  And as I pondered (from the depths of my fur-fringed hood) the strange juxtaposition of the grand and the prosaic, the epic and the basic, the Inauguration and the lines and lines of Don’s glorious Johns, I had some strange but, I believe, highly significant thoughts.  And believe it or not, they are related to writing!

Yes, you need the great storyline, the thrilling plot, the fabulous action, the big ideas.  But you also need the small things - the details and finesse that don’t attract much attention unless they’re just not there.  Because the small things are very, very important - and without them the big things just don’t quite seem to matter as much. Yes, it’s like an Inauguration minus the Johns!

What kinds of small things do I mean?  Well, taking care not to repeat words in a way that stops the flow of your sentence. Really thinking through grammar and punctuation so that you create a seamless line the reader can absorb without having to read it twice. Knowing your characters so well that you don’t inadvertently change their names halfway through (I see this a lot; even ‘professional’ writers slip up). Making sure you provide the reader with enough explanation when needed.  Being consistent with details and information and checking all the ends tie in together to create the whole.  Writing is about the macro - but it’s also very much about the micro.  Dream big dreams, think big thoughts, and become a writer of power, panache and vision - but also a nit-picker with a passion for detail.

So we prepare to inaugurate a president, and have the audacity to believe - in ourselves, in the future, in justice, in a better world . . .  But don’t forget Don’s humble Johns.  Because without them you won’t be contemplating the reinvigoration of the banking system, or life in a post-racial world - or how we might collectively end global poverty.  No, you will be scurrying through the crowd, intent and very, very nervous. And in what may be a unique piece of agenting insight, I can assure you that there are literary parallels. For no writer can succeed unless they master the details as well as the big picture. The most important things can be small, not terribly glamorous, and even a little bit aggravating.  But just see what disasters can happen when they’re not done right!

Wishing you all a wonderful, inspiring, and supremely comfortable Inauguration Day, wherever you may be.

(PS:  Is this the very first agent’s blog to be written on the subject of bathrooms? I think it possible. wink )

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Life’s rich tapestry

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Welcome to my very first blog of 2009 - and welcome to the Greenhouse. If you haven’t visited us before, I do hope you’ll continue to drop in and enjoy keeping up with news of the agency, which now enters its second year - after a fairly storming start.

But first, I have some very sad news for those of you who are regular readers.  It’s taken me a few days to be able to face writing this and it’s still far from easy.  Our beloved Greenhouse Hound died on Monday night.  In fact, I can now tell you that his name was Hogan - much better known as Hogey.  A pure white Golden Retriever, nearly fourteen years old, and the sweetest, kindest, cleverest dog you could ever wish to know.  Hogey was facing various health issues and these overtook him over the Christmas break, with an incredibly fast slide downwards since last Thursday.  As we watched him deteriorate and turn in on himself, we knew he was ready to go and that we couldn’t let him suffer any more. We were able to spend time sitting with him, talking to him (although he’d been stone deaf for the past two years) and stroking him, before the moment agreed with our wonderful vet came, and we took him on his last journey in the back of the Mini Cooper.

He was a dog who gave joy to everyone he met.  Strangers would stop us in the street to say how beautiful he was, and he never lost his happiness at meeting people, especially children, whom he loved.  The office feels very empty without his large, shambling presence; despite the arthritis of his final years he would haul himself up the stairs and collapse on my manuscripts with a groan, doing all he could to interrupt me with small but very clear reminders about the urgency of lunch or walkies. He loved to climb on to the sofa with me, entwining himself around my legs to get as close as possible. And he loved his multitudes of stuffed toys - especially Polar Bear, various ducks, a grey and disgusting Snoopy. No creature ever took as much pleasure in being given a new toy, which he would chew, throw around and growl over with huge delight before going out to his private stuffed-animal-stash to grab a new one.

Right now I see Hogey all around the house and yard. Lying out on the deck with his nose stuck between the bars looking for his mortal enemy, the Fox.  Rolling down the slope in the front yard, a look of great delight on his face as he scratched his back on the long, slow downhill slide. Coming in out of the rain and going straight into his big dog-crate - because of course he knew his feet were wet and must be dried off. Carrying a towel to the washing machine in the hopes that his ‘helpfulness’ might elicit a Milkbone. Struggling up the stairs at bedtime - one of his favourite moments of the day, when he and I would lie on the floor together and commune a while.  In his final months he was increasingly vocal - groaning, sighing, smacking those black lips, and barking when he felt we didn’t jump to it quite fast enough. He was all personality; a big character.

So now we move on, but I’m posting here one of his very last photos, taken on Sunday when he’d struggled down to the backyard one last time. We can’t imagine how he got down there - he could barely walk - and I fear you’ll think me soppy if I say it’s as if he wanted to survey his empire one last time.  I knew it was important to remember that moment.  Rest in peace, Hogey Bear, and I hope that somewhere you are free and young again, romping with your friends.

But January now lies before us and I turn my head towards all the exciting things that are in the future.  On January 24, Greenhouse marks the first anniversary of its inception - and oh, how much has been achieved in one short year.  Lots of deals done, a number of lives changed, speeches made, many miles travelled, friends gained . . . and I wonder what 2009 will hold. One thing I can definitely tell you is that on January 26 my new colleague Julia Churchill starts with Greenhouse over in London.  Just to clarify (because some of you have already been sending submissions marked for Julia), Julia will be focusing on building our list of British authors and selling to the UK market.  While we’ll be keeping a degree of flexibility between us, and will no doubt be speaking daily, her efforts will focus on the UK, with me mainly focusing on the USA (with some notable exceptions).  All will become clear as we make changes to the website (submission guidelines etc) over the coming weeks that will reflect Julia joining the team.  I’ll also be interviewing Julia on this blog in early February so you British readers in particular can get to know her a little. 

There are other good things in the pipeline too.  Today (I believe) an in-depth interview I’ve done for Cynthia Leitich Smith will go live on her blog.  So if you fancy reading a lot more of my pontifications, do tune in to Cynsations!  Then in a couple of weeks I’m off to the Space Coast Writer’s Conference over in Cocoa Beach, Florida.  Well, you know, someone had to go to the sunshine state in winter, so why not me? The month rounds off with a swift trip over to New York for part of the SCBWI Winter Conference, hopefully fitting in appointments with a number of publishers at the same time, plus the chance to meet lots of old and new editor/agent friends at the brilliant cocktail party that kicks off the conference.

So January is a busy month, and my thoughts are already turning towards Bologna, which comes particularly early this year - in late March.  Should be really exciting, with Julia popping over briefly and also DEVIL’S KISS author, Sarwat Chadda, making the journey to meeet his international publishers.  Last Bologna Greenhouse was a little babe-in-arms.  This year we are all grown up, and my Rights People colleagues have high hopes for a number of our titles on the international market as final manuscripts become available.

Meanwhile my reading pile is towering.  So many of you have been writing like dervishes over the break, for which many congratulations!  I’m gradually making my way through the piles of both new submissions and full manuscripts, and I hope not to have to keep you waiting too long.

Today I look back at the past - all our happiness with our wonderful dog Hogey, and the huge and aching hole he has left in our lives. I know that soon the painful memories of the past few days will give way to the happy recollection of his long life, well lived. But I also look forward to the future and to what I hope will be a challenging but successful year for us all.

Take care, all of you. 

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