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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Italian Job

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So, it was wonderful. It was better than wonderful – it was full-on, fabulous, up-to-the-brim great, from day one of the Bologna Book Fair through to the final moment of my subsequent Tuscan mini-vacation.  In fact, you can see just how great it all was from this photo of me at the fair . . . .

Oh no! Seems that the wrong picture has somehow been inserted here.  This isn’t a shot of me at the fair – it’s the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna from Florence’s Loggia de Lanzi. Ooops, sorry about that terrible slip of the mouse!

I’m clearly all awry. Because Italy has made me think, as it always does.

I am a lover of small things.  The exact word (where no other will do), the correctly placed comma, the minutely timed glance. The perfection of precision underpins any great work of art, and the best writers know it.

But I also love the immense.  The stupendous idea, the theme that stretches to infinity, the question to which there are a million answers; the vastness of time and history.  And I love stories that carry a whisper of that.

For me, Italy is about both the great and the small. The endless, and yet the angel dancing on the pinhead.

When you stand in the tiny church where Dante first saw his Beatrice, or in the chapel where Boccaccio set part of the Decameron, his masterwork, your feet are set on the dawn of western literature. When your face is two feet away from the still-vibrant colours of a fresco painted on stone in the first half of the fourteenth century, or when you look up at the graceful poise of Donatello’s statue of David, you find yourself breathless before such ancient beauty.

In our time we think we know everything, but the truth is we are in danger of forgetting so much.  Italy pulls me back to the heart of things.

The Bologna Book Fair nudges me to remember that behind the daily tasks there lies a huge and international industry. The wonderful friends I meet again in the halls, and the new ones I make at the fair, bring home to me that personal relationships underpin so much of what goes on between agents and editors, between publishers from very different cultures; that the sharing of ideas, the passing of information, the word on the street is as real and dynamic as it has always been.  Bologna is so much more than just ‘a bit of jolly’; it’s one of the engine rooms of business, and a microcosm of how trade has always been done, right back to those medieval merchants scurrying down cobbled streets, their dark cloaks swishing behind them. 

Art and money; the heavenly and the mercantile; the grand vision and the detail necessary to carry it off.  The polarities always exist together, and no place makes me more aware of that than Italy. I see it in the extraordinary engineering of Brunelleschi’s massive dome, constructed more than 600 years ago (http://www.brunelleschisdome.com). I see it in the brush strokes of Botticelli’s gorgeous ‘Primavera’ (http://www.mystudios.com/treasure/1/primavera-review.html). And I see it in the magnificence of Florence’s San Lorenzo Church, where the bones of Cosimo de Medici, the founder of one of history’s greatest and wealthiest dynasties, lie crumbled beneath inlaid marble. 

If we want to make and love art we move between times – the past, present and future.  The continuous line is awe-inspiring and humbling, but we all share this sense of beauty and value. And we walk in the footsteps of so many who knew what it means to strive to be great at their craft.

As the great Renaissance painters and architects understood, every detail is crucial in supporting great structures - every plank of wood, every touch of the brush; and every detail of a story. And the greatest art is generally underpinned by the necessity of business.

We may never end up painting the Sistine Chapel or chiselling a flawless Pieta, and we may never be remembered for writing the Divine Comedy. But we can still aspire to greatness in whatever we do. And that goes for agents as well as writers. 

I love Italy. It sets me straight.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spring time is Bologna time!

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It’s gradually coming back.  I can feel it approaching.

My mojo is just around the corner!

Mojo – aka zest, energy, life force etc etc – and I parted company about a week ago in a storm of sneezing, tissues, DayQuil and thumping headache, mixed with all the dreariness of jetlag after my London visit. Here I sat this week, squinting at my monitor through red, running eyes, trying to deal with all the volumes of stuff needing urgent attention at this extremely busy time of the year.

Why so busy?  Because there’s something else that’s just around the corner, over the horizon, and that is . . . . .

BOLOGNA!

If you’re an old salt in this children’s books world you’ll know that the Bologna Book Fair is the annual trade event/selling opportunity/networking convocation/bonding extravaganza/gossip-fest/eating marathon/sleep-deprivation test/jamboree of the international children’s books industry. Held every year in the ancient and beautiful university city of Bologna in northern Italy, it is always an exciting few days – presenting and pitching your wares (if you’re a seller rather than buyer), reuniting with old friends and making new ones, spotting emerging trends, catching up with who’s arrived and who’s gone, who’s doing something new . . . . and generally reaping all the benefits of almost every publishing enterprise in the world being represented in one place at one time. Top international editors, audio publishers, movie scouts, artists, bestselling writers, apps experts, agents . . . they’re all at the fair, sipping tiny cups of espresso in the halls or laughing around enormous dining tables in the city’s fabulous restaurants and bars. You never know who you might bump into when you visit the restroom!

Best of all this year?  Both the Americans and the Brits seem to be back in strength, after a bleak fair last year when so many companies didn’t send people.  Why is this good? It means there’s a sense of buoyancy and optimism in the business. And that has to be positive news for us all. 

But before I touch down at the actual fair, I’ll be in Bologna a little early for the annual SCBWI Bologna symposium, along with other agents such as Rosemary Stimola, Kristin Nelson and Marcia Wernick.  Take a look at this link and you can see more about it – and also interviews with all of us: http://www.scbwibologna.org/presenters/agents.php. My contribution is simply a first-pages panel on Monday morning, but I’ll also be dining with the faculty on Sunday and the delegates on Monday night.

So it’s all go here. Our author/books list for the fair (ie, the rights we have on offer) is all prepared and printed out, and includes a number of new authors and titles, which is really exciting! We only talk about manuscripts which we’ll be able to send out within a couple of months of the fair, but we have some great new work to present, as well as rights to sell in different territories on our more backlist books. You learn a lot about how to pitch a work (and if it really has a hook) when you sit across the table from a different publisher every half-hour for two days without a break.  What catches their attention and what doesn’t? Does this story have legs – or not?  It’s all in their eyes as they listen to you, and you’d best beware because some publishers will make it abundantly clear if they’ve switched off!

Now it’s a countdown till I leave Saturday evening, flying all night via Paris. Now we’re on to the really vital things. The ritual pre-Bologna haircut tomorrow. Pulling copious garments out of the closet, trying them on (why the heck don’t these trousers fit like last year???), throwing them in a pile, searching for tangled leads to all manner of gadgets and adaptors, muttering as I realize I’ll NEVER get all this in that suitcase if I add all the ARCs I’ve promised Rights People I’d take . . . .  AND WHAT ABOUT EUROS???

Did I mention that I loathe packing? Way too much stuff or way too little – will I ever get it right?

Power-load the Sudafed.  Pack the Kleenex. Stuff the Kindle in the carry-on. We’re off to the fair. And Spring is here – the bulbs are sprouting, the temperature outside is gorgeous, and everything is bursting into life.

Of course, Spring is Bologna time! And after the fair I’m excited to say I’m taking few days’ vacation in gorgeous Italy. Bye-bye Blackberry.  So if you have a submission up your sleeve, either prepare for a bit of a wait to hear from me, or perhaps delay sending it until the very end of March. 

Oh, and by the way – the photo is of our stand at Bologna last year.  Alex Webb and Caroline Hill-Trevor of Rights People. And, of course, big signs saying GREENHOUSE!

Wish Julia and I luck! Go Greenhouse!

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Julia’s Guest Post

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Hi everyone!

Julia blogging from London today. And sitting opposite me right now is Sarah, who’s spending a few days here catching up with all things UK. This is the view from my desk. I like it!

Sunday was the best kind of winter’s day: cold, dry and blue.  And I spent much of it sitting outside a café in South London with a cold nose, a big cup of tea and my good friend, Leah Thaxton.

Leah is Publisher at Egmont Books in the UK. She’s got great taste, having acquired Andy Stanton (MR GUM), Julia Golding (THE DIAMOND OF DRURY LANE), Michael Grant (GONE) and Emily Bearn (TUMTUM AND NUTMEG): all among my favourite new children’s book writers.

In Summer ’09 Leah and I spoke together at the Bournemouth Literary Festival. And on the train home, making our way through National Rail shortbread and yet more tea, we came up with the idea of a joint enterprise: BookCamp.

We wanted to create a masterclass on writing for children and the children’s book business, with a 360 degree perspective. At Bournemouth we’d realized there’s such a hunger for advice and information about the art of writing and the business of books. So toasting each other with a plastic cup, and looking out over the Dorset coastline, we decided that we would be the people to deliver it.

BookCamp has got two main aims: to help new authors grow in their craft, and to provide a behind-the-scenes insight into the children’s book industry. 

At BookCamp events I’ll be sharing my twenty top tips on writing for children, and asking attendees a few of the questions that I ask myself when reading a manuscript. Does your main character have an emotional arc as well as an outer journey? Does your story have a focus and are the stakes being raised chapter on chapter? Is there enough conflict in your story? Does your story start in-scene with dynamism and originality? What is ‘show, don’t tell’ and why does it matter? Who is your reader and what feeling will the book leave them with? And is there a secret to writing that submission letter? Maybe – almost every author I’ve taken on had an initial approach that made me sit up and press ‘print’. We’re looking for focus, clarity and intent – and I’ll be talking through exactly what that means.

At the Greenhouse we know that getting published is the dream – the first book on the shelf of your local bookshop, the first Amazon review, the first batch of fan mail. But what actually takes place once a book has been sold? Leah’s going to answer that question. She’s going to talk about how the publishing process works from acquisition through to publication, what drives her buying decisions and how she goes about building classics of the future.

And just in case we don’t cover all bases, we’ll be taking questions from the floor about everything you’ve ever wanted to ask an agent or publisher.

To all our US readers, I regret to say that BookCamp is UK based. Our first deployment will take place at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 27th. I think we’re almost sold out but more dates in the UK will follow so keep checking the website if you fancy coming along.

And from one exciting Greenhouse development to another. This week we started our Facebook fan site! So if you’re on Facebook, click here to become a fan. We’ve got a competition to win a US proof of THE REPLACEMENT by Greenhouse author, Brenna Yovanoff (published by Razorbill in the US this Fall and Simon and Schuster in the UK in early 2011).  To enter, click on the discussion tab and tell us what you think we should speak about at upcoming conferences and writer’s events. We’re also asking writers to share their top writing tips – be it on overcoming a block, self-editing or maybe just a quote or thought that inspires you. It would be great to hear your advice.

Delighted to be guest posting on Sarah’s blog this week. Thanks Sarah! And hope to see some of our UK blog readers at a BookCamp event soon!

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