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Friday, January 21, 2011

All kinds of EXTRAORDINARY

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EXTRAORDINARY is a big word today. Everyone wants to be it. Whether that means unicycling while doing the splits on America’s Got Talent, or walking alone around the world, or being the very first person to ride a rhinoceros up the DC Beltway – many of us will do what it takes to be different.

EXTRAORDINARY is a tough call. When I was a bit younger than I am now, we didn’t seem to think about being extraordinary – we just aspired to be GOOD at something.  When my mom’s generation was that age they’d settle just for not embarrassing themselves in front of the neighbours. And my grandmother’s generation? Well, the ultimate divide in England was whether or not you cleaned your own front doorstep or had ‘staff’ to do it for you.

EXTRAORDINARY is something I’ve had to think a lot about over the past couple of months as I’ve been preparing my Big Talk for this year – FROM ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY: THE ART OF CREATING A GREAT SALEABLE STORY AND THE CRAFT OF CHISELLING OUT ITS FULL POTENTIAL. What makes a great story? How does it turn from being words on the page into a direct emotional arrow to the heart of the reader? What makes a story an EXPERIENCE rather than just a . . . story?

What I’ll call my EXTRAORDINARY workshop (in content goals rather than presentation!) was trialled last weekend at the SCBWI Florida conference down in Miami. In my first-ever 1.5 hour presentation (look, I never trained as a writing teacher, I’m making this up as I go along and it’s all from experience rather than theory!) I saw what worked and what needed further honing as I took my ‘class’ through ideas of concept, emotion, message, craft tools, tips of the trade, with a small lacing of craziness – like Robert Olen Butler’s suggestion that we write ‘from the white-hot centre of our unconscious’.  I love this stuff – the wild, inspirational, raw approach to writing – which then has to meet the subdued skill of craft. Let’s not lose the madness, the wild ride, as we seek those practical ‘silver bullets’ that we hope will shoot open the query process or ‘how to hook an agent’ . . . 

I wish I could share all the workshop content with you at this point, but you’re going to have to wait or I’ll have nothing to say at this year’s conferences!  If you want to hear more, come to Atlanta (Feb), Seattle (April) or Gettysburg (November). And at the year’s end I’ll try to blog it, as I did with HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, which was last year’s epic. [Look back in my blog posts and you’ll find several sessions on that theme.] And meanwhile, how about pondering how to get your very own WIP to a new level of EXTRAORDINARY?

EXTRAORDINARY is everywhere in the writing world, and nothing is more extraordinary than the generous, committed people who make up the regional leadership and volunteers of SCBWI. Their passion and kindness is truly something to behold. Miami proved my point – from Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld’s stratospheric organizational skills (echoed by her team), Ty Shiver who rescued me from the airport and got me where I needed to be (complete with little bags of home-made cookies and candy), Mindy Alyse Weiss, Michelle Delisle (just for becoming friends) – and so many more. It’s a very moving thing to experience the bonds we share within the writing world.
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There are all kinds of EXTRAORDINARY going on in Greenhouse right now, and 2011 has begun with a bang. Julia’s just done an amazing two-book deal with Bloomsbury UK for Sarah Crossan’s debut THE WEIGHT OF WATER. Searingly beautiful though this novel is, I’d have said that getting multiple interest in the UK for aYA verse novel would have been impossible in this climate. Julia’s proved that magic can be done when a great author/book/agent/publisher find each other.

In the US we’ve had all kinds of EXTRAORDINARY too since the year started. THE REPLACEMENT making it into YALSA’s top YA novels of the year, OF ALL THE STUPID THINGS featuring in ALA’s Rainbow list, and picturebook SOAR, ELINOR leaping into the Amelia Bloomer Feminist Book Top 10.

Over in the UK we’ve seen MORTLOCK shortlisted for the prestigious, national Waterstone’s Award and THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT hitting its THIRTEENTH award shortlist!  We are thrilled with all this, but never rest on our laurels – I’m currently in the middle of three deals at the moment, with another offer expected imminently.

EXTRAORDINARY is indeed a big word, but it can feel intimidating and often it’s overused. At Greenhouse we strive for extraordinary, but we would be very, very happy just to be GOOD at what we do.  GOOD is achievable. GOOD is solid. GOOD is the foundation of a genuine future.

Is your WIP extraordinary? Maybe not, however hard you work. Maybe the whole idea of EXTRAORDINARY gives you brain-freeze because you know you can never be that person.

But GOOD can be done, and GOOD is what we’re looking for. GOOD is something with which we can work.  Aim for the stars of EXTRAORDINARY, knowing that just a little lower resides the more comfortable plateau of GOOD.

As I set off on my next travels, to London this time, I wish you a very, very GOOD day.

Pix:  An extraordinary crystal at Reston Craft Fair, VA; extraordinarily meaningful and dramatic old columns at the National Arboretum, Washington DC

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Monday, January 03, 2011

Welcome to the adventure

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I love New Year!

It’s a long look from a great height.

A journey up an unknown river.

A flower about to unfurl.

At New Year, anything can happen – it’s all to play for, all to risk!

A large Post-It note has just been stuck on my family bulletin board. I bet you’ve all got lists just like it: eat less cheese, look at Blackberry less, get back on treadmill, drop a jeans size, become a wonderful human being etc etc.

Because January is a time of new beginnings - a time ripe for reinvention, redemption, renewal and a big shot of fresh perspective. How are we going to do what we do differently – and if we can’t do it differently, is there a way to help ourselves by changing our attitude to what we do?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the coming year, taking some deep breaths before Julia and I throw ourselves back into the fray. It’s like standing on the starting line for a race, filled with excitement and anticipation.

But I’ve also thought a lot about YOU! You the writers, you the people who long to be published, you who labour so hard over your laptops, throwing your dreams into the Greenhouse’s inbox. Or indeed you who are already published (or about to be), but know that this year will be full of daunting challenge. The unknown can be scary as well as exciting.

What do I wish for all of YOU this New Year? What is the very best advice I can give you as you put your first marks on to the blank page of 2011?

Here is my encouraging arm around your shoulder, and my contribution to your literary Post-It note of 2011 resolutions:

1 Cultivate within yourself a calm, realistic and pragmatic attitude, based on the knowledge that this industry WILL make demands on your courage, emotions, self-belief and stamina. Do not be deterred but do your utmost to remain balanced and able to laugh. This is a business; it is not a personal assessment of YOU as a human being, even though it can feel like that.

2 Put your energies into becoming a really skillful, original and interesting writer – more than into the palaver of seeking a publishing deal. Polish the jewels of language, listen to the cadence of its music, and delight in your craft for its own sake. That way you will always find satisfaction and growth (plus it’s how you’re most likely to bag that deal in the end).

3 Remember that there are many ways to write for an audience, many ways to be heard, many platforms for your writing – the world does not begin and end with publication by a famous and major house. Find what is right for YOU.

4 Seek out and enjoy the support of other writing friends, but devote more time to your craft than to social networking, if you are serious about your writing future. Practice, practice, and practice some more, and take time out from the babble which can feel distracting and even undermining if other people seem to be doing a lot ‘better’ than you are.

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5 Think big thoughts, contemplate big subjects, let fascinating questions roll around in your head in a leisurely way, and ask yourself WHAT IF? Your characters can have small lives but very big stories. (And you can also be a regular person, tied to home and family, but still come up with an epic, page-turning storyline!)

6 Experience life, twang and resonate like a guitar string as things happen to you and as you read about and imagine the world. Look unflinchingly into the heart of darkness, wherever that may be. Perhaps that darkness is within you - something you’d prefer to avoid because it’s painful, but which may be the key to unlocking your biggest story.

7 Become a lover of writing craft and make it your goal to do some serious study in 2011. What do the great teachers say about plot structure? Building character? Voice? Writing is not just about inspiration and talent. Roll up your sleeves and prepare for some serious perspiration, learning at the feet of those who have gone down the path before you.

8 Take your time. Do not rush. Care about the detail. Ask yourself very hard questions – like, Does this idea really stand up to close scrutiny? Does that line WORK? Do I use apostrophes correctly (I kid you not)? If this is your vocation, everything matters.  If you were playing a concerto on your violin, would you say a few fluffed notes didn’t concern you?

9 Consider the marvels of metaphor. And other ways of saying things without actually SAYING them.

10 In fact, what ARE you trying to say in your story? What are you trying to SAY? (And that’s a very different question to ‘what HAPPENS in the story?’)

11 Research. Get your facts right, both on the page and off. Don’t send your work to anyone until you’re sure you’ve thoroughly checked that it’s going to an appropriate destination. (As the Greenhouse gets busier and busier, it becomes an increasing time-suck that a huge amount of what we’re sent bears no relation to what we represent.)

12 If you fall off your metaphorical horse, and you’re lying bruised in the metaphorical dust, allow yourself a breather, adjust your britches and clamber back on. Then ask yourself some tough questions: was something wrong with that varmint horse - or does the rider need to trot a bit more before he tries the gallop?

13 Take some risks. Climb to the top of your tall writing tree and experiment with voice. Steer your literary powerboat up an unknown river of genre and plot. Give yourself the time and space to play around with tone and setting. Who knows what might happen?

14 If all else fails, be thankful that writing is not brain surgery. It is unlikely we will kill anyone with our mistakes.  Which suddenly makes everything feel so much better!

And finally –

15 Remember that agents and editors are human beings, not robots. They need to eat and sleep, they have families and lives, they won’t always say just the right thing at just the right time. Try to forgive them when they don’t give you everything you want, when you want it – the reason is invariably that time just doesn’t allow.\

Welcome to your very own 2011! It’s full of promise, full of hope. Let’s get out there and live it to the max.

In your literary year I wish you success – but more than that I wish you passion, determination, humour, optimism, resilience, and a growing sense of satisfaction and assurance in your writing life, whether it’s your hobby or your vocation.

Let’s make this year a great one!

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Pix:  Tree feller, Northern Virginia; motoring up Frenchman’s Creek, Cornwall, Englandl; tulip at the National Arboretum, Washington DC

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