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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

INTRODUCING FUNNY PRIZE UK CO-JUDGE

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Julia here and I’ve been working hard on the Greenhouse UK Funny Prize. We’re loving the response. Do keep spreading the word on your forums and writing groups. It’s been so helpful and shown us that there is a lot of goodwill towards this fighty, little/big Greenhouse.

I’d like to introduce you to Leah Thaxton, my co-judge on the Greenhouse Funny Prize and Egmont UK Publishing Director.

Leah spotted MR GUM author, Andy Stanton, who is just brilliant and one of the funniest children’s book writers ever. She’s also responsible for the launch of Jelly Pie, Egmont’s humour imprint and she’s publishing I AM NOT A LOSER by Jim Smith this June, which is tipped to be the new big funny series. She couldn’t be a better co-judge for funny.

As payment for the job I offered her a 30 second exclusive window on all manuscripts I send out as a result of the Funny Prize, so she wins too.

So Leah, what books made you laugh as a child?

That’s a surprisingly hard question! Roald Dahl, of course, ANT AND BEE, Edward Lear’s nonsense verse.... but I don’t remember having shelves and shelves of funny books. Lots of things did make me laugh - Scooby Doo, water fights, running under sprinklers, the jelly game, wave jumping, hiccups…

It’s been interesting though, I’ve found it hard to remember what made me laugh as a child, I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why adults find it so hard to write ‘funny’ for children....  Do we superimpose our adult sensibilities on what is funny? Happily, I think there has never been more humour written for children than now. It’s a golden era.

What do you hope to see in the Greenhouse Funny Prize?

I’m looking for a strong new voice that knows itself inside and out and confidently walks the reader through a story. Often new writers try to make every line hilarious, every situation outlandish, and I think that, ultimately, this is exhausting for the reader. To my mind, the best humorous books vary the pace, and surprise you. They might not be laugh a minute, but they are indisputably great fun and they leave both child and parent feeling good about life - and seeing the world through rainbow-coloured glasses! 

What are your thoughts about the judging?

I hope we see a great variety of humour - from slapstick to the understated and deadpan ... I hope it’s going to be difficult and we’ll be spoilt for choice. That would be a dream.

Judgement Day, I’m thinking we need to be somewhere intrinsically funny to get us in the mood ... Top of the Gherkin? A dugout at Wetlands Wildlife Centre? Barry Island? Picnic on Battersea Bandstand?

I think some advice to writers submitting work would be great. What wise words can you share?

I’d say, don’t try too hard and know your own voice and work on that! There’s no need to try to imitate someone else. Often a good starting point is taking an extraordinary character and putting them in a very ordinary situation. But most of all, have fun with it - if it doesn’t make you laugh, then something has gone wrong already! A glass of wine often helps!

Can you talk us through the judging process?

Judging is a going to be a serious business! We will need to whittle down entries to a shortlist of 8 and then battle it out between us. It might be that there is an obvious winner - but perhaps not! Taste obviously comes into it - humour can be such a personal thing. That said, when you’re judging humour for children, there are a few more criteria that come into it than if you’re rating a TV comedian over your Saturday night takeaway. For starters, will children understand the humour? Is there a match between language and complexity of ideas? Will those puns resonate for that age group? Is there a certain degree of inventiveness and devil may care?

In some ways, I don’t think the judging process will be all that different from our day job - the difference is that (hopefully!) all the scripts will be funny! I think it will be a fun day.

If you find a book you love, how are you going to claw it from Julia’s fingers?

Waterpistol, chopsticks, slight of hand, my teeth ... I’ve got a thirty second window and height to my advantage too. At the end of the day though, the bond an editor has with their author is a very special and personal one, which is why pitching for books is both nervewracking and the most envigorating thing that goes on at a publishing house. So for example, if Andy and I hadn’t got on and I didn’t share his sense of humour, I’m not sure I could ever have published his books. And I reluctantly have to respect the fact that Julia needs to place every script she takes on with the best editor she can find for that particular script, even if I do want them all to be MINE.

What made you go for the big funny books you’ve acquired in the past?

I need to fall in love with a script to want to take it on. With MR GUM, I knew it would be a diamond dazzler from the very first page. And even though Andy hadn’t actually completed it in full, it had all the hallmarks of a work of genius: it was its own thing, it was confident and a little bit cheeky. There was a cast of characters to die for, the story had heart and soul. Oh and then there was the wordplay, the madcap plot… I AM NOT A LOSER by Jim Smith is sensational in a very different way - understated, zany, dreamily loopy. I think little boys will go mad for it. And that’s what lies at the heart of all my decision-making - will kids go crazy for it, will they tell their friends.

So you’ve just started Jelly Pie. What drove you to do this?

I think it’s massively important to feed children’s appetite for fun. Egmont is particularly good at publishing humour, we have had great success with it in the past, and this is our way of telling the world we’re very serious about it! When we first launched Mr Gum, people in the industry started talking about humour as a new genre, but I don’t think that’s true, I think children have always wanted to laugh. So in fact it seemed strange that no one had ever launched a humour imprint before… I say let’s have more of it!  Bring on the Funny!

Thanks Leah. I’m already starting to see entries in the mailbox. Can’t wait for the judging.

Writers, if you’re in the UK or Ireland, unagented and working on a funny book for children, we’d love to hear from you. Click here for more details on the prize. I’d love a thousand submissions, more, so anything you can do to spread the word to your writing buddies would be wonderful. ツ

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

When life throws you rotten eggs … make lemonade.

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I shouldn’t be sitting here at my desk right now. I should be making sure my seat back is upright, my tray table is put away, and my bag is safely stowed under the seat in front of me – prior to taking off for London.  Seven precious days in my British pad, crowned by tomorrow night’s big birthday dinner for my twin boys, both amazingly and miraculously in the same country and city for 24 hours – and at the same time as me!

This is the very minute I should be taking off, but I’m not, even though I was at the airport, as commanded by United, at 7am this morning. The flight has been delayed by 9 hours - till tonight - which means I had to come home again and prepare for an overnight flight instead, meaning I’ll arrive frazzled and jetlagged tomorrow morning. When flights cost this much and time is so short, the stakes are very high and delay is hard to tolerate.

But this isn’t the only setback of the week. Last Saturday I sat down at my desk, having resigned myself to working most of that gorgeously sunny weekend. I opened my laptop, booted her up and distracted myself while she ran through her ‘updates’. But then, in a heartstopping moment, the screen went black. All the programmes had gone, nothing would open – it was a major and terminal crash, taking with it not only years of photo images, but also the mosaic of my BEA schedule. (Don’t worry – the Greenhouse functions on a remote server, so I knew that was all safe, even though I couldn’t access anything.) The timing couldn’t have been worse: preparing to go to London, followed by the Expo, followed by the SCBWI New Jersey conference – a packed and intricate few weeks, every event requiring copious preparation.

Head in hands, I tried not to hyperventilate, scream or cry.
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Back up on a borrowed laptop, the week continued to throw further challenges – notably, various bits of bad news that I had to relay to clients. How to frame things to be fair and honest; what words to use; how to empathize yet protect oneself from the negative effects of over-emotional engagement (not helpful or professional for the client or me); where to find the line between loyalty/belief in one’s client and their work, and accurately reflecting the demands of the market?

A talk I’m preparing for the NJ conference in June on ‘Contracts and Negotiations’ has made me think about the agent/client relationship. In many ways it is like a marriage, and the agency/author contract (in the case of Greenhouse, a paper agreement 1.5 pages long) is a bit like the wedding band – the outward symbol (and statement) of our mutual commitment. We are bound together in sickness and in health – through good news and through bad – unless/ until one of us decides the relationship has irretrievably broken down or we are no longer going anywhere mutually beneficial. Then divorce is an option, even if painful for both sides.

I’ve been very lucky as an agent, and I’ve had more than my fair share of good news to impart. And oh, how I love imparting it! Who wouldn’t enjoy telling people that their publication dream has been realized, that their life is about to change, that their hard work has paid off in ways that can be quite spectacular. It’s a dream job, right? (People are always telling me that.)

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But in any marriage there are setbacks and rocky bits along the way. Times of compromise and adjustment; times of darkness and confusion; times when you don’t feel listened to or truly understood. In fact, you don’t even have to be married to know that; life chucks it all at you. The frustration of delayed flights, missed connections, crashed computers, fractured ankles (one of my sons, right now), jobs you didn’t get. And even worse – illness, loss, the whole beastly litany.

You have to be strong, and flexible, and determined, and resilient, to make things work as a human being. When you get knocked down, you have to clamber back up. If one avenue seems blocked, try another. Is the door shut and bolted? So go round the back and see if you can climb in the window.  Or maybe there’s another house that’s more accessible.

My husband (and my French teacher, bless her heart) will tell you that I’m the world’s most impatient person. I want success and I want it NOW. I want to be the best, and I can’t stand being thwarted. I’ve gone back to studying French, so I work at it like a maniac – but why can’t I speak like a native NOW?  For me, the words ‘delayed gratification’ are alien life forms and my relationship with them is uneasy.

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And yet, I’m getting there, because I see time and again the fruits of taking small, careful, considered steps in the right direction. It’s why we work so hard on debut manuscripts - to give the author the best opportunity to achieve their dream. It’s why we really try to be honest about what we think will work and what won’t (so we don’t waste everyone’s time and give false hopes).

I’ve known agents who so hate imparting bad news that they just don’t return phone calls; they disengage. It’s like the boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t return messages, hoping their partner will get so frustrated that they’ll initiate the break-up for them.  To me, that is really, really cowardly, and it’s the ultimate disrespect to clients.

My sons have become much wiser than me as they’ve got older (now in their 20s), and I regularly ask their advice on just about everything. A while ago, one of them said to me: ‘Mom, I feel I can deal with anything as long as I’ve done my best, and done what I really believe is right.’

He is right on the button. As an agent, my most important quality must be integrity. Anyone can convey fabulous, happy news. Anyone can do what’s easy. But the chips are down for us as human beings when we have to deal with, come back from, or simply communicate, news that is really difficult.

So here I sit, writing a blog post on my brand-new laptop (hey, it’s WAY better than the old rig and my IT guru says it’s the fastest machine yet invented. AND he recaptured all my images and schedule. Wow, am I glad we had that crash!).

I should be on a plane, and it is confusing and weird that I’m not. But – I had been wanting to write a post for a while and couldn’t quite find my subject. Driving back from the airport this morning, I suddenly found it. And I guess I’m trying for a more sophisticated way of saying, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’

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Here’s some news: we’re all human beings. That means we’re all going to have rotten eggs and squashed tomatoes chucked at us at intervals. (Sometimes it’ll even be me doing the chucking; rest assured I’m being chucked at too.) But the million-dollar question is this:

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

ANNOUNCING THE GREENHOUSE FUNNY PRIZE - OPEN TO UK/IRISH WRITERS

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Julia here, and I’m excited about something. The UK side of the Greenhouse is running a prize in conjunction with this year’s Writer’s Workshop Festival of Writing. It will be called the Greenhouse Funny Prize.

At Greenhouse we love all sorts of writing for children. We love edgy, wincingly close-to-the-bone YA fiction, we love thrilling, commercial concepts with big surprises, and beautiful and heartfelt younger stories. I could keep going, but in short, we love quality. And there’s something that Sarah and I agree that we don’t see enough of: Funny.

I had the idea for a prize because every time I sit down with an editor and ask what they’re looking for, they generally say, ‘Funny. We need humour’. When I was little, half of my reading was humour – Dahl, the Ahlbergs, JUST WILLIAM, MR MAJEIKA, WHAT-A-MESS, FUDGE, ASTERIX. And there is loads of great humour on the market today - WIMPY KID, Andy Stanton, Lauren Child, Dave Pilkey, David Walliams. Funny is selling in the shops, publishers are wide open to it, and yet we don’t see that represented in our submissions inbox. We want more laughs.

The Greenhouse Funny prize is open to un-agented writers who are currently resident in the UK and Ireland. Entries will be judged by me and guest judge Leah Thaxton, Publishing Director of Egmont Children’s Books (and discoverer of Andy Stanton).

The winner will get an offer of representation from the Greenhouse and a full weekend ticket to the wonderful Festival of Writing that runs 7-9 September ’12 (worth £525). The winner will also be presented with a bottle of champagne at the Festival’s gala dinner on the Saturday night. The runners up will each get five of my favourite funny books, and maybe even a comedy mug.

Our judging criteria is very simple. Funny, and we are wide open to all ages. The winner may be a picture book like OLIVIA or DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS, or a young series à la HORRID HENRY, FLAT STANLEY, THE GREAT HAMSTER MASSACRE or UNDEAD PETS, or for 8-12 year olds like Lemony Snicket or RAMONA. It could even be for teen readers, like Louise Rennison, DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? or THE PRINCESS DIARIES. It’s going to be the person with funny in their DNA.

Funny is subjective, of course. Perhaps the winner will have a slow-burning, gentle wit. Perhaps a Python-esque sense of the absurd. Or maybe the concept, and the freshness and immediacy of it, will do much of the heavy lifting.

Entry guidelines:

1) To get a good sense of the voice and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 5,000 words PLUS a short description (a few lines) of the book AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the plot. The book does not need to be completed at the time of entry.

2) Please attach the 5,000 words to a word document and send your entries to If you are submitting a picture book (or shorter fiction that comes in under 5,000 words), then send the complete text in a word document. The short description of the book and outline should be in the body of the email. PLEASE NOTE: This is different to our general Greenhouse submissions policy. If submitting work to the Greenhouse in the future (outside of the Greenhouse Prize), visit the How to Submit section of the website to find our submission guidelines.

3) You must be resident in the UK or Ireland.

4) The deadline for submissions is Monday 30 July.

The shortlist will be announced Monday 6 August. We anticipate that 6 writers will be shortlisted.

The winner will be announced Monday 13 August. If we get two or more outstanding entries, we may offer representation to more than one writer.

Entrants will not be acknowledged on receipt, but all entrants will be emailed when the shortlist is announced.

I’ll confess it feels a bit disingenuous to offer representation as a prize, because when those great books come along, I’d offer to represent anyway. It also feels a bit reckless. What happens if it’s all unfunny?! But I’m confident that at least one brilliant new voice will come to me if I open my arms and say out loud, ‘Show me the funny’. I’m happy to be transparent and say this is a totally self-serving competition. We just want to wave the flag to all those new writers tapping away in their sheds and spare rooms, and say, ‘Hey! If it’s funny, send to us! That’s what we’re looking for.’

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I’ll post any updates here, so save this page in your ‘favourites’ if you’re thinking of entering. And if you could tweet/share/talk about it, we’d be ever so grateful.

Any last advice? Write for yourself, for the child in you. Write what makes you laugh. 

We’ll be looking at voice, character and concept. In a nutshell, we’re looking for originality and a writer who trusts their reader’s intelligence, whatever age they are. Really funny doesn’t feel like it’s busting a gut to be so – it’s effortless. We’re looking for someone who makes it look easy.

The little girl in the photos is my niece and she’s reading her favourite funny book. I can’t tell you how sweet it is to sit with her when she’s reading her best funny writers. She actually chuckles. I had forgotten all about chuckling. 

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