Sarah goes to Hollywood

August 16, 2009

My first West Coast visit, and I’m with Randy Newman – ‘I love LA!’
I headed out west with all the excitement of an early pioneer – in search of film agents, movie makers, blue skies, beautiful people, and all the star-studded cast of SCBWI’s massive summer conference. And was I disappointed? No! Fold back the roof, put on the big dark glasses, point me in the direction of Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, and man – this is the life. Here’s the church where Elizabeth Taylor got married; there’s Michael Douglas’s pied-a-terre; and Hi there, Nicholas Cage! Oh, those wreaths are on MICHAEL JACKSON’S front gate? And isn’t that the house where they filmed Ocean’s Eleven?

You should always be walking forward, and Greenhouse’s steps this week (as I stood in Tom Hanks’s footprints on the Walk of Fame) felt like big strong strides.

Just in case you don’t know, SCBWI LA is a whopper of a conference. For you Brits reading this, think of the biggest writers’ event you’ve ever attended – and multiply by . . . let’s say a hundred times? Here you’re on a big canvas, with people from many backgrounds and many time zones (except, of course for Wyoming, the only non-attendee state in the Union), all gathered to learn about writing, talk about books, network, wear bizarre costumes at the Blue Moon Ball – and get very, very over-tired. It’s a full-on assault, it’s a thousand interesting people, ten thousand stories (fictional and real) all in one place. And if you’re on the Faculty, as I was, it’s extraordinary.

So, bearing in mind I arrived in town three days before the conference to see film agents, here are my LA highlights. For which you need to know that the Agents’ Panel (Dan Lazar of Writers’ House, Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Agency, Brenda Bowen of the Sanford J. Greenburger Agency, Kelly Sonnack of the Andrea Brown Agency, Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer deChiara Agency . . . and me from Greenhouse) was a line in the sand in various ways, so this has to be divided into BPH (Before Panel Highlights) and APH (After Panel Highlights).


Driving from the airport. Blue skies, no humidity, NO MOSQUITOS, palm trees, big big highways. It’s been an exciting road from London to get here, and I’m not talking about the mileage.

My room at the Hyatt – a.k.a. Base Camp for a week. A big table covered in draft speeches, business cards, files of work, water bottles, submission lists (nothing stops just because I’m away), battery chargers for Kindle and Blackberry. And pink swim goggles. How cool that Shark Week is on HBO? Nothing like relaxing in the evening to the sight of limbs being chomped off by Great Whites.

My balcony – and the glass edifice opposite (home to top agents CAA). Through the central ‘hole’ in the building I look at the distant hills and wonder what’s out there. Frankly, it’s a giant metaphor.

Big corporate film agents; small boutique agents; agents who love books; agents who drop names that make you blink. Ah yes, downstairs is Will Smith’s company? I see, so you represent Miley Cyrus? Through the big and the small, I have my chosen group – the film agents to whom Greenhouse will offer partnership on our upcoming projects with film potential. We don’t want an exclusive tie-up with one agency – we want personal passion and belief; the right agent for the right project. The film business is very, very tough and these are the guys who do the deals out here.

Watching the hotel fill up, in a matter of hours, with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of SCBWI conference attendees. It’s a swarm! An inundation! I skulk behind a plant with my cappuccino, watching.

The hotel Business Center. Like a mole I inhabit this dim, underground world for hours at a time. In fact, the manager even gives me a discount – he’s so sorry for anyone shut down there when the sun and pool are calling from above. It’s here I receive the two-book offer on my recent submission. And it’s at the Faculty Dinner, out under the stars, that I realize other top NY editors want it too!

Listening to Sherman Alexie kick off the conference with his extraordinarily powerful speech. And then meeting him in the lobby. Be still, my beating heart, I am in awe of this man.

Critiques, critiques, critiques. In the world’s chilliest room, I do seven half-hour one-to-ones with writers. Show not tell, imbue your writing with a sense of place, try to focus your story in those early pages – I find myself repeating the same tips.

Finalizing a deal for a middle-grade novel by one of SCBWI’s Regional Advisers. What could be more exciting than letting an author know at this conference that they will be published!

Lunching with old friend Riley Ellis of Fox at the studio’s Commissary. Riley (film scout and executive producer) was involved with LAST OF THE MOHICANS and MARLEY AND ME, and so many more films. We talk about many people and many books.

Lying in the sun in an armchair out on the hotel’s deck. I sink behind my Kindle, my nametag concealed, reading manuscripts and listening secretly to fascinating conversations between writers. Everyone has a story – how they came to be here, their dreams.

My birthday – and phone calls/texts from my family in various parts of the world (sister in Spain, sons in London and the West Bank). My first workshop: ‘Writing and Selling in the Global Marketplace’. A fair turnout as I talk about selling rights, being published abroad, contractual issues. Did they enjoy it? Did they find it interesting?

Birthday dinner in Beverly Hills with Elizabeth Law (Egmont) and fellow Brit/former-publisher-turned-film-scout Fiona Kenshole (Laika). Elizabeth spots someone famous at the next table – I know his face, but goodness knows what his name is.

THE PANEL – Looking out from the stage at 1,100 people. Aware of the giant images of ourselves behind our heads. Searching carefully for the right words to answer Lin Oliver’s questions about our agencies and the marketplace. Knowing how important the nuances are, and the privileged role we have in guiding authors towards publication.


The Golden Kite Awards. Richard Peck, Richard Peck, Richard Peck. If I could speak half as well as him I would have to die happy. Here is greatness.

Smiling and chatting and answering questions – a lot. No more incognito. No more manuscript reading on a quiet Kindle.

Talking and talking, holding a plate of food, and a glass of wine – simultaneously – at the New Moon Ball. Everyone is so friendly, and the costumes are amazing – well, at least my dress is blue.

My final workshop: ‘A Recipe for Writing the Breakout Novel: 5 Ingredients for Success’. A lot of people. More than I’d ever have believed. Greenhouse authors Val Patterson and Lindsey Leavitt are at the back as I read from their books, which feels very special. I love this – just love it. OK, I’ll be honest – I’m having a wonderful time.

Flying home overnight – drained but exhilarated. I unpack and go straight to my computer. Things don’t stop, and I have an auction to prepare for. Someone once said – ‘If you do the job you love, you never do a day’s work in your life.’

Los Angeles. Inspiring, significant, strategic, exhausting. Fun. And I’m already excited at the thought of going back.