January 21, 2011

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.

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