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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Q&A

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We asked our facebook and twitter friends if they had any questions about the business of writing for children. Some great ones here. Thank you! And for a treat, some photos of Philos, Julia’s Friday dog.

Do you feel happy endings are important in YA and children’s fiction? And would you consider something like this before sending to editors?

Sarah: I think hope is very important in children’s/YA fiction, even if that is only reached through pain and change (and it usually is!). I enjoy endings that are thought-provoking - not neatly tied up with ribbons - but I do think a strong character arc will tend to leave us knowing that the protagonist has changed, grown, come through some rite of passage. And that is probably going to feel positive. Above all, I want to submit manuscripts that are well structured and satisfying, and a strong ending - whatever unique form it takes - will be part of that.

Julia: One of my favourite childhood books was CHARLOTTE’S WEB. My god, she dies :-(. But she had babies! And they keep Wilbur company! But none of them could replace Charlotte. *Sobs*. It would have been a lighter, lesser book if the spider hadn’t died. Are happy endings important? Not as a rule, but I do think a book needs to leave the reader with something heartfelt.

Do you think there is an editor/agent bias against gay characters in YA?

Julia: For a bit of background, last week two YA authors blogged about how an agent had asked them to ‘straighten out’ the gay characters in their book before offering representation. My first reaction was curiosity. If true, who was this agent and how were they managing to sell books which must be so compromised and focus-grouped? Is there a bias? Thankfully, not that I’ve come up against. I think the editors we work with feel it’s crucial that there are books that speak for and to every child and young adult in the world.

Sarah: While I really don’t want to comment on the specifics of the debate Julia outlined, it raises an interesting question. I have a novel on submission right now that happens to have a lesbian couple in it; it never occurred to me to question that - whether it was a good or bad thing. It was simply part of the author’s vision of the story and as far as I’m concerned, it works - in the context of that particular story. And that’s my criteria for all writing, all characters, all concepts: does it work? Look, we’re seeking manuscripts that thrill and delight us, whatever the orientation of the characters. I haven’t encountered editor (or rather, publisher) bias against gay characters, but of course not all houses feel they can sell all stories - for a whole host of reasons.

imageHow explicit do you think violence and gore can be in MG? More if the book’s funny?

Julia: It’s up to you - and where your ‘ick-ometer’ takes you. There was an article in the New Scientist a couple of years ago about the ‘ick factor’, specifically about growing animal protein in labs and how it would soon be possible - and economical - to take death out of the human food chain. The big problem with this idea was that to a lot of people ‘it just didn’t feel right’. And how about genetically engineering livestock to have a much higher pain threshold or almost no brain, so they don’t feel infections or get stressed on their way to the slaughterhouse? Where is that on the ‘ick factor’ spectrum? Sometimes we see submissions with the ‘ick factor’. I suspect we have quite a high threshold for ‘ick’, we also know where our lines are and where ‘it just doesn’t feel right’.

Sarah: I don’t think there can be rules on this, really - it’s about instinctive response. Where I set my ‘ick-ometer’ may be different to another agent. And I’ve certainly met editors with very differing sensibilities. Fair enough, I pass, that editor passes, and someone else takes on the book who feels differently. But I do think that beyond a question of taste, there tends to be general consensus if violence is gratuitous or has crossed a line into something troubling. I think that as an agent, editor or writer, one should take note of a niggling sense of unease.

Where are the children in the decision-making process? How do you know what children want to read?

Sarah: Good question, and we all hope we’re getting that right. Of course we can partly see from sales trends what is actually working with kids themselves and their families. If something isn’t working, doesn’t sell (despite marketing efforts), then maybe we haven’t quite hit that commercial sweet spot (though there are other factors too, like retail issues/competition/luck). However, the publishing industry and process is inevitably run by adults, and the gatekeepers to the shelves - whether booksellers or librarians - are also adults, as are many of the buying public (ie, parents and other adults purchasing for children). As agents we obviously try to keep in touch with kids themselves (many of us have our own), and it’s a combination of this and a trained, experienced judgement + instinct that makes us pick up one manuscript over another and put it forward for consideration. However, it’s those at the sharp end - sales/marketing teams and retail buyers - who have the closest interface with the buying public, which is why they have so much power in the process. But hey - haven’t we all had the experience of putting a great book into a child’s hands and watching them read, engrossed? That’s what motivates us and why we all agonize so long and hard over ‘getting it right’.

Julia: Children can’t work for big corporations in highly skilled jobs. And adults do this stuff better.

imageIs there a book category for 10-14 year olds? Young YA? Usually, in bookshops you see 8-12 and YA.

Sarah: It’s tricky. What you’re referring to is ‘tween’ fiction - or it is in the USA; usually we use that term for girl-oriented fiction that deals with pre-teen issues and a growing sense of selfhood. And yes, it can be problematic as there’s no section called tween. A judgment call therefore has to be made as to whether the book is MG or YA. Usually the tone, the concept and the characters’ ages will dictate the shelf-placement decision, but it’s worth considering your potential audience carefully when you write for this age group.

Julia: If it’s 10+ you’d be more likely to find it in the 8-12 section. In order to help signpost to buyers, retailers tend to categorise into picture books, young fiction, 8-12 (middle grade in the US) and YA - but inevitably within those bands there’s a lot of fluidity and stretch.

Julia, what’s the state of the UK YA market? Are editors actively looking for British authors or mainly acquiring from the US? And Sarah, what about the US?

Julia: It’s looking OK. Over the last 18 months I think I’ve sold every UK debut I’ve sent out. Saying that out loud gives me lockjaw and I write this sitting on a wooden windowsill with a foxglove wreath around my neck. Seriously though, there is a real hunger for home-grown talent. The Americans have been doing YA so well for so long, and I think we’re starting to catch up.

Sarah: My mantra is fast becoming ‘It’s all about quality!’ And that’s quite true - it doesn’t matter where the author is domiciled, if the book is a cracker. We’ve sold a number of British-based authors in the US, and vice versa. For example, we’ve recently sold American Donna Cooner’s debut YA SKINNY in the UK (to Egmont), and Bloomsbury US just pre-empted on Brit Helen Douglas’s EDEN.

Generally, I’d say that despite all sorts of publishing challenges, the US YA market feels buoyant - there’s a lot of acquisition, and big deals, going on. A number of editors have told me recently that they ‘have money to spend’. Which makes us rub our hands with glee!

What makes a good 5-8 series?

Sarah: A great voice. Time and again, voice is the cruncher. It’s got to be authentic and pitch perfect. Also, of course, you need a really great central character and a fun but very original concept. It’s a tough area as so dominated by established and big-selling series, in the US at least.

Julia: Voice and a sense of fun.

What are editors looking for at the moment for middle grade readers, both boys & girls.

Julia: This will sound odd, but we tend not to focus too much on what publishers are looking for. As they tell us, they just want wonderful new authors to publish.

Sarah: Julia’s right, but I’d love to find another brilliantly written action/adventure novel or series, with charm, good characters and originality. I say ‘another’ because Sarwat Chadda’s Indian epic ASH MISTRY AND THE SAVAGE FORTRESS (HarperCollins UK and Scholastic US/March and Fall 2012 respectively) is a great example of that. I’d also love to find more gorgeously crafted classic middle grade - like Tricia Springstubb’s WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET and MO WREN: LOST AND FOUND (Balzer & Bray) and Tami Lewis Brown’s THE MAP OF ME (FSG).

Julia: I can’t resist the opportunity to cosmic order. Something that makes me laugh as much as WIMPY KID would be super.

Why is there such a long gap between a book getting bought by publishers and being pubbed? (Some are swifter than others, it seems. But I already see deals posted for way off in 2013.) Seems amazing, since the rest of life moves at such speed.

Julia: Publishers sell in their books to retailers 6-9 months before publication and at that point they will aim to have covers, bound proofs and an idea of marketing vision. So already, long before publication, a helluva lot of work needs to happen. Leah Thaxton, Publisher at Egmont UK, told me she went through more than fifty cover looks, to get Michael Grant’s GONE spot on. Fifty!

Also publishers need to keep an eye on their own lists. If they’re launching two big YA thrillers, they won’t want to put them on the same spot and watch them eat each other.

Sarah: Julia’s right! There are a lot of parts to the process, many of which are unseen by the general public who just see the final result on the shelf - as if it appeared by magic!

imageDo you work on every book you send out?

Julia: Only if we have to.

Sarah: Often, but never gratuitously. We want to give every author we take on the best possible chance of getting a deal. For many new clients it’s their first novel and they’re aware it’s not quite ‘there’ yet. If we can help them add what could be that all-important polish or extra shaping, then we will.

How can I catch an agent’s attention when I feel that the initial chapters requested don’t really showcase my book.

Julia: Short answer. Your initial chapters/pages should showcase your book. Longer answer. Something to keep in mind. Agents want to find great books. There’s nothing more exciting than spotting new talent and most agents come at their submissions with a very positive and hopeful energy - and not looking for perfection. If we think something looks interesting, we’ll ask to see more. Still, the first chapter of a really great submission will contain clarity and a sense of purpose. We’ll be able to see a concept, a voice, a character and even a story in those first pages. Certainly an idea of where the book is pointing.

Sarah: What do you do if you start a new book and the first few chapters don’t grab you? Invariably, you give up and move on to another. That’s how people read, and certainly how children read, so your book has to ‘sing’ from the start, even if some aspects aren’t quite in place when you submit it to an agent. Believe me, we can pick up a sense of voice, pace and originality very quickly, and I’ve been known to ask for a full manuscript on the strength of just three lines!

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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The (Literary) Spirit of Normandy

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The schools are back, the traffic’s a nightmare, yesterday I wore my first pair of ‘proper’ shoes since May, and it’s pouring outside as I write this.

Yes, it’s Fall! And yet my head is still partly in Normandy – northern France – where I spent time this summer. It’s an area I love and which really inspires me as I think of all the excitements and challenges ahead in the run-up to the end of the year. Maybe it could inspire you too!

What do I love about Normandy? It’s very pretty, parts are very quaint and picturesque, but it is so much more than that – because history has steeped the fields, the beaches, the villages and the cities with huge significance.

William the Conqueror set off from Barfleur to seize the throne of England - which he believed he’d been promised – and ending up reshaping the Middle Ages. The pic at the top shows where he left from!

Hundreds of years later, in June 1944, the Normandy coastline was the surprise (to the enemy, at least) venue for the beginning of what turned into the invasion of Europe. From Sword, June and Gold, up to Omaha and Utah beaches, thousands and thousands of Brits, Americans and Canadians (and other Allied forces) poured ashore, risking their lives in bloody battles. On Omaha Beach alone, thousands of US soldiers died, cut down by the guns ravaging them from the cliffs. You saw a fair approximation of the carnage in those opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.

St-Mere-Eglise, the 101st Airborne, Carentan, Caen . . . the names are iconic. How can all these incredible events have taken place in such a demure and charming area?

I love Normandy because it reminds me of what is possible. What you can achieve with courage, determination, flexibility – and a large amount of grit. I try to start work every day in that spirit, focusing on the positive that lies ahead and prepared to bounce back from the knocks.

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If you are a writer, you can easily be thrown off course by the turbulent seas, the huge guns, that seem at times to be arrayed against you. Who are YOU to try to find your niche in this industry; what can make YOU stand out and achieve your dreams?

Here are some of the discoveries I make in the quiet lanes of Normandy.

The importance of preparation

We see tons of submissions from folks who think writing is easy – something that can be knocked out at high speed. If you are reading this blog, you are not one of those people! But remind yourself again – writing is tough, it’s a skill to be learned, a craft to be mastered. We love those writers who inch ever closer, who make it their business to find out where they went wrong before – who treat it like a serious profession in which they are apprentices.

Did the invasion of Europe happen without preparation? Need I even answer that question?! It was costly, it was scary, and it was complicated.

The importance of courage

You get knocked down – then climb back up. Stagger to your feet, look around you, assess the damage, plug the holes in the boat and fix your guns that don’t fire any more. Fortunately, as a writer you should still be alive at this point, and where there’s life there’s hope and another day.

Maybe your masterplan needs some rethinking. Maybe you won’t get that book deal this year – but it might be next, once you’ve found yourself that solid critique group, that mentoring; taken on board those nuggets of wisdom an editor gave you in passing or the lines of unexpected advice an agent proffered. If you are too defensive you may never let yourself hear the words you really need to heed – but heeding them can require a lot of nerve. 

As in everything, writing success is partly about inspiration and partly about perspiration. Actually, a LOT of perspiration, most likely.

Don’t be put off. Do you have cajones? Yes you do!

Did William the Conq say, ‘I don’t think I can do this – those English lords might get a little grumpy?’ As if!

The importance of flexibility

I’m a great believer in bending with the wind. If one plan doesn’t work, rethink and try another. If your manuscript isn’t working out in one shape, consider unpicking it and starting again from a different perspective, in a different tense etc. With a clean sheet before you, you might suddenly have a lightbulb moment.

Tired of bombarding agents with submissions that don’t go anywhere? How about signing up for a writing course that will stretch you, a conference you’ve never dared to try before, experimenting with voice . . . .

Might you approach the problem from a different angle? You’ve tried Plans A and B – so how about C? And that could apply to everything from querying to working out plot structure or character.

Was there only one way to take back France? Sure, there was one big goal, but an infinite number of ways of achieving that goal.

The importance of determination

It is very often true that if you want something enough, and you’re prepared to work for it, then you will get there in the end. Of course there are exceptions, but it’s a good philosophy to bear in mind.

Determination encompasses everything else – preparation, courage and flexibility. With a large dollop of hard work on top.  Also, quite simply, it’s an act of the will not to be defeated.

For a writer that doesn’t necessarily mean blindly firing stuff out there, refusing to take No for an answer. That can get kind of sterile.  Rather, I believe it’s an acknowledgement of the learning process – a determination to improve, to be good, to be better than last time, even while understanding that the goalposts become higher the better we get.

Did William, Duke of Normandy, face the ocean and say, ‘I think I’ll go home now for a cup of tea, those waters look a little choppy?’ If he had done, he’d never have earned the name Conqueror.

And much more seriously, was the invasion of Europe called off because of its terrible price?

Please don’t think me facetious – we aren’t talking about issues of the same scale. Obviously.  I’m just saying if something is really important to you, you’ve got to fight for it.

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There’s one more thing to understand about Normandy. You can eat the most fantastic fish and seafood. Barfleur, which once hosted William the Conqueror (before he WAS a conqueror) is a fishing village. And fishing is something we agents – and you authors – can relate to.

Keep going this Fall. Do the work, keep learning, stay focused and brave. Speak determined and inspiring words to yourself.

And then let’s go fishing – with the spirit of Normandy in mind.

Bonne chance!

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Pix: 1) Barfleur: where William set off to become a Conqueror; 2) Omaha Beach - may the thousands rest in peace; 3) Crab fishing - Barfleur again.

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