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ALICE POPE BLOGS LIVE FROM THE CONVENTION FLOOR AT THE HYATT GRAND CENTRAL, JANUARY 30-FEBRUARY 1
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Lin Oliver introduced Gary Schmidt as not just a writer's writer—but as a writer's writer's writer. Gary has won two Newbery Honors, and all of his books are perfect, literary gems.
The last time Gary was here, he found out his back was bleeding just before he went on stage. Today, he's wearing a dark shirt—just in case.
He started by noting how wonderful it is to gather like this with other writers and illustrators, who generally work alone. "To be with each other is really quite an amazing gift, isn't it?"
Children's writers have the same mission. "We all do our best work for kids. That's why we get along so well."
The writers that he really admires—the writer that he hopes to be—is not just someone who displays the pyrotechnics of class, but the writer who shows up. "The writer who sits down on the log and tells me a story and so everything is different."
Gary comes from a writerly family. His uncle Bradford Ernest Smith wrote "Captain Kangaroo." "Do you know what cachet that has in first grade? Amazing!"
When a character on that show, Mr. Green Jeans, passed away, Captain Kangaroo didn't replace the man. He showed up instead next to the viewer. "He sat on the log. He told us the world is terribly broken."
"He was saying that despite the brokenness of this world, the world is so beautiful."
"This is what the writer for young kids does," Gary said. "Movies and television can fill the consciousness to overflowing. We know they do. Watch any superhero movie. But the writer for kids inspires and stimulates the consciousness to growth and understanding. What an amazing act. What a responsibility."
Gary, who teaches writing each week at a maximum security prison, told us several stories about people whose stories have touched him. One of the writers he volunteers with, Anthony, was 10 years old on 9/11. Now serving a life sentence, Anthony made two drug deals that morning, returns to his apartment, and saw the first plane hit the tower. He went outside to see if there was a plane about to hit his building. "I wished it would," he wrote. "It would have done me a favor."
Empathy was at the heart of his talk. "What ails thee" is a deep question from one heart to another, a question of human empathy. And that's what writers ask their characters and shows their readers.
We also write "to express the understanding that human beings are creatures of great complexity," he said. "Story insists on human complexity and multidimensionality. With story, we live literally in the tangles of our minds."
As writers, we have to believe that everything matters, everything small and large, he said. The curve on the bow of a boat matters. The snow on a mountain top matters. The way someone moves her arm matters. The way a kid wears his hair matters ... Suppose everything matters, everything is a sacrament.
There's a rabbi who says a prayer: "Lord, let the world be here for one more day. My dear friends, be that rabbi. For God's sake, if you're writing of kids, be that rabbi."
Alessandra Balzer is the Vice President and Co-Publisher of Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, publishing picture books to novels from teens.
On the process of acquisitions:
Auctions are rare. Many of B+B's favorite books come traditionally. If Alessandra loves a book, she shares it with her team and they look at it closely. If the team is on the same page, she brings it to the acquisitions board. Many details are looked at in the meeting and it's approached as a business decision.
On coping with losing something you love:
It is what it is. You do your best. If you don't get it, you move on.
Do you ever offer notes on a manuscript before making a decision?
It depends. When it's done, there's no guarantee, and a lot of time is put into it. Alessandra has done it when it's worked out, and she's done it and then had to reject the project.
On deal-breakers in a offer:
As an editor it's difficult because there is a passion part and a business part. It can be helpful when the house has a policy when it comes to contracts which can take some challenges away because certain pieces don't need to be negotiated.
On junior-level editors taking on projects:
When a more junior level editor brings a proposal to an acquisitions meeting, the rest are behind them and advocating for the project as well.
Do your best work, and don't write to what's selling or to trends. Write your passion.
Ginger Clark has been a literary agent with Curtis Brown since 2005. She represents many genres and categories of books in addition to representing the British rights for Curtis Brown's children's list. She's lots of fun on Twitter, and from there you may have learned she's really into wombats and Peter Capaldi, but aren't we all?
Sarah Davies and Ginger Clark tag team on describing how a rolling auction works. All of the bidding publishers give their bid, and then the lowest bidder is asked if they can match the highest bid, and the other bidders are approached in turn, and this can go around a few times, perhaps up to seven rounds.
Compared to a best bids auction, where Ginger asks for editors to name their ultimate bid and no additional rounds of bid-taking happen.
For most books Ginger has sold she's initially sent out the submission to 12 editors. In special cases she's sent the submission out to upwards of 27 editors (and she notes that 25% of those 27 were at Penguin Random House, which is the strange reality of big houses merging into even bigger houses these days).
The most important 'gets' in a contract to Ginger are:
Translation rights, British rights, audio rights, joint vs. separate accounting on multiple book deal royalties (you want separate accounting!!) Ginger will only take joint accounting deals unless there are no other offers OR the publisher is offering them an insane amount of money. Other than that, deal-killers are up to the client, says Ginger.
Ginger's last bit of advice:
When picking an agent, pick someone you think will be a great advocate for you and will be a great, professional advice-giver—don't pick someone only because you think they could be your best friend, or that reminds you of your mom or Peter Capaldi, or because they own a wombat.
|(l-r) Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker; wombat from How To Negotiate Everything|
Alvina Ling is Vice President and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (where she's worked since 1999.) She oversees Little, Brown's core publishing program (including picture books, middle grade, and young adult), and edits children's books for all ages.
Some highlights of Alvina's comments:
"When we acquire a book, we generally want to acquire an author and an author's career."
On whether there are other considerations besides the manuscript in making the decision, "very occasionally" Alvina will see if the author has an online presence--a website, or are on twitter. But as she explains, it's "not a deciding factor, but can contribute."
About asking for revisions before signing a project, Alvina agrees that it's more suggestive than proscriptive, and she recalls working with Peter Brown for a year before signing his first book.
The panel also covers joint versus separate accounting, how auctions work, and important "gets" in the negotiation process and the pros and cons of working with younger versus more senior editors.
Final Alvina wisdom from the panel:
"Since today is Valentines' day, you have to love what you do. We're all up here because we love what we do... love your work, love meeting the people."
It's great advice.
Sarah Davies and Rubin Pfeffer are both literary agents with deep editorial experience honed over many years working as editors at various publishing houses.
Sarah is the founder of The Greenhouse Literary Agency
. Rubin Pfeffer founded Rubin Pfeffer Content
They spoke to us today about opportunities and challenges in publishing, with Rubin asking all of the panelists a variety of questions ranging from terminology to process and working styles.
Sarah's career in children's publishing in London lasted for 25 years. She moved to Washington, D.C. to found her agency, and is now back across the pond, where her agency is an international presence. She loves cultivating new talent and selling books all around the world (including Iran and the republic of Georgia).What is an auction?
Sarah explained this happens when more than one editor wants a book. Agents might set a time by which offers need to be received. Sarah likes to hold her auctions on Fridays (there was disagreement on the panel about this). Offers come in with their basic terms in addition to a lot of love from editors. To Sarah, the editor's passion for a project is a significant factor.
What does rejection signify?
To Rubin, rejection doesn't mean your writing wasn't good enough. There are factors beyond your control.What kind of control do you have over the projects you submit?
Everything is done on behalf of your clients, Sarah said. One of the first questions she asks is about which editors clients already have relationships with. But she's also going to search her frequently updated database and use what she's learned in her frequent meetings with editors. "I'm making notes all the time and updating those."
She also runs submission ideas past her clients to make sure the best decisions are made.How do you cope with losing a project that you love?
Sarah Davies doesn't often fall in love with a new author. "I'm quite sparing in my love... when I fall in love, I want to get it." But it sometimes does happen that potential client chooses someone else.Rubin Pfeffer on respect
It's easy to wear your emotions on your sleeve, but showing professionalism will take you very, very far. "It will cut you off short if it's not there."
How much work do you do on a manuscript before submitting it to an editor?
In eight years, there have been only about two times Sarah has sent out a manuscript she hasn't given some feedback on. "My goal is to sell it as well as it can be done. My editorial role is working on it until we can get it to where it stands the best chance of being acquired by an editor."
What is joint accounting?
When an editor makes an offer for more than one book, joint accounting is where both books have to earn out before royalties are paid. Agents don't want this situation to happen, but it's the house policy at certain publishers. At Little, Brown, series are jointly accounted, which is more reasonable to agents.
When should you submit to a junior vs. a senior agent?
There are merits to both. Often a senior person such as Alving Ling might be well placed to give it to a less senior editor on her team. If Sarah has a large submission list, it's more likely to work that way. Many of the less senior editors have worked a long time as assistants, and have excellent experience.
Final words of wisdom
A client was devastated by the rejection of her dark, edgy YA novel. She felt as though there was no future for her in publishing. She decided to recapture her joy in writing again, which she was starting to lose. "It's so easy to do in the frenzy of deal-making."
Some months later, she came back with a nonfiction picture book text and a chapter book series. Neither of which she had attempted before. These were her "peach sorbet" projects. She took delight in them, and Sarah told them fast. "This is a story not only of determination, but of flexibility... she's my heroine."
From left to right, Rubin Pfeffer (Agent, Content, standing at podium), Alvina Ling (VP and Editor-in-Chief, Little Brown Books for Young Readers), Sarah Davies (Agent, Greenhouse Literary), Ginger Clark (Agent, Curtis Brown), Liz Bicknell (EVP, Executive Editorial Director & Associate Publisher, Candlewick Press), Alessandra Balzer (VP and Co-Publisher, Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins.)
|Jacquelyn Mitchard delivering her keynote|
is the number one New York Times best-selling author of ten novels for adults, seven novels for teenagers, and five children's books, as well as editor-in-chief of Merit Press, a realistic young adult imprint., and a professor of writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Jacquelyn talks about endings, how it's "more difficult to end a story than to start one," and how "most books really just stop."
She shares some resonant endings, ones that meet the challenge of "ushering the reader back into the world that you convinced the reader to leave."
We're asked to consider, for our own work, "how does the reader feel let in?"
Breaking down the different kinds of endings (with examples), Jacquelyn discusses cliffhanger endings, reflective endings, the incident ending, the simple happy ending (in which people get what they want), the happy/sad ending (like in The Fault in our Stars,) and more!
An ending has to tie up the loose ends, provide a conclusion, and also usher the reader back into the world... and do it quickly.
The ending should also include an element that takes the reader by surprise, something to "make the reader gasp one last time" before they leave the world of your story.
Which all makes it challenging to write the ending to this blog post, striving for a "wrap up with a shot of emotion."
But Jacquelyn saves the day (and this post), because the ending of her keynote comes in the form of a writing exercise: we're all asked to craft one sentence, an alternate ending for To Kill A Mockingbird, from Scout's point of view. A few people from the crowd share their alternate endings.
The original final line:
"[Atticus] would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning."
Now, you get the chance to put in your own final words: play along in comments.
Author Rita Williams-Garcia opened today's conference with a dynamic and funny keynote that kept attendees in stitches: "Dos and Don'ts in Children's Publishing From a Definite Don't." She began her talk with a little dance that set the mood, and then peppered her speech with phrases like "funky-fresh," "de-blackified" and "Black girls with big butts and low self esteem." It was a hoot, folks, she kept it real.
Williams-Garcia started writing as soon as she could hold a pencil in her hands. As a child, she loved making up stories, although her mother had another word for her storytelling—lying. If a roach walked up the wall, she'd make up a story about it.
As an adult writer, she honed her storytelling ways and learned to "live the plan." That meant setting a goal to write 500 words each and every night. "Even if the writing wasn't great, the words need to come out," she said.
Williams-Garcia also spoke about veering off her plan occasionally, choosing her major in college by "following the boy with the most perfect afro." Time to get back to the plan!
Williams-Garcia's advice for Staying on the Plan:
Don’t isolate yourself. Find your community,
join an MFA program, SCBWI, workshop group.
Don’t fear doubt. A healthy dose of doubt will make you write better writer.
Don’t not fear criticism.
Don’t stop writing. Writers write.
Do live with gratitude.
Be about the Do.
Jane speaks eloquently of how re-inventing a career in the arts every seven to ten years is a way to keep your writing fresh and alive. And yet, how difficult it is when then re-invention is forced on you.
So, to help honor the contribution of mid-list authors in general, and celebrate two mid-list authors in particular, Jane announces this year's winners:
Karen Coombs and Sallie Wolf
Sallie was here and joined Jane on stage for an enthusiastic standing ovation!
It's the coldest Valentine's Day in 100 years, but the SCBWI Portfolio Showcase winner announcement warms our hearts. It is with great excitement that we announce this years winners. Congratulations to all!
Winner: Sarah Jacoby
Honors: Jacob Grant
This year's illustration inspiration is based on Phillip Pullman's version of Red Riding Hood. Tomie received over 400 entries this year!
While the award is presented today, the announcement happened a little bit ago, be sure to check out the fantastic unofficial gallery put together by Diandra Mae.
The task for this year's award was about UNIQUE VISUALIZATION of the MAIN CHARACTER.
As I warned, "So often, I have seen illustrators resort to generic depictions of the star of the story—too 'designed,' too ordinary, too much like characters already seen in media, especially on TV and video games."
That said I have chosen the following illustrators:
See the other notables at our link
Each year the SCBWI sponsors two student writer scholarships to the Summer and Winter Conferences for full-time university in and English or Creative Writing program.
Likewise, each year, the SCBWI sponsors four conference scholarships for full-time graduate or undergraduate students studying illustration.
Congratulation to this year's winners.
A special message from all the authors and illustrators gathered this morning...
Lin Oliver introduces the amazing staff of the SCBWI. A much deserved standing ovation received.
Thank you, SCBWI!
The illustrators were getting their party on this evening at the SCBWI Illustrator's Social, with big nods to Tomie dePaola for putting the "I" in SCBWI! Peter Brown started off the festivities by introducing members of the SCBWI Illustration leadership team. "It's important for us to get to know one another and network, said Brown.
|David Diaz, Peter Brown, Sarah Baker, Paul O. Zelinsky, Laurent Linn|
The #NY16SCBWI Art Browse was a blast! This year's portfolios were as polished as never before. New friends were made and old friends were reunited. And art directors were definitely impressed.
Kate Messner and Linda Urban are both award-winning writers of many books for kids, from picture books to middle grade novels.
Together they will present a mini-keynote.
Kate tells us there are times when it's more important to get your butt out of the chair. Counter to what we are often told. Sounds good!
Science supports taking a walk when we are stuck.
At a point when Kate was stuck, she started hiking, and found climbing a mountain is exactly like writing a first draft: the beginning was full of roots, it was muddy in the middle, toward the top it started to rain, and when she was ready for the million dollar view, it was cloudy.
But that hike gave her an idea for the book. It's not always the big things. Sometimes we just need a small thing to keep going.
Kate climbed that same trail again and this time the summit was different. Sometimes when we go away and come back, even with writing, things can look a lot different.
Other lessons Kate learned from hiking that can be applied to writing:
- Even when the trail is unmarked, you can find ways of moving forward and you can benefit from those who were there before you.
- Sometimes a trail can start out one way and then you realize it wasn't the way you thought it was going to be.
- Thing that look impossible to climb can be managed. You only have to find one next place to go.
For Linda, getting out of the chair is not going for a walk, it's getting up and moving to another chair.
At a time Linda was stuck, she came across a red ukulele in a window. She bought it and started to play. Learning and playing released dopamine and quieted the existential hecklers that had her stuck on her latest novel.
The release of dopamine and small success allowed her get back to the novel and make progress. Her story was free to run a little wild. As she kept playing and learning the ukulele, Linda was seeing and hearing things in different way.
The experience was also a reminder that learning new things can be really hard and that is what kids go through too.
At this point in the talk, Linda has been coaxed by Kate, and the crowd, to sing her sad-ogre-cowboy song.
So worth it! Huge applause for Linda. And proof, that as writing buddies, Kate pushes Linda out of her comfort zone, and we learn that Linda helps Kate to slow down. Kate and Linda share that they are writing buddies, and it is evident as they interact onstage. While they live 2 hours apart, they meet over lattes or lunch every month. They leave us with a final thought: We need people in this writing world. Connect with your writing community. Find your writing buddies.
Rainbow Rowell (rhymes with towel) is the beloved bestselling author of books for adults and teens.
SCBWI executive director Lin Oliver, herself a bestselling author, conducted a warm fireside chat with Rainbow about her books and her life. And yeah, there really was a fireplace projected on the screen, because the SCBWI does things right.
Here are some of the highlights:
Rainbow started her career as a journalist and columnist for the Omaha World-Herald. There were some useful things. For example, she didn't get writers block. "At a newspaper, writer's block means tomorrow you're fired." There were also some downsides—working as a journalist was hard on her writerly voice.
During that time, someone asked her what sort of writing she was doing for herself, and after a while, she realized the only writing she'd done for herself was love letters—that may or may not have been read. ("Mine were too long. They needed editing.")
She started writing THE ATTACHMENTS to do something for herself. She wrote that in third person past tense.
CARRY ON, though, was written in first person."I think when you're writing first person, you're really writing monologues," she said.
Her characters have little pieces of her in them. "Human beings are more complicated than fictional characters, and there's enough of you to split into seeds (which become the characters of your books)."
As she writes, she doesn't think about how they're being marketed. ELEANOR & PARK was released as an adult title in the UK, where it "bombed," as hard as it is to believe that. St. Martins Press published it as YA in the states—and Rainbow says they were the only publisher who wanted it. It might have been different had they taken it to YA publishers instead of adult. St. Martins does both.
Her agent describes her work as "funny/sad," which means it's sad but still makes you laugh a lot. "It's so much harder to be funny than it is to be sad," she said. "You can read the newspaper if it's sad. I personally like things better if they're both."
"Sometimes the pressure of writing makes you want to sound official, so you aspire toward something that's not you because it sounds more professional," she said. When she was a journalist, she used to imagine telling the stories she was writing to her husband or her mom.
When writing fiction, she gave herself permission just to write—not to go back in and edit and change things. If it made her laugh, it was good enough.
Lin observed that many of Rainbow's characters seem to be outsiders. But to Rainbow, more people feel like the outside than feel on the inside, especially young people. It wouldn't have occurred to her to write people who don't feel this way. "It's who we are."
Rainbow likes to talk about her characters with her agent. The characters appear to her pretty well formed and compelling. But talking to good listeners who don't try to build on her characters, and instead just let her develop them, is helpful. She adds details as she's talking about it. She also builds playlists that help her fill her characters out a bit.
Sometimes her characters don't do what she expected them to do in scenes. She gets to know them better as she writes.
CARRY ON has Star Wars, Superman, Harry Potter and Twilight references. It's a book she wrote for people who had some of the same pop culture references as she does. This meant she didn't have to explain a lot of references, but that she could also play against people's expectations.
Rainbow has a lovely and resonant philosophy about her characters and their stories (and about human beings in the real world too): We're all good people trying hard. And there is value in trying hard.
She shared so much advice and insight for us and really showed us where her magical books come from: her generous heart. Her voice on the page is her voice in real life. If you haven't read her books, you're in for an extraordinary experience. Move them to the top of your pile.
Rainbow on Twitter
Rainbow on Facebook
Jean Feiwel is a senior vice president and publisher at Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, where her eponymous imprint has published wonderful books such as Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles Series.
She also oversees Squarefish, Swoon Reads, and Henry Holt. (Macmillan has nine imprints in all, including one called Imprint—ha!)
Her career in publishing is incredibly distinguished: at Scholastic she invented the Baby-Sitter's Club series, and published Goosebumps, Animorphs, Harry Potter and other blockbuster series.
And it's not just novels; the picture book On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman was the first title she published at her imprint, and more than 3.5 million copies are in print.
She was one of five editors featured on a panel about publishing and its future.
At Macmillan, the company compiled imprints that had all been independent. "The decision was made to create what I call the Star Wars Alliance," Jean said. This unified their sales and marketing and retained the individuality of the imprints. As a result, their net business has grown 70 percent.
The growth of the industry has changed things, she said. After Harry Potter, it wasn't enough to have a bestselling book. You had to have a phenomenally bestselling book.
"If your bar is that high, you can miss a lot of things happening under that bar," she said. At Macmillan, they're supposed to grow by a certain percentage overall, and they're supposed to make great books.
"Slow and steady wins the race. It's pressure, but it's not the kind of pressure that's a carrot on a stick getting higher and further away."
Jean described different kinds of excitement. One is when you place a big bet on something—as she did with Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles. It's the No. 1 bestselling series on the NYT list this week.
There are other kinds of risks—like a book called MY BIG FAT ZOMBIE GOLDFISH. "It's whizzing along nicely."
She loves being able to build things from the ground up. Risk-taking and developing new ideas is the hallmark of what Macmillan loves to do, she said.
She urged writers to do what they do best, and do it well. Stick to it and believe in it. It's not about trying to write to a trend.
Starting a crowdsourced imprint, Swoon Books, let her see a broader variety of manuscripts than agents were sending (they were too swamped for a slush pile). Seeing a range of submissions and mining self-published work is interesting and useful for publishers.
MacKids: the homepage of Macmillan Children's Publishing
Feiwel and Friends website
Feiwel and Friends on Facebook
Follow Feiwel and Friends on Twitter
Giuseppe Castellano, senior art director at Penguin Random House, gave a great talk on children's book illustration in general, not just as it relates to single portfolio pieces.
He feels a lot of artists' work is often too 'children's booky' looking. A lot of the samples he sees have very standard color choices and character choices—the skies are blue, the grass is green, the girl is white, the details aren't necessarily different enough to be interesting, or they seem there to over explain the scene to kids, not allowing them to use their imaginations to fill in the story gaps.
Giuseppe picked out a few Tomie dePaola Award gallery pieces from this year's contest to highlight what images WERE NOT too 'children's booky' looking and had clearly been developed beyond the standard tropes he is hoping we learn to avoid.
The first piece he liked was by Tatiana Escallon. Giuseppe loved that it looks handmade, and not cleaned up/shiny digital. The play and pull of the shapes with each other and within the composition are dynamic, the colors are fun, there are a lot of "gaps" for the reader to fill in with their imagination.
The next piece he liked was by Claire Lordon
. Also has a handmade look, this time it's a screenprint. He liked the play of the colors against each other.
's piece appealed to Giuseppe because of its great line work and limited palette. He felt like this piece looked like a sophisticated piece of art you'd see up on a wall and told us, "Children's books should be like mini art galleries... Give kids more credit that they can appreciate fine, complex art."
Giuseppe gave the room a very cool handout and had them do some simple but awesome, in-class exercises. I'll leave you with a little bit of his thoughts about color:
Color is absolutely a character in your story, says Giuseppe, it's the foundation you build a piece of art on. That doesn't mean it has to be loud, wild crayon color everywhere, he says, "Color choices are like music, you can have loud and soft areas."
Some examples of great color Giuseppe shared are M. Sasek and Ezra Jack Keats's work:
And holy crap, you guys, follow Giuseppe on Twitter
and check out the classes he offers via The Illustration Department
! I know I will.
For many years Bonnie Bader worked as an Associate Publisher of Frederick Warne & Co., as well as the editor-in-chief of Penguin Young Readers/Early Readers. Today she is a member of the SCBWI Board of Advisors, and the PAW (Published and Listed) point person.
When she first started in publishing, Bader said that she hated nonfiction. What changed her mind? The narrative voice.
In her session today, Bader spoke about what publishers are doing and what sellers are saying. She also offered tips for authors seeking to write nonfiction. It was a lively interactive session, with high audience participation.
Here are a few bullet points:
• What sells? Nonfiction pegged to a holiday: First Thanksgiving
• Smaller publishers do well with nonfiction. They tend to have more people designated to target the school library market.
|Who Was? nonfiction books are hot sellers, |
selling more than 20 million copies to date.
• Write about tension in a character's life.
• Develop your voice.
• Always offer sources for dialog.
• Write grabby first lines.
• Decide who your audience is. Who are you writing for?
• Pick your subject, explore your own interests. What excites you? What are you passionate about?
• Research, research, research!
Elizabeth Bicknell is Executive Vice President, Executive Editorial Director & Associate Publisher at Candlewick Press. She edits picture books, fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Two recent picture book projects include Mac Barnett and John Klassen's Sam and Dave Dig a Hole
and Carole Boston Weatherford and Ekua Holmes' Voice of Freedom
Liz spoke about the different kinds of picture books, using examples of 12 books she's published to, well, illustrate
her points. Story picture books, concept books, biography, poetry collections...
It's fascinating that she's able to break those twelve down into six that had an author/illustrator create them, and six books that had different authors and illustrators. (Additionally, eight of the eighteen people were not agented at the time she acquired their work.)
She tells us that she's "a sucker for dog stories," and jokes that now that she's said that, "everyone feverishly changes their main characters to dogs."
"I am very fond of poetry."
"I like books that are a little bit wicked."
"There are no rules you can never break."
Liz tells us more about what she's looking for, breaks down the reasons she really doesn't like rhyme, and talks about those critical first (and last) lines.
There's lots more good stuff, some handouts, and so much wisdom. Here's one last bit of wisdom:
"If the ending isn't working, really the whole thing isn't working."
Sarah Davies is the founder of The Greenhouse Literary Agency, which represents authors of YA, MG, and picture books.
Sarah loves literary fiction with a strong commercial hook. Middle grade fiction is really the first that immerses young readers in new worlds and introduces them to empathy. These books often are among the most important people read.
We are in a fabulous, golden time for middle grade. Librarians and educators play a bigger role in linking readers with books, and it's sometimes a slow process.
How can you raise the level of your writing and make your manuscript stand out?
She has identified eight common denominators of great, salable middle grade. Here are a few things she looks for:
1. Know your market. What is middle grade? Her submissions inbox tells her a lot of people don't know what they're trying to do or who they're writing for.
At the younger end, it's chapter books that are typically 15,000-25,000 words long and illustrated with line art. Her client Tricia Springstubb writes these. They can be character led or concept driven. Clementine by Sara Pennypacker is an example. The Magic Treehouse is concept driven.
Novels for older middle grade readers run 30,000-60,000 words. (If it's longer, ask yourself why.) These core middle grade novels are about characters from 10 to 13, with a sweet spot of 11 to 13. THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE by Kat Yeh is an absolutely delightful middle grade that received a lot of buzz.
There's also a "tween" category that tends to be pinker and fluffier and deals with crushes, clothes, and friendships. Aladdin does this sort of book well.
2. Know your reader. How is MG different from YA? The YA protagonist is older, with a protagonist who is 15 to 17. But it's not just simply about age. The interior world of the pre-teen child is different from the older teen. If all good fiction has some rite of passage in it, the older teen's right of passage is "who will I be as an adult." For a middle grader, it's about firsts, the beginnings of finding an identity separate from your parents. Asking who am I, what am I?
3. Voice. Her client Mark Maciejewski had a funny voice. His submission needed work, but that voice struck her. Sometimes she can hear the adult behind the voice--and adult who is trying to remember how they think children sound. "Can you access the real thing? If you can, you're two-thirds of the way there. If you can an agent will spot you."
Let your voice shine through in the opening, rather than dumping plot info up front.
Read a lot and listen to children speak and understand their phrasing and logic. "You've got to develop your voice muscle."
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I'm so excited about this session! Rainbow Rowell is the New York Times bestselling author of the Young Adult novels Eleanor & Park and Fangirl and Carry On. She's even received a Printz Honor for Eleanor & Park!*
is our very own team blogger, author of the YA novels The Game of Love and Death
and Devine Intervention
They're talking about Creating Teen Characters, and you'd think it would feel like this:
But it really felt like this:
Rainbow and Martha had great, in-depth discussion and we were right there. They spoke about the shift that happens for writing a teen's perspective, and the shift that happens for a teen reader (versus an adult.) Rainbow said,
"I don't think about audience... I can get stalled."
They both worked as journalists, and Rainbow spoke of the good training that was (like how it was great for dialog and made her not so precious about her writing) and the challenges that same background created (her voice got "slammed out.") Rainbow joked about her contemporary realistic novels,
"What I'm doing is journalism, but lying."
Martha played the song "Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod" by The Mountain Goats so we could all hear a bit of it. Rainbow then told us about how the song (and the whole album) inspired her novel Eleanor & Park,
and "how it unlocked me." They spoke about different tools they use to get into the writing. Martha used period photos for The Game of Love and Death
. Rainbow uses music as a "shortcut to get back to the emotion of that scene," describing a particular scene from Eleanor & Park and how it had a specific song.
They spoke about diversity of characters, aspirational characters versus real characters, and Rainbow's breakthrough in writing fantasy. It was a great story, about research and tropes (and playing with tropes) and how Rainbow ultimately realized that for fantasy, "I've read enough to find my own voice in it."
There was so much more, and Rainbow also answered questions from the rapt audience.
Two final bits of wisdom:
Speaking about today's teens versus the teens of the 1980s, Martha Brockenbrough said,
"We've been this age, we know what we need to know."
Telling us of a particular character she found challenging to write, (Agatha in Carry On
), Rainbow said,
"As an author, you need to find your way in."
And then she explained how she found her way into Agatha... So fascinating!
Useful. Inspiring. Very special.
What a breakout session!
*Check out all of Rainbow's titles here
**Check out all of Martha's titles here
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Alvina Ling is vp and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." ~ W. Somerset Maugham
Aristotle: Character is plot revealed by action.
Alvina believes conflict is the most important element of plot.
The cat sat on a mat is not a story. The cat sat on another cat's mat is a story.
7 basic plots
- overcoming the monster
- rags to riches
- the quest
- voyage and return
- boy meets girl (human meets human)
- the little tailor (power to slay giants)
- man learns a lesson
- a person goes on a journey
- a stranger comes to town
Know what the rules are, then break them.
Elements of plot Alvina looks for:
- high stakes and emotional impact