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International Writers and International Settings

This is a question I got on the blog a few months ago, about writers who either live outside of the US or write about locations outside the US, or both:

How do editors and agents feel about writers from other countries? I live in Canada and write using Canadian spelling and grammar. My latest young adult story is set in Canada so I have kept to the Canadian standards. However, I’m afraid that agents will see that and wonder whether or not I know basic grammar.

Do American agents consider the location of the story and/or it’s author when reading a manuscript? Do they require American spelling and grammar? Would an agent in the states consider taking on a story set in another country or would they prefer to change the setting to an American city?

I get this question a lot, actually. Thoughts:

If you want to shop it in the American market, adhere to American grammar and spelling standards. I see tons of submissions from around the world and am very familiar with what is standard usage in other countries. I give writers the benefit of the doubt and assume they know basic language rules, so don’t worry about your Canadian usage branding you as illiterate in our eyes. However, I also know that you will have to adhere to American standards if you manuscript is acquired in America. The best way to avoid a heavy line edit later on is to Americanize your manuscript before you submit to American agents or editors. You know what’s coming…just get it over it.

I see a lot of Canadian writers. They usually set a story in the place they know best, usually their Canadian hometown. However, international settings for novels published in the American market usually tend to be more…exotic. The upcoming novel by P.J. Converse, SUBWAY GIRL, out from HarperCollins in the spring 2011 season, is a romance intertwined with the bustling subway lines of Hong Kong. The upcoming Stephanie Perkins romance, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, out from Dutton this fall, is set in…bien sur…Paris.

Not to offend our dear friends up north, but for Canadian settings, I have to ask: is it 100% essential that the story is set in Canada? Is the Canadian setting absolutely crucial to the story? Does the whole thing fall apart when you take the story oot of Canada? I’m not sure American kid/teen readers will understand the nuances and glories of Canada. It doesn’t have the sexy allure of France or Brazil or Morocco in American popular culture. I read a lot of children’s literature and have yet to come across a pocket of stories set in Canada. Now, I don’t know if that’s the setting’s fault or if I’m not reading the right books or if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the general lack of Canada-centric books in the US kidlit market makes me a little less eager to submit project set in the Great White North (unless the Canadian setting is absolutely imperative to the action of the story, as I’ve mentioned, and the book is completely amazing, of course).

This is a tough market. Editors don’t care where you’re from, but they do care about your work being able to attract the maximum number of readers. If you want to publish in the US market, your best, strongest bet, would be to cater more to American readers in terms of location and grammar/spelling. I believe in giving your work the biggest possible chance at publication, and if you can make these changes without wrecking your story, it might be smarter.

Either way, I don’t think a lot of agents will penalize a writer for being located internationally or for writing in an international setting right off the bat. It’s all about the writing and the story, at the end of the day.

ETA: Just so nobody misses the point — the setting has to be absolutely instrumental to the story. Novels are about choices the writer makes. If you’re just setting something somewhere just because, that’s not a strong choice. If you set a story outside of the average American reader’s frame of reference and you want to publish in the American market, one or both of the following must be true: first, it must be a location that the reader will be thrilled and excited to vicariously visit (think about action movies…they’re always set in some exotic world destination), second, it must absolutely be crucial to the story. You can’t have a Mayan story without some mention of Mexico, for example.

ETA 2.0: Perhaps my least favorite thing about having a blog is writing posts like these and then getting the feeling that, just because I write about this subject, that readers think I personally agree with it. I’m talking about international writers and settings and how they are perceived in terms of marketing a manuscript to agents and/or editors for the American audience. I’m not giving my own personal views about how the world should be. I’m not making commentary on American culture. I’m not saying that this is the only opinion on the issue. But an undeniable bias exists toward American settings in today’s kidlit. That is a fact. How do I feel about that personally? That’s not what this post is about.



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