Writing advice for writers who want to write children’s books. These articles are full of actionable and proactive advice for those who want to write and sell fiction in the children’s book marketplace. Topics range from picture books to young adult novels, and all of these articles are full of writing advice on how to craft and publish children’s fiction.
A few weeks back, I reached out to see who had questions. Rachel had a great one:
Back when I read the Baby Sitters Club as a kid, I would always skim over the whole “introduction” to the club and group, which appeared in each book. I am currently working on a chapter series and wonder if each book needs the “introduction” to the story, or if they are a bit unnecessary these days?
This astute reader is totally right. A catch-up introduction is no longer the norm in a series. Whew! No need to write a dry and skip-able synopsis for your manuscripts. (Though, unfortunately, you’ll still have to craft one for when you submit.) However, this opens up a bigger question: “So how do you begin a series without boring readers who are familiar with your premise?”
For a more modern feel, you want to include that information in your opening few chapters. However, you don’t want to bog the opening down with tons of facts right off the bat. So what I would do is pick several key facts about your main characters and their relationships, about the world in which your story is set (even if it’s in our modern non-fantasy world, each “world” has its own rules and climate, like a high school cafeteria from a popular person’s POV vs. an underdog’s, those “worlds” look very different), and anything else from previous installments that’s crucial to know.
By providing this context but weaving it into the first few chapters of the story, you will be welcoming your existing readers back into the story while simultaneously giving new readers a chance to catch up. All without info-dumping. The important thing to remember is to keep everything brief and relevant. The story should start in action that continues the plot you’ve already been telling. This way, it’s easy to keep pacing quick while providing some relevant context.
For example, if your characters are at war at the end of Book 1, open Book 2 with them gearing up for an important battle. From the action, new readers will be able to gather that they’re at war and something important is coming up. During that scene, you will want to drop hints concerning why they’re at war, who they’re fighting against, what the stakes are, etc. Since characters will be interacting as they prepare, you can start introducing a sense of their relationships, values, personal objectives, and motivations. Sure, you have all this juicy backstory about the king and some palace intrigue, but leave it for later. Open with big action that carries the pacing and buys you a few moments to balance it with information.
I have recently been reading some craft books and if you want to delve more deeply into the topic of starting your novel, whether it’s a stand-alone manuscript or part of a planned series, I’d recommend The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.
I opened up the blog for questions last week and got an interesting one from Frank:
Why is my social media filled with juvenile editors, agents, and art directors pimping their own books? Is this unethical as they are on salary or commission to help sell and promote the books they work on with their clients? I hardly see them promoting for anyone but themselves. What is this saying to those clients and anyone else trying to get published? This seems backwards (and gross).
Now, there’s a lot to this question. Remember that I was once a literary agent with a book of my own to hawk. So I don’t know if I can get on board with some of the more judgmental language here (“pimping,” “backwards,” “gross,” etc.). But I’m sure a lot of aspiring writers have seen this and wondered about it, so I thought I’d take a stab at my experience with this particular perspective.
First and most importantly of all, let’s break down an assumption that Frank makes: “…they are on salary or commission to help sell and promote the books they work on with their clients.” Yes and no. Yes to “sell” and no to “promote.” An agent’s primary job is to scout talent, get a manuscript ready for submission, and sell rights and subrights to the manuscripts to agents and other entities that will exploit those rights. Agents sell rights, basically. That’s it in a nutshell. This is how an agent makes their money, and how they earn money for their client. An editor is employed by a publishing house to acquire properties that stand a good chance at selling to the publisher’s customers (book resellers, mind you, not quite readers), getting that property into shape, organizing all of the moving parts involved in bringing that book to market, and doing some limited promotional support. An art director’s job is similar, but with the visual elements of a property. These are the jobs they are paid to do.
The great fallacy about modern publishing is that it’s anybody but the author’s job to promote a book. As some of you know, for the most part, a book will only get limited promotional assistance from the publisher. It is, largely, a writer’s job to promote their own work. In fact, a writer’s “platform” (or ability to reach potential customers, online and through other channels) is a large part of any acquisitions conversation these days. So an agent’s, editor’s, art director’s, etc. actual job is to get the book where it needs to go in the publication process, but not necessarily to sell it once it is released. That job goes to the marketing department and the reseller who has purchased the book to sell to customers. Everyone benefits if it sells well, but, really, promoting the book is primarily the creator’s place.
Remember, also, that agents have X clients, editors have X authors on their lists. While all of those lovely people are important, an agent or editor must practice fairness. I see many agents and editors broadcasting about a book when a) it is acquired, b) when it is about to publish, c) when there is other news happening with the creator of it, and d) when subrights are exploited, it goes into paperback, etc. etc. etc. This is at least two and possibly four or more mentions of a project. Anything above and beyond this may start to seem one-sided if the agent/editor isn’t also doing it for their other clients.
There’s also audience to consider. And this is a big one. Who follows agents and editors on Twitter? Other publishing people and aspiring writers, mostly. It starts to sound like an echo chamber after a while, because these people are very interested in one thing (getting published and publishing behind-the-scenes), but the people who are buying that new work are not really in this loop. So if an agent is tweeting relentlessly about a client’s picture book, the true audience for that picture book (parents, booksellers, librarians, children) might not be plugged into their stream.
So, an agent (editor, art director, etc.) has many considerations when they tweet. Is there something timely going on with the project? If not, they may sound like they’re spamming people about it after a while. Who is listening? Are they being fair to my other clients when they tweet about this project and not others? And finally, frankly, the agent is the agent, not the marketer. I fully expect a publisher’s marketing squad to be tweeting nothing but book news from that house. Because that’s what they’re being paid to do.
Here’s where we get into the part of the conversation that Frank considers gross. All these agents and editors have their own work that they want to talk about. I can see how it looks like conflict of interest. But here are the realities of what the landscape looks like from the agent or editor’s POV. First, most of the people in publishing are in publishing because they love language and/or writing and/or art. I’ve met a few people who work in publishing that haven’t been interested in creating books of their own, but they are in the minority (in my experience). Second, agents and editors are a dime a dozen these days. Anyone can get into it, often very easily. So how do they differentiate themselves? How do they get out there? How do they attract submissions? Those are, after all, their bread and butter. The more visible you are, the more people submit to you.
Self-promotion is everywhere these days. Authors do it. Agents do it. Editors do it. Art directors do it. I did it when I was agenting and simultaneously promoting my book. So I obviously have a certain tolerance for this blurry line. I would say that, as long as an agent/editor/art director is also making an effort to promote their client projects in a fair and balanced way when it’s appropriate to do so, they are free to advance their own careers. When aspiring writers and that agent/editor/art director’s clients see this, I should hope that they learn an important lesson about how necessary self-promotion is, even for those on the “inside.”
If you don’t like it, seek out the people who don’t do this.
Sorry for the radio silence, beautiful readers. I’ve had a crazy summer trying to juggle everything. Luckily, August is my quietest month of freelancing as my primary clients, parents and teachers, get ready for back to school. We plan on spending a chunk of time up at the cabin with Theo and living life on the river in a few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about characters and relationships, and wanted to share some of that with you.
I was editing a manuscript in July where two characters had a contentious relationship. Let’s call them Jackie and Mike. Truth be told, Jackie didn’t trust Mike. The writer did a good job of establishing the initial distrust. As with so many craft considerations, though, we had to move past that to the “And? So?” element.
She doesn’t trust him… And? So? In ordinary life, Jackie would just move on from Mike and call it a day. After all, there’s no good reason to stick around with someone you don’t trust. But Jackie and Mike were trapped in a situation. This is good fiction writing. Instead of letting Jackie separate herself from Mike, the writer created a reason for her to also need something from Mike.
Remember this as you’re writing: You always want to be turning the screw. Jackie doesn’t like Mike but, darn, she needs him. Let’s say he possesses knowledge that she wants in order for Jackie to get what she wants from the story.
The place where my client had gotten stuck, though, was on the relationship that Jackie and Mike were having. The distrust was established, and established well. Maybe too well. It was starting to seem like we were going in circles. That’s where my favorite questions, “And? So?” came into play. Because if we’re going to commit to the premise that Jackie and Mike aren’t in a good relationship but they need one another, then there needs to be some movement with the relationship piece. Otherwise, this element of development stagnates.
In other words, something needs to happen to move the relationship forward. Does Mike apologize for being so shifty? Maybe it comes out that he was wary of trusting Jackie, as it happens. Or maybe Mike does something that softens his character. And Jackie starts to question her initial conclusions about Mike. Maybe Mike does something so endearing, that Jackie starts to feel some ill-advised affection for him. Or she decides to trust him but he lets her down, and now she not only doesn’t trust him, but she feels betrayed by him and stupid for allowing herself to believe him in the first place. Lots and lots of conflict to be had!
To make a long story short, emotions need to evolve. When I see one dynamic playing out, I want to see where it goes. All too often, it goes nowhere. Jackie still doesn’t trust Mike, even though now they’re stuck together. But all of their interactions are tinged with distrust. There’s no evolution. The distrust is established, and that’s the way it stays.
For every one of your character relationships, big and small, think of what the leading emotion is. Then ask yourself, “And? So?” Where can you go from there, and how can it evolve? Each relationship should be an arc, not a flat line.
I’ve worked with a few manuscripts recently where the writers established and then promptly forgot about important threads. In my book, I talk about shining a spotlight. If something is important, it’s your job as a writer to shine the spotlight on it. You pick where to aim that light, and how bright it is.
What do I mean about dropping threads? Well, let’s say that your character is a musician. They speak in musical metaphors and seem to see the world through a Beautiful Mind-esque musical lens. Until this fades from the manuscript about a third of the way through. And music doesn’t really factor into the plot itself.
I often see this in manuscripts. Just like voice sometimes fades in and out (the writer is focusing on voice when they’re writing certain passages, then they shift focus to something else and the narrative tone changes), so do various other elements of novel craft.
Character attributes (musicality), secondary characters (a supposed best friend disappears for 50 pages and nobody thinks anything of it), world-building elements (the world is on the brink of war and yet there’s no danger or news of danger in the middle of a story), and plot points (the character says their objective is to seek something, then they get wrapped up in a romance and the desired object seems to fade into the background) can all be lost in the shuffle.
Your job as a writer is to analyze your story and see if you’re dropping any threads. Are you swearing up and down that something is important, then abandoning it? Does everything that’s vital to the story and introduced at the beginning wrap up by the end? Do all of the important elements get some kind of closure?
This is a common note that I give. “Whatever happened to XYZ?” Make sure your story feels cohesive from beginning to end, leaving nothing/nobody of note behind.
There are two types of writers when it comes to scene, I’ve found. One type takes a minimal approach to the stuff around the dialogue. One uses dialogue tags, adverbs, and narrative to construct scaffolding. If you’ve ever worked with me no a manuscript, you know that I don’t take kindly to a lot of scaffolding. I feel that it distracts from the dialogue, which is the rightful star of scene. It’s usually totally unnecessary. When I see a lot of scaffolding, I often remind writers to trust themselves and their readers. Trust themselves to come across as intended, and trust their readers to pick up on what’s being conveyed.
The point is, if you can’t be clear using dialogue alone, you need to look twice at what’s within the quotation marks, not what’s around them. Take a look at the following examples. The first is dialogue with no scaffolding. I’ve only used dialogue tags twice, one for each character at the beginning:
“Hey,” Sara said.
“What’s up?” Zach asked.
“Oh, you know.”
I would say that there’s not enough here. We don’t know enough about the characters, what they’re feeling, or why they’re talking in the moment. So I would say that something needs to be added. But how much something? Let’s say that you want to really convey what’s going on with Zach and Sara. How might you achieve that? Well, let’s add some emotions, tags, fancy “said” synonyms, and choreography. The simple scene can easily become:
“Hey,” Sara snarled.
“What’s up?” Zach said, icily.
She waved her hand in the air, as if dismissing him. “Oh, you know.”
“The usual?” He made sure to roll his eyes.
Quite annoyed, she dropped her voice to a near-whisper. “The usual.”
Well, I would say it’s quite clear now how Zach and Sara are feeling. The dialogue is exactly the same, but now I’ve festooned the scene with all sorts of little extras that clearly tell the reader that Zach and Sara are having some kind of fight. Maybe they’re avoiding one another. Maybe Zach has come into Sara’s coffee shop and she has to serve him but she doesn’t want to.
There’s tension in the scene, I’ll admit. But maybe it’s also a bit of overkill? After all, after reading this, my head is almost ringing from being hit too many times. The writer here (me) is explaining the emotions way too much. “Snarled” conveys anger. Waving a hand in the air is a cliché gesture for dismissing. If that wasn’t enough, the dismissal is also explained (“as if dismissing him”). Eye rolls are another cliché gesture. Then the emotion of annoyance is named, and a tone of voice is introduced that further underscores the tension between the two. We usually only whisper things if we’re trying to be quiet or if we’ve tightened our throats in anger.
The second scene would have too much “scaffolding,” as I call it. Whereas the first scene has not enough. If Zach and Sara were really fighting with one another, there would be no way to tell without some help. You might think that I’m playing the scaffolding up to provide an example, and while that was my objective, I am not lying when I say that I’ve seen scaffolding that thick in manuscripts. And sometimes even thicker scaffolding.
Oftentimes, writers don’t trust themselves to be clear about what they’re saying. And they (subconsciously) don’t trust readers to “get it.” So they go overboard. You will know if you put up a lot of scaffolding because you’ll see that almost none of your dialogue exists “naked” on the page (without any tags or narration).
So what’s the solution? Pare way down. And let the dialogue itself do the emotional talking for you, instead of putting everything in the scaffolding. I’ve changed the dialogue itself to have more emotional energy. You can also use interiority to convey feelings, like I do with a peek into Zach’s head here. This would be my ideal third example, a sort of middle ground:
Sara looked up from the register. “Oh. Hey.”
“Oh.” Zach fumbled with his wallet. He should’ve known her schedule better. Maybe she swapped shifts? This was the last thing he needed. “Um, what’s up?”
“What’s up? What’s up. Really? You know.”
“Yeah, let’s go with that. The usual.”
There’s a sense of tension here between Zach and Sara, but it’s not hammered home. There’s some breathing room for the reader to wonder what they might be thinking or going through, and it opens the door for more of an interaction than “I HATE YOU”/”WELL I HATE YOU MORE!!!” That’s sort of the tone of the middle example, and you can definitely find more nuance.
I often work with clients who are writing a blend of fiction and non-fiction in their picture books. This is a tough proposition to publish. Let me explain what I mean. The book features characters and a plot, and also a sizeable number of facts. For example, a girl finds an unusual frog, learns that it belongs in a rain forest, and journeys there to return it. In the process, we have a character with a strong objective, plot points, as well as a lot of interesting information.
In theory, this is a great idea. We have all the charm and imagination of fiction, as well as that all-important educational value. So what goes wrong with this type of manuscript? It lies in the non-fiction part that the writer is attempting to attach to the fiction. There are two problems that usually arise. Too much information, and too little.
When there is too much information, that means the character and plot elements of the fiction part are too thin. The issue is usually that a person really wants to write non-fiction, but they worry that it won’t have enough pizzazz in the marketplace, so they try to spice it up with a protagonist. There are characters, but they don’t do much of anything, for example. It’s if we had Dora the Explorer but we didn’t know anything about her. She just had a name and a little bit of a personality, but she was only really there to have a learning experience. A glorified tour guide, if you will. In my original frog premise, it would be if the girl just went to the rain forest (without a frog or a mission to return it) and walked around, learning about the various plants and animals. There’s technically a fictional “frame” on this book (the girl whose eyes we are seeing things through) but it’s mostly non-fiction.
My recommendation, in that case, would be to rewrite the manuscript as straight non-fiction. It’s going to be easier to place, anyway, if it’s easier to categorize. A fact-based look at the rain forest (or any other topic) without any distracting character element is the bread and butter of school and library NF picture book programs. The lesson? You don’t have to tack a character on to a manuscript if your passion is non-fiction. If you are qualified to write factually on a subject, do your best at that and pitch it as NF.
When there is too little information, it raises a lot of questions. It would be if the girl went to the rain forest, had some really awesome adventures, but only learned about one plant and two other animals. Why that plant? Why those animals? Why those facts about that plant and those animals? If your goal is to teach, why not teach more comprehensively? Why pick only five facts to span the course of a book?
I recently encountered this issue in a client’s premise. (I’m going to change the details of the premise for the sake of confidentiality.) The writer a century’s worth of decades, let’s say the 20th century. And their character stopped in each decade for one page. They learned one thing about each decade. Why that thing? Out of everything that happened in that decade, why that one thing? The educational element was too thin.
If you’re going to cover a topic (the 20th century), then you need to pick a specific angle and really dive in. A picture book on the 20th century isn’t going to sell that well, no matter how charismatic your characters are. It’s too broad. Now, a tour of the Roaring 20s? Getting there. Maybe just the music of the Roaring 20s or the fashion of the Roaring 20s? Very specific. A character recreating the fashion of the 1920s for a fashion show? Bingo. That represents a good blend of fiction and non-fiction.
I would say that a good blend of fiction and non-fiction is the Magic Schoolbus franchise. The class is always up to something. There’s action involved, a mystery to solve, etc. The learning happens almost “under the table” as they pursue an objective. But the books are chock-full of information, and they represent a very comprehensive look at a particular topic.
If you find yourself stuck halfway between fiction and non-fiction, make sure you have enough substance for each category, otherwise, you may be better off committing fully in one direction or the other.
When I talk to client about world-building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in a world, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.
But this sort of approach isn’t just for world-building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.
For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:
There’s Bo, the new kid in school.
This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. So the reader is still wondering…so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance.
For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:
There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?
There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already . Would he say something to me today? I hope so.
And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?
Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance inaddition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives world-building context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.
I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?
And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.
Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!
A note: This post was written in February and programmed here to fill a hole in my programming. Normal blog posts will resume in the next few weeks, but I just wanted to put some fresh material online!
Recently, I worked with a client who had written, by all accounts, a middle-grade novel. It has fantasy elements, an eleven- or twelve-year-old protagonist, rich themes that have to do with the coming of age time period, etc. etc. etc. But my client hadn’t really thought of the work as MG. Instead, he’d envisioned it as a crossover, perhaps close to THE BOOK THIEF in terms of potential market reach. Basically, he wanted to tell a story and then let the market decide where it fit.
We ended up having a lot of very interesting talks about this idea. Long story short, however, that’s not really how it works. When you’re writing something, you want to have some idea of where it will fit, per my recent “Writing With Market in Mind” post. If you gently leave it up to the publishing gods to decide, you may not get very far. First of all, agents and editors like writers who pitch their projects confidently and know at least a little something about the marketplace.
For all intents and purposes, the project in question seems very MG, even if that was never the client’s conscious intention. And if it walks like a MG, and it quacks like a MG, if my client doesn’t pitch it as a MG, he’s going to get some raised eyebrows. Furthermore, if he doesn’t pitch it as a MG, it may just get slotted into that category by agents and editors alike anyway. If he were to query adult fiction agents with the project, as I’ve described it, I guarantee most would say, “This isn’t my wheelhouse, this sounds like MG. You should be querying children’s book agents.”
You can always say, as my client did, “Well, I sure would like to tap the crossover audience and sell this to children and adults, please and thank you.” Wouldn’t that be nice for everyone? Most people would love a crossover hit like THE BOOK THIEF or THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Selling the same book to two different markets? Yes, please.
The problem with a crossover is that you can’t aim for one, however. I have said this before and I will say it again (and again and again). The only person to decide that is a publisher, and most won’t take the risk of trying to publish across categories. This strategy is reserved for only a tiny fraction of all books that go to print. And sometimes, a crossover only becomes a crossover when it’s published in one category first, then the other, and it happens to gain traction in both.
What I’m saying is, it’s a lot easier to set some lobster traps than it is to drag the whole of the sea. At least with the former strategy (picking a concrete category), you will probably catch some lobsters. With a wider net, you may catch everything, but there’s a big chance you’ll catch nothing, or a whole lot of garbage.
Many beginning writers think that putting, “This book will appeal to everyone from age 1 to 101!” is a huge selling point. Who wouldn’t want to sell to everyone from 1 to 101? That’s, like, billions of people. Why wouldn’t a publisher want to sell billions of books? Unfortunately, this line of thinking is delusional. Any marketer will tell you that your catchment area is too big. What a one-year-old likes is very different than what a 101-year-old likes and that’s actually a good thing.
So I advised my client to either a) become okay with the idea of pitching his story as a MG, or b) edit the story and weave in several elements that would give it more appeal to the adult fiction marketplace. This isn’t too far-fetched because there are a lot of books set during the “coming of age” period that go on to publish in the adult realm. That 9-12 or 13-18 age range isn’t just for children’s novels. The revision route is obviously the taller mountain to climb, but, if it fits the client’s vision for the book better, then it’s what has to happen.
The jury is still out on what this client will choose to do, but I wanted to bring the situation to everyone’s attention, because it contains some valuable truths about “picking a lane” and thinking about the category of your own work.
Today I was thinking of the very important and potentially controversial issue of children’s book writing trends and creating fiction with a market in mind. What do I mean by this? Well, if you see that novels about alligators (ridiculous example) are heating up in the marketplace (“the market”), do you pursue that above any idea you may have come up with organically? Or do you keep writing what you’re writing and put relative blinders on as to what publishing is doing?
Are Writing Trends Worth Chasing?
Writers tend to fall into two camps on the issue. Let’s talk pros and cons to help you see it more comprehensively.
By paying attention to the market, the market-minded writer is aware of what publishing is doing, and probably more aware of various guidelines. For example, you know that you could very well write a 200-page picture book, but that it probably wouldn’t get as much traction as if you’d slated your work toward the common 32-page format.
Sure, you can do whatever you want, but it’s going to come to a screeching halt if you try to wedge it into a marketplace that has no category for it. Categories, as we all know, are especially important in children’s books, where writing for specific ages means you have to pay attention to things like word count, protagonist age, etc.
You are of the opinion that you need to know the game before you step onto the playing field, so paying attention to what’s getting published is a way for you to learn the business and (potentially) get a leg up, especially if one of your ideas happens to align with what’s currently sought-after. Think of market awareness as giving yourself a stronger potential chance for success.
If You Don’t Pay Attention to the Publishing Market…
If you are a market-ignoring writer, you may be surprised when you try to submit. “What do you mean they’re not publishing 3,000-word fairytale storybooks anymore?” you ask. “I’ve put two years of my life into illuminating this manuscript with my daughter’s kindergarten illustrations!”
Well, if you had been in a bookstore in the last few years, you would’ve seen very clearly the way the wind is blowing in terms of length, tone, and illustration quality. Hey, whether or not the market is right or wrong in not really publishing the type of book that you want to write is up for debate, and that’s not really the scope of this post.
The truth remains that there are trends and preferences to today’s publishing culture, and that it would behoove the savvy writer to at least know what they are if they intend to offer up a product for sale. The same applies to any economy. If I happened to notice that twee handmade jewelry and adorable knit caps are selling like gangbusters on Etsy, I wouldn’t, for example, try to hang my shingle out as a lady mechanic selling rusty old car parts. I’m not going to get as much traffic there as I would on, say, the fantasy marketplace of RustyOldCarParts.com. The same idea applies here. It’s just common sense.
When Market Savvy Can Pay Off
There are, however, potential cons to paying too much attention to the market. You can become a slave to trends and lose what’s yours about your work. Your ideas will start to sound like copies or rip-offs of what’s currently trending, and you might lose some passion for your projects because you are chasing the market instead of your potential contribution to it. The market is also fickle, and trends come and go.
There’s also lag time to consider. What you’re seeing published now was acquired two years ago, so unless you are very connected or have an agent in your corner, it’s hard to know what editors are looking for at the present moment. Paying too much attention to the marketplace tends to create anxiety, whether it’s founded or not, and takes the fun out of the creative process.
The Pitfalls of Trendy Manuscripts
And if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, and approaching it with a more mercenary attitude, chances are good that others will find it more difficult to be passionate about it, too, and treat it like a project-of-the-week. Emotionally, this can lead to some bitterness. I heard it a lot during the Twilight era. “Why did that stupid vampire novel get published, while I have a perfectly good vampire novel and nobody wants it?!” writers would gripe.
There’s no good answer to that question. Maybe the stupid vampire novel was submitted before yours, or the writer had started it before the Twilight epidemic as an original, unlikely idea, and it’s full of that type of passion, whereas the griping writer’s novel was written in haste to make a few quick bucks. Who knows. But sometimes trend-driven projects take on a competitive edge that wouldn’t otherwise be there, and prove unpleasant to their creators.
Plus, a lot of the wild successes of publishing have come out of left field, as far as categories are concerned. So there’s something to be said for originality influencing the market, not the other way around.
The Perfect Blend of Writing Trends and Timelessness
I think an approach somewhere in the middle ground is the best. Know what the marketplace is doing so that you can give yourself a fighting chance. But don’t dwell on trends or haunt the deals notices too closely. Stick to your original ideas and pursue them passionately, as long as you’re also keeping a distant eye on what it might be like to sell them down the road. This, to me, is the sane road.
What kind of writer are you when it comes to paying attention to the market? Do you let it dictate, or do you follow your heart and then see if there’s a spot for what you’ve created? Or are you a little bit of both?
Wondering if your idea has market potential? Hire me as your book editor or manuscript consultant and I can give you feedback for where your project might fit into the publishing scene.
it seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)
Point being, I saw the same iteration of manuscript over and over:
Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).
I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?
Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem cliché. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!
The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the stakes are maybe…too high.
Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and increasing stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?
Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.
So selling such high stakes becomes very difficult. You have a lot of convincing to do, starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.
So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the kid and the apocalyptic event need to be inextricably tied.
For example, this specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.
Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.
That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.