Publishing

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I speak and provide critiques at many conferences every year, and I also offer Writer’s Digest webinars that include critique. I work very hard on these critiques. Teaching writing is a passion for me (hence the blog). Most of the writers who get critique (at conferences, in critique groups, through the webinars, as a result of contests, etc.) approach it with the right attitude. Critiques are a learning opportunity. You submit your work, you hear feedback on it, and, eventually, you either incorporate the feedback or cast it aside. Sometimes a critique will completely click and validate your own instincts. Sometimes you won’t like it at all.

Let’s start by saying that, yes, some critique is just bad. It’s either totally off the mark (“Did they even read my story?”) or it feels mean-spirited (there’s a personal attack or they say something along the lines of “you will never ever ever ever publish”). Keep in mind, though, that telling you that your writing still needs work is not personally mean. It’s most likely honest. All writers, even published ones, strive to improve their writing, so “needs work” is not a bad thing. Just because someone doesn’t heap praise on you or call you “the next J.K. Rowling” in critique doesn’t mean it’s a bad critique. No professional critique would say such a thing, so if that’s what you’re expecting, you’re in for disappointment. Most critique may be hard to take but, if it’s honest and comes from an expert source, it will have at least one or two nuggets of truth or action items that you can implement in your writing. If you leave your emotions out of it, you’ll most likely find this to be the case.

Critique is a tool. It is given to you and you must use it how you see fit. Maybe not right away. Maybe you’ll put it aside for a bit and then use it to look at your manuscript afresh. But it is extremely valuable–it is another set of eyes on your work, which is a very rare thing for writers to receive. Let’s now go into what critique isn’t. Something goes on in critiques and at conferences that I call American Idol Syndrome. There seems to be a mentality in the creative arts right now (not helped by all the competition shows that have sprung up over the last decade) that all you need is your one shot at greatness and then you’re a star. Instead of doing the hard labor for years and years, instead of working your butt off, all you need is to be in the right place at the right time in front of the right gatekeeper.

Believe me, I love this dream. I remember being 12 or 13 and reading in Seventeen magazine that some model got discovered when a scout saw her at the mall, offered her a contract on the spot, whisked her away to a life of luxury in NYC, and then it rained unicorns and puppies on her forever and ever, etc. I won’t lie to you–I was much more self-conscious going to the mall after that. I always chose my outfit carefully and maybe even put on a little make-up, which, for me, is a huge effort. This fantasy is very appealing to humans. Work is hard. That’s why they call it “work,” instead of, you know “beach party.” We would rather have success tap us on the shoulder while we’re browsing Hot Topic and offer us the key to our dreams. But this happens much more rarely than you’d think in real life (that’s why we know the exceptions…they’re news). Especially in publishing, which isn’t as TV-ready-glamorous as fashion design, being a TV chef, modeling, singing, etc.

I know that when writers sign up for a conference or critique, there’s this little part of them that thinks, “Maybe I will meet my dream agent and we’ll ride off into the sunset together!” Heck, I met one of my now-colleagues at a writer’s conference. Writers connect with agents, editors, and other writers at conferences all the time. But those meetings are a lot less about luck than they are about hard work. The writers that do find their agents and editors at these things are the ones who have done years of work on their craft, who are coming to the conference savvy and informed, who have bought a critique that brings them to the right person’s attention, and who have done as much as possible so that they’re ready to be fallen in love with.

Louis Pasteur said: “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” The people who win Idol have, most likely, years and years of voice lessons and musical theatre and practice behind them. They look like they’re just randomly being “discovered” on TV, but their entire creative life has brought them to that moment. It’s the sweaty, repetitive part that the cameras don’t show you. This goes for any creative endeavor.

Now. There is a small set of writers who do not react well to constructive feedback. They are the ones bitterly disappointed that they were not “discovered” as a result of a conference meeting or critique. All they wanted to hear was, “This is a diamond in the rough and I will publish it right this minute!” Anything else, no matter how sound the feedback, is crushing. If you are pinning all your hopes and expectations on one conference or critique, and you feel like “this is it, or else…,” I would save yourself the trouble and stay away for now. It is very likely that your unrealistic expectations will be dashed.

Publishing is a tough business, and writing is, by its very nature, emotional. Writers, especially those striving to publish, need thick skins and heaps of resilience. I’d encourage everyone to adjust their expectations of mega-stardom and insta-fame now rather than be disappointed in the future. That’s not to say I’m thinking small. I would love for all of my clients to be #1 bestsellers! But you can’t go in expecting that to happen, or the journey will be very angsty for you. Hope for great things (every conference or critique is an opportunity to grow), but don’t require them. Screw your determination to its sticking place, and get into this game to learn and grow as a writer. That’s the good stuff right there. If you happen to take off, it will be that much more satisfying, and you will have a very strong craft foundation to bolster your success.

Until that happens, if you still want to play the one-in-a-million odds at instant stardom, line up to audition for the next season of Idol. I guarantee that you won’t be alone in pursuing this favorite of human fantasies.

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So, Bologna is over. VinItaly, the world’s biggest wine trade show, which I happened to be in Verona for completely by accident but which, of course, I also attended, is over. I don’t have to walk around another ginormous expo center until I see my nemesis–the Javits–for BEA in June. Although, if we’re being totally honest, it would behoove me to walk around and around and around the Javits for weeks to shed the evidence of a three-week-long European food and wine binge from my hips. Hello, jeggings!

But this isn’t a post about me expanding my booty food an wine horizons. For that you can check out Chowlit. This is a post about me expanding my children’s foreign market horizons. I have to say, right off the top, that none of this insight would be possible without ABLA’s incomparable foreign co-agent Taryn Fagerness. My colleague Jenn Laughran and I watched her pitch at meeting after meeting with something approaching awe. Girlfriend was meeting foreign publishers, scouts, and movie people from dawn to dusk, then somehow marshaling the energy for Bologna’s extracurricular parties and dinners (and…gelato excursions…oh, the gelato excursions).

Some of you eagle-eyes may have noticed that I’ve updated my Wish List (look in the sidebar to your right –>). This has to do with Bologna, sure, but, frankly, an overhaul was overdue. Some things have stayed (like heartbreaking MG voice, edgy YA, issue book), but others are new or edited.

Here’s the news that was heard up and down the halls in Bologna: the market has shifted away from paranormal and (most) dystopian, and we’re in a bit of a trend valley at the moment. I’ve been saying this for a few months at conferences, and it’s nice to have that opinion resoundingly confirmed. Contemporary realistic is on the rise, though I still have my doubts about it. I’ve been hearing editors request contemporary realistic for a year or two now, though not everyone can convince a more trend-minded house to actually buy it. Sure, we’re all sick of paranormal and dystopian, but not all publishers have been able to put their offers where their mouths are with contemporary. When I get more evidence of this, I’ll fully buy the contemporary “trend” we’re all talking about.

Another mini-trend: thriller. So you’ll see it added to my list, though with a caveat. Thrillers need to…thrill. A lot of the manuscripts that cross my desk with the “thriller” pitch are predictable, with low stakes, not enough action, and characters that aren’t sympathetic or worth my care. This is a problem. I’m sure we’ll see more excellent examples of YA thriller as they’re published, but to see something dark and psychological and irresistible, check out I HUNT KILLERS by Barry Lyga, pubbing next month from Little, Brown. I hope thrillers take off–I love suspense and surprise in my slush.

Light sci-fi has been a buzzword for about the last year, but I’m not seeing a lot of sci-fi publishing and doing well, so I don’t know if houses are jumping all over it like they said they were going to. There’s always demand for fantasy and action/adventure, especially in middle grade. Speaking of which, I saw domestic and foreign editors and scouts alike begging for more meaty middle grade. Movie people, too. Good MG is very difficult to write, I think, because it’s such an in-between time in a person’s life and therefore true character and voice for this age group is very difficult to nail. It’s also a lot less “sexy” than YA, especially market-wise, so maybe a lot of aspiring writers think that MG is “slumming it.” I wish they wouldn’t. Sure, the MG world is missing a lot of YA’s glamor, but the opportunity to publish in it is very much there.

Finally, while there are a lot of original and licensed properties being published overseas that originated there, the US and the UK really lead the charge for creating new content. A lot of the books that come out in smaller territories had their starts in the English-speaking publishing world. Exceptions with a lot of native material are probably Italy, France, and Germany, though they do buy a significant number of US/UK properties. In the English-speaking world, we are the big publishing deal, folks. So let’s make it count and put out some awesome books that will thrill not only local readers, but the world at large!

Overall, an invigorating fair with lots of interesting people and ideas swirling around. And gelato. Did I mention the gelato? Thanks to my colleague Jenn, as well as Jo Volpe and Kathleen Ortiz from Nancy Coffey, who were my constant companions. Now I’m going to eat a bunch of kale and pretend that most of those meals didn’t happen…

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This question comes in from Kimberly:

I find identifying the genre to be very difficult. What if your novel is a mash-up of two different genres? Is it bad to mention this? What about saying something like, “YA suspense with paranormal elements”? Any guidance you could give would be much appreciated!

Genre isn’t rigid, and many high-concept ideas borrow from multiple genres. For example, Emily Hainsworth’s THROUGH TO YOU was pitched to me as “YA paranormal.” Then I pitched it as a “magical realism YA” because I thought that it wasn’t quite paranormal in the way that today’s YA market takes the term. Then the published decided to market it as a “YA paranormal thriller,” but emphasizing the book’s romantic and sci-fi elements as well.

While it’s very difficult to aim into the mists in between different audience categories, say, “upper MG” or “younger YA” or “tween” and I actually wouldn’t recommend it at all, genre is a completely different beast and, in today’s more evolved MG and YA markets, is more malleable.

Kimberly’s example of “YA suspense with paranormal elements” is fine, though I would choose “thriller” over “suspense,” personally. “Thriller” is more of a buzzword in today’s market. Still, as you can tell from my THROUGH TO YOU example, everyone has a slightly different way of describing genre. At the end of the day, your publisher will make the decision of how to position it, just like they will end up choosing the final title. Title and genre are both subject to change on the road to publication. Pitch them accurately and to the best of your ability, and that’s good enough for the query!

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At every conference we attend, with every interview we do, and for every bio we fill out, there’s one question that always makes its way into the mix: “What are you looking for?”

It came up on a panel this weekend at the excellent San Francisco Writers Conference, as usual. It’s what writers are very curious about, naturally. Because, if they know what agents and editors want, they can supply…right?

Well, I hate this question. And I said so. And the smartass answer–”I know it when I see it”–isn’t helpful. My actual answers on the panel were “Good stuff done well” and “Literary spark and commercial appeal.”

I’m not trying to be coy here. But I think that fellow agent Taylor Martindale‘s answer to a different question illustrates my point perfectly. When talking about books we were excited about, she said she recently sold a YA novel about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she has become Amelia Earhart. Taylor had just sold the book and, to be honest, it sounds really interesting.

It’s a rare agent or editor who knows exactly, in very specific detail, what they’re looking for. Sure, some editors will say, for example, “I am looking for Dexter for teens.” They tell everyone they know. This actually happened in 2010 with one editor, and they got their wish. Their very specific request inspired author Barry Lyga to write the forthcoming I HUNT KILLERS, which comes out in April and, if you don’t mind me saying, is mind-blowingly great.

It’s much more common to get a vague answer like my panel responses. I bet Taylor Martindale never went on a panel at a conference and said “I’m looking for a YA about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I never went on a panel and said “I’m looking for a picture book about a bird who befriends a snowball” (WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, which was written up in last week’s New York Times), or “I really want to read about a boy who stumbles into a parallel universe to try and reclaim the love of his life” (THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth) or “I really want a story about a Polynesian volcano goddess with a bad tempter” (WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight).

In fact, when we meet with editors, they very rarely get super specific about what they’re looking for. We’ve all been shocked and delighted about what has grabbed us in the past. So I, personally, never say never and leave the possibilities wide open. Most of my colleagues in agenting and publishing do the same. When I meet with editors, it’s less about what they say they want and more about learning the flavor of their imprint and hearing them talk about books that have excited them. Are they focusing on the characters? The plot? The writing? Do they like to laugh? Cry? Fall in love? Basically, I’m trying to get a more general picture of their sensibilities, then match projects to them on that level. Of course, if they have specific requests, I keep those in mind, too, just in case I ever have a perfect match.

You are the writer. It is your job to come up not only with a really well-written story, but with an idea that’s going to resonate in the marketplace and grab attention. That’s becoming more and more important, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this a lot later. (Not being vague…it just has a lot to do with the Big News I keep talking about.)

A lot of writers say in their queries: “I am happy to write whatever you need.” No. With the exception of work-for-hire projects that houses commission writers for, it’s on your shoulders to provide the idea and execute it with aplomb. That’s what will sell. And if it’s awesome, many different agents and editors will be a fit for it, because we’re all looking for, basically “Good stuff done well.”

So I hope you can understand why “I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t a copout answer.

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I’m putting some digital-related publishing predictions on KidlitApps tomorrow, if you want to take a gander. I’m also going to be speaking on a panel about picture book apps in Palo Alto, CA this Saturday, January 14th, from 4 to 6. If you’re in the area, I really encourage you to come by and learn about it. More info here:

PICTURE BOOK APPS: A BRAVE NEW WORLD
An SCBWI SF South Saturday Series Event

Saturday, January 14th, 4-6 pm, First Congregational Church of Palo Alto

Please join us as industry insiders share their experience and wisdom around the explosive new world of picture book apps. Learn about this potential-filled market and find your place in it! A wine and cheese reception will follow the presentations.

Panelists:

Sam Berman, Co-Founder of book app developer Grids Interactive;
Alan Katz (via Skype), children’s picture book author and writer of the book app, Andrew Answers;
Mary Kole, agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency and blogger

SCBWI members $10 advance/$15 door; Non-members $20 advance/$25 door (join SCBWI to receive the member rate!).

Click here to RSVP!

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Also, I’ll be speaking about picture books and how to write and publish them in a Writer’s Digest webinar on Thursday, January 12th at 1 p.m. Eastern. You can call in or listen to the talk online, in the comfort of your home or office. If you’re not available at the webinar time, you can still register and receive a recorded version of the talk via email next week, once they put all the information together.

I’ve given this picture book webinar once before, so if you’ve already heard the picture book version, this will be the same information. However, new students and returning students alike get a 1,000-word picture book critique from me!

To register for the webinar, click here.

If you want to hear me speak in person, I’ll be appearing at the Writer’s Digest Conference in Midtown NYC from January 20th to the 22nd! I’ll be on an agent panel, will be participating in Saturday afternoon’s agent Pitch Slam, and will have my own talk about children’s writing and the marketplace on Sunday morning. Whew! It will be a busy, busy weekend, but I can’t wait to meet more of you in person. It’s not too late to register for the conference, and you can do so by clicking here.

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Finally, those of you watching the publishing business…what are YOUR publishing predictions for 2012? Other than, of course, you getting one or many steps closer toward your own writing and publishing goals. At least, that’s my prediction for all of you! :)

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This comes from Christina Marie:

Should YA only be centered on high school aged characters or can a novel expand into the college years, mainly the freshman year, and still be considered a YA novel? Is it hard to sell a book that has the setting on a college campus instead of a private or high school setting? Personally, do you stray away from novels set for that age group and setting or do you wish you could see more of it in your inbox?

The whole “New Adult” “trend” that we all heard about on Twitter a year ago is the work of one imprint (St. Martin’s) at one publishing house (Macmillan). It has failed to take off. A few other publishers have tried to publish books with college-age protagonists, THE IVY out from Greenwillow comes to mind, but they’ve failed, in my opinion, to get traction.

Just because we heard a lot about New Adult, it’s wishful thinking. There is a Middle Grade (sometimes called Independent Reader) shelf and a Young Adult shelf at most bookstores. There is no New Adult shelf, and they’re not sharpening their saws to build one anytime soon.

Imagine the difference between going to middle school and going to high school. Your world completely changes once you cross this threshold. Now imagine what a huge shift it is to go from high school to college. In high school, you’re worried about taking SATs or passing your driver’s test or making out with your girlfriend or boyfriend. If you fail a class, you are going to get grounded, because you still live at home. In college, you are on your own for likely the first time. The stakes are much higher, you don’t care about the SATs anymore, and you can drop a class without telling anyone. The choices you make don’t determine which college you’ll get into, they determine your career and the rest of your life as a real adult.

If I’m sixteen, I’m not going to be able to relate to the problems of a college-age kid, just because the frame of reference is so drastically different. It’s all about relatability. And that’s why I don’t think New Adult holds any water in this marketplace. I’m open to changing my mind but so far the evidence isn’t convincing. If I had my druthers, nobody would ever mention New Adult to me again until it was a real phenomenon, and I’m almost always skeptical of writers who simply have to set their YA novel during the college years.

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I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about animal stories. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:

I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?

When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about animal stories than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing stories starring animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?

Darshana brings up an intersting point. Are animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for choosing animal protagonists, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.

As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.

I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal stories simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up. This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.

Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful animal stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.

However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. I think that’s the bottom line, right there.

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Here is a question from Royce:

Is there any niche demand for stories for young-adult male readers? Most of the agent profiles and marketplace news indicate demand for Distopian, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc., and most of the published books seems to appeal to teen girls.

I don’t want to open a can of worms. So before I begin, let me say that there is The Way I Wish It Was, and The Way It Really Is, and What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap.

The Way I Wish It Was: Boys reading voraciously into their later teens, publishers publishing robust lists for these readers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, agents, and editors really excited about the market segment.

The Way It Really Is: There is not a robust market for YA contemporary realism, per se, compared to fantasy genres, and the market for a YA boy audience is dreadful because most boys in that age group have either stopped reading altogether in middle school or they’re up in adult fiction that they discovered around age 12 or 13. Books marketed directly to teen boys don’t tend to do well and the YA section of the bookstore is so thoroughly steeped in paranormal romance and purple faces with female faces on them that I’d avoid it, too, if I was a self-respecting dude with money to burn from my first pizza delivery job.

While we all want to work hard to change that, that’s the reality right now, as I see it from many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues. Unless yours is a boy character who appeals first and foremost to girl readers (John Green’s work), you will have a tougher time, as girls are the overwhelming audience in this age group. One of my upcoming books, THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth, features Cam, a boy protagonist who goes across parallel universes in the hopes of getting his girlfriend back. He’s a dude, and he’s the narrator, but the premise is thoroughly romantic and so will attract a lot of girl readers.

If he was on a quest for, say, a cache of lost movies by a legendary horror movie director or a really awesome video game, I don’t think it would’ve sold because its market share with female YA readers would’ve evaporated.

What People Are Willing to Do to Bridge the Gap: Not terribly much in terms of actual action. There’s a lot of talking and blogging on the subject, though. But publishing is a business and, unless the YA boy-book-intended-primarily-for-boy-readers segment of the market starts taking off like, say, fallen angel romances, I don’t know how many editors will be able to put their houses’ money where their mouths are. (Or, if they do publish a good boy YA list, how often they will be able to add to it.)

There are great, great, great books that deserve boy reader attention. FEED by M.T. Anderson. The work of Steve Brezenoff, Barry Lyga, A.S. King, Ilsa J. Bick, Andrew Smith, and more. But either we’ve lost some faith in attracting these readers or the market really isn’t there. For now, all I know is that a boy-targeted YA feels like a really tough sell.

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Some editors are definitely changing their minds about historical fiction these days and looking for it more actively, but it’s no secret that it has been a bit of a hard sell in the last few years. The market is cyclical, though, so nothing stays down forever. While I’m not calling historical a trend or anything, by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to talk a little bit about how to use a historical setting in the best possible way in your book.

The number one (and, really, only good) reason to set your book in a historical period is if the book’s events depend on that historical period. For example, if a lot of your plot is going to be informed by the political climate in Germany, say, in 1934, when a new leader has taken the political stage, and about the tensions boiling then, etc., then 1934 it is. That’s a great reason. Or if you’re writing a Victorian period piece. Or something set in San Francisco or Berkeley during the Summer of Love. Or a story about the Columbine shootings or another famous, time-specific event or historical period.

Now, there is a caveat to this. The event or period really has to be central to the events of your own novel. In other words, there has to be a dang good reason for you to be setting your book in another time. If you’re setting your book in the 90s just because there’s a scene of your characters finding out that Princess Di has died in a car crash and then reacting to that, but there’s really no bigger plot or theme connection than that one scene, I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason for the “historical” setting.

Just in case I offended you there, that wasn’t my intention. While I think it sounds a little silly, believe it or not, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s are “dated” now in terms of MG and YA fiction, especially in a market where the overwhelming number of books are set in an undefined contemporary, near-future, or future setting. So if you think you’re writing an awesome contemporary book that just so happens to be set in the 80s and everyone is doing their hair like Molly Ringwald…you’re writing historical.

So the good reason for historical is if the time period is woven inextricably with your plot. There are several bad reasons for writing historical, and some of them are difficult to let go of.

First, don’t set a book in a past decade just because you grew up that way. Sure, there are coming of age stories that are set in various 20th century decades that go on to win awards and whatnot. Rebecca Stead set WHEN YOU REACH ME in the 70s not because it had to be set in the 70s, but because she grew up in that era in New York City and really loved it…that’s when, to her, kids were given more freedom and independence than they are in the cities now. That’s totally valid. But that’s also Rebecca Stead and the book is brilliantly done. At no point does it fail to be relatable or seem dated.

While it’s really tempting to “write what you know” in this regard, do be aware that books that seem “old-fashioned” are a really tough sell right now. I know I’m always looking for fresh, modern voices, as are a lot of editors. There’s a balance between making something resonate currently and writing something timeless…but the answer isn’t always to set it in the past. (Going back to Molly Ringwald for a second…there was one summer, when chick lit YA was still pretty big, when it seemed like every spunky YA heroine I read in slush had the cute “quirk” of just loooooving 80s movies and watching them with all her friends. Is that really the YA character talking…or the thirtysomething writer who is obsessed with John Hughes?)

Second, don’t set a book in a past decade to eliminate the biggest thriller/adventure/mystery plot problems: cell phones and the Internet. Lots of writers think about setting their action stories in the past so that the kids can’t just call the police or so that the answer isn’t immediately obvious to all parties after five minutes on Google. This is a tough one. For all of those writers crafting twisty yarns that rely on the character getting in high danger or the withholding of important information, cell phones and the Internet are hugely problematic. I can really, really get why a writer would long for the disconnected 80s for their serial killer novel. I’d imagine the same ruffling of feathers happened when pay phones hit the streets. Now the girl being chased by the murderer could potentially save herself. Remember pay phones? Well, fiction survived that, too (though pay phones didn’t…).

Here’s the reality: Kids today are attached to their cell phones and their computers. There are fewer and fewer places on this planet where we are cut off from communication, achieving that total isolation that lets evil characters and conspiracies and mysterious plot twists work their machinations. But technology and connectedness are, for better or worse, how kids relate to the world today. While this is at odds with a lot of good and suspenseful fiction, writers are going to have to adapt, especially in the future, as information becomes more and more accessible. You have to figure out your own solutions to cutting characters off from information, because in 20 years, all of our mystery novels just can’t be set in the 80s to take the shortcut around it. That’s not realistic.

In this battle of Writers vs. Technology, Technology has won, so it’s up to you to use your writerly imagination to make your plot work. It’s, personally, a pet peeve of mine when a writer doesn’t acknowledge that technology exists. I always find myself asking, “Why doesn’t s/he just Google this? I know everyone who writes books is in love with libraries, but does s/he really have to go to the musty old archives?” And I’m over a decade older than your target market. It’s a knee-jerk thought even for me.

Now, I know not everyone has a cell phone or an Internet connection — there’s a big socioeconomic divide here — but everyone can have access to technology in class and at the library. So put on your creative cap for the Technology Problem, and at least acknowledge that technology exists…that’s what your reader will be thinking.

So don’t fall back on the decade of your youth, and don’t go back to the 90s to avoid technology. If you really have a great reason for using a historical setting, do it. If not, I always recommend contemporary, near-future, or the far future as a setting for your story in today’s market.

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I’m surprised by the number of times I’ve gotten this one recently. But everyone learns new things at different times and new readers are always showing up, so I am happy to repeat more basic information.

When you’re a debut writer looking to publish in children’s books, you will need a complete manuscript 99% of the time (especially in the case of my readers, who are primarily fiction writers). That means that you’ll need a complete manuscript for:

  • Board book
  • Fiction picture books
  • Non-fiction picture books
  • Fiction early readers and chapter books
  • Same for non-fiction (though there are fewer of these on non-fiction shelves)
  • Middle grade fiction and most MG non-fiction
  • YA fiction and most YA non-fiction

The only exception to this rule is if you’re writing older non-fiction, like something for the middle grade or teen age rage or a reference book/textbook. And picture books from author/illustrators will, of course, need to have a dummy attached with some art sketches.

(Picture book dummy: A sketch version of what the book might look like in real life, with the art and text blocked out on 17 spreads/32 pages. Two or three of the spreads should be rendered as if finished…this is called a “mock finish.” The dummy should convey quickly, with the sketches, and in more detail, with the mock finishes, what the book will ideally look like. If you’re curious about dummies, this explanation is a great resource.)

I bet you’ve heard about a lot of authors selling something “on proposal.” That’s a lot more common with adult non-fiction, a business or diet book, for example, or a cookbook, than it is with children’s books. And in fiction, writers only sell on proposal if:

  • They’re an established author
  • They’ve sold multiple books to this editor before
  • The agent decides the project is really, really strong and wants to entice an editor with a partial
  • You’re working with a book packager and have only developed a sample before going on submission

If none of this applies to you or you’re just starting out with some fiction ideas, I’d urge you to forget the word “proposal” and work on your full manuscript. A large part of the writing craft is reaching the end and starting the revision process. There’s nothing like it. You learn more from finish and revising than you did from just writing the thing out.

If you haven’t had this experience once or several times before trying to approach agents or editors, you most likely will not have all the skills necessary to get edited and published. So plug away and finish. Besides, a strong, complete manuscript is a much more convincing sales piece than just a partial that could potentially fall apart in the execution. Having a full manuscript works to your best advantage and is a huge learning experience.

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