Picking a Category

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.

Getting Agented in Multiple Categories

This is a question that I get asked at conferences all the time and I am, frankly, shocked that I haven’t responded to it on the blog yet. This version of it comes from Wendy, and that’s what reminded me to finally address it:

I am looking for an agent for my YA fantasy novel. While researching, I cross the names off my list of those agents who state that they are not looking for picture books. I do this because I also write smaller stories that would make great picture books. My question is: If and when I find an agent and he/she does not want to take on my other stories or does not believe in them as strongly as I do, do I find another agent for these works? Do authors usually have multiple agents?

First of all, it depends on the agency. A lot of agencies who represent you for the children’s market will want to represent ALL of your work in those categories. (Eternal point of clarification: “middle grade” is not a “genre,” it is an “audience” or “category,” same with “picture book” and “young adult.” “Fantasy” or “contemporary” are genres. This is a vital distinction to make.) When I worked at Andrea Brown, this was definitely our MO. Since we all specialized in ALL children’s categories, from picture book to young adult, we took on clients writing for multiple audiences with the full confidence that we would be able to pitch their picture books as well as their gritty YA (as long as all were done very well, of course, per this previous post on the topic). Now at Movable Type, I also expect to be a writer’s only children’s agent because I am the only person at the agency doing children’s books.

The reasons for this are many, but the biggest one boils down to ownership. Suppose you have a picture book agent, a chapter book agent, and a middle grade agent for your work and you write well in all three categories. (This is a pie in the sky scenario, used only as an example, and extremely unlikely.) What if you are working on a picture book property with an agent and they’ve invested a lot of revision and time. You go out on submission. All the editors say, “Wow, this is great, but it should really be longer and a chapter book.” Or you’ve written a middle grade and worked on it with your MG agent, and all the editors say, “Gee, this rocks, but your voice is a bit young. Can you age it down and make it a chapter book? We’d love to see it again!”

Who gets the credit (read: compensation)? Your picture book or middle grade agent did a lot of work on the project and therefore they have a lot invested in selling the property and earning commission on it. But if you also have a chapter book agent, they would be the agreed-upon choice for selling the chapter book side of your portfolio. Again, this is a silly example, but you can see how easily you’d slip into a gray area and pit your agents against one another if you had separate representatives for each category.

My rule of thumb is that, if you write for multiple audiences, you need to seek a representative from the get-go who is confident in their abilities to submit to editors in all your desired categories, and, most importantly, who LOVES YOUR WORK in each category. If they are crazy about the YA and not the PBs, but you have your heart set on writing both, it might be very difficult to walk away but it might save you some heartbreak down the line (them saying, “I just took you on for this YA and, really, I don’t know if these PBs will go anywhere.”) They might be totally correct in their assessment, but you had your heart set on being a PB author as well as a YA author, so that might leave you in a tight spot.

The only time when I think it’s okay to have multiple agents is if, for example, you also write adult (and you can have an adult book agent either at the same agency or a different one) or screenplays (another agent or manager there). Those divisions are much clearer than the divisions between kidlit categories. As long as all agents know about one another and each agency contract is written in such a way that permits you to have other representation, I don’t see that being a problem. But within children’s books–a very tiny world where all the editors usually acquire for multiple audiences and everyone knows one another–it could get really hairy, fast.

Animal Characters

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.

Story of a Sale: Fly a Little Higher, Piper Lee by Dianna Dorisi Winget

Not every sale happens quickly or easily, but when you finally make that connection with a project like this, it’s very gratifying. Such is the story of the middle-grade novel FLY A LITTLE HIGHER, PIPER LEE, by Dianna Dorisi Winget, pictured below.

Dianna was one of my first clients and I loved everything about Piper Lee DeLuna’s sweet, salty, and Southern middle-grade voice. This book is the story of a girl who holds out hope that her pilot daddy is still alive after a crash…a belief that keeps her from embracing her mother’s plans to remarry and rebuild the family. You can check out a beautiful teaser page for it here. PIPER LEE had been in the works since 2003 and Dianna writes:

I’m not from the South but I’ve always been intrigued with it and had a lot of fun doing research on Georgia, which is the setting I chose. In 2004, I won a scholarship to attend the famous Highlights Children’s Writers Workshop at Chautauqua in New York based on the first chapter of Piper Lee. While at the conference, my mentor, author Juanita Havill, gave me lots of encouragement and advised me to find an agent enthusiastic for middle grade fiction and not to settle for anything less.

I spent the next year querying at least thirty agents. I received a lot of ‘personal’ rejections and scribbled notes of praise but no takers. Frustrated, I set PIPER LEE on the back burner. But I never actually forgot about Piper Lee. How can you forget about a story you love so much? So in 2009 I bought the latest edition of the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and decided to give it another go.

I very methodically narrowed my list of prospective agents down to 15 and sent out my first batch of five e-queries. Mary Kole was one of the five, and within a few short weeks she’d requested the whole manuscript, read it and called to offer representation! After seven long, doubt filled years I’d finally found someone as passionate and excited about Piper Lee as me.

But connecting with me was only one piece of the puzzle. What Dianna and Piper Lee’s Dream Team needed was an editor who loved her as much as we did. That part turned out to be more difficult, as contemporary coming-of-age MG came to be seen as “too quiet” in the marketplace around the time we submitted. I went out with PIPER LEE in January 2009. One of the editors on my first list was Harcourt VP and editorial director Jeannette Larson, who I had just met in San Diego. She was busy with a move to the New York office and so she passed it on to her assistant, Adah Nuchi.

Adah says:

I took a quick glance at the first page and was immediately drawn in by the Southern voice and fantastically spunky main character. The very next day I sent Jeannette an email that began, “I took a sneak peek at the first couple of pages of Fly A Little Higher, Piper Lee and have to admit, I couldn’t stop reading after that!” A few months later I was still thinking about Piper Lee and reread it to see if it still held the same spark. It did. While Jeannette really liked it, she wasn’t sure it was quite strong enough to acquire, but she did mention to Mary that I had loved it.

With some other feedback in mind, I advised Dianna to revise PIPER LEE so that we could send it out to a second round of editors, including Piper Lee fans Jeannette and Adah. Since Dianna had seen a lot of rejection for PIPER LEE over the years, she wasn’t really excited about its chances. She writes:

When I signed on with Mary, I was overflowing with hope and optimism. But after the first long round of submissions and no takers I was very discouraged. I thought, “See, I knew it was stupid to get my hopes up. Who am I trying to fool?” And then after I did the big revision you asked for and it headed out on its second round, I tried to be optimistic again but it was tough. This little voice inside my head kept saying, “You don’t really think this is ever actually going to sell, do you?” Even when we started getting positive feedback from Jeannette and Adah, I really expected it to turn out the way all the other positive responses I’d gotten over the years had turned out.

But I wouldn’t give up. I love PIPER LEE so dang much that I knew this book would find a home. During the second round, though, Jeannette and Adah, who were the most passionate about it from day one, wanted another revision. This was tough news to break to Dianna, and, of course, I had a few moments of doubt myself, but I really wanted to follow through and give PIPER LEE one last shot. Adah recaps:

After Dianna revisited the story over the summer of 2010, Mary sent the revision to Jeannette and reminded her that this was the manuscript her assistant had loved. I read Dianna’s revision and liked the direction she had taken it, but it still needed some work. I was enthusiastic enough about Piper Lee that Jeannette was willing to hand the project over to me to see if I could help get it where it needed to be for acquisition. I sent editorial comments in January of 2011 and received Dianna’s second revision in April. After that it was just a matter of getting the right approvals, and luckily everyone in-house loved the manuscript, too.

Finally, in May of 2011, more than a year after I first sent PIPER LEE into the world, after over 30 agent rejections, two dozen editor declines, and two serious revisions, I knew we were very close. Adah wrote that she was putting together an offer! I couldn’t wait to tell Dianna the great news!

Dianna remembers:

Honestly, it wasn’t until Mary told me that not only did Adah love it but that her publisher had given wholehearted support to acquiring it, that I finally started to allow myself to get excited. Then when I came home that day and heard Mary’s message on the machine asking me to call, that’s when I finally started to believe.

Every sale is gratifying and unique, and I’m so happy that I had faith in PIPER LEE from the very beginning. I sometimes had to have enough faith to keep Dianna excited, too, but all of her hard work paid off and now FLY A LITTLE HIGHER, PIPER LEE will soar on Harcourt’s 2012 list!

Adah writes:

It was a long process from first submission to acquisition, but I’m so excited to be able to share Piper Lee with readers.

Workshop #3

This workshop piece comes from Michele Tennant. Enjoy!

Dylan pushed off the sidewalk with his black Converse high-tops. Beneath him the wheels on his skateboard whirred. Tiny bumps on the concrete beneath sent vibrations up his legs. The only voice in his head was his own.

The Converse shoe is a “hi-top” (and they often call them Chucks…as a former punk kid/skate rat, I try to be aware of these things). The second sentence reads awkwardly. There’s a simpler way to say it, and the syntax is off. Not sure why you need to say that “The only voice in his head was his own.” I should hope so…whose else is in there? Doesn’t need explaining.

“Okay, folks you’re in for a treat,” Dylan mumbled under his breath. He mimicked the roar of a crowed stadium. “thirteen year old Dylan Davis will now be attempting the laser flip. Let’s hope he doesn’t scrape any freckles off on the pavement.”

Capitalized “Thirteen” here. When I talk about mimetic writing, I want you to be aware of what the character is doing. If he’s skating, he’s working out. The freckles/pavement line is too long for someone out of breath…

Another push and Dylan picked up speed. The crisp morning air stung his eyes making them water. Dylan breathed in the smell of damp pavement and lilac blossoms and saw a flash of red across the street. Katie Jordan had stepped off the curb. She was fresh and clean and dressed for work.

I’d put a comma between “eyes” and “water.” Good smell detail, though. We usually ignore that sense. “She was fresh and clean and dressed for work” is not something I’d imagine a 13 y.o. skate kid saying about a woman. The voice is too adult and too female. I would’ve also loved more context for who Katie is…a teacher? A neighbor? Mrs. Robinson?

She smiled and waved, and a breeze blew her flowing red skirt up just high enough for Dylan to get a glimpse of the black lace on her slip beneath. He waved back. Still following her with his eyes, he pushed off the ground again. One of the wheels struck a pebble. The board wobbled precariously causing Dylan to flail his arms as he steadied himself.

Would a 13 y.o. boy know what a slip is? This lacy peek is a bit sexy in this context, and we still don’t know who Katie is, so I don’t quite understand it yet. That description is not in voice, again, and the first sentence is overlong. I’d also use “underneath” here. We’ve got a bit of play-by-play narration going on here…you’re tracking what’s happening very closely, but I’m not sure we need all these details described so thoroughly. “Causing” is a very dry voice word, esp. for a 13 y.o. boy narrator. “Steadied” too.

He glanced back, hoping Katie hadn’t seen. Thankfully, she had bent to pick up the Sunday newspaper.

Up the street Dylan heard an engine rev.

Come on focus, he told himself. A little faster now . . . What did Jason say? Push off, jump, flip and land. Landing, that’s the part I’m worried about.

Is he just skating for the sake of skating or is there something coming up that he’s practicing for? A competition? The Impress The Older Lady Olympics? You could frame what he’s doing and why to give us more stakes for this practice session. “Thankfully” not in voice here. Overall, I’m really not getting a 13 y.o. boy sense from the prose. Try reading it aloud. Really get into your boy’s character.

A black SUV sped past Dylan. He turned to see it bump up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. There stood Katie, hand in her open mailbox, frozen, her eyes wide.

We don’t really get the danger in this description. Is it weaving? Does it narrowly miss him? One moment it “sped,” the next moment it is on a rampage. You could build up this moment more so that it’s not a jarring surprise to the reader, who wasn’t expecting this. It’s an issue of tone.

The newspaper dropped from Katie’s fingertips. Dylan opened his mouth to warn her, as he did the skateboard stopped abruptly. A jolt shuddered through Dylan’s body. He was propelled forward like a test dummy. The world flew past; Katie’s frightened face, the SUV, houses, trees, picket fence, sidewalk, sky.

The second sentence is clunky and an awkward transition. The test dummy image is a bit of a cliché. Like the snatches of images…they’re mimetic of what’s going on.

Dylan found himself on his back in the damp concrete culvert. All he could hear was the whoosh, whoosh, whooshing of the blood rushing through his veins. His body felt disconnected, numb and cold and a salty, metallic taste filled his mouth. He spit a mixture of blood and saliva onto the pavement beside him.

“Found himself” is a rather mild way of putting it. I’d switch out something with more impact. (Get it? Because he just hit the ground?) These sentences are a bit dry for something so intense. The syntax of “numb and cold and a salty” is off to me. Also, there has been no interiority in terms of his thoughts. Have your character react to what’s going on…a lot has just happened…where’s his head in all this?!

Taking a deep breath, Dylan struggled to lift his right arm. It wouldn’t budge. With his left elbow he managed to army crawled up the muddy, moss covered concrete to the sidewalk. There on the blacktop lay Katie’s mangled body. Her arms and legs stuck out at odd angles and a puddle that matched her skirt was slowly spreading around her. A dull hum filled his ears. It was as if someone had pushed the mute button for the whole planet.

Could use more thoughts. Like the last image very much. If we knew more about his relationship (or lack thereof) with Katie, we would care a lot more when she gets whalloped. It’s all about context. This might be a bit graphic, depending on the rest of the story, for MG. Also, good job starting right off with some action!

Am I Writing Middle Grade or Young Adult?

“Am I writing middle grade or young adult?” This is a question I get ALL THE TIME from writers.

middle grade or young adult, middle grade novel, young adult novel, writing for children, children's novels, writing children's fiction
Who is your audience? You have to pick one. Perhaps the dog?

It is some variety of the following, which came from Jesse:

How would you classify a sci-fi adventure novel with 14 year old boy protagonist? Would that be upper MG? Lower YA? I’ve heard so many different opinions on the matter!

Ah, yes. The great “Is it MG or YA?” debate. It rages on in many writer’s minds, critique groups, query letters, and even submission rounds with editors. It seems like there are always books that ride the MG/YA line.

The Difference Between Middle Grade and Young Adult

My advice? Get out of that gray area! If you read a lot of MG and YA books, you can easily isolate the difference. MG books are shorter than YA, deal with any “issues” or “content” (edgy stuff) but only secondhand (like the kid’s mom is an alcoholic, not the kid herself), have less darkness and often a sweeter ending than most books for older readers, are sophisticated but still accessible for reluctant readers, are more open to curriculum tie-ins and educational content, and are written to appeal to 10-12 year-old readers, at their heart.

YA books are longer, darker, edgier, less about education and more about a riveting story (though MG should have one, too, of course), and written to appeal to readers 14+.

Middle Grade or Young Adult: You Must Decide

There are, obviously, gray areas and gray-area readers, say, ten year-olds who are really advanced and sophisticated, and teen readers who are still reading MIX books (a really fun line of girl-centric MG from Simon & Schuster). Or teens who don’t want to read about edgy, risque content*. Sure. There are always exceptions.

But to give yourself the strongest chance at success (and publication), I’d urge you to follow the rules for the project you hope will be your debut, and decide whether you’re writing MG or YA*. Especially in this case.

When you’re just starting to write either middle grade or young adult, you have to start out knowing which one you want to target. Middle school (where MG readers dwell) and high school (where YA readers live) are as different as night and day. Think about your daily cares and worries in middle school.

Tailor Your Theme to Your Audience

Now think about high school. You were preoccupied with completely different things, and your world, your body, your psyche, your emotions, your relationships with friends, family, and romantic others…all of it was very different from one to the next.

In middle school, kids care mostly about friends and family. They feel the pull to stay and be a kid, and also the need to grow up. They want to fit in and be accepted, but they’re also forging their own identities. It’s a very turbulent time. Plus, they’re going through puberty, so hormones and enticing people of the opposite (or same) sex are just starting to cause major havoc. As for the future, most middle school kids just want to survive until high school.

In high school, kids are really individuating themselves. But now some* also drive, drink, have sex, bully on a really grand scale, and have to make decisions about college (and decide the rest of their lives, as they see it). They’re facing enormous pressures from the social world, their families, themselves. Almost all of their childhood selves are gone, and they’re trying on adulthood for size. That’s havoc in and of itself, but a very unique type.

The Gray Area Doesn’t Exist

These audiences are vastly different. Their worlds are different. Their mindsets, cares, hopes, and dreams shift perspectives when you cross from MG into YA. Sure, many things about the childhood/teen experience and many things about the human experience remain the same, but, in terms of relatability — which you really have to think about when writing for pre-teens, tweens, and teens — you are dealing with two different beasts.

In Jesse’s case, I gave the following advice:

I would make your protagonist either 13 and call it MG or 15 and call it YA. There are two shelves at the bookstore: MG and YA. You don’t see a shelf in the middle. Sure, there can be MG for slightly younger and slightly older readers (ditto YA), but you really do have to pick a side. Don’t just go by the age of the character, either (though I would avoid 14, since it’s such a cusp age between middle and high school). Go by level of sophistication, length of manuscript (MG is about 35k, YA more like 50k and up), and darkness (is there a lot of content, ie: sex, violence, etc., or a mature feel, ie: the last HARRY POTTER vs. the first one?). Use all those guidelines to help you pick one or the other.

And I stand by these words. Sure, you can say it’s “upper MG” or “lower YA” or even the (detestable) term “tween,” but the truth is, there are only two shelves at most bookstores: MG and YA. They’re not going to build a special shelf just for your upper-MG/tween/lower-YA opus.

Pick a Category and Commit

There is a diversity of lengths and age levels and levels of sophistication on the MG and YA shelves, from really young MG to really old YA, but each of those books had to pick a side initially. You have to pick a side, too.

Only you can choose which audience your work is written for, but there is a fundamental difference between MG readers and YA readers, and that’s where your thinking needs to start. That’s the thought process I hope I’ve sparked with this post. Think of your ideal audience, then build a character and a story that they will relate to.

When I think of stories and of pitches, the ideal reader (and their ideal age group) are never far from my mind. And I do often try to tweak a character/manuscript to the right age when working with a writer. But it still needs to come to me knowing, at its heart, who it is written for…MG or YA.

* ETA: To over-clarify, I’m saying that you should give yourself a strong chance of success by deciding whether your book is MG or YA, and not hanging it in a gray area.

I’m not saying that you need to have edgy teen elements in your fiction. Even though I felt I was very clear, someone brought up an issue in the comments, and I want to address things like that, not just leave them dangling out there, unanswered. Just so we’re all on the same — ahem, bad publishing joke alert — page. 🙂

Having trouble deciding whether you’re writing middle grade or young adult? I can help you pick a category and tailor your novel to the right audience as your children’s book editor.

How to Write Early Readers and Chapter Books

This question about how to write early readers and chapters book on the blog comes from Mary:

I have a PB manuscript that I’m thinking of turning into a chapter book. I’ve noticed that I haven’t seen many agents listing chapter books as their interest. Do agents represent CBs or is it best to approach editors directly? Also, is it difficult to sell a CB as a single title, or are editors mostly interested in series?

I’m going to expand this question to include another little-discussed market, the early reader. The reason I don’t usually talk about early readers or chapter books on the blog is because I don’t really represent them, and neither do a lot of my colleagues. As Mary has noticed, there aren’t a lot of agents hanging out their shingles and asking to see early reader or chapter book submissions.

Before I talk about why that is, I’ll define both markets so we’re on the same page.

how to write and publish early readers, how to write and publish chapter books
CLEMENTINE is an example of writing great chapter books for young readers.

How to Write and Publish Early Readers

Early readers are the earliest “chapter” stories that a kid can get. They’re very short in terms of manuscript length (1,500 words max) but are broken up into either chapters or vignettes that will give the reader the feeling of reading a book with real chapters in it. Your target audience for these is kids ages 4 to 8. Early readers feature a smaller trim size, some the size of or slightly bigger than a paperback novel, and can go from about 32 to 60 pages. The font size is smaller and they feature spot illustrations in either color or black and white instead of full color throughout, like a picture book.

Some examples of early readers: LING AND TING: NOT EXACTLY THE SAME by Grace Lin (Little, Brown, 2010), the HarperCollins I Can Read! books, and the Random House Step Into Reading books. You can usually find them on spinner racks in the children’s section of your local independent bookstore. If you’re at all curious, go and get your hands on some. As you’ll see, early readers have strict guidelines for vocabulary and sentence structure and are graded so that kids can develop their reading skills and move up a ladder to more independent reading. Even if you think you have a great early reader idea, it has to be a very precise fit for a publisher’s established vocab/sentence/word count guidelines.

How to Write and Publish Chapter Books

Chapter books are for more independent readers who are making the bridge between picture books and early readers and middle grade. Some bookstores designate these as for kids 9-12 but I would say readers are mostly 6-8. Manuscripts can range from about 5,000 words to about 15,000 words, max. Since your audience is still developing its reading skills, you have more of a wide berth in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, story and character. Younger chapter books will be simpler, but you can get pretty sophisticated for older chapter books. Trim size resembles paperback books and finished books tend to go from 100 to 160 pages, with black and white spot illustrations throughout. Some of my favorite chapter books are CLEMENTINE by Sarah Pennypacker and illustrated by Marla Frazee, the IVY AND BEAN series, written by Anne Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall from Chronicle Books, and the fun GERONIMO STILTON and THEA STILTON books from Scholastic (in full color!). If you’re at all curious about chapter books, do pick some up and take a look. They’re a very quick read!

The Market for Writing and Publishing Early Readers and Chapter Books

Now, the reason I don’t talk about them a lot is because early readers and chapter books are a really tough market right now. Writers have some luck doing I Can Reads or Step Into Reading as work-for-hire for the big publishers, but writers and agents haven’t had a lot of recent success with pitching independent creations and getting an early reader or chapter book series going.

One reason for this? The word I just used: series. If you look at an early reader or even a chapter book, you’ll see that their spines are tiny. When you’re fighting for space on early reader or chapter book shelves with DORA THE EXPLORER licensed early reader #798 and 30 of its closest friends, your tiny spine isn’t going to stand out. It’s been proven that series sell better than stand-alones, so that’s where publishers are turning for these markets.

Obstacles to Writing Early Readers and Chapter Books

So why don’t publishers give new writers a series? Well, a debut writer is untested and they won’t have a lot of sales power to their name yet. And, truth be told, early readers and chapter books are not lucrative for publishers. These books have very low price points: about $3.99 to $6.99, unless, of course, they’re published in hardcover. Most are published on cheap paper, about the same quality as a mass market paperback (what you’d find in the grocery store checkout aisle). They’re not big profit-turners. And why would a house spend a lot of money and marketing launching a new series from a debut writer when they won’t really stand to gain from it? Cynical, yes, but this sector of the market is very cynical right now.

While early readers and chapter books are a down market right now, they’re not an absolutely closed door. However, writers hoping to tap this market need to be very familiar with language, vocabulary, sentence structure, reading levels, and all the other strict guidelines in effect for these books.

How to Start Writing Children’s Books

For my money, I think it would be easier to make a debut as a picture book writer in this market. And that’s saying a lot, since picture books aren’t exactly selling like hotcakes, either. I don’t look at submissions for early readers or chapter books unles, of course, someone has the next CLEMENTINE character. As it happens, one of my clients is developing a potential idea for this market (the only way I would really touch it right now), and so I’ve been doing a lot of research lately. These tricky little books are certainly on my mind, but I don’t recommend that they be on yours.

It’s not all about picture books and children’s novels. I provide editorial services for early reader and chapter book writers, too.

First Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

I’m very excited to share the First Place winner of the novel beginnings contest. This is a contemporary MG story and one that I think will have you cracking up and loving the voice. It’s by Anita Nolan and is called ELLIE AND THE KING. Read on to see why I picked it.

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Lisa Marie Presley and I have a lot in common. Maybe it’s not obvious, since she’s older than my mother and has been married to Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage, among others, and I, at the age of thirteen, have been married to no one.

This is a great opening line and paragraph. It also sets up an interesting problem. The narrator says they have a lot in common, then goes on to outline how they couldn’t be any more different. And yet…

But we both have Elvis for a dad.

Ah, there it is! The moment I was hooked.

The only difference is—her dad really was Elvis.

My dad, on the other hand, just thinks he’s Elvis. Okay, maybe he doesn’t really believe he is, but he plays along with the people who play along with him pretending to be Elvis.

I don’t think I have ever read a plot conflict about an Elvis impersonator, er, tribute artist. 🙂 I love her thoughts on him and his audience, how he plays along and they play along with him, it sums everything up in a tight little sentence.

Whatever.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my father—I do. He ‘s taken care of me since my mother left when I was three months old.

But sometimes I wish he were a normal dad, with a normal hobby, like woodworking, or golf, or creating sculptures from tree trunks with a chain saw.

No, my dad wants to be Elvis. How humiliating is that?

Thank you, Dad. Thank you very much.

Love the Elvis nod at the end of this mini-section here. While there are moments where the voice strains just slightly into overused “sarcastic teen” territory — “Whatever” or “How humiliating is that?” — we do get some nice humor here, and some odd details (“creating sculptures from tree trunks with a chain saw”) that show us a true, idiosyncratic character. We also get a little family history here, but not too much. The big lesson in this contest so far — don’t weight the beginning down too heavily with backstory and exposition. See how little other writers are doing and how it feels like just enough.

“I’m adopted. It’s the only possible explanation.”

The Piercing Pagoda kiosk at the mall provides excellent cover for my friend Lindsey and me while a group of kids from school—the popular ones—stroll past, but I duck lower anyway. I don’t know why I worry, because I’m one of the more invisible people at school. But if anyone connects me with the man dressed in full Elvis regalia standing across the way, my name will flash through every IM in Cranford Middle School, and possibly the entire state of Pennsylvania.

Locates the reader, gives us a snappy line of dialogue and grounds us in the scene and the moment that’s happening. We also get a little bit more context for this character and her social life, or lack thereof. I like that we jump into scene quickly.

Lindsey glances at the older ladies—it’s always older ladies—lined up to meet my dad, and shakes her head. “There’s only one problem with the adoption theory. How do you explain your eyes?”

That is the problem. I’ve tried to convince myself that I look nothing like my father—and I don’t—except for my dark green eyes, complete with little blue flecks. I guess the adoption theory can’t be right, but as my father bursts into song, I wish it were.

The challenge of how to describe the physical traits of a first person character is a constant one. Here, the writer does a good job of giving us some physical detail that works into the story. This is an icky trick that all first person writers have to do at some point, and this is a rather elegant solution. (I also love the “it’s always older ladies” aside. Good voice.)

The kids from school hang at the edge of the crowd, pointing at Dad and laughing. My face flushes and I have a hard time swallowing. I wish Dad would keep the Elvis stuff out of the mall and away from anyone I know.

Gram says I shouldn’t be embarrassed. Everyone has a few skeletons hanging in their closets. Unfortunately for me, my skeleton is the one dressed in gold lamé singing Love Me Tender in front of the Cinnabon.

What a terrific image to end the excerpt on! And there is great interiority here, so Ellie’s big predicament — and moment of panic at the mall — is beginning to be very clearly felt by the reader. There’s also tension. They’re hiding. The popular kids are on the prowl. Dad is gyrating. You get one guess, and one guess only, about what could possibly happen next. And with this voice and this sense of humor, I really do want to see it unfold after reading this snippet, don’t you?

***

The contest concludes tomorrow with the announcement of the Grand Prize winner. Thank you to everyone for reading these entries and commenting. Keep your thoughts comin’!

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since it really is on people’s minds. I almost hesitate to get into this discussion publicly but, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.

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That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully-chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.

Manuscripts That Are Too Long

I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.

Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscripts

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂

Ideal Manuscript Length for Children’s Books

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some maximum word counts for different types of projects.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 300 words max
  • Picture Book — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade or MG — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. (Disclosure: Early Readers and Chapter Books are not my personal forte.) If a manuscript goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “Tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!

And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.

Review: Love, Aubrey

by Suzanne LaFleur
Middle Grade, 272 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737746

At the beginning of LOVE, AUBREY, we don’t know what kind of tragedy has rocked Aubrey’s world, we just know she’s utterly alone. As we watch her buy herself a beta fish and putter around her empty house, it emerges that her father and sister died in a car accident and her mother fled from the grief of losing them and the guilt of being behind the wheel. Grandma comes to pick up the pieces and moves Aubrey to Vermont. The two women, young and old, united by tragedy, try to put the pieces of their lives back together while searching for Aubrey’s mother.

Once they find her, it becomes clear that her pain is too raw and she simply isn’t ready to be a mother yet. Aubrey must begin the slow and complicated process of making friends, grappling with her memories and reimagining what home and family mean in this new life of hers.

If only most adults had the strength and grace of this eleven year-old character. Aubrey is so hurt — on many more levels than she’ll ever admit, even to the reader, who knows most of her secret heart — but her wisdom shines brilliantly from these pages. Through writing letters, first to her beta fish, then to her dead sister’s imaginary friend, then to her dad and finally to her mother, she expresses just how strong she’s become, how strong, in fact, she’s always been. These letters cap off chapters in the perfect balance of narrative and the character’s own self-expression.

LaFleur’s writing is a thing of beauty and simplicity. Through Aubrey’s crystal-clear voice, she expresses longing, love, pain and hope with the lightest touch. The reader is always deeply involved in Aubrey’s emotions but never told about them outright. We just know Aubrey so well from the first page that everything she does makes total, resonant, brutally honest emotional sense. When her mother doesn’t come home for Christmas, we know her rage and grief, even if we’ve never experienced her circumstances.

This is the whole point of fiction, the very essence of creating a character who lives and breathes. For such a short, quiet book, LaFleur manages not only startling character development but a fleshed-out plot. Memories, emotions, flickers of new life and tortured pangs of the old combine seamlessly as Aubrey does chores to keep her mind off her grief, goes to a new school, visits with a guidance counselor, rediscovers her relationship with her mom and finally chooses her real home, at least for now.

The tagline of the book is: “She will make you cry. She will make you smile. Aubrey will stay with you forever.” I can’t put it any better than that. In this age of high-concept paranormal adventures, barbed-wire edgy and unrealistic, cookie-cutter romance, sometimes I wonder where all the small, literary books of amazing emotional depth and power are. LOVE, AUBREY is the book I’ve been waiting for (Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY (review) and Carol Lynch Williams’ THE CHOSEN ONE (review) also come to mind). It fills me with utter joy that such a talented writer and such a passionate editor found each other and created this unassuming, completely take-your-breath-away masterpiece.

LOVE, AUBREY comes out on June 9th, 2009. If you’ve forgotten the glorious ache of feeling your entire register of human emotions, read it as soon as you can. You’ll be so glad you did. I didn’t even know how much I needed Aubrey in my life. Links: Amazon, Shop Indie Bookstores.

For Readers: This book will appeal to middle grade readers as well as, um, everyone on the planet. Buy this for the kids in your life and tell them to pass it on to siblings, parents, grandparents. I’m serious. Everybody needs to read this book and its appeal is so broad, so human, that it will charm and touch each person who comes in contact with it. Of all my recent reads, this one is most likely to stand the test of time. It is a modern classic in my head already and it hasn’t even come out! Yes, I know I’m gushing, but I’m totally allowed.

For Writers: It isn’t often that writers achieve the ultimate goal of transparency, as LaFleur does here. There are some writers, of course, who thrive on their trademark voice, who use it everywhere as an indelible stamp. LaFleur has a style, sure, but as a writer, she completely disappears into Aubrey’s voice, she spins her words without once interrupting the “fictive dream” to call attention to a flourish of writing, a clever joke, an important moment. Most writers, whether consciously or not, just can’t quite get themselves out of their own writing. Not LaFleur. What you see here is all Aubrey, all the time. Please read it. If it doesn’t change your writing, and I’m not sure it will because its lessons are very subtle and complex, it will change the way you see character and it will redefine your boundaries of how deeply into a fictional soul you can go.