AN INSPIRED CONCEPT, THE CRAFT OF WRITING & A SCBWI AGENT KEYNOTE ADDRESS

img_1943

As promised, here’s another post borne out of the fantastic SCBWI conference held in Winchester at the end of last year. This time it is to share words of wisdom, hints, tips and an agent’s insider perspective in to the world of trying to be published in children’s fiction. The keynote speaker was Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency and her talk was both enlightening and inspirational for those of us plugging away with our writing for children and young adults. I hope you similarly find some of the following to be of interest…

In 2007 Sarah had been working in UK publishing for many years but was engaged to an American and felt it was time to move on.  She saw this as an opportunity to create a transatlantic literary agency and so The Greenhouse Literary Agency was born.  They have around 70 clients, are also very active in the film and TV world and love to nurture talent.  Their mantra is ‘we represent authors and not just books’.

She views them as talent spotters, but also as developers of talent. Writing comes out of who you are, “you could give me half a page of writing by any of my clients and I think I could tell who wrote it.”

Voice is the first thing they look at and they use this to base their decision as to whether or not to go on and take on a client. “Train yourself to pick up colour and cadence of voice as if you were Mozart. Everyone can improve their voice and listening is the best way to do it.”

So what does it take to succeed in today’s marketplace?

They receive between 10,000 to 15,000 submissions per year so potential authors need to produce something that is seriously attention grabbing.  Ask yourself, ‘how do I find my edge?’  The most common rejection is, ‘I didn’t love it enough’.  Therefore, how can you write something that can get under the skin of the publisher?

If you aren’t writing because you love it and really can’t not write, then the business can really sap your spirit – it’s as much about passion as it is anything else.

Two words dominate every day of her life (and also where she chooses to invest her time, as time is the most difficult thing to manage as an agent):

CONCEPT & CRAFT

These come before everything.

So, what is an inspired concept – how do you know if you have one, and are there any ways to help you find one? Is there something that makes you sit up?  It’s simple and easy to describe.  ‘Almost viral’.

One key could be a useful little phrase – ‘what if’. (Perhaps it can be based on something that hasn’t happened but could have). This can help writers think in less predictable ways.

Any concept, as with the writing itself, needs to have big emotional and intellectual scope.

Look at the tip of the story iceberg and know that underneath the water everything else is waiting to be discovered and explored.

Does the concept give you enough to work with or is it too thin?

A great concept is a ‘hook’ – when you pitch your book you are going fishing to catch agents and they need that hook to catch editors.

The good news is that agents are desperate to be hooked and are looking all the time.  Notice people’s body language and you will soon pick up who is hooked by your concept.

What should we be thinking of before we even begin to write? At this point I think one of Sarah’s presentation slides summarises it perfectly:

img_1945

Plant seeds of writing – things to think about before you even begin to write:

Conflict and character – need to try and know your character at a deep level and certainly before you write page 1.  For writers this starts way before the actual writing – characters are real, they exist.

Also consider the sense of place as this can give a wonderful sense of reality.

Build a story on great foundations.  Maximise how efficiently you work – writing to find your story is very time consuming although it may work for some people, but best to have an idea of your story before you start.  A rudimentary outline can help you home in on what you’re trying to do.  Try to write with focussed intention so you know what you’re trying to achieve.  Experiment with structure, point of view, tense.  Write three chapters then stop and look again. Who is story for?  Age group and core reader?

Your goal as a writer is to sprinkle fairly dust over your topic, not tell everything you know.  You are looking for a reaction.  What are you trying to say?  What are you going to leave the reader with after the final page?  (But not in a didactic way).

One of the key things that will be embedded in a great concept is HIGH STAKES. What you give us has to matter, you have to make it matter.  A great story will make a reader ask, ‘what if I was in that position, what would I do?’  From her many years as an agent she knows that we have a driving need to have others go there for us. Many submissions they see don’t have high enough stakes.

There are elements of the thriller in every story and it is the writer’s job to make us turn the page.

Try to spin an idea differently to how anyone else has spun it before.  E.g. Jay Asher’s ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ stands apart because the girl in question is almost entirely off stage and it’s all about the aftermath. It also has a compressed time frame so it reads like a thriller rather than an issues led story.

Another example is Lauren Oliver’s ‘Before I fall’, where the protagonist comes back to live her final day six times over, and each time comes closer to understanding herself/being compassionate/learning to love, until she’s ready to let go.

Both stories reveal in a deep sense what it feels like to be human.

Writers need a great idea, but it needs to feed through to something else, so needs to have a deeply felt theme – people have to relate to the story and its underlying characters.

One of Sarah’s favourite quotes is, ‘In an extraordinary story, in the very best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters, we discover more about ourselves.’

Other notable quotes come from Picasso, who said, ‘Art is the lie that enables us to discover the truth’, and L P Hartley, ‘It’s better to write about things you feel than about what you know.’

Writing great fiction isn’t about, or from, your intellect, it’s about your emotional response.

“Write something without any expectation of someone reading it and write from the white hot centre of your subconscious.” However you write your story it has to come from a place of passion inside.

Your story needs to give you a USP – without this it will struggle to stand out and editors would struggle to put it across to booksellers.  The aim is to deeply get the chaos of being human and everything it comprises and then be able to create a unique story framework to create order from the chaos.

Consider finding new ways to see things.  ‘Significant detail’ is important – pick out the specific to create the emotional impact. This puts me in mind of the famous quote by Anton Chekhov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shiningshow me the glint of light on broken glass.”  (One of my own favourites).

Stay current – read and read but don’t be derivative.  (It’s also useful to keep abreast of what is happening – subscribe to the Bookseller?)

Summary : 

  • Wow factor
  • What if?
  • Big questions
  • High stakes
  • Spinning ideas differently
  • A deeply felt theme

img_1946                          img_1948

“Write it, put it away and forget about it, then when you get it out again ask yourself these revision questions”.

img_1949

Sarah often says to clients when they’re out on submission to not write for two weeks as she feels they also need ‘thinking time’.

I’ll leave you with this thought…

“Go to your desk as if it’s the last day of your life, and then write as if you have all the time in the world”.

WHAT EDITORS WANT

what-editors-want-panel

 

WHAT EDITORS WANT

A SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS (SCBWI) PANEL AT THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL, 18 AUGUST 2016.

 Panel   –      Barry Cunningham, Chicken House Publishing

                        Lauren Fortune, Scholastic

                        Sally Polson, Floris Books  

 Chaired By Louise Kelly and Sheila M Averbuch

I was lucky enough to attend an interesting and lively panel event at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival in the esteemed company of an amazing panel of children’s/YA book industry heavyweights, so I thought I would share some of their comments and advice here.

Q. What does editing entail? 

Lauren          

How much work we do completely varies from author to author.  We are looking for something to identify with, or to be transported to a fantastic land, but the kernel is to find something you love and something similar to the feeling you had as a child when discovering your favourite books.

Barry             

Editors are far more engaged in the process now and think we look for a manuscript in all its possibilities and for how it works in its broader sense.  We could perhaps be seen as a ‘midwife for books’ but ultimately represent our readers and must look at how it will work around the world and in the context of how our other books work.

With debut authors we can tell if something has been worked on so much that the voice has been lost and so it is a case of having to go back to the beginning to re-establish that unique thing.

Have you got a good villain/problem/disadvantage?  Children’s books tend to be about struggle. Maybe change the POV?

Q. What personality traits do you like in your authors and book characters?

Sally               

I enjoy working with writers that like receiving feedback and are quite open minded in receiving criticism and are then able to go off and find their own way.  For example, Ross McKenzie of ‘The Nowhere Emporium’ and ‘Shadowsmith’ is good to work with as he takes feedback well and writes excellent villains.

Characters – are they memorable and will they stay with me?

A general comment would be that if we commission a book, the position in the schedule can determine how much/how quickly it is worked on.  We tend to do one structural edit – i.e. plot, beginning/end, characters, pacing…

Lauren          

Monsters and villains are so important.  An example would be ‘Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes’ by Paula Harrison.

Things that are not so good: are writers reluctant to make their characters suffer?  Would always encourage writers to put their characters in difficult situations.

Barry             

We have to see the main character change.  Linking back to the last question, ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was originally written in 3rd person, but when Kiran changed it into 1st person it brought it to life.

Also, it’s important for characters to have some loss as well as victory.

Q. Would you encourage reading as ‘writers’ as well as simply for enjoyment?

Lauren          

Reading is an enormous part of writing, you absorb a lot, sometimes without realising.  Dialogue, for example, is hugely important and difficult to do.

Sally               

Reading also helps writers to understand the market.

Q. What are the new trends in illustration?

Lauren

MG illustrated fiction (black and white line pictures) is having a moment.   It is good for more reluctant readers and we are very keen on this at Scholastic.  David Baddiel and Jim Field are a great example of when an author and illustrator work well together.

Sally   

Floris are keen on it too, but don’t have an author/illustrator in that field at present.

Barry             

Chicken House don’t do picture books any more as are not keen on them and find a lot don’t have much story and leave the art to do all the work.

However, we are now seeing more illustrated content even in older books, including YA, which sit somewhere between the more traditional books and graphic novels.

Q. What about age banding?  Are there any issues/shifts occurring?

Barry

Older MG is different in America where it is up to 14 years of age instead of 12 here, but a lot of books are being bought by a wide range of ages.  For overseas markets we sometimes get advice to bring content down or similar and YA is fracturing into older and younger YA.

Age banding is more for publishing categories though rather than reader categories.

Q. Is there anything that you would like to see?

Sally   

More diverse, ethnic, disabilities, plus a series for 6-8 year olds, e.g. ‘Thorfinn the Nicest Viking’.  Are also looking for author/illustrators as don’t have a lot of these.

Lauren          

This can be influenced by the demands of the list.  Scholastic is strong on series fiction, so are more looking for standalone stories, and would also like to see a YA fantasy.  Anything page turning, cinematic, high concept.

For non-fiction we publish the ‘Horrible Histories’ books and would look at others to tie around an historical event or similar.

Q. What do you look for in a book?

Barry 

Humour, superlative villain or dark force, great dialogue.

Would recommend that authors write complete character studies even though a lot doesn’t end up in the book as you will get to know the character better.

Q. What would be the main reason(s) to reject a ‘nearly there’ manuscript?

Sally

It could be to do with other factors, e.g. the existing list, or it doesn’t quite fit, or may need author to be in Scotland…

Lauren          

Can always work on plot, but is looking for an original voice and that bit of ‘magic’.  It has to stay with her.  Can pick up one page and recognise the author.

Barry 

Whether he thinks he can work with the author and share the same vision.  Mostly if don’t think they can work with the author to make it better.

Audience Questions

  • Should we use dialect or not?

Barry

Could use an element, but sustaining it for a whole book may be hard.

Lauren          

If it fits into a broader narrative would welcome it, but should always read dialogue aloud when writing it.

Sally               

Plus a child must be able to understand it.

 

  • What do you not want? 

Lauren          

Something you’ve seen before told in a fairly familiar voice.

Sally   

A misunderstanding of being unique, where people might think they need to be completely wacky and all over the place.

Barry

Would be scared of multi volume fantasy where the synopsis is longer than the first book.

Lauren          

“I’d quite like that!”

 

  • Should writers look at current themes?

Barry

There’s no point as publishers and agents tend to be inundated with these and they would be likely to be over too soon by the time any book was ready for publication.

Lauren          

Perhaps look at themes but then strip out the actual theme and see what’s left that works and has the broad appeal.

 

  • Would you advise authors to use freelance editorial services?

Sally               

Not sure you can tell which manuscripts have or haven’t used one.

Lauren          

If we see something that has come from Golden Egg then ears immediately prick up.

*****

So there you have it!  I found the event to be very useful and hope my notes are of some interest to you too.

 

 

 

‘Home’ & Book Week Scotland

I thought I would make the effort and sneak in a last minute entry for this month’s theme of ‘memories’.  It’s a bit simplistic, granted, but I wanted to have a play with shapes and structure, and it hopefully still manages to get the (again simple) message across…..

By the way, happy Book Week Scotland 2014, which starts today.  Lots of exciting things happening, not least a trip through to Edinburgh with some writing group friends to pitch to an agent and publisher.  What a fantastic opportunity (if a slightly scary one!)  Pitch is prepared, so fingers crossed!

home

HOME

Home

A house

A dwelling place

Filled with children’s laughter

Warmth and safety

With love

Home

Home

Quieter now

Family all grown

With their own lives

But memories linger

And love

Home

 

(c) elizfrat

Not my time…..

image

Sadly I didn’t win The Greenhouse Funny Prize this year, but I am still thrilled and proud to have reached the shortlist……………..  and there’s always next year!

Congratulations to the winner, Swapna Haddow, as well as runners up Clare Welsh and Yasmin Finch.