Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Tagged middle grade

The Most Common Pitfalls in Middle Grade Manuscripts

 

Middle grade is a very robust area of the market and an exciting place to be as an author. Middle grade readers (usually ages 8 to 12) are enthusiastic and passionate about books and the writers they love. On the older end of the spectrum, they are on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood, and yet they still have one foot in childhood with a thirst for imagination and adventure. It is a stage in life that lends itself to a wide range of stories and and life experiences and, therefore, it is a very rich and exciting space to write in. There is a lot of room for experimentation and risk-taking in terms of plot and genre. That said, it is also a tricky category to get right.

I read a lot of queries for middle grade: it is a category I truly love and am actively looking to represent. Because of that, I’m going to share the most common pitfalls I see in the middle grade manuscripts I consider, along with some tips for sidestepping those issues in your own writing.

1. Sounding like an adult pretending to be a child instead of using an authentic middle grade voice. This is, by far, the primary issue I see in the middle grade manuscripts in my inbox. It is so important for you to see through the eyes of a middle schooler while you write rather than the eyes of an adult. An authentic voice is vital in middle grade novels and, hard though it may be, you can’t let your grownup perspective seep in. It is immediately apparent when an author isn’t quite attuned to the age group they are writing for. Most often when this happens, authors waver in and out of the character, sounding very young and overly precocious in turns, leading to an uneven tone. Here are some ways to address this problem:

  • Read recent published middle grade in your genre (contemporary, fantasy, humor, historical, etc). By reading similar novels that have successfully found their footing in the market, you can analyze how the authors of those books utilize language and how they portray the age group.
  • Know your audience. The best way to sound like a middle schooler is to spend time with the age group. Listen to the way they talk and the things they talk about. What do they care about? What books are they loving? What is the latest trend? What are they struggling with?
  • Channel the feelings you felt in middle school. The truest thing you can do as an author is capture feelings on the page. The life of a middle schooler in 2018 is very different than the life of a middle schooler was in your childhood, but the feelings are universal. Tap into those feelings as you write and it will lead to a story that is true.

2. Focusing on a moral message. Middle grade readers want to read a story that captures them and brings them on a journey. They don’t want to be preached at. Sure, your characters will learn something along the way, but if you approach your story with an agenda, a middle grade reader will immediately sniff that out and run the other way. Instead:

  • Focus on plot and character development. Make sure that the main character has problems, both external and internal, to overcome throughout the story. If there’s a theme you’d like to explore, don’t think of it from the perspective of teaching your readers a lesson, think of it as discovering a truth that allows your character to grow.
  • Show don’t tell. If you want your readers to walk away with a new understanding of the topic you’re writing about, let them discover it between the lines instead of hitting it home with moments of adult characters lecturing or having your protagonist pause in the story to reflect on a Big Moral Point.

3. Condescending to the reader. Trust that your readers are intelligent and have their own lives, complete with their own obstacles, conflicts, and emotions. Your readers live in the real world and are capable of being challenged and trusted with nuance. (Although sometimes a good fart joke is also called for.)

  • Don’t shy away from challenging topics.
  • Don’t hesitate to use the occasional sophisticated word.
  • Make sure your plot is just as developed and layered as it would be if you were writing for adults. Kids can identify plot holes and inconsistencies just as easily as adults can!

4. Writing from the author’s childhood rather than a contemporary setting. Too often, I see queries that make it clear the author has gone back to their own childhood to tell a story rather than contemporized an emotional truth from their childhood for a modern reader. Kids are looking for stories that resonate with them today–not stories that take them back to their parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods. If you are writing realistic middle grade, put it in a contemporary setting, unless there is a very compelling reason to set the story in a different time.

5. Adults? Keep Out! Make sure your adult characters don’t take over the story. It is completely normal for there to be grownups in a middle grade novel, but those characters should be side characters, not central characters. If you find your adults imparting important life lessons or making choices that help resolve the plot, or if you find that your young characters spend a lot of time observing and thinking about what the adults are doing in the story, then take a step back and look at your arc again. It is vital in middle grade that the protagonist is the character with the central conflict and that your protagonist is also the one to resolve that conflict. If you find your adults taking over, gently put them back in their place on the sidelines. Middle grade is a preteen’s world. No grownups allowed.

Creative Commons Picture Credit: State Library of Ohio


Debut Authors Pass On the Inspiration

After listening to an amazing series of keynote presentations at the 2015 National conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), during which authors wear their hearts on their sleeves, I feel the need to pass on the inspiration!

From the Success Stories Panel:

  • Ten years from first conference to first book published. And when editing with a critique partner, editor, or agent, recognize and acknowledge the issue, and then find the fix that works for you, as it’s your story. —Anna Shinoda (author of Learning Not to Drown)
  • When you decide you want to be an author, you need to try for real. —Mike Curato (author of Little Elliot, Big City and Worm Loves Worm)
  • You have to show up every day, and a lot of what you create will stink. Don’t wait for perfection. —Lori Nichols (author of Maple and Maple & Willow Together)
  • Torment your character. Give him/her a goal and spend the next 70,000 words thwarting it. —Stacey Lee (author of Under a Painted Sky)
  • You don’t need to win an award to acknowledge your talent or become a published or successful author. —Martha Brockenbrough (author of The Game of Love and Death)

Writers, keep writing! Keep the faith, and as Kwame Alexander reminded us in his SCBWI 2015 closing keynote speech (“Six Basketball Rules of Publishing”), “You’ll miss 100-percent of the time if you never take the shot.”

Creative Commons Photo Credit: @wewon31 #365


What I’ve Said No To Lately

Who says agents don’t read in December right before closing? My colleague Sara offered rep to two new clients right as we were closing. She landed them too! It happens. I’m not sure I added those to the Stats. I need to update.

Not to mention, I miscounted my NYT bestsellers. Oi! I forgot the Manga SOULLESS edition which hit #1 no less. Smack forehead.

But if you are curious, I read 16 sample pages the week before we closed. That’s a marathon for me.

And here’s a general idea of why I passed on all those requested submits: (more…)


What Editors Have Bought Recently – Young Adult and Middle Grade

STATUS: I have often said on this blog, Thank God It’s Friday. Today, I really really mean it. What a crazy week. But all good stuff.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? IF YOU DON’T KNOW ME BY NOW by Simply Red

So editors have been seeing a lot of crap but they’ve also been buying stuff. So instead of answering the question: What is an editor looking for? I thought I’d delve into what they’ve bought recently.

Here you go!

1) A young adult thriller
2) Gothic retelling of a classic–in this case, The Island of Dr. Moreau
3 young adult straight fantasy (as opposed to a bent one! *grin* In other words, a traditional not contemporary fantasy)
4) a time travel young adult novel
5) realistic contemporary young adult
6) animal character middle grade fantasy

Editors have not seen a lot in middle grade (it’s the hardest content to find) but what they have seen included science fiction for the younger reader and Aliens in space or similar that target boy readers.

I’m out. Literally. Like I’m now going to sleep….


Here’s A Genre I Didn’t Think Of!

STATUS: From the blog silence, you can imagine how hectic this trip as been. Meetings all day. Catching up on emails in the evening, and you have to fit a little bit of fun in there too!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? CALL ME MAYBE by Carly Rae Jepsen

I’ve been in New York for the past 3 weeks doing meetings with a lot of different editors at all the different houses. I started off with the editors who acquire young adult and middle grade.

Of course I ask, “What have you been seeing lately?”

Imagine my surprise when no less than three editors (all from different houses) responded with, “crap.”

At first, I wasn’t quite certain how to reply. That wasn’t exactly the answer I was expecting! I opted for, “would you care to define ‘crap.’

And they did. They mentioned recently that they’ve seen a whole slew of submissions that weren’t really ready for an editor to see. By the way, these were submissions from agents.

I asked why they thought that was so. I got three main reasons:

1) They were seeing hot genre stuff, such as dystopian, that they felt like the agents were not vetting as thoroughly as they should.

In other words, in any hot genre, the market gets crowded yet those submitting hope that because the genre is hot, it will sell.

2) There were some agents submitting young adult projects that don’t traditionally rep it and to be blunt, it’s different than repping fiction in the adult realm.

3) A lot of submissions could have benefited from a solid edit and revision before submitting. In other words, they were not in strong shape even if the concept or idea was solid.

Some agents don’t edit before submitting. Some do.

So interesting. I’m definitely looking to avoid submitting crap.

*grin*

I think I can do that!


Why Bring An Author to Bologna?

STATUS: Still time to sign up to learn how to craft the perfect pitch paragraph for your query letter. The video webinar is tomorrow, Thursday, March 28 at 6 pm MST. It should be a blast to give.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? ONLY A MEMORY by Smithereens

In general, the whole purpose of Bologna Children’s Book Fair is to pitch your rights list to scouts and foreign publishers in order to generate interest in upcoming titles so as to promote foreign sales. And I certainly did a lot of that while there but for the most part, I have a foreign co-agent who handles that on our agency’s behalf.

So what’s Frankfurt or Bologna all about when I visit a Fair with a client in tow? It’s about face-time. It’s about making the foreign publisher feel like an important part of an author’s career. It’s about marketing dollars and inspiring the foreign editor to choose our clients’ books if it’s a choice between two.

1) Foreign editors rarely get to meet the authors for whom they are translating. It may or may not translate into more sales but I know from experience that a foreign publisher who has met an author in person is more likely to do a promotional push for that title in translation.

2) Those meetings give us valuable information that we might not hear otherwise (or not hear in a timely fashion). Marie Lu’s German publisher is making LEGEND their big lead title for fall and sponsoring a German tour! Would this have happened without a Bologna visit? Certainly (as we would have been looped in eventually) but now we are in the know months earlier and can actively help them. Also, they are 10 times more excited to have this big push after we had a lovely sit-down dinner with them and relayed all the latest promo news while in Bologna. We’ve confirmed they are making the right decision.

3) Targeting a Fair allows an author client to make stops in other nearby countries. When Simone decided to come to Bologna with me this year, she was invited by her French publisher to stop in Paris to participate in a book festival there. Her publisher warned her that maybe 25 or 35 people might show for the signing. Imagine everyone’s surprise when more than 200 people came and Simone had a signing line more than 2 hours long! You think her French publisher is going to be paying closer attention to her next release? You betcha. Nothing inspires publishers more than seeing first hand fan enthusiasm for an author.

4) Finding out early that an author is selling like mad in a territory. (ie. The Perfect Chemistry Series is going gangbusters in Germany).

Other benefits of Fair participation include getting the latest gossip about what has sold recently. About what might be hot next. And simply connecting with the UK editors whom I don’t see as often. It gives an agent a global perspective of what works–not only in the US but around the world. Or maybe even more importantly, what doesn’t work in other territories.

Does that shade what I might take on next in the US? To some extent but it’s certainly not the end all be all in making a decision to offer representation but it is part of the big picture.

More pics from 2012 Bologna!

Marie Lu and me in Agent Centre

Simone with her editor Katrin (on left) and her Publisher Suzanne (Random House Germany)

Marie’s Bologna dinner with her US, German, and UK publishers!

Simone & Kristin in Venice! Rumor has it that if you kiss under a bridge while riding in a gondola, you’ll have good luck all year. I told Simone that even though I was a full service agent, that’s where I draw the line. *grin*


2012 Bologna Children’s Book Fair – Next Hot Thing?

STATUS: Meetings every half hour and running on 6 hours of sleep a night on average. Yep, that’s Bologna!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? I PUT A SPELL ON YOU by Bryan Ferry

Three days at Bologna and here’s what I can tell you.

On the plane over, people were talking about the next hot trend being about geeks in young adult fiction. Geeks transforming. Geeks not transforming but still winning the girl or the day. Geeks in love.

Do I think it’s the next hot trend? I haven’t got the faintest idea.

It’s definitely clear that foreign editors are feeling the drain of paranormal romance in YA being hot for so long but even with that, they say it’s still selling well in Germany, UK, and France. Editors don’t seem to be buying a lot of it at the moment though.

Since I’m here with Marie Lu to meet with her very excited foreign publishers (the trilogy has been sold in to 22 territories and counting), we are, of course, asking if dystopian is hot abroad.

The verdict is undecided. HUNGER GAMES fever is definitely sweeping the world but whether that will translate into other dystopian novels also becoming hot has yet to be proven. Well, I’ve got my fingers crossed for June and Day…

Hands down, for middle grade DAIRY OF A WIMPY KID works amazingly in every country but Russia. Guess they like big burly guys instead of wimps?

*grin*

Some pics!

Anita and I at entrance of the Fair.

Me with Sara’s amazing client Stefan Bachmann and the brand spanking new cover for his wonderful middle grade gothic steam punk: The Peculiar

Marie Lu and her Taiwan Publisher Sharp Point! Marie was a rock star. She did the whole meeting in Chinese. (Marie is second person from right.)

Marie and I in the Penguin Bologna Stand.


Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 5: Are There Off-Limit Topics for YA & MG Novels?

STATUS: It’s Friday. Over and out!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? YOU MAKE LOVING FUN by Jewel

In Episode 5, I tackle the #1 question when it comes to young adult and middle grade!

I’d say “enjoy” but technical difficulties are making it impossible to upload!

I’ll try again tomorrow. We might have Fridays With Kristin on Monday. LOL.

It’s really Saturdays with Kristin…. I think I finally got it to work.


Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 4 -Talking Middle Grade

STATUS: Looking forward to Monday. Sounds odd, I know, but it’s a holiday in Publishing so it will be nice and quiet. No emails.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? IN THE MOOD by Glenn Miller Orchestra

In Episode 4, I identify what I see as the three different age levels within middle grade and how those levels dictate the appropriate word count and page length for a middle grade work.

This is the first video I filmed in the evening. Boy does that make a difference in lighting! I also need to work on the appropriate length of time for transition stills. *grin*

It’s all a work in process.

Enjoy!


Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 4 -Talking Middle Grade

 

STATUS: Looking forward to Monday. Sounds odd, I know, but it’s a holiday in Publishing so it will be nice and quiet. No emails.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? IN THE MOOD by Glenn Miller Orchestra

In Episode 4, I identify what I see as the three different age levels within middle grade and how those levels dictate the appropriate word count and page length for a middle grade work.

This is the first video I filmed in the evening. Boy does that make a difference in lighting! I also need to work on the appropriate length of time for transition stills. *grin*

It’s all a work in process.

Enjoy!


Denver Skyline Photo © Nathan Forget [Creative Commons] | Site built by Todd Jackson