What happens when 35 writers for young people, a children’s agent, and an editor gather in the centre of Zurich?
You get a room that’s buzzing with hope, aspiration and imagination.
HS Norup and Sherida Deeprose give a round-up from February’s workshop.
On Saturday 25 January, Nuance Words presented Writing 4 Young People, a workshop featuring literary agent Julia Churchill (A. M. Heath) and editor Sara O’Connor (Hot Key Books).
We, the writers, flocked to Zurich from all over Switzerland, carrying bags brimming with note books, pens, and manuscripts, and our heads overflowing with quirky characters and lurking villains.
Contrary to our preconceptions of a hard-nosed London agent, Julia Churchill was charming, quickly putting us at our ease.
She talked about her job as an agent, explaining openly what she does for her 15%, how she develops talent and builds authors’ careers, sells books to publishers, and handles the business side of things. With many people opting to forego both agent and publisher these days, it was interesting to see things from her perspective.
… her slush pile is a treasure trove
Julia’s eyes lit up when she described how she spots new talent, and she talked about incoming mail as if she truly believes her slush pile is a treasure trove. An encouragement for un-agented writers, though she reminded us of the harsh statistics: out of approximately 2000 submissions a year, she takes on only three new authors. (Less established agents may take up to seven or eight.)
Pens scribbled when she gave advice on finding an agent:
- Finish the book.
- Research agents (Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and internet).
- Check agency submission guidelines on their own websites. Follow them.
- Query with a strong hook, and a brief, professional letter.
- Send it out in small batches, be as detached as possible, and keep going.
She emphasized how subjective this business is, and how rejections need to be treated with professionalism—agents themselves live with rejections from publishers every day.
Lastly, she elaborated on what she’s looking for in a manuscript with regard to concept, character, story, setting, theme, and voice. (Further details on each of these subjects can be found here: Julia Churchill.)
Sara O’Connor focused on world building, opening pages, character building, and plotting from an editor’s perspective.
She covered a lot of ground in a few hours, and talked almost as fast as John Green in his Vlogs. On each of the subjects, Sara supported her practical advice with examples from various children’s books, before she asked us to do short exercises on our own manuscripts. You could hear people having ‘Aha-moments’ around the room, crossing out text and scribbling in the margins of their pages. When she asked a few people to read examples from their own work, we got a sense of the diversity in our group; there were glimpses of delightful rhyming picture book texts, chapter books, middle grade adventure stories, young adult fantasy and issue-driven novels.
This packed session could easily have been a full-day workshop with exercises in small groups. Several participants commented that this was the most useful part of the workshop, even for those who weren’t primarily writing children’s fiction. (Key points and exercises can be found here: Sara O’Connor.)
For participants who have already begun the query process, most of the information was not new. Similarly, for those who have been in the self-editing process for some time, the tips were familiar ones. But the opportunity to rub shoulders with those in the business of buying and selling manuscripts was invaluable, as well as the connections and camaraderie we shared with local writers who have a similar focus.
The day ended with a Q&A touching on self-publishing, as well as varied questions from the audience. Afterwards many of us stayed a while, not wanting to leave the buzz of the room, before we left, filled to the bursting point with advice, to-read suggestions, and ideas.
Quotes from writers:
“The morning session was brilliant. Exercises on our own texts made it interactive. In the afternoon I got a bit of information overload.”
“I don’t really write for children, but I found the advice easy to apply to my own work.”
“We have seen the human face of traditional publishing and that’s comforting … but the statistics are still devastating.”
“The odds might be against us, but we write children’s fiction, so we believe in magic.”
Ten of the Best
The Woolf asked Schira, The English Bookshop’s expert on children’s YA literature for ten of her favourite books for young people.
Here’s her list:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Divergent by Veronica Roth
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Ellen Forney
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Thornthwaite Inheritance by Gareth Jones
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool