Posts Tagged SCBWI

Agent Spotlight: Alexander Slater, Trident Media Group

Alex Slater has been with Trident Media Group since 2010. His clients include Ali Novak, Janae Marks, Jodi Kendall, and other award winning and bestselling authors. He is most interested in stories that blend genres, in characters that have been historically underrepresented, and in voices that enrapture him to the point of missing his subway stop. His list focuses intently on middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction, but peppered throughout are adult thrillers, literary fiction, Coen Brothers-esque crime noir, pop culture, narrative nonfiction, and in particular, graphic novels for all ages. Alex lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

It’s not often I get a rush of excitement reading an agent’s manuscript wishlist, but Alex Slater’s tweets hashtagging #MSWL set my heart aflutter. Just one of my many favorites:

Please send me #MG that you’re afraid pushes the envelope, concerning topics some might think “aren’t suitable”…yet that’s exactly why you had to write it. Send me your truth. #MSWL

Who could resist a request like that? Slater’s wishlists beg for qualities like “empathy,” “heart” and “humanity,” paired with concepts that “burn down white supremacy,” in genres including creepy MG, graphic novels, and work by marginalized authors. This lit agent also gets serious props from current clients like Keah Brown, who gushed not long ago: “he just lets me be and fights for the things he knows I want. He’s a real one.”

Slater’s clients include two 2020 middle grade debuts, Claire Swinarski (What Happens Next) and Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington). He reps graphic novelist Breena Bard (Tresspassers) and middle grade authors Amy Ephron (The Other Side of the Wall), Jennifer Blecher (Out of Place), historical nonfiction kidlit author Tim Grove (Star Spangled, May 2020), and Adam Perry (The Magicians of Elephant County).

Welcome Alex!

I love that you’re actively soliciting middle grade fiction that addresses topics that some may consider unsuitable. I’m drawn to books like this myself. But aren’t you courting a massive headache? How would you go about persuading an editor (or for that matter, a librarian, parent, bookseller) that envelope-busting middle grade subjects are not “niche” books with low sales potential (or perhaps worse, books likely to be censored or rejected by gatekeepers)?

FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks is an important and timely debut about systemic racism, criminal justice, and cupcakes.

The Congressman, and award-winning children’s book author, John Lewis has devoted his life to getting into “good trouble,” that is, engaging in types of civil disobedience, and it’s an activity we should all participate in. Getting into necessary trouble that pushes boundaries and changes minds for the better is my goal as an agent and as a human being.

In regards to the books I help publish, that means seeking out stories with the themes, characters, or plots that the gate-keepers of the past didn’t trust children enough with. That gate-keeping got us to where we are today. If we don’t push past it, if we don’t ask more questions, or seek more stories, we don’t progress to where we need to be for our children’s children. So yes, it’s a risk to ask editors, booksellers, or teachers to step into this same frame of mind, but I will point out that it’s only bestselling books that ever get banned.

You’ve been in the lit agent business for a decade now. What’s changed in the middle grade marketplace in that time? What changes are you excited about, what changes less so?

In the past decade, publishers finally began believing that audiences want more diversity in their literature. The bestseller lists don’t lie, and more stories that exist outside of the white American experience have been breaking on to it. Middle grade books with people of color on their covers are no longer automatically shelved, artwork hidden, into a section at the back of the bookstore. They are now face out, front and center, on display when you walk inside, or featured on websites. And while diversity is no longer as hidden, and in fact it’s celebrated and sold, the numbers continue to show that predominantly white stories are being published, and the marginalized stay marginalized. There is still much work to be done.

Breena Bard’s graphic novel, TRESPASSERS, publishes in May 2020.

Another part of the marketplace that cannot be ignored is the explosion of graphic novels and their high demand among readers. In just the past couple years we’ve seen practically every major publisher establish their own graphic novel imprint, if they didn’t have one already, and a vast majority of the graphic novels that are selling so well are for middle grade audiences. Five years ago most agents were barely looking for or taking on graphic novelists because the books were so costly to produce and the advances were too small to justify the time. Now, the exact opposite is going on. I had a graphic novel sell last year in a six-figure auction, on only a proposal. Some might say this is just a bubble, but again, whole imprints operate now for these stories, and as a category they’re selling better than any other book in all of publishing. It’s a really exciting time because it feels like creators have all the control.

What do you consider the biggest challenges for new authors trying to break in at this moment?

If we frame this question with the theory that fewer books are being bought in bookstores, and therefore even fewer manuscripts are being acquired by publishers, the big challenge is getting an editor to see and strive for the long-game in children’s publishing. What I mean is, editors are under a lot of pressure within their companies to acquire books that will make a big splash, and usually, those tend to be debuts.

However, if an editor truly just loves a beautiful, quiet, meaningful novel that doesn’t have real film/TV potential yet, it’s harder for them to ask their companies to invest in it. And if they do, it’s harder still to ask them to invest in that author’s second book, because the sales numbers “weren’t there” to continue justifying that investment. My main goal is to launch careers, and that shortsightedness makes it difficult for everyone.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, by Claire Swinarski, is a beautiful middle grade debut about sisters, secrets, and astronomy.

How do you help your clients build a career, rather than just being one-hit wonders?

Well to expand on my last answer, the way to build a career is to make the best decisions you can along the path of that career. That means going with the right publisher, if you’re lucky enough to get a book offer. It means, at the outset, asking them what marketing and publicity plans they intend to engage in when the book publishes. I’ve had auction situations with my clients that presented us with options like: a higher advance here, but no marketing plans yet; or, a lower advance there, but a fully dedicated team and set of criteria aimed at marketing the book in a great way. In the end, we’ve gone with the lower advance, but with the publisher and editor we feel the most confident in.

That’s having your eye on the long-game. And having an agent to discuss these choices and decisions with is essentially just career managing. When you don’t have these options it of course gets much tougher, and ultimately, I work with my clients to help them make the best work they can so we can get to that place.

How editorial are you as an agent? Can you give us an example of the kind of editorial advice you might offer a middle grade debut author? What kinds of traps or mistakes do you see new authors making/falling into most often? What kinds of editorial work do you think you’re particularly good at or suited to?

In THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL, internationally bestselling author Amy Ephron takes readers to London at Christmastime, where a fantastical journey awaits.

Once at an SCBWI event I was critiquing an excellent opening chapter. I told the writer to please send me the full manuscript after the conference. When she did, I realized the rest of the novel needed substantial work. But I loved the ideas she had and, more than anything, the character’s voice was stunning. So we spent about 9 months going back and forth with edits, working on the novel act by act. I’m happy to say it eventually sold to a major publisher.

So that’s the advice I would give: break the book down to its parts. Map the project out with index cards; storyboard it. Scene by scene. And always, always, read the book out loud to yourself. It helps fine tune the characters voices, and shows you trip-ups in the prose.

You seem to really get around as an agent, particularly since you worked in the foreign rights department for Trident. Two questions: What qualities make a middle grade book likely to be picked up by foreign publishers?

Foreign publishers are looking for the same thing domestic publishers are looking for; stories their readers will connect with. If you have a novel about baseball, for example, it’s going to be difficult to convince those editors to buy a book about a sport their audiences know nothing about. However it’s all relative. A country like Japan though, would be interested in baseball! But the UK? Not likely. Meanwhile, genres like the Western actually do work in places like Germany!

Anyway, it’s a fun part of the business. Overall, foreign publishers love irresistible characters, like everyone else. And indeed, some foreign publishers are a lot slower in adding necessary diversity to their lists, but they usually follow the lead of American houses, so that is changing.

And: I’m assuming you hear a fair amount of juicy gossip. What’s the hot topic of the moment for people in the kidlit industry worldwide?

I’m hearing that vampires are back, pass it on.

Author Tim Grove tells the little-known and inspiring story behind the national anthem and the stars and stripes.

Tell us about some of the new and debut books your clients have coming out in 2020. What do these books have in common—or rather, what’s the thread that connects your sensibility to the books you acquire?

A book that just published, and was mentioned previously is FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks. I’m very proud to represent this important and timely novel about systemic racism, criminal justice, and cupcakes. Also out soon is WHAT HAPPENS NEXT by Claire Swinarski, which is a beautiful middle grade debut about sisters, secrets, and astronomy.

And STICK WITH ME by Jennifer Blecher will be out later in the year (cover to be revealed). It’s her second book, and it continues to discuss bullying and finding your voice during those difficult middle grade years. Personally, all these books share a strength of narrative voice that makes me gasp with how alive the characters feel, and with how permanently they etch themselves onto my heart.

Anything you’d like to elaborate on that I haven’t asked you? How’s life treating you?

Life is great, thank you! Our son Miles just recently turned one, and while my reading pile is getting backed up these days, my peek-a-boo skills have never been sharper.

Follow Alex’s infrequent tweets @abuckslater.

Notes From a Writing Workshop

As Co-Regional Director of Florida’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I help organize and attend two fairly large conferences per year. This past weekend, we held our Mid-Year Workshop at Disney World, and I was again astounded at the generosity of our presenters who shared so much of their knowledge.

I couldn’t possibly summarize the whole of what was presented and shared in handouts, but the following is a tiny taste of the advice that resonated with me and might with you as a writer and/or a discerning reader of middle-grade fiction.

From Janice Hardy, author and creator of Fiction University

On avoiding info dumps:

  • Keep the information you need to get across in the point-of-view of a specific character and let that character have an opinion on what he or she is talking about.
  • Let the info be triggered naturally by what’s going on in the scene.
  • Slip the info in during an argument, as people say all kinds of things during a fight, and it’s believable.

Your ultimate plotting test:

If you took a specific scene out, what wouldn’t happen? If nothing would change, then the scene is probably doing nothing to affect the story.

On setting:

  • A well-developed setting grounds readers in that world.
  • Setting provides inherent conflicts and obstacles to struggle with. (If you moved the story or scene to a different location what would change?)

From Agent Michael Stearns, Upstart Crow Literary

 On writing middle grade:

Middle grade stories are often outwardly focused, i.e., things happening to the character can be more important than what happens within the character. Although “that matters very much to the climax of the book, when the outward events trigger an inner change.”

On writing a book:

Write a thousand words a day of your work-in-progress. No more. No less. Stearns says the number can vary a bit, but writing every day makes it easier to enter the “fictive dream.”

From Best-Selling Writer, Lisa Yee

On writing your villain:

Try to show a reason your villain acts the way he/she does. Your villain needs a back story, too.

 

From the Middle Grade Workshop with Lisa Yee, Alexandra Penfold, and Tricia Lin

  • MG fiction has Main Character looking out into the world
  • MG has hopeful perspective
  • MG characters don’t necessarily dissect their feelings; they just feel them

MG years are an age where you want to be an individual, but you also want to belong.

Many thanks to these professionals for sharing their knowledge.

 

Prompting Writing: Re-energizing a Draft

At some point in the middle of a piece of writing, whether it’s a short story or a full-length manuscript, I invariably hit a slump. Given the number of publications, workshops, tools, and challenges out there, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone!

Here are some tools that might be useful to you in moving a recalcitrant manuscript forward.

Books

Of course we all read books about writing. Every writer has their favorite dog-eared copy of certain books.

One that continues to inspire me to create writing that is filled with my own spirit is Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K LeGuin. How could LeGuin NOT write a really great book about writing? Working through the exercises in this book has taught me how powerful a change in point of view, length of sentence, or approach to paragraph structure can be in “waking up” a manuscript that has become predictable. More than one of my Mixed Up Files buddies recommended exercise just like these when I asked for help. I’m listening!

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, helps simply because I can open it and find something to inspire me, to reassure me, or even to push me to try something with more abandon.

A friend just pulled this lovely little book off her shelf, remembered how helpful it has been for her, and got me my own copy for my birthday. I can’t wait to dive in to Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, as I work and re-work this manuscript to make it even better.

Workshops and other in-person learning opportunities

Shortly after I inherited my father’s publishing company, I attended Write on the Sound, a local writing conference, after years of wishful thinking. It was just right for me – small and welcoming and not too scary as I dove headlong into the world of writing and publishing.

What I discovered was the gift of deep inspiration and commitment that can be found when you encounter a really good instructor. The lessons I learned about historical fiction from the lecturer were powerful tools I share with students today.

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Another favorite workshop introduced me to exercises based on author and creativity coach Deb Lund’s  fun deck of cards called “Fiction Magic.” These provocative questions, prompts, orders, magic tricks can be used in a variety of ways. It was really fun to play with them in person with their creator and a room full of enthusiastic writers.

Of course there is my local SCBWI chapter to turn to for inspiration and help – amazing meetings, drink nights (which are often sketching/noodling/doodling and writing nights, too), and also the meet ups with other authors that have come about because we discover like interests or common writing hangouts. I learn much from doing exercises on the page, but I learn even more for getting together with other people and talking about the process, the ideas, the struggles…

Challenges

I love deadlines, too. They motivate me. At least, they usually do!

I have participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) several years running, which for the uninitiated is a month-long sprint challenge in which writers all over the world attempt to finish a manuscript draft of at least 50,000 words. This challenge is not for the faint of heart, and requires a huge commitment. For getting the bones of a new book onto the page, it’s fantastic. And the fancy certificate you get at the end (along with discounts from a wide variety of writing-related vendors.

For the most part, I prefer my challenges in more manageable chunks; though NaNo is something I look forward to each year, I can’t always give up the month of November to hide in my writing cave.

Here are two shorter ones I’ve used with good success in the revision stages of my work, when it’s easy to put other things first (since I edit for others as well, I often put my writing at the bottom of the list. Small challenges help me to put it in the spotlight in reasonable ways).

WFMAD- Write Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Laurie Halse Anderson

http://madwomanintheforest.com/wfmad-day-1-lets-start-at-the-beginning-shall-we/

All you need to do is read these posts from 2013 and you will be able to create your own challenge. Invite your friends to join you. This series comes with great stuff to do beyond writing for 15 minutes- it really is an invitation to examine your writing and get over being afraid to just DO it.

Write Daily 30 – Linda Urban

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Middle Grade author Linda Urban has offered this challenge/support several times, where you sign up on a shared spreadsheet and post your progress. You create your own goal and the others in the challenge prod you and hold your hand. I’ve presented my own a couple of times since, without the spreadsheet, just daily tweets with the hashtag #WriteDaily30 for 30 days. I’ve made tremendous progress on projects by having the accountability to check in frequently and cheer for others.

I happen to be subbing in Middle School writing lab as I put finishing touches this post (I’ve been encouraged to use my own writing practice to set a good example for students). They are calling on their classmates for inspiration and using images to jump start ideas, and I’m watching.

What tools do you use to move your writing forward?

 

In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, THE BEST OF IT: A JOURNAL OF LIFE, LOVE AND DYING, was published in 2009. Her current work focuses on historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is proprietor of Homeostasis Press, and blogs at The Best of It. She manages Gather Herean online history site for middle grade readers and teachers.