Posts Tagged Writing voice

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.

Editor Spotlight: Charlie Ilgunas’s Buzz on Middle Grade!

Charlie Ilgunas is Associate Editor at Little Bee Books, which publishes titles for kids 0-12; Little Bee’s new Middle Grade imprint is Yellow Jacket. He earned his BA from Washington University in Saint Louis and a Graduate Certificate in Publishing from the University of Denver, after which he interned at Bloomsbury before moving to Little Bee. Charlie signed his first title as an editorial assistant at Little Bee five years ago. He works mainly on picture books and middle grade.

Hi Charlie, thanks for chatting with us. I’ll say right up front that Yellow Jacket published some of my favorite middle grade titles this year and last: Rajani LaRocca’s delicious Midsummer’s Mayhem, which is getting all kinds of attention, Samuel Pollen’s The Year I Didn’t Eat, about a boy with anorexia, and Melanie Sumrow’s The Prophet Calls, which centers on a girl living inside a religious cult. These are three wildly different middle grade books in subject, theme, and tone, so I’m wondering—what made them all just right for Yellow Jacket?

That selection really speaks to the diverse tastes of our editors here at Little Bee/Yellow Jacket. Some of us are interested in delving into heavier subjects like Samuel’s, some love magical realism and reimagingings of classics like Rajani’s, and some are interested in dropping children into stories that would be completely outside their experience like Melanie’s. And though we’re still guided by our goals of publishing books about acceptance, anti-bullying, awareness, diversity, and empowerment, because middle grade is a fairly new venture for us, we have a lot of freedom to make our case for submissions that may fall outside those guidelines if we see a need in the market for something else or are just moved by a stunning manuscript.

Little Bee Becomes an Indie

In a starred review, Kirkus called Rajani LaRocca’s debut “A delectable treat for food and literary connoisseurs.”

Can you give us a little industry background on Little Bee and Yellow Jacket? I understand Little Bee was recently purchased by its original founders. What’s the relationship with Simon & Schuster? I really love how GLBTQ-positive Little Bee is. How does the partnership with GLAAD work?

Bonnier started Little Bee five years ago, and we launched Yellow Jacket’s first titles last summer. We also have a licensing imprint, BuzzPop, created about a year after Little Bee. Simon & Schuster has been our distributor since we started, and we’ve built a great relationship with their sales team. The last five years have gone pretty well for us—we’ve had such wonderful responses to so many of our books over these years. But because of circumstances outside our control, Bonnier was considering selling Little Bee. Our CEO and CFO offered to buy the company from them, and luckily that all worked out. So now we’re an independent publisher, which has been a pretty exciting transition!

Our partnership with GLAAD came about not too long after I acquired Prince & Knight. We decided we wanted to make a major commitment to publishing LGBTQ+ stories, because we saw how lacking the children’s space was at the time. Now there are so many books out there, especially heavily promoted at stores every Pride month, which warms my heart! So we were looking for partners to help us collaborate on books, developing topics and giving feedback on submissions, as well as assisting us in getting word out about them. GLAAD has been a major help in that regard.

The Buzz on Editing Middle Grade

When I ask people what makes a book middle grade, they usually say something like: a focus on friendship and family. But so many middle grade books are also exploring political activism, gender identity, mental health—subject matter that used to lean more YA. What’s your take? Are kids from 8-12 more sophisticated now? More prepared to handle tougher topics?

Middle grade stories can really go anywhere. It’s my favorite age range, because children are equipped and ready to choose books on their own for the first time and approach them with a boundless imagination, without a lot of preconceived notions and biases. In a lot of ways, the world is so much wider than YA or adult, which can feel more bound by genre.

Friendship and family go part and parcel with many good middle grade stories. It can be hard to sink your teeth into a story without a little heart to ground the characters. And friends and family are constants in all stages of life, even when (and maybe especially when) discussing political activism, gender identity, and such—how a character’s friends and family react in relation to that aspect of their identity. I don’t necessarily think the topics are tougher or heavier than middle grade books from past decades, just a little different. The topics authors are interested in discussing have evolved to engage with the issues facing children today.

Moser’s middle grade is a retelling of the Irish folktale, The Children of Lir.

From Pitch, to Pitch-Perfect

What’s the biggest factor that decides you to give a thumbs up on a book. Is it voice? Concept? What do you consider “fixable” and what isn’t?

Voice, voice, voice! Concept may get me to read a submission quicker, as it’s the first thing I see of any project in an agent’s pitch. But concept without a voice driving the story is just so disappointing. We want to love each submission that we choose to read! Even so, if the writing is of good quality, voice is fixable, but takes a more intense investment than editing story holes and plot elements. You have to read and reread, and delve deep into the heart of the story, and figure out a way to get the author to focus and bring it out a little more in the characters they create.

How hands on are you as an editor with books you acquire? What’s the most intensive editorial project you’ve ever worked on?

It really depends on the project. Some are written so well that I don’t need to do much development work; I can focus on line editing and transitions and such. But some stories need rewriting/restructuring. That has happened more with picture books at this point, since we are newer to acquiring middle grade! Two of the most intense projects I worked on recently, one was a nonfiction picture book about a trans Civil War soldier. The other was a middle grade retelling of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

The picture book involved so much outside reading (including a 200-page pension file!) as well as photo research to make sure the illustrator’s work was as accurate to the time as possible. For the middle grade book, I did a lot of research into tenth-century Baghdad—the buildings there at the time, the layout of the city, the clothes people wore . . . all fantastically interesting to investigate!

Lenzi’s novel is a reimagining of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” told from the perspective of Marjana.

What unique talents or perspectives do you think you bring to the table as an editor? Are you as friendly as your patronus, the capybara?

Curiosity has been a huge benefit. If I’m reading about something in a submission that I find interesting and think, huh, that’s new to me! Let’s learn a little more about that, that often leads me to discover something else tangentially related that I can discuss with the author about incorporating, or something we can tie to another element of the story. I’m generally interested in history/nonfiction. So it’s not really a chore to do a lot of outside research to make sure the story we’re telling is accurate—it’s a fringe benefit!

And hah, I like to think of myself like that! Friendly, stoic, and easygoing!

What’s on Charlie’s Wish List?

Are there any under-represented MG genres or topics you’d like to see more of? Any trends that really excite you?

Survival stories! In the purely fictional realm, that is. I’ve been looking for one ever since I got outbid on a fantastic submission. Hatchet was one of my favorite books as a kid. I would love to find a nail-biting survival story along those lines.

Other than write the next book, what’s the most effective thing an author can do, pre- or post-publication, to help boost sales of his or her books?

Find a community of authors (published or unpublished) to engage with and share work with. Either to critique and improve a manuscript ahead of an agent submitting it to publishers, or to just enjoy and talk about with friends after a book gets published. I see it as a much more fun version of networking! Authors are so supportive of each other. Becoming fans of each others’ work has benefits as far as sales, too, because if one author has success with a book, they can blurb their friend’s book, or talk to booksellers about it, or do joint signings, panels, etc., bringing the book to their own fans.

Up Next for Yellow Jacket

Crumbled is the first in a series introducing the hilarious Nobbin Swill.

What do you have forthcoming in middle grade?

Fiadhnait Moser’s The Serendipity of Flightless Things comes out in mid-August; it has utterly amazing writing. I was so blown away by some of the passages, and I still think about them all the time. It’s a retelling of the Irish folktale The Children of Lir. It gets quite spooky in the second half!

Crumbled!, the first book in Lisa Harkrader’s new series, The Misadventures of Nobbin Swill, comes out in late August. It is so hilarious, I was just laughing at my desk the first time I read it. And the follow-up, Croaked! (2020) may be even funnier! I love it, too, because it is heavily illustrated in two-color, and I think the illustrations really add to the humor.

And finally, the aforementioned The Forty Thieves: Marjana’s Tale, coming out in October. Christy Lenzi reimagines “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” told from the perspective of Marjana, the girl who keeps saving Ali Baba from the wrath of the thieves after he’s found their treasure. She created a story that adds so much emotional depth to the original, and I can’t wait to get it into readers’ hands!

Thanks so much for your time, Charlie!

You can learn more about Charlie and follow him at:
Twitter: https://twitter.com/chillgunas
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cilgunas/
Little Bee Books Website: https://littlebeebooks.com/

Bookshelves

I wasn’t a very good reader as a kid. I struggled. But I loved books. The pages, the pictures, the covers, the smells all enticed the young me even as the words eluded me. I loved going to the library and walking down the aisles of shelves looking at the book spines and the volumes on display.

Eventually, I got the reading help I needed and those shelves became even more magical. I still visit the library and wander up and down the aisles looking at the books on the shelves. I still get the side-eye from librarians when they ask me if I need help. I also get the side-eye from kids in the children’s book section when I scour the bookshelves like an interloper in their world.

The Shelves

Books are magical things.

Bookshelves house that magic. Bookshelves arrange and display the magic, keeping it safe and accessible.

My son recently bought a house and moved out. I took over his old room as my office. My first real office! After the remodeling and painting, I moved in. Desk. Chairs. Rug. Bookshelves!

I can proudly say that I was able to move my book collection from the myriad of shelf spaces around the house to my new bookshelf setup. My wife even found an awesome little companion bookshelf at a garage sale to showcase the special books in my book collection.

Shelves of Power

All this shelf work got me thinking about how the books on our bookshelves say volumes about who we are as readers, writers, and human beings. 

What can our bookshelves tell us about ourselves? Do the contents reflect our personality? Our likes?

How about our goals and dreams?

Pause for a moment and look at the individual books on your bookshelf. Do they bring up a memory of a time or place? Did they teach you something new or how to do something better? 

I have books which have entertained me for years—books I’ve read half a dozen times and discovered something new each time. There are books on the shelf which remind me of family. Some titles I remember being on the limited bookshelf in the house where I grew up. There are the World Book encyclopedias and their companion yearbooks, circa 1971 thru 1987, my parents purchased for us six kids at a great financial sacrifice.

On my bookshelf, there are the books I read to my kids while they sat on my back on the bedroom floor and listened before falling asleep. There’s the complete hardback set of Harry Potter books, with the Goblet of Fire to Deathly Hallows books bought in the pre-dawn hours of their release days. Sports books, coaching books, writing books, classics, science texts, mentor texts, my growing Native American author section, etc. A seemingly random assortment of books in a myriad of subject matter, but books which reflect who I am and/or who I want to be.

  • Memories.
  • History.
  • Knowledge.

A whole life represented. A collection of hopes and dreams. Some of the threads woven into the fabric that has become my middle-grade-leaning writing voice. Each book on the shelf traveling in orbit through my personal universe.

How about your bookshelves?  Do they represent more of who you are or who you want to be? Or a nice mixture of both?

Library Shelves

Take a stroll down the aisle of your local library.

Can you get a picture of who your community is by the books shelved there? Is the personality of the community reflected in the titles on the shelves? Can you get a sense of place by walking the shelves of your local library?

If you have the good fortune to live near or have access to a college or university, have you ever visited its libraries?

From my experiences, I can honestly say they are marvelous places. The main library, the college-specific libraries, and the technical libraries, all work in concert to represent the institution and its mission. Liberal arts, engineering, medicine, agriculture, law, whatever the main focus of the institution is, it’s reflected on the shelves of its libraries.  

Furniture?

To lit-minded folks like us, a bookshelf is more than a mere piece of furniture. Much more.

Bookshelves house our life maps. They act as our compass for when we get lost. They’re our windows to the imagination. They contain magical doors to possibility and potential, knowledge and hope. As I sit here and look a the bookshelf I’ve put together, I’m reminded of the impact those books sitting on those shelves have on the formation of me as a human being. The sofa doesn’t do that. The rocking chair doesn’t. The end table is just an end table. A bookshelf just a piece of furniture? No way!

Please tell us about your favorite bookshelf. Share a photo or share what that particular bookshelf means to you. You can leave your bookshelf love in the comments below or on Twitter. Let’s have some fun with this and tweet your message to @mixedupfiles and hashtag it with #MUFbookshelf.

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Read. Write. Repeat.