Irish PEN event: Writing for Children and Young People
Chaired by author Sarah Webb, and with a stellar panel consisting of; Puffin Ireland editor, Paddy O’Doherty, children’s book writer and illustrator Oisin McGann, literary agent Julia Churchill and debut novelist Anna Carey, this was an extremely informative, yet fun, evening for anyone interested in writing for children and young people. The audience consisted mainly of new writers, including students from Sarah’s creative writing class at the Irish Writers Centre, but there were plenty of established writers also in attendance including Judi Curtin and R.F. Long (both hiding at the back).
Each panelist gave a five minute talk on their area of expertise before the floor was handed over to the audience for questions. Throughout the hour and a half long session, a vast amount of information was passed to the audience, covering everything from reasons behind writing for children, how to submit manuscripts, details on what agents and publishers are looking for and how to approach signing a book contract.
When it comes to the writing process, Anna chose to write teen book because “in teenage years, emotions are so heightened, it lends itself to the melodramatic and is a great source of comedy. I wanted to write a funny book.” Anna also discussed the importance of writers reading, both for enjoyment and for research. “I never stopped reading children’s and teen literature and I think any good book for aged 11+ should be good for an adult too if it’s well written.” Oisin described the different expectations regarding word count, language and editing when writing for different age groups. But in all cases, he lets the story dictate what the reading age will be; “the story comes first and the reader age comes second. In books for younger children, the illustrations help carry the story but by the time you get to young adult fiction, story is king.” In short, you need to have great ideas, perfect them with a passion and know your market before you start pitching them.
This outlook was mirrored by Paddy and Julia. Paddy gave some specific examples of where the gaps are at Puffin Ireland, (such as another huge ‘boy’ series, a comical series and a tear jerker) but then quickly added – “of course, that doesn’t mean that’s all we’re looking for. We’re open to everything. We’re looking for a great voice and an original story.” Likewise, Julia doesn’t follow trends in publishing because “there’s such a small window – it has to be right thing at the right time.” For Julia, there are six important pieces to the publication puzzle; “concept, character, story setting, theme, voice and hook – all these things need to fuse into a great story.” She pointed out that manuscripts never arrive on her desk ready to go to publishers but (thankfully!) she loves the slush pile and is always open to the next big surprise. “The story needs to be fresh and something I can work with so it can be pitched with clarity.” To help demonstrate this point, Julia read several (and masterful) examples of books that she has pitched to publishers – and, as you would expect, they all sounded amazing. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is the easy part; writing a decent pitch is an art form and needs plenty of time and edits.
So, how do you approach publishers and agents?
The consensus is that it’s fine to approach publishers directly although there are fewer open submissions being accepted. Plus, having an agent has its advantages; for instance, an editor will read a manuscript more quickly if passed on by an agent. It’s also fine to send submissions out to several publishers/agents at once; Julia recommended ten at a time but everyone on the panel agreed that precise records need to be kept so that time isn’t wasted and submissions aren’t duplicated. Another general consensus; “you need skin like an armadillo” (Oisin). Trying to secure an agent or a publisher is tough and takes lots of time and patience. However,“persistence pays, harassment doesn’t,” warns Oisin. “Once you’ve got a submission out there, be patient.”
For those who have already sent out submissions and have been rejected, here’s a bit of consoling information: Malorie Blackman had 82 rejections and Kate Miller had 350 rejections. It’s part of the business so all is not lost if you receive a rejection (or several). But if you do secure a publishing contract and don’t have an agent, the Irish Writers Union is on hand to help; successful novelist Conor Kostick is available at the union to look over proposed contracts and give advice.
Light-hearted yet extremely useful, this was a fabulous evening and well worth watching out for in the future. Sarah was a delightful Chair for the event and in a fabulously giddy mood: please note, everyone, Sarah definitely does not like books that contain rabbits in jackets (though Anna would consider rabbits dressed as kittens and a love story set in space)!
Elizabeth Rose Murray lives in West Cork where she writes full time and lives the rural dream. Represented by Sallyanne Sweeney of Watson Little Ltd, London, she has a particular interest in writing for children and Young Adults. Heavily involved in the literary scene since moving to Ireland in 2008, Elizabeth was part of a live writing installation, Ciudades Parallelas: Station, in 2012 as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. She has also worked as professional blogger for most of the major festivals including Listowel Writers Week, Dublin Writers Festival, Ulster Bank Theatre Festival, Cork Spring Literary Festival and Dublin Book Festival. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @ERMurray or visit her website Green Fingered Writer to find out what she’s up to next.