SCBWI Bologna 2010 Author-Editor Interview: Sara Grant of Working Partners

Interview by Laura Watkinson for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Hello, Sara. You wear a number of different hats. You’re both a commissioning editor and a published writer. Which came first, the writing or the publishing? How do you combine the two?

I’ve created stories since I was a little girl, imagining epic dramas for my Barbie dolls. When I was young, I was convinced I couldn’t be a writer because my spelling was appalling. (I must admit that the invention of spell check saved me.)

I wrote my first story for children when my niece was born; she’s graduating from high school this year, so it has taken me a long time and continual learning to get my first book deal.

I worked in public relations for seventeen years. During that time, I had limited success writing short stories for children. Then I moved to London, completed a degree in creative writing and changed my career. Now I feel very privileged to get to do what I love.

At Working Partners, I get to experiment with genres and develop stories for different age groups. I work on rainy-day adventures for five year olds, girly romantic comedies, and action-adventure stories for teen boys.

It’s quite a buzz to develop a new idea with other people who love children’s books as much as I do. I work with an incredibly talented group of editors and accomplished writers. I am challenged and learn from them every day.

My time at Working Partners has made me a better writer and knowing what it’s like to be on the other side of the slush pile makes me a better editor.

The more I surround myself with stories–whether it’s reading, editing or writing–the more ideas bubble to the surface. By working collaboratively with my fellow writers/editors at Working Partners, I’ve learned that there are endless ways to tell a story. I write and re-write and change and revise storylines on a daily basis. This helps me to see the same fluidity in my own writing.

When my Little, Brown editor has concerns about a plot point, I don’t despair (okay, I despair a little). I brainstorm and come with other ideas to solve the problem. A good story evolves, and it’s great when you feel the freedom of trial and error.

You have a master’s degree in creative writing from Goldsmiths College in London. Would you recommend the study route for aspiring writers? What do you think people should look for when they’re choosing a creative-writing course?

My time at Goldsmiths was by far the best educational experience of my life. I had been attending writing workshops for years–some a few hours to a week long. I knew I had a lot to learn but was at the point where I didn’t think I could improve on my own.

The two years I spent at Goldsmiths gave me loads of one-on-one tutorials as well as pushed me to read and learn from an impressive group of diverse writers. It was inspiring and helped me take my writing to the next level. They also showed me how to continually read, analyse and improve. I am still in contact with the tutors and writers I met on the course.

When looking for a creative-writing course, be clear about your objectives. I didn’t want a course that only focused on writing for children. I wanted to get outside of my comfort zone.

Be open minded and willing to experiment. Talk to the students who have graduated from the course. It’s like anything else; you get out of it what you put into it.

You’ve had stories published in children’s magazines. Could you tell us a little about this market?

There are several high-quality children’s magazines in the States that publish fiction. It’s a competitive market but a great opportunity to build your writing résumé.

For example, the Cricket Magazine Group has a series of “bug-named” publications for children from two years to teens–“Babybug,” “Ladybug,” “Spider,” “Cricket” and “Cicada.” Check out its web site, get its writers guidelines and read the publications. Many of these publications strive to be multicultural, so experiences from outside the U.S. could make you more marketable.

If you can, buy the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writers Digest) from Amazon [or any U.S. bookstore] for a complete list and author guidelines. There are hundreds of publications for a variety of interests and genres.

Tell us a little about Dark Parties, your YA novel, which is coming out in 2011. What was your path to publication?

Dark Parties is a dystopian novel about a country that generations ago closed its borders to people and ideas. No one knows what exists outside their protected society. Neva and her best friend secretly plot to force the government to open its borders. Anyone who threatens the government seems to disappear mysteriously. Neva receives a message from her grandma who vanished without a trace 10 years ago, inviting her to escape to the outside. Now she has a choice–stay and save her country or leave and save herself.

I initially wrote Dark Parties as a short story for the British SCBWI Undiscovered Voices anthology in 2008. I was intrigued by the idea but didn’t know if the story had legs. It’s much different than anything I’ve tried to write before. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.

I asked my then 15-year-old niece and another editor at Working Partners to read the short story and tell me if I was crazy. Both gave me encouraging feedback and asked, “what happens next?”

All of a sudden I had loads of ideas for the story. I thought, if it gets chosen for the anthology then I’ll write the novel. I was lucky enough to be one of the twelve chosen for the anthology, and then the work really began.

I received interest from a few editors and agents who read the anthology. The British SCBWI regional advisor gave Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg and Associates a copy of the anthology at Bologna in 2008. Jenny has been an incredible partner in this long and sometimes frustrating process. She’s offered insightful editorial feedback as well as reasoned business advice.

Before I received the offer from Little, Brown, I had the chance to chat with the Little, Brown editor who was taking my book to acquisitions. She had some excellent feedback. I knew then that she really understood what I was trying to do and would unquestionably make Dark Parties a better book. And I have not been disappointed.

I revised nearly 50 percent of the book after it was acquired. It’s been a great give-and-take with my editors at Little, Brown. I feel so honoured to have such experienced and talented editors giving my book so much care and attention.

The most important insight I can share with other writers is: Your first draft is only the beginning. No one seems to talk about how many revisions it takes to get a publishable novel. So I’m more than happy to be honest about my bumpy path to publication. Yes, there are those who write one draft and go straight to typesetting, but those people are few and far between.

In 1996, Hillary Clinton wrote a book declaring it takes a village to raise a child. I feel the same about books. It takes a community to bring a book to publication. Pick your partners in this process carefully.

Has your experience in publishing taught you any useful tricks for making it past the slush pile as a writer? Do you have any tips you could share with us?

Most of my advice comes more from being an unpublished writer than an editor:

• Network. Editors who work in children’s fiction are by and large a pretty lovely group. Get critiques from editors when you can.

• Go to writers’ events. SCBWI is a great source for these.

• Form a writers group. Get feedback on your writing from more than your family and friends.

• Never, ever stop learning and improving.

• Be willing to set a story aside and try something new. Then don’t be afraid to revise, revise and revise. Most writers don’t get the first book they write published.

• Read. Read. Read. Know and support the children’s market. Buy children’s books for yourself and every young reader you know. Writers who write for children should be reading every book in their genre they can get their hands on.

• And most importantly, if it’s your passion–never, ever give up! It took me 17 years to get my first book deal. Here’s wishing you a shorter learning curve!

Could you tell us more about Working Partners and how you go about creating new series fiction? What do you look for in new writers who approach Working Partners? Are you looking for writers at the moment?

An idea will come from one of our editors or from a publisher. A team of editors hold a one-hour brainstorming to see if the idea has legs. If the brainstorming goes well, then a team of two editors will somehow take the wild and wacky ideas we come up with and shape it into a storyline.

A storyline goes through a number of revisions until the team is satisfied that the story and characters are there.

Then we look for writers. We will invite up to ten writers to try out for the project. We provide each writer with a proposal document, which includes a short pitch, a cast list, a complete storyline for the first book and often ideas for future books. We also give them an idea of what we are looking for with regard to tone, point of view, etc. We will typically ask writers to write three chapters.

It’s always exciting to see how different writers bring the storyline to life. We look for a strong, appropriate voice for the series and originality. We like when writers invest in the story and add appropriate character and setting details while sticking to our storyline.

Sometimes you receive a sample and it’s magic. The voice is perfect, the characters sparkle and you can’t wait to turn the page–even though you know what happens next. Sometimes it’s tough to select the writer because we have a number of great samples.

We like to have four or more editors read each of the samples. We often have a meeting to discuss the merits of each sample. It’s amazing how passionate we can get about the samples we love.

Sometimes we ask one or two writers to revise their sample based on some editorial notes. We need this extra round to make our decision and to see if the writer can take direction. We look for writers who want to work as part of a team.

Our managing director will share the writing sample and a proposal with publishers in the U.S., U.K. and sometimes other markets. Once a publisher has bought the series, we contract the writer and begin to write and edit the books. Sometimes we will need more than one writer on a series. It’s the editor’s job to maintain consistency among writers.

What are Working Partners’ most popular books right now? What do you think it is about your titles that appeals to young readers?

In the U.S., we have had great success with our Warriors series.

In the U.K., Beast Quest is quite popular with boys seven plus. Other series include: Dinosaur Cove, Faerie Path, Unicorn School, Animal Ark, Chestnut Hill, Spelling B, My Sister The Vampire, Spartan Warrior, and Vampire Beach.

Working Partners taps into the power of collaboration–not only internally but collaboration with our writers and publishers. We work with so many incredible editors at publishers around the world. We benefit from learning from all these groups.

We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach. We love stories and try to create the best series for appropriate target markets.

Could you tell us about some new Working Partners projects that are particularly exciting for you?

I have two series that will be published later this year. They are a great example of the diversity in my job:

One is a charming series from Ladybird titled Puddle the Naughtiest Puppy. It’s a series of rainy-day adventures for five-to-eight year olds. The editorial team and our two talented writers have thoroughly enjoyed taking Ruby and Harry on magical adventures–from a race on a magic carpet to peril on a pirate ship sailing the high seas.

In June, Egmont will publish Striker, a new action-adventure series for teen boys. My fellow editor and I have had and absolute blast marrying the wonderful world of British football with international intrigue. Jake learns in the first book that his dad, a retired English football legend, is also a spy for MI6. Jake has natural instincts for both the football and spy game.

What are the big developments in children’s/YA fiction at the moment? Do you see any new trends developing?

It’s exciting to see bookstores creating separate sections for young adult fiction. It’s also really rewarding to see so many adults reading young adult fiction and sharing this experience with their children. (Or, if you’re childless like me, reading it for the pure joy of it!)

Paranormal romance has been huge recently. I keep thinking that surely the tide will turn, but it seems to have staying power. Like everything else, fiction has a cycle. What goes around comes around.

I think it may have something do with the age of the writers and editors tapping into the books they loved as a children. I don’t have a crystal ball for trends. I also don’t think writers should try to follow trends. Publishers are looking for originality and voice. You need a unique hook. Writers should try to pave their own way.

Do you think the eBook format or other new electronic formats will have much effect on the children’s/YA market?

I think they will, but we don’t fully understand what this will mean to young readers, but look how the iPod has revolutionized the way we purchase and listen to music. I don’t think anyone has figured the eBook out yet. But I think young readers will most likely be some of the first adapters to this new technology.

Remember the “choose your own adventure” books. Imagine how exciting that would be to have endless plot options for the book you’re reading.

I also think we might see the providers of content multiply. Distribution will change. I must admit that I’m old fashioned. I love the printed book.

Are you working on any exciting writing projects of your own at the moment? Will there be a sequel to Dark Parties?

I have ideas for a sequel to Dark Parties, but right now I’m working on another dystopian novel. It’s at that really wonderful “first love” phase of the creation process. I’m getting to know the characters and creating the setting. It’s all new and promising. The story is continuing to evolve.
I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and everything seems to swirl around the new book. I’m trying to write two connected stories in different time periods with intertwined plot lines. There are lots of new challenges ahead.

Do you remember your own first visit to the book fair in Bologna? Do you have any tips for first-time visitors to the book fair who are hoping to be published?

This is my first visit to the book fair! I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve heard it’s really overwhelming but exciting to see the world of children’s books.

Cynsational Notes

Sara Grant is a commissioning editor for Working Partners, a London-based company creating series fiction for children. Her publication credits include stories in “Spider” and “Pockets” children’s magazines, Goldfish anthology, and Undiscovered Voices, an anthology highlighting U.K. children’s writers. She also wrote on assignment for “U.S. Kids” and “Indianapolis Monthly” magazines and Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market. She earned a master’s degree in creative and life writing at Goldsmiths College in 2007. Her young-adult, futuristic novel, titled Dark Parties, was recently acquired by Little, Brown and will be published in 2011.

Laura Watkinson is a translator, from Dutch and Italian into (British) English, and an occasional writer. She translates children’s books for all ages, from picture books to YA/cross-over novels, and has recently completed projects for Piccadilly in the U.K. and Arthur A. Levine in the States. She’s a champion of books in translation and loves making different cultures accessible to younger readers.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.