Monday, January 20, 2014

Danielle Smith of Foreword Literary gets Middle Grade Minded!

You've all heard of the her, folks.

She's part of the mega-awesome agency known as Foreword Literary. You can find her on Twitter, firing off tweets with the speed of a spur-wearing gunslinger. She's got a web presence that even John Green envies.

That's right--I'm talking about the book-loving, deal-making super-agent...

Danielle Smith!


Danielle was gracious enough to spend some time answering the most pressing MG questions we could fire at her. And she pretty much nailed it. Check out her amazing insights to the MG writing, agenting, and publishing world!

What do you look for in a MG Submission?

Emotions. That may seem like a very broad statement, but think back to your own middle grade years and I imagine you'll remember it was nothing if not an emotional roller coaster.

Initially, before I even read the manuscript I want the query to show some personality. This may be something specific to my own experience, but I've found that middle grade writers tend to exude a certain personality (that I love) that is very different from almost any genre. Either they're more considerate by personalizing the query carefully to me or it's simply a matter of having me in stitches before I'm finished with the query.

Within the manuscript I want to cry, laugh and feel so connected to the main character that I'd hug or high five them if I saw them in real life (of course not in front of all their friends though, perish the thought).
All of that said, I'm not asking for trained circus monkeys as clients and if the writing is good it will speak for itself.

What things do you think define Middle Grade and set it apart from the other age groups?

So much. More than any other time of life, that period from about 8 to 13 years old is a time when so many things change for the very first time in a child's life. Not to mention how often a huge wrench gets thrown into the mix, things like sickness, divorce of parents, friends moving or changing, etc. It's truly one of the very first times in a persons life when they actively recognize and move toward defining themselves.

All of this is why middle grade stands apart from other genres and age groups. Of course some of these things happen later or earlier in life, but this is truly a pivotal time in a persons experience and a time I love to relive through each character I encounter.

We frequently hear that MG voice is difficult to get right. Why do you think it's so tough? And what can a writer do to help nail down their MG voice?

An MG voice has to feel authentic. There is no faking the feeling of emptiness and despair that comes with having a parent pack up and move out in the middle the school year, especially when your best friend has abandoned you for the "cool kids" for the first time. It has to feel honest and true. This, more than any other genre in my opinion, cannot be faked.

My biggest and best suggestion beyond telling you to keep writing is to keep reading. Go to your local bookstore, pull off a dozen of the best middle grade books out there right now (think of authors like Anne Ursu, Adam Gidwitz, Holly Goldberg Sloan, Christopher Healy, etc.) and then read the first one to two pages of each. Hear the varying voices as you read. If you can, read them outloud or listen to someone read them to you. I promise, you will see very clearly how distinct those voices are and how it may help you with your own writing. I've always believed that one of the best ways to improve your writing is to read.

What are the most common mistakes you see in a MG submission?

I'd say there are a few basic things that any good researcher would likely already know. Things like excessive word counts stated in the query (ie. 120k for an MG is WAY too long), not addressing your query to the appropriate agent or simply not researching what it is I like. I get a number of queries also that are too long and detailed. I'm a fan of succinct queries, two or three paragraphs to get me hooked and tell me a little about you & your book is all I need.

In terms of the manuscripts I see in MG, my biggest concerns are with voice and point of view. These can often go hand in hand. Explore varying POVs if you think it might improve your voice. Also, a lacking supporting cast is another common problem I run into. Don't only focus on your main character, but be sure the friends and family in the background are also well developed. Great examples of this are books like THE FOURTH STALL by Chris Rhylander and PICKLE by Kim Baker, which are both favorites of mine.

What are you dying to see in your inbox?

At the very top of my list is a manuscript with magical realism. I am a big fan of the adult fiction author Sarah Addison Allen and the middle grade author, Laurel Snyder. I would love to see something in middle grade along those lines.

I'd really love a middle grade novel with a hilarious heroine that's not making fun of herself or others, often it's the boys that are the funny ones and I know that's not always the case in real life.

I'm also on the hunt for more great chapter books like IVY & BEAN by Annie Barrows and THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER by Kevin Henkes. Basically anything that makes me feel all the emotions, I want to feel connected to the characters and disconnected from the world around me. Send me a book that I get completely lost in and I'll be over the moon.

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Danielle Smith represents picture books and middle grade authors and illustrators. To check out her current wish list and submission requirements, visit the Foreword Literary website.

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