Monday, July 21, 2014

Whitley Abell of Inklings Literary Agency gets Middle Grade Minded

Middle Grade Minded is pleased to host literary agent Whitley Abell of Inklings Literary Agency on the blog today.
Whitley Abell joined Inklings Literary Agency in 2013. Before joining Inklings, she completed successful internships with Carol Mann Agency and P.S. Literary Agency. She is based in St. Louis, MO, where she daylights as a production manager for several medical and S & T journals. She graduated in 2011 BA in English and Creative Writing, and again in 2012 with a MAT in Secondary English Education, which basically means she can tell you anything there is to know about feminist literary theory and the Common Core Standards.

Whitley was kind enough to answer some questions about querying and specifically querying middle grade. 

1.) What do you look for in a submission? 

In general, I'm looking for something that I can get excited about and something I can picture the audience for. In terms of middle grade specifically, I look for either a fun concept or an interesting twist or something I can easily relate to the Common Core Standards, characters that resonate with my inner child and the characters I loved growing up, and writing that feels authentic (bonus if the voice and personality can make me laugh). I also really look for authentic emotions; looking back at my middle grade years, this was when I really started getting connected to the characters, caring about them as though they were friends and worrying about their well-being while reading. This was also when, in the case of books like Number the Stars, I discovered the power of the cathartic cry fest that comes with reading.

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

Middle grade has the widest spread in terms of targeted age groups. Despite common belief, Middle Grade is not synonymous with middle school. It's not just the "tween" market (that's "upper MG"). Middle grade is where the morality line really begins to blur. There’s more grey area between right and wrong in MG than in children's chapter books…especially in upper MG. Protagonists are much more subversive and the adults are no longer portrayed as perfect pillars of society. Think of Harry Potter; if it were a chapter book instead of MG, more lessons in discipline would be learned… breaking the rules certainly wouldn't save the day and be rewarded in the end. And MG is the growing middle ground doing everything you're told and gaining the sense independence and autonomy found as a teenager. Also, there is a general lack of romantic plot line that is so prelevant in YA. Little crushes are one thing, but it's like the first season of Lizzie McGuire vs The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Or Ron's awkward crush on Fleur Delacour (MG) vs his snog-fest filled relationship with Lavender Brown (YA).

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

Middle grade—especially upper MG—is so difficult in voice because the readers are at a point where they can tell when they're being talked down to, and they know when they're being told a story to teach them a lesson (and they don't like it!). But as authors and as grow-ups, it is so easy to still view them as children. Authors can't write to MGers, they have to write as MGers. And that's hard, because it's not as easy to slip into the 8-12 year old mindset as it is your teenage mind. If you're the type to think "well, when I was a kid…" or roll your eyes at the antics of Luke on Modern Family, then MG is probably not the right market for you. It's so, so easy to come out feeling forced. The best thing a writer can do is read as much MG fiction as they can and, if possible, connect with an actual MG reader. I have a little brother who just turned 13 and in the past few years, he has really helped keep me grounded and aware of just how middle grade readers think and act and speak.

4.) What are the most common mistakes you see in submissions?

Reading the market wrong: I see book pitched as lower MG that are really still chapter books, and upper MG pitched as YA (and vice versa).

MG Redo: I see a lot of pitches that are a MG version of a YA bestseller. Trust me, if it's a best seller in YA, then the upper MG readers have already read it. We don't need a MG version of the Hunger Games.

A glaring mismatch between the age of the protagonist and the intended reader: A 12 year old doesn't want to read about a 6 year old or a 60 year old, they want to read about someone in the same general age group. And actually, a 12 year old would prefer to read about a 14 year old, and a 10 year old about a 12 year old, and so on.

Word count: I see so many upper middle grade pitches come in with books that are 20,000-25,000 words, which is too short. Though nothing is definitive, lower MG should stick around 20,000-35,000, while upper MG is around 40,000-70,000.

Overreaching comparative titles or trying too hard to emulate the best sellers (ex: Diary of a Wimpy Kid).  I hate to break it to you, but comparing your writing to Percy Jackson or Harry Potter isn't a selling point. It's OK to say that it would appeal to fans of…, but really, everyone is a fan of Harry Potter, so we'll need a lesser known title as well.

 5.) Aside from lack of interest in the premise, what makes you stop reading a submission?

The story feeling too young to MG readers (I prefer upper MG, mainly). The writing feeling  forced, didactic, or much too young. The thought that I've seen this before. (By the way, I see A LOT of MG superhero submissions in my inbox). Telling me what lesson you hope your book will teach (this isn't Seventh Heaven, and MG readers don't want to read life lessons).

6.) What are you dying to see in your inbox?

A great historical novel that gives and alternative and relatable P.O.V. to the events and people in history text books. It can be focused on a certain event (ex: Number the Stars, Letters from Rifka) or simply set in another time (ex: Beth Hilgartner's A Murder for Her Majesty).

An awesome magical realism or contemporary fantasy adventure; something that weaves the surreal into the character's everyday life. Something like A Bridge to Terabithia or Over Sea, Under Stone, both of which still pop into my mind 15 years after reading them for the first time.

A contemporary novel with a hilarious heroine that's not just poking fun of herself or mocking others and story with the depth and poignancy I've come to crave in contemporary fiction I loved Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series when I was a kid because of how honest and funny Alice McKinley was, and I positively adored Linda Urban's A Perfect Kind of Crooked (which I finally got around to reading.

And now for some fun questions. Since I know you love Harry Potter and I'm a huge fan as well, let's hop on the Hogwarts Express.

1.) What Hogwarts house would you be in?

Ravenclaw! Luna and I would totally be besties.

2.) If you could have any mythological pet from the series what would it be?

A phoenix. I've always found them fascinating. Plus I'm always cold, they could be my personal, little heater.

3.) What position would you play on the Quidditch Pitch?

Err, I'd love to say seeker, but really I have always had the worst hand-eye coordination and get easily distracted, so I probably wouldn't make it on the team. So I guess I'd be the Hermione like character, sitting in the stands looking for options to use my awesome handling of magic to catch the bad guys and help my team.

4.) What would be your best subject at Hogwarts?

Probably charms or transfiguration… I'd love to learn to take the things I imagine being able to do and make it real with a swish and flick of my wand. Either way, it definitely would not be potions; science and I so do not mix.

5.) And if you could make up a spell to do anything, what would it be?

A spell to slow down time so I can get more sleep… and read more books.

A BIG thank you to Whitley for stopping by the blog! 

Whitley is now open to queries.
She is primarily interested in Young Adult, Middle Grade, and select Upmarket Women's fiction. She likes characters who are relatable yet flawed, hooks that offer new points of view and exciting adventures, vibrant settings that become active characters in their own right, and a story that sticks with the reader long after turning the last page, be it contemporary or historical, realistic or supernatural, tragic or quirky.

She loves mythology and literary re-imaginings, heartbreaking contemporary novels, historical suspense, and craving cute romantic comedies for YA through adult (ex: Sophie Kinsella, Lauren Morrill, Stephanie Perkins).

She is not interested in vampires, werewolves, angels, zombies, dystopian societies, steampunk, or epic fantasy. Please no paranormal / fantasy for adults.

To query Whitley visit the Inklings Literary Agency website. Make sure you follow the submission guidelines!


Leandra Wallace said...

I've recently started writing a MG, and I'm definitely worried about falling into the voice trap! =) Thanks for the interview, Whitley & MGM. And yay for HP! ;)

Anna Staniszewski said...

Great tips here--thanks!