Tips for Nailing Your Middle Grade Audition

Here’s how it works: Typically, a book packager, literary development company, or publisher will have a concept or a series already in place. The editors have all sat around a table, throwing popcorn at each other and braiding one another’s hair and now have this idea that they are super proud of. One problem: They need someone to write it.

Meanwhile, you’ve been pounding your head against the keyboard, drinking copious amounts of coffee and applying for every writing job you’ve ever seen posted on your most frequented and beloved message boards. You’re a YA writer? Who cares! Throw caution to the wind! Apply for that middle grade series! Oh wait? They wrote you back? Damn. You’ve never even read a middle grade book before? And they want a sample in a month?

Of course, not like this was ME when I decided to apply for my first work-for-hire. I’m just saying…in case anyone was interested…

Here’s the deal. A book packager is typically going to want a 4,000-ish word audition based on an outline or a spark. The packager will generally want close third person, which for many writers can feel like a huge leap from the way they write their own work. Here are a few starting tips on how to nail your Middle Grade Audition:

1.  Vary your sentence structure. A lot of people aren’t used to writing from a close, third person point of view. I know I wasn’t. It can feel like you are typing, “Main character does this. Main character does that,” over and and over gain. So remember that you can use many of the same “tricks” from your first person writing. Use questions to show what the protagonist is thinking. Add shorter punchy sentences that sound voicey but could actually work from either point of view. (i.e. “This was not good.”– works for first, works for third).

2.  You can use direct thought. For instance, a sentence in your character’s words can be a fun, easy way to jazz up the page. Slap italics on it and voila!

3. Watch your word choices. Just because you are writing from third doesn’t mean you can go around using all those fancy words from your Webster’s Dictionary desk calendar. Third person still has voice and you want to choose words that are as close to your protagonist’s voice as possible. But good news: That opens up a whole bottle of fun, new words that your protagonist would say…like…loop-the-loop or curly-cue or icky. See? Way better.

4. Have fun with the details. Is a character typing an email? Write it out and use that space to showcase the protagonist’s voice. Is the character listening to a song by a fictional band? Give me some of the lyrics. What’s the band’s name? Is there something silly going on in the background of your scene? Play with a few lines of dialogue for a comedic interlude.

5. Remember your audience. For instance, if it’s middle grade girls, don’t skimp on the description of clothes and fun accessories.

6. The publisher’s outline is both a blessing and a curse. You’re never left wondering what to do next, but it can be hard to distance yourself from the outline enough to add your own flavor. It may be helpful to get the bare bones of the story down first and then go back without the outline to embellish. This means you have to…

7. …Leave enough time. Something I’m bad at, but I know I always do a better job when I have a bit of distance. It’s tempting to say you can churn out 4k words in 24 hours, but don’t. Still leave time for your beta readers’ imput because even though you won’t have as much commentary about plot from them, this is an exercise that focuses on the actual word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence craft of writing. Tell your critique partner the feel of the book that you are striving for. Share the pitch with them if you can. That way that reader understands the effect you are trying to create.

8. If you get the opportunity, ask questions. Sometimes this isn’t appropriate. But I have worked for editors with which I was able to chat before I began. I find it helpful to ask what they would compare this work to. X Meets X. This gives a better idea of the voice which they envision. This is their baby, too, after all. Then ask them to describe the book with a few adjectives. Is it campy? Snarky? Melodramatic? Anything to help give you direction. It can be tough when you are working off someone else’s concept.

What Ghostwriting Has Done For Me: Made me feel more legit

So it turns out writing a novel takes a lot of freaking time. Like, a lot. And last time I checked there are still only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Furthermore, it is scientifically impossible to find success as a novelist without writing a novel. (Seriously, it’s science, people.)

This leads to a horrible conundrum with which I’m sure a lot of you can relate. Namely, this time has to come from somewhere, which means, that it’s going to cut into time with your friends and family. Which means you’re going to have a couple options: (1) You can make up a serious, yet sporadic disease that will allow you to quarantine yourself in your room while you secretly write a book; (2) you may spontaneously adopt a new religion that requires you to become a hermit; (3) you can admit that what you’re actually doing is writing and risk suffering a million “Next Great American Novel” jokes potentially for all time.

But seriously, it can be hard for your friends and family to know how to take the fact that you suddenly want to spend beaucoup time writing. Sure, you know that you’re doing all the research, checking all the message boards, stalking every agent/editor on Twitter, but for all they know you’re writing haiku on a napkin and thinking it’s art, yanno? So, it can be awkward and embarrassing to try to legitimize this time you’re spending. I can’t tell you how many times I hear from my writer friends that their spouse/kids/friends/parents are somewhat incredulous about the necessity of taking time off to write.

For me, ghostwriting has helped me legitimize that. First and foremost, it’s allowed me to point to contracts and deadlines and say, “No, I HAVE to get this done. It’s no longer an, “I want to get this done” or “This is important to me.” It’s an “I will break this contract if I don’t get my work finished.” Plus, I make money doing it. Money people understand, even when they don’t necessarily understand the desire to get something published. Maybe it’s silly and, I’m certainly not saying that my friends and family weren’t supportive before, but it has personally helped me be more okay with taking time to improve my and work on my craft.

Also, I think it’s good because it’s been a way to show my non-writer peeps that this is something I’m actually serious about. I’m not writing haikus on napkins. I have some talent for it–or at least enough of a stubborn streak to figure it out–and I’ve experience a degree of success at it.

They know I can complete a novel. And my parents or whoever can point to a series on the shelf and say, Hey, THAT is what Chandler writes for. I think, all around, it makes people a bit more comfortable with the number of hours I spend on this whole thing. And it makes getting my own work published seem not so far off.

So, if you’re looking into ghostwriting and you’re thinking about how your name won’t appear on the spine, I’ve got to say, this benefit has been significant–at least for me! But hey, if you’re looking for other ways to legitimize your time, here are some ideas:

1. Share an industry blog with your people–I suggest Miss Snark because it’s fun and interesting and gives a great behind-the-scenes look of how books are made and how difficult it is to get an agent/book deal

2. Explain what you’re doing with your time, how you’re connecting with other writers, and the process of critiquing

3. Give some stats — How many writers query, get full requests, get agents, whatever…know your stuff

4. Submit short stories & enter contests

5. Join SCBWI or other writer organizations and offer to write articles for them

6. Have a blog/website

Alright, y’all, I’m enjoying the comments and the new subscribers! Next week I’ll take a couple of your questions and answer them and I’ll continue on my list of what ghostwriting has done for me! And what about you guys? How do you justify the time you take to improve your writing? Have you ever felt embarrassed? Am I being too self-conscious?? What do you think?

Now That I’m a Ghost

I know a lot of people are curious about book packaging and ghost writing and how the whole thing goes down. While I can’t share everything, I thought it’d be fun to provide the basics for people who wonder. Remember, this is just my experience. I’ve auditioned for other companies, but the way things worked was, overall, pretty similar, so if you can remind yourself to add a big, fat disclaimer in front of this post, you should at least be able to get a skeleton idea of the way things work.

Auditioning:

With most work-for-hire, you’re going to have to audition. With the company I’m writing for now, I’ve auditioned three times. First time, I wrote about 4,000 words for a middle grade series that I didn’t get, but the editors kept me in mind. Then I auditioned for the series I’m writing for now but things took a long time because there was a close call between two writers auditioning and so during that time I auditioned for yet another series. My voice ended up being a bit too old for that last series, but good news, I got the second series. That means I wrote a total of about 18,000 polished words to get a 2 book commission. No, you don’t get paid for auditioning, but think about it as client development or something equally business-y. Sometimes you have to make investments of time and energy without any guaranteed payoff. The great thing about writing is that you don’t have to shell out any cash for client development. You certainly can’t say that about every business.

Getting the Gig:

The book packager contacted my agent and told him that they were interested in my being an author for the series. Some basic numbers were given. My agent looked up the series on BookScan to see how sales were doing for those books. The packager made clear that the publisher still had to approve me as an author for the series. If you weren’t clear on this, a book packager does not publish the books. They sell the concepts to the traditional, big box publishers you already know. It can be a lower cost decision for a publisher, though, since a packager will often come up with high concept, marketable ideas and do most if not all the editing for these books in house. So, the book packager editor made a few changes to my sample, preparing it to send to the publisher. I was allowed the chance to approve these changes and off they went. Shortly after, I received a formal offer.

Starting to Work:

For this series, I’m in the beginning stages, but basically I have detailed schedules for both books under contract. These contracts include deadlines for me, the book packager, and the publisher. For my part, I’ll receive a synopsis. I’ll then have a couple weeks to come up with chapter breakdowns and return those to the book packager. I’ll get feedback and have a couple months to turn in a first draft. I’ll get comments on that before having a few weeks to get a second draft to the packager. About a month before turning in the first draft of Book 1 that whole process starts again for Book 2.

Will I Get Credit?

A lot of people ask me this. I will be working under the series pen name. I should get a page in each book that says “Special Thanks to Chandler Craig.” I’ll get several author copies of each book and my agent will get agent copies.

Simple, right?

And if you want more information about Book Packaging and Work-for-Hire you can check my post, Guide in Links: Book Packaging and Work-For-Hire, where I’ve collected more articles on the subject and also a list of where you can find work.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments or share your experiences. I know it’s an opaque side of publishing.

Five Things on my Mind on a Friday

 

Thing One. James Frey. You may remember him as the author of the “memoir” A Million Little Pieces and the recipient of a serious tongue-lashing from Oprah. In an apparent effort to be as unsympathetic as possible, Frey has made the news again. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported on Frey’s new young adult book packaging company, Full Fathom Five. Actually, this is a topic currently very near and dear to my heart.  The complaint is that Frey was recruiting students in expensive MFA programs and paying them a mere $250 for signing onto write a book and another $250 for finishing a manuscript. As you can probably guess, that’s low. Extremely low. Of course, they were promised 30-49% of all revenues, which for a James Frey book could be pretty substantial. But word on the street is that there was no accounting mechanism and authors weren’t getting even close to their due. Plus, there was a high penalty for disclosing that you wrote for Frey. Author, Jobie Hughes, came forward sometime after the book he penned, I Am Four, sold to DreamWorks. It’s important to remember in all of this that Frey did come up with the ideas for the books put into production by Full Fathom and I’m sure there are two sides to every story, but there certainly needs to be some recourse for authors who spend 500+ hours writing a novel on someone else’s bidding.

 

Thing Two. BookPeople. BookPeople is our local Austin bookstore and it’s awesome. It’s so awesome, it recently got a shout out in Entertainment Weekly. There are two things I love about BookPeople. The first is the employee recommendation feature in the Young Adult section. Employees make these little cards that they color and decorate and tape up under the books they like. It’s a fun way to “hand sell” books to customers. Second is the book-related events. Most recently, BookPeople hosted a parking lot release party for Jeff Kinney’s newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. The new book, published by Abrams, just had the strongest release of any Wimpy Kid book yet–and even sold more copies than George W. Bush’s Decision Points in its first week. You’ve got to wonder how much cool release events like those of BookPeople fuel sales. I bet a decent amount as a result of buzz and even just customer turnout.

Where can I get a tour bus?

 

 

Thing Three. Writing stuff. And how it looks like in the next few months I am going to be doing a lot of it. (Yay!) So, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the best ways to go about it and stay organized. Am I schedule person? Would it work best to write an hour in the morning and an hour at night? That would get me a good chunk of writing done every day, so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. But what really tends to happen is that I go on marathon sessions and write 10k in a weekend and tear my hair out and gnash my teeth, but secretly enjoy taking that much time out to work on bookish things. Or, are word count goals really the way to go? 1-2k a day–if I finish then I can go frolick, if not, I’m handcuffed to the desk. I’ve always been sort of a word count goal person, but like I said, I’m in the process of reevaluating.

Thing Four. Outlining. Turns out that law school and writing life are not so different after all. Both require outlining. And in both contexts I don’t like doing it but I do like having it. However, in a surprising upset, I think law school outlining might (at times) be the more enjoyable of the two. Law school outlining can be pretty mindless if you’ve already taken good class notes, etc.  And if you’re lucky, you have a really smart person’s outline to work from. This never happens in writing, which means, you can never zone out and listen to country music while you type random words that sound funny and mean nothing to you like “assumpsit.” Of course, rarely do you get to come up with anything new and exciting in law school outlines. (i.e. To date, I’ve never had a dress-wearing gnome-hobbit hybrid show up in a Trademarks outline, but as far as I know, this could totally happen in a writing outline.)

Thing Five. Harry Potter. Okay, this is actually the only thing on my mind this Friday. Harry Potter! Harry Potter. Harry Potter! I have done as much research (read: watching interviews and listening to MuggleCast) as muggle-y possible, so I think I am ready to reap maximum enjoyment today. Happy HPott Day, people.

 

Guide in Links: Book Packaging and Work-for-Hire

Since I get a lot of questions about this, I thought I’d create a running list of places writers could look for work-for-hire and information on book packaging. I’ve done a lot of trolling for this one, so let me know if it’s helpful. I’m happy to answer any questions on packaging (assuming I know the answer) and would love to hear about any flings failed or not that you all have had with work-for-hire jobs.

Enjoy!

Where to find information on book packaging:

American Book Producers Association

What is Book Packaging? – from the Absolute Write Forum

Terry Whalin Article on Book Packagers

Book Packaging and Work-for-Hire Writing – A short overview and a little history on book packaging by Maya Reynolds

Class on writing for educational publishers

Book Packaging: Under-explored terrain for freelancers – Article by Jenna Glatzer

My Failed Fling with a Book Packager by John Barlow

More on Book Packagers – from Miss Snark

Writing Tips: Packagers – from Highlights

Where to find work:

Chelsea House – award-winning and curriculum-based nonfiction material for the school and library markets, includes books for young adults, middle grade and young readers grades 2-5

Stone Arch Books – middle grade

Delta Publishing – children’s books

Alloy Entertainment - work-for-hire teen fiction and now The Collaborative for original work

Working Partners – popular fiction series for young readers through young adult

Working Partners Two – new for adult fiction (fantasy, thriller, historical and paranormal romance)

Beacon Street Girls

Mirrorstone Books – publisher for young readers of series based on Dungeons and Dragons lore

Parachute Publishing – packager of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen books, Goosebumps, Seventeen and more

Quirk Packaging and Publishing – Worst Case Scenario books, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, etc.

Students Across the Seven Seas from Penguin Group – an established series, not exactly sure how to submit to them, but you submit your own concept that would fit into the series, I believe

Bow Publications – nonfiction projects grade 3-12

Tangerine Designs – specializes in preschool titles

Plan B Book Packagers – children’s fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels (not sure how to submit here or how actively this company is operating)

Smart Kids Publishing – send ideas/manuscripts

Note: I’ll continue to  update so please share information in the comments and I’ll incorporate.

Update from the trenches

I’m going to go ahead and declare this a good weekend.

Chandler: 1 Writing: 0.

Ok, if I tallied the score, I think writing kicks my butt, but, yanno, humor me.

 

Last night, Nate and I went on a dinner date and, as I’ve said before, he has been very understanding of my obsessive email checking. So, once we finished eating, I whipped out the iPhone and checked Gmail. To my surprise, there was an email from an editor at a small press–and on a Saturday night, too! I’d sent a query, synopsis, and the first three chapters to this publisher. Now, one of the acquiring editors wants to see the full ms! This is the first response I’ve gotten from anyone who has read more than just my query letter. He said my story concept was “quite original” and “well written.” Yay! Back to waiting…

 

Then, this morning at breakfast I got another email–this time from a book packager requesting writing samples! The packager specializes in non-fiction books for grades 3-8. I’m happy to have a foot in the door and work-for-hire is something I’ve wanted to pursue for quite awhile. I’m am putting the final edits on one non-fiction article and think I might write another.

 

Finally, Ben told me he would have some rough drafts to show me in a couple days. I’m excited to see how he interpreted the characters, what they look like, and the vision he has for our graphic novel. Very fun!

 

As a writer, I love to feel busy. I love to have projects in the works and opportunities popping up. Of course, it means more waiting, but I guess that comes with the territory. I hope I have some good news to report soon, but if nothing else the weekend events have inspired a few great blog topics that I plan to touch on throughout the next couple weeks. So, here’s a few things you can look forward to…

 -How to tell if a small press is “good” (I plan to compile a big list of resources, too!)

-Writing nonfiction for kids

-Book packaging

-The challenges of writing for children

-How to spot a publishing scam

 

How ’bout y’all’s good news? I’d love to hear you brag a little!

 

 

 

Status: Polishing samples, doing some beta reading, writing pages of script for Ben. And…Harry Potter 5 is on HBO at 9pm! Could this weekend get any better?