|It’s hard work being an answer dog.|
Is it a good idea for a new writer to establish herself in a specific genre or form? Or is it okay to explore?
Linda Pratt is an agent with the Sheldon Fogelman Agency where, after the brief delusion of using her newly minted finance degree toward a career on Wall Street, she began working shortly after college. In 1995 she was promoted to agent when she took on her first client, Karen Beaumont. Her clients range from picture book authors and illustrators to novelists of middle grade and young adult fiction. Linda also works with her clients on nonfiction, as well. While she is proud to represent many award winners and bestsellers, she loves working with brand new talent, too, and just this summer placed debut novels for authors Augusta Scattergood and Lisa Luedeke. In addition to working with her clients, Linda oversees the overall business operations for the agency. She is a member of AAR and SCBWI, and just this year stepped down from the Rutgers Council for Children’s Literature on which she volunteered for five years in the planning of the annual Rutgers 1-on-1 Conference.
Linda Pratt: If by “new” you mean a writer who is just beginning their journey in writing for children, I’d recommend that they’d focus on one genre at the start and hone their craft in that genre. When they are ready to share their work, they may find that responses suggest that their voice seems better suited to a genre one step up. For example, if you’re a picture book writer, you may get feedback that your voice and approach to plot is better suited to chapter books. Should that happen and there’s a consistency to that kind of comment, it’s a good idea to consider it and experiment.
Now if “new” in this question is intended to mean someone who is “new” to being a published author, my advice would a bit broader. I know some agents prefer authors to focus in building their names in one specific genre and not really diverting from that path. I think it’s perfectly fine to explore other genres once you’re well into your journey of writing for children, however. Children’s books uniquely allows an author more versatility in the kinds of books they can produce. By working in different genres, an author can not only hedge themselves for changes in the market (i.e. the picture book market which used to be the engine of all children’s books divisions and is now shrinking), they may find the opportunity to publish more books in a year that won’t compete for the same audience.
That said, I never think it’s a good idea to try and fit a square peg into a round hole. So only experiment in genres that feel natural or interesting to you, and not just for the sake of trying to chase the market.
As if Jane Yolen needed introduction! But here is a bit about her: She once wore hair long enough to sit on (“it was the 60s after all”), had her first book published at age 22, has been a generous and thoughtful teacher, and, with 300 books and counting in print, sets the bar high for the children’s writing community.
Jane Yolen: I am positive that what kept me alive in the super-competitive and ever-shrinking world of professional publishing is the ability to reinvent my writing self. By that I mean publishing is every genre or type of book except perhaps hard science. (Though I have done many books in natural science and touched on the “soft” sciences like anthropology, psychology, archeology.)
Every year, like creatures becoming extinct, genres dry up, drop by the wayside, die the true death. But if a writer can be equally adept in several of them, one’s writing career can continue, even thrive.
Yes, agents and publishers (and even other authors) will tell you that no one will know what to expect from you and your fan base will wander off into the desert and die of thirst. That the sales force will be confused and librarians won’t know where to shelve you. Ignore this. If you like to write in a variety of genres, and make books about a dozen different subjects, follow your bliss. After all, you never know which book(s) will take off in a major way. So relax. Write what you want. I do–and 300 books later, I have never doubted my decision.
A big Milk Bone to both Linda and Jane for digging up great responses to this question. Even though I’m a dog, not a writer, I found it interesting that both agent and writer seem to advise to sniff out your own path. This conversation has me thinking about starting my own grrrraphic novel.
If only I could type.