Ask Winston

It’s hard work being an answer dog.

I have gone through several chewy bones waiting for an answer to this question posed by a new author:

Is it a good idea for a new writer to establish herself in a specific genre or form? Or is it okay to explore?

The agent who originally PROMISED to respond evidently got busy chasing cats, so I decided to take action. As a faithful friend to the Two Legged Writer, I can recognize a kindred soul when I meet one. Not that I ever got the pleasure of meeting super-agent Linda Pratt but the Two-Legged Writer has and can’t speak highly enough of her. So I knew I could count on her to be worth her weight in kibble when it came to answering this week’s question. And I wasn’t disappointed. Not only that, versatile author, Jane Yolen, also agreed to share her thoughts. This is better than chewing up Two-Legged’s last manuscript! Let’s give these great humans a warm welcome!!

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.

No Responses to “Ask Winston”

  1. Toby Speed

    Thank you for this post, Kirby. I’m exploring a new genre now, and the issues raised have been on my mind. BTW, I love your “Ask Winston” feature.

  2. Samantha Rowan

    I am an aspiring YA author. I write YA because it’s what’s in my heart and mind, so I think it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll write a book in another genre.

  3. kangaroobee

    Thank you for sharing this important debate, I’m a big fan of Jane Yolen. It doesn’t matter what you experiment with before you have an online presence, but once people start to know you as one thing they get a bit of a shock to find out you have other things going on and/or in the pipeline. I like Jane’s follow your muse answer. I started off writing an mg novel, then a YA novel and then mostly known for picture books, but all pre-published and now I’ve decided to write an MG with an animal protag in verse like Zorgamazoo. I don’t think it would be too difficult to choose the best story across the genres to plug first. I guess the first one is important for your brand. Thanks again!

  4. Anne E. Johnson

    Thanks for the great post. I’ve recently turned to fiction and am busy exploring all kinds of genres. Ms. Pratt advises, “only experiment in genres that feel natural…,” but I’ve been very surprised at what types of work turn out to be natural to me that I expected to be awkward. I guess when you stop learning about your own writing, you might as well stop writing.

  5. Joanna St. James

    thanx this was really helpful I am currently writing in two genres unpublished of course. I did try to streamline both into one genre but I eventually gave up. Some books just one to go their own way.

  6. SWK

    Heehee, “grrraphic novel”! My first novel comes out next fall and, since finishing revisions, I’ve definitely had a lot of anxiety about the form the next book should take. Sounds like I should just relax and write my story! Thanks Winston, Linda & Jane, for some great advice.

  7. Grier Jewell

    That Jane Yolen. She’s in an orbit all her own, but what a great model she is for all writers.

    I just read this quote, and it reminded me of your post:

    “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

    ~ Dolly Parton

  8. jenny-moss

    Thank you, Jane, for sharing your experience and wisdom. I’m an new author who jumps genres – just following the muse – accepting that it may not be the smart career choice. Reading your words, “follow your bliss,” means a lot to me right now.

    Great post. Thank you, Kirby.