Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In the seventh post of our Publishing U series agent Suzie Townsend and author Nikki Loftin talk about how an author can stay on track even when she hits an unforeseen roadblock on the winding path to publication.
Suzie Townsend: Signing with an agent is a big step on the journey to publication. It’s exciting, which is one of the reasons I became an agent—to be a part of that first step with authors. Thankfully, the internet has taken a lot of the mystery out of the agent-hunting process. Writers looking for an agent can find a plethora of advice (not all created equal, but that’s a whole different topic), they can interact with agents via social media, and they can read about other writers’ successes.
What’s harder to find is information about what comes next. As an agent, my next step is pretty clear. When I sign a new client, we do a few revisions and then I submit the manuscript to editors. But the author needs something to do, too, once the manuscript is out. (Other than sitting at the computer and refreshing the inbox—that’s the easiest way to go crazy.)
That manuscript that snagged an agent doesn’t always sell.
No matter the author, I always have one recommendation: write something else. Their work is the number one thing that writers can control in this crazy path to publication. There are a lot of really solid reasons to write more (Out of love for the craft! To stay busy! So the second book will be ready for your agent after the first one sells!). But there’s one we don’t always talk about—that manuscript that snagged an agent doesn’t always sell.
I was lucky enough to sign the fabulously talented Nikki Loftin when I was still a baby agent, but I couldn’t sell her first manuscript to a publisher. Here’s how she handled the “what’s next.”
Nikki Loftin: At first, I let the children* live. That was my mistake.
(* fictional children, that is)
Freshly retired from a career as a primary school teacher/professional church lady, I suppose I felt protective of any potential readers of my middle-grade manuscripts. So, instead of writing the scary stuff I’d always loved to read, I wrote funny, safe stories, mostly about rapscallion boys. The worst I did to my characters was force them to attend etiquette school. I guess the writing was strong enough: it landed me a phenomenal agent, Suzie Townsend. The novel she signed me on, titled Escape from Comportment Camp (The horrors of the foxtrot! The inhumanity of the six-course dinner!), might have proved fascinating someday to young readers. But the editorial rejections we received made it clear that the plot was too quiet. Finally came the dreaded phone call from my sympathetic agent. We had to stop shopping that manuscript. I needed to write something else.
I harbored bitter, resentful feelings. After indulging in gluttonous amounts of both self-pity and Belgian chocolate, my temper simmered … and then my new pathway to publication bubbled to the surface. I flew into a murderous fit—but not the kind that gets you arrested. The kind that gets you a multi-book deal.
Not every author needs to murder fictional children for
fun (and money) in order to sell their first book.
The darkest, most primal stories I had devoured since I was a child—Grimm, of course—served as inspiration for my next work. I hung just enough flesh on the bones of Hansel and Gretel to reanimate my favorite fairy tale in a modern-day school setting: Splendid Academy. It sported a world-class playground, delectable cafeteria food, and no rules, save one: the students had to eat. As much as they could, all day long, growing plumper, juicier, some of them vanishing mysteriously into the school kitchen. It wasn’t sweet, or safe, and I put my darling characters in mortal peril on almost every page.
Turns out, for this author at least, going dark was a recipe for success. A very lovely editor at Razorbill gobbled my story up a few months later, and asked for more.
That’s when I realized that middle grade can be terrifying and twisted, tragic and pain-filled, and even funny, too … as long as an author isn’t afraid of the dark.
Suzie Townsend: Not every author needs to murder fictional children for fun (and money) in order to sell their first book, but sometimes the challenge of moving outside your comfort zone as a writer is exactly what you need. And to keep writing, of course.
* * *
Nikki Loftin writes scary, tragic, and sometimes even funny books for middle grade readers. Shelives with her Scottish photographer husband just outside Austin, Texas, surrounded by dogs, chickens, goats, and rambunctious boys. She is the author of Nightingale’s Nest, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, and Wish Girl.
Suzie Townsend is a book lover, former teacher, science-fiction and fantasy nerd, and a literary agent at New Leaf Literary & Media. She represents children’s and adult fiction (MG through adult). She lives in New York with two dogs who know that chewing on books is not okay.