Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wordcraft -- Authenticity for readers young or not

So you’ve written the great American young adult novel or great middle-grade novel. But what does the agent want to see? At the recent Writers League of Texas conference in Austin, agents Amy Burkhardt of Kimberley Cameron & Associates and Victoria Marini of Gelfman Schneider Literary, author Jenny Moss, and moderator Amy Rose Capetta discussed what to look for in fiction for younger readers.

One important factor was emotional authenticity, said Moss, author of novels such as “Taking Off, a re-imagining of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. After all, she noted, “We have a commonality of human experience.”

Burkhardt agreed, adding, “Voice is important. A voice that connects. You need something that a kid can relate to -- that any reader can relate to. As an agent, voice is usually what grabs me. I work developmentally with a lot of clients, but what I can’t create is voice. You need to know the character inside and out.”

One exercise to help achieve that knowledge is to write a hundred sentences about the character. And read your work out loud, which makes it easier to pick up things that sound “off.”

Marini added another exercise -- writing “you’re not the kind of person who --” and filling in the blank. There’s also, she said “something to be said for ruminating and just thinking about it.”

What about writing for younger readers is different from writing for adults? Is there such a thing as “kidspeak”?

“For me,” Marini said, “the sincerity at the heart of the way kids speak is important. The core of the expression is what I’m looking for. People will use words that they think are the lingo and that turns me off.”

“There’s definitely a frankness to the way kids speak to each other. They don’t necessarily have conversations with back and forth. With teens, there’s more posturing.” But too much “kidspeak” and “teenspeak,” she warned, can date a manuscript.

"I don’t aim to write ‘believable’ dialogue,” Moss said. “I try to write dialogue that entertains while doing something else.”

Marini agreed. “I can sometimes read something that makes me think ‘that’s ridiculous’ -- and I love it.” Which doesn’t mean talking down to younger readers -- anathema to both agents. If anything, “write your characters a little bit smarter,” Burkhardt suggested.

And what about that vaunted rule about using a first person point of view for young readers?

It’s not necessarily inviolable. No matter what point of view you pick, Marini said, “stick with it. Middle grade is (about) figuring things out. YA is a very ‘me’ time.” The downside of that YA first person voice, Burkhardt cautioned, is “people can get trapped in the voiciness. Keep things moving. With YA, I feel like the plotting and pacing tend to be quicker. Teenagers tend to be more emotional. They are tuned up higher.”

So here were a bunch of adults talking to other adults about what children and teenagers want to read. What about the responses of younger readers themselves?

“Sometimes I’m very impressed -- not surprised but impressed,” Marini said. “I’m always shocked by how perceptive they are.”

For more information about the panelists, see, and

(Next Wednesday: Agents tell what they want -- or don’t want -- to see in a query letter.)

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