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Workshop Transcript

Mid-Grade Series Books

with Linda Joy Singleton

 

kia: Okay..the Midgrade Series Workshop is about to begin

kia: Just remember to please hold ALL personal chit chat, including hellos and goodbyes until after the workshop has ended.

kia: Okay, lj. You are on.

 

LindaJoy: For those who don't know me, I'm Linda Joy Singleton, author of 19-20 books

LindaJoy: I have written for five different series; 3 series of my own and two existing series

LindaJoy: I'll talk a bit on series, then just jump in with questions.

 

LindaJoy: The appeal of series for kids is that the continuous characters become familiar, like family--dependable friends

LindaJoy: And that's why kids gobble them up like potato chips

LindaJoy: So the question--Why write a series?

Gail: Publishers like them.

LindaJoy: That's one reason

BKC: Kids like them

zap: maintain readers ...and have a partial presold audience ?

LindaJoy: Yeah, zap...kids will keep reading a series they like

 

Suzy-Q: Author doesn't have to create a new character

LindaJoy: Yes, SQ, that's a real plus

Miriam: it's fun to get to know your character s so well

LindaJoy: By the time I'd written several books with the main characters, they'd become VERY real

BKC: Are you allowed to add new characters along the way?

LindaJoy: yes

LindaJoy: In fact, while I was writing a Sweet Valley Twin years ago,

LindaJoy: I was going to put in my daughter's name (Melissa)

LindaJoy: but was given the previous book where a brother and sister were created--with the same names of my two kids

LindaJoy: so I changed the name to Melinda (for obvious reasons)

 

 

LindaJoy: But there are quite a few things to consider when series writing

LindaJoy: It takes certain disciplines to write series books

zap: and the disciplines are...

LindaJoy: Publishers usually expect series books to be written quickly, anywhere from 4-12 weeks

Gail: Wow

kia: Wow! That's FAST, lj.

Miriam: 4-12 weeks each?

LindaJoy: I have had to write one in 4 weeks

kia: Isn't that a lot of pressure?

Gail: Does quality suffer?

LindaJoy: quality is a personal opinion, but in my opinion, quality does suffer

BKC: At what point does a series die?

LindaJoy: A series dies when it's not selling well--a publishing decision

dori: Why do they want them so quickly?

Suzy-Q: To keep the interest up?

LindaJoy: As for quickly, take the Animorph series

LindaJoy: That series started with four books, but took off, and now the author is writing at least one book a month

LindaJoy: I wonder how she's managing to do it without going crazy

Miriam: How does a series with many writers differ from a series that you alone write?

LindaJoy: Good question, Miriam

kia: Good question, miriam. And...who makes that decision, lj?

LindaJoy: When you decide to write for a series like Nancy Drew or Sweet Valley

LindaJoy: you are given a "Bible" of the characters and previous plots

LindaJoy: You are usually assigned a plot, which leaves little room for creativity

LindaJoy: When I did my Sweet Valley book, I ended up having 3 editors going over the final manuscript(s) with red pens

kia: Isn't it hard to write a plot that you didn't create yourself?

Gail: But it eases the pressure, I would think.

LindaJoy: You just DO it

zap: how specific is the plot? outline?

LindaJoy: For the Sweet Valley, I read about 10 books before writing

LindaJoy: studying the pacing, plot, and dialogue

LindaJoy: The outline I had was a rambling 10-13 pages long and it was up to me to break it into chapters

Miriam: Was it hard not being able to take credit for those books?

LindaJoy: As for credit...I didn't think it would bother me not having my name on the book, but when the book came out, it DID bother me

Miriam: It would bother me

kia: Yes, I think it would bother me, too.

Gail: It would bother me. Who got the credit?

 

Suzy-Q: It would really bother me.

LindaJoy: I don't sell that book or show it off often

LindaJoy: The author who created the series created a name based on her two daughters as author

zap: are they sometimes work for hire and sometimes royalty?

LindaJoy: Some Sweet Valley authors have received royalties, but that's rare now

 

Gail: So the publisher loses in the end, a little.

LindaJoy: Not really, Gail.

Gail: I used to direct my students away from those books.

Suzy-Q: Don't you think the kids can tell if it a different writer?

LindaJoy: no, SQ, kids can't tell the difference

LindaJoy: Kids buy the books because of the familiarity reason regardless

 

BKC: How do you get a series started?

LindaJoy: There are bascially 3 types of series you could write in the current market

 

LindaJoy: #1. Write for an existing series like Nancy Drew or Sweet Valley or even Magic Attic

LindaJoy: #2. Create your own series, proposing it with plots, books, characters

LindaJoy: #3. A single book (like Lois Lowry's Anastasia series) becomes popular and sequels are born

 

BKC: Wouldn't that be nice??? #3!

kia: #1 are the books that you don't get to have your own name on, lj?

LindaJoy: #3 can happen

 

 

LindaJoy: If you write one good stand alone book and it's a success, it can become a series

AlisonD: Did you start out w/ series or did you have single book credits first?

LindaJoy: My first sale was a single book, then the next 8 were for existing series

dori: LindaJoy, do you still plan on writing series books, or would you like to write singles?

LindaJoy: I LOVE series and hope to sell another one soon

 

 

kia: I'm assuming that is harder to sell, lj? The series created by yourself?

LindaJoy: For a beginner, the best way is to try to write for an existing series

LindaJoy: Having publishing credits helps

 

Sally: When proposing a series, do you have to give an idea of how many books you would write in it?

kia: Good question, Sally! Thanks for asking that.

LindaJoy: I just recently proposed a sci-fi series and I proposed 10 titles

LindaJoy: But I usually only propose 4 titles

Suzy-Q: Isn't that a lot Lj?

kia: Isn't that a lot of titles to propose, lj?

LindaJoy: yes--a lot, but this series has Animorph potential

Miriam: Just Title or do you have a synopsis to go with them?

LindaJoy: I would advise to just propose 4 titles and include about two paragraphs on them

 

LindaJoy: This is what I use for a series proposal:

LindaJoy: One chapter from the first book.

LindaJoy: Detailed (usually 4-6 page) synopsis of first book

LindaJoy: A few pages on characters, writing in the tone that fits the book

LindaJoy: (like in my cheerleading series, I used a very rah-rah tone)

LindaJoy: A page listing additional books (3-4) with short blurbs and catchy titles

LindaJoy: And another BIG thing to help sell your own series...

LindaJoy: A tag line

LindaJoy: You need a sound bite, like a TV commercial, that defines your book in just one sentence because that's what the editor will use to sell it to marketing

LindaJoy: but that's what works for ME

Miriam: example Linda?

AlisonD: can you give some examples of taglines?

kia: Can you give an example of a sound bite/tagline, lj?

LindaJoy: Pick up any series book and you'll see the tag line on the cover or back blurb

LindaJoy: just a sec while I get one...

kia: Coffee, cokes and ice water to all while she is gone.

LindaJoy: ok

kia: Popcorn is on the side table.

LindaJoy: I got the very first Animorph (munching on popcorn)

LindaJoy: The tag line on cover reads:

LindaJoy: Some people never change. Some do...

LindaJoy: For my own Ghost Twin series, on the first cover it reads:

LindaJoy: Miranda never had any fun...until her ghost twin came into her life

LindaJoy: And another series called Diadem: Witness the next dimension...

LindaJoy: And the lines seem to get shorter if you compare the two other books to my own series

LindaJoy: Any questions?

kia: So it's like the essence of the story line in one very short sentence?

kia: Or a "teaser" to make the reader want to read the whole book?

LindaJoy: yup

LindaJoy: I usually include a "teaser" one line at the beginning of my synopses now

 

 

zap: referrring to "pages on characters" in the "tone", do you ever use dialog?

LindaJoy: no, zap--no dialogue

 

 

Miriam: Do you find yourself thinking of your characters as family?

Miriam: Did you get tired of either of your series? Same characters and such.

LindaJoy: I never got tired of my own series, Miriam

LindaJoy: I had ideas for another MY SISTER THE GHOST and CHEER SQUAD, but Avon quit them

LindaJoy: But if I were having to write a book a month like Animorph, I think I'd be very stressed

Miriam: I agree

LindaJoy: When I wrote my GHOST series for Avon, I was allowed 3 months per book, which was nice

 

zap: Do you ever work with an agent to develop a series before you propose it?

LindaJoy: I personally come up with all my own ideas, but

LindaJoy: my agent has definite ideas and won't send something out if she feels it's flawed

 

BKC: How long will it take you to write these 10 that you are proposing now?

LindaJoy: I like to have two months to write a book, but can do it quicker if needed

 

dori: What is the average age of your reader, LJ?

LindaJoy: My readers are mostly 3rd-6th grade

 

Gail: Did you get a one time fee for the writing of the book? No royalities?

zap: And do you always sign a contract before you write one completely?

LindaJoy: I got a flat fee for Sweet Valley

LindaJoy: I had to write sample chapters to be hired

LindaJoy: But my contract came, if I remember correctly, a few months before I had the book outline for SVTwin

LindaJoy: And for my own series, GHOST was a completed book before it sold as a series

LindaJoy: CHEER was Avon's idea, so I had a contract and up-front money before I finished one book

LindaJoy: A new series of mine that is being considered now by Berkley has a completed manuscript

kia: So you did complete the first book, outlined the others and sold the series that way? Your first personal series, I mean.

LindaJoy: GHOST had one completed book plus just one page with additional book/plots listed

 

AlisonD: With a series like Animorphs is it likely they'll add new writers soon?

LindaJoy: Alison--I don't think so, but it's hard to imagine one writer keeping that pace

 

zap: Did you say you have no interest in writing a stand-alone book?

LindaJoy: I have written stand alone books...awaiting a clever publisher who wants to buy them

Gail: Clever is the operative word.

 

BKC: How many hours a day do you write?

Miriam: good question BKC

LindaJoy: I write in the morning 5-6 days a week, about 3-4 hours

LindaJoy: But when I know I'm going to write, I think about it before I go to bed and as I'm waking up--pre-writing in my head

 

zap: What three puclishers would you consider to be top in the mid grade series? And why?

LindaJoy: good question, Zap

LindaJoy: My 3 picks for dream publisher would be #1. Scholastic, Pocket/Minstrel, and then probably Aladdin

Miriam: why Linda?

LindaJoy: Scholastic can make an author just by putting their books in schools

LindaJoy: Pocket is a solid company with the same senior editor since I began writing and they do great covers; they nurture authors

LindaJoy: And Aladdin is basically Simon & Schuster, which does some great stuff

 

LindaJoy: One thing that you might consider when writing a series is the future of the characters

zap: elaborate

LindaJoy: When I reached the 4th book in CHEER SQUAD, suddenly I had this huge cast of characters

LindaJoy: And my first chapter was so full of people, I ended up writing it a dozen times until I cut many out

BKC: Do they always stay the same age?

LindaJoy: Most current series like to freeze time & ages

LindaJoy: If I could choose, I'd just stretch out their lives...10 books in a summer, another 10 in Fall, etc.

 

kia: When writing a series book, lj, how many plot lines do you put in each book? Ergo, how many problems for the main character to solve? And do you have any problems that carry over from book to book? That run through the whole series?

LindaJoy: Bascically I look at the main characters and give the important ones a problem per book

LindaJoy: There's usually a book overall goal, and I try to weave all these plots together

LindaJoy: When I was plotting CHEER #3,

LindaJoy: the editor responded to my synopsis by asking me to cut out a few plots, saying I did them well, but there were already plenty

kia: So each main character has one main problem to solve? How many main characters per book?

LindaJoy: That's the way I do it, kia, but most series don't

LindaJoy: Most focus on just a few plots.

LindaJoy: Usually I'd recommend to just pick one main character, follow that plot, and weave in at least one secondary plot/character that compliments the main plot

kia: Thank you, lj

 

dori: How have series books changed over the years, especially regarding content and sophistication?

zap: I like THAT question!

RobinM: goodness the possibilities

LindaJoy: As for series books changing over the years, YES!

LindaJoy: The language, pacing, and packaging has changed big time

Miriam: are the plots deeper now?

RobinM: please elaborate... and tell what you forsee trends to be.?

LindaJoy: In the old Nancy Drew's, the language was more complex and characters vary from stereo-typed to very unusual

LindaJoy: I don't know about the plots being deeper now, probably not

LindaJoy: As for trends...right now it's sci-fi and fantasy

LindaJoy: One of my tricks to guessing what will be big in children's publishing is

LindaJoy: to look at adult books and TV shows--kids books usually follow within a year

zap: Can you cite any examples of adult books or TV shows that have spurred MG series?

LindaJoy: Like Cherie Bennett's SUNSET ISLAND series, drugs & sex discussed

LindaJoy: X-FILES has been big and now sci-fi big with kids books

LindaJoy: Another really popular type of series is the TV character books

Sally: Animals, ie, horses, are a pretty safe bet, aren't they?

LindaJoy: Magic is showing up more, too (like Sabrina books/TV)

zap: ah.... thank you

LindaJoy: mid-grade sticks to current subjects, but told in a lighter way and very politically correct

LindaJoy: horses continue to work well with kids

 

 

BKC: Would you say today's books are more sophisticated?

LindaJoy: Sophisticated? The YA series maybe, but younger books deal with friendships, etc. still

 

Miriam: how careful do you have to be about dating yourself? Trendy things in the books I mean.

kia: Yes, good question, miriam...I mean, series books are printed a lot faster than picture books, for instance.

LindaJoy: I have some words I always use like wow, cool, etc.

LindaJoy: I'm not into name brands and seldom use them, although some authors do

LindaJoy: If you know your series is going to be a quick publish and then perish on shelves, it's fine to use trendy things

 

BKC: What about in the nature of the problems i.e. drugs, aids, abuse, etc.

dori: So, series books for mid-grades don't get into drugs, divorce, etc?

LindaJoy: Not in middle-grade

LindaJoy: The YA books deal with many isues, though

kia: Don't middle-grade books pretty much stick to lighter subjects, lj?

 

BKC: Maybe I missed this, but can you tell us exactly what age we're talking about for mid-grade books?

dori: 3rd to 6th grade, BKC

LindaJoy: And the characters in mid-grade are at the high end of readership--6th t0 junior high

 

kia: How do you get past the middles of your books, lj? I have tried to write one for the 3-6th grades, but couldn't get a middle written. Got the beginning and ending okay, but no middle.

LindaJoy: Middles are for muddling. You just write them and rewrite them better later.

LindaJoy: When I'm muddling in middle, I just give myself permission to write garbage and usually it's better than I think

Miriam: Is the middle where the subplots come in?

LindaJoy: Subplots usually come early on, woven in through discussion about MAIN plot

 

 

zap: Do you ever get letters from readers?

LindaJoy: yes

LindaJoy: But not as often as I expected

LindaJoy: I had dreams of piles of fan letters, but so fan just a handful

 

Christophe: Will what was intended to be a mid-grade novel ever be booted into a higher age group based solely on, say, complicated plots and vocabulary?

LindaJoy: Mid-grade is usually determined by character age or tone

LindaJoy: A YA book has a much sharper tone and plots

Christophe: Tone? As in way of speaking and enviroment?

kia: Doesn't a midgrade story also have less complicated plot structure, lj?

LindaJoy: You really need to know the target mid-grade or YA before writing

 

dori: Are series books divided into some series for boys and some series for girls?

LindaJoy: Good question, dori

LindaJoy: I am sure many of my series rejections have come because my books are about girls

LindaJoy: I was just asked to rewrite and make the brother become a sidekick

Kate: girls aren't popular?

LindaJoy: Midgrade plot structure is usually lighter with lots of action

Margot: Great for me. Mine are about boys in Australia.

kia: It seems like there is a real push to get books out that boys will be interested in reading, don't you think so? Books that will pick up the boys who were reading the Goosebumps books?

LindaJoy: Need to have both a boy and girl usually for a series

dori: I've heard of the rule that girls and boys will read boy books, but boys won't read girl books

Suzy-Q: I have a lot of boys reading "girl books" in our library

LindaJoy: That's good to hear, SQ

LindaJoy: Publishers don't want to lose the boy audience and figure girls will read books with boys in them

LindaJoy: publishers still go by that rule

LindaJoy: And now the editor has to sell the book to marketing, so need a commercial angle plus broad appeal

LindaJoy: Also usually need to have a multi-cultural mix of characters

kia: That's a big order, lj.

 

Margot: Are series books easier to sell these days?

LindaJoy: No, Margot. Series books are just as hard to sell as single titles. Actually I think picture books might be easier to sell

kia: HA! I doubt that!

Margot: I have noticed a lot of publishers have many more picture books on their lists

LindaJoy: I've noticed that, too, Margot

LindaJoy: That's why a good way to break in is with established series

LindaJoy: It can be difficult work and not as satisfying, but you'll learn to work with editors

kia: But...you can't build a name for yourself in established series...so how does that help you, lj?

LindaJoy: Just don't try to ask for copies for a book signing (I did this and was quickly chastized)

kia: So...you can't sign the book?

LindaJoy: I have signed my Sweet Valley Twin, but only if asked

Suzy-Q: How can you prove you wrote it, if it has no name on it?

LindaJoy: You don't have to prove it. No one questions you.

LindaJoy: Besides, you never know who actually wrote the books, so would be risky to claim one

LindaJoy: If you have credits, editors take you more seriously

LindaJoy: I am trying to write for the TV series and the editor wanted my resume

kia: So, even though your name is not on the book, you can use it for credits?

LindaJoy: If you wrote the book, you can claim it.

kia: Ha! So an unscrupulous person could just CLAIM to have written X number of series books for Sweet Valley Twins...and have an instant background as a writer!

Gail: I thought of that.

LindaJoy: They COULD, kia, but publishing is a small world and editors talk to each other a lot

kia: Grin. In other words, I shouldn't try it?

LindaJoy: Well, I know of people who are becoming "agents" so they can submit their work...so I guess you could claim a book, but if it's MY book, I'll know it

 

Margot: Another thing - most publishers the last few years only offer royalty.

LindaJoy: Only royalty, Margot? None I've worked with.

Miriam: that figures

 

zap: With a pic book, publishers invest around $50,000 on a first run. Do you know how much they invest in a series (thinking it would be cheaper and no harder to sell than a pic book)?

LindaJoy: I don't know money, zap--editors aren't forthcoming about that

 

zap: Do you know how many they print in first run of as new series

LindaJoy: I think about 5-10,000 were printed of my CHEER books

zap: of each title, right?

LindaJoy: (yes, Zap)

LindaJoy: But the sales were just a fraction of that and I was told many were probably returned

 

Miriam: How close are you to knowing about your new series, LJ

LindaJoy: One of my series is being looked at by Berkley

LindaJoy: They asked me to rewrite the manuscript (half of it)

LindaJoy: They wanted me to change the heroine's age, make the boy a partner, and add more DANGER scenes

LindaJoy: I did this over the weekend and mailed a new 70 pages to my agent yesterday--so now I'm just waiting

kia: Is it common for publishers to have you re-write that much, lj?

Alison-: wow, those are big changes for a weekend

LindaJoy: It's very flattering they liked it enough to ask for a rewrite

LindaJoy: When S&S considered it, took it to marketing, they just rejected it

LindaJoy: I used my laptop this weekend (finally came in handy)

 

 

LindaJoy: There are new opportunities for series, if you watch SCBWI and other lists

LindaJoy: Like Magic Attic invited writers to send in their resumes & writing samples

LindaJoy: Another packager named Twelfth House invited writers to query about some books for Disney Press

LindaJoy: And Parachute, which did Goosebumps, has writers send in their resumes for file

 

Well, our time is up, folks. That about raps up the Midgrade workshop.

kia: Thanks for coming, everyone...and...I'll be posting a transcript of this workshop on my website very soon.

 

 

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