w4yp-transparent-smallAdvice from the experts

On Saturday, thirty-five people gathered at Zürich’s Volkshaus to spend a day learning about writing for young people at a workshop organised by Nuance Words. The experts were Julia Churchill, children’s agent with AM Heath, and Sara O’Connor, editor at Hot Key Books.

So many useful ideas came out of the discussions and questions that it’s impossible to summarise in one post. So I’ve divided the day into two reports.

julia-churchillFirst, Julia on being a children’s agent. What she does, what she looks for and what makes a great book.

Tomorrow, Sara breaks down the elements of writing with some practical exercises of how to improve your manuscript and avoid the beginners’ mistakes.

Julia began by explaining the role of an agent. She impressed us all with her passion for books, her dedication to her writers and her willingness to talk openly about what does, and doesn’t work for her.

 As an agent I spot talent and help develop it and then sell it.  And then do whatever I can to make a career for each author and support and back them along the way.

008Giving an overview of the market, she explained the changes in publishing have influenced the retail environment, so that saleability becomes an increasingly important factor. So if she sends a book to an editor at a publishing house, and that editor loves it, the next step is to convince the whole company, including sales and marketing, that this is something they should buy. It’s not always easy.

Acquisitions meetings often end with blood on the walls

010If they want the book, Julia negotiates the best possible deal for the author, taking into account all the different rights issues: selling direct to international markets, merchandising, TV and film, audio, computer games, royalties, discount rates.

The relationship is long-term. The agent is there to help with ideas of how to develop that author’s career and a business partner.

Of course agents are aware of trends, but realistically, the time it takes to get a book to market means that the dystopian/paranormal romance/magical powers trend will be overcooked and saturated.

The next big thing is currently being created in some writer’s shed. I have no idea what it is yet, but it will have these key elements:


This is what I look for in the query letter. The hook, the premise, that something original. I talk more about freshness in publishing than I did when I worked in fruit & veg.


With great characters, who they are, their nature, matters. Physical description is really to reveal character – it has little value in and of itself.


I’m attracted to simplicity and focus. What do the characters stand to win, or lose? The No 1 problem with most debut books? Too much going on.


A vivid setting becomes a character in its own right. It should be so imbued with emotion it couldn’t happen anywhere else.


The feeling you are left with when you finish the book, this is the heart of your story. But beware of preaching. Maurice Sendak said, ‘I have never written a book with a lesson’.


This is the thing that connects with your core reader: the excitable five year old, the adventure-hungry nine year old, the slighty aggro teenager.


Agents only read the first few chapters so make sure everything is there from the off. Get in late, get out early. Begin when the action begins and cut the rest. I get about twenty submissions a week which begin with an alarm clock going off. Be spare, make every word count, hit the ground running.