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As a former RA of North Carolina for SCBWI, I've organized a few conferences. I know how eager writers are to hear the thoughts of editors and agents on any particular subject, rather than, or in addition to, those of other writers. And who can blame them? Agents and editors are the Keepers of the Gate. What they're looking for and their advice about the business carries a stamp of authority.

  I asked Marietta Zacker, an agent with the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency, if she'd share her thoughts on children's books series, how to approach an agent with them, and how they stand in today's tough publishing climate.

1. Series are hot. Kids love to read them. What is the attitude of publishers and editors toward them in this tough market?

One book at a time is the way to look at it - especially since that's what editors are doing.  Truth is that this is the way editors have always looked at it.  The development of a series is usually much more organic than people imagine.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't think of the infinite possibilities that exist with the characters and worlds you create, but always write as if that is the last time anyone will hear from those characters.  That may sound pessimistic, but I assure you that it's quite the opposite.  With that attitude, you will write your best - your agent, your editor and your audience will then clamor for more.  And then, 'ta-da,' a series is born.  If you want some proof, think of any popular series, classic or current.  Have you ever wondered why series numbers are very rarely added during the first printing?  One book at a time.  That's the focus.  It should be yours as well.

2. What's your feeling about getting a query letter in which the author tells you the manuscript they're submitting is part of a series?

I think most of us sigh because ninety percent of queries say that - and it's possible that even that figure is an understatement.  Much like my thoughts on the attitude of editors, you simply have to be mindful that although your characters are living in your head and speaking to you daily, they may tell their story in one shot.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Again, the series will grow if it needs to.  So, much like concentrating on that one book when you're writing, concentrate on that one book when you're querying.  Is there anything wrong with mentioning that you have ideas for a trilogy, a 5-book or a 24-book series?  Not necessarily (well, yes on the last one!), but wouldn't you prefer to use those precious words to tell agents and editors about the book they're about to dive into and one with which you hope they will fall in love?

Stephanie is a perfect example (full disclosure: Stephanie is our client).  She is not a 'series writer.'  She writes believable characters with unique voices in amazing worlds.  Period.  Why wouldn't we all want more?  Her success in writing series comes from her work, not her focus on writing for that genre.  Now, some of you may be thinking of Mary Pope Osborne and Ron Roy (again, full disclosure: Ron is also a client).  As we always say, make sure you do your homework.  Both Mary and Ron wrote for years and were successful authors before the books that made them household names came to be.  That doesn't mean that you have to be a published author to think of a series, but many times characters and worlds evolve into a series.  Be careful when thinking that it's the series that will make your characters complete or your world more understandable.  Chances are, it won't.  

Others bring up Jo Rowling and Rick Riordan (last full disclosure: Rick is yet another client). There is no doubt that they created those worlds (worlds that couldn't be described fully in just one book) long before Harry and Percy became part of our world - and yet, even for them, it was one book at a time.  If we only got to read that very first book, it would have been disappointing, but that book would have been complete on its own.  Again, I'm not saying that you can't dream big, but you should concentrate on writing one book well.  And then, write one query about that one book ... and do it well.

3. What are the kinds of things you've seen in a manuscript that have made you think it might be a possible series?

Perspectives of the story left untold, portions of the world yet uncovered, voices which I want to hear again and characters who have lives, adventures, jokes, situations about which I want to hear more.

4. What, if anything, do you think is being overdone in series today? What are some of the genres that seem eager for series ideas?

The first question is a loaded one, so I think I will pass in order not to offend.  I will say this, though, finding this out is not difficult.  Go to a bookstore.  Look around.  When you spot a title or cover and you think, "Another one?" - that series is overdone.  As for genres that seem eager for series ideas, I will stick with my original answer about a series being more organic than anyone can imagine.  Write a story well.  The rest will take care of itself.

5. Any advice for writers?

Write what you love, write what keeps you up at night, write what you know, write what you want to find out, but most importantly, write.

I thank Marietta for her insights. I especially like the answer to question 3. It's the kind of information I feel I can write from, if you know what I mean. Put the way Marietta said it, "voices I want to hear again, characters who have lives, adventures, jokes," makes me think about any social situation where I might meet a stranger. It would be his or her voice, which of course means story, and my wanting to hear it again and more of it, that would make me seek that person's company out again.

Imagine being on a bus and sitting down beside a stranger. And the stranger starts to talk ...

Tomorrow, Barrie Summy will be here, assuming that she manages to finish a revision she was working on this week. I think it was due yesterday. That means she should be pulling her sorry body out of bed along about now (well, it's only 5 am in California) and will soon go to her computer and respond to my questions.

Many of my writer friends seem to be snowed under with revision this week. It must be something in the air. Or maybe the hint of summer and the thought of taking a bit of time off?
Good luck to all.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
This was very insightful! A lot of my own story ideas end up becoming series in my head, but I do my best to make the first book stand alone as much as possible in case I'm not fortunate enough to write a sequel. (There's always some loose ends, though, which worries me. Sigh.)
May. 21st, 2010 11:43 am (UTC)
Maybe the loose ends are what Marietta was talking about. Wanting to know how things get resolved might lead readers to demand that second book.
May. 21st, 2010 03:07 am (UTC)
That's a great point about the first book in the series not saying on the cover that it's the first book in a series. That certainly does say a lot about what editors think!

Really helpful information. Thank you!
May. 21st, 2010 12:21 pm (UTC)
Things are moving so fast these day, I don't think even editors and publishers can be certain that a book they love will make it or not. So they wait and see how it's received and when readers love it, they panic: we need another one!!
May. 21st, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)
It's funny--when I saw the link to this interview on Cynsations, I thought, "Oh, great! The secrets on how to come up with a series!" But I actually like what Marietta said much more: that it's more important to tell the complete story in your one book. I enjoyed this interview--great topic!
May. 21st, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you Marietta! The idea of "not" setting out to write a series makes it seem much more attractive somehow--just as when I read I'm not usually attracted to books in a series, but if a book really hits me and it's part of a series, I'll head for the next one!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )