You are Associate Publisher of Children’s Books at Random House Australia. For those unfamiliar with your role, what does that involve?
I receive manuscripts from agents, from authors who I work with, and via our query submission system, and I read them to consider which will best suit the Random House Australia children’s or teen list. We publish all kinds of children’s books, from illustrated books for younger readers right up to young adult fiction, both fiction and non-fiction. I present titles to our children’s team, talking to sales, marketing and publicity about why I think a book could be great for us. Hopefully everyone agrees with me! I then work with the author on the developmental or structural editing of the book. And as we progress through the editing and production of a book, I’m working with various people to make sure the book gets all the attention it deserves – I’m briefing a designer and possibly an illustrator on how the cover should look, and guiding the cover process until we have a cover that we’re all happy with; I’m talking to marketing and publicity about the campaign for the book, and how to best position the book in the market and get it noticed; I’m writing cover blurbs and other information about the book that will go out to booksellers; I’m working with the editor and author to make sure the book is as polished as possible; and I’m keeping up with trends so that our books will be competitive in the market.
You have been involved with book series such as the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan and the Laws of Magic series by Michael Pryor. What makes a good children’s or young adult series?
When I look at some of our most successful series, such as Ranger’s Apprentice or Laws of Magic, what stands out to me is their emphasis on friendship. You can be fighting for your life in a battle against hundreds of Temujai warriors, or tied to a chair with an evil magician about to cast a dastardly spell on you, but if you have good friends by your side, things aren’t all bad! (Though a handy knife secreted in your boot is also quite helpful in these situations, I must admit.)
A thrilling plot full of adventure is important, but to me it’s all about the characters. The characters have to be growing and learning throughout the series – if they’re not, then readers will soon lose interest. In Ranger’s Apprentice it’s the relationships between the characters that make it so special to me – the moment when grim Ranger Halt finally cracks a smile, or when Will and his childhood enemy, Horace, save each other’s lives and form a friendship that we know will last forever.
Of course, as one of the fans on our Ranger’s Apprentice Facebook page said when I asked this exact question, what makes a good children’s or YA series can be as simple as ‘nonstop underdog butt-kicking action’!
What do you usually look for or most often find lacking in manuscripts submitted to you?
The one thing a manuscript has to have right from the beginning is its own ‘voice’ – by which I mean a combination of the narrator’s or author’s voice or writing style, the characters’ voices (and how authentic they feel), and the x-factor, or secret ingredient, that makes the book different to everything else I’ve read (and makes it unputdownable). So for instance, you can have any number of fantasy books about an apprentice, but what is it that makes this one different from all the others? Voice is one of the hardest things to edit, so it has to be there from the start.
What is one of your favourite novels and what makes it work so well for you?
One of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of years is Terry Pratchett’s Nation. It has the same sense of humour that has kept me reading Terry’s Discworld books since I was a teenager, but what I like most about Nation is that it is about the hope and change that can come out of disaster (in this case a devastating tsunami). It’s about finding and nurturing the best aspects of humanity – not just focusing on the worst. As Kim Stanley Robinson said in his AussieCon 4 keynote speech, ‘The more visions we have of the future going right, the more we believe in that future.’ We may not live in a utopian world, but we need hope in our lives, and the best books give us that hope. To quote another Aussiecon panellist, Duncan Lay in the session on ‘Writing in the Shadow of Pratchett and Adams’ said that, with comic writing, ‘the mistake is to miss the heart’. It’s not just true of comic writing – finding novels with ‘heart’ is what keeps me going as a publisher.
What tends to grab your attention in a first chapter and make you want to keep reading?
The first chapter has to intrigue me by raising questions that will take a whole book to answer. Let me give you a couple of examples from two books I’ve recently published.
In LM Fuge‘s When Courage Came to Call, what grabbed my attention can be summed up in the first and last lines of the opening chapter: ‘I was in the teaching house when the first bomb hit’ (What bomb? I must know!) and ‘And then, in the flickering light and silence, I was wrenched into real life as it happened’, a line that gave me a shiver up my spine (always a sign of a good book!).
In Ben Chandler’s Voyages of the Flying Dragon Book 1: Quillblade, it was the combination of the awesome concept (an airship powered by beautiful animals called Bestia), with a promise of adventure, as twins Lenis and Missy learn that the captain’s task is to steal the airship from under the nose of the warlord on the day of its launch. Stealing an airship? Twins with special powers who can talk to animals? Tell me more!
I should note, too, that both of these books came from our email query submission system, where authors can send us an email to pitch their book, and we call in the manuscripts that sound exciting, or most suitable for our list. We’ve already signed up three new authors since we changed to email queries – we love it! You can find out more about submitting a children’s book query at our website: http://www.randomhouse.com.au/Default.aspx?Page=General&Section=submissionguidelines
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers who want to get a novel published?
Polish, polish, and polish some more! Don’t send anything to a publisher or agent until it’s as good as it can possibly be. But on the flip side of that, be prepared to work with an editor – once you finish writing the last page, your journey as an author has only just begun.
What kind of books do you think young Australian readers are most excited about now and what do you think will be big in the coming year?
Paranormal books are still hot, and that’s because it’s a trend that doesn’t stand still but morphs from vampires and werewolves to angels to sirens and mermaids. We’ll start seeing more dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels because of the huge success of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, as well as the film release of Tomorrow When the War Began. Steampunk is having its moment in the sun – it’s been around for years, but has hit the YA shelves recently with fantastic series from authors such as Michael Pryor, Scott Westerfeld and Richard Harland.
What was your favourite AussieCon 4 session that you attended and why?
Oh, do I have to choose just one? As you can see from my quote above, I thought Kim Stanley Robinson’s keynote speech was lovely – so personal and off-the-cuff, and not what I was expecting at all. I took a lot away from the panel on ‘Maintaining momentum in fiction’ – strangely enough, it was the Schlock Mercenary webcomic creator Howard Tayler rather than the book authors who had the most interesting things to say. I liked the way Howard looked at storylines, suggesting that writers ask themselves the question ‘Are you making a promise to your readers?’, and consider that sometimes a throwaway line can make a promise, so you have to make sure you deliver on that promise (which might change your story in unexpected ways). I was inspired by seeing D.M. Cornish and Shaun Tan talking to Richard Harland about how they create their amazing illustrations. And I can talk about editing and YA fiction until the cows come home, so I loved chatting on panels to authors, booksellers, editors, librarians and fans, including Kate Forsyth, Bec Kavanagh, Lili Wilkinson and many more, about our shared passion for YA speculative fiction.
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The Australian Literature Review