Ep 182 How to use a plotting chart in your redrafting process. And meet Hardie Grant Egmont publisher Marisa Pintado.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 182 of So you want to be a writer: Learn how to use a plotting chart in your redrafting process and why this teenager won’t read Young Adult novels. Discover how the ‘Creative Gap’ frustrates writers. Your chance to enter a short story competition and Harry Potter books up for grabs. Plus: meet Hardie Grant Egmont publisher Marisa Pintado, authors you should be following on Twitter and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

The Mapmaker Chronicles teaser video

The Redrafting Process, Plus Exactly How I Use that Colourful Chart

I’m A Teenager And I Don’t Like Young Adult Novels. Here’s Why.

The Secret Every Frustrated Writer Needs to Know

Publisher in Residence

Marisa Pintado

Marisa Pintado is an experienced publisher of compelling, commercially successful and award-winning fiction for children and young adults. She is currently a publisher at Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne where she leads an exciting, profitable and award-winning fiction list for children and young adults, while managing the Ampersand Prize for debut novelists.

Follow Marisa on Twitter

Competitions

Short story challenge: June 2017

WIN: 2x Harry Potter book packs!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Allison

Marisa Pintado is the publisher of children’s and YA fiction at Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne. In 2011, she launched the Ampersand Prize, which is Hardie Grant Egmont’s annual search for YA and middle grade manuscripts from unpublished writers. And throughout her editorial career she has worked closely with a variety of emerging commercially successful and award-winning authors.

Welcome to the program, Marisa.

Marisa

Thank you. So exciting to talk to you.

Allison

Let’s start way back at the beginning, maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you came to be in publishing in the first place?

Marisa

Yeah, sure. My background is basically only in editorial. You can come to being a publisher in lots of different ways — through marketing, through publicity. But, I had worked in editorial for about the last decade, mostly in Melbourne, but with a short stint in London.

And it’s not 100 percent common for editors in Australian publishing to start out acquiring the way it is in the US. But, I was always drawn to commissioning because I loved the process of working with writers to get as close as possible to their best manuscript.

And I was lucky enough to be working at Hardie Grant Egmont while we were publishing the Zac Power and Go Girls series, which used lots of different writers, either writing under a pseudonym or writing under their own names, but working to a formula to kind of practice my commissioning as a junior commissioning editor, which was really fantastic. It allowed me to kind of hone my process of working with authors to get the very best out of them, in an environment where we had reasonably formulaic stories to produce, but… which kind of gave authors the ability to be really creative within specific kind of constraints.

Allison

When you’re working on a series like that, when you’ve got like a Zac Power or something, as you say you have a whole range of different authors who are working to essentially a formula with set characters — is there like a level of… because I’m just thinking about magazine writing… so, when you write as a freelance writer for a magazine you’ve got to write, obviously with your own voice, et cetera, but you also have to fit within the voice of the magazine, which is a skill in itself. Are your authors, for a series like that, are they… you know because you kind of want a consistency don’t you, of voice across a series like that, as though it’s… so when kids are reading it it’s not like, “Oh, wait a minute, this is not like the last Zac Power that I read.” How do you work with authors to kind of get that happening?

Marisa

Absolutely. I mean that is really the key thing, getting that consistency of voice.

Zac Power is a good example because all of the writers wrote under a pseudonym, H. I. Larry. And there were very strict rules in that period, because it was published at a time when the industry was a bit obsessed with the idea of the reluctant reader. And it was really a series that was targeting reluctant readers who wanted the excitement and high-octane adventure of a series like Alex Rider, but didn’t necessarily have the reading ability.

We created lots of rules around that series to make it as accessible as possible to them and to the writers from anywhere, really. If they read a couple of Zac Powers they would very quickly get a sense of the voice and the rules. And the rules are things like the manuscripts always have to be 7,000 words, there are ten chapters. Every chapter Zac has a new gadget that he deploys in some fantastic and exciting, but easy to read kind of way.

And so that I think as an emerging kind of commissioning editor was really interesting, because it meant that I could kind of rely on the constraints of the series to sort of shepherd and guide my authors, but also kind of create a space for them to be as creative as possible. I mean if you have ever read a Zac Power book or any of the
Zac Power books —

Allison

I have.

Marisa

— you will know that he gets knocked out at least once in every book, because every story has to take place over 24 hours and it’s really difficult to use up 24 hours in only ten chapters.

Our writers would actually get tremendously creative in those situations, because you can’t really use gadgets that have been used before, you can’t be knocked unconscious in the same way that you’ve been knocked unconscious before.

I think it was actually a really great experience for me as a publisher, but also for emerging writers, kind of learning how to write to a brief, and learning how to write to a particular voice. 

Allison

Some of those writers that you worked with on that series, I’m quite interested in this, just simply for the fact like I must have read about eight billion Zac Powers because I have two boys…

Marisa

Oh bless.

Allison

So, we have done all of the various permutations of Zac easy readers all the way through — the whole bit.  

You worked with sort of newer authors on that series.

Marisa

Yeah.

Allison

Is it difficult for them to then to go… because I think one of the most difficult things, and you would probably agree with me on this, one of the most difficult things for emerging authors is just that ability to find your own voice and to find your way of telling a story and to create, I guess, a voice that becomes identifiable to a group of readers who want to follow that voice.

Was that then difficult for those emerging authors, like if they were sort of like working to a very strict brief with the Zac Power series, to then go, “Well, now I’m going to create my own work, how do I do that?” Was that difficult at all?  

Marisa

That is such a good question. I suspect it’s probably a question for the authors involved.

Allison

Yeah, you are probably right, sorry.

Marisa

No, no, no. That’s OK. I can have a stab at answering it on their behalf. So, we tended to work with unpublished authors for the Zac Power series. It was usually the first thing that we had worked with them on. And usually after one or two or three — or in the case of Chris Morphew, for example, ten books. They would actually start to kind of chase at the constraints of writing in the series and kind of be spurred onto writing their own thing, to write their own voice. I mean the process of publishing a Zac Power… it did involve a lot of very heavy editing.

In a way there’s a natural end to every writer’s involvement with the Zac Power series because at a certain point I think they would get to a point where they would think, “You know what? I would really rather have ownership over my words, rather than kind of submitting to a series that is owned by the publisher.” Not in a way that kind of meant there were hard feelings at any point, I don’t think. I think it was a really enjoyable and well-remunerated process for everybody involved. But, I actually think in a way it kind of gave the writers involved the confidence that they could actually produce a manuscript, a full-length manuscript and work with an editor and get a sense of the editorial process, and also give them that itch to kind of find their own voice and their own space to write their own stories. And, as it happens, nearly every single writer that I’ve worked with on the Zac Power series I have gone on to publish or to contract to publish in the kind of years since. Some of it happened immediately and other writers I have only just contracted.

For example, Mat Larkin who wrote a Zac Power called Shock Music, which is one of my favourites, he and I are working on his debut novel, which we’ll publish next year, called The Orchard Underground, which I’m really excited about. I don’t think he would have written that book had he not written Zac Power.

Allison

From my perspective, it’s a terrific opportunity for emerging authors to make relationships with publishers.

Marisa

Yeah.

Allison

How did you find them in the first place?

Marisa

Actually, that’s sort of a funny question, because I think it was the thing that made me realise that I could be a commissioning editor, because you find writers everywhere.

Mat Larkin I met at a family barbecue.

Allison

As you do.

Marisa

He’s not a member of my family — actually, it was a family friend’s barbecue. He’s a lovely and intelligent man that I got to talking to and I realised, “This man has more than one story to tell. And… actually he’s really smart and can tell a great story, and I wonder if he can write down those stories?”

But, in terms of kind of practically where I find writers… so Zac Power I would meet them at festivals, at conferences. People would just email me out of the blue. Often Chris Morphew, who went on to publish The Phoenix Files, which was a pretty successful middle grade series that we put out a few years ago, he came to us through another writer, Rowan McAuley, who we had published under the Go Girls series, which had a similar structure to Zac Power, except the writers didn’t write under a pseudonym.

It was a series of about 30 books and every book told a story of a real-life girl in sort of a similar format to Zac Power, except there were no gadgets or high-octane adventure, it was much more about real life stories and emotional trajectories and the kind of schoolyard politics of the day, which, again, at the time it was published the market was pretty obsessed with fairies. It is still obsessed with fairies, but there really wasn’t much available for kids who liked real stories about real girls. So, anyway, that’s what we were working on Rowan with. She was writing a number of books for us as part of that series.

And Chris went to her church. And she showed him a Zac Power one day —

Allison

There you go.

Marisa

Yeah.

— and he said, “I reckon I can do better than that,” which is lovely. And he sent us a manuscript and it was fantastic. He had instinctively got the rules that we were trying to kind of adhere to. And actually, working with him on that series was amazing, because even though we had started out with a very kind of simple formula for Zac, you know, like I said, 7,000 words, ten chapters, all of that, he actually saw a kind of mythology in the world that we hadn’t anticipated. And it was subtle, but it was there. He had sort of in the books that followed his first one with us, he managed to kind of weave in that mythology really subtly. And actually, it was with him that we published the Zac Power Mega Missions, which was a four-book spin off series, and then the Zac Power Extreme Missions, which was another spin off series.

Allison

Wow.

Marisa

Because he was just so capable to sort of slip inside that world and see that it was bigger than it looked.

Allison

I just think that’s really fascinating. Thanks very much for talking to us about that because I know that’s sort of all a bit left field of what we were going to discuss. But, I just think that’s it a really interesting insight. And I think it’s something that emerging authors probably overlook, is that series fiction and the ability of that to actually, you know, perhaps open a door into publishing for you.

So, thanks for that.

Marisa

Oh, a pleasure.

Allison

But, I also know — like you’re obviously very interested in emerging and unpublished authors because you did launch the Ampersand Prize in 2011, which is, of course, a competition for debut YA and middle grade novelists. Can you tell us a little bit about how that works? And why did you establish it?

Marisa

Yeah, I would be delighted to. I will start out by saying that this year’s Ampersand Prize is opening for submissions on the 10th of July, and it’s running for nearly three weeks. So, we close submissions, I think, on the 28th of July. I hope that’s right.

Allison

Oooh.

Marisa

And we’re accepting manuscripts from all debut novelists of middle grade and YA fiction, as you say.

But why did we launch it?

So, we launched it in 2011, at a time when we were really looking to grow our YA list. We had been tremendously successful with publishing our junior fiction, you know,

Zac Power and Go Girl were best-selling series. We were selling thousands of copies every week. I loved working on children’s fiction, but my homeland is YA and middle grade and I really wanted to expand our list for older readers.

But, it was a time when Twilight was huge, and we were really only receiving manuscripts for paranormal and dystopian fiction. And, it was honestly a bit frustrating, because it wasn’t the sort of fiction we wanted to publish. We sort of pride ourselves in looking for the gaps in the market, trying to publish what’s not currently there. And it got to the point where I thought, “If no one is going to send me these manuscripts I have to ask for them. Like, I can’t just sort of sit here waiting… how can a writer working in Wagga, for example, know what a publisher in Melbourne is kind of desperately hoping for?”

So, we decided to make really visible and public our desires.

The first year of the Ampersand Prize we asked only for YA contemporary manuscripts. And we had something like 250 submissions. We had expected maybe five.

Allison

Wow.

Marisa

Yeah, we really didn’t know that we were going to get anybody sending us anything. So, to get 250 manuscripts was just a dream. And out of that bunch we found Melissa Keil, whose manuscript was a complete surprise. Life in Outer Space was a hilarious, warm romantic comedy about a movie geek and the not quite manic-pixie-dream girl that he falls in love with.

And we had thought, you know, we were looking for gritty, dark YA. So, this manuscript was just like a breath of fresh air when it landed. And so, we thought, “You know what? It is right for us to ask for what we want, but we should also be ready to get the things that we don’t know that we want.” So, in the second year of the Ampersand Prize we threw open the doors to all genres of YA, including fantasy and sci-fi and everything. In the years that have followed we have since expanded it yet again to include middle grade fiction, but I think last year was the first year we accepted middle grade fiction because there’s a real lack of middle grade publishing in Australia at the moment. We just don’t seem to do it as well or as consistently as markets like the UK and the US do, particularly the US which I think has just nailed the middle grade market in a way that we are sort of aspiring to.

Yeah. I mean it’s been a pretty tremendously exciting ride. Every year we run it I’m so amazed at the number and the quality of the manuscripts that people are working on by themselves, often without the support of writers’ groups, often just kind of in their studies and around the edges of their days, around full-time work and childcare and their daily lives they manage to produce these really quite incredible manuscripts.

I’m proud of it as a prize because we really have something unique in Ampersand. It’s a really special platform that allows us to launch the careers of these writers who might otherwise not get published, or who otherwise might not make as big of splash as they deserve. The Flywheel, which was the second winner of the Ampersand Prize, by Erin Gough, she’s a really bloody fantastic — sorry! She’s a fantastic Sydney-based writer. And it was a contemporary novel with a gay protagonist. Honestly, this has ended up being quite a diverse prize. We hadn’t… we hadn’t set out with that intention, but I think because we are a fairly kind of modern, young team, I guess we’re attuned to the issues kind of… or the imperatives facing the publishing industry around publishing own voices and kind of the need for diversity in our publishing in a way that kind of goes beyond it just being sort of a marketing trend.

I think we loved The Flywheel as soon as it came it. We did have, I think, a short discussion early on about whether it was too similar to Life in Outer Space, just in terms of it being a funny contemporary novel. I’m so glad that we had that conversation and then put our fears to rest because it has ended up being both quite a different book, but also like a really special book, and a book that I’m really proud of, because its protagonist is gay and there’s just no — there are very few books available by Australian publishers at the moment, I’m sure that’s going to change, but available at the moment that have gay protagonists and that are written by gay authors. I think that’s really important. That’s something that we’re looking to kind of keep expanding on.

Allison

The prize does seem to also get bigger and bigger every year. The sort of hype around it and the size of the sort of splash it makes, particularly online, obviously, because that’s where I seem to spend my entire life.

How many submissions are you receiving for the prize? How many did you receive last year, for example?

Marisa

It goes up and down every year and I think that’s because writers… it takes a long time to write these manuscripts and writers don’t tend to submit the same manuscripts over and over again, they’re working with something new and that might take a couple of years to kind of come together.

It hovers between 150-300, usually, which is actually not that many, but it does kind of create a lot of work for the reading team. Basically, the process of the Ampersand Prize is that I lead a small team inside Hardie Grant Egmont with the editors and a few sort of select colleagues from the sales and marketing team. And we basically all read together. Over about six or eight weeks we read every single manuscript and we talk about them on a Friday — it used to be a Friday morning with coffee, these days it’s more likely to be a Friday afternoon with a beer, because it’s such an enjoyable thing to do, to get excited about things.

Last year’s winner, Rhiannon Williams, she’s written this fantastic middle grade fantasy that I’m so excited to publish next year, and that was a kind of hit from the beginning, you know? Like somebody was reading it on a Friday and kind of popped up their head and said, “This is really good, you guys…” and from there it just kind of spread like wildfire.

I mean that’s the thing that I love about Ampersand. It’s just that we get so excited. When we find that special manuscript that we know that we want to work really closely with the author on, and that we really want to kind of get out there in big numbers and really kind of launch the career of this new person, it’s awesome. It’s why we all got into publishing in the first place.

I think Hardie Grant Egmont is in a really unique position. I don’t know that a larger publisher could run the prize the way that we do and I don’t know that a smaller publisher could do it either. We’re one of the few kind of mid-sized publishers in Australia and I think that gives us a particular strength. It means that we are kind of agile and small enough to work really closely with these debut authors, who do need, I think, a special level of attention because they’re so new to the industry and they’re new to the process and we like to make sure that they have all of the editorial support they need to get the very best possible chance at launch.

But, we’re also kind of big and successful enough, with a lot of fantastic books under our belts, a lot of fantastic series, that we’re able to really convincingly launch their careers. You know, like Melissa Keil is one of the best-selling Australian contemporary YA authors in this country, which is amazing. This is a woman who has come from nowhere. She’s an overnight sensation ten years in the making, all of that sort of stuff.

Allison

How much of a manuscript are you reading before you decide whether it’s worth pursuing? Like, you’re all sitting there with your beers, which I’m kind of sad that I’m not there with you, just quietly, because it sounds like a really great way to spend an afternoon…

Marisa

It’s so fun. Yeah, yeah. I promise you we don’t get drunk. There’s only one beer had per person. Some of us don’t drink at all, so…

Allison

I don’t know, like it gives you a whole new perspective on a manuscript, doesn’t it? When you’ve had a couple of beers?  

Marisa

No, no. It’s a lot of fun.

How much do we read?

Look, it really depends on the manuscript. I always aim to read a whole manuscript, even if I know halfway through that it’s not for us, because I feel like if there’s something in there that I can take — some takeaway that I can give to the author as feedback to kind of help them on their journey towards finding another publisher then I will do that.

Allison

Wow.

Marisa

But, the thing about being a kind of midsized publisher with a very specific publishing brief. You know, our brief in a nutshell in the fiction team is to look for junior fiction series and middle grade and YA that will sell to a mainstream, commercial audience.

The thing about having such a specific brief is you can often tell from the first kind of 50 or 100 pages whether something fits with that.

There are times during Ampersand where we will begin reading a manuscript and realise very quickly that a.) it is far too literary to appeal to an Australian YA audience… that it is too explicit, that there are sex scenes that honestly read more like something that you would think would be more appropriate for an adult audience. Or, you know, you can tell from, I think, the first 100 pages whether the author is really ready to engage with an editor, whether the quality of the writing is there.

And so, in special cases we won’t read past 100 pages, but we do really try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. And often there are manuscripts that don’t really find their voice until 50 pages in.

Allison

Yeah.

Marisa

But, the other thing about writing for children is that you know kids are the harshest critics. They just won’t keep reading if it doesn’t appeal to them, and same with teenagers. The bull crap factor is — the bull crap radar is really strong. They can tell straightaway if something is not going to be for them. So, we feel like we’ve got kids on our side, we have a clear sense of what we’re trying to accomplish. If in the first 50 or 100 pages the author hasn’t convinced us on those fronts, then that’s maybe when we stop reading. But, as I’ve said, we do try to keep going, particularly if we’re interested in anyway, which can happen because we are all passionate readers.

Allison

Yes, yes, yes. And that is the thing too, it’s like, “Well, what is going to happen here?” As you say, sometime it’s does, particularly with a debut manuscript, it can sometimes take you 50 pages to get to where you actually probably should have started the book, right?

Marisa

Yeah, absolutely. Exactly. I mean the number of times I have read a prologue and thought, “Oh no, not another prologue…” And sometimes you’re wrong, sometimes a manuscript actually does need a prologue, but more often than not I think the writer is writing into the story to the find the beginning. So, sometimes we just have to, like, let them do that.

Allison

Is the Ampersand Prize the best way for a new author to catch your eye? Or is there, like, also a normal submissions process for Hardie Grant Egmont?  

Marisa

Yeah, sure. The answer is ‘yes’ to both questions.

So, for middle grade and YA we tend to close submissions around the lead up to and around the time of the Ampersand Prize, because we want people to be funnelling their manuscripts through that prize. But, for junior fiction series and picture books we publish beautiful literary, award-winning picture books under our imprint Little Hare.

Allison

Yes.

Marisa

There are submission guidelines on our website, and we’re pretty specific about what we’re looking for, because with junior fiction in particular there are all kinds of things that we like to do to basically stand out in the market.

So, for example, we only do series for junior fiction readers, which is kind of roughly ages four to eight. We don’t do standalone chapter books for that readership for the simple reason that it’s really difficult to get them to standout on shelves.

Allison

So, the normal submissions process you have all of the guidelines on your website.  

We had a question a little while ago from sort of like a potential picture book author, she was saying often publishers are closed for picture book submissions. Would that be the case with you guys? Do you close your books or close your doors for a while once you have a massive pile of manuscripts that you need to get through? And then reopen them at another time? Why would publishers close for picture book submissions, I guess is my question?

Marisa

Yeah, that’s a really good question. The answer is yes, we do periodically close. We’ve actually just reopened our doors for picture book submissions. I think the reason is really about managing volume.

Allison

Yeah.

Marisa

I mean even when publishers are closed for submissions we still get submitted all of the time. People will still send us their projects or we’ll meet interesting people at festivals or conferences and ask them to send you their manuscripts. So, there are always ways around those submission guidelines if you’re lucky or you have a contact or you’re just kind of bold, I guess.

It’s really about volume. You can’t imagine how many picture book manuscripts get sent through the doors of Little Hare every year.

Allison

Yeah.

Marisa

There’s just — there’s so many. And they’re short, but every… the picture book publisher there, Margrete Lamond has the most incredible brain. And it takes a huge amount of time and energy for her to basically birth a picture book, to sort of take it from a manuscript to a final printed book. It’s a really, like, labour-intensive, time-intensive, cost-intensive process.

And so she might only publish 15-20 picture books a year, but receive, you know, 1,000 manuscripts that she has to work through.

I think that would be the reason why publishers sometimes close their doors, just to kind of give the manuscripts that they already have a fair go in their inbox, to sort of make it to publication.

Allison

I’m so glad you said that because that’s pretty much what Val and I said at the time that we got asked the question. So, I’m feeling much better.

Marisa

Yeah.

Allison

OK, so where do you think most authors or aspiring authors go wrong with their submissions? Is it not reading the guidelines, is that the first problem?

Marisa

Yeah, I was going to say that’s the easy answer.

Allison

Yeah.

Marisa

It’s just not knowing what we’re about.

Allison

Yeah.

Marisa

Like I said, if people are publishing kind of explicit sex scenes on the first page of their middle grade novel I think it’s pretty clear they haven’t done the research. But, usually it’s not a straightforward as that.

I think the sort of real answer is the lack of finesse and the lack of polish with a manuscript, where the number one reason we say ‘no’ to something, or the number one joint reason, is that the writing isn’t good enough or the ideas aren’t good enough.

Allison

OK. 

Marisa

And you can have writing that’s not polished enough, but the ideas are really good. Or the reverse. And, for us, we need both to be as kind of developed, fully developed as possible before we can even begin to think about falling in love with something.

Allison

I get what you’re saying with that too. But, how much work are you willing to actually do with a new author? With a debut author? Like, if you really fall in love with the idea and you can see some promise in the writing will you work with that? Or will you send it back and say, “You need to polish this and try again.” Like, how much work will you do from the start?

Marisa

I think it really depends on the manuscript, which is such a cheap way of answering that question. But, I will say — I know that, I’m definitely sitting on the fence with that one. I will say that you never really know at the beginning of the process, as a publisher, how much work a manuscript is going to take. You can start out thinking that it’s simply a matter of tweaking this character there and finessing that plot line there, but you just never really know until you get going on the editorial relationship, particularly with emerging writers who haven’t been through the editorial process before.

And even if they have an exceptional talent for putting together sentences you really don’t know how they’re going to engage with your feedback and put it into practice.

In terms of how much time we’ll spend with somebody, I guess as long as it takes to get it right.

Allison

Right.

Marisa

The most recent YA winner of the Ampersand Prize, Cally Black, whose novel  In the Dark Spaces, it’s publishing this August, is a real departure for the Ampersand Prize, because it’s a sci-fi thriller and it’s so good and the voice just hooked me from the first page. It’s such a clear and spectacular voice that I knew the moment I read it that we had to publish it, which always makes your job really easy as a judge on the Ampersand Prize, honestly, because if you know it from the beginning then it usually stands you in good stead.

But, that’s been through maybe 20 different rounds of feedback.

Allison

Wow, OK.

Marisa

And that’s a lot.

Allison

Yeah.

Marisa

And I think we really put Cally through her paces, and she was up for it. I mean that’s the kind of amazing thing, that she was as kind of harsh and close a critic of her own work as anyone else could be. And she really… … so Cally was completely up for the process of redrafting and redrafting until the manuscript was as good as it could possibly be. But, honestly, I think if she and I had known at the beginning of the process that it was going to be 20 rounds of really kind of intensive feedback I’m not sure if we would have done that together. But, I think that’s the beautiful thing about that leap of faith with a new writer is that you think to yourself, “I bet we can make this manuscript really fantastic if we work on it together.” And then you kind of do it and — yeah, it was a lot of fun. And it was hard for Cally for lots of different reasons, her house burned down in the middle of working on the final draft —

Allison

What?!

Marisa

I know. She’s had the most awful year, as well as working on this manuscript that was almost too clever for her by half it was, you know, exactly what you were saying before, Allison, about literally writing your character into a hole.

Allison

Oh, yes.

Marisa

And sort of figuring out how to get them out. It was the exact same thing. She had sort of created a world and a character, a cast really of characters that were so fantastic and so compelling and complex that it took us a really long time to figure out how we were going to bring it all home. But, we were willing to support her the whole way. And I’m really exciting about that book. I think she’s done just such a tremendous job on it.

Allison

Fantastic.

Outside of the Ampersand Prize, because that’s obviously a slightly different set of circumstances, but do you take an author’s platform or profile into consideration when you’re deciding whether to publish a book?

Marisa

We do to an extent. I think it’s definitely a bonus for us if we can see that an author is promotable and able to talk to students and at writers’ festivals if they present well, then of course that’s a bonus. Having said that, we have also acquired manuscripts from authors who have zero online presence.

So we’re publishing a new series this August called The Witching Hours from a guy called Jack Henseleit, who is a creative writing graduate — really smart, awesome guy. It’s a horror series. I’m so excited about publishing it. And he didn’t even have an Instagram before we signed him up. He didn’t have a Twitter. He was hardly on Facebook. He didn’t have a website. He had nothing.

But, the manuscript was so good that it didn’t matter. We just really wanted to work with him and as a result of our kind of working together he’s set up an Instagram, he’s set up his Twitter. By the time the book launches he will have that profile.

But, for us it’s definitely something that we think that we can work with authors on, if we feel that it is important for their profile. And, sometimes it’s not. There are particular kinds of publishing where being on Twitter is actually not as important as you’d think.

Allison

OK.

Marisa

I’m trying to think of what those books might be, but…

Allison

OK.

Marisa

… yeah. Any fiction, I guess.

Allison

But, you have worked with him to actually get that going, you know, in the sense that…

Marisa

Yeah!

Allison

Yeah, OK. Cool. That’s great.

Marisa

In fact, the annoying thing is his Instagram is better than anyone’s. He’s sort of nailed it, it’s really good. So, maybe we should all have a team of publicists and marketing managers kind of helping us carve out online profiles.

Allison

Shouldn’t we? Wouldn’t that be lovely? I would love that.

Marisa

Yeah. I think so.

Allison

Do you attend a lot of sort of conferences and festivals as a publisher? Because I know that pitching to publishers at festivals and conferences can be a great way for people to break through as far as getting their manuscript published? Are you at a lot of those things? Or does your team attend?

Marisa

Yeah. So, I try to attend as many as I possibly can. They do take up time, because often I’m going as a pitching publisher. So, I will have kind of 10, or 15, or 20 meetings with authors whose first ten pages I’ve read and then we have a 15-minute meeting to talk about what’s happening with their manuscript, where it could improve, what’s really great about it.

 

And, I’m an introvert, so those meetings and those kind of attendances — they take a lot of energy to recover from, but I also feel like they’re really worth it, because otherwise you don’t get to meet the authors who… the exact same authors that we are trying to reach from Ampersand, the authors who maybe aren’t a part of the industry who don’t have an online profile who are just working away on a manuscript that they think is pretty good that they would have liked to read when they were a kid or a teenager, those are the writers that I’m trying to connect with. And if it takes an introvert going to a festival and kind of making myself available to those writers, then I’m happy to do it. I absolutely wouldn’t give them up for the world.

And our team does occasionally go to those festivals as well. We usually send one or two people or only get one or two people invited to things like the Children’s and YA Conference in Brisbane, for example. That’s an invite festival. But, yeah, we do go around and we do enjoy them.

Allison

Do you have any advice, like for authors who might see you at such events or attend pitching sessions?

Marisa

Yeah. Yeah, good question. What advice would I give an author in pitching?

Allison
Don’t throw manuscripts at you?

Marisa

Yeah, yeah. I mean I’m actually happy to be pitched, but I do feel like there are — I think there are authors and writers who whip themselves into such a frenzy of anxiety about talking to publishers that it kind of makes it really difficult to just have a normal conversation with them.

And so my advice to them would be that every editor, agent, publisher wants a writer to be as normal and lovely and as good… their best possible selves, basically.

Allison

Yeah.

Marisa

There’s no reason to be nervous, we’re just humans. And we likely haven’t enough coffee, just like you. We likely didn’t sleep so well the night before, just like you. We’re often nervous about those conferences, as well. It is quite exposing, I think, to be talking to 40 people in a row and having to give them rapid fire feedback in a way that is hopefully useful and encouraging, but is also honest. So, that can be quite kind of nerve-wracking as well.

So, my advice to authors attending those festivals and conferences would be don’t be nervous, we want you to be good. We’re happy to listen. And good luck.

Yeah.

Allison

Yeah, because I think it’s important for authors to remember that you’re looking — as much as you’re looking for fantastic manuscripts you’re also looking for people that you can work with, aren’t you? Like, that relationship is important too, isn’t it?

Marisa

Exactly, normal people who are not going to — normal people, you know? I mean I think that there is an argument to be made that writers are a special bunch and that a certain amount of crazy comes with genius, I totally accept that. I love a bit of crazy with my genius, to be honest. But, we do want someone who can have a conversation with us and who can listen to us and who can hear us when we give them feedback, or push back against feedback that doesn’t feel right to them. It’s not a kind of parent/child relationship. It should ideally be a relationship of equals.

And that all starts with that initial conversation. If someone is kind of too anxious to even talk to you, it’s sort of hard to say how you can turn that into a really fruitful author/editor relationship.

Allison

What are you actually looking for right now? What are you searching for? What is the manuscript of your dreams right now? Just in case one of our listeners is sitting on it at home.

Marisa

That’s such a good question.

Allison

Just in case.

Marisa

Allison, so many questions.

What am I looking for? OK, so at the moment I am actually really hungry for YA. I feel like I’m not getting sent nearly enough YA. And so I’m really hoping that this year’s Ampersand Prize is just jam packed with fantastic YA manuscripts.

I still love contemporary. I feel like the trend for contemporary is waning a little bit. It’s harder and harder to publish a good contemporary manuscript that’s just good. These days we find that they really need a clear hook, something that helps them stand out, something that makes them special. But, I’m also finding myself drawn to manuscripts that combine elements of genre for a mainstream audience, so YA horror, YA fantasy, particularly YA fantasy that’s a little bit self-aware, a little bit self-deprecating, funny. I love humour. I think there’s a real lack of humour in Australian YA publishing. I think we can all afford to kind of let loose a little.

And I also want books both middle grade and YA that are really fun. I feel like more now than ever before we need books that are fun and give us a kind of escape route, basically.

And so, middle grade that combines fun with, again, elements of genre. As I said we’re publishing a horror series in August called The Witching Hours with Jack Henseleit this August. And, I love it because it’s so scary and it has been the longest time since I read a truly scary but age-appropriate middle grade series.

Allison

Fantastic.

Marisa

And I have never published one before. So, I’m excited to finally be getting to do that.

Allison

OK.

Marisa

But, yeah. I think I’m also looking for kind of meatier stories for younger readers as well. We’re finding this sort of strange trend in retail at the moment. I don’t know if it’s trickled into publishing as well, but at retail retailers seem to be looking for longer stories for younger readers. There’s a real kind of link between the extent of a book, you know, the length of a book and the perceived value of it.

Allison

Yeah.  

Marisa

So, where before we might have said 7,000 words is the perfect length for a six or seven-year-old kid, now the average length might be more like 15,000 or 20,000 words.

Allison

Yeah.

Marisa

I don’t know if that applies to every single story, but it’s an interesting idea, I think. That readers want more value, more bang for their buck.

Allison

Alright.

We’re going to finish up our lovely interview today with our usual last question, which is what are your three top tips for aspiring authors, emerging writers?

Marisa

That is such a hard question.

Allison

Well, I know.

Marisa

The first tip would be enter the Ampersand Prize and actually enter every prize. The Text Prize is fantastic. The Richell Prize, I think that’s Hachette’s prize for emerging writers, they’re not children’s specific, I think they’re for adult… they might even only be for non-fiction. But, these awards are basically publishers opening their doors and saying, “We want to find someone that we haven’t worked with before and we really hope it’s you.” They want the manuscripts to be good. So, that would be my number one tip.

My number two tip would be to really get to know the publishers that you want to be published by. So, follow them on Twitter, take note of which books are coming out, look for them in bookstores, read their books, find out what their tastes are like. Look in the acknowledgement pages, find out who published the book and see if you can build a really specific idea of the kind of person in publishing whose tastes might align with the manuscript you’re trying to write, because I think that is one good way to find the perfect home for your manuscript. And, also to save yourself a lot of heartache. Sending manuscripts to publishers who just will never like it for personal reasons, not because it’s not good, but because it doesn’t fit with what they’re trying to do.

Allison

That’s a great tip.

Marisa

And a third piece of advice — yeah. I do it as well. I do it with other publishers. I’m always looking to see what they’re publishing so I can get to know their tastes and keep an eye on the authors they’re acquiring. It’s useful for me as well to know what’s going on elsewhere in the market.

And I guess the third tip is probably the tip that everybody gives, which is that they need to read a lot and read for the readership that they’re trying to publish for, but read outside of it as well. Don’t restrict yourself to any one genre or category, try to read as broadly as you can and try to read actively.

I divide my reading into two sort of styles. I have my work reading, which is a very active kind of reading where I am paying close attention to every single word and the flow and structure of every single sentence because I am interested in the technical aspects of how to make a book good, how to make a story good. But, I do have another kind of reading, which is the flow reading, where you just kind of read to make pictures inside of your head and to be entertained and to go into new worlds.

I’m reading Terry Pratchett at the moment and that is my flow reading, and it’s awesome. So, you can do both. But, to try… you know, if you’re reading widely and broadly be aware that sometimes you need to do active reading to get the most out of it.

Allison

Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Marisa. That was terrific.

Marisa

No, no. Thank you.

Allison

So much great advice in there for all of our listeners.

Of course, Marisa Pintado is the publisher of children’s and YA fiction at Hardie Grant Egmont. She is encouraging you all to enter the Ampersand Prize, which is the annual search for YA and middle grade manuscripts, which opens — when, again?

Marisa

It opens on the 10th of July.

Allison

OK, so any minute now. So, dust off those middle grade and YA manuscripts and get them ready to send on in.

Marisa, good luck with all of that reading.

Marisa

Thank you, I’m going to need it.

 

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