Writing Middle-Grade Books with Author Liesl Shurtliff
One of the great joys about being represented by Michelle Andelman at Regal Literary is getting to know my fellow authors she represents. We are a wide range of writers of children’s books, middle grade, and young adult. Liesl Shurtliff’s debut book Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin was released in April 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers and featured in People magazine as one of the best new kids’ books. Liesl was kind enough to answer some questions about her journey from agent to submissions to publication. Thanks, Liesl, and if you want to learn more about the book, check out the wonderfully delightful book trailer.
Since we share the same wonderful agent, Michelle Andelman at Regal Literary, I’d love to know what your feedback process has been with Michelle while working on Rump before submitting to editors. Also, I know a lot of people want to know, why do you need a literary agent?
For Rump, I revised with Michelle for about a month before we submitted. She felt the book was pretty sound, but told me that she always revises with clients before submission. We did one round of light revisions, addressing thing she felt needed to be better developed or clarified in the story, and then a quick round of line-edits. I loved her suggestions. She’s always so spot-on about what isn’t working and why, and what might be done to fix the problem.
As for why you need a literary agent? How can I condense this into one paragraph? A good agent can earn their weight in gold. They have insider information in the marketplace and better know who might be interested in your book. They can speed up the process by getting your book in front of editors sooner. They can negotiate better terms for you contract, and can handle most of the unpleasant business side of things. Basically your agent is there to go to bat for you in every way for your career. Your success is their success. I love my agent.
All that said, I’ll go ahead and be bold and say you don’t have to have an agent to sell a book, even to a top tier publisher. I have friends who’ve successfully published with top publishers without an agent, but they are almost always younger books (picture books and early chapter books.) And the process can be way longer in a business that is already notoriously slow. Most of them get an agent after they publish their first book.
Congratulations on the success of Rump, a middle-grade novel, about the true story of Rumpelstiltskin! What drew you to tell a new version of the classic fairy tale?
Thank you! It has been lots of fun to see my book out the world and more fun to see that people are actually reading it!
I was drawn to this particular tale for several reasons. First, I got an idea, separate from this tale, about a world where everyone’s name determines their destiny. I think it was within seconds of thinking of that idea that I thought of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, because there’s so much mystery and power surrounding his name. We know very little of Rumpelstiltskin in the traditional tale and I love to explore unanswered questions and draw connections between things. I was further drawn to it because it’s not an overdone tale, and I felt certain I could tell it in a totally fresh way that no one had done before.
A lot of people ask me what is middle-grade since young adult is a more familiar genre. Can you talk about why you like writing for middle grade and what appeals to you about this age range?
In general, Middle-grade (MG) is the 8–12 range. Sometimes the lines between MG and YA can get blurry, just as the lines between YA and Adult can be blurred, but Rump is an example of a book that is solidly MG.
I love writing and reading middle-grade because it feels like a return to the magic of childhood where everything is possible, and yet it’s not unsophisticated. I see some incredible literature displayed in MG books. Also, the audience rocks! Middle-grade is often referred to as “The Golden Age of Reading” because it’s the age kids become independent readers; they start to seek out books on their own and develop their individual tastes in books, but are also willing to try anything. They’re incredibly enthusiastic and I adore writing for this crowd. Keeps my heart young and my mind open.
What was your process like from selling the book to actually holding a hard copy in your hand?
It was more arduous than I had anticipated, for many reasons. For the editorial process, I loved working with my editor. Like my agent, I felt she really “got” my book and knew where it needed to go. We had the same vision. That said, I worried about being a “yes girl” and wanted to make sure that the integrity of my book remained in tact. I generally agreed on her criticisms of what wasn’t working; I didn’t always agree on the suggestions for change, which I think is fine. You have to listen to criticisms, but you can address the problem in your own way. My editor was always delighted when I thought of a possible solution she hadn’t, and usually it was my own ideas that were the best fit for the book anyway. I think that’s how it should be.
After the editorial process, there’s the work of marketing and publicity. That was a steep learning curve from me, and it’s best if you can band together with other authors and “hold hands” through the process. I wanted to believe that a good book will simply sell itself, and while that’s partly true, no one can buy a book they don’t know exists, and an author can’t leave all that to their publisher, no matter how big of a push they’re giving you. Debut/unknown authors have to work particularly hard to network in reading communities and get their books in the hand of readers. For me, I felt school visits, connecting with librarians, teachers, and my actual readership was the best thing I could do. It was a lot of work to get things off the ground before the book came out, but it’s been incredibly rewarding to connect with so many people, both adults and children, who have found my book in various ways.
What new books or ideas are in the works?
Currently I’m working on a companion to Rump, which is Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk (Spring 2015.) I just turned in the first draft to my editor. (Yay!) I’m really excited to share another fairy tale that features another boy protagonist, and the connections between Rump and Jack are great fun.
And between my work on Jack, I’ll also be working on Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood (Spring 2016) which will feature the character Red from Rump, as well as Goldilocks, who is the perfect sidekick to Red.