Please note that the New Visions Award is open only to authors of color resident of the United States (including non-citizens, but you must be a resident). This includes Asian Americans and other people of Asian descent, African Americans and other people of African descent, Pacific Islanders, South Asians, Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, Middle Easterners, Latino/as, and mixed race people.
I’m going through a big stack of submissions that have been languishing for a while (and if you submitted a partial before Sept. 1 and don’t get a request for a full manuscript by the end of the week, you’ll know the answer is a no thanks). I’m on the lookout in particular for a book that will appeal to middle-grade girls, and I’m having a bit of a frustrating time of it. Mostly because humorous middle-grade voice seems to be a hard one to nail, and so many of the submissions in my pile seem to be going for a humorous bent.
Voice is the one thing that I don’t feel, as an editor, that I can fix. It’s too intrinsic to the art, too personal, something that has to be worked on before it comes across my desk. And a humorous voice? Even harder to shape as an editor. I completely appreciate how tough humor is just in general. It’s very subjective. So something that makes me giggle madly might not tickle someone else’s funny bone.
However, there is also a certain voice that I can only describe as “trying too hard.” The intended humor is super-goofy, overexplaining the jokes and losing the reader in the process. It feels too self-conscious, like the character is watching herself too closely instead of living her life. Humor should come, in my opinion, as a side effect of situations that happen to be a little goofy, rather than forced out of something the character finds funny, which is harder to translate into reader laughs. Thus, I personally think it’s really hilarious that Tyler Sato gets a killer asteroid named after him because, coincidentally, his cousins happened to name a star after him. But Tyler Sato himself doesn’t find it all that funny.
Part of the problem is that self-consciousness can sometimes work in YA, at least more than middle grade, because teens are more likely to notice things comment on them in a snarky way. Middle graders aren’t expected to be jaded just yet. But it’s not just that. Have you ever noticed that whenever, say, Stephen Colbert loses his deadpan, the joke loses a little something? Part of the hilarity is in the deadpan delivery. And we also have to acknowledge that not everyone is a humor writer—and that’s okay. Sometimes a book can be better when it’s not trying so hard for the laughs.
What I’d really like to see in my submission pile, though, as far as middle-grade books are concerned, is not necessarily humor—after all, we’ve got the hilarious Galaxy Games coming out this month already; go buy it! or read an excerpt!—but rather straight-on fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for middle-grade readers of both genders, but particularly girls because I don’t have much on my list for middle-grade girls right now. I’d love to see something more along the lines of Shannon Hale’s books for middle grade readers (one of my favorite books of all time is her Book of a Thousand Days, set in a Mongolia-like world): adventure and coming-into-her-own (not necessarily coming-of-age, which is more of a YA thing; would love such YAs, but I’m talking MG here right now). I also wouldn’t mind something along the lines of Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm, while noting that even though the book is funny, the point-of-view character, Sabrina, is the straight (wo)man. It’s everyone else around her who’s all wacky-fairy-tale-ish.
…aaand another thing! Slang. Slang is the bane of every writer, and getting it wrong can definitely affect voice for the negative. It’s so hard to get slang right—current enough that today’s readers will not feel like the character sounds like their parents (even though it was probably written by someone from that generation or older), but also not trying so hard that it sounds corny or—worse—gets dated before it even comes out, just new enough to be thought up-to-date by the adult author but old enough to be completely out of style for the young reader. It’s particularly hard in middle school, an age where kids are sometimes just getting the hang of slang themselves. How do you write up-to-date slang without sounding completely wrong?
The general consensus among the writers of my acquaintance can be summed up in Kimberly Pauley‘s response:
Make it up. 🙂
If you’ve ever watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly, I think one of the biggest strengths of those universes are their mostly undated slang, because they didn’t go for the easy late-90s slang everyone and their brother on Dawson’s Creek was using. Joss Whedon really is a master at made-up-yet-contemporary-sounding slang. (The hairstyles in Buffy, however, haven’t stood the test of time so well.) Find a way to fake-curse, for example, by playing with language and using something that would be unique to your character—it will make them stand out more in a good way anyway, and avoid trendy words that will be out of date before the book even gets accepted by a publisher. You might also run your slang by the tweens in your life, and if you get an eyeroll, you might reconsider.
Voice is tough to master for any writer. So perhaps take a look at your book and consider: am I trying too hard to make it funny? Can it be played straight and enjoyed for the adventure, mystery, magic, and fun of it all, whether it’s funny or not? Because perhaps its strengths lie elsewhere—and that’s a good thing!
For those of you who submitted PARTIAL manuscripts, I am nearly up to date on everything that has come in up through June 1. I’ll post when I am, so that you’ll know that if you haven’t heard from me, the answer is no. But I’m still working my way through a few.
For those of you from whom I asked for FULL manuscripts, I’m working my way through that reading, getting back to people with editorial letters, feedback, or (sadly, yes) declines as necessary. I respond to full manuscripts; it just takes me a while. If it’s been more than four months since I got your manuscript, a reply to you might have slipped through the cracks. Feel free to follow up to see where your manuscript is in such a case. If it’s been less than four months, I should be getting back to you sometime this month.
Also, if you are a member of a writing community, listserv, message board, or other group for which this might be interesting—to which I haven’t already posted a call for submissions—you are welcome to share this around:
Call for submissions
TU BOOKS, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS, publishes speculative fiction for children and young adults featuring diverse characters and settings. Our focus is on well-told, exciting, adventurous fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels featuring people of color set in worlds inspired by non-Western folklore or culture. We welcome Western settings if the main character is a person of color.
We are looking specifically for stories for both middle grade (ages 8-12) and young adult (ages 12-18) readers. (We are not looking for picture books, chapter books, or short stories. Please do not send submissions in these formats.)
For more information on how to submit, please see our submission guidelines at http://www.leeandlow.com/p/tu_submissions.mhtml. We are not accepting unagented email submissions at this time.
What I’m particularly interested in seeing lately: Asian steampunk, any African culture, Latino/a stories, First Nations/Native American/Aboriginal fantasy or science fiction written by tribal members, original postapocalyptic worlds, historical fantasy or mystery set in a non-Western setting.
Just a little reminder of my personal editorial policy and Lee & Low’s company guidelines when it comes to submissions:
I am a bit slow in processing submissions. Sorry, I just have a lot on my plate that I’m juggling. I’m working on catching up on a LOT of submissions, and will be getting back to several authors soon with editorial letters to further the process, and to others with requests for more.
However, Lee & Low’s policy is to not respond to submissions for which the answer is no.
It’s a tough market out there and I can understand the frustration with policies like this from the point of view of a writer, but it is what it is. There’s only so much time in the day and we’re already kind of swamped.
So combine those two things, and I can understand why a writer might get a little testy if they haven’t heard from me after submitting their book to Tu. This is why my personal (not company) editorial policy is that for initial submissions, I don’t require exclusive submissions. I understand how long the process can be and if each writer has to wait months for each editor or agent to respond, it might take years to get through the process.
Well… it does take years anyway for some writers, and that’s just how it is, but to ease the pain, you are welcome to submit your work to other publishers or agents at the same time (who also are open to simultaneous submissions—you’ll want to watch out for those who require exclusives so as not to send it to an exclusive and a simultaneous at once; these days most writers just note in their cover letters that their submission is a simultaneous submission). But nowadays most people understand that you simply can’t wait months and months to hear back from an editor.
So that should resolve the need for anyone to tell me in their cover letter that they’re “giving” me an exclusive. It’s okay. You don’t have to. Really. It won’t hurry me up any—when I have copyedits to go over or printer proofs in to approve or whatever that is happening with books that are already in the pipeline, I’m afraid those books will usually if not always take precedence over submissions.
Here’s the reason for the need for this policy: other than an intern to be the first pair of eyes on submissions, I am the only person reading submissions for Tu Books at this time. That means I’m the only one editing all the books, the only one working with the designers and production on books about to go to press, the only one going through copyedits when we get them back from the copyeditor, the only one negotiating contracts, and pretty much anything to do with Tu Books on the editorial side of things other than people who come in for short parts of the process like acquisition committee members, copyeditors, and proofreaders (we of course have marketing and sales staff working on those things). So once the intern screens the obviously-not-right-for-us submissions (picture books, realistic books, adult books, main characters who aren’t POC, etc.), she gives me a reader’s report on the books she liked. But I still have to go through that pile of not-completely-wrong-for-us submissions and decide which to pursue, while also doing all the things an editor does in a day. And when I do have the time, I’ll usually spend that time working to further develop manuscripts that already looked promising from my last foray into the submission pile, reading full manuscripts and getting feedback to the authors and/or their agents, getting the manuscripts that are ready out to the acquisitions committee—and I’m backed up on that right now as well (catching up now!).
So I just wanted to gently remind writers that they are welcome to continue to submit widely at the initial stage, which for me is the “partial” stage because I hate queries (some editors who are open to unagented submissions ask for queries; my personal feeling is that I’d rather just see the writing and a synopsis).
A writer question I received this month, the answer for which I think anyone submitting to Tu will want to know:
I would like to submit my YA fantasy to Tu Books, but wondered if you accept submissions from books where the ebook rights have been taken. My book was recently accepted by an e-book publisher. I recently read an interview about Tu Books and its quest to publish YA speculative fiction with multicultural characters. This is something I have strive to do in my writing. May I mail my submission package to Tu Books or would you rather not see books where ebook rights are already taken?
Due to the way the industry is changing right now, Tu must be able to do an ebook edition of any book we publish. Things are changing fast, and with the drop in e-reader prices continuing to change the way people read, teens are becoming more likely to look for ebooks (not to mention crossover adult audiences who definitely look for ebooks). The release of (relatively) affordable full-color readers such as the Color Nook and the iPad means that younger readers, in smaller numbers, will be next. We’re seeing a lot of changes right now as we head into the holiday season—B&N, for example, is growing its ebook business even as it continues to have sluggish sales in its print book business. You can check out e-books from most libraries, too—books that return themselves without costing you a fine for forgetting to return them or not making it to the library on a particular day. As more libraries figure out digital curation, that segment will grow.
E-readers are unlikely to take over the ascendancy of print books in children’s and YA books anytime soon, but ebooks are definitely a growing market, and one that we plan to aggressively explore with Tu’s books. Therefore, manuscripts submitted to us absolutely must have ebook rights available.
Sorry to disappoint, but it’s something we feel strongly about.
This was posted on the old Tu Publishing blog back before I moved to New York and joined Lee & Low. You may have seen it there, or you might not have. It wasn’t ported over to the new website with some of the other content (the blog has been folded into the main Lee & Low blog, where you can get all sorts of great commentary and information on multicultural topics). An LJ reader asked about word counts in response to my last post, and I think that this kind of thing can be helpful to writers as a general guideline. Note that nothing I declare here is hard and fast. There are some writers who write very short YAs, for example—but those people generally are also not debut writers, and this kind of info is often most helpful to those getting started on their careers.
So, without further ado, the post—edited slightly to reflect that we’re now six months later than when the original post was put up in January:
We try to be specific in our submission guidelines, but there are some things that might not be clear to a new writer. For the most essential of essentials of children’s literature, please make sure to research the genre on Harold Underdown’s The Purple Crayon (and we highly recommend his Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, as well, for great basic information).
But some things are more specific, and preferences can vary from publisher to publisher and imprint to imprint. Word count, for example, is something we don’t see too many guidelines on because so much can depend on what a publisher’s goals are. So let’s talk about what Tu Books would like to see in word counts.
First of all, when we say we are not looking for chapter books, we are specifically referring to the “intermediate reader” or “transitional reader” chapter books like Magic Treehouse. They’re shorter books for kids who have just become fluent enough readers for their own independent books, with real chapters. They are not to be confused with “early reader” books, which have fewer words and are targeted to a slightly younger reader than a chapter book. While we love chapter books, we want to focus more on older readers. There is no such thing as a “YA chapter book.”
Middle grade novels are generally for ages 8–12, or about 3rd grade to 6th or 7th grade. Readers tend to be pretty fluid through publishing categories—a third grader might still be reading picture books for older kids and chapter books while devouring middle grade books, all at the same time. But middle grade novels are a specific section of the bookstore and have specific requirements. It’s a marketing category. That section might be called “Independent Readers” or “Middle Grade” or “Children’s Novels,” depending on the store.
Generally, middle grade novels are no less than 30–35,000 words at the minimum, and usually a whole lot more words than that. They can range anywhere from 30,000 words to 70,000 words or longer, especially in fantasy. If your “novel” is only 17,000 words, it’s too short. A 90,000 word manuscript might be a touch too long for a middle grade audience unless you’re J.K. Rowling and have already hooked tens of millions of readers with three or four books. Especially given the current economic climate—in which paper and shipping and everything else involved in printing a book is costing more—it’s best to keep a middle grade novel under the 50,000–60,000 word range, because then the design of the book can still be beautiful while keeping the page count relatively low, which ensures that even reluctant readers won’t find the printed book too daunting.
YA novels are for the 12–18 age group—the teen section of the bookstore—and word count might range from 45,000 words on the low end to 100,000 words on the high end. To tell a complex enough story for a sophisticated YA readership, though, 45,000 might be a bit low. However, plenty of really awesome YA writers have done it in that many words, so I wouldn’t rule it out. But again, if your YA book is 17,000 words, it’s either a short story or not finished. And remember the economy: too long can be hard to work with, as well. Consider whether your 100,000 word opus might really be two novels in a series or if perhaps some of the subplots might be simplified or saved for another book. If not, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but it’s something to be aware of.
These are all just guidelines, of course—like the Pirate Code, they’re not laws. But if you’ve got a 250,000 word “YA novel,” you’ve actually likely got three to five different books masquerading as one (or just one honking adult novel, depending on the subject matter). If your story is for older readers yet is only 10,000 words long, you’ve got an extremely long short story that will require a different publishing venue, or you haven’t fleshed out the story nearly enough. What’s missing?
Last week, as I was going through a pile of submissions, I was thinking about the kinds of submissions I’ve been seeing. Many of them work really well, and it’s made it hard to choose, in some ways. I’m working with a few authors on manuscripts in various stages—though as you know we don’t have anything to announce just yet—but what about the rest? What are the things that make me say no right away? What kinds of things am I not seeing? So here’s a random list for you. Some of them are pretty obvious, but sometimes lists can be useful.
What I’m seeing in the submissions pile:
A lot of really great Asian-based fantasy. Which is awesome, but it’d be nice to see more of other cultures & ethnicities too.
A lot of really great YA. I’d like to see more middle grade books.
Really, really short books or really, really long books. If your book for teens is 13,000 words long, it’s too short. (That’s too short for most chapter books.) If your book for middle graders is 150,000 words, it’s way too long.
The occasional ms based on a “Native American” culture (i.e., not a specific tribe, but the label “Native American”). Be aware of cultural appropriation issues as well as how diverse the people behind the term “Native American” are, especially if you’re writing transracially. If you want to include any kind of Native American content, be sure to check out the resources at Oyate and American Indians in Children’s Literature (those are looking at currently-published books, but it’s a great way to see how to avoid cliches and misappropriation as a writer). There are hundreds of different cultures, not just one, and most First Nations/Aboriginal/Native American cultures regard their traditions as sacred and it’s important to respect that when mining history, religion, folklore, and mythology for magic systems and worldbuilding. If you do decide to include a Native American character and you’re not writing from that background, do your research and consult experts.*
Adult wish-fulfillment fantasy that has nothing to do with children’s/teens’ immediate lives. Remember, your audience is young readers, not adults.
On a similar note, stories that feel out of touch with kids/teens as they are today, rather than as they were at the time today’s adults were children.
Fantasies based on northwestern European folklore. These are not non-Western cultures. They are the very definition of Western. Perhaps I’d love them from another publisher, but I don’t want to publish them for this imprint, sorry.
Realistic tales about real, important world events that involve no fantasy or science fiction element at all. I’m sure they’re lovely/gripping/horrific, but I don’t want them. I’m looking for speculative fiction.
Certain kinds of characters that just don’t suit my tastes, like anthropomorphized inanimate objects and animals. For some reason, though I LOVED anthropomorphized animals as a kid, they’re just not something I want to read anymore. Blame it on missing the farm? Though SF about bioengineered people with animal DNA is fair game as long as it’s original.
The oddly occasional blatantly racist tale. Though thankfully I see these only very rarely.
A lot of not-quite-ready and not-right-for-me manuscripts that do follow the guidelines well (thank you!), which is just as it should be. Some manuscripts will work for me, some will work for other editors, some will need some more work before they’re ready to be published. Some had problems with voice, which I discussed in a previous post. Some had speculative concepts that needed more development and just weren’t ready for me, though they sounded like they had potential. Some were, honestly, downright incomprehensible. (At least there aren’t any submissions in crayon from prisoners yet. Yes, this has actually happened in the past.) That’s a normal part of the process.
The takeaway: I’d really like a few more awesome middle grade books to consider (that fit my submission guidelines, of course). And that there are lots of cultures/people I’m not seeing enough of in the submissions pile. I’d love to see more Latino, Middle Eastern, and Native American/Aboriginal/First Nations characters.
I’d love to see a Native American or Middle Eastern character (from a specific background; I’m being general here to include the many different cultures this could mean) in a futuristic/dystopian/SF novel, by the way. One that extrapolates how things are today and creates a new world with new problems. Something akin to Setsuna‘s world in Gundam 00 (does the future include peace in the Middle East? Has the balance of world power changed ala China’s influence in Serenity? (minus the no-Chinese-main-characters thing)), or something more culturally specific and less of the same generic New Age-y “Native American” discussed above than Chacotay. How might the world look to someone of a specific ethnicity in 200, 300, 400 years? Different from the mainstream because of their cultural background? Sublimated into the larger culture? Gone underground? Lost, even? In 400 years, will American culture be colorblind/accepting of all/dead/something else completely, and the issues people face be completely foreign to someone from our time? What about that same scenario, but in Iraq? And how would all that play out amidst changed technology?
Oh, the possibilities! Where is the Native American The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm?
* I wish I could find the link or at least the place I saw a link to guidelines the Australian government put out about writing using Aboriginal content, because it would probably raise some really great issues whether you’re dealing with that culture or another. If anyone knows what I’m talking about and has access to that link, can you share it?
Another writer question, the answer for which I think will help more than just one writer. If any of you have questions about what we’re looking for or anything to do with the submission process, please let me know, and I’ll be glad to answer here on the blog (anonymizing your question so it can be generalized).
i was really glad to see Lee and Low’s new imprint. I’m a long time fantasy/sci-fi fan distressed by the cultural sameness of the genre. I have a middle-grade novel that I am currently doing some final revisions for before submission. Because I realize time is valuable commodity for editors, I wanted to get a sense how expansive your fantasy/sci-fi terms were, before I submitted.
My novel is fantasy the way Harlan Ellison’s, short fiction, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred is fantasy. It is a slight conceit used to push the character forward. I do not engage in a discussion of big ideas like Xenogenesis, Foundation etc., nor provide a full-fledged alternative universe like Cordwainer Smith, William Gibson or Anne McCaffery.
So my question is, is that enough? Obviously, you cannot decide on the individual merits of piece without seeing it, but I wanted to be sure I was targeting the appropriate house. Also, Lee and Low’s main imprint requires a chapter by chapter synopsis, but you only suggest a synopsis. May I assume you want a simple one page synopsis (plus first three chapters)?
First, addressing the question of what kind of fantasy we’re looking for:
Fantasy in children’s and YA books is pretty wide open. It can be anything from changing one little thing in the real world (people can fly or be telepathic, etc., or there’s a secret magical cult of ninja vampires, or the Knights Templar secretly fight the undead, unknown to the wider world, or, I don’t know, a girl like Matilda finds out she can teleport things, but maybe nothing bigger than a pencil), to changing a whole world in the future or alternate history (dystopian SF like The Hunger Games or steampunk like Leviathan), to alternate world high fantasy, either through portals (like Harry Potter) or just starting out in that world (like fairy tale retellings).
I’m not sure what you mean by a slight conceit to push the character forward. If you mean something akin to just one little thing changing—such as the ability to time travel, but not control it, as happens for the main character of Kindred—sure! That works, definitely. There are a LOT of middle grade and chapter books based on just such an idea, a small tweak of reality as opposed to huge sweeping differences in worldbuilding.
But I just want to be sure that you’re also familiar with what’s out there right now for children and teens, and not just what was published in the 70s and 80s by some of the best authors on the adult side. If you haven’t already, I suggest going to your local bookstore (or library, but the bookstore is better for seeing more current books all in one place) and looking at the middle grade and YA shelves to get a good idea of how broad the definition of SF/fantasy is in that section. While Octavia Butler’s work is classic and everyone should read them, they’re not what teens are reading right now (at least, not exclusively—of course they’re still reading her, or she wouldn’t be a classic).
Same goes for middle grade readers. Some books will always be classics, but when thinking about writing for a middle grade audience, you want to start from the idea that modern kids will be reading this, so you don’t want to use titles written for adults 30 years ago as your comparison point. As I look at my shelves filled with Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and Princess Academy,Pseudonymous Bosch’s This Book Is Not Good for You,Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, and Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday, I see a pretty broad range of fantastic and speculative worldbuilding in these titles for middle grade readers and think you’ll probably be okay. David Lubar’s My Rotten Life changes only one thing about the world: a science experiment gone wrong turns Nathan Abercrombie into an accidental zombie. One little tweak in the possibilities of science leads to hilarious adventure.
So: if you’re familiar with what’s out there right now for this audience, you’ll probably get a sense of whether or not your story works for this market. If it also features diversity in its characters and setting, then it works for submitting to Tu. In particular, I want to emphasize that we’d like the main character to be a person of color.
To answer the synopsis question: Yes, a page or two (perhaps four at most for a big, epic tale) is the kind of synopsis I’m asking for with sample chapters. It’s the kind of synopsis that would answer my big-picture plot questions if I liked the first three chapters, to see if you can plot a novel and carry through from a great start. Of course, whether that held up in the full manuscript would then remain to be seen, but it gives me a better idea of whether I’d want to request the full manuscript.