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How to write for younger readers: Advice from literary agent Stephanie Thwaites and authors Michael Mann and Cynthia Murphy

BY Danni Georgiou
1st Dec 2020

Last week, we hosted a very special webinar with top Curtis Brown literary agent Stephanie Thwaites and two of her clients, former CBC students, Cynthia Murphy and Michael Mann. These special webinars are an exclusive component of our Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course, and they give our students the chance to discover more about finding an agent and the publishing process, as well as getting the inside track on what an author’s life is really like.

I was lucky enough to sit in on this week’s session, which saw the return of Cynthia and Michael to the CBC fold. Since finishing their courses with us and gaining representation with Stephanie, Cynthia and Michael have also secured exciting publishing deals. Cynthia’s novel Last One to Die– a YA horror story for the social media age – published by Scholastic January 2021, while Michael’s middle-grade adventure Ghostcloudwill be published by Hachette Children’s in October 2021.

In this insightful and illuminating session, our students heard about Michael and Cynthia’s journeys to publication, and picked up some useful tips and tricks. Here are some of the highlights:

On the writing and editing process…

Michael: After I finished the CBC course, I found a children’s novel competition a few months away and made that my deadline. Though I didn’t win (or get shortlisted, or longlisted!) it forced me to finish my first draft. After a few months' break, I came back with fresh eyes and began editing. Eventually, I found I was editing parts back to how they were originally. This is how I knew I was ready to submit. After I signed with Steph, I added in a few scenes for her and then again for the publisher. On a whole the editing process was quite nice and ended up being rather collaborative.

Cynthia: I wrote my book in a complete fever pitch over about six months. I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about my work so when I do get a draft out, it tends to be quite clean. Similarly to Michael though, I knew it was ready to submit when I started to change something, only to discover I’d already written it a few lines down. I was quite lucky with my editing process after being signed and then after selling the book. I didn’t have to make any large structural changes, and just had to add in a few extra scenes.

Stephanie: I always work with writers before we send their work out. With Cynthia and Michael, we didn’t do many drafts, but it can be as many as four – with a lot of notes back and forth. I think it’s really important to make sure the novel is as polished as possible before sending it out to publishers.

On the synopsis…

Cynthia: I was given some great advice on the synopsis. Separate it into three ‘acts’, similarly to screenwriting. So, you have your opening, middle and ending, and then write a paragraph for each one. Thinking about it this way made it a lot easier for me and helped break it down.

Stephanie: I prefer a shorter synopsis, something more like a blurb that’s enticing and doesn’t give everything away. You don’t need a long and elaborate step-by-step breakdown of the story; use that time honing your manuscript instead. Do check agency websites though, as every agent has a slightly different preference!

On query letters…

Stephanie: You can tell when somebody takes the submission process seriously, because they send in a strong covering letter. It is worth putting in the time to do that. Do your research and make sure you are targeting the right agent. Mention something that you think will appeal to them, or a book they represent that you’ve enjoyed. This happened with Cynthia and Michael – Cynthia mentioned Point Horror books, which we both share a love of, and Michael was inspired by Ross MacKenzie and Eva Ibbotson, both of whom I represent – and it helped me to connect with them. It also showed a clear understanding of where they see their own books.

On writing for young adults…

Cynthia: One thing I love about writing YA is dealing with the feelings that teenagers experience. For anyone wanting to write in this genre, I would say be careful not to simplify the emotional experience of the characters. People read to escape and to learn, so I think portraying real life is really important for young adults.

Stephanie: I think you can deal with a lot of themes in YA and children’s fiction. I would say the difference between this genre and adult fiction, is that the plot takes centre stage. Make sure everything in your novel is either driving the plot forward or developing the character. I think there is less time to linger in children’s fiction so keep the pace going.

On balancing writing and your day job:

Michael: I trained as a teacher a few years ago, and I find the job really rewarding, but it can also be time-consuming during term time. I find that once I make that initial start on a novel though, I can happily chip away at it after work and at the weekend. I really make the most of the half-terms and summer holidays. Since the book deal, I have been able to go part-time as a teacher, which means I’ve more time and headspace for writing.

Cynthia: I agree. I’m a teacher also, so school holidays are the perfect time to write. I am similar to Michael in that starting is the hardest, but once I’m really into it I can come home and do a chapter, as it’s been building up in my head all day. I also love writing on aeroplanes as you can completely switch off. I don’t have a particular routine so I just grab time when I can.

Their advice for aspiring authors…

Cynthia: Invest in yourself. The CBC course was invaluable and made me realise what I was doing right and what I wasn’t. It really helped me going forwards. Also write what you love and just keep going! It’s been eight years since I wrote my first book and now I’m finally getting published.

Michael: Keep going! Everyone has bad writing days and good writing days. Sometimes I will have to force myself to write a chapter and then other days it will just flow. Some chapters that I found quite painful to write are actually really good, so just keep going! And send your work to friends you trust for critique.

Stephanie: The whole process can be so overwhelming and daunting, but remember agents want to hear from you. Agents want to discover new talent, so just keep at it and persevere!