In this week’s Author Up Close, I interview Anne O’Brien Carelli, author of adult nonfiction, the middle-grade book Skylark and Wallcreeper, and the picture book Amina’s New Friends. She’s been a friend and mentor since we met at our first Writer Unboxed conference. Anne is the owner of a leadership training business, and she has taught me invaluable lessons about managing the craft and business sides of being a writer. Her advice will be especially helpful to anyone writing and querying middle-grade or YA fiction, and she’s a great example of using the skills you’ve learned in previous careers in your career as a writer.
GW: How did you find your agent and land your publishing deal?
AOBC: I had published two nonfiction adult books and self-published a picture book, but the children’s traditional publishing world was new to me. I soon discovered that writers who want to publish a children’s book need to have perseverance, blind optimism, a desire to hone the craft, and a belief in serendipity. It also helps to pay close attention to what is published in your genre.
I found my agent by chance. As I was researching an editor I admired at a conference, I came across a description of her colleague, who looked like the perfect match for my middle-grade book, Skylark and Wallcreeper. I had rewritten my query a million times, but tried again.
I think it’s really important to investigate what agents like to read, what they are looking for, and what types of books they have represented in the past. You can learn a lot of this information by attending conferences and signing up for short consultations with individual editors and agents.
As for landing the publishing deal? I give my agent all of the credit for that. She also looked for the right match and Little Bee Books has been a wonderful home for my book.
GW: Why did you decide to write middle-grade fiction, and why this subject matter?
AOBC: There was never any doubt that I would eventually write middle-grade fiction. The picture book was written because I have volunteered with refugee children for many years and saw that the story about a refugee girl’s first day in an American school was desperately needed. The textbooks I published were related to my work in gender equity and leadership. But many eons ago I taught sixth grade and social studies, and middle grade is my favorite age group (ages 8-12). Those kids are just on the cusp of figuring out who they are, and are developing independence and coping skills. middle-grade books, especially in the last two or three years, address a number of tough issues that kids are facing today. But every middle-grade book has hope at the end, and that appeals to me.
I generally write contemporary and historical fiction for middle grade. For all of the books I do a deep dive into research. I love that part! Skylark and Wallcreeper is actually two stories intertwined. One takes place during Hurricane Sandy and the other during the French Resistance in World War II. I enjoyed every second of researching those two time periods.
GW: For a while, there seemed to be this push for new authors to acquire as many followers on social media as possible, but now many are realizing that quantity does not necessarily equal quality. I follow you on Twitter and you do an excellent job of authentically engaging on the platform. How do you use Twitter (and other social media platforms) and what benefits have you seen beyond sales?
AOBC: I decided that since Twitter was going to be my main route to marketing my book on social media, I was going to tweet things that are fun to write. I wanted to look forward to the process, since marketing my own book is not my first choice of activity!
I focus on connecting with teachers, school librarians, middle-grade authors, and children’s book lovers. I have been so pleased to discover an amazing, supportive community of adults who work very hard to get books in the hands of children. I do have an Instagram account that I use for promoting Skylark, but the Twitter account is for sharing my suggestions for books for kids – and for alerting my followers about cover reveals, giveaways, mentorship opportunities, twitter chats, and other middle-grade book-related activities. In turn, I have connected with other authors, received heartwarming feedback about my book from teachers and students, shared my experiences at book fairs and signings, and have learned about wonderful things that are going on in classrooms around the world. It’s been fun – an experience I did not expect.
GW: What advice would you give someone interested in writing and querying MG fiction?
AOBC: First, I would say to check out my agent’s blog Literary Carrie. Every month she does a query critique and there are several archived. Her suggestions are very informative.
Second, middle-grade readers are surprisingly sophisticated. They enjoy complicated stories, complex characters, and challenging topics. Recent middle-grade books have focused on difficult topics because that is real life for kids (e.g., divorced parents, school violence, body image, bullying) and we are finally addressing these issues in their literature. But they also love humor and fantasy and anything scary. Remember that middle-grade books are hopeful!
Third, definitely get on Twitter and start connecting with middle-grade hashtag groups, teachers, school librarians, and other authors. You will find out more about the submission process and what appeals to readers. You’ll get support and suggestions while you query, find an agent, market your book, etc. There’s nothing better than seeing a tweet with a picture of a mother-daughter book club enjoying your book.
Many thanks to Anne for allowing me to interview her for the piece. You can learn more about Anne and her writing on her website. To read previous interviews in my Author Up Close series, click or tap here.
Over to you: what parts of your previous career are helping you transition to a career in writing?