Sunday, February 7, 2010

Take Four Lefts, and Then Ask Someone Else for Directions

My husband and I have written two novels together (one MG/YA and one Chapter Book). There are no human characters “featured” in either. We’ve gotten what appears to be interest in both (“excellent writing”, “well developed worlds”, etc.), but have not been able to entice an agent. Recently, one major house, after the editor (from a conference) requested a full and responded that he loved our MG/YA manuscript and went through the scenes he liked the best, said that his “boss” did not like the idea of animals having human characteristics. We’ve gotten that response from a number of professionals at SCBWI conferences we’ve attended. When they hear that there are no human characters in our completed manuscripts, they turn us down without looking at the work. So, my question is are we just looking in the wrong places or is this a market trend and both projects should just be shelved for the time being? Alternatively, should we take this as a “sign” that the projects just need more work?
There do seem to be some people who have a bit of a prejudice against animals as main characters. This doesn't make much sense, because there are plenty of very popular books of this sort*. So you may not have found the right house yet.

But it could mean the manuscripts aren't quite ready yet, too. I think that because animals as main characters take a little extra suspension of disbelief, when it works, it works, and most people will recognize it. And when it doesn't work, when somehow it's not quite convincing enough, people fault the animals instead of the believability.

Have you ever asked someone for directions to a place, and their response was "Oh, you're lost." Yes, yes I know I'm lost. That's why I need directions.
The toughest thing about feedback is that it's subjective. The second toughest thing is that sometimes people can only tell you you're not there yet, and when they try to guide you in the right direction, they're pointing the wrong way.

*Poppy series
Redwall series
Warriors series
The Highway Cats
The Underneath
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIHM
Watership Down
Guardians of Gahoole
etc etc.


mallard said...

The movie adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a great recent example of animal characters done well. One of the (many) things I loved about the movie was the way the animals exhibited human characteristics without losing their animal identity (eg. Mrs. Fox makes French Toast, but they eat it with the wild abandon of animals). It's been too many years since I've read the book, so I don't remember if that part of the story was Dahl's invention or Anderson's.

An author's ability to embrace that duality between the human and animal while still creating unified characters seems to be a common characteristic of many successful animals as main characters books. Though there are many examples (like the ones given) of this idea done well, to my mind this is illustrated best in TH White's The Sword in the Stone. The way White handles Wart's animal experiences is almost like a blueprint for writing good animal characters that don't lose their animalness (I thought that was a made up word, but spellcheck likes it).

Christian H said...

I'm going to agree with mallard, here, on the duality issue. I will also note that the fear of humanoid animals (if indeed they are humanoid) might have something to do with the growth in the "furries" community; some people (such as me) find the furries culture a bit weird and so anything resembling this might be off-putting, even when this resemblance in unintentional. (If the resemblance is intentional, then I wouldn't expect mainstream publication; that's a niche market. Try on-line publications.) That's not to say that Redwall carried such a vibe, but if it were published now, it might.

Of course, if the animals are not humanized in anatomy but only in consciousness/intellect etc., then I'm not sure what the issue would be.

working illustrator said...

Somewhere down in that 'etc. etc.' you'll find books called Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little and Wind in the Willows.

I wonder if the generic resistance to animal books this author is encountering is based on the fact that fewer and fewer people grow up these days having contact with animals that aren't house pets.

So stories about them aren't seen as 'relateable.'

Editorial Anonymous said...

Indeed, there are so many examples. And don't forget The Toys Go Out, which is INANIMATE OBJECTS as main characters.

Which just goes to show that if you do anything WELL, you can do ANYTHING.

Anonymous said...

YA and MG are two very different markets. YA is for ages 12 and up. I can't imagine a 13, 14, 15 year old having a tolerance for a novel with no humans that would also appeal to a MG reader.

Because of this, you might want to consider dropping the "YA" from the MG/YA part of your query.

I don't think that's what's not getting your work sold, but it shows a lack of knowledge about the market, and you don't want to give that impression.

Good luck to you!

Ebony McKenna. said...

My feeling is if the book is well written with characters who resonate with readers, it doesn't matter whose skin they're in.

Unknown said...

I for one never cared for books with animals as the main characters, even as a kid. I was even frustrated by animals in picture books. However, I am apparently in the minority because people are always shocked by my dislike of animal stories. Go figure. Working at a bookstore, I haven't seen any slow down of animal stories being published.

Would it be safe to assume that editors may be shying away from animal stories because there are so many well-established ones out there?

Claire Dawn said...

I can't see why all animals wouldn't work for an MG novel or a chapterbook. As everyone before me has said, there are a myriad of these books and movies where animals have human characteristics,and where humans appear only occasionally, if at all.

It's just a question of the right agent, I'd think. He or she may be difficult to find, but from what you say, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with the books themselves.

pudders said...

And what about the one with the cricket?

You know, the one in Times Square.

Great book. Done well. AE

Rachel Aaron said...

If I was you I'd stop telling people there are no human characters (unless specifically asked). Unless your book is a first person narrative of a pig rooting through slop or a dog's inner thoughts as he chases squirrels, your animals are probably acting like people. So just treat them like normal characters and only mention the "no human characters" part if anyone gets specific.

That's just what I'd do, not having read your book, I can't say if that's the best choice, though. Is not having any humans around a major plot point?

Haste yee back ;-) said...

And then there was this guy, somewhere in Los Angeles, came up with this character... hmmm, called him, Mickey Mouse!

LOL, I had a PB at a major house, some time ago, Editor loved it, Editor in Chief nixed it, said, the eyes of the animals were too *emotive!*

I mean, c'mon. "Whatever ya do, please don't throw me in dat briar patch!"

Haste yee back ;-)


I love this line from your post:

sometimes people can only tell you you're not there yet, and when they try to guide you in the right direction, they're pointing the wrong way.

I'm having it tattooed on my arm later today. :)


Michael Grant said...

The wife just sold an animal fantasy MG to Harper after fielding offers from multiple publishers. In fact she's upstairs writing it.

Of course we don't use an agent, we use a publishing lawyer and decide for ourselves what to submit, when and where.

Kurtis said...

I think a lot of time when people ask for directions, they're just hinting around that they want a ride.

Emma Darwin said...

"...And when it doesn't work, when somehow it's not quite convincing enough, people fault the animals instead of the believability."

This is true of writing and feedback way, way, way beyond the animal issue question. If someone tells you something in your writing doesn't work, it may not be the something, it may be how you're writing it.

Anonymous said...

Apparently those publishing houses have forgotten about George Orwell's "Animal Farm" & Richard Bach's "Johnathan Livinstone, seagull". But again, these two classics were written for adults in mind...

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