Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thirty-One Flavors - Agent Week - Michael Stearns

Where he fits in my personal flavor spectrum: chocolate raspberry truffle.

Michael Stearns has his own blog, and I suggest a visit there if you want to get to know him and his particular flavor of wit. No time? Want more than that? Here's my summary from a few interviews, his blog, agentquery.com, and other free resources on the web.

Michael Stearns is at Firebrand Literary, as of April 2008. Firebrand Literary is a subdivision of Auden Media Corporation, which is owned by Michael Stearns and Nadia Cornier. The agency's main focus is on teen and middle-grade lit. They are also starting a separate book-packaging company called Tinderbox, but Tinderbox will not employ Firebrand authors, so it is a one or the other choice for authors.

From the Firebrand website:
"Michael Stearns brings nearly twenty years’ publishing experience to Firebrand Literary. Formerly editorial director and foreign acquisitions manager for HarperCollins Children's Books, and Senior Editor, Director of Paperback Publishing for Harcourt Children’s Books, he has worked on hundreds of books for children and adults.Among the many bestselling and award-winning books he’s published are A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly; Tangerine by Edward Bloor, The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera, Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge, the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and the Chet Gecko Mysteries by Bruce Hale. He has taught a dozen classes on writing, edited three anthologies of original stories, and published a half dozen pieces of his own fiction for both adults and children. He received his B.A. from the USC School of Cinema-Television, and his M.A. from Hollins University, where he also won the Andrew James Purdy Short Fiction Prize. "

Yep, he's kind of big deal in children's publishing. Now for some tasty licks:

He wants his list to be 75-80% novels, 20% picture books, but don't get too excited, PB people, as he is only doing PB's from referrals and writers whose work he knows and trusts. This 80/20 split is the make-up of his lists as an editor at Harcourt and Harper. He wants a story that he just can't put down. He is "keenest" for both teen and middle-grade fiction, and in terms of genre books, he's much more interested in non-Tolkienesque fantasy, paranormal romance, comic coming-of-age, and thrillers (all with some literary spin). He responds well to wit; not dorky funny but genuine wit. Nothing makes him happier than commercial novels with literary chops- ie, the writer has skill and voice, and recognizes character as a key to all good storytelling.

He flees far and fast from issue novels. It's okay if the issue comes wrapped up in a compelling plot, but the plot and character and the writer's control of voice always have to come first. He abhors pitches for children's books. He does not do non-fiction, chapter books, nor emerging readers. His ten commandments for writing for children: Thou shalt not: talk down to your readers, sermonize, strain to rhyme, use cutesy names (his example: Marilyn Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Leon Lion), waste words, indulge in self-consciously "poetic" writing, be afraid to cut your favorite lines, not love language, send first or rough drafts, obey ANY rule to the detriment of good writing. For his explanation of each of these, see the posts on his blog.

He wants to work closely with clients to develop projects and guide their careers, and does not waste time making nice. He is interested in a career over the long haul-working with a writer over many books and years. The three books he's probably most proud of as an editor are the books where he had a great relationship with the author that grew over the course of the book.

He knows foreign rights from his corporate work, and knows the UK market very well. As an editor, he was impressed with the work Stephen Malk (and Barry Goldblatt and Gail Hochman)did to bring him manuscripts that totally fit his interests at the time, and he hopes to be that kind of agent himself.

He's a Mets fan, claims he has no "poker face", is unmarried, child-less and debt-free (Egads, NO! I did not go looking for that info, it was in a tongue-in-cheek response to an interview!). As a child reader he liked Roald Dahl, Edward Eager and Beverly Cleary, then discovered sci-fi /fantasy at age ten or eleven. At twelve, he mapped-out Heinlein's juvenile titles by their writing formula, showing events in a single plot structure.

That's it for now, tomorrow: Kelly Sonnack

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