Candice Ransom, critiques, E.D. Baker, first lines, Han Nolan, Katherine Hannigan, Marcella Pixley, Nikki Grimes, Shannon Hale, Susan L. Roth, Susan Middleton Elya, Victoria Wells Arms, Working Writer's Retreat
Before founding Wells Arms Literary Agency in 2013, Victoria Wells Arms spent 20 years in the publishing industry, working as an editor at Penguin and Bloomsbury, where she was the founding editorial director for their U.S. children’s list. She brings her expertise to this year’s Working Writer’s Retreat (WWR) as faculty.
She’s worked with bestselling and award-winning authors, including: E. D. Baker, Susan Middleton Elya, Nikki Grimes, Shannon Hale, Katherine Hannigan, Han Nolan, Marcella Pixley, Candice Ransom, Susan L. Roth and Renee Watson. She is an MFA candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program.
Victoria took time away from her studies to answer our questions and share her insight.
ERLINA VASCONCELLOS: The retreat will feature a panel on first pages. How do first pages make readers eager for more? What are the elements commonly overlooked by unpublished writers?
VWA: First lines—LINES—are key. Often that first line sets the tone for the entire piece, and is echoed at the end. That line, and that first paragraph should establish some element of the story that is interesting, a twist, a mystery, a dilemma. If you can do that, you’ll keep us reading. I see a lot of first-time authors going into too much detail, backstory, plot, or dialog for which we are not primed. You have to reel us in with something that surprises us in some way, not too difficult to digest, not a roadblock but an invitation. If the first line gets us, we keep going through that paragraph. If the paragraph sings, then we read the whole page, and so on. Editors are always looking for a reason to stop reading…so don’t give them one!
EV: As faculty for WWR, you’ll be advising and helping writers develop works in progress and revisions. How do you handle that process with your clients and how will that carry over into your work at the WWR?
VICTORIA WELLS ARMS: I usually go back and forth by email with my authors over many drafts before publication. I work in Adobe Acrobat or in Word with track changes to make comments and suggestions and queries in the text, and then also write a long editorial letter addressing the larger questions in the piece. I try always to be open minded and think about how to keep the piece accessible to any editor, as well as, in the long run, for young readers. My clients have made among themselves writing groups, and often workshop the pieces together before they send them to me. Occasionally, we have a writing retreat to solidify those relationships and conversations.
EV: Critiques are tough. Any advice?
VWA: I am a writer too, doing an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we do critiques and workshops all the time, so I know your pain! I look at this work as a partnership. How do we get your work to the best it can be before it sees the harsh glare of the marketplace? Authors should always try not to take criticism personally. It’s not about YOU, it’s about the WORK. Have an open mind, be prepared to completely reinvent your work, more than once. Nothing is sacred or precious except that we all respect each other’s dedication to getting the best stories into the hands of young readers.
EV: What’s on tap this year for Wells Arms Literary?
VWA: We have joined “in association” with HSG Literary, a full-service boutique agency that helps Wells Arms LLC with contracts, financial back office work, rights and more. There are six amazing agents in the group, two of whom handle kids books, so it’s been a big learning experience for me, and a great resource for my clients.
EV: Will you be adding author to your resume?
VWA: Oooh, don’t ask me that yet! Of course, that’s the hope. But doing this course also is helping me be a better agent, editor, conference speaker and writer in all kinds of ways. Many editors have MFAs and I think it helps us help the authors in turn.
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Erlina Vasconcellos is the Kite Tales assistant editor. When she isn’t working as a journalist, she writes pictures books and middle grade. Find her on Twitter: @noterlinda
Photos courtesy of Victoria Wells Arms