EDITOR’S NOTE: Unfortunately, as you may have heard, SCBWI L.A.’s 2020 Writers Day has been postponed due to the Coronavirus. Please check your emails for the announcement which provides more details. Despite this news, the below interview (unedited from the original) provides fantastic information – so, please, read on!
MARIA BARBO (Senior Editor at HarperCollins) acquires high-concept series and standalones for young readers of all ages—focusing mostly on middle grade and select picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels. She is particularly interested in projects with authentic voices, strong hooks, and fresh perspectives that use humor, magic, or illustrations to help young readers learn to navigate their world. She works with award-winning and bestselling authors such as Natalie Lloyd, Jim Benton, and Lisa Greenwald. Prior to joining Harper, Maria worked at Scholastic Inc, earned an MFA in painting, and lived in Spain via the Fulbright Program. When she’s not working, you can find her playing soccer or practicing her handstands.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! We’re excited to have you as a Keynote Speaker at SCBWI L.A.’s 2020 Writers Day event. Your topic, “It’s TOTALLY Personal: Character Motivation is Everything” sounds amazing, as does the breakout session, “Master the Middle of Your Novel.” Does character motivation differ in picture book, middle grade, or YA?
MARIA BARBO: Thank you, Christine. I’m excited to meet everyone in L.A. I’d say the basic guiding principle across all age levels is that your main character’s motivations, their deepest desire, is what drives the plot forward. What do they want? Why do they want it? And which of their personality traits is going to get in their way?
When a character wants something that intensely it puts them in a position to have to make a big decision. Their choice leads them to act, their action leads to consequences, the consequences force the character to make even more difficult decisions and so on—but it all leads back to that core desire. In this way, the external plot of the story is linked to the character’s internal journey.
CVZ: As the Senior Editor at HarperCollins, you acquire books. Typically, authors cannot query someone in your position directly; rather, an agent presents their manuscript. Will attendees of Writers Day be given the opportunity to query you directly?
MB: Yes, that is accurate. Normally, all our submissions must come through agents but L.A. Writers Day conference attendees will have up to three months after the conference to send me queries directly. Just make sure the words, “L.A. Writers Day” appear in the subject line.
CVZ: You’re looking for “high-concept books and series for young readers of all ages.” What does “high-concept” mean to you? Can you give examples of high-concept books that you admire?
MB: I’m so glad you asked this, Christine. A hook feels high-concept or commercial when the stakes are connected to the character motivations. I’ll be talking about this more in my presentation but basically, I need to feel fully invested in this character and their journey from the very beginning. I need to need to know how their story ends.
The Swap by Megan Shull is a good example of a middle-grade book with a high-concept hook. At its core, it’s a friendship story with a very authentic voice and some incredible writing but the two main characters switch bodies and lives Freaky Friday-style—and that extra hook gives the book stronger commercial appeal. Five Feet Apart is a great YA example. Two teens who fall in love with the caveat that they can’t get within five feet of one another without risking each other’s lives? What? I need to know what happens in that book!
CVZ: In closing, do you have a piece of advice to help writers on their paths to publication?
MB: Read. Be aware of where the book you are writing fits into the marketplace. What’s its arena? To what other books would you compare yours? And work on a compelling elevator pitch or positioning statement. Cheryl Klein gives some great tips in her book, The Magic Words.
CVZ: Thank you so much!
For up-to-date information about Writers Day 2020, check out the events page and keep an eye out on your email.
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Author image courtesy of Mabel Hsu. Book covers by HarperCollins and W. W. Norton & Company, respectively.