This month’s Mining for Heart post features an agent’s point of view. Many thanks to Stephanie Fretwell-Hill from Red Fox Literary for sharing her thoughts.
Many agents and editors say they are looking for stories with heart, but what does “heart” really mean? Why does it matter to your story? And how does it impact your journey to publication?
No matter the genre, all stories need to share a truth with the reader. Sometimes writers become enamored with an idea, but they never really ask themselves why it mattered to them in the first place. So the “why” never makes it onto the page. What you end up with is a hollow story.
Other times, writers take the “why” too seriously and focus on a moral. In this case, you have a message-driven story, where the takeaway takes precedence over the storytelling. The reader will feel manipulated and talked down to.
Striking that perfect balance is hard. The story has to be about something. The reader has to care. They have to see truth in the story, but they have to come to that truth on their own. Heart is the emotional core of your manuscript, but craft is the method by which you put heart onto the page.
I love lots of different types of children’s books, though there are some styles I gravitate to more than others. But a story with heart transcends genre. I think that’s why so many agents and editors say something along the lines of “I can’t say exactly what I’m looking for but I’ll know it when I see it.” Because heart is intangible, and it’s subjective. It affects different people in different ways.
So what about heart in the business of publishing? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
I don’t think it is. It is a business and profits matter—otherwise, we can’t stay in business. But most of the people who work in publishing also care deeply about making the best books for kids.
I know it can be a frustrating industry to deal with from the outside—it seems so opaque and mysterious. But it’s important that you think about how you as an author or illustrator approach the industry, because books aren’t published in a vacuum. They are published after years of hard, collaborative effort. Groups of people publish books by working together. So it naturally follows that those in positions of power are going to want to hire authors and illustrators with whom they enjoy working.
One of the biggest insights I’ve taken from ten years in the business is that this is an industry of relationships. And in any relationship—even a business one—you must make yourselves vulnerable to each other. You must share your heart.
From your point of view, it might be easy to think that authors and illustrators are the only ones who risk getting hurt in the process. But that isn’t the whole story. People in the industry make themselves vulnerable in ways you may not be able to see.
When I find a manuscript I believe in, I have to stake my professional reputation on it. I have to send it out over and over again and face rejection on the author’s behalf, saying “I believe in this work.”
Once we find an editor who loves the manuscript, that person has to go to bat as well. They have to put on their big kid pants, sit at a table full of financial directors and CEOs, and say “I believe in this work.”
Then all of those directors have to get behind it too. They have to dig into the company resource on the basis that they believe in the work, even though they don’t know if it will actually sell.
Everyone puts faith in the work, and no one really knows what the outcome will be. It’s scary! For everyone! But we all do it because we want to make the best books for kids that we can.
You must be generous with your heart and make yourself vulnerable to your readers if they are to care about your story. Likewise, by opening your heart to the industry, you will make a greater impact on agents, editors, and publishers. In the end, the most satisfying moment is knowing that we’ve all played some small part in making a book that finds its way into the hands of a kid who sees some truth there.