Breaking Into the Juvenile Market as a Writer for Hire
By Rachel Plummer
For the past decade I’ve worked intermittently as a writer-for-hire for 17th Street Productions, the book packager responsible for the middle grade and young adult Sweet Valley Twins series. Until I became a “writer for hire,” I had no idea that many of the young adult and middle grade series hopping off the shelves were actually written by unknowns like me — the talent behind the scenes.
Writing for hire is exactly what it sounds like. Someone hires you to write something specific — an article, book, speech, whatever, but they, as your employer, retain full rights to the work. This doesn’t mean that every commissioned work falls into this category. It has to be written into the contract that the work is a “work for hire.” Working as a writer for hire, you usually won’t have a byline. You’ll get paid for your work and that’s about it. It’s not something you’d probably want to do for your entire career, but it’s a good way to get some practice writing as a professional.
Many of the middle grade and young adult series you see on your library and bookstore shelves are written by various writers hired to create a specific volume of the series. The book packager (i.e., the company who puts together the book for the publisher, in this case 17th Street Productions working with Bantam Books) offers a flat fee, a deadline (usually six weeks from the day the contract is signed in the case of the Sweet Valley Twins), and an outline of what has to happen in the story. For 17th Street Productions, once you sign the contract, the editor sends you a two-to-three page outline that relates the plot of the story and which characters are involved. The writer then creates a more in-depth chapter outline and returns it to the editor, who may require some changes, after which the writer completes the first draft. The first draft is edited for corrections and changes, and returned to the writer, who makes the required changes and sends it back to the editor.
Now, considering that the first drafts of my own books usually take at least a month to write and usually closer to three, and that I don’t consider my books done until they go through a minimum three drafts with the appropriate rest periods in between, how do I manage to finish an outline and a first and final draft of a Sweet Valley book in six weeks? Besides the fact that having the pressure of a deadline really does amazing things for your work output, writing for the Sweet Valley Twins series is like writing for a soap opera—the stories are already plotted and the characters are developed. Knowing where you’re going and who’s taking you there is a major step to finishing a novel.
So how do you become a writer-for-hire? The first time I landed a job it was through an agent. At the time, 17th Street Productions was Daniel Weiss Associates, and they did a lot of business with my agent’s employer, Writers’ House. When they needed a new writer for the series, they called the agency, who in turn called me. I was asked to send a sample of my work, and to write a sample chapter of a Sweet Valley book from an outline they mailed me.
But you don’t have to have an agent or know someone in the business to get your foot in the door. The fact is, after my first editor went on to bigger and better things, I stopped getting assignments. The new editor already had a stable of writers and didn’t need me.
I returned to the fold when I saw in my Children’s Writers newsletter that 17th Street Productions was looking for writers for their Sweet Valley High series. Although I’d written for them previously, I had to apply all over again, including submitting a sample chapter, and I had to do it without any help since my agent and I had parted ways.
I’m no longer writing for the Sweet Valley series. My second editor left the company, and I decided that I’d written enough for them. It was time to work on my own series, which is exactly what I’m doing. I’ve finished the first book and hope to hear some good news by summer.
But working as a writer-for-hire was a great experience. I learned how to finish a book in the time allotted me by dividing the book’s contract-established word count by the number of days to deadline and not stopping until I finished the required word count each day. It’s amazing how quickly you can write when you know you have to — something you can, and should, apply to your own work. The writing landed me numerous jobs as a paid speaker at various local schools, where the kids, most of whom are well acquainted with the Sweet Valley series, assume I’m a famous writer and treat me like a rock star. It’s a lot of fun, and inspires me to work to get that same feedback for my own books. Most important, I was able to make money doing something I loved and to see my work in print.
If you’d like to try your hand at writing for hire, you can find book packagers in the LMP or Writers’ Market. I’d also suggest joining the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) at
www.scbwi.org. Their quarterly newsletter has lots of great industry information and networking opportunities. A monthly subscription to Children’s Writer at
www.writersbookstore.com is another great way to keep abreast of what’s happening in the juvenile book industry.
There are lots of interesting ways to make money as a writer if you’re willing to do the footwork. Working as a writer for hire is one of them.
In addition to working as a Sweet Valley series writer, Rachel Plummer is the author of the award-winning young adult novel, The Painting in the Attic, available at all online bookstores. Personally autographed copies—-a perfect gift for both teen readers and collectors—-are available at
Also, check out Rachel’s e-book on writing and publishing a novel at http://www.how2writeabook.com/indexaw.htm.
In addition to a great e-book, you’ll receive an extensive manuscript critique and marketing consultation, plus 24/7 email help from Rachel to help you finish your novel and get it published.
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