Friday, 30 October 2015

From Teen to Mean ... Making the transition. A Guest Post by Caroline Akrill

Books by Caroline Akrill

Whilst one’s own transition from teen to adult is usually comfortingly blurred, the transition from writing for the teenage fiction market to the general adult market is a definite step – in my case more of a stumble, because nobody realized what I was up to until it was too late, so secure had I appeared to be in my little niche.  


I had produced nine books all aimed at the teen market, all in the horse and pony genre, and the eventing trilogy had exceeded all expectations – there was even a supermarket deal for 25,000 copies (for which I would receive a derisory 10p per copy, but I didn’t know that at the time) so everyone at Arlington Books was in celebratory mood, and Desmond had brought out the champagne, and when I enquired as to what I should write next (having hitherto never written anything not actually commissioned) they waved their arms airily and said ‘Write whatever you like.’  A casual, champagne-fuelled statement they would live to regret.
The 'Star' trilogy by Caroline Akrill
I delivered the new book and for a week or two there was a resounding silence whilst they debated what to do about me.  Then I was summoned to the office. There was no mention of lunch. The first thing I noticed was that there were three people behind the desk and only me in front of it. This did not auger well.  I asked them if they had enjoyed the book.  There was a small silence.

It wasn’t that they hadn’t enjoyed it, they said carefully, it just wasn’t what they were expecting.

I asked them what they were expecting, as I had been given what I believed was carte blanche to write whatever I wanted, and what I had wanted to write was sitting on the desk in front of them.
 
Sensing rebellion, they explained that I had placed them in a very awkward position because they had been expecting a horsey teen read the same as before and, because I now had a fan base and Collins were already lined up for the paperback rights (having done exceedingly well with the paperback of the eventing trilogy) I had caused them great anxiety by delivering a monster and they were not sure what to do with it. 

Flying Changes
You told me I could write whatever I liked, I said. The senior editor said they had assumed I would stick to the age range and the genre.  I said I had stuck to the genre.  The commissioning editor said what about the sex.  I said there wasn’t any sex.  All right then, the implied sex.

The copy editor said she had found it dark, and the style was different. I said what did they want me to do, write the same book over and over again?  And it all got rather heated.
In an effort to lighten the atmosphere somebody fetched coffee and sandwiches and, although it wasn’t exactly lunch at Fortnums, things calmed down a bit.  Eventually the editorial committee decided that they could live with the book but only if I removed the sexual implications, toned down the darkness and added a bit of light relief.

It won’t work, I said. It will, they said. It didn’t.  The result was a hybrid; neither fish nor fowl, and Collins immediately turned it down saying it ‘had outgrown the Dragon  list’  which was a kind way of saying it wasn’t a children’s book.  They were absolutely right. 

Looked at in retrospect, it was all my own fault.  Of course they were expecting more of the same, why wouldn’t they?  Having found a congenial publisher (and I have so many happy and hilarious memories of Desmond Elliot, Christine Lunness and Arlington Books, and still remember them with enormous affection) I should have taken pains not to deliver anything which might frighten the horses.  Consultation, discussion and sample chapters would have saved much anguish. 

It is true to say that Flying Changes was published to a very mixed reception. Readers either loved it or absolutely loathed it.  Reviewers were not sure what to make of it. Horse & Hound said, ‘Caroline Akrill is never dull and writes with first-hand knowledge of the equestrian scene.  The story is woven around a strange young man and has a sad and dramatic finale.'  You will notice at once that they did not actually say they enjoyed it.

The Telegraph reviewer actually commended it to ‘a wider audience than teen-aged girls mad about horses,' which was quite flattering, until he went on to say that Oliver was ‘one of the most unpleasant characters I have encountered in a book in a long time,' which surprised me, as I had rather liked him.

The Sunday Telegraph said it was ‘ …racy and absolutely gripping with melodrama in all directions. Riveting.’  By now my confidence was at such a low ebb that I assumed they were being sarcastic.   

Reviewing for the Irish Times a kind-hearted lady said that although it was aimed at an age range of teen to adult she would recommend it as ‘a good light read with a charm that will appeal to all ages.'  I wondered if she had actually read it. The only rights Arlington managed to sell were to Germany, where it remained in print for quite a long time. Make of that what you will.

All this happened many years ago when publishers, and the book trade, were very different.  But moving from the junior to the adult list is still fraught with difficulty.  The one certainty is that once one has made the leap there is no going back.  One must press on.  Even then, it is not expedient to hop from genre to genre.   Hence, my latest effort, The Last Baronet, is definitely aimed at the general market and could be described as a somewhat eccentric English country novel, and the one currently in progress, The Park, seems to have turned itself into a crime novel.  And somewhere in the dark depths of my office cupboard lurks my vampire novel, which has yet to see the light of day.

Some people never learn.    


Click on the following links to Caroline's books on Amazon: 

Flying Changes
Eventer's Dream
A Hoof in the Door
Ticket to Ride
Make Me a Star
Stars Don't Cry
Catch a Falling Star




7 comments:

Susan Price said...

I really enjoyed this, Caroline - thanks for being our guest. And here's wishing you good luck for your indie career. Even if you don't sell a million, you'll at least make more than 10p on each one!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I found this a very interesting read, Caroline. I have friends who have a similar dilemma although I think in general YA fiction seems to have become much darker and much more 'sexy' over the years - and the boundaries are blurred. But the various genres or categories within that overall sector probably have their own rules and constraints. The 'more of the same' thing is probably a very good reason for writers, even if they want to go down the traditional route, to have more than one publisher and/or a mixture of trad and indie. The bigger the publisher the less they seem to appreciate this, but I think it's the way of the future.

Dennis Hamley said...

Yes, a fascinating read, Caroline. I was lucky, I think, that for nearly thirty years I had publishers who let me go my own way but I can't really be surprised that it all came to a juddering stop in the end. It's true though that young adult fiction has changed its nature and become darker and more outspoken, which is why when I republish my own YA novels, somewhat rewritten and extended, I bill them as adult. Some people thought they were in the first place but at the time I vigorously denied it. Little did I know!

Katherine Roberts said...

I did once (many years ago now) have similar carte blanche on a contract, and that too turned into a monster nobody was quite expecting. But in my case, my previous books were hardly at supermarket selling level and the publisher - being smaller and more independent than HC - did at least say they loved it rather than subject me to an editorial inquisition! In my case it was the bookselling chains who proved less enthusiastic (which was a bit short-sighted of them, since the book is now my best-selling backlist ebook) but I'm not sure what I would do if I found a winning formula now... probably stick to it like glue while it lasted but invent a pseudonym to work on other stuff at the same time?

Lydia Bennet said...

A very enjoyable read Caroline! YA nowadays is very dark indeed, cf The Hunger Games trilogy, though sex (aka 'pink bits' according to US 'clean' publishers) is still a no-no in the US, hence the bloodbaths of chaste violence in THG. I think we have to write what we want to write regardless, and as Catherine says, nowadays we can self-pub anything too difficult for publishers' tastes.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post Caroline! I loved Flying Changes and I loved that it tackled what it tackled. It was certainly different though, I'm not surprised you frightened the horses :)

Enid Richemont said...

Lydia - I love your comment. And I think so many of us have gone through similar scenarios, including a close friend whose publisher first said that her Y/A novel didn't have enough sex, then complained when she re-wrote it (she's now self-published).