Sunday, 23 May 2010

Interview with SARA O'CONNOR: Senior Commissioning Editor at Working Partners


Sara O'Connor (right) and Sara Grant at the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices launch party.

Hi Sara. Welcome to tall tales & short stories and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thanks for having me. I’m an American, born of British parents, and have been living in England for just under six years. I’ve been at WP for five and a half years and I worked at Little Brown BFYR in New York prior to moving out here.

What inspired you to want to work in children's books?

When I went to university at Emerson College, I stumbled onto an Introduction to Children’s Writing class taught by Lisa Jahn-Clough. Streaks of sun light shone down through the clouds and trumpets blared. It had never occurred to me that children’s book publishing was a profession, but once it did, there was nothing else I wanted to do. I took every children’s class there was and then made up my own on independent study.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I think I was about 11 when I stopped reading books meant for my age group. There wasn’t anything available to buy in between Sweet Valley High (which I gobbled up) and Stephen King (which gobbled me up). I went from the Babysitter’s Club to Jean M Auel’s Earth Children series, from Christopher Pike to John Saul.

In high school and college I read a lot of fantasy: Robert Heinlein, Robert Jordan, the Death Gate Cycle, etc. I have always been a fan of series fiction. In comparison, the “adult” books I was reading then are on the same level as YA is now in terms of mature content. The difference is that now, YA books are set in high schools or have teens as the protagonists, which can serve to make it that bit more real for the in-between reader.

Children of today want to read excellent stories: emotional, romantic, scary, triumphant – same as I did back then.

Could you tell us about Working Partners and how the company works?

Working Partners is a creator of best-selling fiction for young readers all over the world, celebrating our fifteenth anniversary this year. Since 2005 we have also created books for adults.

We develop series concepts and storylines in house, find writers to put the flesh on the bones and then sell the projects to publishers.

Series we’ve created include:

     Rainbow Magic (now an animated film)

 Animal Ark 
(over 10 million sold worldwide)

(constantly on the NYT bestseller list)

Beast Quest
(over 5 million sold)

Dinosaur Cove
(a World Book Day 2010 pick)

We do young chapter books through sophisticated YA novels and all concepts are created in house and copyrighted to the company.

We do not accept any outside submissions at all. At all. None. Seriously.

An idea from one of the team, or a special request from a publisher, is developed into a concept and storyline which will be a step-by-step outline of the plot, 20 – 50% of the length of the complete book, along with a character lists and culture documents. This is sent to a small group of writers who write two or three sample chapters, never more than 6000 words, on spec, based on those concept documents.

The selected writer is commissioned once the series is taken on by a publisher and is always offered an advance against a royalty; we do not pay flat fees.

What is involved in being the Talent Recruitment Manager for Working Partners?

Lots of networking. I get to go to lovely lunches with lovely agents and even on trips to New York to meet US agents. I talk a lot about my job (sorry!) and encourage anyone with an interest to sign up and try out. I also keep an eye on our projects in development, suggest writers whenever anyone on the team is looking and try to help keep the writer database up to date.

How would you describe your typical working day as a Senior Commissioning Editor?

The best part about my job is that there isn’t a typical working day. I could be brainstorming about Transylvanian princes (My Sister the Vampire), writing a storyline about Genieland (Little Genie), editing an adult romance set on a movie set in Thailand (Hen Night Prophecies), researching a quetzalcoaltus (Dinosaur Cove), reviewing cuddly artwork (Hoozles), sending out a batch of emails for a new project writer trawl, reading fabulous sample chapters that get everyone excited, arguing about television shows in the open plan office, fighting over the last oatberry cluster from M&S, ordering furniture for our new comfy meeting room...

My job is a wonderful mix of being half writer and half editor (and maybe one eighth administration). The very best part of my job is the people; in house, I am privileged to be surrounded by the creative genius of my fellow editors, who are all passionate writers in their own right – and I am constantly amazed and delighted by the talent of the writers I work with.

What are the greatest challenges of being a Talent Recruitment Manager?

I should clarify that being the Talent Recruitment Manager is only a small part of my job. The majority of my time is developing storylines and editing manuscripts.

The difficult part of recruiting talent is knowing that some exceptionally talented writers aren’t the right writers for us. Writing with Working Partners is very much being part of a team, and being creative with a group requires enthusiasm, endurance and flexibility. We work with both established writers who like to have a second writing home and new writers who want to build their profile and experience.

For the new writer with a great voice who just can’t seem to get a foot in the door with publishers, we offer editorial support and expertise in storytelling. Many of our writers who had no publishing credits before working with us have gone on to make deals with publishers in their own right.

For the established writer who can write more books than the market can bear in a single year, we offer them the opportunity to keep writing without over-exposing their own name. Most of our series are written under pseudonyms. With us, prolific writers can earn significant income, allowing them to turn writing into a full time job.

When looking for a new writer what are the main things that grab your attention? What makes a piece of work stand out from the rest?

Great opening lines; specific charming vivid details; solid orientation; tight clever dialogue; energetic pace; lovable characters.

Taking the storyline that we provide and adding to it to make it even more special than it was before.

What kind of working relationship do you aim to build between you and your writers?

A long-lasting one. I aim to be a supportive, constructive, concise editor.

Do you consider submissions from agents, from writers directly, or both? What is the best way for an author to approach Working Partners?

Just to be absolutely clear: we do not accept outside submissions.

Writers are invited to try out for projects based on a specific brief that we provide, particular to one project.
Most of our writers are agented but it is not a requirement.

Interested writers should fill in our information form online

It helps to be specific about the things you like to write and the things you don’t. Use the tick boxes and also the About Me section, for example, I really hate fairies or I really love swordfights. This helps us match writers up to projects.

Do you have any submission preferences or things that annoy you?

We provide a “Sampling for WP FAQ” which outlines our submission preferences.

My personal pet peeve would be big chunks of backstory, especially in the first chapter.

What advice do you have for writers interested in submitting sample chapters to Working Partners?

If invited to sample for a project, don’t rush it. It’s not a race. If you finish quickly, don’t send it in straight away. Wait until closer to the deadline, re-read and then tweak if necessary.

Knock us out of the park in the first paragraph. Then, keep it up for the rest of the sample.

Bring something new to the storyline, but don’t stray too far from what we’ve set out. The storyline that you’ll have will have been through many rounds of revisions, and the editor that sent it to you will be quite attached to it.

What are the most common mistakes you see in sample chapters?

1. Negative protagonists. For example, characters that are supposed to be friends, disagreeing with each other all the time to get out information and advance the plot. Or sullen teenagers complaining about their situation. Not appealing to read about.

2. Breaking out of the third person limited point of view.

3. Cramming too much back story into the beginning rather than sweeping us off into the present story.

Is it worth approaching Working Partners at this time?

We are currently entering a development period, so will be looking for writers on new projects soon.
Please do fill in our form, if you haven’t already -
information form online
(But don’t “submit” anything, as we don’t accept outside submissions.)

Words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

Read, read, read. Read everything you can get your hands on in the genre and age range you want to write for – and then read stuff outside those areas.


To read about Working Partners involvement with SCBWI's Undiscovered Voices competition,


Clare said...

Another fascinating interview about an area of writing I've seldom seen discussed. I particularly like Sara's description of her "typical" working day - with that kind of variety I imagine job satisfaction rates highly?
Thanks Tracy and Sara.

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Really interesting interview! I've heard fellow writers mention Working Partners but have never been entirely clear what they do - so get good to get the "inside story". Many thanks to both Tracy and Sara!

Nick Cross said...

Aha, so now we know who is still going on those long publishing lunches :-) I've absolutely no idea how you keep track of all those projects, Sara. Just working on one book at a time wears me out.

Great interview as ever, Tracy.

Linda said...

What a dream job! Thanks for the fascinating interview.

Tracy said...

Thanks guys - and thank you to Sara for the interview.

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