The Born Freelancer Interviews Young Adult & Children’s Author Erin Thomas

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


Twelve years ago, Whitby, Ontario based freelancer Erin Thomas was a technical writer with a degree in English literature, taking college night courses towards technical writing and editing qualifications.

She says she “stumbled into a course in writing for children and has never looked back”.

An avid reader all her life, “Forcing the Ace,” published by Orca last fall as part of their Limelights series, was her seventh book for children.

What inspires you? What motivates you creatively?

I read widely — lots of contemporary children’s literature, but also adult fiction and a strange assortment of non-fiction. Good writing inspires me; it doesn’t matter what genre. This year I’ve read and loved “Station Eleven”, “The Martian” and “Orphan Train”.

Do you derive any significant inspiration from sources other than books?

I don’t get out to plays and concerts as often as I’d like, but that’s always an inspiring experience. I have huge respect for the work that goes on behind the scenes. When I see someone do something beautifully, I’m not thinking that they’re gifted or naturally talented, although they may well be. I’m thinking about the hours of rehearsal they put in to make that happen. To me, that’s the inspiring part. That’s the interesting thing – the passion that drives a person to become better at his or her craft.

That’s what makes me want to work harder.

Let’s talk about the freelancing life. What do you find to be its greatest advantages?

There’s a lot of freedom in freelancing. I have a daughter, and I love the fact that my time is flexible. That’s also the hardest part of freelancing. As a writer, when I’m not on deadline, I’m not really answerable to anyone as to how I spend my time. No one’s waiting for the manuscript I’m working on; I have to care enough about it to see it through.

And its biggest drawback for you?

It’s very, very easy, as someone who likes to say “yes” and has a long history of volunteer work, to prioritize other things over writing. When someone asks you if you’re available to help with something on a given day… well, I have a lot of trouble saying no. That’s something I continue to struggle with.

Many of us can definitely relate to that! You’ve just released an awesome new novel for teens, “Forcing the Ace”. How did you approach the genre?

First of all, thank you! Secondly, I struggle a little with the word “genre” applied to children’s writing, or writing for teens. Children’s books have the same genres that adult books have — mystery, science fiction, romance, anything you can name. One thing that’s wonderful about books for kids, though, is that they don’t tend to be shelved that way. It gives writers a certain amount of freedom to experiment across genres.

So “Forcing the Ace” is a contemporary children’s novel based in the world of local magic and magicians. What kind of research did you undertake?

I enjoyed meeting and talking with magicians, reading about how different magic tricks were done, watching shows and attending seminars about magic, and trying to put together an imaginary routine for the characters in my book. I even got to attend Sorcerers Safari Magic Camp for a day!

Can you talk a bit about the process by which you sold your novel and saw it get into print?

I am lucky enough to have an agent — Monica Pacheco of Anne McDermid & Associates — but in this case, I did have a previous relationship with the publisher. Orca published two of my previous novels, “Boarder Patrol” and “Haze”. I found out about the Limelights series when one of their editors, Sarah Harvey, sent an email out to authors she had worked with in the past, asking for submissions for a series about kids in the performing arts. I sent in a handful of suggestions, and “Forcing the Ace” was the eventual result.

What was the biggest lesson you learned in the process?

It helps to be polite and professional, and to maintain a good working relationship with your editor.

Did you have to have an agent to begin? What advantages does having an agent bring to your freelancing career?

The books I’ve sold so far are to publishers that accept unagented manuscripts, but I love the fact that Monica is there for me when it comes time to negotiate the contracts. I also know that when the time comes that I have a manuscript ready that may not be a fit for one of the publishers I’ve worked with before, Monica can open those doors for me.

Any advice on securing an agent?

My best advice is NOT to do what I did. I lucked into a good agent, but I could easily have gotten burned. I won a writing contest that put my work in front of a publisher. They expressed interest, and I took the opportunity to send a “practice” query to Lise Henderson, since I’d heard her name mentioned at a writing course. She asked to see my work and ended up representing me until she retired. I was lucky that Lise was a reputable agent with an excellent agency. I didn’t do my homework and I didn’t know what I was doing; I could easily have ended up in a bad contract.

So how do you go about finding an agent who might be a good “fit”?

Before you query agents, you should find out who’s selling books like the one you’re writing – an author will often thank his or her agent on the Acknowledgements page. Get to know other authors and ask around. The Preditors and Editors web site is a good resource, as is Publishers Marketplace.

Are you a member of any professional society, guild or union?

I belong to CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers), the WCDR (Writers’ Community of Durham Region) and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. I’m a member of the Ontario College of Teachers as well.

There are lots of excellent organizations for writers. SCBWI is wonderful for children’s authors as well, and the Canadian Authors Association has great resources for writers.

What do you perceive as the main benefits for you of such membership?

Being involved gives me access to professional development and industry news. Most importantly, I’ve made friends with other writers. We encourage each other and celebrate each others’ successes.

Are you ever tempted to stray beyond the YA/teen readership? For example, would you ever consider writing an “adult” novel – or any other kind?

I write for the middle grade and Young Adult/teen markets. My youngest book, “Roller Coaster,” could appeal to a late primary readership; my oldest, the Orca Sports books (“Boarder Patrol” and “Haze”), touch on early high school.

Right now I don’t have any inclination to write for adults, although some of my story ideas push the boundary between YA and “new adult” in terms of protagonist age. I’d certainly take a stab at a picture book if I ever had an idea that felt strong enough. Picture books, I think, are one of the hardest types of children’s books to write well.

Most of my ideas fall into the age range that I’m happiest writing for. I have a couple of rough middle-grade manuscripts I’d like to see through to publication – one’s a historical novel based in my hometown (Whitby, Ontario), and another features shape-shifting aliens.

My main goal is to keep learning and improving with each book.

Finally, Erin, can you share with us your best advice for writers who think they too may have a good story to tell to a teen audience?

If you’re planning to write for teens, you need to be able to remember what it felt like to be a teenager. One thing I’ve heard about children’s writers is that often, for one reason or another, part of our brains are “stuck” at the age we’re writing for. I don’t know if that’s true, and I prefer not to speculate, but I do have very clear memories of that time in my life.

You need to respect your readers. I think the worst thing a children’s author can do is write down to kids.

Read widely. Read good books for kids. Read the prize winners and the classics, and read the ones that everyone’s reading. Read books like the one that you want to write and books that are different from it, and pay attention to what the authors are doing that draws you in.

Talk to kids you know. Find out, if you can, what they’re reading, what they’re dealing with, what matters to them. Then read between the lines, based on what you remember of being a teenager, to work out the stuff they won’t tell you because youąre a grownup.

Thank you, Erin Thomas, for sharing your invaluable and inspiring insights.

As a fan of the art of magic since my childhood, I must say that I greatly enjoyed reading “Forcing the Ace” – although (alas) I am no longer anywhere near the demograph of its target readership.

For further information about Erin Thomas, her website is

Posted on April 23, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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