This past week I attended the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) national conference in Los Angeles. For those unfamiliar with SCBWI, it’s an organization that brings together people from all areas of children’s publishing — writers, illustrators, editors, agents, art directors, publicists, etc. If you’re interested in making children’s books, it’s an organization you really need to join.
The week was inspiring and exhausting. I can’t think of another context in which one can converse with an aspiring writer, all-mighty publisher, and Newbery award winner in the space of ten minutes. Yes, that actually happened. You get to take some time and focus on your craft while gleaning wisdom from those who have been around the block many more times than you have. How do I know they have? Because the conferences have people like Judy Blume, Lin Oliver, Meg Rosoff, Sharon Flake, Linda Sue Park, Maggie Stiefvater, Cate Tiernan, Megan McDonald, Bruce Coville, Peter Brown, etc. sharing their insights about their process and creative challenges. You have publishers and editors sharing their perspective on what they’re looking for and how authors tend to help (or hurt) themselves when managing their careers. Same with agents. And so, after immersing myself in all things children’s books for several days, I’ve decided to share with you the points that I found most salient or applicable.
- Voice is the single biggest thing people are looking for when it comes to assessing manuscripts and judging talent. Publishers and agents want stories where voice is present and compelling. Voice isn’t just dialogue — it’s diction and characterization, it’s even found in narrative (i.e., the narrative has a personality that’s consistent with the protagonist and/or narrator)
- Interior Monologue is a great way to establish voice and is absent from a lot of manuscripts. Don’t confuse inner monologue as a violation of “Show, Don’t Tell” — when done well, it is a great tool for establishing voice without devolving into exposition. – Krista Marino
- “Plot occurs when desire meets an obstacle.” – Bruce Coville
- Try to engage at least three of the five senses when setting a scene – Bruce Coville
- If we don’t care about the character, no amount of drama will matter – Bruce Coville
- If someone tries to discourage you, don’t get depressed, get angry…” – Judy Blume
- Revision is just as important as writing. Great writing = great revision – Everyone
- When revising, don’t just read your work aloud — have someone else read it aloud to
- When editing, look at your work in a different font from the font you used when writing it. It will help distance you from the text and enable you to look at it more objectively. – Linda Sue Park
- When editing a sentence, break it down into individual thought clauses/modules and try to examine/tighten each one – Linda Sue Park
- If a detour/sub-plot doesn’t serve the main storyline, you have to get rid of it – Bruce Coville
- Don’t use sub-plots as crutches for your novel’s main story – Julie Strauss-Gabel
- EVERY writer (even best sellers and household names) have moments when they feel like they’re out of ideas, a failure, unable to finish a work. You must acknowledge this and take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone and that you’ll get through it. – Sharon Flake
- DO NOT write to a trend. By the time you’re finished, the trend will have passed. Write a story that only YOU can tell — even if it’s weird. That’s the best way to ensure your book is authentic. The former is a great way to end up with mediocre, unoriginal work. – Justin Chanda
- Don’t try to please everyone; try to please a specific audience A LOT – Tim Federle
- If you write in rhyme, you’d better be really good at it. Seussian rhyming gets groans. Don’t bend your story to fit a rhyme. If you need to do that, just tell your story in beautiful prose.
- There is no “right way” to tackle a book. Some authors are planners and know exactly what they want to write. Judy Blume confessed that she has a “messy mind” and waits for the reviewers to tell her what her book was about. Sharon Flake joked that page one has no idea what’s going to be on page two. Every writer is different. You have to experiment and find out what works for you.
you. Take note of the places where they stumble or don’t emphasize what you wanted them to. That’s a signal the writing isn’t clear. – Linda Sue Park
ON SUBMITTING YOUR WORK TO PUBLISHERS OR AGENTS:
- Do your homework. Don’t submit to someone who doesn’t handle this kind of book. Be thoughtful about why you think this agent/editor is a good fit. That is going to make a big difference in how your submission is perceived.
- Revise your work BEFORE you submit. I heard many horror stories from editors and agents who bemoaned the fact that they see so many submissions that have potential, but are clearly a person’s first draft. This raises red flags about one’s professionalism.
- DO NOT tell a publishing professional that you’re story is great because “my daughter loved it” or “my grandkids think it’s fantastic!” This makes people cringe. If your work is good, it will stand on its own. Referencing the enthusiasm of your loved ones is unnecessary and will hurt you.
- Join the SCBWI and let prospective agents/editors know you’re a member. This is a good indication that the person takes themselves seriously and isn’t just a hobbyist with a neat idea.
- Don’t be generic.
- Don’t submit a manuscript that’s over 100,000 words or of a length that’s inconsistent with the kind of book that you want to publish (i.e., a 100-page picture book)
- DO have a polished work that demonstrates originality and voice. Voice was cited so many times as the “secret sauce” they’re looking for.
ON MANAGING YOUR CAREER – Justin Chanda (Publisher, Simon & Schuster)
- Meet your deadlines. If you can’t, be transparent and communicative
- Be good to people. Everyone gets frustrated and will have moments when they think their book is not getting the attention it deserves. Don’t take your frustrations out on assistants, administrative staff, etc. Not only is this rude and unfair, it will come back to haunt you. Children’s publishing is a small industry and word spreads quickly if a writer is a jerk.
- Social media can be very good or very bad. Don’t use it to vent or be snarky.
- Use your editor as your primary contact – let him/her handle your questions and contact the appropriate people within the publishing house. Bypassing them can lead to confusion.
- Editors are extremely busy and don’t just work on your book, but many others while also attending tons of meetings and fielding dozens (if not hundreds) of emails daily. You’ll be doing your editor a big favor if you consolidate your questions into one email rather than peppering them with lots of little ones throughout the day/week.
- Remember that we’re all in this together. Everyone wants your book to succeed. There are times that will happen and there will be times when it doesn’t (80% of books lose money). Focus on what you can control and stay positive.
- Don’t confuse the commercial or critical success of your book with your success as a human being. They’re not the same thing. Every successful author has books that, for whatever reason, don’t resonate in the market or with critics. Keep your chin up and start working on your next masterpiece.
Those are the biggies that leap to mind. As others occur to me, I’ll update the post to include them. I cannot recommend the SCBWI more highly to those among you who are interested in creating your own books. It is indispensable — not only for the practical advice and wisdom, but for the incredible sense of community and shared passion. Go create something!