Top 10 Things I Say To Authors at Conferences

stickfigureGIFoozThis past weekend I was at the New England SCBWI conference, Thinking Outside the Crayon Box, doing query critiques and manuscript critiques. First of all, I happen to love going to this conference. It’s impeccably run, pretty darn big, draws really top notch speakers, and the attendees are some of the nicest people ever. But I noticed that the words that were coming out of my mouth as I spoke to the authors to whom I was assigned were pretty much the same as they usually are when I go to conferences anywhere.

Here’s the scene: I sit across a small round table with an author on the other side. They are either nervous or not, friendly or not, open to hearing my input on their query letter or manuscript, or not. Regardless, I always try to make them feel comfortable, usually with a joke (which is usually a dumb one), and I remind them I’m just a regular person. Often they politely laugh at my jokes. I do try to make a difference for them and their writing. But I’ve found that besides the things that are particular to each person’s manuscript, there’s a recurring theme to the things I usually end up saying. Here are the top 10 things (in no particular order) that come out of my mouth when I’m critiquing query letters and manuscripts at conferences:

1. You’ve got a good premise here, but I don’t feel the writing’s where it needs to be yet.

2. You need to show more and tell less.

3. Your dialogue still needs some work. It doesn’t feel authentically teen/middle grade.

4. I’m sorry, I’m just going to slurp down some more of this coffee.

5. This feels like info dumping; try to sneak all this backstory into your narrative.

6. I’ve read your first 10 pages but nothing’s happened yet; this feels like throat clearing before your story starts.

7. One of the most important tasks of your first pages is to have your reader feel invested in your character and want to find out what happens to them next.

8. You have to know your market and know who your manuscript is geared to. Middle grade books are focused on readers between 8 and 12 years old; young adult fiction is geared towards kids who are about 12 to 18.

9. Your word count is way too high. OR Your word count is way too low. Try to familiarize yourself to the industry standards

10. Yes, I’ll be hanging out in the bar later with the other agents and editors! ;-)

So, conference attendees who have heard any of these things from me, know that you’re in good company! And people who I will meet at conferences in the future? I’m certain I will be saying some of these things to you, too! But perhaps, now that you’ve read this blog post, you can go back to your manuscript and try to attend to some of these common pitfalls of writing.

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Quick Questions: An Interview with Farrar, Straus, Giroux BFYR Editorial Director Joy Peskin

joy peskin photo march 2015As editorial director of Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, Joy Peskin manages a department of six editors and edits a range of books for children and teenagers. Books she has edited for FSG BYR include Brandon Stanton’s Little Humans, a New York Times Bestseller; Kristin Elizabeth Clark’s Freakboy, which garnered three starred reviews; Leila Sales’s This Song Will Save Your Life, which received two starred reviews; and Rachel Bright’s Love Monster, a #1 Publishers Weekly Bestseller. Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead, which Joy edited, will be published in twenty-two languages around the world, and has been optioned for film by the production team responsible for The Fault in Our Stars.

Before joining Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers in February, 2012, Joy was the associate publisher of Viking Children’s Books and an editor at Scholastic. Her favorite type of books, both to read and to edit, are contemporary, literary, realistic stories about real people facing real challenges. Authors with whom she has worked include Laurie Halse Anderson, Aaron Starmer, and Emily Jenkins.

Joy has also taught writing to aspiring authors, homeless youth, incarcerated women, and teens in a juvenile detention center.

And now, to the questions!

What advice do you have for writers to improve their craft?

As they say, practice makes perfect. The more you do something, the better you get at doing that thing. I was recently at a novel writing retreat at Vermont College, and the wonderful author Kathi Appelt shared advice she had once received: Write for five minutes every day. I loved that advice, because five minutes seems so doable. I also really recommend that writers hone their craft by taking classes and participating in writing programs. I’m still kind of high off of the Vermont College Novel Writing retreat, which was all kinds of wonderful, so I definitely recommend that low-residency MFA program. But folks not in the MFA program there can still attend retreats like the one I just attended.

What’s the best part and worst part of the editorial process for you?

There are lots of best parts. I love finding a new manuscript I feel like I just have to have and rushing into my boss’s office to tell him all about it. And I love that first talk with an author when/if she and I are really connecting over the phone. I also really love digging into a manuscript and giving an author line notes, and writing the editorial letter. I do enjoying writing the editorial letter, because for me, that’s my chance to have a dialogue with the author—to tell her what parts of the story that are really working and what parts I think could be improved upon, and why. And then of course it’s awesome when you get that first finished copy of the book. It’s sort of like magic. Just a few months ago this was a stack of paper, and now it’s this beautiful object. There is exactly one part of the process I don’t like, and that is sharing covers with authors. I want the author to be happy, and I’m so nervous sharing covers that I always do it at the very end of the day, and then I dash from my desk and try not to check my Blackberry until I’m almost at my train. When I hear back right away that the author is pleased, I’m so relieved! And when the author isn’t pleased, well, we work very hard to adjust the cover to make her happy in the end.

What did you read when you were a kid? Does it stand up to the test of time? If it were sent to you now, would you publish it?

I had a few childhood favorites. My mother read me The Velveteen Rabbit many time she and I always cried at the end. I adored that book. I read it to my son when he was a baby and it totally stands the test of time. If it was sent to me now, I hope I would have the intelligence to publish it, even though it’s a bit of an odd format (short illustrated chapter book). Other childhood favorites were Charlotte’s Web, the All-of-a-Kind Family books, and A Cricket in Times Square (which happens to be an FSG backlist gem). I was also into a Scholastic series called The Girls of Camby Hall and then when I was a little older I was all over Flowers in the Attic. I read it again not so long ago and I’m not going to lie: It’s sort of awful, but I enjoyed every page of it.

Taking the need to make money out of the equation, if you could work at any job in the world, would you stay in publishing? If not, what would you do?

Good question! I love what I do. My only complaint about my job here at FSG is that the days are over too quickly. I always wish I had more time with the books and more time with my colleagues. So I would not pick any other field outside of publishing and within publishing, I would not pick any job other than one I have. If I could split into two people who had two different jobs, though, the other me would be a child psychologist.

What’s currently on your manuscript wish list? What’s definitely not on the list?

I’d be very happy to receive a smart and keenly observed MG or YA ms about a character with an eating disorder. As for what I’m not looking for, I’m usually not one for fantasy or science fiction. If the book has trolls or magical lands or talismans or some such, it’s likely not for me.

Thanks for participating, Joy!

Thank you, Linda! This was a lot of fun.

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Inside Scoop: Dish From a Literary Agent Intern… 4 Things I Learned about Picture Books From Visiting a Bookstore

Bookshelf

Today I’m going to talk about an experience I had involving a visit to the “mothership” (that’s what a friend and I lovingly call bookstores). I was learning how to write an editorial letter for a picture book and I discovered *gasp* I had no clue what I was talking about! I realized that my conception of what picture books are was stuck in 1995; lyrical, wordy and beautifully illustrated. Although I do believe classics like The Hungry Caterpillar, The Giving Tree, or Love You Forever will continue to have a place in the market, I had to discover what’s happening in picture books today. Here is what I found:

  1. Meta is betta – well not so much that it’s better, but a lot of meta picture books are on the bookstore shelves today. There are tons of books about books, books that involve the readerPress Here in an engaging journey (think There is a Monster at the End of this Book), books that are introspective and just fun for fun’s sake. I was surrounded by books like Press Here that brought me through the book interactively by pushing colored illustrations, which actually made it feel like I was creating the book as I went along.
  2. Quirky is where it’s at – I discovered books that were offbeat and What Does the Fox Sayoutside the box, like What Does the Fox Say. You know, that song by the Norwegian band Ylvis? Yeah, there’s a children’s book about that! I have to say it was great! When I first spotted it, I literally laughed out loud, thinking that it wasn’t going to be anything I would like. But how wrong I was. The Illustrations were so different and entertaining and reading the lyrics was so much fun!
  3. Morals aren’t for everyone – or they shouldn’t be shoved in the reader’s face while reading. Kids (and I think it’s safe to say adults) don’t want to know they are being taught something while reading.  Remember when I said “fun for fun’s sake” like a minute ago? That’s what picture books are about. They might have a lesson, but it isn’t one that is glaring a child in the face saying “look at me, you need to be a good boy/girl!”
  4. Less is more – There are an abundance of picture books out there that don’t even reach 500 words. They are filled with questions, interactive fun, self-searching queries or just nonsense (remember that fun factor I keep bringing up?). The smaller word count and engaging illustrations create a road to discovery that I think gets lost when there are too many words.

When I left the “mothership” I felt I was able to recognize and better understand where the picture book market is at the moment. Now, I’m not saying you should write to a trend. But do you think it would be wise to write an 1,800 word lyrical picture book? Probably not. It probably wouldn’t sell. However, you should allow yourself to be open to what is out there, recognize what is selling, and still remain true to who you are as a writer. If you do, you will do just fine.

Tell me in the comments below one of your favorite picture books on the market today!

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