This 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.