|Rx for Writers|
“What Editors Wish Writers Knew...and would do”
with a mystery children's book editor
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Our mystery editorworks with a well established and growing children's book publisher -- not the biggest, not the smallest. But she loves 'em. She's often startled by submissions that suggest there are important things hopeful writers simply don't know or don't realize. With this in mind, she's chatting under cover of anonymity so she can be totally frank (but never mean) about the things you need to know so that your submissions will be able to compete in this challenging publishing world.
Janis Jan Fields, moderator of this interview/workshop, and Web Editor of the ICL Web Site. Green shows names or usernames of people and the questions they asked of our speaker.
Jan:WELCOME to GUEST SPEAKER CHAT with our mystery children's book editor. I'm your host, moderator, and resident pontificator -- Jan Fields. I'm looking forward to learning a lot about the things editors wish all of us writers knew, and would do. Welcome Editor of Mystery and thanks for joining us tonight!
Mystery editor:Thank you Jan. Happy to be here.
Jan:Yes, and you look lovely typing away with the bag over your head, mystery editor.
Mystery editor:yes, it's a lovely designer bag
Jan:Only the best for the editors. Now, into the fray!
Lesley: Could you make a 'Top Ten List of Do's and Don'ts' in terms of getting published/slush pile?
Mystery editor:Hoo-boy. Well, the first thing you do is accept that writing for children is a profession. And like any profession, there is a learning period. There are writers who say, "I don't want to be a professional writer, I just have this idea." Screeeee! Writing for children is not like writing for other genres. Just like anything else, you LEARN the profession before you begin practicing it. The slush pile is FULL of stories people jotted down on a whim without learning one iota about the biz.
Mystery editor:Learn what makes a good Children's story. Read CURRENT (last five years) books in your chosen genre --- picture book, middle grade etc. Read AWARD winners. There are crit groups, conferences, the SCBWI, message boards, tons and tons and TONS of info out there for you.
Mystery editor:So what you DO is 1. constantly work on improving your craft 2. Read, read, read 3. write, write, write 4. Study the markets, carefully target.
Mystery editor:Common Writing Flaws or How to Stay in Slush Forever
Mystery editor:1. Bad rhyme, weak, inconsistent, or non-existent meter. Reading that is like listening to a tone deaf person sing. After the first bar (line), you are ready to run.
Mystery editor:2. Picture books over 1000 words. 600-800 or less is pretty good. Single spacing, weird fonts, not putting the word count down are not affective methods of disguising a too long picture book. I can tell in a glance if it's too many words ... and there's always the heft of too many pages.
Mystery editor:3. Stories with obvious, knock you over the head morals. Don't even put the words moral, lesson, teach, value or anything of that ilk in your cover letter. It sends off sirens and flashing lights in the editor's head.
Mystery editor:4. If you are writing a contemporary story, use contemporary names. A story set in 1975 is NOT contemporary. Donald, Billy, Penny, Brandy, Misty, are NOT contemporary names. It's okay to have one or two of those ... but quick go find me a fourth grade classroom TODAY with a Hugh, Dennis, Sharon, Craig, Susan, AND Nancy in it all at the same time. You aren't going to find one.
Mystery editor:5. While I'm on the subject of names, watch the alliteration. If you are choosing alliterative names, choose something that matches the character ... just don't choose the name based on the alphabet. Sizzle the Snake instead of Sammy Snake. But again ... go easy .... don't make EVERY single character name in your story alliterative. By the time the editor gets to her third Timmy Turtle of the day, she wants to hurt somebody.
Mystery editor:6. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS on submission guidelines. Don't think you know a better way. You do not know how the office works or the personal work preferences of the acquiring editor. Guidelines are set up for the editor/publisher's convenience.
Mystery editor:7. Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. It also needs plot, conflict, and setting. Oh yeah ... and characters.
Mystery editor:8. Follow proper manuscript format. Double space. Use one side of the paper. Use black ink.
Mystery editor:9. For picture books do not include amateur illustrations. For some reason, people like to do their own computer generated illustrations. Don't include illustration notes unless they are ESSENTIAL to the story i.e. something vital to the story has to be communicated in the pictures. Don't put something like: Grandmother is wearing a pink dress with lace around the collar and she is holding a blue cup as she walks past her slightly wilting petunias. Don't include page breaks.
Mystery editor:10. Don't be boring. You don't have time to let the story warm up. You need to grab the editor with the first sentence, and not let them go. You truly only have a few seconds to get the editor's attention.
Jan:I saw that you mention long picture books, what do you think is the optimal pb length these days for most publishers?
Mystery editor:500ish words. 600 maybe, definitely aim for under 800. You can get by with slightly over 1000, but much over ...is really stretching it.
Jan:And if you have a long picture book, you have to do a lot of extra market research to find the publishers doing those -- I know Peachtree has done a couple at 1200 words. DON'T just send it to all the picture book publishers on the assumption that they will publish a 1000+ text if it's good enough -- they won't. Not if they only run shorter ones. You have to study their books.
Mystery editor:Correct. I'm sure they exist. But what I see a lot in slush is really old fashioned, moralistic tales that go on and on. Those just aren't in vogue any more. There is a thing called a picture story book but they are rare.
Jan:Now, I know some of the things folks send you as picture books really need to be something else, even when they're good -- do you find that? Stuff that ought to be ..say a magazine story, or maybe expanded into a chapter book, but not a picture book?
Mystery editor:Yes, I see that a lot. I see a lot of things that would really make good magazine stories. They are good stories but they don't have that "read me over and over again" quality and they don't have enough illustration possibilities. They don't change scenes often enough. Others could be expanded into chapter books so I see a lot of things that are good that aren't really picture books, at least not what the market will support today.
writermw: Do you find more of a need for a particular age group?
Mystery editor:I think that depends by house and what the focus is. AT my own house it can vary. If we have enough of one thing we may begin zeroing in on another area. Watch the house you are interested in and see what they are putting the most out of each year/season.
froggygirl: As an editor do you see many series books submitted?
Mystery editor:Yes, I do and those are kinda iffy from unknowns. Usually you want to see how one book will do before you take on a series. Usually, you will want to send one as a "stand alone" and don't mention the series potential until you are farther along in the acquisition process.
choff: Can your 8-12 novel be read without agent representation?
Mystery editor:Of course it can, if you send it to an open house or one still accepting unsolicited queries.
frostymac: What do editors look for in a picture book biography?
Mystery editor:My house does few of those. You do want it to be different from what else is on the market. If your subject is common or well known do research to make sure you have a different angle. Do a market survey and have the info available on how yours is different from what else is there.
Sawnsew: I know this is probably impossible to get an answer but how do you ever know if your writing is any good if no one ever has time to jot down a few comments? It would be nice to know if we are truly wasting everyone's time if it isn't worthy of publication.
Mystery editor:That business of "is my writing any good" is really your responsibility. There are megatons of info on the internet and in books. There are critique groups. There are opportunities to get paid critiques at conferences. There are message boards and support groups and all kinds of things out there. Read, read, read, read, read, read. Got to Linda Sue Parks' web site. Do what she did. Read, read, read, read. With enough experience and knowledge you KNOW the difference between Great, good, average, and oh, never mind. Do you really want a rejection that says, "This manuscript is awful. I'd say kill it, but it's already dead. Please be kind to the earth and recycle." No. Writers are tender creatures. And it's all one big learning curve. The clunky writer of today might be the best seller of tomorrow .... IF that person does his homework. And I guess this is a good time to bring this up .... it's subjective. I'm usually not going to put a reason in unless I think it will help.
Liz: I know that as a writer of a picturebook manuscript I'm not supposed to give any indication of what visuals I "see" for the story. I have a manuscript which I've written specifically about a mixed race child (black and white). This is something I feel quite strongly about, as my own family looks like this, it is a growing segment of our culture, and yet it's not reflected in children's literature. I wrote a page, in addition to the manuscript, in which I've described her world - the urban neighborhood and apartment where she lives in Brooklyn, her mother, father, grandmother and best friends. Is it appropriate to send that background page along with the manuscript, or should I simply devote a couple of sentences to it in my query letter? Or, not say anything at all and let the manuscript stand on its own? (and hope, when it sells, that we'll be able to talk about these additional things).
Mystery editor:I'd mention in the cover letter that it is a bi-racial child. If the exact setting is important then there should be indications of that in the manuscript. You can establish setting in a pb without getting TOO descriptive. Just a thought, consider moving away from stereotypes. Bi-racial children live in all sorts of circumstances ... suburbs ... rural areas .... it's not just an inner city sorta thing. I'm getting that the MOST important thing here is that the child is seen as bi-racial -- so I'd make that clear.
froggygirl: Do you look for proper english and grammar?
Mystery editor:Of course! However, one or two minor mistakes won't throw you out of the running if it's a good story. But yes, you need to use the Queen's English properly. Demonstrate a command of the language. Competition is too stiff. An editor isn't really going to sign on to clean up poor writing even if the idea might be good underneath.
Jan:Plus, a nice clean manuscript with good spelling, and grammar and punctuation looks like you didn't rush it into the mail. Editors don't like rushed into the mail vibes.
Mystery editor:Definitely.It looks like you know your stuff and you didn't just take up writing an hour ago.
Mystery editor:What I meant was don't stress if you realize after you sent a manuscript that you used "their" instead of "there." But you should strive for perfection. The exception would be in dialogue. YOu need to be true to your character's voice. But a manuscript riddled with mistakes and full of poor grammar is going to go back in the envelope asap.
Jan:Now, lady of mystery, I know one of the things you said you watch for in cover letters is whether a writer will be easy to deal with -- so what kinds of things might make a person look difficult (so I can never ever do them)?
Mystery editor:I don't want to hear personal sob stories that are irrelevant to the writing, for example your employment status.
Mystery editor:Don't tell the editor what they will think. Don't bring up money or advance.
Mystery editor:Don't whine about the state of the publishing industry.
Mystery editor:Don't grovel and say things like "I'll change anything you want." That shows me you don't believe in your own story.
Jan:The "I'll change anything you want" also suggests you don't understand the editorial process -- of course you'll make some changes as the book goes through editing. But some things at the heart of the book you might want to hold fast to. Editors know that.
Mystery editor:Only list relevant accomplishments, and it really doesn't matter how much your children love your story.
Mystery editor:On cover letters -- If you list published works, state with whom it was published. If you are ashamed to identify the whom, then don't mention the credit. Folks will wonder. If the name of the publisher shows up unfavorably on Preditors and Editors website http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/, don't include the credit.
Mystery editor:Cover letters should be short sweet professional.
Mystery editor:Don't act difficult -- bringing up money in the cover, acting arrogant. Not sure how I can explain that .... some writers can come across as they are royalty and the editor is the peasant.
Mystery editor:I'm not sure people realize how things come across. Be professional is the best I can say. And don't admit that you are unpublished. It doesn't matter. The story matters.
Jan:You don't have to make up publication credits if you're unpublished, just leave that part out -- focus on the work.
Jan:How about things like "marketing plans" or "promotional plans" or the like, some folks really feel like they need that...but I have trouble finding any editors who want to see it. Not at the submission stage anyway.
Mystery editor:Oooh....that's a gray area. Some publishers want that stuff and they will say so in their guidelines. Other times it can come across too strong.
Mystery editor:Don't act like a used car salesman. Don't put on the hard sale and use a lot of ummm.. persuasive language. You aren't Joe down at the car lot. Be professional and genuine and show a bit of your own personality. But really the story needs to do the talking.
choff: Will an agent and magazine credits help unpublished author?
Mystery editor:Yes. Maybe. They are perks. Not absolutely vital, but they help. Magazine credits are most helpful if they are from well known, respected magazines. Those credits show that you have learned to take editorial direction and you are writing publishable material. Eeek...I almost hate to say it but there are a lot of little publications that just don't have the quality ...but there are other ones that do.
writerdawn: Does it influence you if the author has an mfa in writing?
Mystery editor:Nope, I don't care. I want to know if they can write, not if they've just been taught to write. It may help the writer in the long run, but it doesn't impress me. Folks with a high school education can often write as well or better.
froggygirl: Do editors of childrens lit like stories based on real kids?
Mystery editor:Yes, I think so. Again, that's a per house thing. You need to study their list/catalogs see what their trends are. There are specific publishers who want that sort of thing.
Maria: What is the best way to get noticed in the children's book industry today? Sometimes, it seems that the Children's book industry is over-saturated.
Mystery editor:It is over-saturated. There are more good, even great stories then will ever be published. There is always room for new fresh voices. The best way to get noticed .... have a professional attitude and write a ripping good story.
Maria: What stands out? What would make an editor take notice in a new writer? Is it reasonable to think that the odds are almost impossible to break into the children's writing industry?
Mystery editor:Strong, fresh writing with authentic voice stands out. That's how new writers get noticed. Competition is stiff, but the odds aren't impossible. If you are thinking of Children's writing as a means to make a living or if publication is your primary goal, you probably need a Plan B.
Maria: Is there a special formula to get noticed as a children's book writer?
Mystery editor:Nope, if there were, I'd package it, patent it, and make enough money to hire Donald Trump as my pool boy. Seriously, the "secrets" have all been discussed. Everything that I have acquired or taken to acquisitions has a common thread .... I fell in love immediately, instantly, head over heels. The story was different. It stood out from the pack. There wasn't another one like it. Something about the story touched ME .... There was a connection somewhere ... somehow ... chemistry. It's this wonderful, giddy, I HAVE to HAVE that one feeling.
froggygirl: How do you make the editor excited about your story?
coloradokate: What makes a query or a sub leap from the slush and have you jumping up and down in glee? Besides including chocolate, that is?
Mystery editor:You write an incredible story. It's a matching game. I'm not sure you can MAKE them excited. It happens if you get the incredible story to the right person. Oh, chocolate would be good...
Jan:[No, no, don't send chocolate to the editors...it scares them. Send it to meeeeeeeeeeee...nothing scares me.]
Mystery editor:The story is different. Not an everyday ordinary story. Not one I've already seen a hundred times. And it's a personal connection. The thing about falling in love is true. I'm thinking of one that I'm taking to acquisitions now. It spoke to me on about four different levels. It was superb writing and it touched on things that mattered or struck a chord with me. Magic.
froggygirl: Should you send your first story to multiple editors?
frostymac: Are simultaneous submissions a good way to send out stories?
Mystery editor:First story? As in the first story you've ever written. Usually, you should save the first story you've ever written as a souvenier. You need to run a "first" story by a knowledgeable critique group. Multiple editors? Carefully SELECTED multiple editors.
Mystery editor:Yes, sim subs are good unless the house asks for exclusives. Sim subs make sense. It's the smart way to do it.
Jan:My first submission was a horror, and I'd been a professional writer for adults for YEARS...it takes a lot of practice and study to really do something that can compete in today's market for kids. It's a wonder the editor didn't write rude things on my first one. She said something nice and vague about my "skills" I think :-)
Mystery editor:Yep, I don't mean to be crass, but first stories sent to multiple publishers is what causes slush pile terrors.
Steve: What do you think publishing houses can do (i.e., change) to facilitate their acceptance of manuscripts, reading of same, and replying yes or no to writers within let's say 8 to 12 weeks maximum?
Mystery editor:That's a tall order, and honestly, writers can do a lot to solve that problem. 1. Carefully target your submissions. 2. Do not submit until you are writing professional level quality. 80-90% of the manuscripts received are just not viable. If the slush pile were smaller, it would be quicker to go through it. Unfortunately, many publishers have to close their doors to unsolicited subs and rely on agented submissions. Agents serve as quality control. Reading slush is really like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Jan:I think a lot of publishers are trying to work on that problem -- it's just that their solutions don't make writers happy because they usually focus on reducing the amount of slush -- closing to unsolicited, closing to unagented, closing except to editors you meet at workshops & conferences, closing except for short times each year, closing except for contest entries once a year. All of that helps the problem, but the problem is being caused by the flood, not the publishers.
mjomo: are ezines as credible for credits as print mags?
Mystery editor:The can be if they have a good reputation. It does show that you are actively writing. That you aren't a one trick pony. That you understand the process. It may matter to some editors and not to others. Like the MFA question, it's nice, include it, but ultimately it's the story that matters.
Jan:For the most part, what I think ezines can do for you is (1) give you confidence in your writing -- cause someone liked it, (2) let you dip your toes in the publishing process, and (3) have the fun of seeing your name on a story that other folks are reading .
Jan:But our mystery lady is not the first who's said really what they want to know is did you just send them something they love?
Mystery editor:I don't mean to discount other credits. They are good. They help you develop and grow as a writer. But when it comes down to "Do I want to buy this, it doesn't make that big of an impact."
frostymac Can you recommend a good resource book for grammer?
Jan:Anyway, I wanted to say you can find some great grammar lesson things online...Purdue has a cool online writing lab http://owl.english.purdue.edu/. And those in the audience who are ICL students go the Essentials of English handbook which covered a lot -- really, reading it is good. And someone from the audience recommended this one http://www.askoxford.com/betterwriting/classicerrors/
Mystery editor:There are GRAMMAR books of all sorts available in book stores. A basic grammar book will be fine. There are also online sources. I think you have to find what works for you. Look through them.
Mystery editor:Some people like the silly ones oh like that Vampire themed one...Transitive Vampire? And there's the Eat, Shoots, and Leaves one. I may have butchered the title. You don't have to be a stodgy grammarian, but having a good working knowledge puts you ahead of the game. You also have a better chance of getting good crit partners.
Mystery editor:You can get a good grammar book from your library. Or maybe take a refresher course from your community center. My local YMCA offers grammar courses.
vmorris27: If you can illustrate as well as write, should you?
sparrow4: What if you want to submit photographs for a story?
Mystery editor:Yes, if you are a professional illustratoror a professional photographer. If they are of professional quality, send together. It's another gray area. Or it might be best to just mention in the cover that photos are available. If you are an author/illustrator that can be a good thing.
j. daigle: Is there a certain theme in children's lit that is overdone?
Mystery editor:I think it comes in trends, but I see things that are stereotypical. Particularly the new kid moves in, bully, being popular school story. There are a lot of very sweet stories about babies and grandparents that just don't have enough story in them. They are very personal. Let me think what else ... Stories with the "Ugly Duckling" message or the "I want to be something else. No, I'll just learn to be myself."
writermom68: Is it okay to re-submit a (revised)manuscript to an editor whose positive feedback you were given two years ago? I recieved an encouraging rejection letter on a picture book manuscript in Fall '05 from an editor at Random House. She said she liked the voice, but thought the book should be longer like a chapter book or MG novel. So, I rewrote it and it's now a lower middle-grade novel. Sorry for the long question.
Mystery editor:It wouldn't bother me, and generally I think it would be okay because it's substantially different. If an editor gives you a personal comment on a rejection, it's usually not an invitiation to resubmit unless they specifically say so. Two years later - sure, I'd go for it. Again - things vary. Editors have quirks.
Jan:One thing that freaks editors out is if they say, "this would make a nice novel" and a week later they get it as a very very rough draft of a novel.
Jan:Never rush and lose the warm feeling the editor had about your potential.
Mystery editor:Oh yes! and you also get reluctant to give personals, when people think oh..comments, that means she wants to see it again.
Mystery editor:Dont' send those revisions back TOO soon. Some people can revise quickly, but most of them can't. The revision is just not there yet and then whoops, you've blown your chance. You probably won't get a second revision request.
gonewest: Do you like stories written in 1st person or 3rd person?
Mystery editor:Either way if they are incredible stories. Whatsoever you doeth, doeth it expertly. Waiting for lightening strike.
esthermarie: What percentage of submissions are just junk vs. really good.
Mystery editor:Roughly 80% or more .. wait a minute dusting off from lightening strike. Thanks Jan.
Mystery editor:And in that "junk" pile are included poorly targeted manuscripts. For example non-fiction to a publisher who only does fiction. There's some really wacky stuff out there and some with just really poor writing but a lot of it is just not THERE yet. Too weak too save. No vital signs.
esthermarie: Who actually reads unsolicited submissions?
Mystery editor:A LOT of publishers. Get thyself a CWIM (Children's Writers and Illustrator's Market) [or Book Markets for Children's Writers] and double check the information with the publisher's website. Keep an eye on the popular message boards for updates.
Jan:I think she might mean...who at the publisher reader the slush pile?
Mystery editor:Ohhhhhhh, okay. Sorry. It depends. Usually there is a first reader whose job is to weed out that 80% plus. Don't discount interns and assistants. They sometimes will give you more attention than the overworked editor. My assistant has pulled stuff out that I was about to discard. Really.
Rebecca: Is it true that the first person to read manuscripts in the slush pile is not an editor but rather an administrative assistant, a college intern, or another person in the office? If that person does not care for the mss, then an editor never even sees it?
Mystery editor:Somebody has to weed the garden before the editor goes out to pick the tomatoes. Otherwise, the editor can't FIND the tomatoes. On the average, only 10-15% of the slush is edible. (If you want to continue with the gardening analogy). 5% or less is appetizing. 1% or less winds up on a plate. (published). You can't eat it all no matter how tasty it is. The first reader, which may be an intern or assistant, gets rid of the weeds .... the stuff that is poorly targeted, poorly written, obviously not right for the house. I would not poo-poo interns or assistants. Generally speaking they have less responsibilities, less to do. They are a little fresher, a little less jaded. They also know who at the house likes what and when is the best time to show somebody something. Lower rung people want to be higher rung people. One of the ways they do that is to prove they have "a good eye," and are able to pick good manuscripts. Interns are wanting to learn, so they spend a little more time reading than someone who has a million other things to do besides reading manuscripts. Don't diss interns.
RainbowMom: If a manuscript had been critiqued by an editor at a SCBWI conference favorably, should that be mentioned in a query/cover letter to another editor when sending out that particular manuscript? Would it make you read it a little more carefully knowing this writer is serious enough to attend a writer's conference and pay for a critique?
Mystery editor:Nah, I wouldn't. It's all subjective. It's the story that counts. HOWEVER, if you are sending it to the editor who critted it, then by all means YES do some memory jogging.
Amy: I would love to know if having an agent is the key to breaking out of the slush pile.
Mystery editor:It helps. Generally Agented subs go to editors directly. You've passed quality control. But it's not guarantee of getting published. Also, a good agent will know which editor is looking for what.
Mystery editor:Get a reputable agent. A bad agent is worse than no agent. There are some agents whose stuff I won't even look at because the agent isn't professional. Look for someone who is selling to closed houses. Check them out on Preditors and Editors. End.
Mystery editor:Let me repeat -- Make sure you sign with a reputable, respectable agent. There are folks out there who aren't evil. They are just clueless. They sub material that isn't ready to be subbed. They don't write effective cover or query letters. They don't know how to follow up properly. In short, they sub with about as much know-how as the average new children's book writer. Editors are just going to ignore these people and subs from them will go in the trash. You want to go with an agent who has the ability to get you into a closed house. Otherwise, just do the work yourself.
Mystery editor:Oh, this isn't about agents, but can I throw a random URL out for rhymers? -- www.dorichaconas.com -- I refer writers to that one a lot.
Jan:Ahh..yes, dori is brilliant...she's been a chat guest too.
unoscribe: What's the number one thing you wish writers knew?
Mystery editor:One thing? Only one thing? Okay, a moment for thought. See some writers need to know different things from other writers.
Jan:Can you think of one thing that would help if every writer knew it?
Mystery editor:I think the theme in all the questions I answered off line for Jan was to think of writing for children as a profession. You probably will need another profession to support this one. But be professional. And write for the love of it. The pursuit of publication can tarnish the passion that you need to get published in the first place. There's a catch 22 for you. Believe in your own writing and keep improving your craft.
Mystery editor:Oh dear that was so a Hallmark moment.
Jan:I've got one...I've got one...I've got one..."not every good book will get published (sorry) but every good writer will get published if you don't give up on your work and you keep trying.
Mystery editor:Yes! Yes! That's it! I was thinking of that every good book thing today and couldn't articulate it quite like I wanted. Don't put all your eggs on one story...umm, one basket.
Jan:Some writers invest too much in the one manuscript...you have more stories in you, sell the next one if this one isn't working for editors right now.
Mystery editor:You are typing faster than I can think, Jan. I agree. Yes.
Mystery editor:Oh, I know. Besides the treating writing as a profession and not a hobby ... realize there is room for improvement and writing well is learned. Early efforts are not an indication of whether you can write or not. I've heard other editors compare writing to the Olympics. That's a common analogy just like the marriage one. There's a growth and learning period. Don't give up. And like Jan said. Write more. Diversify It's a numbers game. The more chips you have in the ring..the better off your are or something. I do not gamble.
Mystery editor:There that was at least FIVE things.
Iman: What do you think of bilingual picture books? Would there be a good market for them or would publishers have some reservations to offer them to children at this age?
Mystery editor:This is a specialty thing, and you should submit to houses specifically interested in that sort of thing. But then I guess it depends on HOW bilingual ... if your story is strong ... with mass market appeal ... and you have a bilingual thing going ... it could work.
Rebecca: What young/first-time authors publishing today would you identify as having the potential to be among the next great generation of writers for children and young adults?
Mystery editor:Cynthia Lord, Kate DiCamillo, LIsa Yee, Jennifer Choldenko (I may be stretching your definition of today and first time .... I'm thinking relatively new on the scene.) There are many really amazing first time novels I'm thinking of, but the titles are eluding my brain.
Rebecca: What childrens/YA books published in the last 2 years do you most admire? Which do you wish you had published?
Mystery editor:Me and the Pumpkin Queen, Dairy Queen, Rules, .... just too many to name.
elisahill: Is it all about timing? (The writer/agent has sent you an absolutely GREAT adventure book manuscript for Middle Grade Readers. However, it missed your "deadline" for the season. You had already agreed to publish another adventure book that fit the market needs in that category). Is the GREAT "rejected" manuscript automatically in your slush pile or will it have any chances for future publication in your publishing house?
Mystery editor:I'm not going to hold onto something that we won't be ready to contract for years. It's one of those sad things and one of those hard rejections to write. Generally, I tell the person the truth. Love it. Can't take it. Already have one. Or it depends if there is an opening in the next list, but generally it probably is just one of those bad timing things. The other adventure story would not have been accepted if it was not stellar or did not fill a niche.
Jan:And some writers don't realize that a book will be on the publisher's list for more than a year -- maybe for more than a couple years, so you really aren't looking at waiting a year and trying again. Because the publisher still isn't going to want a book that competes with the one they still market.
Mystery editor:Yes. It would be too long. And I wouldn't want to hold something up. It just isn't going to work for us.
Mystery editor:Story lines can be so similar. People worry about ideas getting lifted. But there are very few stories that I haven't already seen a version of.
Jillian: I was wondering what the Editor thought about incorporating mathematics in middle grade fiction. Specificaly, the fiction would be a mystery that revolves around math clues.
Mystery editor:That sounds excellent. With all the standards based educational trends this would be a marketing plus.
mraymon3 How does print compete with technology: text, ipod, etc?
Mystery editor:That's a question that we'll see the answer to as time goes by. If you are talking about electronic books, I don't see paper books going away anytime soon. If you are talking about techno gadgets competing for children's attention - that is something for teachers and parents to pay attention to. The kids I know - the kids I see - are still book readers. As long as there are good books - kids are still going to grab them up. I hope so or there goes my job.
Jan:Studies show that kids still read...a lot actually. Teens read a lot too, but so much of it is for school, that they don't do as much pleasure reading. It's the adults who are slacking off on the reading...they score the lowest in daily reading hours. So...y'all read now!
devlyn: does it deter an editor to receive a submission from an overseas writer?
Mystery editor:No, it doesn't matter as long as there isn't a language barrier.
craftymama: When you get to the end of a query letter what contact information do you want to see? I have an address, land line phone #, cell phone#, email, fax, etc. I could add but that seems like a lot of stuff. What do you actually want/need?
Mystery editor:All of that. If one doesn't work I have another to rely on. You wouldn't believe how many times authors send bad email addresses. Fax, maybe not. Address, email, at least one phone number. Things are slow, you might move or something. Please include more than one method of contact.
cynde: With sim subs should you let editors know you are sim subbing?
Mystery editor:yes, please do. It's a courtesy. It's a pain to spend a lot of time working and reviewing on something and then find out it's gone somewhere else. Many editors compare publishing to dating so yes we like to know if we are going steady or not.
choff: Once a manuscript catches the interest of an editor, is there anything a writer can do to promote the story through the selection pyramid aside from hope? What is the acquisition process at your house?
Mystery editor:No, it's out of your hands at that point. The acquisition process is too complicated and we are running low on time.
writermw: I was a lover of the Judy Blume books growing up. Deenie was one of my favorites. There was a lot of controversy over some parts of it. Are editors getting more/less strict in what is published in kids books today?
Mystery editor:Times have changed so what was a problem THEN is not a problem now. Again it depends on the publisher. Some smaller publishers might have a more niche focus.
tgseale: When you see "sim sub" are you more or less interested? :)
Mystery editor:Neither. It's a good thing to know. And it gives me a flag to wave at acquisitions. As in a good flag to wave. Hello, Boss this is a sim sub. Lookee NOW! But I have to have already fallen in love.
Mystery editor:As to sim subs..if you have already entered conversation with an editor as in they have responded to you..and there is contact..tell them if you get a nibble, I usually ask people to do that if I've taken or am taking it to acquisitions.
kim from pa: Where can a writer look to find projected topic trends?
Mystery editor:I don't know if they can. Trends are so trendy. Watch what is coming out. But th trends change by the time the book hits the shelf.
scribemom7 What about a book/stuffed animal concept? Acceptable?
Mystery editor:Unless the publisher actually WANTS that, I'd let that be something that is brought up when you've entered the acquisition or contract phase.
Jan:Also, novelty packaging like that requires a lot more money outlay. So, you might want to look at the publishers who seem to be doing it.
Sandra: We as writers spend so much time stressing over them, just how important is the cover letter? What should it include? And is cleverness and creativity frowned upon when you're forming one?
Mystery editor:This is an individual preference thing, and editors have quirks. I've heard all kinds of different view points at conferences. Generally ... short, sweet, and professional. A dab of personality does help. Just don't get too cutesy or act like a used car salesman. But yeah a dab of cleverness and creativity can be a good thing. Think of your cover letter as your initial job interview. A QUERY letter is a different animal ... that's more of a sales tool. You aren't sending in your manuscript ... you are trying to hook the editor on the query alone. There are tons of sites that show you how to write one of those.
MaryS: What is happening to the picture book market?
Mystery editor:It's up, it's down, it's all around. Seriously, I think it's picking up. The thing is, EVERYBODY thinks picture books are easy to do. So tons of people do them. The competition is very, very stiff. If you really want to write picture books, zero in and study that genre.
MaryS: Do kids read chapter books anymore?
Mystery editor:Yes ... if you mean the transition between early readers and middle grade novels.
MaryS: What is the "hook" needed to get a contract?
Mystery editor:Well, you put bait on a hook to lure a fish, right? And you need the right bait and hook to lure the fish you want. So in a manuscript, your hook has to be that thing that grabs the editor ... makes them bite. Think about your own thought process when you are choosing a book to read. What hooks you? That's what you need in your own manuscripts.
kimberly123: Since not every good book is definitely going to sell to a publisher, would you ever recommend self publishing?
Mystery editor:If you really believe in it and you really want to spend the time and money, go for it. Educate yourself on that though. I wouldn't give up on traditional publishing if one manuscript does not fly. And keep trying other markets exhaust your possibilities before shelving a manuscript or maybe wait for trends to change.
Jan:You kind of have to make a decision on whether you want to be a writer...in which case you just keep writing until you make the connection for a sale Or if you want to switch to being a bookseller, press agent, designer...and a bunch of other jobs for one book. Because self-publishing (if done well) is incredibly consuming, and you won't be writing if you're doing it.
esthermarie Do you have an eye on any emerging/underepresented mrkts.
Mystery editor:Sometimes we are on the lookout for something we dont' have. We have sort of our own niche - aren't really trend followers but that doesn't mean others don't.
Jan:She also wants to know if there are any Less competitive markets.
Mystery editor:Yes, non-fiction which our house publishers very little of. Picture books are glutted. It's hard to shine.
Mystery editor:You know what I would like to see more of? Stories where the kids don't have so many problems. I mean there is the plot problem, but the kid also has divorced parents, a lesbian sister, an amputated limb and a speech impediment. I think writers think edgy means putting a lot of PROBLEMS in there and it detracts from the plot. I'd like to see more stories with living parents who are married to each other. Seriously. Too many dead, divorced, estranged parents. It's become the norm.
Jan:I think people don't really have an understanding of how much slush publishers get...can you give us a number and amount of time as an example...like...500 in a month or whatever?
Mystery editor:Approximately 800 a month. 150-200 a week, at least. More after New Years. Those darn resolutions.
Jan:That's a lot of things to read when you also have a completely full set of other duties.
Mystery editor:Yes, and slush is not a priority which I think writers do not understand. Slush can be ovewhelming. You ask for gemstones and they deliver unpolished rocks. You have to dig through all those rocks to find your gem. So you end up going to a gem dealer, otherwise known as an agent. Or you have more manuscripts than you can handle, your list fills up, so you close to unsolicited.
sparrow4: What should you do if you get the response "If you could send me some of your published clippings, I'd love to consider your story." I have no published clippings yet.
Mystery editor:I'd write up the best sample I could think of and say, "I'm not published but here are some samples." Then I'd work on getting some clippings for the next time you get that response.
Jan:Oh, someone wants to know if editors ever hang out on message boards and mailing lists...oh yes! I've met really nice editors on message boards and mailing lists. And you visit boards when you have time, right?
Mystery editor:Yes, they do. It's a way to stay connected. And editors like to relax also. Also many writers take jobs as first readers, interns, or assistants. I'd highly recommend that if you get the opportunity.
Jan:How do you get a first reader job?
Mystery editor:Watch for job openings. I've known some people who have done it because of personal contact. I think Publishers Weekly lists openings. If you have an established relationship you can always ask if an internship is available.
Margaret: Can an effective book proposal simply be an outline and sample chapters?
Mystery editor:I'm not sure what you mean by this. Are you talking about non-fiction? If so, I'm not that familiar with non-fiction proposals, since my house doesn't publish non-fiction. If you are talking about fiction, you should follow the publisher's guidelines. Send what they ask you to send.
Sher: Do editors look for High Concept books when trudging through their piles?
Mystery editor:If those are the type of manuscripts they wish to publish, yes. I'd study the publisher's catalog to get a feel for what that house publishes. Some houses might prefer something more literary. Acquiring manuscripts is like furnishing a house. You are going to pick what matches your style and what goes well with what you already have.
Heidi: In picture books, do editors prefer the main character to be animal or human?
Mystery editor:Depends on the editor/house. Some editors say NO to talking animals ... just because there is an over abundance of overly cutesy poorly written talking animal manuscripts floating around.
Heidi: Although, I'm sure it can vary from publishing house to publishing house. What type of subject matter are editors looking for this year?
Mystery editor:Wow, the year just got started. That's a really hard question to answer, because the old adage, "We don't know what we are looking for until we see it," is basically true. Editors are always on the lookout for fresh, well-written stories.
Sarah: I was wondering how someone starts on the road to publication. I've had zero experience, except for a few small poetry competitions at school and online. I'm also still a teen, and I wondered if I could use that to my advantage. Basically, where and how should I begin?
Mystery editor:Congrats on wanting to start down the road early. Where to begin ... look at it like any other profession. If you are still in high school/college gain experience with publications - newspapers or literary magazines. Read, read, read, read, and READ. There is a plethora of info on the web. Hang out on well known message boards such as this one at ICL, the SCBWI boards (I think you have to join to get full access). Another hot spot is the message board at www.verlakay.com. Some teen writers have become very popular, but the most important thing is writing a good story, regardless of your age.
MaryS: What are Editors looking for specifically in a covering letter?
Mystery editor:Short. Simple. Professional. Different editors have quirks ... so if you get to a conference or read an on line interview pay attention to that. Basically, be professional. You can put a little personal spin on it, but be professional. I don't need to know your sob story ... how much your kids like the story ... don't tell me how I'm going to FEEL about your story ... I like to figure that out. Only include RELEVANT background info. Do not appear aggressive or desperate. Don't bring up advance or other payment in the cover letter. Professional. Editors get clues about what it would be like to work with you from your cover letter.
MaryS: What is popular and selling these days?
Mystery editor:It's hard to say. Don't go by trends. By the time you sub something, it's accepted, and published the trend is long gone. You can best get an idea by studying recent releases. Study publisher catalogs.
MaryS: What is the best way to sell our manuscripts to editors?
Mystery editor:Carefully study the market. Make sure you are writing on a professional level before subbing. Follow directions. Read, read, read, read, read. Write, write, write, write write. It's a numbers game.
MaryS: How do we reach the top of the pile and into the door?
Mystery editor:You write from your heart, only the story you can tell. And you become a masterful story teller. It's a very subjective business. Study the market. Learn. Don't write in a vacuum.
MaryS: What has happened to fairytales?
Mystery editor:I'm not sure what you mean. Very, very long picture books with morals are out of vogue ... if you are talking about why the old fashioned traditional fairy tale doesn't get published. I see a TON of retold fairy tales in the slush pile. If you are going to do that, try the lesser known fairy tales. I've seen the Cinderella story in every conceivable form. Frogella, Slugella, etc.
Rebecca: If you are not totally grabbed by the first page, how much farther in a fiction mss are you likely to read?
Mystery editor:If I'm not totally grabbed by the first page, then I'm not reading any farther. I may not get beyond the first paragraph or even the first sentence. When it comes to rhyming picture books, the first time I think "ouch!" because of the rhyme and meter, it's gone. There are too many to choose from. Think about when you go to the store to buy a sweater. There are hundreds of sweaters on the rack. How much time do you spend looking at the ones which are not in a color or style you like, which are the wrong size, which do not appeal to you for any reason, ... you don't. You don't have the time. You spend your time looking for want you want. Another thing .... maybe you see a sweater that is very beautiful ... unique ... snazzy even .... but it has a major flaw or two or three ... missing buttons, pulled threads, a rip ..... you COULD fix it up .... but that would be a lot of work .... and hey...there's another sweater over there that you like just as much ... maybe a tad more .... and it's in perfect shape!
Flounderfoot: What is the best way to find publishers who are interested in the type and style of material that I am currently working on. I am basically an unpublished writer.
Mystery editor:Study their catalogs. Browse their web sites. Attend conferences or look for interviews on line or in any of the various publications. Join message boards, where other writers share information about editors.
Mystery editor:More on publishers -- Understand what a traditional publisher does. Do not confuse a traditional publisher with a printer, a vanity press, or an agent. A traditional publisher is in the business of selling books, not in the business of putting writer's works in print. Yes, it crosses over at some point .... but the big thing is Will it sell? Will it make the publisher money? Will it bring the publisher prestige? Will it get awards? Is it worth the investment? Will the book earn enough to pay for how much it cost to produce PLUS make a profit. It's not all artsy angels in the clouds with gilded quill pens .... it's business. It's fine and dandy if your relatives, friends and co-workers like your book when you read it to them. BUT...are they willing to pay $15-$20 for it?
craftymama: Are serious issues like the things teens go through during puberty to "mature" for a teen story? Several people I know were doing stuff they shouldn't have back in high school and I know lots of bad examples, the trouble they caused, and the lessons those people learned. Too heavy?
Mystery editor:No, not too heavy. Just make sure you have a STORY, and it's not a long list of things that happen. Don't make it preachy. I don't know when you were a teen, but make it current for teens today.
craftymama: When is the best time of year to submit?
Mystery editor:I don't think there is a better or best time. Manuscripts can hang out in a slush pile for weeks or months, so just go ahead and get them in the stack.
craftymama: I know that multiple submissions all at once are a no-no, but what if I have multiple things to submit? Should I send one, wait a few days, send another, and so on?
Mystery editor:Send one at a time. Wait to hear back on one before you send another. You could get valuable feedback from the first that will help you on the second. If you want stuff out there, send to different publishers. Don't pepper one with a bunch of manuscripts.
cynde: Which boards do editors visit?
Mystery editor:I think you can find them just about everywhere. Some are open about who they are. Some lurk. Some have personas. I've seen Harold Underdown on the SCBWI boards (open to members only at http://www.scbwi.org) and on Verla Kay's board http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php
Marilyn: I have sometimes been required to produce a chapter-by-chapter outline in addition to a synopsis. In every case, I have found my characters leading me in a different (and usually more creative) direction. I would be interested in your feelings about outlines in terms of plot development.
Mystery editor:If things shift - fine. Usually what an editor wants to see with the chapter outline is that you have thought the story out - that is done.
choff: As a new writer, should one submit a resume with work?
Mystery editor:No need to unless the guidelines ask for that. I think some educational publishers do.
frostymac: Besides Writer's Market, what other pub resources are useful?
Mystery editor:Internet. Writers magazines. There are several around.
Jan:Um...stuff here at ICL :-)
writermom3: what are the rules involved with writing stories based on non-fiction "reality" television shows?
Jan:I'll catch this one. You can't do it without permission -- which a big publisher might secure if they loved the book but it's going to make it that much harder to sell. BUT, I have seen books with reality shows in the plot -- but they were made-up reality shows.
cruzsf: What's the average turnaround time to receive a response from a submission?
Mystery editor:Depends on the workload at the publisher and the amount of slush. Varies from publisher to publisher.
devlyn: Is there a market for children's poetry?
Mystery editor:Yes. It's not booming, but it's there.
choff: Have you ever seriously considered a manuscript you reviewed at a writers' conference?
Mystery editor:Yes. We've even bought them.
kimberly123: What about classic writing (like the style of Anne of Green Gables.) Is there still a market?
Mystery editor:Take Me Out to the Ball Game is no longer on the Top 40 hits list, and writing styles that were popular last century are not popular today. Anne of Greene Gables was published 100 years ago. You should write like someone who lives in this century. Austen and Dickens (as is) would probably no more be published in this century, than Judy Blume and Doreen Cronin would be in the 1800's. If you want to write a historical story set in the same time as Anne of Green Gables, yes. And anytime you write, you want the voice and dialogue to match the story you are telling. (I'm not sure a medieval princess would be using contemporary street slang ). But yes, writing produced today, can become as classic as the Anne stories. However, I have seen books with that old-fashioned flair. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo comes to mind. But like Camillo, you might have to already break in, before you can get something like that published.
writermw: How many "Mark Twain's" have you come across in your career? (meaning "natural" talent, unique and not trained)
Mystery editor:If somebody sends in an incredible story, I have no idea whether it came "naturally" or they spent 20 years honing their voice. No matter how much talent you have, I think there is always room for improvement, and the field is much more competitive than it was in Twain's day. In addition, things are more commercial, and a lot of getting published depends on how marketable things are.
alamoosik: What do you think will be the next trend in children's lit?
Mystery editor:Don't worry about trends. Write YOUR stories. By the time you follow trends, the trend has changed. It could take up to a year from the time you submit until the publisher issues the contract. Then another 1-3 years in production. And by then .. a new trend. There is always a need for fresh incredible stories.
rainbowmom: what percentage of that slush is truly unpublishable?
Mystery editor:This has to be the most frequently asked question in this chat. Stop worrying about it. Less than 1% of the slush pile will typically be published - at THAT house. That's why you have to send the manuscript to every house that is a MATCH for that manuscript. Keep working on your craft, and get yourself in that top 5% quality wise. It's also why you need to write more than one story, and one or more genre or style if you have that flexibility. If you wanted to be a baker, but you only learned to bake one kind of cake well, you probably would not flourish in business.
Jan:I want to thank you for coming out and the INCREDIBLE amount of time you put into answering ALL the email questions.
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