Most Common Writing Mistakes: RMC-SCBWI 2008 Fall Conference Editor/Agent Panel

Here are some of the questions and responses provided by editors/agents John Rudolph (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), Julie Strauss-Gabel (Dutton), Melissa Manlove (Chronicle), and Barry Goldblatt (Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency).

1. What are some of the most common mistakes you seen in manuscript submissions?

John: Submissions inappropriate for Putnam’s list–mass market titles, nonfiction manuscripts geared more toward educational publishing than trade publishing

Julie: Bad writing, submissions that don’t follow the guidelines, non-ambitious writing. Her guidelines state no unsolicited email queries: she deletes any email queries unread.

2. When you look at a manuscript that might get a personal rejection letter, what problems do you often see?

Melissa: Great writing, but the story lacks a strong hook

Barry: Beautiful language, but no story yet

Julie: Inevitably, she sees plotting problems. She considers this the last piece of the puzzle. Voice and character HAVE to be solid.

3. What advice can you give an author on the midlist to help him or her “break out”?

Barry: There’s no longer any such thing as the midlist. Writers either “hit it” or don’t. They have to challenge themselves every time, with every new manuscript.

Julie: The authors who are most supported by her house are those who promote and support their own books.

Melissa: Struggling authors are often writing books that appeal only to a narrow audience

4. What sorts of revision requests do you make before acquiring a manuscript?

John: All kinds! Might suggest plot changes, a new ending for a picture book, a chance in writing tense…there isn’t one kind of change he requests more often than another.

5. Why are you willing to work through revisions with an author before acquisition?

Julie: It’s standard to go through a round of revision before acquisition. This is an important step–it allows both sides to “feel out” the revision process and how it will work. Authors should always be open to working through revisions. Revision requests are only made when the book is close.

Melissa: Writing is one skill and revision is another. She wants to know if you have that skill before agreeing to work with you.

…More tomorrow!

:) Cheryl

Meet the RMC-SCBWI 2008 editors and agents: John Rudolph, Melissa Manlove, Julie Strauss-Gabel, Barry Goldblatt

More from the 2008 RMCSCBWI Fall Conference: Editor/Agent Panel

One of the conference’s most valuable sessions (in my opinion) was an editor/agent panel addressing various questions about this crazy business of writing and publishing. Panel members included:

  • John Rudolph*, Executive Editor at G.P.Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Young Readers Group. “He edits picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, and a small number of nonfiction titles. Among the authors and illustrators he’s been lucky enough to work with are Pete Seeger, Tomie dePaola, Richard Michelson, Nathaniel Philbrick, Padma Venkatraman, Jack Higgins, Brenda Woods, Pete Hautman, R. Gregory Christie, Steve Schindler, Mary Azarian, and Wendy Anderson Halperin.” Putnam publishes 55-60 books per year.
  • Melissa Manlove*, Assistant Editor at Chronicle Books. Acquires picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA. She describes herself as “passionate about all genres and topics in children’s books, with the exception of religious themes. When acquiring, she looks for fresh takes on familiar topics as well as the new and unusual. More important than topic, however, is an effective approach and strong, graceful writing.”
  • Julie Strauss-Gabel*, Associate Editorial Director at Dutton Children’s Books. She edits “picture books and fiction for older readers (middle grade and young adult). Some of Julie’s books include The Milkman and Market Day by Carol Cordsen,…; Easy Street, by Rita Gray…; Printz Medalist Looking for Alaska, and Printz Honor Book An Abundance of Katherines, both by John Green…; Edgar Award Winner Buried by Robin Merrow MacCready; Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus; Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen and The Fashion Disaster that Changed My Life, by Kauren Myracle; and Safe by Susan Shaw.” More info about Dutton Children’s Books can be found at www.duttonwritersroom.com .
  • Barry Goldblatt has owned and operated his own literary agency since September 2000. He represents authors such as Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, and Libba Bray. He has about 45 current clients. Although he’s gained a name as a “fantasy agent,” he represents writers of many types. More info about Barry and his agency can be found at www.bgliterary.com

I’ll cover the panel’s response to a number of writing/publishing related questions tomorrow (such as: What are the most common writing mistakes you see? What problems might you see in a manuscript that merits a personal rejection? What advice can you give an author on the midlist?)

:) Cheryl

* Information obtained from speaker biographies, Letters & Lines RMCSCBWI Fall Conference 2008 handout.

Notes from Julie Strauss-Gable’s First Pages Session

In case you don’t know, a “first pages” session is one where writers can anonymously submit the first page of a manuscript, which an industry professional (in this case, Julie S-G) critiques before her attentive audience. Some of these sessions are a total waste of time to attend and some provide great insight into the editor/agent’s interests, editing style, and (if you submit a page) your own manuscript. Julie S-G didn’t disappoint. She zipped through pages rapidly enough that we had time at the end for a few questions; but she didn’t skimp on providing meaty critique.

Here are some of the common complaints she had about picture book first pages:

  • The story is targeted at too mature a reader. She said to remember that the picture book market is driven by the younger end reader, so concepts need to be simple, characters young, and rhythm/pacing/theme especially appropriate to children 4 to 6 years old.
  • In stories with repetition: several times, she commented on a lack of consistency in the pattern or a lack of “expected rhythm” for the child to anticipate and follow.
  • In some, the story ideas were nice, but they didn’t build. The story became just a series of examples. For example, one story featured pairs of animals related to each other in some way. (I won’t get too specific for the author’s privacy). The pairing concept was interesting, the story language lovely–but the story didn’t build in any way. Ask yourself, Julie said, how to encourage page turns? How will each creature pair be illustrated? Will their environments be too similar? A picture book needs to use variety in settings.
  • In some, the complaint was that the story didn’t provide enough comfort for young readers–whether that comes in the form of repeated phrases, repeated paragraph or sentence structure, or in the characters themselves.
  • Another common complaint: the picture book that contains too much explaining or scene setting. For ex., a picture book about a labradoodle can’t contain paragraphs explaining what a labradoodle is.

Take-homes for me: First, that Julie S-G is a fabulous editor and I’d love to have a first page critiqued by her; second, that picture books have a number of definable elements that help them to work:

  • Strong, unique characters
  • Variety of settings or scenes
  • Repetition in the language or story format
  • Comfort for young children
  • Fun for the adult reader
  • Spare, spare, language where every word counts
  • A building story line with a surprise of some sort at the end.

It makes me itch to work on my picture book ideas again–but I’m kind of busy with other projects still and I’m *trying* not to start more until I have some closure on the others.

:) Cheryl

The Infamous Barry Goldblatt

I’d have to say that agent Barry Goldblatt wins the award for causing the greatest stir at this year’s RMCSCBWI fall conference. On the Manuscript Critique registration form (he served as one of the critique-ers) he rated his own line: “NOTE: Agent Barry Goldblatt has indicated that he is fair but quite blunt in his critiques. Please indicate whether you feel you can handle such a critique: ___ Yes ___ No.” He arrived at the conference surrounded by this mystical aura of “scary agent”.

When you meet him, the reputation is difficult to believe. He’s a normal-looking guy (no Darth Vader-esque rasp or Darth Maul tattoos) with an easy smile and a quick wit. Sure, he’s got strong opinions about the world of writing–but which of us doesn’t?

Here’s what speaks most in his favor: the people who know and love him, such as sweet and funny Lauren Myracle, gentle (but tough) Julie Strauss-Gabel, and, of course, an admirable group of authors who I don’t know personally but LOVE as writers: Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Shannon Hale, Libba Bray…I mean, if all these great folks love him, can he really be that bad?

From what I hear, that depends more on you than on him.

If you’re looking for a pat on the back or a confidence boost, I’d look elsewhere. But if you go to a conference and REALLY want to know what’s wrong with your work and how to make it better, he’s your man. Sign up for a critique or first pages session with him. But be forewarned: he might not follow that nice “critique sandwich” we’re taught in critique groups. His view? He has ten minutes–or less–to give an author feedback. If you want something useful, he doesn’t have time to waste on anything but what’s most important.

The problem is that, for most of us on this writing road, we need to hear that we’re nowhere near the mark, that our story is old, the dialog goes on too long, the voice isn’t working–BIG stuff that is no fun to hear. In the past, I’ve been to many critiques where the critique-er tiptoed around the real issues. I left those sessions feeling like I didn’t know where to go next. When I had a critique with Barry Goldblatt, I left with a laundry list of changes to make, potential story problems to avoid, and a bit of brainstorming about better places to start the story. I left the session on fire to rewrite–and I’ve been rewriting ever since.

And no, he didn’t say he loved the story or anything like that. He just shared my enthusiasm for good writing and how to make it better…which meant pointing out a heck of a lot of things that I was doing wrong. So is he a scary editor? It all depends on where you are as a writer.

:) Cheryl

Check out Barry Goldblatt’s amazing client list and submission guidelines at: http://www.bgliterary.com/index.html