Zonderkidz and was previously at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She's collecting questions from SCBWI-MI members and sharing her answers with our community. Did you miss her first post? Go here. Then come right back and read on for a new batch of questions/answers below.
Hi everyone! A big THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to send me their questions! I hope all of you, whether you submitted a question or not, find this post helpful and informative.
As with my previous Ask the Editor post, I humbly request that you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended. The advice here is meant to be friendly and helpful, and I don’t want anyone to finish this post feeling vulnerable or discouraged. We’re all in the process of growing and changing as writers, and that’s a good thing!
And, of course, a general disclaimer that my thoughts are my own; I do not speak on behalf of all publishing. If I say something that you really don’t agree with, or you’ve received comments from an editor or agent that directly conflict with my perspective, you can disregard my comments if you so choose. What you find here is solely one editor’s perspective.
If you have questions about writing or publishing that aren’t addressed here, please feel free to email me. I’m always happy to gather questions for my next post!
Thanks so much, and happy reading (and writing)!
I just attended a conference and had an editor critique, and was asked to revise and resubmit. What steps would you have an author follow before they resubmit?
First of all, congratulations! The fact that an editor invited you to revise and resubmit means that they see some serious potential in the project. The first step an author should follow in this situation is to take the notes they received from the editor and follow them exactly. From the editor’s perspective, the changes they’ve asked for are what the manuscript needs in order to work, so you’ll want to make sure you deliver on all of them.
Once you’ve made the changes the editor has requested, I would recommend sharing your revised manuscript with some reader/writer friends you trust to give you honest feedback. Ask if they feel that the changes you’ve made are working, and if there are any other trouble spots they notice. (Some big things to have them watch for: voice, plot, characterization, pacing, theme.) I wouldn’t go asking a dozen people for this kind of advice (too many chefs and all that), but having 2-5 other people look it over for any issues can help to catch some things you may have missed.
Finally, I’d suggest going through it once or twice by yourself before you resubmit. Read it out loud to yourself, slowly; this is especially great for catching small typos or places where the text gets a little clunky. Once you’ve done that and the text is as clean as possible, you’re ready to resubmit!
What are some things that can cause a good story to be rejected? What causes a story to be accepted?
It’s a sad truth that good stories — even great stories — can get rejected. Sometimes it’s because just one element is a bit off. For instance, it could be a nonfiction book about a really interesting topic, but the voice is a bit too dry. Or maybe a picture book has a fun and refreshing plot, but the ending falls flat compared to the rest of the story. Because agents and editors look at so many manuscripts, a story has to hit all the notes to really gain their attention.
But sometimes even that isn’t enough. Sometimes even a virtually flawless manuscript gets rejected, simply because it’s not the story the publisher is currently looking for. Maybe it’s not one of the genres they typically publish, or maybe they already have a couple books about that topic and are looking to acquire something different. To minimize the chances of this kind of scenario, I recommend doing research on agents and publishers before you submit your manuscript. Sending your manuscript to a small, curated list of agents/publishers that seem like a great fit will give you better results than casting a wide, indiscriminate net.
As for what causes a story to get accepted, I think it’s going to vary based on the agent/editor, but the five big things I tend to focus on (which I alluded to in my answer to the previous question, because I’m sneaky like that) are:
- voice (Does the writing style grab and maintain my attention? Is it distinctive in some way?)
- plot (What are the stakes? Does the story flow logically from the character’s motivations?)
- characterization (Are the characters dynamic and compelling?)
- pacing (Does the story move too fast, too slow, or just right?)
- theme (What’s the point of the story? What can I take away from it?)
How long do writers typically try to get published before they finally do or decide call it quits? Have you seen writers pursuing their craft for many years despite not being published?
I don’t know that there’s a typical timeframe for this, like if you’ve been writing for X number of years, you’ll either get published or know it’s time to throw in the towel. Unfortunately, the publishing business just doesn't work that way. Some writers get their very first manuscript published (notice I didn’t say the first draft of their first manuscript). Some authors who already have books on the shelves will struggle for years to get a new manuscript accepted.
I will say that, unless you’re a famous celebrity, you’ll probably need to spend at least a few years studying and honing your craft before you’re ready to be published. A lot of writers give up at this stage, because it’s hard. It’s incredibly difficult to generate words, day after day, study writing manuals and great works of literature, with no guarantee that anything you write will be shared with the world. But you need good writing to get published, and unfortunately, there are no shortcuts when it comes to generating good writing. Studying the craft requires time and patience. (The occasional alcoholic beverage doesn’t hurt either.)
All that to say, my advice to people who want to write books is to try not to focus on getting published, because that lies outside of your control (and, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t simply involve creating a great manuscript). Instead, focus on what you can control: pursuing your craft and enjoying your progress. If you’re just getting started and looking for ideas on how to hone your craft, I highly recommend reading Welcome to the Writer’s Life by Paulette Perhach. It’s both an encouraging and informative guide to building your writing life.
Some people may disagree with me on this (probably the same people who, upon meeting someone at a party and finding out they like to write, immediately ask if they’ve published anything), but I don’t think a writer needs to be traditionally published in order to be successful. Writers write because they enjoy writing. If you take pleasure in spinning stories in your head and putting words on a page, you’re a writer. If you care enough about writing to study the craft and learn from other writers, if your writing is better than it was a year ago, then you’re successfully making progress. Only you get to decide if/when you give up, but if you love to write, I’d urge you to keep writing.
What is the best way to join a critique group? Is it better to have everyone at different stages of their craft or about the same?
As I’m sure you’re aware, SCBWI is an incredibly useful tool for connecting with other children’s book writers and illustrators. But if you don’t live in one of the areas that offers monthly shop talks, or you don’t know of anyone else who’s interested in writing or illustrating children’s books in your area, try searching on Meetup.com to find a nearby writing group. Or ask a local librarian if they know of any critique groups in the area. Librarians know everything!
As for the second question, I think the most important thing is making sure that each person in the critique group takes writing seriously. You want to be surrounded by people who are genuinely motivated to study and improve their craft and who offer you thoughtful feedback on your work. I don’t think it much matters whether everyone’s at a different stage in their writing career or at roughly the same level — there’s always something to learn from each other. But you definitely want to find people who match your enthusiasm!
There seems to be a subgenre of picture books emerging called the "infofic," which is a fictional story with nonfiction elements. Can you shed some light on what constitutes good Infofic?
I really haven’t heard the term “infofic” used outside of Twitter (meaning I probably wouldn’t use the term in a query letter, as not all editors/agents may recognize it), but I think you’re right in saying that this type of story is gaining in popularity. An infofic can take a lot of different forms, but here are a couple key things to keep in mind as you write one:
1. When you’re combining both fiction and nonfiction elements, you should make sure the story takes precedence over the facts. Writers typically do a lot of research for their infofics, which is wonderful, but the facts shouldn’t bog down the book. For an infofic, I’d much rather read a captivating story that had a few nonfiction elements thrown in than a story packed full with info that’s held together by a weak plot.
2. While they’re gaining in popularity, I think infofics can still be a hard sell sometimes, because they don’t fit neatly into either fiction or nonfiction, and thus booksellers/librarians can be unsure of where to place them. To mitigate this, I think writers should have a very clear reason as to why they’re writing an infofic as opposed to something that’s wholly fiction or nonfiction. For instance, maybe you really want to write a story about a specific historical event, but almost all of the primary sources have been lost to history, so you use fiction to fill in the gaps. If you can explain why your story is best told as an infofic, I think agents and editors will more readily share your vision for the book.
Self-publishing seems to be gaining some positive momentum. Have you read any self-published books, and what are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I’ve read many self-published children’s books through the course of my work (writers often submit self-published titles to traditional publishers, and indeed, sometimes they get picked up), but I don’t typically read them for leisure, mostly because my to-read list is staggering enough as it is.
Of course, working for a publisher, I’m tempted to extol the virtues of traditional publishing (editors are cool, please tell your friends). But the truth is, it can be really tough for writers to follow the path of traditional publishing these days; the odds of finding an agent, securing a publisher, and having a book that earns out its advance and starts delivering royalties are discouragingly slim. With self-publishing, you don’t need to worry about any of that. With the help of a self-publishing service (and there are many good ones to choose from), you can write a book and make it available for other people to read and enjoy. And I do think people are more open to reading self-published books than they were five or ten years ago.
But I think the best part of self-publishing — the fact that you’re in complete control of the book — is also its downside: it’s all on you. There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of things to juggle. The writers who go with a traditional publisher get to benefit from the publisher’s assistance; the people who make up a publishing team are literally paid to know the ins and outs of children’s book world and how to edit, design, and market a book effectively so that it reaches and resonates with as many people as possible. The writers who self-publish are tasked with doing all of that by themselves, which is a tall order. And yet, I know writers who have self-published multiple books who are absolutely thrilled with the results.
All in all, I think publishing a book is challenging regardless of whether you decide to pursue traditional or self-publishing. (Writers are warriors, make no mistake about it.) If you’re wondering which path to pursue, think about your goals (why do you want your story to be published?), then look at the processes and demands of both traditional and self-publishing. Pick the one that best aligns with your goals and values.
Thank you, Katherine!
Ask the Editor is a new quarterly feature on the Mitten blog. Do you have a question about publishing? Email Mitten blog editor Kristin Lenz with "Ask the Editor" in the subject line, and she'll forward your question to Katherine. Or, stay tuned on the SCBWI-MI MichKids listserv – Katherine will ask for questions a few weeks before her next post.
Attention SCBWI-MI picture book writers!
The submission window opens on Monday June 3rd for the Picture Book Text Mentorship Competition for non-PAL members. Did you miss our interview with mentor, Lisa Wheeler? Find everything you need to know on our SCBWI-MI website.
Congrats to Buffy Silverman who won the PAL mentorship with mentor Kelly DiPuccio!