The AWP held their annual conference earlier this month. Among their other great offerings was a panel focused on children’s publishing.
One author stated that characters are paramount in children’s and YA stories. The plot comes from the characters. Who each person is in the story creates the story. Each is presented with challenges or obstacles they must overcome. From that comes the different plot points and thus the entire story.
Another point was that there are no pointless characters. If one shows up but never plays an important role, that character should be struck.
A different author noted that “rumination” is part of the story. That is, the characters have to have backstories, histories that detail where they come from and why they’re motivated to act certain ways.
Finally, in response to a question about how to write for the market, one author said to write what inspires you. From there, you can determine how best to pitch and place the work in the existing market.
All of these points apply equally to adult fiction. Characters do create the plot and impact the story. They should have backstories. No character should ever be pointless, and the author should always write what interests them rather than what they think will sell.
The only difference is that in children’s and YA publishing, the author utilizes different language, changes sentence layouts, uses less complex storytelling structures, and of course mostly will write shorter manuscripts.
Everything else is just quality fiction.
Very early in my writing career, I attended a large conference on the West Coast. One of the panels lined up representatives from 5 publishers, some of the largest houses in the world beside some of the most highly regarded smaller houses.
One question came up from the audience about pitches. The attendee said, “I’ve heard I’m supposed to put sales information and comparisons in my pitch. But what exactly are you looking for and where can I find that information?”
The first response from a pubishing executive at a large house was, “I don’t know but perhaps someone else can answer this.”
The acquisitions editor from the smaller house said, “I don’t know either.”
And so on down the line.
Yes, every one of the five individuals responsible for finding the next gem in the slush pile said, “I don’t know.”
One tried to be helpful by adding, “But I know it when I see it.”
Well, you might have guessed that the mood in the room grew very ugly. The remainder of the 45-minute session was spent blasting the panel with outrage or asking ever-more sarcastic questions about how on earth authors were supposed to break in if even the folks at the top didn’t know what they were looking for in a pitch.
I was as angry as the rest. WTF, anyway?
Soon after that conference, I calmed down. I realized the most important lesson in my career:
You must know the market before you approach publishers and agents. You must hold their hands and guide them through the process of understanding why your book is a good financial risk for them to take.
You are the best advocate for your own work. Own it, and own your skill.
One of the best things you can do for your career is to get together with a feedback group.
This provides you with connections with other authors who are as serious as you are.
It’s not necessary for them to be in the same genre. It is critical that they be as passionate and hardworking as you so you can support each other.
And don’t be afraid to drop out of a group filled with folks who claim they are writers but who never write. Nothing puts out the spark faster than realizing that your writer’s group is just a coffee klatch.
For acquisitions editors at publishing houses and agents alike, always research what they are asking for and give them exactly that. Often it’s only that one-page query. For those who want a query plus author bio or query plus synopsis, savvy authors who have already written their book proposals can just cut and paste the appropriate section out of their proposals and print it off as an additional page that goes with the query.
Part of giving them what they want means not giving them what they don’t want. Check their guidelines to find out if they take fantasy but not steampunk, mystery but not cozy.
Save yourself a lot of time and waiting around. Check first, and you’ll move ahead more quickly.
I once had someone ask if even the worst writing could be saved by editing.
Here you have to define editing. Editing can save a work that has extreme technical issues…that is, the skill level of the writing is poor.
Editing cannot address storytelling aspects, the structural issues such as character development, plot milestones, beginning and ending, etc. These can only be addressed through revisions.
Nearly all works can be rescued either by editing, revising, or a combination of the two.
What sometimes cannot happen is the shift of a manuscript from one category to another. If someone brings me a genre work and wants to shift categories, a heavy revision including rewriting can achieve that goal.
For example, a romance writer wants the manuscript to become a mainstream drama or a mystery author wants the manuscript to become a commercial thriller. In each case, the changes must address both plot and writing style. This often results in such heavy revisions and fresh writing that the plot might be similar and the theme the same but the book is entirely new.
In some cases, even this extreme level of work won’t reach the goal. Most of the time that’s due to the plot being unable to carry the weight of a different category or simply being too thin to handle the more in-depth treatment required by a different category.
So: yes, very bad writing can be saved. But even very good writing can’t always become something it’s not.
I’ve been an author and book editor for twenty years. After working with thousands of authors, I’ve found the top three things that sabotage writing time. Luckily, I’ve also learned how to eliminate them!
1. The Business Called Busyness. Busyness is horrible. It feels like we’re doing something, that we’re taking care of business in our lives, but really we’re just engaged in busywork. The next time you find yourself vaccuuming or on social media instead of writing, make a choice. What is more important to you? A new page or a new post?
2. What Will Mama Think? OK, maybe you’re not worried about what your mother will think of what you’re writing. But you might be concerned about how your friends will react to that X-rated sex scene or the serial killer plot you’ve put together. Don’t worry about what Mama thinks. Write what’s true to the story. Trust me, everyone will love you for it.
3. Chapter 5 Doesn’t Track with Chapter 1. So what? Fix it later. For now, just write. Keep a separate notepad beside your computer and jot down things you have to go back and fix. While you’re in the flow state, don’t interrupt that flow with all those logical nags the judge in your mind sends up. Make a note and keep writing.