Children’s book writers were treated to another fun and informative first page session this week in Princeton, hosted by the NJ-SCBWI. Editors Michelle Burke and Allison Wortche of Knopf & Crown Books For Young Readers listened to 30 first pages read aloud as they followed along with each manuscript page. Then they gave their immediate first impressions of the work.
If you’ve never attended a first page critique, it’s a quick way to get a handle on what your peers are writing. A first page session shows you what it’s like for an editor to spend two hours in the slush pile. Common themes emerge. Mistakes reveal themselves. If you listen carefully, you’ll learn how to avoid first page problems and encourage an editor to read on.
So what did the editors say? I encourage you to read on…
Use varying imagery in picture books. One manuscript conveyed a lot of emotion and the editors didn’t see where the illustrator would take inspiration for art. The same scene through several page turns may lose a child’s attention.
Dialogue needs to match the age of your character. A picture book character shouldn’t sound older than a five- or six-year-old child. Their actions should also match their age.
Cut excess detail in picture books. The first page of the manuscript should reveal a clear story arc. If the manuscript is bogged down with details, it slows the story down. For example, writing that a mother is carrying a napkin to the table and setting it down next to the plate is unecessary (unless that specific action is crucial to the story, and even so, it could probably be illustrated).
Premise and conflict should be apparent on the first page of a picture book manuscript. For example, dialogue between two characters should reveal a story, not just serve as adorable banter.
Every line in a picture book should move the story forward. There’s no room for chatting or extraneous stuff.
Picture books should have a linear approach. Moving back and forth in time can confuse a young child.
With holiday stories, you automatically have to work harder. Stories about specific times of year are a tough sell. There’s a lot of competition and a small sales window.
Some picture book stories are told better without rhyme. If the phrasing is unnatural in rhyme–things you wouldn’t ordinarily say–it can be jarring to the story. One bad line can ruin the manuscript’s chances.
The narrator/main character should be the highlight of the first page. One manuscript began by describing a minor character as a way to compare/contrast the narrator. However, when that minor character disappeared from the rest of the page, the editors were confused. Was that comparison necessary to introduce the narrator?
Historial fiction should tell a story. The reader should get a sense of the main character first–how he/she is affected by historial details. Too much fact will bog the story down and lose the character.
Don’t be too reptitive in a novel–get on with the story. If a main character reveals the same thing over and over again on the first page, it feels overdone. Introduce a concept and then move on with the story; don’t circle back paragraph after paragraph.
A first person narrative should have more narrative than dialogue on the first page to take advantage of this device. Plus, the narrative voice and the dialogue voice should match (unless the disconnect is for a specific purpose).
Avoid the stereotypical whiny, displaced, unhappy middle-grade voice. More than one middle-grade manuscript began with a character learning that he/she had to move. The result was a whiny narrator who wasn’t necessarily likeable. Editors warned that they see a lot of the parents-uprooting-child theme, so to rise above the slush, consider a different approach.
Be cautious in stories with several important characters. It’s difficult to write a story with multiple characters because introducing them can sound like a laundry list. Reveal their personalities in a way that’s organic to the story. It also asks a lot of the reader, to keep track of several characters.
Watch tense. The switch from dialogue to narrative in one story felt very abrupt because the dialogue was in past tense and the narrative was in present.
The difference between MG and YA is edgy, gritty. If the main character’s personality feels innocent, the genre might be middle grade, not young adult.
Balance description and dialogue. Dialogue moves a story along fast. Description slows it down. Long stretches of each create a choppy storytelling rhythm.
Make descriptions specific, not generic. One story began with vague details that could be applied to almost any story setting. It wasn’t until further down on the page that the reader learned the unique time and place, something that attracted attention. The editors suggested moving that info higher up.
YA characters should be teenagers. College YA characters and those over the age of 19 can be a tricky sell. That moves the story into adult territory. YA readers need to relate to the characters, and 20+ seems like a lifetime away to a 15 year-old.
Finally, stories should be kid-friendly, not sprinkled with adult sensibilities. One of the editors warned, “this feels like it’s about kids rather than for them.” Don’t let a parental point of view creep into your writing–kids find that creepy.