Children’s book editors Margery Cuyler and Emily Lawrence lent their time and talent to the NJ-SCBWI this evening by critiquing more than 30 first pages from aspiring authors. (Yours truly channeled her acting background to read the manuscripts with a booming voice.)

If you’ve not participated in a first page critique, you’ve missed out on the immediate impressions of seasoned editors who will tell you if your story has fallen flat or piqued their interest enough to turn the page.  The value of their professional expertise is, well, invaluable.

A little bragging first.  Margery Cuyler, publisher at Marshall Cavendish Children’s said of my work: “The voice is great.  This writer has a talented voice and she should hold onto it for dear life.”  I would have passed out if I wasn’t so engrossed in taking notes.  I wanted to learn from all the manuscripts, not just my own.

Ms. Cuyler went on to point out that many things in a story can be fixed—setting, conflict, etc.—but a voice is something pure that is difficult to teach.  In other words, if you don’t have a good, strong voice, it’s back to square one.

So, I’ve got a good voice—for writing and for reading aloud.  What else did I learn at this session?  Loads.  Tons.

  • Don’t rhyme unless you’re an extraordinarily talented poet.
    Neither editor was keen on rhyming stories.  They found fault in the cadence of many stories and disliked stretching to make rhymes work.  The rhymes interfered with telling the tales; the rhymes took over the stories.  They suggested switching to prose.   
  • Know the age and comfort level of your audience.
    A picture book about a pet python, while well-written, was thought to be too scary for the age range.  They suggested it be rewritten for middle grade readers. 
  • It’s important to relate to your reader.
    Certain genres are a hard sell, like historical fiction.  While there are award-winning books in this genre, they tend to convey universal feelings and emotions, those that are relevant no matter what the setting. 
  • If you’re writing for kids, make the story primarily about kids, not grown-ups.
    A delightful, humorous book had a slight problem because it was all about adults.  The editors thought children would have a difficult time relating to the story without a young central character.
  • Research existing books with your desired subject matter.
    Both editors thought books about new babies in a family were overdone at the moment.  Even though the manuscript had sweet moments, one editor felt the marketplace was saturated and that the story wasn’t special enough to continue. 
  • Don’t go into too much detail, especially in a picture book.
    A book about twins tried to explain how different in size they were, but the story became bogged down in height and weight numbers.  Both editors thought it was erroneous information.  It might make sense to adults, but not to kids.  Use comparisons children can relate to like “Timmy was one lollipop taller than Tommy.”  Remember that illustrations can also convey a lot of information.  Every little detail doesn’t need to appear in writing.

Some universal lessons:

  • Make the conflict known early in the story. 
    It should be there on the first page and it should compell the reader to continue.  It’s all about the hook.
  • Show, don’t tell. 
    We hear this a lot, but what exactly does it mean?  Show your character in scene (dialogue, action in real time) rather than just expository writing.  Instead of simply saying the teacher was angry over something your main character did, show the scene and the source of conflict.
  • Remember to use settings that children can relate to. 
    School and summer vacation were two examples of settings that sell a story.

Many thanks to Ms. Cuyler and Ms. Lawrence for reading and commenting on our stories this evening.  I’m inspired to work even harder!