This post is just one in a series about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click the RUCCL tag above to read them all.

After lunch, RUCCL attendees separated into groups of five mentor/mentee pairs to discuss industry trends.

The first question was posed to the editors: “What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen new writers make?”

Senior Editor Erin Molta from Scholastic Book Clubs said she dislikes when writers claim “their book is the next Harry Potter, especially when I read it and think, no, not at all!” Yes, writers are encouraged to compare their manuscript with a successful title, but she’s seen way too many Harry impersonations. On the other hand, she likes when a writer tells her why they have written this story. If the story comes from your heart, the genuine enthusiasm shines through.

Grace Kendall, Editorial Assistant at The Blue Sky Press/Scholastic, emphasized the need for a concise cover letter that tells her “how you see your book positioned in the bigger world.” You might have a great idea and a great character, but is it a good story? She receives great projects without story, and story trumps all. Tell her that “your book is like this [other] book, but it’s different because…” And you’d better have a good because!

Kendra Levin, Associate Editor at Viking and award-winning playwright, said her biggest pet peeve is when people call her on the telephone. One of the writers asked about sending a status query instead. “If it makes you feel better,” she said. “Honestly, if I have your manuscript, I will read it.” She also suggested, “Do your research before you send it out.” Target your manuscript to specific editors. Let her know why you are submitting to her. Information about editors is available online and she suggested looking in a comparable book’s acknowledgements. Authors often thank their editors.

Kiffin Steurer is an Assistant Editor at Philomel (and fellow Dahl fan). He wants writers to “get to the heart of the story as quickly as possible in the cover letter.” His pet peeve is “picture book authors who send [poor] illustrations with the story.” An editor will match your story with an illustrator. So if you’re not a professional artist, don’t send pictures. They can sour the entire manuscript. Let your words stand on their own.

Agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin said her pet peeve is “when someone sends a query to me…and everyone else in children’s publishing!” Agents want to know that you’ve researched their preferences and that you’re not just submitting blindly en masse. She’s impressed with a query when it mimics jacket flap copy, so do yourself a favor and read a lot of jacket flaps!

Kiffin Steurer added that he’s not looking for a message. “I’m looking for good stories. If you have a good story with a message, then it’s just icing on the cake. But if there’s no story, we don’t want it.”