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pagepenChildren’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…

Picture Books:

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.

Middle Grade/YA:

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.

Every SCBWI first-page session I’ve attended has had one thing in common: picture book manuscripts about new babies in the family. At least two or three are submitted each time. Editors and agents respond by warning new writers: “The market is saturated with mom-is-having-a-baby books. If you’re going to write about a new sibling, the idea must be unique to stand out.”

I remember a harsh moment. After reading the first page of a new baby tale, an editor said, “This isn’t special enough to continue.”

Daunting, isn’t it? Makes you want to toss your baby—erm, your manuscript—out the window!

So when they say the idea has to be unique, what do they mean?

ottoIn a perfect world, they’d whip out Michael Sussman’s Otto Grows Down. Illustrated by Scott Magoon, it’s a tale of a boy who wishes his baby sister Anna was never born. “Be careful what you wish for” might be a cliché, but trust me, Otto Grows Down is an uncommon cautionary tale.

Otto makes his Anna-be-gone wish on his 6th birthday as he blows out the candles. Immediately, life begins to travel in reverse. Otto wraps up his gifts and hands them back to his friends. The second hand on his new watch ticks backward.

The next day at school, they start with mess-up time. Otto can’t get used to sliding UP the slide, and he’s so tired at the end of the day, he just wants to eat breakfast and get to bed. And going to the bathroom? Nasty business. (Nasty, hysterical business to my kids.)

Otto’s parents soon return Anna to the hospital and she disappears. Otto rejoices. But strangely, time doesn’t move forward again, it just keeps unraveling. Otto celebrates his fifth birthday, his fourth, his third…and he realizes that he may disappear, too! He’s slowly losing the words he needs to make his new wish come true: OTTO BIG!

Call it a dark comedy for kids. Scott Magoon’s film noir feel strikes the right balance between humor and horror. Dark shadows and warm colors mimic Otto’s flip-flopping emotions. (And hey, did you notice all the character names are palindromes? Another cool touch, huh?)

I won’t tell you where it ends—or where it begins—but let me just say: every editor who sent Mr. Sussman a rejection probably wishes they could make time go in reverse, too.

otto1Otto Grows Down
Story by Michael Sussman
Illustrated by Scott Magoon
Sterling, February 2009
Want it? Get it!

P.S. Author Heather Ayris Burnell interviewed Michael Sussman on her blog–plus she’s giving away a copy of the book!

Who doesn’t love first page sessions? Where else can you get two non-stop hours of professional, editorial feedback? They pack quite a picture book pow. (And a middle grade wallop. And a YA smack.)

But how do you get the most out of these sessions? Take care in what you submit and how you submit it. Let the editors focus on your story rather than procedure.

These suggestions are based upon the November 19 NJ-SCBWI first page session with Kendra Levin of Viking and Lauren Hodge of Little, Brown.

1. Format properly. Some submissions didn’t use standard paragraph breaks and indents. While the editors understood that these writers were eager to submit as much story as possible, the manuscripts were confusing to read.  Everything ran together. Format your first page just as you would a professional submission. Honestly, you will get more out of less.

2. Use Times New Roman font. A serif font reads well. Courier, the traditional typewriter font, is a monospaced font, meaning each letter is the same width. This wastes space. If you submit with Courier, you’ll have 50% less story on your first page.

3. Research your genre. Some manuscripts felt inappropriate for the genre the author indicated. The topic, word choice and level of sophistication need to match your audience’s age. If you submit with the correct genre, the editors will spend more time assessing your writing than genre counseling.

4. Don’t limit yourself to one gender. One manuscript indicated it was for girls. If you write this on a submission, an editor will immediately think your work doesn’t have broad appeal. Let the editor decide if both boys and girls will love your story.

5. Skip the prologue. Go right to the story. Submit page one of the first chapter, not the backstory.

6. Don’t include an explanation. One picture book began with an intro about why the author had written the story, based upon an experience with her children. And here is where editor Kendra Levin was gracious and tactful. She thought the children in this author’s life were incredibly lucky to have such a playful, creative parent. But stating how children you know enjoy your work doesn’t help sell it. The story does. The intro only left room for five lines of the tale, so the editors could not comment fully. They also emphasized that if the story is written well enough, an explanation becomes unneccesary.

7. Take notes. Don’t just wait for what the editors/agents have to say about your manuscript. Listen to the comments about every page. There’s something to learn from everyone’s manuscript.

There’s more to come from this dynamic first page session. Watch for another post this weekend. And please add your own first page tips!

Hooray! More notes from the September NJ-SCBWI first page session!

Those familiar with peer critiques know the “sandwich” method: begin with what you liked, then move onto what needs work, and end by pointing out the manuscript’s merits. The editors followed this method well and offered compliments to soften the criticisms. Everyone must have left feeling good about an aspect of their writing. But we still have plenty to work on.

Some common suggestions:

  • Rhyme carefully. Rhyme should have a consistent beat and meter. The editors easily picked out when a rhyme stretched to make it work. There was only one rhyming manuscript that worked. The other manuscripts felt limited by rhyme, and one in particular featured subject matter for an older audience, so the rhyme felt out of place. There’s a lot to live up to if you’re going to rhyme, so read many rhyming picture books to get a sense of how it all fits together. It’s not impossible, but great skill is required. They advised rewriting in prose and suggested using alliteration, which can be as fun as rhyming, without the restrictions. But use alliteration in moderation! (Umm, I didn’t mean to rhyme there…)
  • Amp up the humor. The editors felt picture book laughs weren’t taken far enough. They wanted the stories to go from simply funny to outrageous. There’s always room for more humor. Make it crazier and more outlandish.
  • Avoid common themes. Pets dying. New babies in the family. Monsters. Imaginary friends. First words. Retellings of The Three Little Pigs. These have all been done before, and done well. Stories on these subjects need to dig deep to find something new to say. Stand out, don’t blend in.

The editors also discussed avoiding clichés, clarifying the conflict on the first page, and cutting text to move action along faster. Out of 26 manuscripts, only two or three were considered strong contenders as written, and even so, they still required a little tweaking.

[An interesting tidbit for all you artists: if you’re an author/illustrator, consider yourself at an advantage. An editor is attracted to working with you since they skip the difficult step of matching your PB manuscript with an illustrator. Instead of communicating with two professionals to produce a book, the editor works directly with just one person—you.]

My friends and I thought that for the most part, both editors agreed on the manuscripts. However, one editor thought they didn’t agree very much at all!

But I think we can all agree that we need to work smarter. Some questions to think about as you work on your manuscript:

  • Why should a publisher choose your story? What makes it unique and appealing, different from any other book in the marketplace?
  • Why should a publisher spend tens of thousands of dollars, work several months (and in the case of PBs, years), and utilize the resources of a dozen or more staff members to produce your book?
  • Is this truly the best story you can write? How can you make it even better?

The New Jersey Chapter of SCBWI was treated to an afternoon of professional first page critiques yesterday in Princeton. (Heck, we even felt smarter just being on the campus of Princeton University!)

Editors Connie Hsu and Kate Sullivan from Little, Brown shared their literary insights with 30 aspiring authors. Manuscripts ranged from a whimsical picture book about goldfish to a compelling young adult novel set in a foreign village under siege.

After each first page was read aloud, the editors provided their immediate impressions of the manuscript–what worked, what didn’t.

Some helpful advice included:

  • Use first person point-of-view to your advantage. It helps the reader get into your character’s head, so if there’s too much dialogue on the first page and not enough introspection, you’re not using that device to its full potential.
  • Make sure the voice fits the genre. This is a common critique I’ve heard repeated at every first-page session. Some picture books were wordy, with long sentences and adult sensibilities. If it takes the entire first manuscript page to set up the story, then you need to cut, cut, cut. Little kids beg their parents to turn the page, so you must get to the story quickly. The first manuscript page needs a clear story arc. Regarding books for ‘tweens and teens, a young adult novel should have longer sentences and be more gritty than middle-grade. In general, the editors said an MG voice can sometimes be classified as “whiney,” whereas a YA voice is angrier and angst-ridden. Yes, let that YA voice curse and swear.
  • Make room for illustration in a picture book. You don’t have to describe every detail. Instead of saying, “the girl’s hair was red and wavy like her mother’s red, wavy hair,” try instead, “the girl’s hair was just like her mother’s.” This provides the double benefit of cutting words and leaving the family’s appearance to the illustrator’s interpretation. (Read Linda Urban’s interview with illustrator Marla Frazee regarding The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. Great example of how an illustrator fleshes out the story.)
  • Don’t try to surprise your reader on the first page. It can lead to confusion instead. Some stories left important details aside (who/what/why/where) and forced the reader to guess what was happening. You don’t want your reader to guess wrong! If they do, then when the correct information is revealed, they will be confused. You want the reader to move forward, not double-back to re-read.
  • Set the scene. The setting provides a clear context for your character’s actions and emotions. Again, don’t make the reader guess where your character is. Show the reader. Immerse the reader in your world.

One of the funnier moments occured when the editors cautioned against using the word “puberty” in a middle-grade work. It guarantees giggles of embarassment among that age group. “It’s a word no ‘tween wants to admit exists,” said Kate Sullivan.

While the insights above were specific to the pages submitted, they can be applied to your own manuscript. Keep in mind that rules can be broken, but it typically takes an experienced, talented author to make the unconventional work.

Want to read more about first pages? Check out these previous posts:

How do I choose which manuscript to submit to the next first page session? I’ve been going back and forth, trying to decide which one showcases my best work. And yet, the two manuscripts I am considering are so very different.

One is a clever tale of a boy with an unusual name–a name that creates a lot of confusion. This picture book is in the boy’s voice, told from his point of view. Yet the illustrations will show something very different happening around him. I have repeatedly heard editors say that a PB must leave enough unsaid for the pictures to comprise half the story, and I think this tale accomplishes that.

Then I have a fractured fairy tale. With pizzas. Glorious, cheesy pies! What kid doesn’t like pizza? A familiar story with a unique new twist might take the cake. Err, I mean, pie.

I admit, I’m getting a little too hopped up for a first page session. I shouldn’t expect anything to come from it other than a lot of good advice. I listen carefully to each page and then when the editor or agent gives his thoughts, I take a lot of notes, hoping to learn from all the manuscripts, not just mine.

Unfortunately, I don’t think everyone has this attitude. Last time a woman in front of me drew doodles on her paper throughout the two-hour session. And when it was over, she complained that the professionals didn’t like her story because they didn’t understand or appreciate rhyme. That may be true, as the editors worked in middle-grade and not picture books, but I had an entire page of notes on her story, while she went home with a lot of squiggles and stick figures.

There’s two ways to approach a first-page session: as a way to grab the attention of an editor or agent, or as an opportunity to receive professional feedback. It’s important to remember that if your work doesn’t impress the editors, all is not lost. Be inspired to work harder. Editors and agents volunteer their time to these events, and we should all be grateful. They don’t owe us anything. But we owe them our very best work.

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