What Next? What To Do After a Professional Critique

After an intense (and insightful) day of professional critiques, one might be overwhelmed and not sure what steps to take next. Gladly,  after the 2010 SCBWI New York Writers Intensive the faculty didn’t leave the authors hanging. Instead three editors, Allyn Johnston (Beach Lane Books), Wendy Loggia (Delacorte), and Ari Lewin (Disney/Hyperion) shared their insight on how to step back and reflect, and what to do next with your manuscript.

What Should Writers Do With the Feedback They’ve Received During Their  Critiques Today?

  • Step back and reflect. Let it sit in. Sleep on it.
  • What you shared with me, may not be what you should submit to me. (Allyn Johnston).
  • The comments you receive shouldn’t be seen as a checklist that you need to go through and address. Some comments may be relevant, others not so much. You need to find what really will help your work.
  • The editor/writer process is often a negotiation.
  • Ask yourself if the comment was true or not.

Common Things That Need Work in the Writing (Common Mistakes):

  • Is the rhyme of a picture book really as strong as it could be?
  • The voice in a picture book is really too old. Often this is also done in the first person.
  • Starting a picture book with dialog. Instead start with a crisp clear and poignant sentence. “A clear direct statement, with a turn of phrase.” – Allyn
  • Beware of overused picture book themes.
  • Beware of trying to cram way too much information into the first few pages of your manuscript. It can be overwhelming and disorienting.
  • Be careful when starting with a  pivotal moment. Choose that moment wisely. It can’t be “The moment” because we don’t know the character’s yet, or the world. We need to be grounded in the world first before you flip it on it’s end. Orient the reader as to where we are first.
  • Don’t start at the moment that is different. (Same as bullet point above).
  • Need a stronger awareness of the market.
  • No Art notes! (Allyn Johnston).
  • Need a narrative arc for picture books.
  • It’s best to outline.

Good Places to Get Information on the Market:

  • Follow book review blogs to see what’s selling in the market.
  • Look for a quarterly flier called “Indie Bound” (www.indiebound.org) which is for independent book stores.

What Are Warning Phrases that Writers Should Be Aware of to Clue Them in that Something is Wrong or You’re Not Happy with a Work?

  • “Who is this book for?”
  • “Why would we care about this world or character?”
  • “Put this in the drawer.”
  • “Is there anything else you’re working on?” – This is a good comment, it means they are interested in your writing, but perhaps not this particular work.
  • If I ask about your career, it means I’m trying to find something to talk about because I don’t quite know what to say about the work.

Other Comments and Insight from the Editors:

  • You’re writing for the long haul, so you should have other work, other projects. Don’t be afraid to move on to the next project and put this one away for awhile (or forever).
  • When taking criticism think about the phrase “This is not clear.” Well, if it’s not clear then you should make it more clear so that the reader understands it. That’s your job as the writer. This is an undeniable statement. Think of your comments in this way – you are not being clear on something and it needs to be addressed. That may not be in the way the person giving the critique suggests, but there is something that may need attention.
  • Write letters from your characters. It will help you to get into the voice of your characters.
  • Think about writing and submissions like you’re on American Idol. Everyone tries hard, and some people are pretty good, but not everyone is ready. You’ve got to keep practicing and trying!

About Submissions:

  • All three editors mostly take agent submission, and they also mostly take submissions from agents they know and trust. If it is an agent they don’t know they look up the agent.
  • Don’t submit to more than one editor at the same imprint at the same time!
  • Check out the resource “Edited by” on the SCBWI.org website as it shares the names of editors and books they have edited. Good resource for getting an idea of what an editor likes.
  • Target your submissions! Beware of the quantity submission as it wont get you as far as quality submissions will. Plus you’ll save money sending out your work.
  • In general, Allyn Johnston does not accept unagented submissions, however after you hear her speak you may submit one thing to her. This may be snail mailed or emailed.

Check Out Other Great Posts About Professional Critiques:

  • Just Listen: Getting a Professional Critique
  • What I learned from Editor Jessica Garrison
  • What I learned from Assistant Editor Sara Sargent

Allyn Johnston is the Vice President and Publisher of Beach Lane Books, one of the newest imprints at Simon and Schuster. Previously she was the editor in chief at Harcourt Children’s Books. Among the authors and illustrators with whom she works are Lois Ehlert, Mem Fox, Debra Frasier, Marla Frazee, Cynthia Rylant, Avi, and M.T. Anderson. She is primarily interested in a acquiring picture books and middle-grade novels.

Wendy Loggia is executive editor at Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. Delacorte focuses almost exclusively on middle grade and YA novels. Loggia is the editor of many books including: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Going Bovine, and The Gemma Doyle Trilogy.

Arianne Lewin is a Senior Editor at Disney * Hyperion. She edits an eclectic list that emphasizes young adult novels and fantasy, but also includes picture books and chapter books. She works with authors Cinda Williams Chima; Whoopi Goldberg; Julie Anne Peters; EB Lewis; Scott Magoon; and Daniel Waters, among others. Arianne is currently looking for fresh new voices in all genres.

What I Learned from Assistant Editor Sara Sargent

A few days ago I spoke about what I learned from editor Jessica Garrison (Dial Books), at the SCBWI 2010 NY Writer’s Intensive. Today I’ll share what I learned from my second critique with assistant editor Sara Sargent. In case you didn’t read the previous post, at the event authors were given the opportunity to sit down at a round table with an Editor (and 10 other authors) to get feedback on the first 500 words of his/her manuscript. The neat thing about this type of set-up is not only do you get personal feedback, but you also learn from what the editor says to others.

What I Learned from Sara Sargent:

  • Decide who your main character is.
  • Good books have scenes with a mix of action, dialog, and what’s in the character’s head.
  • Pacing is important.
  • Middle grade and teen books need to include the following three things: Family, Friends, and School.
  • When contacting an agent/editor only pitch one book.
  • Any character introduced in the first one or two pages should end up having a sizable presence throughout the rest of your book.

Tips For Writers From Sara’s Point of View:

  • Don’t waste your time sending queries to editors. Always look to get an agent first! This is because of: 1)Liability on the editor’s part. 2) Your work will be in the slush pile and that’s the last concern for an editor. 3) Editors rely on agent submissions. 4) Agents are looking for talent, actively!
  • Even if an editor has expressed interest in your book (say at an SCBWI critique etc.) that actually doesn’t hold that much weight for an agent.
  • An editors attention is harder to get than an agents.
  • Sara couldn’t think of a single author on their list at Balzer + Bray that was found through the slush pile. It just doesn’t happen from her point of view.
  • Always read submission guidelines carefully!
  • The reason the picture book market is down is because publishers don’t know what a successful picture book will be. Should they play safe? Should the book be quirky? The market is so fickle they really have no idea what will work and sell.
  • Editors are sick of paranormal and vampire books! This is mostly because the books that they see are lacking in “World Building.” A successful book has a lot to do with really fleshing out your world. The world must be vivid with clear rules. Most books submitted are lacking in this department and that’s why they are sick of them. Create your own world! Make it rich.
  • Author platform can be very important. This is something like your website, your blog, your twitter account, etc. If you have some impressive stats please do share this in your query letter. Mention things like how many people visit your blog per day, etc. However anything under 300 visits per day is not very impressive in her book.
  • Blazer and Bray does all types of Kids books from PB to YA. However, Harper Teen may be better for Teen submissions. But Blazer and Bray does look for more literary books and less commercial books, while Harper Teen is more commercial.
  • Be careful sticking with an idea too long if it is not working. Sometimes you need to walk away.

Sara Sargent joined Balzer + Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books, in 2009. She previously held positions at the Waxman Literary Agency and Miramax Books. Sara is looking to acquire YA and middle-grade novels with romantic, dystopian, and coming-of-age themes; she is admittedly partial to nerdy protagonists and stories about summer camp.

What I Learned from Editor Jessica Garrison

I participated in the 2010 NY SCBWI Writer’s Intensive. This is a great opportunity where  authors get to sit down at a round table with an Editor and get feedback on the first 500 words of his/her manuscript. The neat thing about this type of set-up is not only do you get personal feedback, but you also learn from what the editor says to others. I had the pleasure of sharing my work with and learning from two Children’s Book editors. Today I’ll share what I learned from my first critique with editor Jessica Dandino Garrison from Dial Books for Young Readers.

What I Learned from Editor Jessica Garrison:

  • Restraint is important in prose. Be careful of putting in too much.
  • These days if your character is age 14 the book becomes YA automatically.
  • A sense of place is important.
  • It’s really hard to do anthropomorphic stories in the 8-12 age range. It works for movies, but it doesn’t really work for books. Under the age of 8 it’s okay.
  • Picture books have fewer words these days than in the past. Jess wants a picture book to be under 1000 words. A 400 word picture book is a bonus! Less is more!!
  • Build the story through mystery rather than setting everything out. Introductory paragraphs that tell too much can be a problem because it’s important to care about the character first.
  • For Jess, picture books need to have a narrative.
  • According to Jess you may use art notes if they’re really necessary for the story. Be minimal with them. MINIMAL! The best way to present them is to put them directly in the manuscript (not the query) and put them in brackets at a 10pt font, and blue.
  • It can be smart to not send your picture book dummy to an editor but mention in your query letter that you are an illustrator and send samples. This gives the editor options should they like your story but possibly not your art. Of course if you’re married to the idea of illustrating your book then send the dummy.
  • If you want your book to back-list you should avoid current references. That will help it to become more timeless.
  • What does metaphor say about your main character?

Career Tips and Advice from Jessica:

  • For tips on writing a good query go and read jacket flaps, it will teach you how to sum up your story in a short way.
  • To educate yourself look at the difference between independent stores and big chain stores. Become more educated about where your book fits on the book shelf. Know who your audience is. Barnes and Noble are the books that kids buy (aimed toward the kids) while independent stores can often be geared more toward the parents. Barnes and Noble are often about concept books.

A Little Bit About Jessica and What She’s Looking For:

  • Jessica doesn’t spend much time on queries, she really prefers pages. She’s all about the manuscript. But do put some important info in the query – info about you as a writer, plot synopsis, etc.
  • Jess is looking for visceral books, but likes everything (PB up through YA). She does like historical fiction but it needs a contemporary twist or edge.
  • Jess likes concept books, but often wants them to go further.

Coming Soon:

Feedback and insight from my second critique with Assistant Editor Sara Sargent of Balzer & Bray.

Jessica Dandino Garrison is an editor for Dial Books for Young Readers. She is looking for picture books, chapter books, tween and teen fiction with commercial appeal and literary heft – in other words, rich, emotionally true, character–driven stories with great hooks. Jessica has edited The Reinvention of Moxie Roosevelt, Panda & Polar Bear, Acorns Everywhere, Spin the bottle, and Doggone Dogs, among others.

Just Listen: Getting a Professional Critique

A lot of conferences offer special opportunities to have your work read by an agent or editor. This exciting opportunity can be invaluable, but it can also be nerve wracking and in some cases down-right confusing. How much weight do you give one person’s opinion? What if you get conflicting feedback? What if they don’t like it?

To settle the nerves of fearful authors about to be critiqued at the2010 SCBWI Writer’s Intensive in New York, three gracious editors dispelled some fears on how to take advice from a professional. So if you have a critique coming up soon (from a professional or a friend) put these ideas into the back of your mind before you decide to throw in the towel:

What are editor’s Courtney Bongiolatti (Simon and Schuester), Nancy Conescu (Little Brown), and Michelle Nagler (Bloomsbury) looking for in the opening of a critique submission?

  • That first attention grabbing sentence.
  • Are they interested in the character.
  • Not only does the book seem good, but does it have market potential and would it sell.

How Should An Author Respond During A Critique?

  • Just Listen – The editors and agents are expert readers (this is what they do for a living) so take in what they say and listen, there will be something worth wild there.
  • Editors are looking at your submission (and the submissions they receive from you in their office) as the first draft. Therefore they think of this as a work in progress. So don’t be surprised to get feedback of a constructive nature.
  • Think about feedback as the good friend who’s willing to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth. You may have a beautiful smile, but no one will notice the smile if there’s spinach in your teeth. The point here is to improve the work so that everyone sees what is best in the work and what will make it shine.

What Should You Do After Your Critique?

  • After you get your feedback you should check out a great SCBWI article by Linda Sue Park called “The Give and Take Critique” which is located in the resource library of SCBWI.org (Under publication guide). Or read this article here: Linda Sue Park’s Website
  • Sleep on it and think about it later. Don’t go revising everything the next day. Wait and see what resonates with you.

About the Editors:

Courtney Bongiolatti is the Associate Editor at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. She has edited Private and Privilege by Kate Brian, the Seven Habits books, and the Wee Little series with Lauren Thompson. She is looking to acquire mostly boy middle-grade and literary and commercial teen fiction right now.

Nancy Conescu, an Editor at Little Brown, is looking for literary and commercial middle grade fiction, edgy YA fiction, inventive and non-traditional picture books, and projects testing creative boundaries. She is intrigued by dark humor, satire, and character-driven narratives. She has worked with Stephenie Meyer, Holly Hobbie, Julie Anne Peters, Todd Parr, Mary Ann Hoberman, and Trenton Lee Stewart. Her recent acquisitions are School of Fear by Gitty Daneshvari and The Prophecy of the Sisters trilogy by Michelle Zink. Upcoming titles include Ghostgirl by Tonya Hurley and Ignatius MacFarland: Frequenaut! by Paul Feig. Her recently published titles are the Vampirates books by Justin Somper, This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis, Chloe Doe by Suzanne Phillips, and New Socks by Bob Shea.

Michelle H. Nagler is the editorial director at Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books. She oversees a diverse list ranging from picture books through teen. As an acquisitions editor, she has a special fondness for commercial YA and middle grade fiction, and is a passionate advocate for books that truly make children want to read. Recent projects include:  Need, Captivate, Boys are Dogs, Our Children Can Soar, Girls Acting Catty, and Too Purpley! Previously, Michelle helped establish the teen list at Simon Pulse.