As I mentioned last week, I attended the SCBWI Houston Editor’s Day last Saturday, and it was fabulous. Five editors gave talks and then chatted with us over some Mexican food. As each talked about their books and what they look for in books, one theme kept cropping up: books that resonate, books that stay with the reader and make readers want to revisit them over and over again.
This comes down to story and character. A book could have 100,000 words strung together to make the most beautiful sentences, but if they don’t collectively tell a good story about people the reader can care about, the book won’t sell. Writing is more than just getting commas in the right place. Perhaps it would be better if our business cards said “storyteller” instead of “writer” — although I do like “author.”
Even the best journalists are telling stories. I have a degree in journalism, and we’re taught different ways of structuring a news story. Sure you’re working with facts, but you get the most important facts out at the beginning, then you fill in all the background stuff. Sometimes, a journalist writes more of a feature story, so you put the most interesting/exciting part of the story at the beginning, which is maybe the end (Jane Doe poured out the last bowl of cat food and placed it at the end of the row. Not being much of a pet person, she had never thought she’d own a cat, much less be responsible for 50, but that was before the hurricane…) then you tell the story from the beginning and meet the end again at the end. The purpose of these lessons was to teach us budding journalists how to write in such a way that would get the information across to a reader in the most interesting, entertaining way, so they’ll keep coming back for more.
And that’s what the editors are looking for: stories that make people come back for more. Is your story one that will keep readers coming back? Think of the books/movies/articles that you love, that you think about long after you’ve finished them. What makes them so special? Now apply that to your work.
The story and characters are the first step. Then comes the writing, choosing just the right word to describe the action and build the excitement. Then re-writing and polishing until every word contributes to the full effect of the story. That’s how to write a book that resonates, a book that will get the attention of editors. It’s not easy. It’s hard word. But it’s worth it.
Here are some other highlights from each of the editors:
Diane Muldrow, editorial director for Golden Books/Random House, treated us to a look back at Golden Books from the first to more recent issues. It was wonderful to see the old books, and interesting to learn that one of the first Golden Books, the 65-year-old The Poky Little Puppy, is the best-selling picture book ever.
Alexandra Penfold, associate editor at Simon & Schuster, speaking about writing, quoted an NYU professor and author (sorry, I didn’t catch the name), who said, “Good writing should evoke a sensation in the reader; not the writing of rain, but the feeling of being rained upon.” (Talk about resonating!)
Allyn Johnston (who I saw talk at the SCBWI Summer Conference in 2007 — lovely lady), vice-president and publisher for Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, said that when she’s considering a picture book, she imagines herself seeing the book for the first time. She added that to her, the last pages are the most important, because those are the ones that will stay with the reader.
Amy Lennex, editor at Sleeping Bear Press, said her company has found a lot of success in regional books, especially picture books that tell the tale of a local legend.
And Elizabeth Law, vice-president and publisher of Egmont USA, advised us not to worry about whether a publishing house has a closed submission policy ONLY if we do research, find the specific editor we think would love the book then submit directly to that person. She said it might take a while, but if the submission is personal, and the query letter explains why you’re submitting to that person (for example, I loved fill-in-the-blank-book-that-the-editor-edited, and I’m sending my book to you as it’s similar in theme…). I’d also like to give Egmont USA a round of applause (clap clap), because the publishing house is actually the new USA branch of a foundation that raises money for children — with children’s books. Something close to my heart, as 10% of the sale of every Sir Newton Color Me Book is given to local children’s charities. So, congratulations, Egmont USA, and thank you!
The time spent with these editors was inspirational and educational, well worth the $100 fee. Plus, we all got stickers to put on our submissions so they’ll get put at the top of the editors’ piles. All for closed houses, which is wondeful.
I can’t stress enough how great it is to go to good writing conferences. You learn a lot, you get opportunities and you can meet others in the industry. Alexandra Penfold told of an author whom she met at an SCBWI conference years ago and they hit it off. Although the work the author was doing wasn’t right for Penfold, for various reasons, they stayed in touch and finally, Penfold had an idea of a book she would like to handle. Guess who she called to ask to write it.
I had a great time at the SCBWI Houston Editor’s Day — thanks to all the organizers and editors — and I highly recommend it.
Have you been to any good conferences lately?