This year our Oklahoma SCBWI Spring Conference was outstanding. The theme “Ignite the Spark” set the stage for all of the discussions, as each speaker delivered a truly motivating talk. I’m surprised we didn’t set the place on fire with the collective creativity bouncing around in that ballroom.
The first speaker of the day was a familiar face to readers of this blog as she had just given a wonderful interview right before the conference.
Laura Biagi, literary agent with the Jean V. Nagger Literary Agency gave a talk entitled, “The Spark an Agent Brings to the Table”. She discussed how an agent works and what an agent can add to the manuscript process. She also shared some of her red flags that would send a manuscript straight to the reject pile.
One observation she made about when she finds herself searching for quality manuscripts, deep in the slush pile, is that the discovery process can feel “a bit like archaeology”.
And not in the glamorous, Indiana Jones way.
Unlike the adventurous whip-yielding Jones who finds priceless treasure in every place he falls, most great archaeological finds have already been discovered, and it takes a great amount of pain-staking digging before you carefully unearth something truly unique.
She may sift through over 400 queries in a month before finding a manuscript that piques her interest. But the story has to do more than that; she has to absolutely love it. She needs a story she can’t help telling everyone about.
RED FLAGS – Query/Manuscript Level
- If the characters or plot sound stereotypical
- If adjectives or adverbs get in the way of a clear message
- If the story is all about plot – maybe your characters aren’t significant enough
- If there isn’t a strong plot – your story has to go somewhere
- Moral message
Once a manuscript has risen above the rest and shown promise that it can be polished into a treasure, then she may make THE PHONE CALL! This is a very important step in the process. An agent can gauge personality compatibilities, discuss the revision process and discover how open the author is to making changes and to taking advice. Creating a book is a very collaborative process. You have to be open to suggestions, and be willing to make changes.
Once both agent and author decide the phone call went well and they want to work together, the next step is taking that rare find and cleaning it up with some editing. Laura makes line edits and brainstorms with her authors. She may even bring other agents from her agency in to help – more eyes on the project to get more ideas.
One of the most important things to remember about making a book, “It’s so much more a collaborative process” and it’s important to respect the expertise of everyone involved, from the art director to the editor, to the copy editor, to the marketing department, etc.
Our second speaker of the day kept the momentum going with her discussion about picture books.
Kristine Brogno, Design Director for Chronicle Books, delighted us with her talk, “Words+Pictures or Pictures+Words: The Difference That Creates Spark!”
Kristine began by stating that in a picture book, there’s not a lot of real estate to tell a story.
Every word must count.
“Picture books are the perfect marriage between text and art; one couldn’t exist without the other.” They are more than the sum of their parts.
Words+Pictures versus Pictures+Words – what’s the difference? Here are the different types of picture books to help us get a better idea:
TYPES OF PICTURE BOOKS:
1) BORING – the illustrations say exactly what the text says. This is the biggest mistake you can make when creating a picture book. (Although many examples of this types existed, she kindly chose not to share any titles.)
2) TIGHTLY WOVEN NARRATIVE TEXT – Longer, character-driven picture books that can hold an entire world on a single page.
A RIVER OF WORDS: THE STORY OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS by Jen Bryant, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
THE BIG WISH by Carolyn Conahan
SAN FRANCISCO BABY! by Ward Jenkins
3) WORDS THAT SET THE STAGE – These books say just enough to set the action in motion. The text on the page has a very thoughtful and intentional place to be.
In Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, for example, the illustrations begin to take up more and more of the space until the words disappear altogether.
But then Sendak reverses this at the end when he has only text on the final page:
“and it was still hot.”
Why was there no image?
Because Sendak was bringing us back to a warm, safe place. No image was needed. If there had been an image of Max, it would have been all about him. Again, the choice was very deliberate.
A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE by Philip C Stead, illustrated by Erin E Stead
THE GREAT PAPER CAPER by Oliver Jeffers
THE BERENSTAIN BEARS OLD HAT NEW HAT by Stan and Jan Berenstain
4) WORDS AS A COUNTERPOINT – Here, what you see doesn’t match what you read. There are many ways to use this form. For example, you can let the text play the straight man while the picture is the comic relief.
Children love this; they like to be in on the joke.
THIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen is a great example of a very unreliable narrator. The illustrations are very simple, yet incredibly expressive.
ROSIE’S WALK by Pat Hutchins
NO! by Marta Altes
Kristine closed with these words of wisdom. No matter which style you choose, remember to “leave just enough space between the words and pictures for magic to happen”.
Our third speaker educated us on the different categories in the marketplace and cautioned us about common errors that may send our manuscript to the rejection pile.
She began by comparing manuscript submissions to dating. “You’ll have lots of experiences, and not many will work out.” Each side also comes in with a set of expectations.
Some common errors may sour that experience from the onset – and they have nothing to do with writing skills. Here are a few of them:
- House Mis-match – Don’t send your NF biography to a house that doesn’t sell non-fiction or biographies. It’s a waste of your time and theirs.
- Format – If your chapter book is written at the wrong reading level, your target audience won’t be able to understand it.
- Comp Titles – This is only helpful if the titles used are current (published within the past five years). It also needs to be helpful and realistic. If you claim your story is the next HUNGER GAMES meets TWILIGHT meets HARRY POTTER, that is not only confusing, it’s not very helpful.
Know your marketplace, from board books to YA! Do this by reading! You have to know what’s out there.
Age Range: 0 to 5 years-old
Length: 10 to 32 pages
Novelty, concept, repurposed bestsellers (Goodnight Moon, Babar, etc), and some few original narratives. All have short sentences.
Examples: Sandra Boynton, Leslie Patricelli
Age Range: 2-8 years-old
Length: Anywhere from 24 to 48 pages with 32 pages being the standard.
Language Level: Adult reading to child
Examples: Chris Raschka, Peter H. Reynolds, Big series like Don’t Let the Pigeon… series, and Fancy Nancy.
I CAN READS (Early Readers):
Age Range: 5-8 years-old
Length: 32-64 pages, limited trim 6×6, often paperback with more illustrations.
Language Level: Meant to instruct, clear and simple.
Age Range: 6-9 years-old
Length: 80-176 pages.
More text than illustrations. Series dominate. Most put out two books per year and take up a lot of shelf space in bookstores. It is very hard to do a one-off title or publish an unknown author in this category.
*Language: Simple for new independent readers. *This is tough for authors to nail.
Examples: Series like Captain Underpants, Judy Moody, My Weird School, Junie B. Jones
Age Range: 8-13 years-old
Length: 200-400 pages.
Usually released in hardcover first, then as a paperback a year later. Some have illustrations, but most do not. Protagonist is often the same age as the reader. They are attracted to characters going through same issues they are.
Language: Fully independent; level is simple and age-appropriate.
Stand Alones – LIAR & SPY, WONDER, OKAY FOR NOW
Series – Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Origami Yoda, Percy Jackson
Age Range: 13+, 14+
Length: 300-500 pages.
Hardcover release, then paperback one year later. Most are unillustrated, except for graphic novels. Protagonist is often the same age as the reader.
Language: Comparable to adult
Stand Alones – ELEANOR & PARK, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, THE SCORPIO RACES
Series – Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games
Age Range: 18-25 years-old
This is a new category. The protagonist is out of high school and dealing with “new adult” issues – college, first jobs, emerging sexuality. Many authors began as self-published.
Examples: Colleen Hoover, Abbi Glines, Jamie McGuire
Whatever you choose to create, be innovative and show publishers something they haven’t seen before, but in an educated way. You’ll be able to do that if you know the marketplace.
Stay tuned for PART 2, coming soon!