Editor Lisa Ann Sandell on query letters

Revision update: On chapter 16 of 30. Still on track for end of February finish.

Lisa Ann Sandell's headshot

Lisa Ann Sandell

In my second report from the Houston SCBWI conference, Scholastic editor Lisa Ann Sandell talks about making your query letter package stand out. Lisa is also a writer, with four books published.

If you missed my first report from the conference, Balzer & Bray editor Ruta Rimas talked about what makes a great book.

10-year Scholastic editor Lisa said she mainly works on middle-grade and young adult fiction, rarely non-fiction and even more rarely picture books. Among the books she has edited are the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo, The Fire Eternal by Chris d’Lacey, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah and the upcoming Shadow from Houston-area author Jenny Moss.

Lisa said that YA paranormal and fantasy have a bit of a glut, and she’s hearing that mysteries might be about to make a comeback.

She prefers character-driven books to plot-driven, and looks for strong character and voice.

“It’s about the words and how they come together on the page,” she said.

She said that when a writer is looking to submit to editors, they should find an individual editor who has the right sensibilities for the manuscript, rather than submitting to a general imprint. But, she also urged writers to get an agent, as the agent will be on the writer’s side.

She also admitted that manuscripts that she receives from an agent go to the top of the pile.

A query letter, she said, is like meeting someone at a cocktail party and having 30 seconds to make them excited about your book.

She suggested writers construct a description of their book that can fit on one side of an index card. Then, condense it further so it will fit on a Post It.

It should be a concise summary of the plot, with characters, conflict and theme.

The writing style also should come through.

Include a brief intro that says who you are as is relevant to the book, keep it short and hit the right tone — respectful and professional, but not too casual.

What not to do:

  • no marketing info. The book is the priority.
  • no adjectives.
  • no comparisons.

Check back tomorrow for notes from Simon & Schuster‘s Alexander Cooper on submitting to editors.

Editor Ruta Rimas on what makes a great book

Revision update: On chapter 14 out of 30. I still think I can make my end of February goal.

In my first post about the Houston SCBWI conference, I’m featuring some tips from Balzer & Bray editor Ruta Rimas. Energetic, knowledgeable and obviously passionate about books, Ruta advised authors to read books by the authors they love both for pleasure and craft.

She gave a some examples of books she thought were worth reading:

Ruta also recommended Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer and quoted the book as telling writers to put “every word on trial for its life.” I love that!

To do that, Ruta told writers to look at their work in progress and:

  • choose a section and look at the words. What words stick out? How do the words support the theme of the story? Do any words stick out as inappropriate? Why?
  • choose a favorite sentence or series of sentences and ask yourself why you love it (them). How does it (they) inform the reader of who the narrator or character is? What does the sentence structure do?
  • choose a sentence you don’t like and ask yourself why you don’t like it.
  • choose 3-6 paragraphs and look at how they break. What if you break them differently, how will that affect the tension or flow?
  • choose a scene and try rewriting it in a different voice, different perspective, different tense or another character’s point of view. What would the scene be like if the character was different emotionally, i.e. angry, upset, cynical?

Ruta ended with a great quote from novelist John Gardner:

It’s the sheer act of writing, more than anything else, that makes a writer.

So, Write On!

Check back tomorrow for notes from author and Scholastic editor Lisa Ann Sandell.

Writers' motto: Never give up

If there was a theme in what the many published writers said at the Austin SCBWI conference a couple weeks ago, it was that perseverance is an important part of their success.

Three of this year’s ALA winners were there — Jacqueline Kelly (The Evolution of Capurnia Tate), Marla Frazee and Liz Garton Scanlon (All the World illustrator and author) and Chris Barton (The Day-Glo Brothers) — and they all told tales of facing many rejections before publication and of pursuing their dreams of being published for years before making them a reality.

Kirby Larson, author of the 2007 Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky, said she received piles of rejection letters before her publishing career began. Finally, after many years of trying and taking a 10-day course that happened over her daughter’s birthday — what a sacrifice — she sold her first picture books. A few more followed, but then she didn’t sell anything for seven years. That’s when she tried a different type of writing and Hattie Big Sky was born.

Former editor and now full-time author Lisa Graff explained that for her last book, Umbrella Summer, she wrote 18 complete drafts.

Yesterday, this theme was reinforced in an article in the Los Angeles Times about non-fiction author Rebecca Skloot, whose The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks appeared on Amazon’s bestseller list immediately after the book debuted on Feb. 2. This was all after Skloot spent 10 years working on the book and went through three publishing houses, four editors and two agents.

All these writers shared something in common: They didn’t give up.

So, the motto for today: Never give up.

Write On!

More advice from published writers

Today is my last post from the Austin SCBWI conference. It’s my seventh post about the conference and I’ve just given you a sampler from the presentations, so it shows how great these conferences can be.

Before I get into the post for today, here’s a quick recap of the other posts from the conference in case you missed any: agent Mark McVeigh on publishing, agent Andrea Cascardi on getting and working with an agent, editor Cheryl Klein on writing a great book, agent Nathan Bransford on finding the right agent for you, author/former editor Lisa Graff on writing and revising and advice from ALA winners.

The conference had plenty of other published writers, and here’s advice from them:

Kirby Larson (2007 Newbery Honor Book Hattie Big Sky): The secret of success is keeping your bum in your chair and working. No matter how bad you think it is, you have to get the first draft done and keep going.

Liz Garton Scanlon (2010 Caldecott Honor Book All the World): Find a community to help you, whether a critique group or writing partner, because it helps you live in the solitary environment of writing.

Shana Berg (A Thousand Never Evers): You should have an emotional reaction to your story when you read it.

Jennifer Ziegler (How Not to be Popular): Outlining can be an invaluable tool, but use it as a map.

Jessica Lee Anderson (Border Crossing): In dealing with rejection, rethink, revise and resend, inspire yourself with stories, nurture your creativity.

P.J. Hoover (The Emerald Tablet): Think outside of the box. Don’t settle for cliches and stereotypes. Write unique characters in unique situations coming up with unique ways of solving them.

Patrice Barton (illustrator): Shake off a creative slump by looking for the emotion and deconstructing other books.

Got any tips of your own you’d like to share? Put them in the comments.

Write On!

Advice from ALA winners

Sorry if you came here on Saturday looking for this post. I had a busy weekend and didn’t get to my computer much.

But here is day six of my reports from the Austin SCBWI conference. First, a quick recap of my other reports: agent Mark McVeigh on publishing, agent Andrea Cascardi on getting and working with an agent, editor Cheryl Klein on writing a great book, agent Nathan Bransford on finding the right agent for you and author/former editor Lisa Graff on writing and revising.

Today I’m featuring three of this year’s ALA award winners, all of whom show that success comes from perserverance.

Jacqueline Kelly, author of the 2010 Newbery Honor book The Evolution of Capurnia Tate, said the inspiration for her book came after she fell in love with a really old house that’s falling down. As she sat on its porch one day, she could hear the main character come alive in her head and recite the book’s first paragraph to her.

She first wrote about the characters in a short story, and it was her critique group members that encouraged her to expand it into a novel.

Capurnia Tate was rejected by 12 publishers before it was picked up.

If it wasn’t for Jacqueline’s critique group and her perserverance, we would not have Capurnia Tate to enjoy today.

Acclaimed illustrator Marla Frazee, whose picture book All the World is a 2010 Caldecott Honor book, has had similar perserverance during her career. She said it took 12 years to get her first book, then another five years before her second.

She said picture books are a collaboration between words and pictures, with the two working together to tell the story. Sometimes the pictures will illustrate the words completely, and other times the pictures will add new meaning to the words. For example, she showed a picture from her book A Couple of Boys Have The Best Week Ever, in which the words say the character is sad to leave his parents but the picture shows him excited and happy.

Marla said that when she gets stuck on a picture she “goes back to basics” and figures out the emotion of the story, what’s at stake at this particular moment. Great advice for writers too.

Finally, Chris Barton, author of the Sibart Honor book The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors, is also an example of perserverance paying off. Chris said it took eight years to get his book published.

He also said he does a lot of research for his non-fiction books. “For me, there’s no such thing as too much research,” he said.

So, the lesson these winners can give us is not to give up.

Check back tomorrow for my final report from the Austin SCBWI conference: advice from other writers.

Write On!

Lisa Graff on writing and revising

Day five in my reports from the Austin SCBWI conference, and there’s still more to come after this one! Also, although I’m giving lots of great information from these speakers in these posts, I’m only giving a condensed version of their presentations. Reading about conferences is great, but going to them, even single-day conferences like this one, is so valuable for inspiration, networking and learning. I highly recommend going to as many as you can afford in time and money if the lineup of speakers are half as good as this one.

Quick recap of my other reports from the conference: agent Mark McVeigh on publishing, agent Andrea Cascardi on getting and working with an agent, editor Cheryl Klein on writing a great book and agent Nathan Bransford on finding the right agent for you.

Lisa Graff, author

Lisa Graff

And now onto Lisa Graff. Lisa has an interesting background. She sold her first two books around the same time as she got her job as an editor, so, as she said, she has spent the last five years learning how to be a professional writer and editor at the same time. As of the Thursday before the conference, Lisa stopped working as an editor for Farrar, Strauss and Giroux Books for Young Readers to focus on her writing full time. Her last book, Umbrella Summer, came out last June.

As someone who has been on both sides of a book, Lisa said both are equally important. She said an editor is in charge of finding the true story a writer is trying to tell, because writers are so in their head, it’s often hard for them to see the story for the words. But, she pointed out, editors can’t do their best work until writers have done theirs.

And, writers don’t do their best work until they’ve revised and revised until their best work is out. For Umbrella Summer, Lisa said she wrote 14 complete drafts, including eight different endings. It took four years from the first draft to publication. WOW!

She said she starts out with a brief outline of her story, but the book almost never ends up the same.

Here’s her writing strategy:

  1. Write the first full draft.
  2. Read draft on paper and write notes.
  3. Open a new document and write a completely new draft from scratch or pasting in what she wants to save from the original draft.
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 as many times as it takes to get her best work.

A writer, she said, is

  • creative,
  • inspired,
  • uninhibited,
  • free to experiment.

An editor is

  • aware of rules of storytelling,
  • aware that the first draft is never the best,
  • mean when necessary.

To be an author, a writer must be all of these but at different times.

For the first draft, Lisa said it’s ok to write garbage. Writers can’t get to their genius until they’ve written the garbage, she said. The editor part of the writer takes out the garbage after the  genius has come through.

Here’s her other advice:

  • Read what your audience is reading, especially for picture books because markets change. And read like an editor, questioning everything, every decision that went into that book.
  • Know the rules (such as POV) as an editor, but be willing to experiment with them as a writer. It’s ok to break the rules when it’s essential for storytelling.
  • Write for yourself not for trends, because you won’t be happy.
  • Enjoy your own writing as a writer, but be prepared to kill your darlings as an editor. Do what’s right for the book.
  • Make sure that everything in your book is there for a reason.
  • As a writer, believe in yourself, but as an editor, push yourself to do better.
  • Don’t be a writer and editor at the same time, because it will make you overly critical, stop your creativity and lead you to writer’s block.
  • And, never try to appease an agent or editor. Be willing to stand up for yourself.

Finally, Lisa gave an idea of page counts for varies types of books. Although publishing houses vary, she said these are the general guidelines based on what the reader age groups will read and cost.

  • Picture book: 32 pages, including title pages, copyright, etc.
  • Chapter books: 90 manuscript pages, double-spaced
  • Middle-grade: 150-200 pages, double-spaced
  • Young adult: 200-240 pages, double spaced

Awesome!

Check back tomorrow for advice from the many other great writers at the conference.

Write On!

New year, new writing goals

Pre-Happy New Year!

Just like most people, I’ve been kinda crazy over Christmas and haven’t gotten on here to post. I’m also way behind in my blog reading. But there’s one thing I have been doing: editing!

I’ve been working a lot on my revision, and although I’m no way near making my end-of-year finish goal, I should be able to be done by the end of January. On Jan. 30 and Feb. 20, I have critiques at the Austin and Houston SCBWI conferences, respectively. I’m hoping to have my novel in great shape by then so I can start sending it out.

Quick update on the status of my first novel. You might remember that I started sending it out to agents at the end of last summer. I got a lot of requests for the manuscripts, but the replies were all in the vein of, “This is great, but not right for us right now, even though I know I’ll kick myself later.” Rejections, yes, but all very positive. One agent is still looking over the full manuscript, but, as I had finished my second novel, I decided that instead of continuing to send to other agents, I would concentrate on the revision of the second novel and go back out with that one. So, that’s what I plan to do in the early months of next year.

That’s my first goal for the new year: finish revising my second novel by the end of January and have it going out to agents and the editors at the conferences in February.

Second goal for the year: write my third novel. I’ve got a bunch of ideas stored away, but one that I had around summer has been playing in my head for months. The main character has been talking to me, and I’ve got a rough idea of where the whole story is heading. I wrote my second novel in about three months this year, so hopefully, if I can start my next novel around February or March, I can be finished around early summer.

A new year brings new opportunities to make our writing better and move forward with our manuscripts and dreams.

What are your goals for the new year?

Write On!

Submitting to an agent and/or editor

First, good luck to all you NaNoWriMo participants starting your 50K novels today. I’m revising, so I’ll be participating in spirit, with some revision work done every day. But my best wishes go out to those of your who signed up. Good luck!

Now on to the regularly scheduled blog post:

Number three in my blog posts about the North Texas SCBWI conference I attended on Oct. 24. Today, I’ve got notes from Dutton Children’s Books editor Lisa Yoskowitz and Foundry Literary + Media agent Lisa Grubka, both of whom were really great.

Few pointers from Lisa Y on submitting to an editor:

  • Submit in accordance with publishing house’s guidelines
  • Address to Acquisitions Editor or Query Editor. But, IF (and only if) you’ve researched a particular editor’s body of work and you feel your book is right for them, it’s ok to address to them, and in your query, explain why
  • Economy of words – just like in your book, make sure every word counts in your query.

That last one was echoed by Lisa G, who stressed, “You only have one page [for the query]. Make it count.”

She also told attendees to submit in accordance to agents’ guidelines, and to personalize the query; research the agent and explain why you’re sending to that agent. She said that good writing will come across in a good query, and she encouraged writers to, like they do with their manuscripts, put their query letters away from a while after they’ve written them so they can revise and make them the best they can possibly be.

Even the best query can take time to get through the system, of course, and Lisa G said the busiest times of the year for agents are January through May and September through December. The summer, although still busy, is considered the slow time. So, consider this when sending your query. Don’t wait to send out your query if you’re ready and it’s in a busy time, just be patient and know that if you don’t hear back immediately, it’s just the workload.

Lisa Y said for editors, they’re busy year-round — especially in today’s economy, with fewer people doing more — but they generally have four slower weeks in each quarter, but they vary.

As for what these two lovely ladies look for in submissions, both lean toward more literary, character-driven YA, but Lisa Y said that, if the writing’s amazing, she’ll be attracted to anything. There it is writers: Be amazing!

Write On!

Contests and conferences

Done today: More on chapter 4

Revision remaining: 149 pages

Daily pages needed to be finished by end of November: 3.5

So, today I started the revisions I had thought of a couple days ago, and then came up with an even better solution to the problem! That’ll be tomorrow morning’s revision exercise, but I think it’ll be a keeper. It will improve flow, pacing and shorten these early chapters so we can get to the bulk of the adventure quicker. I’m excited.

I’m going to the North Texas SCBWI conference this Saturday, and I’m also very excited about that. I’ll be getting a critique, which is exciting, as well as hearing from Dutton Children’s Books’ Lisa Yoskowitz and Foundry Literary & Media agent Lisa Grubka, as well as others.

Last week, I sent in my registrations for the Austin SCBWI conference in January and the Houston SCBWI conference in February. Unfortunately, I was too late to get a critique from one of the great agents or editors who will be in Austin (word to the wise, register early because spots will fill up fast), but I am in time for an author critique at the Austin event and an agent critique at the Houston event, so that’s also something great to look forward to.

These are all conferences around where I live, and I feel blessed to have so many good ones within a drive or cheap flight.

I don’t think conferences are necessary to success in publishing. I’m sure there are plenty of people who write a book, send out queries and get published without ever going to a conference.

But, whenever possible, I like going to conferences for a number of reasons:

  • Motivation – It’s always great to hear people talking about the work. Makes you want to run home and start writing immediately.
  • Inspiration – Every conference I’ve been to has had a healthy dose of encouragement. Book writers tend to be a helpful bunch.
  • Meeting new people – I reiterate: Book writers tend to be a helpful bunch, and it’s always nice to meet others who are going through the same things you are.

Even though I go to conferences as much as possible, I don’t do much in the way of contests, mainly because by the time I hear about them, the deadline has passed. I’m so on top of things!

But contests can be a great way to a) get a read on where you are as a writer, and b) get your name out there as a writer.

Even if you don’t win, your writing can be noticed. A query contest I entered earlier this year got an agent interested in my first book.

This is why I’m entering the KidLit.com query contest run by Andrea Brown Literary agent Mary Kole. Contests provide an opportunity, and opportunities should never be passed up. The deadline is Dec. 31. Wanna join me?

What are you looking forward to?

Write On!

Ann Whitford Paul at SCBWI Summer Conference

Check-in: Getting ready for my critique group tomorrow, I revised my novelty picture book this morning, working in the great ideas my critique group gave me two weeks ago. As I revised, I got more ideas and realized that I had been holding back on the premise of this picture book. I told myself to not be afraid to be BOLD. We’ll see what my critique group thinks of the results tomorrow.

Also, as I’m continuing to browse the blog posts from the SCBWI Summer Conference, I found one from the session with picture book guru Ann Whitford Paul, who was interviewed on Day By Day Writer last month.

What posts are you enjoying from the SCBWI Summer Conference blog?

Write On!