~by Amanda Smith
Recently I have heard a lot of chatter about award winning picture books that do not seem to follow agent and editor guidelines. Some yet-to-be published writers try to reduce the sting by giving each other condescending, there-there, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad advice:
" Ignore word count. It is just a suggestion."
"Submission guidelines don't really matter."
"Editors and agents don't know what they want."
I am all for writing from the heart (http://www.24carrotwriting.com/-blog/what-is-in-your-heart), but that does't mean we can ignore the rules.
So why can I not just pull an Elsa?
Because I have done this. And I blew an amazing opportunity with a dream agent.
Four years ago at the NE SCBWI conference Dan Yaccarino shared “the recipe” for successful picture books. He urged us to study story arc and write fifty stories following the recipe. Once we had published some “recipe” books, we could start experimenting with form. But learn the basics first and learn to do it well.
I hated the recipe. I rebelled against the recipe. I was above the recipe. So the following year at the conference, I submitted a story for an agent critique. I wrote from the heart. As a matter of fact, it was ALL heart. The agent called it "not marketable". She was too kind. She urged me to study story arcs and practice writing that way. (Did I really just waste a whole year?). She advised me to learn my craft and read in my genre and research the market and follow the guidelines.
I am learning to love the recipe. I still work at that story arc and all its elements. I see it as a challenge to get under the 500 word mark and celebrate it as a victory when I do. I constantly ask myself, “How can I say this more concisely? Is there a better word?” You see, writing from the heart is the easy part. Creating a picture book with compelling characters, lilting language, engaging action, high stakes, a satisfactory conclusion, quirk and humor and room for illustrations is the hard work.
So what about all those books out there that did not follow the recipe? Were they written by new authors? Most likely not. I have heard several different agents admit that authors who have published multiple successful books “can get away with more”. But first get in the door!
In a recent workshop agent Ammi-Joan Paquette advised us to read exactly what we are writing. If you are, like me, a pre-published writer, do not use the award winning author-illustrator books as your mentor texts. Oh, read them for inspiration, but understand these authors are further along the road than you are. They also started by following the recipe and the submission guidelines.
My grandfather had a relevant, yet slightly irreverent expression: “You cannot outfart thunder.” The book industry is thunder. It is so much louder than your heart and the children. It is about librarians and teachers. It is about those in charge of acquisitions in book stores. It is about publishing houses and bottom lines. It is about market trends and what parents will buy. For you to place your heart into the hands of eagerly awaiting children, you have to successfully jump through all these hoops. And agents and editors are the people who help you get there.
Because agents and editors know exactly what they want. They want your heart. With an arc. In under 500 carefully chosen words.
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