A Little Tough Love
~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.
By Annie Cronin Romano
It is three hours and forty-five minutes until midnight on New Year’s Eve. A clean slate looms on the horizon. A fresh list of writing resolutions awaits me. My email notification chimes but I ignore it. I’m spending quality time with my hubby and kids carefully scrutinizing every act on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Important stuff.
As I head up to bed just after midnight, I glance at my phone and check my email. After all, maybe I’ll jump into the New Year with 20% off at Pottery Barn.
And there is an email from Pottery Barn. It even offers free shipping. But suddenly I don’t care as my gaze drops down to the familiar subject line we writers simultaneously wish for and dread…RE: Query.
As soon as I spot the word “unfortunately,” I know it’s a rejection. A rejection from an agent. A carefully-researched agent. An agent who rejected me at 8:15 PM on New Year’s Eve. One last kick in the pants before I squeaked my way out of 2014. Except I’ve read it at 12:11 AM on January 1st, 2015, so it’s a rejection to start off my new year…with a whimper.
At first, I want to scream, “Really? On New Year’s? Are you kidding me?” (My actual words were less suitable for print and blew resolution #1 right out the window.) Then I thought…Tequila. That will show them. (Resolution #2 crushed.) Perhaps a box of chocolates? I’m sinking fast.
What stinks more than getting a rejection on New Year’s Eve?
Working on New Year’s Eve.
Yup. That’s when I realize it. The agent who’d rejected me had been working on New Year’s Eve. That’s the kind of agent I want. One who gets done what needs getting done. Even on a holiday. (Okay, I realize this agent may just be anti-eve and anti-social, but I’m trying to be glass half full here.) I wasn’t writing that evening, but this agent had been responding to my query. I was impressed. Yes, an offer of representation would have been immensely preferred, but you see where I’m going with this.
I read lots of picture books to keep my mind charged with my genre and my eyes on what’s current. And I have to admit, there are many I don’t care for. I may read ten in one afternoon and truly adore only one of them. If that. I recently shared this observation with Kelly, a 24 Carrot Writing colleague, who pointed out, “That’s similar to what agents say when they reject manuscripts.” This just didn’t resonate with me. (Ring any bells?) Except they’re swamped with queries. Hmm…
So my New Year’s resolution for 2015? Don’t take the rejections too personally. Even if they come on a holiday. Writing is tough. So is being an agent. Hopefully someday soon one of my manuscripts with resonate with an agent who will sing out, “I have to sign this writer immediately!” And if she realizes that on July 4th, I hope she’ll let me know.
Happy 2015! Keep writing. Keep your chin up.
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