chapter book, Cheryl Klein, critique, middle grade, revision, scbwi, SCBWNY16, Second Sight, writing, writing for children
So, this post was begun directly after the SCBWINY 2016 conference that I was privileged to attend February 11-14. It’s impossible NOT to get writing ideas when you are at this caliber of conference. At least a hundred possible blog posts popped into my head during the magical hours of creative energy that I experienced. I met dozens of writers and illustrators, all bright with the light of excitement that is generated when the lovers of children’s literature come together. A slew of dynamic and highly successful people presented, including editors and agents and authors and illustrators—Rainbow Rowell, Gary Schmidt, and Rita-Williams Garcia, just to name a few.
Unfortunately, I came down with a horrific chest cold after returning from the conference. For almost a week I huddled under a blanket and sipped hot lemon-honey water, all of the energy infused into my writer’s soul by the conference leaking out into pity puddles surrounding the old reclining chair I commandeered during my illness.
When I finally began to recover, I went back over the notes I had taken during the conference to try and rekindle some of the magic. So many writing and creative truths. So many spot on words of wisdom. And yet one section of my notes brought me up short and caused a pouty writer’s frown to appear on my face.
The Pee Critique.
It happened on the very first day—In order to help myself along in the process of transitioning to full-time writer, I’d registered for the Writer’s Roundtable Intensive. The registration site described the Roundtable like this:
The Writers’ Roundtable Intensive is intended for committed writers with submission–ready material. All intensive attendees have the opportunity to have the first 500 words of a manuscript reviewed during round table critiques lead by an editor or agent during a morning and an afternoon small- group critique session.
We were instructed to bring eighteen copies of the first 500 words of the project—nine to share in a roundtable in the morning and nine in the afternoon. Each writer would be given 15 minutes to read their work and then receive input from the editor or agent. A couple of writer friends had participated in the roundtable in the past and suggested that I bring a few different projects in order to target my offering toward the expert I was assigned.
In the morning I was lucky enough to be at a table with an executive editor at one of the major publishing houses. My offering was a favorite project of mine—Spy Cat!, a James Bond-spoofing chapter book about a dog with grandiose dreams of being an international cat spy (I know, crazy idea, right?).
Trying not to read too quickly (or let my voice shake) I shared Spy Cat! with my morning table.
Finish…hold your breath…and…?
Ms. Executive Editor: I really like this! It’s so much fun! You’ve really nailed the chapter book style.
Okay, now I can breathe…..!
She went on to give a couple of suggestions that I immediately saw would improve the story and then continued to compliment me on my voice and style.
A couple of the other writers at the table made comments, as well.
Wow. I was floating for the rest of the morning. I had to force myself not to smile constantly. I saw a book contract in my inbox by June. When I met my daughter for lunch later and gushed out the whole story, she shared my excitement.
This conference was going to be AMAZING!
Then, on to the afternoon session. A young, very accomplished literary agent was the expert at my table in the afternoon. In a short panel given that morning, the agent had stated that she was looking for YA, so I passed over Spy Cat! and my quirky social-networking picture book FarmPals, and instead, decided to read Liar’s Song, my most recently-completed middle grade novel.
Still flying high from the praise I received in the morning, I sat down at my new table with nine copies of Liar’s Song, ready to go.
Two writers read before me. The first offering was a kind of therapeutic picture book, very interesting. Then, the writer who read just before me also read from her middle grade novel. It was set in the late 1960s. Like my Liar’s Song, her story revolved around a serious issue that pushed the boundaries of acceptable middle grade subject matter. I found her writing clean and full of rich images, but the voice seemed a little “old-fashioned” for the contemporary reader.
When she finished reading, we all turned toward the expert.
The agent’s critique was pointed in the extreme and, I was horrified to realize, much of the criticism Ms. Agent was providing also applied to my own offering (which I hadn’t even read yet!)!!
Ms. Agent: Why is this novel set in the 60s? (Mine was set in the 70s) Unless it is very important to the story, it should be contemporary.
Author Aloud/Me in My Head: Well, there’s an important part about the Vietnam War…a critical character dies in the war.
Ms. Agent: There are conflicts going on today. Why does it have to be Vietnam?
Author Aloud/Me in My Head: No…but the 1960s (70s) are a time period I feel comfortable writing about. And I don’t want to bother with cell phones and computers.
Ms. Agent: I get submissions all the time that are “historical” just because the writer is too lazy to write in the present. It is so much easier for me to find a home for a contemporary novel. You should really think about whether or not your project is really, truly historical.
The agent went on to compliment the beauty of the writing and some of the points that intrigued her, but encouraged the author to think about a contemporary setting and voice.
And then it was my turn.
I read my 500 words, thankful at least that my humor and voice would shine through and hopefully counterbalance the issues with my “lazy” fake-historical middle grade fiction!!
The novel begins in the middle of the night. The main character’s mother is running away from her life—taking her two children and leaving without telling anyone where they are going. They have been driving for hours when the main character, an almost twelve-year-old girl, tells her mother that her little brother needs to use the bathroom. The mother pulls the car over and takes the boy into the grass to pee. While the car is stopped, the girl worries about when, and if, they will ever go back home. She dreams of being a famous singer and is set to perform with her father in a few weeks. She is afraid she will miss that chance to make her big break.
Upon finishing my 500 words, I thought it best to immediately acknowledge that I recognized many of the same issues in my writing as those the agent had previously pointed out. If she could just progress on to any additional comments, I said, I would appreciate it. (In this way I thought to spare myself the pain of more pointed words.)
Silly, silly Leanne writer-lady.
Ms. Agent: Why do you spend the first four paragraphs talking about her brother peeing? It really put me off. I don’t know anyone—any characters—well enough yet to know if this is meant to be funny or not.
Me: Cricket, cricket.
Other Roundtable Author: Yes, I thought the same. It was kind of gross—I mean, who wants to read about peeing?
Me (In my head): You traitor, fellow writer…just wait until you read YOUR 500 words!!!
Ms. Agent: And, you used dialogue in the first line—that’s always hard to pull off.
Everyone Else at the Table: Nodding like sheep!!
Me (In my head): Brown-nosers!
Ms. Agent: You should use those first few paragraphs very wisely. Let us get to know the protagonist—by the way, how old is she?
Me: Eleven—almost twelve.
Ms. Agent: Her voice reads like an eight-year-old. Is this supposed to be a novel? It reads more like a chapter book.
Me (In my head): Waaaagghhhh….. (Charlie Brown-style)
Ms. Agent: I did like that she wants to be a country music singer in Canada. I didn’t even know that was a thing. And your voice is fun—and funny. Later, after the peeing part. If you could just get rid of the peeing….
Me: I really had no idea that would put everyone off. I’ll definitely take a look at it.
And so, I was barely present for the rest of the readings. I looked and nodded, but in my head I was going over all that had been said. I really loved this novel and, since it was evident that the peeing was a bad way to begin, I’d just have to rethink that opening scene.
And…the entire remaining 40K words of my not a novel, fake historical, not a middle grade protagonist masterpiece.
But, like I said, the conference was amazing. I learned so much and left so energized. One of the best sessions I attended was Cheryl Klein’s breakout on revision. Since I knew I had quite a bit of work to do, her session gave me some solid practical methods for moving forward. After listening to her present, I went to the conference bookstore and picked up her book Second Sight. Reading it that evening, and then, again on the train back home, I came to the section “The Art of Detection” and read about line-editing and the process of testing every sentence against the question “What purpose does this serve?” Take a look at this excerpt from the section discussing Cheryl and Arthur Levine’s editing of a first draft of the beginning of Lisa Yee’s So Totally Emily Ebers:
“Arthur commented on the “pee your pants” paragraph. That’s because peeing your pants is intrinsically a little gross, right? And on the very first page of the book, we readers don’t know Emily well enough to go there with her, so it put Arthur off (me too <Cheryl>, I admit).”
And on the next page….
…note the changes Lisa made here. She cut the “pee your pants” paragraph…
Wow. The great universal editor Serendipity strikes again.
Thank you, Ms. Agent. Thank you, Cheryl Klein.
Thank you, SCBWINY16.
On to revisioning and re-visioning.