Slush Pile Saturday

Work has been way too crazy these days for me to go through my February SQUIDs in the office, so I brought all the envelopes and my trusty letter-opener home and went through them this afternoon on my couch. Some observations:
  • The number-one problem with the picture-book manuscript submissions: a lack of unity in conception--either not having any point to the story, or not ending the story after the point is made, so said point gets lost in the action afterward. A picture book should have one central narrative or emotional arc, which runs in a consistent line from beginning to end, and the book should end when the story does.
  • A good picture book manuscript has a killer last line to provide that final "Ah!" of satisfaction as the reader closes the book. Often when I'm reading a promising PB ms., I find I'm holding my breath: Can the writer pull it off? Will the last line put that final stamp of emotional and narrative fulfillment on everything else the story has shown us? Or will it just . . . end?
  • The number-one problem with the novel submissions: showing too much leg, that is, telling me so much upfront about the characters or the situation that it doesn't feel like I need to read more. If your character is, say, painfully overeager to please, I will be much more involved with him if I see him trying to toady up to the principal (a dramatized scene) rather than him telling me, "I always want to make people happy, so today I brought Mrs. Rutherford the best lilies from my mother's garden." Etc. Or situationally, "Jenny looked out the window of the hotel room. There was a Verizon billboard right outside. The image brought tears to her eyes: Her father had worked for AT&T. Daddy . . ." "Okay," I think, "she is a great big quivering ball of pain about her father's death; she better have something besides pain to her or her story to be interesting." And if that interesting thing has not emerged by the end of the chapter, no dice.
  • Indeed, I see a lot of slush-pile novel submissions -- and far fewer agented ones, now that I think about it -- where the main character is coming to terms with a loved one's death (usually a father's) and that is the primary action of the book. I'm afraid I very rarely love these, or any novel where the emotional plot ends up pretty much serving as the action plot. I think it's because the character isn't really going after a Want and driving the action; rather the character is being driven by this emotional event that happened before the novel began, and that isn't as compelling.
  • And I also think those kinds of novels are a little bit harder to sell -- for both editors in-house to our sales staffs, and booksellers/librarians to readers -- simply because they're harder to talk about. If you were describing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to someone who'd never read it, you probably wouldn't say "Harry makes friends and finds a home at last" (the emotional plot), but "Harry goes to this AMAZING school where he studies magic, learns to fly a broomstick, and confronts this evil wizard that tried to kill him when he was a baby."
  • This is not to say emotional plots aren't enormously important, as they give a story meaning and value; the action in HP matters only because Harry makes friends and finds a home at last. And one of my very favorite novels I've ever read, much less had the privilege to work on, pretty much alternates emotional chapters with plot ones: The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley by Martine Murray. (Its Chapter 17, on love and the differences between boys and girls, is one of the wisest things I've ever read about relationships, period.) And all this applies much more to children's and middle-grade fiction than YA.
  • But: Please try to have both kinds of plot.
  • Still on novels: I saw a lot of first chapters where very little happened, which gave me very little incentive to read on. At the end of your first chapter, I should know who your protagonist is and what s/he Wants, with a hint of either what's standing in the way (Conflict action plot), what information s/he'll need to find in the course of the story and why that matters (Mystery action plot), or what's missing in that character's life and/or what might soon cause a change in it (Lack action plot). Don't tell me the new kid is moving to the old Jenkins place (merely a premonition of change); show your protagonist's first encounter with the new kid so we can see the change in action.
  • (If you have no idea what I mean by action and emotional plots and Conflict, Mystery, and Lack, and you would like to know, read The Essentials of Plot.)
  • Good first chapters are really, really hard to write. Kudos to those who accomplish them.
  • Thanks to all of you who said you like my website and this blog in your cover letters; the kind words are appreciated.
  • Apparently the next trend in fantasy: time travel. However, I am already editing a time-travel novel trilogy (The Book of Time, by Guillaume Prevost, in stores this September), so your time-travel novel will have to be demonstrably different from that for me to be able to take it on in the foreseeable future.
  • Man, you all should go out and read The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley if you haven't already. It is such a delight, quirky and sweet and wise. It is not for everyone -- in fact, our associate editor at the time we acquired it was the first reader on it, and she got twenty pages in and knew it wasn't for her, so she handed it on to Arthur, who loved it -- but the people who do love it, love it madly. In fact, I'm kind of surprised I love it, because it's so not action-plotty and I adore action plot so much . . .
  • But how can one not love lines like this: "Sometimes life hits you at such a startling lightning kind of angle that you get pushed off your normal viewing spot. You stop knowing how things are. Instead of what you know, there are the patterns that stars make; the sound of the night breathing; the small aching spot where your feet touch the earth. . . . And you've never felt closer to it. You think that if there is an It, you and It are nearly touching. You feel religious and devoted and tiny. Just for a moment you feel as if the whispering coming from the leaves and beetles and sky and footsteps and sighs is going directly towatd your ear. So you listen."
  • Isn't that lovely?
  • I can tell it's March because I was walking down the street today and I heard the pigeons murmuring to each other in their nests under the awnings, one of my very favorite sounds: Coodeloodeloo.
  • Coodeloodeloo to all of you too.