Friday, April 9, 2010

Faculty Introductions and First Page Sessions

Mary Ann Scott, the conference organizer, started the conference by.... introducing us! Eeek! It's the first time this wonderful conference is being live-blogged, and we're hoping to set the bar high!

Now it's time to get to know the important people... the staff!

Martha Rago - Assoc. Creative Director, HarperCollins (since 2003). Previously Creative Director at Henry Holt and FSG, also.

Eve Adler - Assoc. Editor at Henry Holt, previously worked at GP Putnam's Sons with adult books - works on all ages (baby to YA)

Margaret Miller - Bloomsbury Children's editor since 2008 - Focus on middle grade and YA fiction, with a few select picture books and nonfiction titles.

Christy Webster - Random House Children's Books (since 2005), Assistant Editor - all ages, focus on younger side (chapter, picture).

Elana Roth - Agent, Caren Johnson Literary Agency - picture book through young adult, looking primarily for high concept middle grade and young adult fiction.

Time for the first page/first look sessions! Critiques of anonymous submissions of first pages / picture books and illustrations. Since you guys don't get to hear and see the submissions, I'm including a mishmash of the comments that give great tips and insight into what industry professionals think when they see just a small piece of your work.

1st - Picture book text (going through the seasons)
Offers great visuals for artistic interpretation. Nice repetition of phrase in the structure. A little slim. A lot of season books out there - do research, how is yours different? How many hooks does the book have?

2nd - Illustration (outer space, foreign planet)
Looks to see if the picture is narrative -- does it tell a story, is it part of the action? Does it have character? What's the focus?

3rd - Middle grade/young adult fantasy
How kid-centric is the first page? Make sure the initial character/plot appeals to a kid. Don't start with parents/adult characters. Love to start with something interesting, not mundane backstory.

4th - Illustration (quirky parrot with text)
Illustrators who draw animals with expressive faces are a plus. Like the dynamic quality of the work, strong technique (color, shape, depth). Words within the illustration are distracting. Image gets message across.

5th - Contemporary Young Adult, female goth foster kid narrator
Strong voice, but there's a lot of telling. Better to weave that in naturally in the narrative so that it doesn't pull away from the action. Keep your character likeable, at least enough that the reader will care. Again, integrate backstory seamlessly. Specific pop culture references date books immediately, so be careful not to include too many. Be careful not to overdo the voice, because something like too much attitude or snark can pull away from the story.

6th - Illustration (Distressed looking little boy pulling something)
Technique is quality -- simple, graphic, stylized. Make sure your illustrations don't seem like a portion of something larger, that you see a complete action. Always looking for sequential images in a portfolio, images that tell a story -- but each image needs to have a complete message.

7th - Picture book, main characters drawing a book
There's a pattern in picture books in which everything that happens is imaginary. The issue that crops up is --- if anything can happen, if the characters can make anything happen, where's the tension in the story? Where's the conflict or problem that has to be solved? Picture books about kids drawing a picture book can be tough. You can get lost as a reader when it went from something more realistic to something more imaginary. The transition from real to fantasy was too abrupt. Liked that the book pulled you in immediately in the beginning. It's great when the drama starts right away. Always check your comps for similar books.

8th - Illustration (blackbird with colorful elements)
Eye-catching, movement, wonderful colors. Seems more decorative than narrative. More of an editorial illustration than one showing character.

9th - Middle grade fantasy
Problem is presented immediately, didn't get a clear sense of the fantasy element, good description. A little too much description, set-up -- get more/faster into the action and hold off backstory until later. Strange names -- both are so foreign to the ear, they might be off-putting.

10th - Illustration (upset toddler in snow)
Draws your eye immediately to the proper place, but it doesn't quite appeal emotionally. The composition of the image is strong. In context, the picture might be effective, but not a great piece to attract an art director.

11th - Historical fiction (MG/YA)
The strong action was good, but not sure of the character's reaction to the action. Overexplaining thoughts is bad, but just a hint to clarify is needed. There's not one rule for every story, but for this one, it needed a little more description to balance out all the action. Not enough context -- a little mystery is great -- but you don't want the reader to have too much to guess in the first page. Couldn't quite place the historical period, though there were a couple hints -- though some people prefer fewer historical details.

12th - Illustration (Young girl hiding under covers, shadow at window)
A complete image. Wants to see what happened before and what happens next -- this is a great thing! It's scary without being too scary, which would be great in an editorial meeting. Skillful in the sense that, even though there's a focus, you have a lot to look at. Good flow, and tells a mini-story in itself.

13th - Picture book, greyhound narrator
An important element of picture book text is that it allows room for illustrations / illustrative interpretation to augment the story. If there's too many thoughts, or it's too long, or has too much description, it limits that ability. Show, don't tell! The action must allow the story to pace out for illustrations. Also, who's the audience? A lot of background information -- that's not using the limited space well. Beginning is attention-grabbing, but it got lost in over-description. Also, some editors are not a fan of the "my name is" character introductions because she sees it so frequently. Keep in mind what is appropriate for your audience. The content might be too scary or not relatable for a young audience. Make sure the story is specific -- about one particular dog. Agenda-driven books don't work for kids, because they know when a lesson is trying to be taught. Be wary of main characters that are animals. Can be a problematic setup because authors make them think as humans. Beware of inconsistent voice -- coming out of "dog" voice. Be rigorous with the voice. For picture books, generally the talking animals are anthropomorphic -- not actually in the mind of a real dog. That's left for slightly older books.

14th - Illustration (octopus)
Has a lot of energy. Some parts of the composition are a little confusing -- be careful of the clutter, and give clarity to the details. Over-the-top, cartoony style, but it can work for appropriate text. Very narrative and interesting though. If you have a lot of animal images, make sure your portfolio has images of children in it, because that's what we're always looking for.

15th - Historical MG
You care about the character right away, time and place is established well. Opening grabs your attention. Be careful not to overwrite. Liked it -- despite the fact that there's not too much action right away, though there's past action. But the appeal is the great mix of detail and simplicity. The voice is great. This indicates that the author has fully thought-out the details of the boy's life, so when he/she sat down to write, the right balance came on the page. Intriguing. The right amount of things to wonder about. Don't forecast the rest of your story too much.

16th - Contemporary older young adult
Sets up the problem from the very beginning. Look at the competition -- is it different enough to stand out? Be aware of tone matching the topic. Make sure your title stands out from others -- check to see what books are out there, though few books ever end up with the same title they start with! Immediate sense of what's going on, how the character feels.

Alright, that's all for this panel! Stay tuned for more!

Any advice/critique stand out to you?


  1. I got the same piece of advice from Eve Adler on my first page at my SCBWI retreat. Make sure your character is likable enough to make readers care. It's funny because I was trying to make her bitchier, and every other piece of feedback I got was that she wasn't bitchy enough and was too nice.

    It's a hard balance to find!

  2. I only read the YA comments, but this is great stuff. Thanks for sharing. I going to the LA SCBWI conference this summer and hope to do the ms crit. Now I know what to expect. Hopefully I don't get any of those comments. Please slap my wrist if I do. ;)

  3. Wow! You did a great job of getting ALL the info from each critique! Now I can fill in the blanks in my notebook so I have the complete critiques -

    I am the Goth foster kid and Boy pulling something heavy.

  4. Jessica - Yep, it's tough, and the critiques are, of course, subjective, but it's great to get professional feedback, even on such a small sample of work!

    Stina - Glad you enjoyed! I found it useful too. I'm glad you were able to apply the tips to your own work. And some of the comments were very positive.

    Michelle - Thanks! I did my best. I really loved your YA, and here's my secret -- the last first page was mine!


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