At a SCBWI conference in Denver, Melanie Cecka, Senior Editor for Viking Children's Books, tried to answer that perennial question, "What are editors looking for?" Her answer-- and this is a real kicker--is that because publishers are cutting back on the size of their lists, editors are looking for reasons not to publish your book.
Does this mean that editors are planning to hate every manuscript that crosses their desks? Certainly not. Every time an editor opens an unsolicited submission she's hoping she'll find a new, undiscovered talent. But because the volume of books being published has dropped in recent years, each book carries more weight for the publisher. And fiction by new authors in particular must be of the highest quality to compete with the novelizations of movies and television shows crowding the shelves, and picture books based on familiar, popular licensed characters.
When you're revising your work and sending it out, try to think like an editor. As you attend conferences or read books on publishing, compile a list of "don'ts" that will get your manuscript routed immediately to the rejection pile. Here are some to get you started:
Unprofessional presentation. A cover or query letter that shows the writer clearly doesn't understand the different age categories of children's books (such as saying you've written a 3000 word picture book for ages 6-11), tells the editor she doesn't have to read any further. By simply studying recently- published books written for the same age group as your work, you can learn many of the basic "rules." Sloppy queries, those that explain the writer's motivation for creating the work ("to teach children about _______") instead of summarizing the work itself, or submitting five manuscripts at once are all turnoffs to an editor. For help writing query and cover letters, see the resource in the sidebar.
A weak opening. The first paragraph of your book needs to grab the editor and insist that she keep reading. The opening page should introduce your main character, establish the setting and time period, push the action forward and clue the reader into the "hook" of the story (what makes your book different). To learn how to craft strong openings, ask your librarian for award lists (especially those awards voted by children), and read only the first paragraph of the winners. Note how much information you got from this small amount of text. Also note whether you wanted to keep reading, and why.
Lack of vision. Cecka said she looks for stories that make her ask, "What if?" In other words, she wants to identify so strongly with the characters that she'll wonder what it would be like to live their lives. Fully-developed characters coupled with a unique way of approaching an idea results in a book with vision. The author does more than tell a story--he transports the reader to another place and asks the reader to look at the world in a new way. It's often clear to an editor from the query letter whether the author has vision, or has written the kind of book children "should" like or "need" to read.
In the end, what distinguishes a manuscript from the hundreds of others in the slush pile is the writer's passion. If the author positions himself as bestowing a story upon children, or imparting wisdom from a distant, adult perspective, the book will fail. However, if the author is so enthralled with the characters and caught up in the plot that the experience is shared with the reader, the manuscript will shine.
One more note: Editors are very subjective critics, so besides writing a strong book the author must appeal to an editor's tastes, sense of humor, and know enough not to submit a dog book to a cat person. The only way a writer can really know an editor's preferences is to attend conferences and meet the editors in person, or network with other authors. Barring that, calling the children's book department at publishers to whom you plan to submit your novel and asking an editorial assistant which editor is interested in middle grade historical fiction is a good backup strategy.
For tips on writing strong cover and query letters, check out Author to Editor: Query Letter Secrets of the Pros by Linda Arms White. It contains over 30 actual letters and book proposals authors used to sell their work, along with pointers on pitching your work to a publisher.Copyright © 2003 Children's Book Insider, LLC