Saturday, March 10, 2007

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.


  1. Just want to say -- listen to the editor extraordinaire. She knows what she's doing. She edited my Ph.D. thesis and I passed my viva this past Monday. One of the examiners commented -- 'the chapters hung together in a coherent whole and grew and built on the others.' And that's what you want, in a novel, a thesis, or a picture book. And Chavelque is just the editor to help you do that. Thanks and kudos!

  2. Thank you for this! Something great to chew on on a Sunday morning!

    For me the sound of March is the drip drip drip of the icicles outside my window.

  3. This kind of post from an editor is very, very helpful to writers. Thank you so much for your generosity.

    Anonymous P

  4. Yes, this type of post from an editor IS very, very helpful to writers. And I do thank you, too.

    I know that posting takes up a lot of valuable time for you and yet you continue to share with us gems like these. Smooch!

    I do wish that more editors took the time to do this. I know it would be asking for too much, but I think over the long-haul, they would find less inappropriate stuff in their slush piles.

    But then again, maybe not . . .

  5. I don't have the 'economy of words' skills necessary for a PB (yet), but am itching to try one of these days. In reading aloud to my daughter, we've come across quite a few that continue on past the story's end. Sometimes, she'll even end them herself with an emphatic "The END!"
    For us, there are also those PBs where the character just has something special -- my daughter loves the Ella the Elephant books and the illustrations are gorgeous and the stories very sweet, but it's Ella's gentle but strong personality that we love most, I think.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on attempts to make past emotional events drive a story -- that is exactly the difficulty that I'm having with a YA WIP right now, and I couldn't quite figure out what was stalling me.

    So glad Spring is on its way!

    Long comment...'economy of words'...

  6. Whoa! EXCELLENT POST!!!!!!

    YOU ROCK!!!!!


  7. Excellent words of advice! I'd like to pass them along to my students.

  8. Crissa, one of your students is a friend of mine -- John Noe, the cohost of PotterCast. "It's a small world after all . . ."

  9. I really needed this kick in the pants and dose of inspiration. I don't know how you find the time to share these little gems, but thanks so much for doing it. As I revise my current YA, I should keep coming back to your discussion of plot structure and first chapters.

    I'll share this with my students as well--they just completed PBs and dummies and will be working on MG and YA chapters soon. Great advice!

  10. Thanks for sharing--I really appreciate your insights!

    I'm also not sure I understand the difference between this statement:

    "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 the kind of plot that revolves around "the Lack." They seem similar to me. Can someone clarify?

  11. Fabulous, informative post; thank you.

    A couple of questions, perhaps for another post, another time:

    What happens when you read a submission that you REALLY like, but you don't think will ultimately pass the Arthur Levine stamp of approval?

    Do you reject it with your regrets and a few notes?

    Just a regular rejection?

    What if you read a submission that doesn't flip your switch, but you think it's actually a good fit for A. Levine Books -- do you simply pass it on within the house?


    What if you receive a submission that you actually see merit in, but you're not personally in love enough with it to champion it at your house.

    Might you refer the submission to another editor at another house?

    (Do editors even do that sort of thing?)

    Or would it just be another blanket rejection?

    I think I have too much time on my hands, so there you go. :)

  12. Dang Cheryl! You never cease to amaze. That was a tasty post! Thanks thirty times a thousand!

    Would" The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley" be suitable for a fifth grade girl? My book-devouring niece is going to be eleven in two weeks and I, having the reputation as Super Aunt to uphold, will give her a tidy pile of the best books for a present.

    She's already read and loved Lisa Yee’s Trilogy. (Thanks Lisa!) I packed the niece off yesterday with a pile of Lang’s fairy books, a couple out-of-print fantasies called "Uncle" which are quirky and very British as well as "Summerland"

    Soooo... what else should I get for her? There is something so satisfying about giving a kid a "soon to be much loved" book It makes me feel mighty. :-)

    Anybody else have suggestions?

    Thanks in advance,


  13. I've read your post 4 times so far and each time I take away something new to think about. I linked here from my LJ blog this morning and many friends came and read and commented in their blogs. You've given us much to think and talk about. THANKS!!!!!
    Lisa S.

  14. CEDAR B. would be GREAT for a fifth-grade girl. I also recommend BEAUTY by Robin McKinley; THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall; the first Kate Constable book, THE SINGER OF ALL SONGS; THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan; and the new graphic-novel editions of THE BABYSITTER'S CLUB, by Ann M. Martin, illustrated by Raina Telgemeier.

    As for the Lack plot vs. emotional plots . . . Oy, I'm being held responsible for my words here. Let's see. I invented the Lack plot term because I couldn't figure out how to characterize PERSUASION in my plot categories; it's not a mystery, and there isn't a conflict really, so what's happening mostly is the slow drawing-together of Anne and Frederick -- the filling of that Lack in both their lives. And indeed, now that I look at it, both those characters are being driven by an emotional event that happened before the novel began (e.g. their breakup eight years prior). And yet it's SO AMAZINGLY GOOD, because of the depth of the emotion, the truth of those characters, the Austen voice.

    So maybe my answer to you, Anonymous, is that you've caught me out: A novel with a Lack plot is one that's driven almost entirely by an emotional event that happened before the novel began. BUT a really good Lack novel will have other things going for it while we wait for that lack to get fulfilled: a wonderful voice, a unique plot structure, incredibly well-done and appealing characters. (I'm thinking here of PERSUASION, CEDAR B., BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, and THE TIME-TRAVELER'S WIFE . . . It's a plot structure especially suited to relationship novels, it seems.) I think the problem with the grief-sodden characters I often see in submissions is that those things aren't coming through enough to make me hold on for the solution to the Lack. Does that sound fair? Thanks for making me clarify.

    And facelesswords, your questions deserve an FAQ at some future point, so I'll reserve them for that.

  15. I love that you love Persuasion, and I think you've pinned down why I love it (on a more personal level rather than a professional one--I love that Anne and Frederick's loss *is* redeemed). But I think the lack (Lack) in the story is the main point, not so much the event that happened previously in the story. That is, ... um.... It may be way too late at night for me to try to articulate this, actually.

    Oh, I actually have an author working on a book with a similar structure, and I told her that it's not so much that the character lost a friend previously, it's how that experience affects his relationships with people in the current story (with lots of action with a dragon kidnapping another friend in the meantime, so it's not the whole story). I think that Lack, as you call it, is what is the crux of the story, not the event itself. The event just precipitated the current relationships.

    Which is probably what you're saying, that the focus should be on what's happening in the here and now of the story, and that the backstory should always be in the background, or you're telling the wrong story. Right? I probably shouldn't try to comment on blogs when suffering from insomnia.

  16. Thanks for the insights. Much appreciated.

  17. Wonderful post. Thank you.

    And I did read CEDAR B. HARTLEY at your recommendation a few months ago, and loved it! It'll be my go-to gift for girls from 9ish to 12ish, and my son will really like it in a couple years.

  18. Thank you for your detailed response, Cheryl! (I'm the anon with the question about The Lack). So, it sounds like the ones you hate are ones where the characters start out with a pre-existing lack, and then spend the rest of the novel waiting for it to be fulfilled? And if it's in the background while something more interesting is going on, then it might add a (positive) layer to the story. If that IS the story, though, then there needs to be a sequence of MC action-consequence-further complication-more MC action until the climax becomes a conscious choice the MC makes to overcome the problems caused by The Lack. NOT that the MC marks time (by using a lot of kleenex) until The Answer is handed to them at the end of the book. (Does that make sense?)

  19. What a helpful post. Not to mention the comments! Thank you, Cheryl!

    Re: PBs, I don't think I could write one if my life depended on it. For those writers out there who do it well, my hat is off to you!

    Happy writing, all!

  20. lju(Dusts off hands and sits back looking quite smug.)

    Birthday shopping done! Hee hee hee!

    I ordered Cedar B. Hartley, Beauty, and Penderwicks. I'll pick up Singer of Songs and Lightning Thief next time I'm at Borders with a 30% off coupon.

    I've already lent the Wonder Niece my copy of Babysitter's Club, SIGNED by the adorable Raina. (We are fellow Girlamatic artists. I very much recommend her comic "Smile".)

    Thanks Super Cheryl! All is right with the world!



    "You know you don't have to
    be an actor when you read a book to a child.
    All you need is to simply love
    what you're reading.
    Even just enjoying the pictures
    together is a great start.
    When you share a book with a child,
    you're saying to them that
    books are important.
    That's a gift that can nurture them
    all through their lives."

    ~ Mr. Rogers

  21. Thank you, Cheryl. I look forward to your response! :)

  22. Cheryl,
    Wonderful as usual. Very insightful!

  23. Although my picture book ms has an "Ah!" ending I was told during a crit a while back, by the lady herself, that I needed work on the "emotional story". I was told there are editors who don't care as much about plot and just might publish my story as is, but if I wanted to take the book in a more emotional direction I had questions to answer.

    Thank you Cheryl! That push and the items you brought up, really helped me take my work to a higher level.


  24. I agree. I agree. I agree. Everything you mention are such common problems that occur in submissions. And I think you've nailed so many of the things that will make the different types of manuscripts stand out.

    From all of us on all sides of the slush pile, thank you.

  25. As an unpublished writer (why do I feel like I belong to a 12-step group when I say/write/reveal this? "Hello, my name is Christa, and I'm..."),I'm printing so many of your posts, I'm overdosing on Dell cartridges. Bless you for providing a wealth of practical, encouraging, and thoughtful information.

  26. Cheryl,
    You gave some wonderful suggested readings.

    I'm interested in reading some books you've edited. Do you have any favorites? Any that you're so proud of you want to stand in the children's section and yell, "I edited that one! Don't you just love it?"

    Marcia Maynard

  27. Thanks! That was like taking a class!

    Greg T.

  28. I read with interest The Essentials of Plot transcript and your latest blog, and while everything you said is helpful and rings true, I have a query regarding your comments about. The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley.

    From the excerpt you included in your plot transcript, I gather this story is written from the first person POV of a 12 year old girl, so would she have the maturity to say such things as:

    "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." ?

    While this is beautifully written, it does not sound, to me, as though it came from the mind of a 12 year old.

    Back when I was a shiny new kids' author (now more battered and inclined to rust), I tended to write everything in first person, until I learnt that writing from a child's perspective can be very limiting in terms of the language I can use - as well as the realistic observations of someone of this age.

    I look forward to your comments.


  29. I find Jenny's comments interesting and valid. The voice is too mature for the intended audience. However, the writing is awesome and poetic.

  30. Well, I believed Cedar's voice absolutely and I always have . . . Probably because her emotions and behavior are so much the emotions and behavior of a creative, intelligent, intense and quirky twelve-year-old girl with a slightly untraditional upbringing. From her references in the book, she loves Mahalia Jackson and Stevie Wonder and Louise Bourgeouis -- which I don't doubt her creator loves too -- and sure, those are unusual things for a modern 12-year-old to love; but I myself loved the Supremes and Claude Monet and I was fascinated by the atomic bomb at age 12. . . . Who's to say what's normal for an intelligent kid? What matters is if the author can make you believe it, and Martine Murray made me believe it by setting up the environment around Cedar so clearly and evoking those 12-year-old emotions so precisely. (I should also note the passage I quoted in my post comes near the end of the book, so Cedar has earned the right to say it by then.) YMMV, of course.

    Marcia, you can see the books I've edited at under the link "Annotated List of Books I've Edited." And of course check out for the rest of what we've published.

  31. Cheryl, where do you get the time to work in a highly charged paid job, with all that entails, plus write a very interesting, inspiring, informative, creative, and full of warmth blog? I think you must be Dynamo-Woman in disguise. Thanks for a great read - I'll be tuning in regularly.

  32. Thanks for your thoughts, Cheryl. What you've said about the book's character having an unconventional upbringing would, of course, have an effect on her (we are, after all, the sum of our experiences). However, I can't help but wonder if a child reader would relate to this character as well as you have. And isn't reaching kids what we are aiming to do?

  33. Yes, we're aiming to reach kids, but kids are precisely as one-size-fits-all as adults -- meaning, not at all. I would have loved that book at age 12, just like I love it now, and there are 12-year-olds out there who are like I was. (At least one of them has reviewed the book on Granted, the numbers of said kids probably are not huge, because it's more a reflective book than an action one, and I was a weird kid; but the weird kids deserve good books too, and it's possible to publish books for them as well as for the Artemis Fowl-loving masses. Read the book, and if you still don't believe Cedar is 12, we can continue this discussion then.

  34. I do agree with most of the points you've made, Cheryl, especially the comment about kids all being different and enjoying a wide variety of genres. As a young teen I was right into the likes of Harold Robbins (shudder,)Ray Bradbury and Stephen King (whom I still love). My only concern about Cedar's story, as I've mentioned, is that her voice seems too old to me, but, of course, I'm not in a position to judge until I've read the book, which I intend to do.

    By the way, I love this blog and appreciate your generosity in sharing all you know about the industry. Thank you.


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