Nancy Castaldo is the ring-leader of this operation, but she works with a committee of three or four very good people. They are all volunteers. One year they will focus on the novel, in another year they will do picture books, or non-fiction.
This was my first time at such a conference, and I was in awe of the other attendees: they were mostly published authors, came from many areas of the country, and were very, very accomplished. There were times when I felt out of my depth, and I always felt incredibly honored to be included among them.
There were four incredible editors from very high-profile publishing houses: Random House, Scholastic, SourceBooks,Roaring Brook, and Kathy Dawson Books (Kathy Dawson herself!). Each participant got a 25-minute critique from one of these editors, who had read the 20 pages we submitted ahead of time. We also got to spend a good two hours in a small (7-person) critique group, in which we each read five pages of our work and the others gave us notes.
A new feature this year was that on Saturday night after the program was over for the day (presentations by two of the editors), we gathered in a large room with a blazing fire and shared cake and read three-page passages from our work to one another. That was the best opportunity we had to hear what everyone else is working on. It was wonderful, very inspiring.
One of the presentations was by Mallory Kass, from Scholastic, who talked about "Mythbusters: Publishing Edition." Here's a summary of my notes from that.
- Myth: "You need to start your book off with a bang." Fact: I (the editor) want to get to know your character in the first page or two at the most. Don't confuse action with tension -- tension needs time to build.
- Myth: "Editors know what they are looking for." Fact: falling in love with a manuscript can surprise an editor. Ultimately, editors love story -- great writing, voice etc. -- more important than anything else.
- Myth: "Never tell an editor you have a plan for a series." Fact: Impress the editor with a complete, stand-alone, satisfying book. You can say that the story has potential for more, but don't try to sell a series. Write the one terrific book, and if it works well, there will be a demand for more.
- Myth: "Details are an essential component of good writing." Fact: insightful observations that don't take the plot further are not helpful.
- Myth: "You can't open with a prologue, with weather, or with a dream." Fact: Given the need to get your character across within the first page, there isn't usually time for weather any more. Some editors don't like a preface, others like a one-paragraph preface that introduces a character through their voice.
- Myth: "The editor is always right." Fact: editors are people who like to think about story a lot. Their job is to help an author identify their visiton for the story. Mallory tells about a time when she was wrong about a book during the course of pre-contractual conversations with writer -- had to change her mind and have a different re-write.
- Myth: "You need a romance in a young adult (YA) book. Fact: the character must love something, not necessarily a romantic interest.
- Myth: "Never begin your story with multiple characters in the first scene." Fact: Kathy Dawson says: See Three Times Lucky for an example of a book that introduces a whole town full of people in the first scene. It works if it is integral to the theme of the book. Mallory adds: "I want to know what your character cares about within the first scene."
- Myth: "A protagonist for children's lit always has to be young." Fact : This is basically a good rule, but content is more important. It's essential that the content be right for the age. (Think of Strega Nona.) Also there are great examples, like Madeleine L'Engle's works where the ages of characters are transcended by the work.
- Myth: "Kids will read up in age, but won't read down." Fact: This is a basically good rule, too, but depends on the theme. There are exceptions.