By Orel Protopopescu
Heather Flaherty, a Literary Agent at the Bent Agency, and Maggie Lehrman, a Senior Editor at Abrams Books for Young Readers, (as well as a YA novelist) addressed a rapt crowd at the Huntington Public Library on October 16, 2016 as part of SCBWI Metro NY’s On-the-Road series. Rapidly making their way through a pile of first pages, ranging from picture books to YA fiction, they were in remarkable accord, zeroing in on what made (or detracted from) an opening that worked. Published writers and beginners benefited from their expertise.
Some key points they made: Watch out for expository dialogue! Tell the reader what he or she needs to know by other means than through the mouths of your characters, who need to speak the way people actually talk to each other (with a cautionary note about dialect, to be used, if at all, sparingly). Go easy on exposition in the early pages of a novel. Watch point-of-view and tense switching. If you do it, make sure it’s working, not random. When you double-space a text, use 2.0 spacing, the industry standard, not 1.5, even if the guidelines don’t spell this out. Sharp-eyed editors can spot the difference. If you wish to tell a story in verse or rhyme, make sure there’s a good reason for doing it this way.
One of the few differences between the two: Maggie might find some work too grim for her taste, but Heather does not mind dark books or subjects, though she cautioned that books that are relentlessly dark don’t sell, so let some light in before it’s all over! “Sick lit” is drenched right now, they both agreed. You need something else going on in your story to interest publishers.
Some more crucial tips culled from the session: When writing for children, avoid diction that sounds too adult (aubergine instead of the word purple). Be sure that from the first few lines, your readers know what kind of story you are telling and feel that they are in capable hands. Even in a picture book, there should be some character growth from the beginning to the end. A story is a journey, so by the end, your reader should know the point of this adventure, why the trip is worth taking. Pay attention to the order of events in your story. Is the beginning you have the best place to start? Strive for variability of sentence structure. Beware, even in chapter books, of making your chapters too short. Leave reader with an anticipatory surprise or a question at the end of each chapter, eager to turn the page and find out what will happen next. Details are not mere ornaments; they should reveal character, develop story. Avoid the murky morass of overwriting or dropping too many names before we see and experience your characters. Start with action and intrigue, but not the moment of most intense action. Otherwise, where can you go from there?
Of course, Heather and Maggie shared much more than can be related in this short summary of a memorable session. We were left with a greater understanding of our mission as writers, feeling energized and eager to get back to work.
Orel Protopopescu writes poetry as well as books for children. She won the Oberon prize in 2010. What Remains, a chapbook (2011) followed. Thelonious Mouse (FSG), her most recent picture book, was an SCBWI Crystal Kite winner, 2012. A Word’s a Bird, her bilingual poetry app for iPad, is an SLJ “ten best” children’s app, 2013.