Reader Questions Wanted: A Cafe Chat with Elizabeth Law, by Lindsay Bandy (and YOU!)

IDA Design

IDA Design

Today, we welcome Elizabeth Law to the Eastern Penn Points Cafe. Elizabeth has worked in children’s and young adult book publishing for 30 years as an editor and publisher, and now works as a publishing consultant, and with writers on their WIPs.  If you were at our recent Grow Your Book from Seed to Sale SCBWI event, you already learned tons from Elizabeth, but in case you couldn’t make it, I invited her to stop in for a blog chat. Though we usually find a cozy booth around here, today we’ve got the floor wide open! So, come on in and ask your questions….Elizabeth’s here to chat!

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Lindsay: Hi there, Elizabeth, and welcome to the Eastern Penn Points Cafe! What can we get you to drink?

Elizabeth: Coffee, always coffee.

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Lindsay: So, I know our readers have tons of questions about the publishing industry. We’re sooo glad you’re here! I was wondering if you would share your editorial opinion about some key ingredients to a successful picture book? How about MG? YA?

Every book, whether picture book, mid grade or YA, has to have something at stake for the main character that we, the reader or listener, care about.  We have to connect emotionally! If you are writing nonfiction, your book still needs to tell a story that we care about.  Look at the work of Susan Campbell Bartoletti or the collaborations of Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet to see what I mean.

And now for a few specifics. When she was the picture book buyer at Borders, Ruta Drummond used to say, “Customers pick up a picture book because of the image on the cover, but it’s the story that has a child ask to hear it again and again.”  Watch out for picture books where you haven’t caught a listener’s interest with the problem or obstacle right at the beginning.

In middle grade, one tip to keep in mind is that less is more. Young readers pick things up very quickly.

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If your main character walks home after school every day with her best friend, and one day her best friend goes to another kid’s house instead, your reader understands what that means and the feelings your character has about it. You don’t also need to say, “Alice felt sad, and angry. Why did Mary go home with Lenny, and not with her?” Just show Alice not feeling like eating her after school snack, or slamming the door to her bedroom, and that’s plenty. (Another way of saying this: SHOW how Alice is feeling by her actions, don’t TELL us.)

For young adult books, don’t be afraid to be intense—just like teenagers are.

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An emotional reaction that could seem like overkill in a middle grade novel might be the tip of the iceberg in YA! Your character can be very angry, or burn for another character, or desperate.  Just remember we also need a plot.  At the same time, don’t try to be what you’re not and follow trends, either.  Write the story that you have inside you, that you’re passionate about, and the rest will follow.

Lindsay: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about time frames.

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I talk to a lot of writers who are biting their fingernails, waiting to hear back from agents and editors. We want them to know we are excited, but we don’t want to get too pesky. So, to be polite and professional, when should a writer nudge an agent or editor after submission (assuming their web site doesn’t tell us)? 

When should a writer assume it’s a no?

Elizabeth: Oh, goodness! I am sorry for everyone’s pain, and even worse, I know I’ve occasionally been the source of it. A brief  answer is, “send a short, polite follow up at 8-10 weeks, and re-attach the submission (making everything as easy as possible for the person on the other end).”

I wrote a blog entry last year on exactly this question and it includes specific advice for several scenarios. Click here to read.

I think waiting and wondering about what’s happening to your manuscript is one of the toughest challenges on the road to publication.  Editors and publishers need to own up to how much we keep writers waiting.  And writers need to take their careers into their own hands, to follow up and to move on.  (Again, see my blog entry!)

Lindsay: Now let’s open it up to the crowd. Got a question for Elizabeth? We’ll take the first 20-ish questions posted in the comments and Elizabeth will reply to as many as she can. (We can’t promise every question will be answered!) 

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Elizabeth: I’m really looking forward to this, Lindsay! I love talking about the kid lit biz, as we sometimes call it. Ask away!

Lindsay: Thanks so much for agreeing to regale us with your wisdom, Elizabeth!

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @ELawReads, and learn more about herand her services by visiting her web site!

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20 Responses to Reader Questions Wanted: A Cafe Chat with Elizabeth Law, by Lindsay Bandy (and YOU!)

  1. Eva Polites says:

    If a manuscript is timely, does it make sense to self-publish?

    • Eva Polites says:

      I should added–time sensitive as well as timely.

      • elawreads says:

        My answer may surprise you, Eva. In some cases with a time-sensitive project, a publisher will also be motivated to get the book out quickly. Simon and Schuster, for example, “crashes” (the publishing term for getting a book out really fast) topical and timely books a lot. Last year they acquired, printed and published What Does the Fox Say? in two months time, for example, to coincide with the song’s video release and promotion.

        Of course, you have to have a topic so strong and of-the-moment that a publisher is willing to do what it takes to get the book to happen quickly. But if you self-publish, you may be able to get the book produced quickly, but you’ll also have to set up the publicity and distribution yourself–which is where a publisher might really help. If you have a good plan for making the book available and getting people to know about it then self-publishing can really work.

  2. Lizzy says:

    Hi Elaw! Does a query letter have to describe the whole story arc, or can it just whet the reader’s appetite?

    • elawreads says:

      A query should whet the appetite. An agent or editor can always request a synopsis if they want to know the whole arc, but a lot of us want to read the story ourselves to find out what happen–or at least that’s what we want when the story is good enough.

  3. I’m curious about submitting different manuscripts over time to the same agent. If an agent has “no responsed” or rejected several manuscripts, what are the chances if they like a future one and agree to represent someone, that they will be willing to re-entertain a previous submission that didn’t catch their eye?

    • elawreads says:

      You’re asking if after an agent agrees to represent you, will he or she re-consider previous work of yours? Ask ’em! If you’re genuinely reticent to ask the question, I need to inquire if you have the right agent for you, one with whom you truly collaborate on your career. Ask the agent why he or she didn’t think the book would sell, and then listen to what he or she says.

  4. JR says:

    First, I’m a huge fan, Elizabeth!

    A) What happened with EgmontUSA? Has anyone written a behind-the-scenes take on the rise and fall?
    B) I tend to write ‘cold,’ and get a lot of editorial comments saying, basically, just tell us: “Alice felt sad, and angry.” I’m feeling that there’s probably more room for ‘telling’ than ‘showing’ in MG; this is just due to my own shortcomings, and not a genre-wide thing?
    C) Any holes in the marketplace at the moment, of which you’re aware? What genres feel overbought?
    D) Have you every said anything sufficiently impolitic on social media to cause a Firestorm of Sanctimony?
    E) Are you doing freelance editorial work at the moment? What services do you offer ?

  5. JR, Wow, that’s a lot of questions! I’ll answer a few now and come back later and do the others.
    A) What happened with Egmont USA is exactly what the company said in its press release. The parent company, in Denmark, wanted to focus on its businesses where it had a market-dominant position. So it closed Egmont USA! I was very happy to see that Lerner picked up most of the titles that were due to be published, because none of us wanted to see those brilliant, wonderful, gifted Egmont authors left without a publishing home.
    B) So, you write “cold?” I wonder if the editorial comments you get are telling you that the reader is not yet emotionally invested in what happens to your character? And yes, you can certainly tell us what your character is feeling–but those feelings need to come from what happens in the story. When I read a good middle grade novel, I feel like I know the main character. I see him or her in his world, in his home or school, and I know what hurts and what makes him tick. And what he really wants to have happen by the end of the story. Are you giving us those things?
    C and D) I’ll answer these later today — these are all really good questions, JR!
    E) Yes, I’m available to work with writers and artists on their works in progress, on their queries, and to consult on their careers. Just drop me a line through my website at elawreads.com.
    And finally, thanks, JR, for your kind words.

    xxElizabeth

    • And now to answer JR’s question C). Publishers and agents all seem to tell me they are looking for middle grade fiction, and for funny for all ages. And of course there’s the elusive “boy book,” which would take an entire blog post to speak about, but let’s just call that a book boys would like as well as girls. Recently I’ve seen people pull back from sci fi and futuristic, not just in YA but also in middle grade. There’s a theory that outer space books don’t work in middle grade, and there were a couple of kid-oriented big movies about space that tanked (such as “Mars Needs Moms.” Remember it? Probably not), but I wonder if, with the success of The Martian, we’re going to see mainstream Sci Fi given one more shot.

      Meanwhile, about our desperate need for multi-cultural, ethnically diverse titles? It’s true, and as a general rule these titles sell better if set in the US. (Actually, books set in the US usually sell better here whether they are multi-cultural or not.) If you heard me speak at the Eastern Pennsylvania SCBWI, keep in mind one of my tips: if you’re not comfortable portraying a particular ethnicity or writing in a particular dialect, please don’t try to force it. That almost never works.

      • JR says:

        Thanks, Elizabeth, for all the answers!

        Very interesting about ‘boy books’ and sf. I’ve heard that about boy books before, and have wondered if it’s the kind of thing that editors want but … don’t really know what to do with. I’ve had a few published and I’m not sure there’s much relationship between wanting to see them and knowing how to sell them! (Of course, this could just be a failing in my own writing …)

        The diverse books question is an interesting one. I completely agree that we need more diverse books, but writers will write what editors are buying, and editors will buy what’s selling. So I kinda think that instead of of We Need Diverse Books, we need a movement called We Need to BUY Diverse Books.

        Thanks again. I’ve (non-creepily, honest!) followed you for a while, and you’re always so knowledgeable and charming.

  6. Nick B says:

    I’ve gotten different feedback on my manuscript- some say it’s YA but I’ve also heard it’s middle grade. How can I tell which it is. I’m not sure how to submit it.

    • elawreads says:

      Oh, that’s an interesting question. The good news is, I wouldn’t really worry about the distinction too much–if the story is good and an agent or editor likes it, he or she will help you figure out how to categorize your book. But to answer more specifically, is the character 13 years old or older? Then it’s almost certainly young adult. Sometimes a manuscript can have a character who is, say, 13 years old, but his thoughts and problems can seem more suitable to a middle grade manuscript. Then we suggest the writer “age the character down” to, say, 11. And sometimes a manuscript about a kid who’s only 12 can be so intense and personal I might ask “would you consider making her a year or two older?” Because it’s more or less a universal rule: kids want to read books about kids older than they are, not younger. I hope this is helpful!

  7. Verity says:

    Most of my manuscripts are in rhymed verse, and a couple of editors at conferences have said they don’t want rhymed picture books. But some of my son’s favorite books are ones that rhyme. So why do I keep hearing that no one wants stories that rhyme?

  8. Verity says:

    By the way, Elizabet, I love your blog!

  9. Susan Hughes says:

    Hello Elizabeth,

    It’s wonderful to be able to ask you a question! Like you I consult with writers, doing critiques and developmental edits on works-in-progress, primarily children’s book manuscripts from picture books to YA. I come to this with years of experience as an editor of educational and trade materials, and also as an author of over … oh, about 25 or 30 children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction.

    I’m wondering if you have any advice about how I can offer my services more widely. I really REALLY enjoy the hours of my week dedicated to helping writers polish their narratives, especially new writers, and their complimentary feedback inspires me. I love writing and am always trying to find more time to squeeze it into my days but it would be wonderful to have more writing clients.

    Thanks so much for any suggestions you can offer.

  10. Nick B says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Elizabeth. It is really helpful. I think I may need to re think the age of the character, as you said.

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