We are excited to be hosting a FREE webinar series this summer dedicated to those all-important first impressions. We call it “First Page Center Stage.” In this webinar series, industry professionals will provide live feedback of participants’ First Pages (for manuscripts) or First Looks (for illustrations). Each webinar in the series will focus on a single category: PB, CB, MG, YA, and NF. The third webinar in the series will be led by Feiwel & Friends and Swoon Reads Senior Editor Holly West, who will be giving first pages feedback for YA novels on August 19. To find out more about the webinar series and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-first-page-center-stage/ and for information about our critique giveaway, keep reading!
In preparation for the webinar, Eastern PA SCBWI’s PAL Coordinator, Lindsay Bandy, was able to chat with Holly recently at our virtual café. Here’s what they had to say!
A Café Chat with Editor Holly West, by Lindsay Bandy
Lindsay: Hi there, Holly, and welcome to the EasternPennPoints Café! Can we get you something to drink as we settle in?
Holly: I’ll grab a coldbrew coffee.
Lindsay: And how about something to munch on?
Holly: Avocado toast for me . . . unless there are scones!
Lindsay: We’ve got a whole case of scones, and I think you and I can make a serious dent in that case if we work together. So, fangirl to fangirl, what have you read and loved recently—and how did the first page hook you?
Holly: Ummm . . . to be honest, I haven’t had a huge amount of time for non-work reading, so most of the stuff I’ve been reading and loving recently are books for work, either manuscripts that I’m actively editing or submissions I am hoping to acquire, and none of them are out yet, so it’s a bit hard to fangirl over them together. Although, I did just start reading The Good for Nothings by Danielle Banas, which is a sci-fi novel with a sense of humor about a Guardians of the Galaxy-style crew of prisoners, which opens up mid-heist with a guard laughing at the main character.
But, if I’m allowed to gush a bit about books I’ve worked on, I’ve got a couple of great first page examples. In YA, I will always go back to Tricia Levenseller’s The Shadows Between Us. The first lines are: “They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart. And they never will.” There’s so much drama there, and a bit of an unexpected reversal. Just from those two sentences you can get a good sense of the kind of character that Alessandra is. The author describes the book as a villainous love story, and the first page shows you just how ruthless Alessandra can be. Especially when she’s slighted.
Or for a lighter, more humorous tone, I really love the introduction to Mike Thayer’s middle grade novel The Double Life of Danny Day: “My name is Danny Day. I’ve ditched school 346 times, and I still have perfect attendance. I broke my leg last week, but I don’t have a cast. I never study for a test or quiz until I’ve seen what’s on it. I’ve played more than four thousand hours of video games in the past three years, and yet my parents have hardly seen me play. How is this all possible, you ask? Well, the answer is pretty simple: I live every day twice.” Again, right away, you get a strong sense of character and voice from just the opening sentences, and as a bonus, the author illustrates the main hook right in the first paragraph. This is a book about a kid who lives every day twice, and right from the start you can see the advantages that gives him.
Lindsay: Is it just me . . . or are you seeing a sort of . . . twinkling in here? Woah. Um, Holly, look over there by the bakery case! It’s your fairy godmother, offering you calorie-free scones AND ready to grant life to one fictional book character. He, she, or they will magically materialize to become your BFF. However will you choose?
Holly: Oh no! Not choices. Choices are the worst! But if I have to choose . . . I think I’d love to be BFFs with Daine from Tamora Pierce’s The Immortals series. She’s strong and tough and smart and very protective of her friends. And she has wild magic, so she can talk to/heal/shapechange into animals!
Lindsay: Well, the fairy godmother is in a generous mood today, and she has decided to arrange for the band, singer, or musician of your choice to record a custom soundtrack for an upcoming book you’re excited about. Tell us about the book and who would cut the perfect record to accompany it.
Holly: Okay, so . . . here’s the thing. I love to listen to music, but I really don’t think in terms of favorite bands, singers, or musicians, or of creating custom soundtracks. If I need a playlist, I borrow/steal one from someone else, or let YouTube Music’s algorithms create one for me. I tend to be more visual . . . so, maybe we could convince my fairy godmother to have DreamWorks Animation Television make a Netflix animated series for me? I would LOVE to see Aiden Thomas’s upcoming duology The Sunbearer Trials (F22) and Celestial Monsters (F23) brought to life. Inspired by Latinx culture and mythologies, Aiden has created a really bright and vibrant fantasy world featuring a trans semi-dios, who is unexpectedly chosen to compete in The Sunbearer Trials. Winners gain fame and glory, but the loser is sacrificed as part of a ritual to keep the sun shining in the sky. Aiden’s writing is so beautiful and atmospheric and, even in these early drafts, I already am head over heels in love with these characters, and I really feel like this is the kind of story and world that would just shine in animation. Bright and bold and filled with action and supernatural powers and creatures.
Lindsay: Do you have any pet peeves or automatic “That’s a no from me” triggers when reading through YA submissions?
Holly: I have a few. My three biggest pet peeves are:
1) when authors are writing in a contemporary setting and don’t take technology into account. I get really annoyed when a major plot problem could be solved by texting someone or by Googling something on the internet.
2) when authors overuse their thesaurus and pick the wrong words. I feel like this often happens in an effort to avoid repetition, or when authors are trying to be more poetic in their descriptions, but I always find it distracting. A few times is understandable, but if it happens too often, it will make me put the book down. I would much rather have a plainer or repeated word with the right meaning than trip over a more poetic term that is wrong, or which might be technically correct, but has the wrong connotations.
3) “issue” books. I don’t mind addressing some hard topics in my books, but for me, the story and the characters need to come first, and I tend to get annoyed when it feels like the author is pausing the story to lecture me on something (whether or not I agree with the message).
As for automatic “no” triggers, I’m probably not the right editor for books featuring rape or sexual assault, or for books about cancer or other really serious illnesses, or for books with tragic endings that are meant to make you cry.
Lindsay: We all know that even successful writers deal with rejection on the path to publication. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors as they receive feedback and navigate subjectivity while seeking to create the best manuscript possible?
Holly: Don’t lose heart, and don’t sacrifice the soul of the book. First, make sure you are sending your book to the right agents and editors. Do some research and confirm that these are people who love the kinds of books you are writing. Not every book is for every reader, and the same is true for editors and agents. Then, once you are sure that your feedback is coming from the right people, take time to think about it. Step away from the feedback for a bit, and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Is there something in the feedback that you connect with? Something that makes you go, “Oh! Yes! I see how that could work”? If so, then run with it! But make sure that any changes you make feel right to you. This is your book, and there is something about this story that you love, some element that inspired you to write it, and you need to keep track of that as you start revising. And if you feel like a revision or change is threatening those elements, then you should step back and see if there is some other way to approach the issue. Because the most important thing is to make a book that you are happy with and proud of!
Lindsay: Okay, it seems that the fairy godmother is standing near the restrooms somewhat awkwardly. She either needs to go potty, or she’s waiting to give you one more wish. Um, what’s that? Another wish? Okay! This time, you get to give her THREE adjectives to describe the perfect YA book that will make your editorial dreams come true!
Holly: Smart, snarky, and sneaky
Lindsay: Adjectives and alliteration? That is magical. Thanks so much for hanging out with us today, Holly! We can’t wait to learn more from you at First Page Center Stage, and we hope all of your bookish dreams come true 🙂
Holly West is a Senior Editor at Feiwel & Friends and Swoon Reads, imprints of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. She has worked with authors such as Mo O’Hara (My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish); Emmy Laybourne (Monument 14); Tricia Levenseller (Daughter of the Pirate King); Sarah Cannon (Oddity); Dustin Hansen (Game On!); and Aiden Thomas (Cemetery Boys). She edits books for kids and teens of all ages, with a focus on fantasy, sci-fi, and other genre elements, along with a few (mostly tech and video game related) nonfiction titles. In general, she’s drawn to books that feature smart kids and combine magic, technology, and whimsy with snark and heart. She would almost always rather laugh than cry, and likes to describe her job as being a professional fangirl: it allows her to look through all the pop culture shared with her, find stories to fall deeply in love with, nitpick over them obsessively until they are as close to perfect as possible, and then shove them at other people with great enthusiasm.
To find out more about our First Page Center Stage FREE webinar series and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-first-page-center-stage/.
Eastern PA SCBWI is giving away a free written critique with literary agent Masha Gunic (Azantian Literary Agency) for a middle grade or YA manuscript (first 10 pages plus 1-page synopsis) to one lucky Eastern PA SCBWI member! To enter, please comment on this blog post before 9:00 p.m. EST on Friday, July 16, 2021. We will choose the winner at random from those who comment. Must be a current Eastern PA SCBWI member to be eligible. Please include your full name as it appears in your SCBWI membership. If you’d like to comment on this blog post but not be entered to win (e.g., if you are not an Eastern PA SCBWI member or if you are not interested in a critique), simply state that along with your comment.) Materials for the critique are due August 13, 2021. The winner will be announced in the comments section of this blog post, so check back after the deadline to see if you’re our winner! Instructions for submitting materials will be sent to the winner.
And be sure to keep your eye on our blog in the coming weeks for more critique giveaway opportunities for this webinar series!