WHAT EDITORS WANT
A SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS (SCBWI) PANEL AT THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL, 18 AUGUST 2016.
Panel – Barry Cunningham, Chicken House Publishing
Lauren Fortune, Scholastic
Sally Polson, Floris Books
Chaired By Louise Kelly and Sheila M Averbuch
I was lucky enough to attend an interesting and lively panel event at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival in the esteemed company of an amazing panel of children’s/YA book industry heavyweights, so I thought I would share some of their comments and advice here.
Q. What does editing entail?
How much work we do completely varies from author to author. We are looking for something to identify with, or to be transported to a fantastic land, but the kernel is to find something you love and something similar to the feeling you had as a child when discovering your favourite books.
Editors are far more engaged in the process now and think we look for a manuscript in all its possibilities and for how it works in its broader sense. We could perhaps be seen as a ‘midwife for books’ but ultimately represent our readers and must look at how it will work around the world and in the context of how our other books work.
With debut authors we can tell if something has been worked on so much that the voice has been lost and so it is a case of having to go back to the beginning to re-establish that unique thing.
Have you got a good villain/problem/disadvantage? Children’s books tend to be about struggle. Maybe change the POV?
Q. What personality traits do you like in your authors and book characters?
I enjoy working with writers that like receiving feedback and are quite open minded in receiving criticism and are then able to go off and find their own way. For example, Ross McKenzie of ‘The Nowhere Emporium’ and ‘Shadowsmith’ is good to work with as he takes feedback well and writes excellent villains.
Characters – are they memorable and will they stay with me?
A general comment would be that if we commission a book, the position in the schedule can determine how much/how quickly it is worked on. We tend to do one structural edit – i.e. plot, beginning/end, characters, pacing…
Monsters and villains are so important. An example would be ‘Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes’ by Paula Harrison.
Things that are not so good: are writers reluctant to make their characters suffer? Would always encourage writers to put their characters in difficult situations.
We have to see the main character change. Linking back to the last question, ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was originally written in 3rd person, but when Kiran changed it into 1st person it brought it to life.
Also, it’s important for characters to have some loss as well as victory.
Q. Would you encourage reading as ‘writers’ as well as simply for enjoyment?
Reading is an enormous part of writing, you absorb a lot, sometimes without realising. Dialogue, for example, is hugely important and difficult to do.
Reading also helps writers to understand the market.
Q. What are the new trends in illustration?
MG illustrated fiction (black and white line pictures) is having a moment. It is good for more reluctant readers and we are very keen on this at Scholastic. David Baddiel and Jim Field are a great example of when an author and illustrator work well together.
Floris are keen on it too, but don’t have an author/illustrator in that field at present.
Chicken House don’t do picture books any more as are not keen on them and find a lot don’t have much story and leave the art to do all the work.
However, we are now seeing more illustrated content even in older books, including YA, which sit somewhere between the more traditional books and graphic novels.
Q. What about age banding? Are there any issues/shifts occurring?
Older MG is different in America where it is up to 14 years of age instead of 12 here, but a lot of books are being bought by a wide range of ages. For overseas markets we sometimes get advice to bring content down or similar and YA is fracturing into older and younger YA.
Age banding is more for publishing categories though rather than reader categories.
Q. Is there anything that you would like to see?
More diverse, ethnic, disabilities, plus a series for 6-8 year olds, e.g. ‘Thorfinn the Nicest Viking’. Are also looking for author/illustrators as don’t have a lot of these.
This can be influenced by the demands of the list. Scholastic is strong on series fiction, so are more looking for standalone stories, and would also like to see a YA fantasy. Anything page turning, cinematic, high concept.
For non-fiction we publish the ‘Horrible Histories’ books and would look at others to tie around an historical event or similar.
Q. What do you look for in a book?
Humour, superlative villain or dark force, great dialogue.
Would recommend that authors write complete character studies even though a lot doesn’t end up in the book as you will get to know the character better.
Q. What would be the main reason(s) to reject a ‘nearly there’ manuscript?
It could be to do with other factors, e.g. the existing list, or it doesn’t quite fit, or may need author to be in Scotland…
Can always work on plot, but is looking for an original voice and that bit of ‘magic’. It has to stay with her. Can pick up one page and recognise the author.
Whether he thinks he can work with the author and share the same vision. Mostly if don’t think they can work with the author to make it better.
- Should we use dialect or not?
Could use an element, but sustaining it for a whole book may be hard.
If it fits into a broader narrative would welcome it, but should always read dialogue aloud when writing it.
Plus a child must be able to understand it.
- What do you not want?
Something you’ve seen before told in a fairly familiar voice.
A misunderstanding of being unique, where people might think they need to be completely wacky and all over the place.
Would be scared of multi volume fantasy where the synopsis is longer than the first book.
“I’d quite like that!”
- Should writers look at current themes?
There’s no point as publishers and agents tend to be inundated with these and they would be likely to be over too soon by the time any book was ready for publication.
Perhaps look at themes but then strip out the actual theme and see what’s left that works and has the broad appeal.
- Would you advise authors to use freelance editorial services?
Not sure you can tell which manuscripts have or haven’t used one.
If we see something that has come from Golden Egg then ears immediately prick up.
So there you have it! I found the event to be very useful and hope my notes are of some interest to you too.