Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Archived Interview: Rebecca Waugh, former editor for Dial Books for Young Readers

Originally published in the August 2005 edition
of Writer's Tips from Jorlan Publishing


LJ: What are the most important elements a writer should include in a cover letter? In a query letter? Do we really have to sell you on the manuscript in 3 seconds?

RW: For me, the best cover letters are short. I want to know if you've published any children's books or published in children's magazines. Let me know if you've won any awards or have relevant experience working with children. If you're submitting a picture book there's no need to summarize the story. If it's a novel, I like to see a few sentences describing what it's about but not much more.

I know it's hard to boil an entire novel down to two sentences (!) and make it sound enticing. I wouldn't agonize over it, and simply let the manuscript speak for itself because that's what I'm going to look at anyway. I don't like query letters; I prefer to receive the full manuscript if it's a picture book and the first three chapters plus a synopsis if it's a novel. You don't have to sell me in the first three seconds, but you do have to hook me by the first page, otherwise I start to skim.

Actually, cover letters that try too hard to "sell" me on a manuscript tend to have the opposite effect. When someone is more concerned about the marketing of their manuscript or convincing me that the subject is a hot topic, it makes me suspect that the writing and the story aren't strong.

LJ: What makes you say "NO!" when you consider a manuscript? What makes you say "YES!"?

RW: That's a hard question to answer. If a story is very dull or confusing, that will make me say "no" immediately, but not much else. There are a fair number of stories I read that are pretty good, but they just aren't compelling enough to stand out in a crowd. I've got to love it, not just like it.

LJ: How can writers improve the odds of a) getting past the slush pile, and b) having a manuscript accepted?

RW: I think the one great misconception about slush is that the manuscripts aren't read. That isn't true! It probably takes longer for a manuscript to be read, but eventually someone will. The only way to have your manuscript accepted, whether it's in the slush pile or submitted by an agent, is to write a really good story.

LJ: If you ask a writer to resubmit a manuscript after making suggested revisions, does that mean it's a "sure thing"?

RW: Unfortunately, no. One of the reasons I suggest revisions is to see how well the writer will respond to my comments. I want to see if the writer is capable of making the changes that I
think the manuscript needs in order to be publishable. And in a broader sense, I want to know that we have the same vision for the manuscript. It's not unusual for editors and authors to disagree on minor points, but if we disagree about major structural changes, well then it's better to go our separate ways and not sign a contract.

LJ: Do you see advantages and/or disadvantages to a self-published author compared to an unpublished author?

RW: I think it depends more on the author, and how much time and money he or she wants to invest in self-publishing. In recent years there have been some children's books that received a great deal of press because the author was able to sell more than 10,000 copies on their own and that sort of attention helped them get publishing deals with big commercial publishers, like Penguin for example. But it takes significant time and money to promote a book on your own. Unless you are able to sell a really large number (thereby showing that you aren't just selling to close friends and family!), sending a self-published book to an editor is not going to give you an advantage over a regular manuscript.

LJ: It has been said, "You can't get published without an agent and you can't get an agent unless you've been published." How do we get around that paradox?

RW: The best way to get published is to work hard on your manuscript and make it the best it can be before sending it out to editors or agents. I work with authors who don't have agents, and authors who do.

LJ: Editors are swamped with "slush" to the point that they take as long as two years to send out a rejection letter ... yet many of them still insist on exclusive submissions. What are your thoughts on that, and do you foresee it changing?

RW: I don't insist on exclusive submissions because I understand most writers have to wait so long. And, unfortunately, I don't expect the average wait will get any shorter, because I don't foresee editors becoming less busy—reading manuscripts is only one part of an editor's job and there's actually not a lot of free time during the day. We've recently changed our policy at Dial to deal with the amount of "slush" we receive. As of August 1, 2005 our guidelines for unsolicited submissions now tell writers not to include a SASE and we'll only respond to manuscripts we're interested in. If you haven't heard from us in four months, you can assume we're not going to pursue your manuscript. At least this limits the waiting period and it really does save time not to respond to every submission. And again, we do read all our mail.

LJ: We love to hear about famous authors' rejections because it gives us hope to think that they were once where we are now. But how does that happen? Do they just slip through the cracks until an editor recognizes their potential, or does their writing improve as they pass through the refiner's fire? Have you ever rejected a manuscript that went on to become a bestseller?

RW: Editors definitely make mistakes. I've never rejected a manuscript that later became a bestseller, but I've rejected manuscripts that other editors have gone on to sign up. Weirdly enough, I like that aspect of publishing. Personal taste still matters. The flip side is when books that I love don't sell well; that's pretty disheartening. I can't speak for any famous authors who've gone through the rejection mill, but I have had authors tell me that reading the criticism and learning what didn't work has helped in the revision process. Also, I think sometimes when enough editors turn down a manuscript, a writer might consider giving it a break and trying something new.

LJ: Here in the U.S., the predominant themes at children's writer's workshops are: a) lengthy books won't sell because children have a very limited attention span; b) you must establish your main character's name, gender, age, and conflict within the first few sentences; and c) don't use adverbs, passive sentences, big words, exclamation points, or dialogue verbs. But wildly popular children's authors such as J.K. Rowling and Cornelia Funke break all of these rules. Did someone forget to tell the kids, or do you think something different (and more effective) is being taught in Europe? Are we Americans putting too much emphasis on rules at the expense of natural storytelling?

RW: Big question! Well, I can recognize the reasons why workshops would lay out these guidelines, and if you approach them that way—as guidelines instead of hard-and-fast rules—they can be helpful. It's a common problem I see that many manuscripts go on and on because the authors don't know where to stop or are trying to cram in too much. Telling people not to write too long is another way of saying: focus on your story arc and make everything count. The same goes for establishing the main character's identity in the first few sentences. That's not necessary in a literal sense, but I think it's true in the sense of establishing where your story is going in the first few sentences. I feel I can tell when an author can't decide what the story is about. (Of course it's possible I've been wrong!)

And I've heard this advice about not using adverbs, which I have to admit confuses me. Definitely don't overuse adverbs or passive sentences, etc. But ultimately it depends on your individual style as a writer. And when it comes to big words, I think the best thing to do is to ask yourself why a big complicated word is necessary. I suspect people who use them are people who just love language. I love knowing obscure words and their definitions! But using a really big word has to make sense within the context of the story. Ask yourself if you think most kids will understand it from the context. The older the audience you're writing for, the less of a concern it is.

So, yes, I do think it's better to focus on storytelling and not following "the rules."

LJ: What types of manuscripts are you most interested in seeing right now?

RW: I'm seeking funny or inventive picture books with a story that kids will easily relate to (not poetry or mood pieces); mystery/historical/humorous/realistic fiction for middle grade and YA; and narrative nonfiction that is not strictly school-oriented.

LJ: What's your best advice for us?

RW: Write a story that you care about.

LJ: Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and expertise with us!

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