Every Monday in August we're hearing from writers about children's books and writing, in honour of Book Week. Today we hear from Marisa Pintado, commissioning editor of YA and Children's fiction at Hardie Grant Egmont.
Image source: Flickr / Klaus M
In honour of Book Week, I’m going to make an editorial confession.
Occasionally, when I have a pocket of time and must choose what to do next, I find the idea of getting ahead on one of my projects, or catching up on emails, more appealing than starting a new submission. I know; this isn’t what any writer wants to hear. But it’s the truth.
Every editor I know has an ever-growing pile of submissions that are waiting to be read and responded to. These manuscripts come from agents and writers, but also from friends of friends, random contacts, and your own dentist. The demand for an editor’s reading time can be overwhelming, because there’s an unending flow of writers who want feedback about their work. So maybe it’s no surprise that it can be paralysing to decide which manuscript to start next.
It’s not just about being pressed for time, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s more that the act of starting a new manuscript – the ‘first reading’ – involves summoning an unknown amount of energy to go on an eyeball-journey of unknown length and density, at the mercy of a foreign creator.
First reading is not like cracking the spine on a nice new paperback; it is a multi-dimensional, vigorous pursuit. For the first few chapters, it is exploratory, tentative, critical – but also wildly hopeful. It is starting a new manuscript on the train in the morning, bleary-eyed and fueled only by artisanal muesli and coffee, and hoping that this manuscript is going to be the best thing you’ve read in months.
There’s nothing I like better than when a story takes over my train journey, and my life – forcing me to read greedily until I finish the damn thing and can finally eat dinner – and this does happen, once in a blue moon. Being ruined by a great manuscript is the best thing ever.
But even when it’s enjoyable, first reading is a complex navigational task – feeling your way through the story, assessing the characters and motivations involved, ploughing through the rough patches, and searching for the things that make this book or writer special.
It’s a very active kind of reading, and requires constantly putting yourself in the shoes of the child or teen reader. Could a six-year-old sound out the word veterinarian, or should we just say vet? Would a fifteen-year-old who’s lived her whole life in an exclusive, nature-worshipping cult use contemporary expressions like hang out? (Do kids still say hang out?) Could a winged fairy-pony realistically use her tail to pull some honeycomb out of a hole?
(Yes, this part of the first reading is hilariously good fun, and also makes for the best workplace conversations.)
More broadly, first reading is also about drawing back and discerning whether the author has a voice, a strong grasp of story design, and the ability to create living, breathing characters. Whether the author can make you feel things, as the reader, and conjure atmosphere or tension or desire as needed. Whether they understand the child or teenager they’re writing for. It’s also about feeling for what’s not there on the page, and whether the writer is skilled enough to revise as needed.
Throughout all of this, I’m always weighing up the reasons to say no. The children’s and YA market is tough, and it takes a lot of energy, time and money to publish a book successfully, so the risks need to be examined. These could be a non-Australian/NZ-based author; a poor sales record; a lack of a discernible hook in the story, or insufficient commercial or awards potential; a promising story but weak prose, or vice versa; too similar to what’s in the market or on our list already; etc.
Unfortunately for writers, most submissions are rejected for practical and creative reasons. But if an editor has been sucked into a great manuscript, and she thinks any risks are worth it, she then has to figure out whether other readers will be sucked in too.
Not just young readers, or their parents, grandparents and librarians, bloggers and Goodreads reviewers – but also (and more imminently) her own colleagues in the editorial, marketing and sales departments, and the booksellers and buyers they’ll be selling to further down the line. These are the people who will spread the word and put a great book in the hands of readers. Without their enthusiastic support, a book is dust.
‘Great’ is subjective, and so it’s never enough to just say that you’ve been sucked in. During that first reading, you’re also feeling out how to pitch this marvelous new manuscript. What is it like or not like? Is it a romantic comedy or a comedy with romance? Is it a middle-grade adventure or an early-YA mystery? And if it’s not clear what it is and who it’s for, then what does it feel like it should be?
Most importantly, how do you describe the manuscript in only one or two lines, in a way that distinguishes it from the hundreds and thousands of other books already in the market? This kind of work is often best done during the first reading, when you’re inside and enjoying the story and its telling – experiencing it more freshly than you ever will again.
This is why I sometimes feel reluctant to pick up a new manuscript. The first reading is necessarily an active and important one, and it’s hard not to invest everything you have in a manuscript being brilliant – which frequently leads to disappointment, and having to write many, many more rejections than good-news letters.
But then again, that’s the agony and the ecstasy of first reading, and it’s a crucial part of having the best job in the world. Sometimes, just often enough, I start reading a manuscript that turns out be even more brilliant than I could have hoped – and I become just the first reader of many, many more.
Marisa Pintado is the commissioning editor of children’s and YA fiction at Hardie Grant Egmont, although she is currently on secondment with Egmont UK in London; she will return to Melbourne in February 2015. In 2011, she launched the Ampersand Project, an annual search for YA manuscripts from unpublished writers, and throughout her editorial career has worked closely with a number of commercially successful and award-winning writers.
Join us next Monday as we wrap up our celebration of Book Week with a comprehensive A-Z primer of young adult fiction with Danielle Binks.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.