Monday, October 10, 2011

Notes from the screener

Competition was stiff among the record number of applicants for our 2011 Weekend on the Water retreat. Whether you were accepted this year or even applied, you might benefit from the observations of our anonymous submission screener, because they’re so directly related to standing out in a slush pile or in an agent’s reading stack:

· The screener noted the difficulty of the ranking and selection process, not only because of the number of submissions but because the group as a whole displayed a high level of skill. Applicants as a whole are to be congratulated for making that strong impression.

· One factor that sometimes made a difference was an apparent mismatch between the elements or intent of a work, its writing style, and/or its intended age range — such as a YA character plopped into a middle-grade plot or vice versa. Or a preschool-age topic with a writing style more suited to older readers.

· A substantial number of submissions felt derivative of something already well done, e.g., wizard school or the teen girl who falls for the [insert vampire substitute here]. Press for more originality.

· There were a lot of YA submissions that used a first-person point of view. While it’s true that first person is very common in contemporary YA, the screener emphasized that the ubiquity of this point of view makes it even harder for a manuscript to stand out. Too many sounded the same. Distinguishing that voice and the character behind it is of paramount importance. “And pissed off or eccentric does not necessarily do it.”

· A notable number of submissions involved mothers with mental illness or depression. Be aware that this setup is looking unoriginal or overdone. How can yours be different?

· Finally, a large number of submissions were well-written but “meh” — nice but not knock-your-socks-off. Their authors may need to dial it up to get noticed. “Ordinary” and “generic” were two labels the screener used that you don’t want applied to your work. (And when editors say they’re looking for voice, they frequently mean they want something that’s the very opposite of generic.) This interest in distinguishing your work was a strong message from Chronicle editor Victoria Rock at our September Professional Series Meeting, too, and we’ve all heard it before: Great writing isn’t enough. Your work must stand out somehow. Above all, be unique.

The main selection criteria came down to voice and originality, since nearly all of the retreat applicants, accepted or not, submitted high-quality, polished writing. That’s good to know!

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