Here are some notes I made from the last SCBWI meeting I went to:
At the July meeting of the Queensland branch of SCBWI Australia (The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), we were delighted to have Louise Cusack, author and manuscript assessor/development consultant/editor http://www.louisecusack.com/, speak to us about what to do after finishing the first draft of a story, and she also provided a lot of other great advice:-
Ask any editor what they look for in a ms (manuscript), and you’ll probably be told the same thing – ‘A good story and characters I care about’.
Stories are about people. The people you put in your story must come across as real.
Make sure it's clear as to whose story it is. In some mss, the main character is not the one the author intended to write about.
Consider each character as an iceberg. Only 10 percent of an iceberg appears above the surface. You will only show about 10 percent of a character in the story, but you must know all about the other 90 percent.
You must love your main character. Think of your best friends. What is it about a particular ‘best friend’ that you like most? Consider making that trait a virtue also possessed by your main character.
Each character will have a best virtue and worst flaw. Make sure you know what each is. (We were asked to write these down for our main character.)
In the first few (??3) pages, in the first scene, show (don’t tell) your main character’s best virtue in action.
Stories must have conflict - there must be an adversary, or a problem to be overcome. This must be the core of the story.
The main character wants (what is their goal?) because (what is their motivation?) but (what is the external conflict?).
The goal and motivation for the main character must be clear.
(Though stories for very young readers rarely have an internal conflict, those for older readers usually include an emotional problem facing the main character, which affects their life.)
The best external conflicts push the character’s emotional button (internal conflict), so:
The main character wants (what is their goal?) because (what is their motivation?) but (what is the external conflict?), and this really winds them up because (internal conflict). This is resolved by (ending).
The conflict has to test their virtues to the max and make their flaws show up to the max.
The internal conflict is affected by the external conflict.
The thing the character never wants to do becomes the thing that he/she must do.
In a structural edit, list all the scenes, then, beside each one, write down what it has to do with the main character’s goal. How does it help or hinder progress to the goal?
Always write from beginning to end of a story without polishing each chapter. That way, when structurally editing, it’s easier to discard unnecessary scenes. If they’ve been polished, it’s more tempting to keep them when you shouldn’t.
You should have confidence in your ability to edit and polish at the end – give yourself permission to write knowing that it will be edited and improved later.
Check all details for continuity - eg the floor plan of buildings is known, so you don’t write about turning left from the kitchen to the lounge at the beginning, but turning right at another point in the story.
If romance is involved, it is never enough to centre the plot around misunderstandings - they could be easily sorted out if the people sat down together or talked to each other.
If the main character falls in love, it is important to make clear the exact time when this occurs - never let them just grow in that direction.
To increase your own feeling of the reality of characters, consider cutting pictures of people from newspapers or magazines – people with a sinister look, a twinkle in their eye… , and create a collage of them all.
When writing a synopsis, first list all the evocative words in the story, then include a large number of them.
In a synopsis, most editors like to know how the story is resolved. They mainly read from the slush pile at night, in their own ‘free’ time. The synopsis must convince them that it will be worth spending their leisure time reading the sample chapters.
When a ms is taken to an acquisition meeting, the accounting department may ask how much editing it will require, ie, hours of an editor’s time at $x per hour. Is it worth the expense?
You may write well, but a ‘head hopping structure’, without flow, may lead to rejection. An appraisal for structure may help avoid this. It's a common reason for rejection.
Mss get rejected for simple reasons that you have no control over. A ms can be well written and rejected by one editor because they don’t like ‘time slips’, whereas another might like that plot feature.
Louise wrote seriously for eight years before her first book was published.
Never give up.
Write what you love most, because after you have been published, people will want more of the same.
Happy writing - may the words flow freely!