Sunday, December 28, 2008

TO FOLLOW THE RULES, OR NOT FOLLOW THE RULES?

As a book reviewer, I often have to remind myself to regard each book as a consumer and not as a writer. This can often be a difficult challenge; especially when a veteran author goes against all the rules as taught to us by the experts, including the editors and agents who buy and represent our work.

I recently reviewed a picture book by a well-known and successful author and although Consumer Niki liked the book well enough, Writer Niki was flabbergasted. This newly released book totally went against the grain of everything we’ve been taught as writers desperately submitting our own work for publication. First off, at the recent SCBWI-Carolinas Conference I attended, the editor and agent who spoke, could not stress enough the fact that picture books should contain 500 words or less. This work was well over that. Personally, I have no issue here. I think many of today’s picture books tend to be so sparse and picture driven, that I sometimes wonder if we’re cheating our children out of the actual “reading” experience. Somewhere down the line it seems book manufacturers have labeled all our children with low attention spans and have changed the market to reflect that. Although that may be the case for some, I do believe many children can still enjoy and sit through a well-written story picture book.

Another thing I noticed was the many places the author violated the number one rule. Show, don’t tell! Over and over in the text I was told what a character said or did instead of actually seeing the character say or do it. Here’s a similar example of what I mean:

The instructor asked those of us who wanted to try out to play a song as best we could.

It seems to me the text would have read better something like this:

“Whoever wants to try out can play their best song for me,” the instructor said.

In light of my recent article, ABUNDANTLY ADVERB (See below.), there were numerous no-no’s tossed into the tag lines, and at one point, even a “suddenly segue”! What’s up with that?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not trying to bash another author’s work. Remember, I liked the book . I guess a little bit of the Green-Eyed Monster, has shown its head here. I, like so many of you, can paper my office walls with the rejection slips I've received.

So what is a writer to do? I’m not sure. If I had critiqued this author’s manuscript before it went out I would have said it was great, but not ready for submission. Shows how little I know. The best advice I can give here is to keep honing your craft. Unless you are a well-known author, follow the rules as best you can. Your work has to be superior in order for a publisher to take a chance on you in today’s tough market. As for me, I intend to keep my nose to the grindstone and improve my writing word by word. Taste is subjective and someday I’ll find an editor or agent who is as passionate about my work as I. And if, every once in a while, I come across a book that disregards what I’ve been taught, I will grumble a little bit. Yet, even with my gripes, my heart is deeply imbedded in children’s literature. Let it be known that I may not like every book that comes across my desk, but I will certainly be among the first to cheer for each and every author who finds their work in print. Publication is a hurdle many of us dream about but only few accomplish. Bravo!

-Niki Schoenfeldt

3 comments:

  1. Niki, I think maybe instead of thinking of these things as rules, maybe consider "what works." So many of the best loved children's books of all time break what we are told are the rules. In my opinion, they're more like "suggestions," because if you follow the suggestions, your writing will more likely work.

    I may not know what I'm talking about because I haven't sold children's writing, but the same kind of thing exists in adult writing. I've published many pieces that break rules, and that even have not done well in critique.

    The question, to me, isn't so much whether a piece follows rules, but whether it has an emotional impact, whether it makes the reader think, whether it brings delight.

    Then again, I'm not a children's book publisher, so take my thoughts with a grain or two of salt.

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  2. Thanks Jody. I think you're right. For lack of a better word, I used "rules" and yet, I knew going in that probably wasn't the proper terminology for what I was trying to express. In the words of a well-known pirate, I guess you could say, "they're more like guidelines." And yet, as with everything, there are always exceptions to the "rule".

    However, I do beleive those who have already made a name for themselves, are more likely to get away with stretching said guidelines. I'm all for marching to the beat of your own drum. Its what makes us each of us unique after all. But there are days when frustration kicks in and I begin to wonder if anybody will ever be interested in my own brand of uniqueness. Go figure!

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  3. I like to look at the Douglas MacArthur quote”

    We just have to know how and WHEN to do it.

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