KidLit Craft: Let’s dive right in. How did your craft book come about?
Mary Kole: I learn by talking about things. Sometimes too much. Ask my husband. Probably not the best way to start out, since you don’t yet know what you’re talking about. But I found that I could get a much better grasp on the industry by jumping in headfirst and…explaining what I was learning as I was learning it. So when I first started working in publishing in 2008, I started blogging almost immediately. Since I knew I wanted to focus on children’s books, I bought the domain name Kidlit.com.
I’ve been writing on there ever since. (Some years more regularly than others!) As I wrote, as I learned, as I agented, as I taught, and as I connected with writers in all phases of their careers, my writing craft philosophy started to crystalize. Early on, I read Donald Maass’ wonderful Writing the Breakout Novel. The format of teaching with examples really stuck out to me. It was–as we’ll discuss a little later–showing in addition to telling! I decided I wanted to do the same thing with a kidlit focus.
Writer’s Digest, who’d published Maass’ guide, was using me a lot for webinars and conferences and articles at that time. After gathering momentum on the blog for a few years, I put together a proposal for a writing guide. To be honest, few people get into publishing if they don’t also have aspirations to write. I’ve always loved writing and teaching and thinking about the writing craft. This book was the next logical step, and writing it was one of the greatest privileges of my life. I often hear from writers who are finding it fruitful, and it never fails to make my day.
Your content is comprehensive in Writing Irresistible Kidlit. What are the top three areas for development you see in middle grade manuscripts you edit?
Character development has to be the top area of opportunity. And no wonder. You’re creating an almost-living, nearly breathing person out of thin air. There is always room to add nuance, to create layers. Middle grade readers are capable of appreciating incredible complexity. They crave it, actually. They are forming their own identities, so they’re interested in the many shades of your protagonist. Your higher order goal as a writer is to connect emotionally with the reader, and there’s no better way to accomplish this than through character. So most of my editorial work focuses on helping clients tease out the character’s inner attributes. The word for doing this, I call “interiority,” and I use that to mean your POV character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
Plotting is the second biggest element that I work with on a daily basis. Most of the novels that cross my desk are slow to start or saggy in the middle. Or both! Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity that I see is that writers create a big reveal and hoard it until the end. The majority of the plot leading up to it is stalling in the attempt to create suspense. I would highly discourage this tactic. What if I told you that the reveal you’re clutching onto…should go near the beginning? That’s the exciting nugget of your story. So why not bring it into play and then work with it for the rest of the manuscript? One moment of shock value isn’t worth 200 pages of stalling.
Finally, middle grade is an especially voice-driven category. My advice to any and all writers is to read your work aloud. Every word. Yes, you’ll grow hoarse after a long weekend, and you’ll sound crazy to everyone else living in your house. But one must suffer a little for their art! Most of the well-seasoned authors I know will give you the same note. Don’t be shy, dive in.
“Show versus tell” is a mantra in the industry that doesn’t always get explained in any depth. How did you go about tackling this topic? Did you have any personal epiphanies during your exploration of “show versus tell”?
Maybe I’m stubborn, but I don’t take any writing maxim lying down. You hear “show don’t tell” all day long. Well, for me, what was missing from that conversation is, “Why?” So I did my best to answer that question in the book and in this post:
That logic behind why telling is a total ripoff to your readers is probably one the main pillars of my writing and teaching philosophy.
You’re a freelance consultant and editor. For someone who hasn’t worked with a freelance editor before, what can they expect from the editorial experience? Why might someone want to hire a freelance editor?
Editors are all different, and experiences are all different, of course. But the following is how I’d work with a client. Someone reaches out to me. I ask to see a writing sample to make sure it’s a project that I could contribute something to. Just like with an agent, you’re not just looking for the first person who’ll take you on. You want someone who’ll be a positive asset and “get” you and your work.
We sign an agreement and I set a turnaround deadline for the project, whether it’s a picture book, a novel manuscript, or a partial (one of my most popular packages is the Submission Package Edit and includes notes on ten pages, the query, and the synopsis–everything an agent usually requests). Then I dive in and write comprehensive margin notes on your manuscript.
I talk about everything, from characterization, to plotting, to voice. I’ll do proofreading, too, but, honestly, I am a developmental editor, so I’m really going to be delving deeper into all of the moving parts of your work. What’s working, what’s an opportunity for growth, and, most importantly, why? Why does it matter? Why would you think about changing this, that, or the other? As you’ve gathered, I don’t like to be told to do something just ‘cuz, so I don’t wag my finger and hand down pronouncements, either. I try to figure out what the client is doing, why they’re doing it, and then how to help them take it to the next level.
Once a client has notes from me, they are entitled to unlimited email back and forth for questions and clarification. They’re never stranded with feedback. Some clients are still asking me about their work or their next steps years later. It’s the least that I can do.
The highest compliment in my line of work is repeat business. I’m very proud to say that I have clients who hire me to read their revisions, their next manuscripts, and the manuscripts after that. I cherish certain relationships that I’ve had for years. Ideally, though, I am teaching them enough that they won’t need me forever. It’s not a good business plan, but ideally, I’m making myself obsolete.
When do writers come to me? When they’re just so sick of looking at their manuscript that they’re ready to claw their eyes out, honestly. Or when they find that they’re doing “revision” after “revision” but it’s only light tweaking. Bringing on another set of eyes on a manuscript is usually very valuable. Those eyes just have to know what they’re doing. If you’re thinking of bringing someone on as an editor, make sure you like the person and their work. Trust is a huge element in sharing your creative output with someone else. Getting the right editor with the right experience involved is like putting rocket boosters on your growth as a writer. You may get some challenging notes, but you’ll absolutely learn a lot in a short amount of time.
What advice do you have for writers looking for an agent?
Stop it for a minute. Honestly. I’m not just being cheeky. Nobody believes me when I say this, but the number one best weapon you have to win over an agent is a rock star manuscript. But that’s hard work. So a lot of writers try to engineer the perfect query letter or the most magical conference pitch or whatever, and that’s where all their energy goes. It’s perfectly understandable, because we all want our dreams to come to fruition. But it’s also putting the cart before the horse. Take your focus off the agent search, off Twitter pitch contests, off the “endgame,” and put it back on your manuscript, where it belongs.
If I could articulate one sin that most aspiring writers commit, it’s that mad rush rush rush to try and get agented right away. You’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to learn and hone in on your craft that way. And you could potentially burn some bridges by sending out unpolished work, then having to resubmit or pull your submission, etc. etc. etc. I saw it all the time when I had a slush pile. “Oh, sorry, I did some more revision because it wasn’t ready yet.” In a perfect world, aspiring writers would forget about publication until they could truly give a few years to craft. This certainly isn’t going to be a sexy opinion, but I don’t necessarily like to sugarcoat things.
What advice do you have for writers in the middle of their careers?
Mid-career writers need love, too! It can actually be quite lonely to have several books out. Most aspiring writers are dying just to have one, but being a multi-published author comes with its own unique set of challenges. I work with mid-career writers all the time, usually doing phone consultations to check in and strategize.
There are two main issues I hear over and over: “Help! I’m on the outs with my agent!” And, “Help! My book sales aren’t as strong as I’d like and it’s preventing me from selling new books.” That’s right, folks. Getting an agent and selling a book is not a guarantee of anything! Have I ruined your day yet? There’s a lot that can happen once that first contract is signed.
My two pieces of advice to address these two problems are as follows. First, be a writer who can pivot. If your track record in MG isn’t as strong as you’d like, zig when everyone is expecting you to zag. Write a killer YA novel or picture book, perhaps under a pseudonym, and get some fuel back into your engine. Keep learning and growing and you’ll never stagnate. A lot of mid-career authors fall into ruts but that doesn’t have to be you. Fortunately/unfortunately, you’re the only one who has control over it. Second, if you’re unhappy with your agent and you can think of five or more instances of neglect, miscommunication, or wrongdoing, maybe they’re not The One. The sad truth is, agents and clients fall out of book love all the time. As scary as it is to imagine being “free” after all these years, if this sounds like your situation, you might want to think about breaking up. An ineffective or dispassionate agent is potentially doing you more harm than good.
Life isn’t all grim for mid-career authors, of course. But that phase of the writing life does have its unique challenges. Your strongest allies will be other authors who are going through similar things. This is where you can really build and grow your tribe, and the SCBWI is a great resource for finding your peers.
What’s next on to horizon for you as a writer/editor?
Honestly, I would love to write another craft book. This time, on my favorite topic of interiority. I feel like I’ve developed enough material over the years to really get specific. I’m so proud of my writing guide, and I will be for the rest of my life. But the challenge of writing a single-topic craft book really appeals to me. And who knows? Maybe some fiction of my own. In all my spare time, ha ha…
But that’s just the thing. If there’s one thing I’ve said countless times, it’s that “butt in chair” time (at least fifteen minutes of commitment to the writing craft daily) is absolutely key. It might be time to practice what I preach!
Thanks so much, Mary!
You can find Mary at kidlit.com.
Kristi Wright (assistant editor) is the Assistant Regional Advisor for the San Francisco/South region of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and a writing mentor for the non-profit Society of Young Inklings. She offers writing workshops at the elementary school level with a focus on point of view and sensory detail. Her indie-published futuristic middle grade adventure series, The Basker Twins in the 31st Century, raises funds and awareness for a rare, childhood-onset disease, Friedreich’s ataxia.