Straight From The Editor! #5 and Oh Susanna – How Do You Know When Your MS Is Ready?

Happy Monday, Everyone!  I hope you all had a wonderful weekend!

Mine was full of family, music, super bowl, and birthday cake 🙂  Not too shabby 🙂

I don’t know if you caught the half-time show, but I’ve got to say, Madonna is older than I am but looks way better.  (Also, there are those who say she sings better, but the jury’s still out on that one…:))  It may have something to do with the fact that she does dance workouts etc for about 17 hours a day whilst I sit at my computer exercising only my fingers and my passion for birthday cake 🙂  I think I need some legions of Roman soldiers to march around with… and maybe I should wear those thigh-high boots… wouldn’t they just be perfect for vacuuming and driving the kids to soccer?  I can just see myself hopping out of the car at the Cumby’s down on the corner to fill up on gas in that outfit… Or maybe strolling into Stop & Shop 🙂

google images – doesn’t that look exactly like me?


On to today’s news of interest!  First, we have Straight From The Editor.

You will recall Margaret’s pitch:

Working Title: Home Is Where The Bird Is
Age/Genre: PB
The Pitch:  Bird thought he found his perfect birdhouse – until he encountered the mouse living inside.  After a feather-raising experience house hunting on his own, Bird asks Mouse for help.  Mouse leads Bird on a hilarious tour of unconventional housing options.  As winter looms, will Bird accept anything but his perfect birdhouse?

Here are editor Erin Molta’s insightful comments:

It’s a cute premise. I would make it a tad more concise and add in some unconventional housing options. Perhaps something like this:

Bird found the perfect birdhouse, but Mouse lived inside. After a feather-raising house hunting experience, Bird asks Mouse for help. Mouse leads Bird on a tour of unconventional houses, such as XXXX and XXXX. Will Bird ever find a house that’s the perfect home for him?

I hope you all find this helpful and instructive! 🙂

Next, we have today’s Oh Susanna question!

Oh Susanna!

How long does it take for you to write a book?  What’s your process?  How many revisions?  How do you know when it’s right to submit?

I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

Dear I Don’t Know,

You ask excellent questions to which, I’m afraid, there is no specific or right answer 🙂  The long and the short of it is, the process varies from book to book.  (And in the following discussion, I’m sticking to picture books, since that is what I assume you’re referring to.)

But let’s see what I can tell you.  It takes me anywhere from a couple hours to a couple months to write a book, on average.  (This does not take into account the pre-writing time – the time where I’ve got part of the idea and it’s rolling around in my head but isn’t ready to be formulated into words.)

Once I’ve got enough of the idea formulated to start writing, I usually write out picture books in longhand.  I know – so last century – but there’s something about the physical act of writing, the flow of ink on the page, that facilitates my thinking.  So first drafts are most often pen and paper.

Once I’ve got a draft, I type it into the computer, and that is always the first revision.  The story never goes into the computer exactly as it’s written on the page.

The next part depends on the quality of what I’ve got at this point.  Every now and again (rarely!) I get it close to right the first time and the story doesn’t need too much revision.  But most times it needs quite a bit.  I ALWAYS come in at too high a word count, so there is always cutting to be done.   It takes a few tries to see how I can cut without losing my story – and in fact, hopefully, make it stronger.  Usually this part of the process helps me to make sure I’m actually telling the story I mean to be telling (or that I know exactly what my main theme, or the point of my story is.)  The number of revisions can vary from 1 to 20 or more.

When I’ve got it as good as I think I can make it, I PUT IT AWAY for at least a week or two.  This is a VERY important part of the process, because right when I first finish I always think this story is the best thing I’ve ever written and there’s likely to be a huge bidding war over it along with fierce fighting for movie rights 🙂  At this euphoric stage, my judgement is completely unreliable, and sending anything out in that frame of mind is a huge mistake… as I will realize when I take that story back out in a couple weeks… at which point I will wonder how I can have the unmitigated gall to call myself a writer at all and will seriously consider going to get a job at Stop & Shop bagging groceries!

Point being… always give your story a rest and then go back to it fresh.  You will usually see things you can make better.

As to when it’s ready to go out on submission, unfortunately there’s no exact answer.  Generally, you will have a gut feeling that it’s ready and there’s nothing more you can do that’s really going to improve it significantly.  (You can tweak forever, but there comes a point where you’re not really improving anything, you’re just messing around.)  But here are some things to ask yourself to see if you’re ready:  Have you told the story you want to tell?  Have you created a character we can care about, challenged him/her with something important and relevant, and resolved the problem in a satisfying way?  Is every word the best choice you can make for it?  Have you read it out loud to yourself, your toddler, your husband, your dog, and anyone else who will listen?  Have you had someone who has never seen it read it out loud to you?  (Often, especially with rhyme, this is crucial to make sure the story flows well.)  Have you had a couple beta readers or critique partners look it over?  Is the language lyrical, rhythmic, asking to be read over and over?  Does your story have re-readability (i.e. will a child want to hear it many times and will an adult be happy to oblige?)  Have you left half the job for the illustrator and given him/her plenty to work with?

If you have done all these things and feel that the story is the best you can make it, then it’s ready to go.  And sometimes the submission process itself will give you feedback.  20 form rejections in a row for the same story may mean it needs more work (or that you haven’t targeted your ms properly, but that’s a topic for another day!)  Rejections with any kind of personal feedback are a good sign and something you can learn from.  And of course, hopefully!, you will get an acceptance! 🙂

If you write a strong story that feels more like a one-time read (fun once, but unlikely to be asked for over and over) or that doesn’t have a lot of scope for illustration, you may have a magazine piece rather than a picture book.  That is great, too.  Not every story is strong enough for a picture book, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good story.  So make sure you have a children’s magazine market list of some type so you can target those stories too.

I hope that answers your questions at least somewhat!  I hope our esteemed readers will also chime in with their answers to your questions!

Before going off to scrub the bathroom tile grout with a tooth brush whilst wearing my Madonna boots, I just want to remind everyone about the upcoming Valentines Day Contest!!!  If you haven’t heard of it yet, click here and scroll to the bottom!!!

See you Wednesday! 🙂

46 thoughts on “Straight From The Editor! #5 and Oh Susanna – How Do You Know When Your MS Is Ready?

  1. Catherine Johnson says:

    Oh but Susanna I can see you in those boots. I'll race you with our CV's to stop and shop lol. Super feedback from the editor. Personalise with specific info was the gist then. Love your anser to a hard question. I'm soon going to sub a pb which is two years old and 18 drafts.
    You are too funny!

  2. Laura Marcella says:

    I write in long hand first, Susanna. I feel like I can get our my ideas better with the old-fashioned pencil and paper. 🙂

    You're so right about letting our work rest up after it's written! It's good to step back and have a less attached perspective when we come back to it for revisions.

  3. This Kid Reviews Bks says:

    I thought Madona had black hair or al least it was black when I saw her picture in the Guiness Book of World Records…. I liked reading how the editor suggested changing the pitch. I really like how you said to put what you write away for a while and then read it again. I didn't think about that. 🙂

  4. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    That is a very interesting question, Coleen! I think 1) They would get us up and march us around so we stay in better shape 🙂 and 2) They would be inspirational – as in, if you don't write something in the next 19 seconds, I'm going to throw this discus at you!

  5. Joanna Marple says:

    Really appreciate Erin's tips.

    I'm in for the legion of soldiers as my bodyguard!

    Thanks so much for the tip of considering submitting a manuscript for a magazine that turns out to not be so fitted to a picture book. I simply hadn't thought of this. I too feel the putting-away is very important for my process. Thanks, Susanna!

  6. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Hmmm…. I always thought of Madonna as blond, although I don't know if that's her natural hair color. I'm told some people dye their hair 🙂 And yes, I think the putting away period is crucial. It let's you come back to your story with a much clearer perspective.

  7. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I KNEW it!! Thank you for that important information!

    Cathy Mealey (unregistered) wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    According to Yahoo: “Madonna's height= 5 ft 3.5 in (161 cm)”

    So you are definitely in the range!

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  8. Penny Klostermann says:

    You had me laughing out loud at 6:30 this morning. Getting someone to laugh like that at 6:30 am is a true tribute to your Madonna-referenced humor.

    Great information about when to submit…which I haven't done for over a year…I did exactly what you said not to do-I thought I had written the best ms on the planet and submitted right away…luckily just to 2 people. Then, I got in a critique group and started revising and wished I could go snatch that ms back. You have some wonderful food for thought as I get closer to submitting.

    I really liked the comments Erin made for Margaret's premise. It is amazing how small changes make such a difference.

    And…amidst all the limerick writing, I did come up with a Valentine's entry. It started as prose…but quickly emerged into rhyme.

  9. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I'm glad you found useful info in the post and that the idea of me dressing like Madonna got you laughing at 6:30 AM… I am not at all insulted 🙂 And YAY! Entry #1! You are WAY ahead of me – it's apparently going to take me days to catch up from the end of last week's interruptions!

  10. Renee LaTulippe says:

    Excellent tidbits here, Susanna. I may have a follow-up question for you for next week: what do you do when you finish writing an MS and you DON'T think it's the best thing you've ever written? Do you trash it right then and there? Leave it alone and try again later? I'm in this position with my January 12×12 draft; I think there is a story in there, but I'm not in love with it, even after some revisions. What to do with it? When do you know when to throw them out? 🙂

  11. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    We can start a trend! Short women writers who wear Madonna boots! 🙂

    Renee LaTulippe (unregistered) wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    Hey! At 5'2″ and three-quarters, I'm also grateful to know I can wear those boots, too! 🙂

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  12. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    This is a really excellent question, Renee. I often have this problem. If I don't believe in a ms myself, I don't send it out. If I think there's something in it but I haven't pulled it off, I put it away and see if I can come up with a different way to tell that story. Or I try to identify what part of the story I like and see if I can work on it from a different angle – it might well end up being a completely different kind of story – different characters, or setting, etc… I actually wrote a story Thursday which is GACK-awful and, as is, will never see daylight. But like you're saying, I think there's something salvageable in it – I've just got to figure out what exactly that is and try again. But yes. Some stories I abandon eventually. They just don't work. And sometimes, when I'm not sure, I send it to my agent or an independent editor like Erin Molta and see what they think.

  13. Natalie says:

    Your Madonna boots! HA!!! I will have to say that Madonna is MUCH older than me and still looks better! 🙂 How does she do that?
    I loved all of your tips about knowing when a PB MS is ready to send out. I have never actually submitted anything, mostly because I don't think anything is ready. 🙂 Great advice, indeed!

  14. Clarike Bowman-Jahn says:

    I feel bad that I can't join the short writers who wear Madonna boots because I am 5 ft 6 inches tall.

    Good advice about putting your ms away for awhile. I even try and do that with my blog posts. I always see a way to make it better. Or not. Or realize like you that I was delusional in thinking I could get movie rights. lol

  15. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    Thanks for sharing your process. I think putting it away is an important step. I missed the Madonna performance. Hmm you've made me want to look it up on You Tube or something. I appreciate reading Erin Molta's feedback. I'm learning things from all of this.

  16. Stina Lindenblatt says:

    I didn't watch the superbowl yesterday. Now I wish I had. I'll have to google the show to see what you mean about Madonna. But if you do want to wear that outfit and dance around, please make a vlog for us to see. 😀

  17. Jennifer Rumberger says:

    Loved your thoughts on Madonna! Very good advice to the Oh Susanna, especially about the part to put it away for a while. It's amazing how much more work you can do after not thinking about the ms for a time. Thanks for the post!

  18. tiltonph says:

    Loved Madonna's performance. And, the TV ads. That's all I saw. Didn't make any rounds of blogs today because I got atother award and couldn't get around. Stopped my blog release today. People are really going to be tired of hearing about me. Really nice that Margaret got such good additional suggestions.

  19. Leigh Covington says:

    Madonna does look amazing. I don't know if those thigh high boots would work for soccer games tho. lol.
    And I love your “oh Susanna” days. Stuff like that is excellent. I learn so much.
    Also good feedback to get from the editor. So much to take in today. I love it! Thanks Susanna.

  20. Wordrendezvous says:

    I love the premise of that Bird seeks house, book! I'm glad to know you enjoyed Super Bowl time with family and friends. We did too! Thanks for your comment on my blog! I'm glad you love the new banner! Sara really is talented. I love it when illustrators share their view…especially since I am not an illustrator myself.

  21. Darshana says:

    Madonna did a great show, she can still rock it even 30 years later. Though I did think her dance style had changed, was a bit on slower side.

    Great constructive feedback from Erin on the pitch.

    Very helpful Oh, Susanna piece. I like the part you added in about how the story might work for a magazine. I had never thought of that.

  22. Robyn Campbell says:

    I looove your advice, Susanna. I needed to read this which is why I scrolled down looking for this week's question. And hey. I just had that thought about me. My book was just picked up for a daily show on Nick. (This is a frequent dream) I was beloved by everyone and my adoring fans adored me. That's when hubby said, ” Why do you have this in your story?” Talk about falling back into reality. The nerve of that man! Humph!

  23. Miranda Paul says:

    Great post! So much great stuff in it. I am so glad our power finally came back on so I could read it all. I'm in total agreement about putting the MS away for awhile…and with the fact that you can always keep editing…but at some point you might just be messing around! Knowing when to stop sometimes is crucial, too. Thanks for the post! Now, back to packing!

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