Emma Dryden on plot: an NY14SCBWI interview

Emma D. DrydenHard to believe, but the annual SCBWI winter conference in New York City is fast approaching. Scheduled for Feb. 21-23 at the Grand Hyatt (which now sits atop a Shake Shack), the conference will feature keynotes by Jack Gantos, Kate Messner, Elizabeth Wein, and Sharon Draper, not to mention breakout sessions by all sorts of terrific editors, agents, art directors, and more. 

If you haven't signed up yet, you can do so here. But don't delay! These things sell out. 

One conference item that's sold out already is the one-day plot intensive featuring Sharon Draper, Kate Messner, Jill Santopolo, Elizabeth Wein, and Jane Yolen. But to make sure you're not entirely out of luck if you're struggling with plot, I interviewed Emma Dryden, who will be moderating the day's discussions.

A bit about Emma: Over her 25-year career, she's edited more than 500 books for young readers, ranging from board books through YA, and across the genres for each age group.

Books she edited, or were edited by a team she oversaw as a publisher, picked up starred reviews, appeared on bestseller lists, and won top awards. Among them: the Newbery, Newbery Honor, Caldecott Honor, National Book Award nominations, and Coretta Scott King Author awards and honors for authors and illustrators. (You can see the whole list here.) These days, she runs drydenbks, a premier children's editorial and publishing consultancy firm that provides editorial and strategic services to authors, illustrators, publishers, agents, and start-ups

In short, she's a total pro, and she's going to make sure that intensive session is a transformative experience for participants. Meanwhile, she has advice we can put to use now about plotting, about reading, and about whether seeking independent editorial services from someone like her is right for you at this point in your career. 

You're moderating the intensive on plot, which has been described as "the nemesis of all writers." Over your distinguished career, you've edited hundreds of books, and now you're working directly with authors through drydenbks. What are the most common mistakes you see writers make? 

I don’t like the word “mistake,” when it comes to writing—so I’m going to adjust the word to “oversight,” and say that the most common oversight I see writers making is not writing to the hearts of their characters and not allowing their characters to be the emotional and psychological heroes of their own stories. 

I read lots of manuscripts in which amazing, wondrous, exciting, memorable things happen to the characters, but what’s often missing from these manuscripts is how the characters, by the very nature of who they are and what motivates them and makes them tick, are changing and effecting things around them, how the characters are changing themselves, and how the characters are driving their own stories—and this is what I mean by the heart of the characters.

To my mind plot works on two levels—there’s the action plot and there’s the emotional plot of a story.  Emotional plot is much harder to define and much harder to express on the page, and yet it’s essential to creating a book that will thoroughly compel and engage a young reader.

What do you think participants in the intensive can hope to get from their day? And if someone was hesitating about signing up for one of these, what sort of encouragement would you give? 

The faculty guiding this intensive are some of the finest writers and editors in the children’s book business—not only are they consummate pros, but they are also kind, and they have themselves been in the very chairs in which participants are sitting. 

Writing is a lifelong process of learning, deepening and evolving craft—and the writing intensives are to my mind the very best way to assist a writer in honing their craft. Participants will not only come away with information, tools, (handouts!) and inspiration, but will spend time in the intensive actually writing--doing writing exercises, and tapping their creative wells in a safe, supportive space. This is a gift every writer ought to give themselves if they can. 

What are some of the favorite plot developments you've encountered as an editor and as a reader? In other words, what books should we all read to improve our understanding of plot?

I particularly love stories that have plots that offer surprises. I also best love stories that establish motives and goals in the beginning that are changed, deepened, and realized in some way by the end—but the caution here is that the structure of a plot is not something of which readers ought to ever be particularly conscious. Readers need to feel a story, which means the plot, informed by the characterizations, challenges, and world of the book, is the platform in which to allow readers feel as much as possible.

There are many fine writing and resource books about plot that writers can access, though I think an intensive or craft workshop is often the best way to hone in on some of the best techniques writers can employ to work on plotting.  

A few books for young readers that to my mind handle plot exceptionally well include HOLES by Louis Sacher, HARRY POTTER by J. K. Rowling, and HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh (a childhood favoriteand I include this title because it reminds me that the books we loved as children and that stick with us as we grow up are undoubtedly those that were a masterful blending of action plot and emotional plot that spoke to us on many levels when we needed it.) I just realized these are all “H” titles—not sure what that’s about! 

There are way too many excellent books for readers to read to experience great plotting, so the best I can suggest is for readers to keep reading consciously—really read with an eye towards whether you feel drawn along seamlessly on a journey or whether you’re feeling manipulated too much; whether you feel there are too many coincidences; or if the journey of the story itself feels somehow emotionally connected with the journey of the main character. This is but a few elements of a story that speak to successful or unsuccessful plotting.

How does someone know if they're a good candidate to work with you independently? Who tends to benefit most from your guidance?

I work with authors at all stages of their careers—and authors can get a good sense of my work ethic and work style from the drydenbks website (www.drydenbks.com).  Some authors do come to me at too early a stage in their writing careers, when they haven’t written enough and haven’t yet learned something about the children’s book world and about the basics of craft—and that’s when I will often suggest they join SCBWI, hook up with some critique partners, attend conferences, and learn a bit more about themselves as writers, about writing, and about the market before we work together.

More often than not, I find the writers who benefit most from working with me are of two sorts:  either the writer who has a good sense of the market and of their writing craft and goals and is seeking information about career strategies, writing strategies, and tools; or the writer who has been submitting to agents and/or editors, but who is getting rejections and needs to understand why their manuscript isn’t working. 

I do as much consulting as I do editing, so I am always open to a thoughtful query letter (NOTE: please submit according to the specific submittal guidelines on my website!) about pretty much anything a writer is concerned about their work, and I will work up a proposal that I feel best suits the situation and the goals of that writer.