A question-answer session live on Facebook with Tulika's Publishing Director Radhika Menon on what makes a good manuscript.
Shyamala Shanmugasundaram of Kahani Takbak invited me to do a live Facebook video chat on the site. I agreed though I was not comfortable at all about being ‘out there’ talking to an anonymous group of people via a blank mobile screen! It turned out to be surprisingly interactive and I was soon past my initial reservations. Being the first to go on video there were glitches and the sound was not clear at all. So I thought I would put down the questions and answers as these are common questions of people sending in manuscripts. The first few were sent by Shyamala to start off the session.
Are there seasonal and evergreen themes?
There are no seasonal or evergreen themes we look for. An imaginative idea, a well-told story, visual possibilities of an idea or story, unusual themes or approaches, are some of the things that make us sit up. Good writing is most often the clincher. We do get manuscripts with a great idea but not written very well. We then work very closely with the writer to polish it up. We tell them at the outset to make sure that they are open to it.
Do international trends affect your choice of manuscripts?
When should you bury or rework a manuscript?
I suppose when your manuscript gets rejected a couple of times you should relook at it and decide to rework it. If you hit a dead end, then maybe you should bury the manuscript. Going back to it a few months or even a couple of years later — we hear of authors doing that — might help.
How to identify red flags in a manuscript?
Gender, class, caste stereotypes are always red flags and there is no compromise on that. But sometimes the effort to break it is so heavy handed and clichéd that it can be as off putting!
A common thread in the manuscripts we get are the stereotypical and predictable ways of making a story Indian – festivals, clothes, traditions, food, relationships, nostalgia for the good old way of life and so on. Not that these are taboo – not at all, but they have to be part of a good story and not the story itself! A theme or a topic for its own sake just doesn’t usually work.
When such themes are picked what is often conveyed, inadvertently perhaps, is that they are representative of ‘Indian’ culture. For instance, by going into the specifics of a festival, say Diwali, and talking only about oil baths and multi-coloured kolams and new clothes and the aroma of delicious sweets, you are talking about an experience only a small section of children can identify with. Diwali is celebrated in so many different ways, and there are many who don’t celebrate it. Good stories reflect this awareness and create the space for a broader understanding. This is where the skill and imagination of a children’s writer comes in.
When you have written a story like that it would be useful to ask yourself some questions.
- What age group is the story aimed at?
- Does anything happen in the story that will grab the interest of a young reader today or is it just a description of details with not much of a storyline?
- If the aim is to ‘educate’ the reader about traditions or a way of life, how relevant is it? Whose traditions are we talking about?
- Does it allow the reader to understand that there is no one way of doing things?
§ But writing a good picture book is not about ticking the right boxes. Picture books, by their very nature, offer creative possibilities to writers and illustrators to make stories inclusive, to reflect diversity. Unfortunately very often when you use words like diversity, inclusiveness and so on, it is assumed that such books can’t be fun! That is missing the point about what makes a good picture book.
Our picture booklist has fun and wacky books, informational books, books with thought provoking themes, real and fantasy stories, folk and contemporary stories, as well as wordless picture books and baby board books – it is a very wide range.
Our larger list extends beyond picture books to fiction and non-fiction for pre-teens, teens and young adults.
For our fiction list, we do look for themes that are different, unusual, that tell stories of non-mainstream characters and experiences. But the bottom line for us is a great story not restricted by labels.
Do query letters affect the acceptance of a manuscript?
No, they don’t. We do say that it will take three months for us to review, so would appreciate it if the queries come after that. And I must add that we are not always able to keep to the three month’s promise, much as we would like to, because of our workload.
The next few questions were typed in by the participants who had logged into the session.
What is the ideal length of fiction for the 8-10 age group?
At least 12,000 words.
Do manuscripts have to be submitted in English? Do you accept manuscripts in other languages?
We do accept manuscripts in other languages for picture books. In fact, we welcome it. The stories have a tone and flavour that we don’t find in manuscripts written in English. But we would appreciate a synopsis in English.
How many editors read a manuscript before it is accepted?
At least three – ideally all five.
Do you accept manuscripts every month?
Do you choose manuscripts based on how well they lend themselves to translation?
That is a strong consideration for picture books. But if it does not and it is a manuscript that really appeals to us then we do decide to publish it only in English.
How far do trends influence your own choice of manuscripts?
Actually they don’t at all.
What is the word count for a picture book aimed at 5- to 6-year-olds? They seem so picture rich...so how long is the manuscript for such a book?
About 500 to 700 words ideally. If it for 7 and 8 year olds we do look at longer texts of about 800 to 1000 words.
What do you think about picture books that rhyme?
We think they work very well. Surprisingly well in translation too. There is a naturalness to the way it translates. Sometimes better than stories with short sentences which work very well in English but seem staccato in languages! This is something we work hard to get around.
Is there a particular format for submitting picture books?
Nothing specific for picture books. Double spaced clean text is what we expect for any manuscript. We actually get manuscripts which show track changes and corrected lines which is really shoddy. Please mention word count. And a synopsis is a must. Not just as information to us. It is also a useful exercise for you to describe concisely what the story is about, what it conveys and what its high points are. This makes you aware of the gaps in the story and gives you ideas of how to rework it.
Do you typically reject picture books that you think are too long?
Update: Our submission guidelines are on our website as well: