One Writer’s Journey

October 24, 2014

Book Reviewing: What it taught me about writing and publishing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:20 am
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book reviewerAlthough I still write two book reviews a week for my own blog, Bookshelf: What We’re Reading, I very seldom review professionally any more. For those of you who don’t know, for 11 years I reviewed books for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  It was a great gig because I essentially got paid to read and write.  Add a good cup of coffee and what more could a girl want?

The best part of it is that I learned a lot about what it takes to write a good book.

I learned to look for strong characters, logical motivations and a plot not only flows but makes sense.  I learned to read for voice — true voice.  Let’s just say that I can pick out a New York-style Southern drawl from a fer piece.  I learned the importance of a strong setting that is integral to the story.

I learned about book design and why paper color and texture matter as do font and ink color.  I came to understand how important it is for the cover to be a good fit for what is inside the story.  I also saw the difference in book design between the big houses and self-published books.  I know it annoys a lot of people, but 90% of the time I can pick out a self published book without ever cracking the cover.  Once I open the book, I know for certain.

Reading stacks and stacks of books, I also sympathized with the editor reading slush.  Unless it is a something for book club, I will not stick with a book that hasn’t hooked me by page 15 and that’s if I’m feeling especially generous.

You may not be able to get a gig as a book reviewer, but I challenge you to educate yourself.  Read 100 books in your category (picture book, early reader, middle grade) before you submit your work to an editor or an agent.  Planning to self publish?  Then read 200.  If your manuscript isn’t as good as what you’re reading, you’ve got some work to do before you put it out there.  This is, after all, your competition and your book needs to be able to stand out, for good reasons, in a crowd.



October 23, 2014

Audience: How Knowing Who They Are Matters

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:06 am
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AudienceI write on a variety of topics for multiple audiences.  What do I mean by this?

Crafts and activities are one of my mainstays but I don’t write them all for the same audience.  The pieces in Gryphon House anthologies were written for preschool teachers. Those on are for parents who may also use these activities with scouting groups and the like.  Sometimes I write things up for the kids themselves.  Whenever I write up a craft or activity, it is vital to know who my audience is because this introduces suble differences in how I handle the topic.

When I write for preschool teachers, I emphasize flexibility.  The piece is good for a group in that they can do much of it themselves, the supplies are inexpensive and can be prepped ahead and it is easy to clean up.  If it is an activity or pretend play, it is flexible in allowing a larger or smaller number of children to participate.

When I write for the parents who read, I emphasize the educational aspects of the activity.  It will hook your child with FUN and they will learn something too. Crafts need to be educational and it is definitely a bonus if they are attractive and can be displayed in the home.

Kids, on the other hand, want something that is fun.  They want to show the adults what they can do.  If you can make them feel daring, so much the better.

Now think about your current project.  Who is the audience?  How does knowing this influence your approach or your message?  How would that approach or message change with a different audience?



October 22, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Possible or Insanity

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:48 am
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I have to admit, I have attempted NaNoWriMo only once.

For those of you who have somehow missed the phenomenon that is NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month.  During the month of November, each participant commits to drafting a 50,000 word novel.  No, you can’t rewrite something you’ve already written.  No, this isn’t the time to finish up something you’ve started.  When you sign up, you are committing to draft at least 50,000 words of a NEW novel.

If you’re a children’s writer, this looks like a lofty goal.  Yes, many young adult novels are this long but a lot of what we write is much shorter.  The nonfiction books I write for Red Line Editorial are 14,500 words, less than half this length.  In fact, the longest single manuscript I have in my files is 35,000 words.  Maybe that’s why when I did give it a whirl I didn’t commit as seriously as I might have.

A lot of my friends do it so I commited to give it a try.  Yep.  That’s a ringing endorsement and sounds like something a teen character might say.  “Well, my friends were all doing it officer.”  Ah, well.  Dip that I am, a few years ago I decided to give it a shot.  I’d love to say that I did wonderfully and finished a full draft, but it isn’t true.  I fizzled out about half way through the month.

Part of the problem was that I have never done anything long enough fast enough to make me believe it is possible.  Yeah, I was giving it a try but I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea.  When things got tough, it wasn’t all that hard to derail me.

In addition to not commiting emotionally, I was also coming off several major deadlines.  I got everything done that was due in October and another deadline for November. By November 1, I had the month clear to work on my project.  But I hadn’t done any prep work.  I don’t do a lot of outlining with fiction so this didn’t worry me, but it also meant that I didn’t really have a plan.

Now, that I’m working on my second book for Red Line, I know better.  I will get this book done in 8 weeks.  That includes research, outlining, writing and two or three rewrites.  Yes, it’s only 14,500 words but this is finished copy.  NaNoWriMo is a rough draft.  I can take this project from start to finish because, before I fall into writing, I do my prepwork.  I know what I’m writing about.  I’ve got a plan.  I can write and write hard because I know where I’m going.  I finish a full draft in less than two weeks.

That,in my opinion, is the key to a successful NaNoWriMo.  For more on what this writing plan entails, see my post for tomorrow at the Muffin.


October 21, 2014

Horror: More Than Blood, Guts and Goo

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:43 am
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HorrorRecently, a friend of mine wrote a horror short story.  Did I want to read it?

My son is on a serious zombie kick.  In the name of mother and son bonding, I have suffered through an entire season of the Walking Dead.  Never mind that I love Zombieland.  Horror freaks me out.  I may agree to watch it with you but someone will have to hold my hand and it will not be a pain free experience.  Did I want to read her story at home by myself on a perfectly sunny day?  Wait?  Isn’t that when the walkers come?

I hemmed and hawed my way into an embarrassing pause.

“Really, it isn’t Stephen King horror.  It’s more like what I used to write.”

This friend doesn’t particularly enjoy tormenting so I recovered enough to agree and soon found myself immersed in a non-gross horror story.  It was amazing.  Afterwards, we discussed the difference between old-style atmospheric horror and new-style gooey, pustulent horror.

In the old type of horror it is all about atmosphere.  How can you set your story up so that the reader is more than a little uncomfortable and expecting something that goes bump, glop or yuck in the night?  They expect it, but the details you provide aren’t necessarily graphic.  This is the gross and disgusting viewed through slightly parted fingers. Think Poe.  His stories are wharped and weird and offputting, but they aren’t particularly repulsive.

You build the horror by choosing creepy details ranging from the fall of light to the creak of a floor board or the closing of the door.  You include details that can be described in a creepy way.  Lace might be web-like, wind groans, and a cellar smells like the freshly turned earth of the grave.  Okay, that’s most likely heavy handed but I hope you get the point.  You can write horror without the ick.

Who is your favorite writer of bump in the night, creepy horror?


October 20, 2014

Research: Gathering Facts and Eying the Competition

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:07 am

Book searchWhether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, both require research.  The problem is that if you aren’t doing two types of research your writing may be in trouble.  You need to do both the research required to write the piece and research on the competition.  I’ll explain this using some of my recent work as an example.  As I’ve mentioned several times recently, I’m writing about Pearl Harbor.  Obviously, this means that I’m gathering lots and lots of information on Pearl Harbor.

But I also need to have an eye for my competition.  What is already out there?  What exactly did they cover?  What did these books do well and, perhaps more importantly, not so well?

When I’m researching the competition, I always start with an Amazon search.  In this case, I would do a book search on “Pearl Harbor.”  Maybe you’re more industrious than I am but that search yields 4,923 titles.  I don’t want to pick through all of them to see what the competition is up to so I need to narrow it.

When your search results come up, you’ll see a column of categories to the left.  Under BOOKS> there is “see all 23 departments.”  Click that.

When I did this for my Pearl Harbor book search, it gave me three children’s books choices — Military Books, 1900s American Historic Fiction, and American History of 1900s.  I would look at first Military Books with 48 books and then American History of 1900s with 35 books.  There is probably overlap in these two categories but going through 83 books total is a lot easier than going through 4,923.
For whatever reason, your category choices aren’t always the same when you do an Amazon book search.  When I did a search on World War I and then click to see all departments, I get one choice for Children’s Books.  I’m not sure why it varies from topic to topic but there you have it.
If you aren’t taking the time to research your competition, you may be writing a book almost identical to one already on the market.  Avoid this by doing some research and making your book 100% unique.

October 17, 2014

Fueling the Creative Fire

classesWhat do you do to recharge your creative battery?

I’m currently taking my 3rd massive online class.  A lot of writers that I know take classes about writing or literature, but that isn’t the route that I go.  I’ve been taking classes about science.  Although I like to about science topics, I’m also taking them simply for the pleasure of learning about a topic I love.

I sit here and listen to the video lectures while I knit.  I answer the questions found throughout the lectures and examine the scanned fossils.  When I’m done with the lectures for the week, I take the quiz.

Yes, I’m learning things that I can use in my writing.  No, I’m not planning a book on dinosaurs although that would be great fun.  But one of the lectures had a lot of information on what we KNOW about dinosaurs vs what we INFER.  When you test a hypothesis through computer modeling or experiments, you can prove what was not possible more easily than what was.  For instance, scientists can learn whether or not specific pachyosephelosaurus could have butted heads like rams without shattering their skulls or giving themselves brain damage.  Do scientists know that they did this?  Nope.  They know that they could have done it.

If, on the other hand, their skulls were too fragile, scientists could have disproven the point.

Yeah. My sister doesn’t care either but its the sort of thing that makes me giddy.  Yeah, I’ve always been a little strange.  But this is the sort of thing that is so hard to get across to young readers when you write about science.  What a fun way to explain the limits of a theory!

I’m taking a class on dinosaurs. What class would you want to take just for the joy of learning?  It might not feed directly into your wirting but it might enrich it in unexpected ways.


October 16, 2014

Research: How Do You Know When You’ve Done Enough?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:39 am
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The research for a project on a Missouri cave started with only two books.  I'm still not sure how many more I will need.

The research for a project on a Missouri cave started with only two books. I’m still not sure how many more I will need.

One of the questions that I hear most often from new writers is “how do you know when you’ve done enough research?”  You have to do enough to not only find your facts, but verify your facts.  Just how much this will take varies depending on what you are writing and how long the finished piece will be.

When I researched my book on the Ancient Maya, I didn’t think I would ever find enough material.  I spend two weeks reading, reading and reading some more.  Everything I read felt new and strange and . . . vast.  Reading took forever because I took pages and pages of notes per source.

Eventually, I noticed that I was finding only a few new facts per source.  Sometimes I was writing things down not because the information was new but because I could use source X to verify source Y.

This was when I realized that I had done almost enough research.  Almost.  I had enough to start writing but as I wrote I would reach places in the text where I couldn’t finish a sentence.  Or I couldn’t provide the detail needed to bring a scene to life.  I’d highlight this places in the rough draft and then go back and do a bit more research.  Sometimes I could find the information in a source I already had on hand.  Sometimes I would do an article search.

Whenever I find information that seems out of step with the other material that I’ve found, I look for additional sources.  Is this simply something that few people have written about?  Or is it controversial?  Or just plain wrong?

To figure this out, you need to find the most recent sources possible.  Even if your topic is history, you need to find recent sources.  Last week I read that the government has just declassified documents that have to do with Ben Franklin and the American Revolution.

How much research do you need to do?  Enough to completely understand your topic.  For my Maya book, I collected 51 sources.  It took that many to create a solid manuscript on the topic.  Will you need this many for everything you write?  No, but sometimes you will need even more.  Research until you can’t find anything new.  As you write, research to fill in the gaps.  You may be surprised at how much work you need to do but if you love the topic, it won’t actually feel like work.


October 15, 2014

Nonfiction vs Historic Fiction

Fact or fiction? Whichever path you chose, tell a fantastic story.

If you write about history, you’ve probably had this happen.  You’ve found an amazing true story. But when you try to find the sources that you need to create a winning piece of nonfiction, they just aren’t there.  You can find the story repeated time and time again, but not the primary sources that prove to you, and your editor, that this event really did happen.

So what do you do?  Many of us make the choice to shelve the project, but there’s another choice.

Write it up as historic fiction.  That’s what Mac Barnett did with President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath.  What?  I can hear you shouting about this already.  That story is true!  You’ve heard it time and time again and that isn’t surprising because it is a great story.  Imagine the President stuck in a bathtub!

But when Barnett did his research, he found orders for various oversize tubs that Taft had installed.  He found photos.  He even found a newspaper story about Taft overflowing a tub and soaking the people in the dining room on the floor below.  But Taft stuck in the tub?  It’s a great story but the sources just weren’t there so Barnett did what great story tellers do.

He told the story.  He used cummulative story telling with one person after another coming in to help.  He used exageration to wacky effect — we’ll just blow the tub up with a little dynamite.  The result is a marvelous slapstick story about a stuck President, an ambitious Vice-President and an oh-so-patient First Lady.

In his author’s note, Barnett concedes that his book is a work of fiction, he explains about the sources and the lack thereof, and he also reveals why he wrote it up anyway . . .

Because it is a great story!

And, whether we are writing nonfiction or fiction, shouldn’t that be our goal?  If you can’t find the resources that you need to write a piece of nonfiction about a historic event, write up a great piece of historic fiction.  In the author’s note, tell the readers what you’ve done.  And then you can offer to do classroom visits on fact vs fiction, opinion vs truth.


October 14, 2014

Meeting a Deadline

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:42 am
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deadlineIn a recent post about Prioritizing My Writing I wrote about getting a new assignment from Red Line to write a book on Pearl Harbor.  This means that I have 8 weeks to research and write 14,500 words on the attack at Pearl Harbor.  I get a lot of questions about how I get it done on such a tight deadline.

Research is step 1.  Because it may take up to a week for things to come in to my local branch, my first step is to use the library’s online catalogue and request everything to do with my topic.  This brings in a stack of books and DVDs.  I still prefer to do as much paper research as possible because I retain and mentally process the material that much better when it is on paper, but I don’t limit myself to paper.

After I request the books, etc., I use the library’s online periodical database and search for articles on the topic.  I save everything that I find as a PDF that I can then read at my treadmill desk.

Last but not least, I comb through my shelves here are home.  Every topic that I’ve been assigned so far can be found on my own bookshelves.  I may not have a lot but I have something.  I read these pieces and the articles while I wait for the books to arrive.

Reading and taking notes takes a lot of time.  I read until the material gets repetative.  I may not have everything that I need, but I have enough to get started.  I arrange my notes by topic and use this to create my outline.

I outline the book and rough out the first chapter.   Once I have a draft of chapter 1, I can flesh out the research for that particular chapter.

The outline and chapter 1 are always due before the rest.  Once I turn that in, I get to work writing the rest of the chapters.  Yes, even without any feedback.  By the time I hear back, I can have about half of the book drafted.  I don’t bother to fix what I’ve written but I do paste the comments/directions into my text.  Then I finish the draft and working from these comments do my first rewrite.  After that, I do one more rewrite before printing it off for my husband to read.

It may not be pretty toward the end, but this is how I manage to do the research, more research, a draft and two full rewrites in two months.




October 13, 2014

RIP Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:38 am
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My first Zilpha Keatley Snyder read including this cover art.

I’m sad to report that last week children’s publishing lost a luminary with the death of Zilpha Keatley Snyder.  I never met Snyder but I remember, way back when, reading The Headless Cupid.  Snyder was the first author to thoroughly creep me out while also forcing me to keep turning the pages.  I had to know how the story ended!

Snyder ultimately published more than 40 books including historical fiction, contemporary YA, fantasy and science fiction.  Three times she earned a Newbery Honor for The Egypt Game (1967), The Headless Cupid (1971), and The Witches of Worm (1972).

Snyder’s most recent novel was William’s Midsummer Dreams about a young actor and a production of . . . I’m sure you can figure that part out!

If you’ve never sampled Snyder’s books, pick one up at your local library.  With 40 plus books, including several in electronic formats, to choose, you will find something that suits your taste.


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