One Writer’s Journey

September 19, 2014

Book Banning

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey for offensive language, unsuitability for age group, and violence.  These books have been around since my son was of the inappropriate age group.  He was never interested.  
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison for offensive language, sex, unsuitability for age group, and violence.
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie for substance abuse, offensive language, racism, sex, unsuitability for age group.  I adore this book for the honest portrayal of the characters.  No, they aren’t always spotless, but they are real.  Honestly, this should be required reading for . . . people.  I mean it. 
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James for nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sex, unsuitability to age group.  Have I read this?  No.  Did I read an excerpt?  Only part of it.  I simply was not impressed.  I did have to laugh when I saw “nudity” on the list.  Seriously?  Every time a character takes a shower, the reader can assume there is nudity.  I did see a student carrying this book at the high school today.  Would she have voluntarilly picked up Tom Sawyer?  Probably not.
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins for religious viewpoint and unsuitability for age group.  Again, loved them.  Loved.  Them.  I can’t decide.  Do people who want to ban this book not get the statement it makes about the world we live in?  
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone for substance abuse, nudity, offensive language, and sex.  Honestly, I don’t remember seeing nudity before this year.  
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green for substance abuse, sex, and unsuitability for age group.  Another truly amazing book.  Why don’t they ever ban the boring books?  Oh, wait.  They do if someone is nekked.  
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky for substance abuse, homosexuality, sex, and unsuitability for age group.
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya for occult, offensive language, religious viewpoint, and sex.  Makes me wonder how “offensive language” differs from “swearing.”  
  10. Bone (series), by Jeff Smith for political viewpoint, racism, and violence.

If there is something on the list that I haven’t read yet, I always try to get ahold of it.  Off to search my library for Bless Me Ultima or Bones.  


September 18, 2014

5 Tips on How to Find an Agent

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:26 am

agentIt is probably a wee bit ironic that I am writing a post about finding an agent.  I, after all, have yet to find one.  That said, I’ve submitted my work to a dozen or less so it really isn’t too surprising that I’m agent free.

How then do you find an agent?

  1. Attend events.  Attend the writing events where agents are speaking.  You may think someone is perfect for you until you hear her speak at which point you realize that your interests aren’t all that close.  On the other hand, an agent who didn’t interest you very much might say something that clicks with you.
  2. Friends and acquaintances.  At conferences, retreats and workshops, when someone gushes about their agent, I ask for a name.  I’m still going to have to do some research but that’s okay.
  3. Read online.  There are lots of sites and blogs you can read to find out about individual agents.  Two of my favorites is Literary Rambles and Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents Blog .  I also look at the SCBWI Blue Boards and check the listings in the SCBWI Book.
  4. Google.  Whether I get a recommendation from a friend or a blog, my next step is Google.  I do a search on the agent’s name.  There are all kinds of interviews and the like online.  If ten pages of results come up, I go through all ten pages.  Why?  Because you don’t know what you might find on page 6 (read on).
  5. Look for Trouble.  That’s right.  Look for coplaints and gripes and whithering commentary.  First check Preditors and Editors.  This site lists agents who are not on the up-and-up.  If there is someone out there taking advantage of writers, there is often a listing here.  But not always . . .

Not long ago I Googled an agent other writers were complaining about.  I’m nosey.  I wanted to know what had happened.  Even knowing this agent was a problem, I didn’t see word one until about 6 pages into my Google search.  Six pages!  No one agent is right for every writer but when you see complaint after complaint of non-response, no proof of submission and agents leaving her agency, that’s a solid warning.

Those are the bad things, but there are also good things to see — a client list, a list of sales, and a professional looking site.  A new agent may not have a client list but as part of a larger agency she can use the agency name to open doors.  Perhaps one of those doors will lead to the editor who will buy your book.


September 17, 2014

How Close Is Too Close? What to do When You Find a Story Much Like Your Own

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:16 am
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too closeThe other day, as I was doing research on my latest nonfiction project, I popped open the library web site to do a few searches.  Ferreting out all of the details that I need for a chapter takes hours of work but I love the work so I’m more than willing.

Unfortunately, I was less than happy with the results.  Why?  Because right there on the screen was a brand new piece of chilren’s nonfiction.  The topic?  Way too close to my own, thank you very much.

So what do you do when you find a book that could be the evil twin to your own manuscript?

First things first, don’t panic.  Until you actually read the book, you don’t know just how similar they truly are.  This is a gruesome science topic but my manuscript is full of tongue-in-cheek humor.  It’s more than a touch irreverant, yes, but there’s hard science holding it all up.  For all I know, the other book is more quirky fact and less science.

I also need to look at the audience.  If the book is for an older or younger audience, no worries.  They won’t be direct competition for each other.

In part, audience is also determined by the publisher.  Although trade publishers love school sales, the markets don’t entirely overlap.  While teachers are happy to see their students reading and sharing a fun book, they want the book to have a certain amount of science (or history or whatever) if these same students might be using it to research a paper.

Last but not least, you also have to ask yourself just how much you love your topic.  I’m having a blast researching and writing this.  Yes, it will be a serious bother if it never sells because of the other book.  But am I ready to give it up?  Heck, no.

I’ve requested the other book from the library.  Their copies have yet to arrive from wherever but I’m not going to panic until I see what I’m up against.  If the book is direct competition, I will have to follow the advice that I give to my students and see if I can avoid the competition by somehow reslanting my idea.  As they say, we shall see what we shall see.


September 16, 2014

Writer’s Resume: What to include, What to Leave out

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:22 am
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resumeWhen you start writing, having to put together a resume is tough.  You have little or no experience and filling those blank lines is a daunting task.  New writers tend to include every scrap of vaguely relevant experience.  As we add lines to our resume, we need to outgrow that tendency and prune what needs to go.

I’m not telling you to delete portions of your resume.  At least not your master resume.  Mine is something like 21 pages long.  Yep.  21 pages.  My byline has appeared something like 425 times.  This resume has it all but that’s why this isn’t the resume that I send out when I apply for any type of writing job.

Instead, I customize the resume for that job.  Ecuational writing gets a summary of all my educational work because much of that was confidential.  I can say I wrote 12 3rd grade passages for Harcourt, but not what they were about.  An educaitonal resume will include everything that isn’t covered by a confidentiality clause and a summary of what is as well as everything that relates to the type of educational writing they want me to do be it science, history, leveled readers or high school curriculum.

This is similar to what I do when I write a query letter.  I don’t tell anyone about all of my sales — who wants to go through all of that?  But if they want eclectic and varied, they hear about the sidebar I wrote on horse manure, the piece on electricity and sharks as well as the piece on the New Madrid earthquake.

If I have nonwriting experience that fits in with what they want, I include that as well.  Sometimes I mention my degrees (anthropology and history), my thesis (based on original oral history interviews) or my work experience (from nanny to archaeological illustrator).

The long and the short of it is this — include what fits, leave out what doesn’t.  Do this and you’ll convince them that you are just the writer for the job.


September 15, 2014

Evaluating Sources: Source Bias, What to Use, and What to Lose

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:33 am
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biasWhether you write fiction or nonfiction, if you research, you need to know how to evaluate your sources.  A big part of this is understanding source bias.

Simply put, bias is how the author thinks about the topic.  What beliefs color this perception?  What is his goal in writing the piece?

All potential source materials have bias because they are created by people and people have bias.  The key here is to identify the bias found in a particular source and determine whether ot not it will get in the way of accuracy.

Some people think of bias as prejudice.  But bias in sources isn’t so much pred In terms of source material it is better to think of bias as how the author or publisher.  Perhaps an example will help.

Last weekend, my son saw the movie God’s Not Dead.  Not surprisingly, he is after all my kid, he came home with questions.  “Did Darwin really say that God is dead or he killed God or something like that?”

Fortunately, the computer in the family room is hooked up to the tv.  That means that when we’re trying to answer a quetion like this, we can all sit down on the sofa  and no one is leaning over anyone else’s shoulder.  I keyed in “‘God is dead’ +Darwin” and the search was on.

What is the first step in ruling out biased sources?  Finding which sources are going to have a bias that may skew the data.  In this case, religious sources, church web site, and the like.  Anything with creation in the same was out.  Why?  Because anyone who believes in creationism is going to be biased against Darwin.

Again, this isn’t the only topic that presents “bias issues.”

A missionary in the early 19th century South Pacific, may have had some valuable insight into the lives of the islanders, but his observations were filtered through the lens of someone who journeyed to their island home to “save them” from their flawed state of being.

Two warring parties cannot and should not be expected to give unbiased or accurate information about each other.

Economic level, education, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, and much, much more play into bias. By being aware of the possible biases of your sources, you’ll have a better idea of what facts to take at face value and which to take extra steps to verify.

What did Darwin say?  Read the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and find out.


September 12, 2014

Critique: Why You Need a Critique Group

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:17 am
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CritiqueAt the Missouri SCBWI conference this past Saturday, many people paid for critiques.  There’s no doubt about it — critiques from agents and editors are helpful.  It is the one way you can find out how they respond to your writing and what you might need to change.  I hope some of you were able to take advantage of this feedback.

As writers, we spend much of our time working in isolation.  Focusing on a piece of writing, its easy to loose perspective.  What works?  What doesn’t?  After a while, it is really hard to tell.  But we don’t an agent or editor to be the first person to give us feedback.  That’s where a strong critique group comes in handy.  Paid critiques are great but a critique group gives you regular access to feedback from multiple people and these people are writers.  We are always learning new things about our craft. You need to benefit from this experience.

How do you find a critique group?

  • Check your local book store or library.  Critique groups often meet in these locations.
  • Ask other writers that you know.  I host a critique group that is open to new members.
  • Check with your groups.  Do you belong to SCBWI or your local writer’s guild?  See if they have a list of critique groups.
  • Ask on Facebook or Twitter.  Make use of your social media connections.  Put out feelers.
  • Look online.  Do you belong to an online community for writers?  See if there is an online group.

As you find out about various critique groups take a look at what each of them offers.  Some will only critique one type of writing; a picture book group will be of no help i you write novels.  Check their goals.  A group of people who write for fun will look at your work very differently than a group of people who want to sell their work.

Going to a group and critiquing the work of others is unnerving if you’ve never done it before.  Check out my post tomorrow on the Muffin for some tips on how to critique the work of another writer.


September 11, 2014

Why You Need a Teaching Guide with Debbie Gonzalez

Teachers guideAs writers, we want to put our books in the hands of young readers. One of the best ways to do this is to get your book in the classroom.

Get your book in the classroom?  How do you do that?

You make it attractive to teachers.  You make it easy for them to use.  One of the best ways to do this is with a top notch teacher’s guide.  Debbie Gonzalez spoke on this topic at the Missouri SCBWI conference. Here are a few tips that I gathered together.

Teacher’s guides are distributed for free to teachers.  They are often found on either the author’s web site or the publishers web site.

Sometimes the publisher produces the guide or pays someone like Debbie Gonzalez.  Sometimes it is the author who does it.  Yes, Debbie has been paid by authors who want a guide for their book but aren’t confident in their own abilities.

Some guides focus on discussion with a variety of questions that can be discussed outloud or in essays.

Other guides have a variety of hands on activities.  Drawing a line from item A in one column to the corresponding item in the other column is not active.

By cutting and pasting and otherwise using the information, young readers make it their own.

No matter what types of items you include in your guide, care about what you are doing.  Have fun and let your enthusiasm show through.  This will hook both the teacher and her students.

For some ideas of what you might include in a guide, Debbie links to a wide variety of guides from her blog.  Take a look at what’s there and think about what might work for your book.  The possibilities are endless as is Debbie’s enthusiasm.


September 10, 2014

Narrative Nonfiction with Steve Sheinkin

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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narrative nonfictionOne of the highlights of the Missouri SCBWI conference for me was getting to hear author Steve Sheinkin speak not once, but twice.  Twice!   He delivered a key note on research and a breakout session on how he writes such moving narrative nonfiction.  Here are some of the pointers that I gleaned from him from the two sessions combined.

As a writer, read good books.  If you are a nonfiction writer, read fiction as well.  This will help you understand how to create atmosphere, introduce characters, and more.

Narrative nonfiction tells exciting stories.  This is your chance to write about all of the exciting bits of history that never make it into the text books (Sheinkin wrote text books and has very firm opinions about why they are the way they are . . . ie boring).

When you start researching, just read.  Read whatever books you can find on the topic and start taking notes.  This is how you find your story.  This is how he started researching Bomb.  At that point, he knew more or less what he wanted to write about but now who the individual players would be.

Have you found the title of a book that you might need for your project?  To find the closest library to you that actually owns a copy, use Google Books.  Search for the book by title and author.  Then, in the left hand column, click “find in a library.”  You may discover that a local college or university has two or three of the books that you need.

Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction.  This means that even your dialogue has to be something that you found during the research process.*  This means that all of the quotes in his Benedict Arnold book came from letters, journals, memoire and other sources.

*I know, I know.  Elizabeth Bird and Marc Aaronson have just come down on the side of “it is okay to fictionalize as long as you admit you’ve done it.”  Fine.  But its not nonfiction.  You can shelve it under a lable that says “books about real people” but if you’re making it up, it isn’t nonfiction.


September 9, 2014

To Market, To Market

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:41 am

To marketHats off to everyone who attended the Missouri SCBWI Conference last Saturday (9/6/2014).  If you were there, you started out the day hearing all about the current state of the markets.  After that, a variety of sessions taught you about how to hone your craft to take advantage of these markets and also how to benefit from school visits.  Today, I’ll share a bit that I learned about the markets.  Tomorrow, writing nonfiction, Thursday, creating teaching guides.

Deborah Halverson, she who monitors the markets for the SCBWI guides, updated us on some of the latest news in what is selling and what editors and publishers want from us.  The markets are all published each year in The Book and she updates them every summer, publishing additional updates throughout the year in the SCBWI Bulletin.

Common core is helpful in post-publication marketing but does not drive the actual acquisitions.

The buzz word in picture book nonfiction seems to be marketability; either make it commercial or make sure that it has multiple hooks that a publicity department can use to sell it.  I have a book that I need to clean up and get out there.  Yes, I’ve been putting it off all summer, but since it is no longer summer, I can quit procrastinating, yes?

Chapter books are in high demand and acceptable formats range widely from straight text to highly illustrated.  Yes, I have one of these too.  And it has been at a particular publisher for long enough.  Time to send it off to our next lucky contestant.

Publishers are eagerly seeking middle grade novels both as stand-alones and series.  Make sure that your voice is spot on for whichever part of the middle grade spectrum you are targeting.  Part of the spectrum?  You bet.  There’s a huge difference between an 8 year old and and 11 year old.  Who is your audience?

Young adult novels are still going strong but this isn’t an easy sell because there are already so many great books out there.  Before you send your idea out, make sure that it can compete.

Tomorrow . . . narrative nonfiction ala Steve Sheinkin.


Writer’s Block: Cure it by taking a walk

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:30 am
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walkWhenever I’m working on something and it just won’t come together, I find myself itching to take a walk.  I’ve had experienced writers tell me that NO, I should stay at my desk.  This is just me trying to escape a bump in my writing path.  But I’ve never entirely bought into this.  When I’m really, truly stuck and I take a walk, I often come up with a solution to my writing problem.

During crisp fall weather or whenver there’s new snow, I yearn to walk outside.  It never fails.  When I’m about as far from the house as a plan to go — breakthrough!  In the heat of summer, I opt for the treadmill.  It doesn’t seem to work as well as walking outside, but I’ve always been convinced that it helps.

And apparently there’s science to back these ideas up, according to Ferris Jabr, Why Walking Helps Us Think.

Experiments show that after taking a walk, people test better both in terms of memory and attention, and that seems reasonable.  When you walk, your heart pumps more blood and oxygen not only to your muscles but also to your brain.  Feed your brain and it’s likely to work better.

Other studies show that we can change the pace of our thoughts by walking faster or slowing down.  Just can’t get a flow going?  A brisk walk will jar those notions loose!

Most of us are fairly good at walking, so our minds wander.  Yeah, imagine that.  A writer’s mind wandering.  Still other studies connect just this type of mental state with making mental breakthroughs.  One minute, I’m noodling over the grocery list.  The next, I know exactly what scene should come first.

Not surprisingly, where you walk also matters.  A natural setting seems to be better than a busy urban setting.  While the treadmill isn’t “urban,” it isn’t quiet or outdoors.

The next time that you’re stuck, maybe forcing yourself to stay at your desk isn’t the best answer.  It might be better to take a walk and get both your blood and your ideas flowing.


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