One Writer’s Journey

March 23, 2017

Scenes: Creating a Sense of “Being There” in Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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My most recent batch of students is busy writing away. They are deep enough into their work that they are attempting to create scenes.  A nonfiction scene is a lot like a fiction scene in that it is a great way to pull your reader into the story.  It uses dialogue and characters, setting and action.  Unlike the fiction scene, it all has to be true.

That means that if you include dialogue, you have to have dialogue to quote.  It has to be word for word.

That means that if you find “someone mentioned needing to buy new shoes” in a source, that is all you can write.  You cannot write ‘One of the students said, “I need to buy new shoes.”  Nope.  The problem is that the quotation marks imply that it is a direct quote.  To use the quotation marks, you need to have found those exact words.  “And I said to him I need to buy new shoes.”  “Marcus said to me, ‘I need to buy new shoes.'”  Something like that.

There are times that you have a bit of wiggle room.  When I wrote about a family of armadillos, I could describe the four young armadillos digging into the dirt and tearing into a fallen log when they heard insects.  Why?  Because they are typical armadillo behaviors.

But when I wrote about the protests in Ferguson in Black Lives Matter, I couldn’t say that a protestor did X or a protestor did Y unless I had that information from my source material.  Even if X and Y are both fairly innocuous actions, when I’m talking about people, I need to know that someone did it.  Otherwise I have to say, a protestor may have done X or may have done Y and that isn’t the sort of thing my editor is going to let stand.

Creating a scene can be tricky but if you have the facts to pull it together it is one of the best ways to pull a reader into your writing.



March 22, 2017

Poetry? Nah, I just write rhymes.

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:36 am
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Last weekend, I attended Peggy Archer’s poetry workshop.  I sat and listened as she discussed rhythm and beats, near rhyme and true rhyme, soft and hard sounds and much, much more.  I was out of my element.  I’m a prose writer, honey.

Imagine my surprise when later that week I got an acceptance letter from Highlights Hello for a “humorous poem.”  I’d already blogged about the workshop in my post titled Poetry, Writing in Rhyme and Wordplay.

The irony of it all?  I still don’t consider myself a poet.

Poets write pieces fraught with meaning.  There’s symbolism and they use the rhythm of words and phrases to great effect.  What they write has layers and it is deep.

On a good day, I can pull off both rhyme and rhythm.  On an insanely good day, the rhythm doesn’t sound like a kid galloping across the hard wood floor — duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum.

Meaningful? Not so much.  There’s a twist at the end but rather than meaningful it tends to be quirky and funny (a little like me).

That doesn’t mean that I’m giving up.  Far from it.  As I walk the treadmill, I catch myself playing with the rhythm of words.  One, two, one, two, three, one, two, one, two, three.  Slower, faster, slower, faster.  Peggy has managed to arm me with a bit of knowledge so I’m quicker to recognize what isn’t going to work (galloping across the floor) and I better understand what does work.

I’m still not a poet but I’m a slightly less pedestrian creator of rhymes.  Hmm.  That’s sure going to be hard to fit on a business card.


March 21, 2017

Middle Grade vs Young Adult

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:54 am
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How can you tell if a teen novel is written for middle graders or young adults?  For some people, the difference revolves around sex.  If the characters are doing it, it must be young adult.  But not all young adult novels feature sex.  Some people think it has to do with the stakes or just how serious the subject matter is.  But some middle grade books deal with things that are all kinds of serious.

One of my favorite examples of an oh so serious middle grade novel is Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand.  In spite of the fact that this book is for slightly younger reader it includes:

  • The main character has clinical depression.
  • Her parents are estranged from her grandparents.
  • Her grandmother is being treated for cancer.
  • Someone was blamed for a crime he didn’t commit to protect the town darling.

And those are just the things that I can remember just over half a year after reading the book.

Here are some of the differences that I’ve noticed.

Middle grade novels:

  • Feature main characters who are younger teens or tweens.
  • They have less autonomy thus may be sent to stay with grandma.
  • They sometimes require the help of an older teen to solve the story problem.
  • They are most often trying to find their place within their family or social circle.
  • If there is attraction, it is generally pretty innocent — kissing, hand holding.

Young adult novels:

  • Feature high school aged characters.
  • They have a lot more independence and usually don’t need anyone to drive them around.
  • They may require help but are more likely to go to a contemporary than someone older.
  • They are often trying to break away from their families or social circle.  They are becoming their own people and often rock the world back in doing so.
  • These novels are longer and more complex with more subplots.

These aren’t the only differences but they are a start to developing an understanding.  The more children’s novels your read, the more easily you will be able to tell the difference.  Teens question everything.  They know that adults are clueless.  Middle grade readers have begun to suspect and may gather the proof they need in the course of the story.



March 20, 2017

One Gay Character, One African American: Are you Just Covering Your Bases?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:13 am
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Recently, I read a post over at the Nelson Agency about the dangers of informing a first-reader at an agency or publisher that your manuscript has LGBTQ+ character or that it is diverse.  This particular reader said that when he read things like this in a query letter, he felt like the writer was going down a check list.

One gay character.  Check!

A trans character.  Got it.

Someone who is questioning.  Present and accounted for.

The suggestion is that, instead of stating this, you should just tell about your story.  If these characters are an integral part of it, the diversity will be obvious.

I can understand this request.  Diverse characters are fantastic but they need to belong in the story, and not like sprinkles on a cup cake.  They need to be part of the cake itself.

Back when I was a paid reviewer, I ended up reading tons of teen chick lit.  I’m female but I generally did not connect with these books written “for a female audience.”  For one thing, shopping is not my thing.  I do it to feed myself and avoid exposure to the elements.  But these female characters LOVED to shop.  And, to help them out, they all had a gay best friend.

He offered dating advice and fashion tips, often picking out the perfect shoes to go with that darling prom dress.  Oh, heaven help me.  This character was never key to the plot.  Never.  He was just there.  And gay.  Providing all sorts of essential diversity.

When you are creating your story, your plot should spring from the characters.  The characters shouldn’t be there just so that you can strike them off the list whether we are talking diversity of the racial, ethnic, religious, or LGBTQ+ variety.  It all needs to fit and work together instead of reading like that table of mismatched items at a yard sale.




March 17, 2017

First Time’s the Charm

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:01 am
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Don’t expect your first story to sell.  Those are the words of wisdom that we experienced writers pass on to beginners. And I have to admit that my first manuscript is still just mine.  And I have no plans to submit it.  After all, I was new and it is pretty horrid.

But then I read an article on rebus writing.  Rebus, for those of you who aren’t in the know, are short pieces for pre-readers.  Some of the nouns are removed with pictures taking their places.  The pre-reader can then decipher the words represented by pictures and read.  I wrote a rebus and sent it to Ladybug.  “The Flying Contest” was my first sale.  First rebus.  First sale.  I’ve never been able to sell another or anything else to Ladybug for that matter.

Then I sent READ a pitch for a nonfiction article on distance swimmer Gertrude Ederle.  “Can you write it as reader’s theater?”  Sure!  After learning all about reader’s theater, I wrote “Gertrude Ederle vs the English Channel.” It sold but I got rejections on my next attempt.

Last summer, I was doing some reading on the treadmill.  I can access magazines electronically through my library so I caught up on Highlights Hello! and High Five.  Inspired by Hello, I walked and played around with the rhythms of various words and phrases.  It took some playing around, okay I lot of playing around, but I eventually had roughed a humorous poem called “Tiger Cat.”  Tuesday I got word that it had told to Highlights Hello.

My very first manuscript will never sell.  In fact I probably have my first ten manuscripts sitting around here gathering dust.  (Ten is a kind, conservative estimate.)  But first manuscripts in a new type of writing?  Those seem to be a good thing for me.


Of course, my husband has made a suggestion.  “What about trying a block buster series?”  Wise guy.


March 16, 2017

Expert Sources

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:30 am
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Recently I came across an online discussion about reaching out to experts when we authors need to learn more about a topic.  I was amazed at how many people assumed that they have to pay someone for information. That has never been my experience.

In my research on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), I came across an article about the work done by a professor who reviewed the original environmental assessment.  According to the author there were numerous points that “raised red flags.”  Seriously?  I can’t quote that.  My editor will want to know what things.  So I did the only thing I could.

I went online and searched for the professor’s name.  I knew her university so I was able to verify that I had found the right person.  I simply used the contact form on her website, identifying myself as a children’s nonfiction author writing on the DAPL.  I included a link to my Amazon Author page so that she could see what I do and then I waited.  In less than two days she e-mailed me back with her cell phone number.

The vast majority of people I contact, especially if they are faculty, researchers or park rangers are happy to share what they know.  They’re excited at the thought of educating young readers.  And, especially when the topic is difficult or controversial, they want to make sure that the information being circulated is accurate.

I have had some people react with a certain amount of suspicion if they think that I’m a journalist.  Nope — children’s writer.  Nonfiction writer.  Once they understand that, they usually perk right up.

Reach out to those who are experts in your field.  They can help you replace skewed information with accurate fact.  They may even tell you about something so new you won’t find it in any other print source.  All you have to do is find an expert who is willing to share.



March 15, 2017

Revision: You Gotta Love It

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:00 am
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So many writers I know want to rush through their revisions.  If they get feedback from an editor, they are determined to turn the manuscript around in two weeks, three at most.  Me?  I want to give myself time to internalize the feedback. I also enjoy seeing the manuscript change and grow.  Why rush it?

In truth, writers really need to love revision.  You rough out the manuscript once.  Once you have a manuscript and have given it time to rest, you are ready to revise.  And you aren’t going to do it in one draft.  My process looks something like that.

  1.  Horrible, scary, terrible, no-good first draft.  Okay, maybe it isn’t that bad but I’m often just slapping it down at this stage.  There are even gaps because I don’t take the time to look up missing information.  I just type myself a note.  FIND OUT WHEN THIS WAS AND WHO WAS THERE.  Then I move on.
  2. During this draft, which is the first revision, I fill in gaps.  I also look for things that need to be shifted from one spot to another.
  3. Are any sections slight?  This is when I bulk them up.  Not that I want them to feel bulky but there has to be enough information to justify a stand alone chapter or section.
  4. Can’t manage that?  Then I combine sections or split something too dense in two.  I’m looking to create balance in this draft.
  5. Now is when I smooth things out and check the reading level.  Too high or too low? This is the time to make adjustments and make it flow.
  6. At last, I print it out and my husband reads it.  Then I take care of any issues he spotted and do a hard copy rewrite.  I always do one rewrite on paper because there are problems that I miss until I see them in print.  This is also when I cut excess words.  Again, I spot things on paper that I wouldn’t see on-screen.

That makes for six drafts total although sometimes I can do it in four.  Either way, that’s one first draft and three to five revisions.  You really need to love revision to make your writing work.



March 14, 2017

How Many Manuscripts Do You Work on at Once?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:00 am
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One of my writing nonfiction students has been struggling with which one of two topics to choose for her project.  The problem is that she’s waiting to hear back from someone about Topic #1 so she wasn’t sure if she should go ahead and pursue Topic #2.

I suggested that she pursue both.  While she waits to hear back on Topic #1 she should work on Topic #2.  Sometimes it is just a good idea to have a back up.

Me?  I always work on more than one thing at once.  This past week this list included:

  1. The young adult science fiction novel I am roughing out,
  2. A picture book about caves that had stalled out but on Thursday THE solution came to me so I need to get back to work,
  3. A picture book about schools that I roughed out,
  4. The 8th grade level manuscript that I’m researching for Abdo,
  5. A picture book about space flight that I roughed out, and
  6. Oh, I nearly forgot.  And the pitch that I’m working on.

Why so many things at once?  I’ve been working on 1 and 2 for a few weeks now but #2 had stalled out so I was focusing on #1.

I roughed out #3 while working something up for the blog.

The idea for #5 came to me while I was researching #6 so I quickly roughed it out so that I’d have the idea down.

Yeah.  I’m probably a little crazy.  Right now my focuses are#4 since I have a deadline Friday and #6 which is due tomorrow.  But I’m also trying to work on #1 a little bit every day.

I am a very focused, intense writer.  If I know where I am going with something, I can rough out 250-350 words in about 15 minutes.  But once I’ve written this intensely for at most 30 minutes I’m pretty much done for an hour or so.  I can do research.  I can play with my frame for a story.  But I can’t write that hard until I’ve done something else for a while.

What can I say?  This is what works for me.  How do you write?  Do you work on more than one manuscript at a time?



March 13, 2017

Poetry, Writing in Rhyme and Word Play

Saturday I had the opportunity to attend a top-notch writing workshop put on by KS/MO SCBWI.  The subject was poetry and rhyme and the workshop leader was Peggy Archer.

Writing in rhyme is not natural for me.  Part of it is my subject matter.  Black Lives Matter, Race and Racism and the Zika virus are not exactly topics that are just begging for a rhyming treatment.  Nope.

But I am trying to get back into picture book writing and picture books frequently rhyme in spite of the fact that many editors and agents advise writers not to write in rhyme.  Why?  Because it is so very hard to do well.  While I don’t tend to write in rhyme, I love wordplay and fun language in a picture book.  To that end, I tend to use onomatopoeia (sound words like pitter patter or kaboom) and alliteration (wicked wiley words).  As in poetry, picture book writing requires using each and every word for maximum impact.  Poetry workshops are a great help and Peggy’s was one of the best.

Here are 3 things I learned from Peggy.

  1.  Word lists pay off.  Whether you are trying to rhyme or just looking for fun read aloud words, Peggy recommends creating word lists.  Don’t put as much effort into adjective and eliminate virtually all adverbs.  Put your effort into specific, colorful nouns and verbs.
  2. Word length can be used to speed up and slow down your text.  Multiple syllable words give the impression of speed. Single syllables slow things down.
  3. Rewriting is 100% essential.  This doesn’t mean tweaking a word or two.  It may mean discarding and adding lines or altogether changing the rhythm.  Be aware of the emotion and idea that you want to convey.  I knew this but getting to see Peggy’s examples helped me to see what I rewrite on even very short text can accomplish.

I’m never going to be a world class poet, but Peggy supplied me with some tools to make my picture book texts shine.


March 10, 2017

Query Letters: Comparing Your Book to Another Title

One of the things that you need to do in your query letter is show the agent that you know something about the market.  Many writers do this by comparing their work to a book that is already in print.

As with everything, there is a right way to do this and a wrong way to do this.  Do not state that your book will be the next Harry Potter/Nancy Drew/Little House on the Prairie.  While everyone wants to be wildly successful, you don’t want the agent to just roll his eyes and then delete your query or send you the dreaded “good luck in finding representation elsewhere.”

The book that you chose to compare to your own should also be current.  That’s part of the problem with Nancy Drew and Little House.  Yes, I loved them.  Yes, I read them all.  But they were published then and this is now.  You want to show the agent that you’ve read something recent and that you know the market.  

These comparisons wouldn’t tell your target agent anything about your book.  They would just tell her something not altogether positive about you.

Instead, make a comparison, using a contemporary title, that hints at your book.  “My book has the same fantasy meets the Wild West feel as Rebel of the Sands.”  “Like Ronan in the Raven Boys, Jed is abrasive but compelling.”  This doesn’t say that my book will be an international seller like Rebel of the Sands.  I’m not claiming to have the same series potential as The Raven Boys.  But I am telling the agent something about the feel of the book.  In doing so, I’m also making her aware that fans of the popular book may also like mine.

Comparing your book to a successful, current title isn’t an easy task to do well but it is something that will tell the agent about both you and the manuscript.  Just make sure that it sends the message you intend.



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