One Writer’s Journey

March 19, 2018

Facts: Get Them Right or Lose Your Reader

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:02 am
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This past weekend, my family and I took a road trip.  Three and a half hours there.  Three and a half hours back.   Following the winding, hilly roads in the Missouri bootheel, it is impossible to maintain a radio signal so we listen to audio books.  If I loved this book, I’d tell you what we listened to but I have to say that the author lost us one at a time.

I was the first one to have a problem. In an attempt to write narrative nonfiction, he was writing about a wild herd.  No problem there.  But he didn’t just follow one animal.  He got in its head.  That would be okay if you were just taking me along in its POV.  I could see what it saw and hear what it heard.  But he went so far as to give it human emotions.  Maybe it was intentional.  Maybe he thought it would build empathy, but it backfired.  I kept thinking “that’s your emotion. You didn’t conduct an interview to find this out!”

Next was my husband’s turn. Later in the book, two of the young male characters are playing around with fireworks.  As a mom it bothered me.  My husband, having been a young male, was much less annoyed by this than I was.  But the author lost him when the character flicked open his Bic lighter. I should have caught that.  I grew up in a household with two chain smokers.  You flick open a Zippo, not a Bic.

Last but not least, he lost my son.  The author described the well-worn hilt of a hunters rifle.  Stock or butt would have been accurate for a rifle.  Hilt only works on a sword.

They all seem like picky things but one by one this author said something that someone in the car knew was wrong.  Granted, we have a bizarre range of knowledge.  My husband knows business, economics, cars, music and hunting.  My son is an engineering student who also hunts.  Me?  I have degrees in anthropology and history and I’m a PBS fan.  You probably won’t find this combination often but you have to expect your readers to know about your topic.  After all, that’s probably what drew them to the book.

I’ll be finishing the book because we are reading it for book club, but not the others.  They are done.

When you get a fact wrong, you risk loosing your reader.  You pull them out of the story.  Do it once and they’ll probably give you another try.  Do it more than once and you are much more likely to lose them.  Remember, your goal is to draw your reader in and make them want to turn the page.  Error after error won’t accomplish it.



March 16, 2018

Reading: Why Authors Need to Do It

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:32 am
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Lately I’ve been fiddling around with the prewriting I need to do for a cozy mystery.  Although I love cozies, most of the series that I enjoy have been established for a while so I’ve made a point to check out books from some newer series.

Last week I picked these books up at the library and have already read two. I noted that both POV characters were women of about 40. They are both divorced. Neither one of them has children at home. They both own or manage a shop.

Coincidence or trend?  Because these things could be trends if that’s “industry wisdom,” my term for what various people have decided readers want. We all know how that goes.  “Teen won’t read anything longer than X number of pages” became “Harry Potter has shown us that teens will read longer books.”

But it could also be that the people who gave me book recommendations have narrowly defined tastes. If that is the case, there could be much more variety out there.

The only way to find out is to read some more.  My reading list includes:

  • Avery Aames who wrote the Cheese Shop Mysteries.  Another shop!
  • Rett MacPherson wrote the Torie O’Shea mysteries which I dearly love.
  • Amanda Lee wrote the Embroidery Mysteries.  Hobby or shop?  I’ll have to see.

I also have a massive convoluted list that I printed off the cozy mystery blog. I’m going to have to pick through it because somehow they don’t all look like mysteries.  Ah, well.  The search is on!  It’s a good thing that I enjoy reading.



March 15, 2018

Reading Levels

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:13 am
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Copyright Dev Petty.

I have to admit, I have something of a love/hate relationship with reading levels.  In my educational writing, I have to write to a specific level.  It is a great feeling to hit it on the first try which I manage to do at least half the time.

And reading levels are helpful when talking to other adults.  Why?  Because most of them have only a very vague idea what I do.  So when I say that I’ve written a book about X topic, I can add “it is written for teens.”  No, they still don’t have a solid idea what I do but they have enough information that they don’t feel lost.  Think of it as a parlor trick.

So where does the hate part of that love/hate relationship come in?  I hate what reading levels mean for young readers.

Instead of telling Joshua that that picture book is too young for him and that book with no photos too old, we should follow his lead.  Let him select some easier books.  Picture books are great fun and can make an accessible introduction to a topic.  If he enjoys what he reads, he may very well go looking for a harder book.

And harder books?  As long as it is a matter of reading level?  Challenging yourself to read a difficult book seldom does permanent damage.

In my experience, kids develop a love for books by being given unfettered access.  Help them find a book if they ask.  Otherwise, stand back.  Unless they need help carrying the stack.

The poster at the top of the page was created by illustrator Dev Petty. She drew this after discussing reading levels with her 9-year-old daughter.  After being approached by so many of us who would like to buy a print, she has made that possible.  Click here to visit Elvis Westward prints and order your copy.


March 14, 2018

First Draft: Slap It Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:30 am
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This week, I’m writing on deadline.  I have to turn the book in next Wednesday.  That’s 15,000 words due in less than a week.  As I write this, I have something like 10,500 words more or less.  I need to have the first draft done in a day and a half.

Is it perfect?  Nope. There will be blanks where I’ve written ADD DATES or WHAT’S HIS NAME?  But I’ll have written draft #1 in just over a week. It is far from perfect.  So why write so fast?

It isn’t perfect, but it is on paper. Okay, in all honesty it is on the computer.  I won’t print it out until I’ve finished two more drafts. But having a draft down means that I can reshape it. I can make sure everything is understandable.  I can shift the order of sections so that it all makes more sense.  I can make major changes in draft 1.  I wouldn’t be making these changes if I was still just thinking about it.

The third draft is for reading level.  This is a science book so it might be tricky but I’ve done it before. I have to run the text chapter by chapter through an ATOS program.  It will give me a specific level such as (hopefully) 7.9.  A little high and I look for compound sentences to break in two.  I look for $10 words that I can pull out and replace with $5 words.

Last but not least, I’ll go over a hard copy.  That’s four drafts to finished book.  You know, the book that’s due next week.  The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect whether you have a week or a year.  But it doesn’t really matter how long you’ve got.  You can’t work with it until you write it down.


March 13, 2018

Diversity: More than Harriet Tubman

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:06 am

Yesterday I read Danene Millner’s New York Times piece, “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time.” In it, she discusses the fact that books about stand out individuals like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr are great.  After all, everyone should know about these people.  But black children need to read about more than people who did something first or otherwise stood out.

They need to see their reality reflected in everyday kids and adults doing everyday things.  As Millner wrote, they need books like Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. They need the works of Andrea Davis Pinkney and Eloise Greenfield.

I’d like to add a few authors to her list.  They also need the books of Pat McKissack and Jacqueline Woodson. I would also add two individual titles – The Quickest Kid in Clarksville and Ada Twist, Scientist.


As an author, I’m going to have to noodle over how to address this.  I could interest a publisher in Hidden Human Computers because it was a stand-out story.  It was previously unknown.  It was a big deal.  When I wrote Women in Science and Women in Sports my editor and I tried to select a variety of people to represent.

One thing that I’m going to do is pay careful attention when I read.  When a publisher illustrates a book of experiments, what about the kids performing these experiments?  Are they diverse?  When I read about music or costumes or food, are all of the examples European and American?  Or are they diverse?

Still noodling this over.  I hate that idea that young readers may feel left out because they don’t see themselves in the pages of the books on their classroom shelves.




March 12, 2018

Writing Habits

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:14 am
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Thank you to Jack Milgram who created this infographic about strange quirks and writing habits of famous authors.  Check them out and see if any of them overlap with your own.  I share desk habits with Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carol.  I drink coffee although not nearly as much as Honore de Balzac.  And, like Vladimir Nabokov, I have been known to write on index cards.

March 9, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Setting

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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When we discuss writing strong fiction, we spend a lot of time discussing characters.  After all, we want them to feel real enough to walk off the page.  But the setting through which they roam has to feel real as well.  The more complete your setting, the more real your world will feel for the reader.

Think about Hogwarts and The Hub.  After reading Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, those places feel real.  The authors developed them down to the last fantastic staircase or junk covered table.

But what can you do to develop your setting in only five minutes?  More than you think.

  • Spend 5 minutes brainstorming place names for your town, city or street.  This is a tough one for me because my setting is loosely based on the city in which I live.  Change the name of our city and you change our identity.  That’s how a setting should be, but I don’t want actually use the name of my city. I’ve played with a few names but I just need to sit down and brainstorm a huge list.
  • Floor plans.  Be sure you know the layout of important rooms in the buildings in which your story takes place.  You can draw your own floor plan or find one online.  I did this with two character’s homes in my WIP.  I just typed “Craftsman floor plan” and “mid-century modern floor plan” into Google images.  I had to pick through a bit to find what I wanted but each took about five minutes.
  • Decor.  Your setting what feel real if you don’t know what’s in it.  Spend a few minutes determining what style the appropriate character likes. I pinned living room, dining room and bedroom furniture for my main character and her sidekicks.
  • Paint Colors.  This is a separate item because you have two sets of decisions to make – colors for private spaces and colors for personal spaces. Why break it down like this?  Because for some people they aren’t one in the same.

This isn’t everything that you need to know about setting but these four exercises will get you started.  Let me know how they work for you!


March 8, 2018

KidLitWomen: Are You Part of the Movement?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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Image by Grace Lin

KidLitWomen is the brainchild of author-illustrator Grace Lin and author Karen Blumenthal.  The pair first came up with the idea over a month ago when they were talking with a group of industry colleagues.  Lin noted that although children’s publishing preaches to child readers about fairness and being kind, the industry itself doesn’t always pull this off. And often those of us in it are blind to the ways that we promote one group over another.

It can be overt, knowingly paying a male speaker twice what a female speaker makes. But it can also be quiet and sneaky. Think of all those conversations of boy books and girl books.

In the spirit of self-awareness, they started the conversation and invited the rest of us to join in.  You can find it on the KidLitwomen or on Twitter (#Kidlitwomen).  Emphasis is on respectful but revealing conversation.  So far there have been posts about:

What boys are really reading.

What a girl’s book collection looks like

Statistics on the race and gender of ALA winner

Going beyond whether you can write a story to think if you should

I have to admit that I haven’t participated all that much in the talking sense.  Instead I’ve been reading and just taking things in.  That said, I have tweeted a piece or two to encourage others to read and think.

If you haven’t been part of the dialogue, stop on by and see what everyone is talking about.  There are frequently several conversations going on at once but that’s okay.  Eyes are being opened.  Heads are being turned.



March 7, 2018

Win a Bookstore!

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:18 am
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You could be the lucky winner!

The owners of the My Shelf Bookstore are holding a contest.  It is fairly simple to enter.

You need:

  • $75 for the fee
  • A 25o word (or less) essay on why bookstores are important to the community

They need to receive 4,000 entries for the contest to take place.  That is because you are competing to win the bookstore that sells both new and used titles.  The prize includes:

  • The stock
  • The shelves
  • 6 months rent paid
  • The signage

Click through here to find out the rest of the details.

Am I entering?  Um, no.  I love bookstores but not as much as I love writing.  Owning and operating a bookstore?  Oh, please no.  That just doesn’t sound fun.  I’d be perfectly willing to take a shift now and again.  I love talking books with people.

I’m way too introverted to want to do that day in and day out. There are days that I just need to avoid people.  Even the ones that I like.  From what my husband, who has worked retail, tells me, that is not entirely compatible with my personality.

Still I loved seeing the entry that cartoonist Bob Eckstein created for a Writer’s Digest column.  You can check that out here.  And I would be truly happy if one of you lovely people would win.

Me?  I’d rather go back to the book I’m writing.  Or maybe the book that I’m reading.  Those are both much more my style.


March 6, 2018

Picture Books: The Ending with a Twist

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:00 am
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Picture books may be short but that doesn’t mean they are easy to write.  In addition to leaving room for the illustrations, the author has to find a satisfying ending.  One way to do this is with a twist.  Some people call it the aha moment.  Just how you pull this off depends on the book.

In Laura Gehl’s Peep and Egg: I’m Not Using the Potty, the twist is one that will really appeal to the preschool reader. Throughout the book, Peep is trying to get Egg to use the potty.  Egg wants no part of it and only sits up there when she is about to pop and because she gets to hold the storytime book while Peep gets a second book.  The twist comes when Peep wants Egg to get down so that she can use the potty.  No thank you!  Egg has books to read.

This is the type of ending that young readers are going to really enjoy.  They are used to adults having all the power but here Egg has the power to make Peep wait and she’s doing exactly what Peep wanted.

Laura Gehl creates another twist in I Got a Chicken for My Birthday.  This one is a surprise because the reader thinks they see the twist coming.  Ana wanted to go to the amusement park but Abuela gave her a chicken. Throughout the book, we see Ana trying to do things for the chicken, but the chicken has a list.  She wants to eat cotton candy. She needs a bull dozer.  So yes, she builds an amusement park.  But the twist is Ana’s last line.  Next year she is asking Abuela for a trip to the moon.

This time young readers will love the twist because Ana has learned to play Abuela’s game.  Let’s see how abuela pulls this one off!

Another story with a twist is Dan Santat’s After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again.  Humpty Dumpty explains that after his fall, he just hasn’t had the courage to get on that wall even though he longs to once again sit among the birds.  One day he’s birdwatching from the ground when he sees a paper airplane fly past.  Soon he’s making a birdlike plane.  But, as luck would have it, the plane lands on top of the wall.  Humpty has to face his fears to recover his plane.  The twist?  Not that he finds the courage but as he stands on top of the wall his shell cracks again, revealing feathers.  Humpty is turning into a bird.

This is the one that I would call an aha moment because it is more than just a surprise.  It involves emotion and heart.

There isn’t one formula for a twist or aha ending.  How you pull it off will depend entirely on your story.  Study successful books to see what they do.  Then experiment with your own stories.  Like Humpty, it will likely take you multiple attempts to soar.


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