One Writer’s Journey

April 3, 2020

The Right Way to Improve on a Comp Title

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:06 am
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Last week, I finished Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park.  Such a good book!  If you aren’t familiar with it, it is the story of Hanna, a teen who moves to LaForge in the Dakota Territories with her father in 1880.  More than anything, Hanna wants to go to school but now that her mother is dead Hanna is Papa’s helper in the dress goods shop.

And she is half Asian. I’ll let you read the book yourself (or read my review) to see why that’s a problem.

In her Author’s Note, Park talks about why she wrote the book.  She grew up loving the Little House books.  Serious love.  But it upset her that Ma hated the Native Americans they encountered.  Even as a child, Park recognized that this was fueled by racism.  Park also understood that Ma never would have let Laura be friends with someone with dark hair and eyes as Park herself has.  Park didn’t condemn Wilder or her books although she does acknowledge the problematic passages and themes.

Then she set about researching and writing her own story.  She wanted to add a character that she would have identified with as a girl.  I’m not going to dwell on the challenges this created or how she handled them.  Again, you’ll have to read the book.

But I do want to go into what Park did right.  She does not pan Wilder or her work.  She acknowledges what Wilder did right and how she drew many young readers into caring about her characters and their world.  Then Park builds on that and does it better, painting a more complete picture.

So often when we discuss comp titles, even comp titles that inspired us, we dwell on their short comings.  “This, this and this are wrong.  My book sets the record straight.”  How much better to hold it up as valuable if flawed and then do it even better.  You don’t alienate people (such as editors or agents) who loved the original and you start off on a positive.

A positive.  I think that’s something we could all use.


April 2, 2020

3 Reasons You Should Tune into Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems

The Kennedy Center and Mo Willems have created a series of YouTube videos to inspire young book lovers.  Check out the YouTube channel Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems.  I’ve only watched the first one (see above) so far, and it was a lot of fun.

Willems starts out by encouraging his young viewers in joining him to create a doodle.  As he points out, there is no wrong way to doodle.  He suggested the theme of “things with lots of legs” and encouraged viewers to share their work with him.

Then he answered questions that they had sent in to his publisher.  In later videos the questions come directly from young readers but for the first video he had to work with questions he had already been sent.

This video also took visitors on a mini tour of his home studio and the many document drawers, each devoted to a single book.  He went through some of the art work for his first title – Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.  It was interesting to see how alike the early pigeon was to the Pigeon his readers know and love.  But he also shared illustrations where the dummied piece was significantly different from the published piece.

Throughout, he would make comments like “I don’t know what I was thinking here but I thought these colors would work and they were awful.”  Note: I’m paraphrasing from memory but I really liked that he explained to his viewers how his idea for the piece changed with feedback.

He then ended the video showing everyone how to draw Pigeon.  As Willems explained, unlike a doodle, there is a right way to draw something and a wrong way. It is worth noting that he drew upside down so that it was right side up for the viewer.  His created-upside-down Pigeon looked much more like Pigeon than my right side up Pigeon. You can see my drawing and my doodle on my Facebook author page.

If you need some fun inspiration, tune in and spend some time doodling with the astonishing Mo Willems.


April 1, 2020

Four Reasons You Want to Be a Member of SCBWI

Do you write or illustrate for children?  Then you really should belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  Here are four reasons why.

  1. They are here to support industry professionals.  Take advantage of their events and you will learn a lot about the industry.  Sure you can learn some of it elsewhere online but being part of the SCBWI community is a great networking opportunity.  I’ve found out about numerous markets that have led to sales through SCBWI.
  2. This support takes many forms.  Normally they offer a wide variety of workshops, meetings and conferences.  Unfortunately, these have largely been cancelled due to COVID-19.  To offer continued support to their membership, they are offering weekly digital workshops.  The first is this Thursday with Kate Messner.
  3. They want this support to be widespread.  SCBWI’s leadership knows that all 22,000 SCBWI members have been impacted.  There is no way they can hold a workshop with 22,000 members but they can record it and make the video available to everyone so that is what they are doing.  I’ve attended workshops live and I’ve also watched videos later.  I have no qualms about paying for a webinar if I’m busy when it will be held.  The videos are convenient since I can rewind if I didn’t hear something, pause and go get a cup of coffee, or whatever.
  4. They are generous.  These weekly events?  Free.  They are the sort of thing that the organization could make money on but right now they know what everyone needs a little something extra and they are willing to be the ones providing it.

So far they have 8 workshops scheduled:

4/2 Big Picture Revision for Middle Grade and Young Adult Novels with Kate Messner

4/9 Outstanding Openers: How to Grab Young Readers from the Start with Sara Sargent, Random House Editor

4/16  How to Write Children’s Books and Why with Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

4/23 Book Marketing 101: How to Be Your Own Publicist with Jennifer Vassel

4/30  Page by Page: Breaking Down Picture Book Pagination with Scholastic Editor Kate Feldmann

5/7 Two Art Directors Talking with Laurent Linn and Cecilia Yung

5/14 Using Scene to Build Story with Linda Sue Park (squeee!)

5/21 A Creative Look at the State of Children’s/YA books with agent Marietta Zacker

Find out more about these webinars here.  You can only register the week each webinar is held but you can watch the video for an entire month, assuming you are an SCBWI member.


March 31, 2020

Three Reasons I’m Glad Not to Have to Pick My Cover Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:24 am
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More often than not, writers do not have to pick their own cover art if they traditionally publish.  Some people may not be comfortable with this but I don’t mind.  Why?  Let me tell you.

  1. The Cover Has to Make an Accurate First Impression. The first thing that most people notice about your book is the cover.  And the thing is that many people do judge a book by its cover.   You want to make an accurate first impression.
  2. There are Other People Who Know How to Do This.  I’ve watched how-to videos and various talks on cover design.  They talk about selecting the right image (person, place or object), the right colors and the right font.  They talk about guiding the would-be buyers eye to open the cover and experience the book.  When they say it, I can see what they mean but can I do it?
  3. I am Not One of These People.  At least at this point in my life, I am not one of these people.  When I try to lay out something like a cover or a graphic of some kind, I can tell whether or not it works.  Sometimes all seems well.  Then someone comes along and explains why it doesn’t work.  And then there are those times where I know it isn’t working.  Let me illustrate this.

Back when Duchess Harris and I were working on Hidden Human Computers she had picked out a photo for us to use on the cover.  It was a photo of her grandmother, one of the computers, walking down the street.  She was dressed, as my grandmother would have said, to the nines.   It was a gorgeous photo.

Then the book designer showed us the photo they had chosen.  You can see it on the cover above.  The photo they chose shows one of the women at work.  Since this is a book about them at work as computers, it makes a lot of sense to choose a photo like that.  As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was a better choice.

Do I loathe not getting to choose the photos used in my book covers?  Oh, no.  I’m just glad someone knows enough to do it and do it well!



March 30, 2020

Three More Reasons to Sign Up for Middle Grade Magic

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:08 am
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Way back in February I wrote about 3 Reasons to sign up for this event.  They were 1) great sessions, 2) great speakers and 3) the cost which is FREE.

Now we have three more reasons to sign up –

  1.  Life Today.  Given the requirements to social distancing, travel is all but impossible which is why so many events have been called off.
  2. Feed Your Muse.  So many writers that I know have commented on how hard it is for them to write right now.  Since I’ve had deadlines, I’ve had to find a way to feed my must and writing events are a great way to do this.  At the moment, that means looking for an online opportunity such as this one.
  3. Additional Sessions. School Library Journal, the organization organizing this event, understands just how badly librarians and the whole publishing community needs to be lifted up.  To help do this, they have added onto this event.  It now begins at 9 am ET on April 8th and two sessions have been added.  The first is Early Bird Session 1: Debut Author Spotlight with Claribel A. Ortega, author of Ghost Squad (Scholastic), and Janae Marks, author of  From the Desk of Zoe Washington (HarperCollins).  The second session is Early Bird Session 2: Super Heroics
    with Paul Greci, author of Follow the River (Move Books), K.A. Holt, author of BenBee and the Teacher Griefer (Chronicle), and Kate Karyus Quinn & Demitria Lunetta, co creators of Anti/Hero (DC).

Again, this event is on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.  If you are otherwise occupied and can’t make this event during the scheduled hours, no worries!  All sessions are recorded and available for later viewing.  There are also always a variety of samples including ebooks, teachers guides, activity guides and more.

Whether you are looking for some writing inspiration or ideas for extras to help market you book, sign up.  It is definitely worth the time to explore this event.


March 27, 2020

Jump Start Your Writing in April: The Poem a Day Challenge

Jump start your writing starting April 1st with Robert Lee Brewer’s PAD – the poem a day challenge.  I like to take part for several reasons.

  1. Something New.  I don’t know about you but I like to try new things.  Poetry is something I don’t write often which makes poetry writing in-and-of itself fairly unfamiliar for me.  But Brewer always pulls in types of poems that I have never heard of before.
  2. Not for Publication.  I’m fairly certain that the vast majority of people who take part are poets so they may try to sell their work at a later date.  Me?  As far as I’m concerned these are writing exercises and not for publication so they are a no stress way to get the words flowing.
  3. Play Time.  Because of this, I can just play around.  I can write something serious, something satirical, or something highly irreverant. For me it is just a chance to have fun with my writing.
  4. Flexible.  The point of the challenge is to get you to write but if you want you can post your attempts each day on the Writer’s Digest Blog.  Post every once in a while or not at all.  It doesn’t really matter.  The only thing is that if you do post you have to be supportive and not hateful.  Unlike some places on the web, Brewer makes it clear that this will not be tolerated.

If you’ve got your kids home with your right now, this would be a fun thing for you to do together.  If you just need a way to get writing each morning, give this a try.  Brewer has a passion for poetry and it is contagious even if, like me, you are not a serious poet.  Let him inspired you!

Here is a link to the challenge guidelines.


March 26, 2020

The Three Levels of Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:14 am
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If this is going to be the new normal for a while, I’m going to have to find a way to make it work.  The boy is attending his college classes from home.  My husband is now my office mate which includes daily 2 pm conference calls which, I have to be honest, seem really pointless.  “Are you all doing your work?  Good boys and girls.”  I have two upcoming deadlines.  Time to get going on my writing.

The Big Picture

When it is time to start a new project, I generally consider the big picture first.  In her post, this is what Barbara Linn Probst calls the macro level.  What is the book about?  For the sake of discussion, I’m going to use People Pray as an example. The macro for this is “a book on global prayer.”

If it was a book of fiction, the macro would include the main character, this person’s goal, and what stands in the way.  Dorothy wants to go home but first has to make her way to the Wizard of Oz.  For your story to work at this level, whether your story is fiction or nonfiction, it has to be big enough for people to care.

This doesn’t meant that it has to be epic – she wants to save a kingdom.  But it does mean that it has to be meaningful.

Step by Step

Next comes what Probst called the mezzo or middle level.  In a novel, this is the scene.  People Pray is a picture book so the messo level is the spread.  What scenes or spreads need to be a part of this story for it to make sense?  This is what I consider when I write an outline.

Something has to happen in each scene or spread.  But it isn’t just a matter of keeping busy.  What happens has to matter to the story.  If you aren’t sure that a scene or spread works, take it out and see if the larger piece works without it.

Word by Word

Last but not least is what Probst calls the micro.  This is the level of individual sentences, words and punctuation.  When I want to make sure that a piece works at the micro level, I read it aloud.  Yes, even something that is book length. Reading aloud helps me here awkward phrasing and parts that are repeatative.

You can have an excellent story idea, the big picture, but without strong scene development and top notch copy editing, it isn’t going to reach your audience.  So when developing a new piece, take it one step at a time.


March 25, 2020

Book Lovers Marooned

Book videos.  Streamed readings.  How-to draw and more.  The children’s book community is coming out with some pretty amazing things to reach out to young readers who are missing school and no doubt more than a little worried.

I’m going to be writing a series of posts on my Facebook author page – “Dear Book Lovers Marooned.”  I’ll be discussing favorite books, reading and learning.  Here is my first post which you can find on Facebook.

SueBE here. If you don’t know me, I am a nonfiction writer for children and teens. I love reading and writing and helping people find great books.

We are living in a strange world, one we never would have predicted this time last year. With so many young readers home from school, I’m going to be writing a series of posts with them mind. Please share as you see fit.

If any young readers, or adult readers for that matter, contact me with a question or discussion point, I will write about it in my next post. You can comment, message me or e-mail me (

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my favorite children’s books – The Boxcar Children. I don’t even know how many times I read this book. I checked it out regularly when I was in fifth grade.

That was the year students from my school were bussed across the district. Instead of walking to school, I was bussed across town. It felt like I was heading to the other side of the world. In reality, it was about 20 minutes from home. A lot of families moved away instead of letting their children be bussed. Life felt out of control and strange.

Maybe that’s why I latched onto the Boxcar Children. If you haven’t read it, it is a book about four kids who built a life for themselves in an abandoned train car. They were brave and ingenious and they took care of each other.

What books do you recommend to lift each other up?


March 24, 2020

3 Things to Know about Querying/Submitting

I just met a deadline Friday and I’d been noodling over sending my work to several agents.  But is now a good time?  That’s something I ask myself on a regular basis but what about now when offices are closing and people are working from home.  So I did some looking online.  Here is what I found.

Send It In.  Yes, there are agents and publishers who want your work.  They may not know what the longterm will bring but now?  They want to read it.  They want to get lost in a good book and they know that young readers will too.  So polish the things you have ready to go and submit.

Check Guidelines. Before you send your work in, be sure to check guidelines.  This is always a good idea but now it is really important.  I put off sumitting to a grant because I didn’t want to mess around with a hard copy submission.  Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t.  It all depended on how I felt when I met this deadline.  Now they are only accepting electronic submissions.  Be sure you are doing what they want you to do NOW and then means checking out those guidelines.

Be Flexible.  You may have things ready to go only to discover that . . . wait?  What?  Another change has taken place.  There’s a lot of that going on right now.  Just take a deep breath and get things ready to go according to what they want now.  Really.  You can do it.

The world is an off beat, confusing place right now and young readers are going to need books that entertain, inform and overjoy.


March 23, 2020

4 Things to Help You Weather Working from Home

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:15 am
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Last week I had a deadline.  My son was on Spring Break.  My husband took the week off.  And then coronavirus.

No, none of us are sick but we have been taking social isolation seriously.  Putting in a fifty hour work week while sharing my office with an extrovert was not ideal but it was not nearly as stressful as I thought it would be. Hopefully he only has to go back to work one or two days next week.  They are shifting to work from home but because of security issues have to use their work computers.

So we’ve been cleaning.  And stirring up dust.  But soon there will be room in here for another computer.  Now if I can avoid taking Sudafed before Monday noon.  I have a doctor’s appointment – again not ideal but I want to get a new inhaler and they are making me come in.

We are all facing a lot of uncertainty and for some of you a big part of it will be because you are working from home.  Here are four things that you can do to make this work.

  1.  Remember that it is work.  You are on the job.  Get dressed.  Keep office hours.  Get the job done which means that you aren’t going to be spending all of your time on social media which leads me to …
  2. Keep your spirits up.  Do things that make you happy.  Spend time outside so that you get some sunlight.  Me?  I’m getting my sun lamp set back up because we had rain and snow today.  I am knitting.  Last night I got my mom’s old sewing machine out and running.  And another way to keep your spirits up…
  3. Stay connected.  I have been making a point of calling one person a day.  That doesn’t sound like much but I really loathe the phone but I also know that my older friends prefer phone calls to Facebook Messenger. I can work with this.
  4. Talk to your boss.  If you and your boss see each other daily, touch base daily at least for a while.  This will help you both align your goals.

While I love working from home, I chose it.  You may end up loving it too especially if you set yourself up for success.


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