One Writer’s Journey

July 20, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Brainstorming Story Ideas

I’m at 198 and counting. I’m one of those writers who keeps a list of story ideas.

Some of them are fairly fleshed out and would function as a premise.  Others are much less so.  I may have an idea for a character.  Other times it is a title.  And then there are the “what if” questions.  What if so-and-so met so-and-so?  What if so-and-so found themself in this situation.

They don’t have to be well-developed to be classified as an idea.  And that is definitely something you can do in only five minutes when time is precious.  The good news is that story ideas can come from anywhere.


Sometimes an article that is sent to my in-box inspires a story.  I’ll read about an event in history and wonder what happened before or after.  Or I’ll misread a heading.  I’m kind of famous for that.  This week I received “How to Turn Beans into Dinner,” but bobbing along on the treadmill I saw “How to Turn BEARS into Dinner.” It all started when Baby Bear misunderstood something he read.

A Location.

When we were in the Smoky Mountains, we saw tons of signs warning us about elk and black bears.  Before we left, I had two different story ideas – one about elk and one about black bear. Two more story ideas came from the mountains themselves.  And then there are the eight inspired by various museum and visitor center displays, and one inspired  by a local pronunciations.  That’s 13 total.


Sometimes all I need for inspiration is an image.  I do a lot of photo research for various projects at Pixabay.  The front page is an un-themed display of recent images.  Sometimes someone will post something new that sparks my imagination.

A Conversation.

And don’t forget to draw inspiration from the people around you.  One of my husband’s cousins is doing genealogy and is flabbergasted that he can’t find his grandparents’ death certificates.  Yeah.  You can’t toss something like that out in front of me and not generate a few ideas.

All it takes is a few moments to jot down a story idea.  Just keep your eyes open and a notebook handy.



July 19, 2018

Research and Outlining: Which Comes First?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:02 am
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This week I started my next project for Red Line.  Next Thursday I have to turn in Chapter 1, an outline, and a bibliography.

One of my students wanted to know if I research or outline first.  This is one of those the chicken or the egg kinds of questions.  In most cases I work on them simultaneously.

When Redline asked me to write about the Ancient Maya, I was faced with a topic that was far too broad for a single book.  I could write about their cities, how they lived, their religion or their science.  I could write about how we have learned about them and what we don’t know.  The theories about why their civilization declined are numerous.  Mayan technology, mathematics and agriculture are all worthy topics and far to vast to squeeze into one volume.

Fortunately, Abdo had given me a list of things to include so that the book would parallel the others in the series.  I used this list as a rough outline.  With that in hand, I started my research.  I needed the topics in the outline because simply searching on the Maya was too broad. With that kind of search the material I found wouldn’t be focused or detailed enough.  But with the topics I could find what I needed to know to create a detailed outline.

So the process goes like this:

Read the spec sheet.

Do a small amount of research, looking for topics that would make good chapters.

Create a rough outline, possible just with the chapter titles.

Research and outline chapter 1.  Research and outline chapter 2.  Etc.

Is this method perfect?  Not really. Sometimes I’ll discover information that isn’t in the outline but should be so I have to combine chapters. Sometimes a topic turns out to be too narrow to carry a chapter.  But this is when I want to find these things out. Editors generally don’t consider your outline to be the final word but it does let them know what you consider important and which topics you plan to cover.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some research to do and an outline to smooth out.



July 18, 2018

Competing Titles

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:33 am
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It is important to know which books on the market will compete with your own manuscript.  The topic should be a section in any nonfiction proposal you put together.  But it is also something you should know because it can tell you whether or not to pursue a topic.

The first step is to do a search on Amazon.  Keep it simple.  “Black bears Smoky Mountains.”  Hint #1: Remember to search only in books.  It narrowed this search from 515 results to 25.  If you don’t turn up any titles, you might have a problem on your hands — zero interest.  But here are 25 items.  Here are some of the things that I look for to narrow things down.

I write nonfiction for children and teens so I rule out fiction and titles for an adult audience.  Since I publish traditionally, I also rule out Create Space titles.  That leaves one competing title for this topic – The Moon of the Bears (The Thirteen Moon Series) by Jean Craighead George.  The publisher is HarperCollins and the publication date 1993.  It doesn’t look like this book is still in print so again I would want to poke around to try to judge interest level.

But let’s say it was a brand new titles – just a year old. If you only have one competing title and it is written by someone like Jean Craighead George, you probably do not wand to go toe-to-toe.  Does that mean you should give up?  No way.  It means that you come up with way to write your book without competing.  How can you do this?

Change the age range of your book.  George’s book is for grades 4 – 6.  You could avoid competing by:

  • Writing a picture book for grades K – 2.
  • Writing a book about a particular cub that was rehabilitated and released to the wild.
  • Focus on a ranger that works with bears.

Another thing that you can do is show that your work is superior.  Let’s say the book was written by a new nonfiction author and published by a new, unknown press.  The reviews were awful.  You can point out that your work corrects faults in other books.  Or if the information in the book is anecdotal, base yours on recent wildlife studies and tell the editor that this is what you are doing.

Be prepared to show an editor that there are books (interest) but that there is still room for your book.  If you can do this, they will know that you are a writer who does her homework.





Other books on your topic published in the last 5 years.  How does your book differ?  My book covers a greater breadth than other titles and is more scientific.  Given the interest in STEM titles, I’m going to emphasize that aspect.

July 17, 2018

Gendered Reading: What It Is and Why It Matters

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:29 am
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I have to admit that I’m not a huge podcast fan.  IMO they tend to be a bit long and I’m not interested in a 30 minute blog that starts with a 10 minute ad.

But I love Shannon Hale’s work and Grace Lin’s as well. So when I saw the podcast KidLit Women had recorded one of Hale’s essays for discussion, I clicked through to listen.  You can find the podcast here.  In it, Hale discusses her experiences doing school visits and what she has learned about gendered reading.

Gendered reading is when we make the gender of the characters the most important aspect of a story.  We define the story as appropriate or inappropriate based on the gender of the reader.  As Hale noted, girls were encouraged to read her book, Princess in Black.  Boys?  Sometimes but not always.  In fact, at one school visit, only middle school girls were encouraged to attend her talk.  The assumption was that she would have nothing to offer the boys.

Think about how you buy gift books?  Is your first thought whether the young recipient is a girl or a boy?  If so, you gender reading at least to an extent.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  I am working up a proposal for Puke-ology: The Science of Vomit in People and Other Animals.  Me?  I think of it as a book for 2nd to 5th graders who like gross things and learning about animals.  But a lot of people try to narrow this definition.  They think they are helping me out.  “That’s a book boys would love.”  I’m glad they think so but I also know a lot of moms and girls who would also love this book.

Gendered reading.  I think it tells us a lot more about the expectations of adults than it does about the preferences of young readers.  At least the preferences they start out with.  We adults are still putting effort into skewing them whenever possible.


July 16, 2018

Getting to Do Unexpected Research

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:56 am
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Things do not always go as planned.  I knew that I would be out-of-town for three days last week.   So I wrote the posts for last week but surely I would get some more done.  If nothing else I would do it when I got home Saturday evening.

Bwa-ha-ha.  A storm rolled through as we were driving home.  We drove through rain. Not too bad.  And then this greeted us as we entered the neighborhood.  Winds and rain that tip trees mean no electricity.  So, we came home, showered, drove far enough out to eat dinner someplace with electricity and then came home.

But going out to eat meant getting dressed.  Is my shirt inside out?  Frontward?  These shoes match.  Don’t they?  I went with sandals since I only have two pair and they are easy to tell apart.  So we ate and then came home to play games together.

First we tried to play a game with different colored tiles by lamp light.  Not regular lamps.  Kerosene.  When you read that you cannot perceive colors in the dark, believe it.  We could tell which ones were yellow but green, blue and red?  Sometimes red was discernible but green and blue were interchangeable.

So we switched to cards.  We played one game of kings in the corners and then garbage.  Then everyone else gave up and I shifted the lamp and played solitaire.  Even that only lasted about 30 minutes.  There is a reason that historic cards are big and boring.  That white background is 100% essential when it comes to telling what is what.

When your character has to carry on and do something in the dark, remember how hard it is to see.  Colors are iffy although you can tell light colors (white and yellow) from dark (red, blue and green).  Detail?  There is no such thing although you can tell a black cat from the shadows.  It helps that she’s meowing like mad because she doesn’t want you to step on her but seriously.  Darkness is a lot trickier than I had thought!




July 13, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Sensory Detail

Bringing your setting alive is often a matter of including true-to-life details. But they have to be more than realistic.  They have to be real.

What are the things that you would notice if you were there vs if you simply researched your setting?  I contemplated this last weekend as I took part in my first Pickle Making Party.  Simply put, three days of rain led to rapidly growing, monster cucumbers.  No one wants to eat one cucumber that big let alone 35 pounds of huge cukes.  So we pickled.  This was my first time making pickles and I drank in the details.

The good thing is that there details don’t have to go into your first draft.  Or your second draft.  There are the kinds of details that you can add into draft three or five.  When you have a few minutes, take a look at one page of your story.  If you don’t have three sensory details on that page, add one or two or even three.  And mix things up. These should all be sights.  Go for the more difficult touch and motion.

To show you how, I will brain storm sensory details for five minutes.

Sight:  Dark green peels.  Feathery dill.  Ivory garlic.  White cucumber flesh.  Shiny pepper flakes.  Billowing steam.

Smell: The tang of vinegar.  Pungent garlic.  The freshness of orange (someone had a snack).

Sound:  The swish of  water going into a pot.  Bubbling.  The purr of the dishwasher.  The hum of the exhaust fan.  The clang of the pot lid.  Hissing pressure cooker.

Taste: The tang of the brine.  Mellow cucumber.  The bite of garlic.  The green taste of dill.  Yes, to me dill tastes green!

Touch:  Rubbery cucumber flesh.  Prickly cucumbers straight off the vine.  Papery garlic skin.  Lava hot jars.  Cool tap water.

Motion: The whirlpool motion as you stir the brine. The subtle motion as the lid is sucked down and seals.  Billows and swirling of steam.

Not great but I got this many in five minutes.  What could you come up with if you only had to think of three?


July 12, 2018

Bulleted Journal

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:12 am
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Are you one of those writers who journals merrily each and every day?  Do you write page after morning page, detailing your thoughts and plans?  Joys and sorrows?  Then this just is not for you.  This post is for the writers who can’t seem to journal for more than a week or two.

I’ve been keeping my journal now since February.  It isn’t page after page of text but a bulleted journal.  I’m sure that other people do their journal differently, but mine is an elaborate to-do list.  It doesn’t have the cute graphics that so many people incorporate.  I played with color for a while and I even fiddled around with hand lettering.  This was about the best that I managed.

As you can see, it is not a thing of beauty.  It is functional.  Hmm.  Functional.  I do that really well.  Let’s strip down the letter and have just enough color to keep me happy.  Other people?  They can keep their own journals.  But I’ll also paste in a star each time I complete a category.  That gives me a feeling of accomplishment.  Ahhh.

So now I have this. Not terribly different but stripped down works for me.

As you can see, it is dated this week.  But it is clean.  And there room to add things that I didn’t know about on Monday when I made the listing. The sections with the open bases?  That’s so that I can pick one to work on and go wild.  The one on the far right?  That’s the proposal that I finished this week.  Woo-hoo.

The funny thing is that a bulleted journal done right is whatever you need it to be.  Need a page to keep track of the billable time spent on a project?  Than do it.

I’ve got lists of books read, movies seen and story ideas.  So far I’ve read 89 books, watched 30 movies, and I have 184 story ideas.  The best thing is that this is not a computer file.  I can tuck this notebook into my purse when I travel.  I took notes in this when I went on retreat and when we were in the Smoky mountains.

This may not be what works for everyone but for someone who has issues with conventional journals?  It seems to be the thing even if it is, like so many things, a work in progress.


July 11, 2018

The Nonfiction Proposal: What to Include

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:02 am
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Of course, one of the agents that I’m approaching requires a proposal for nonfiction.  I’d rather send the entire manuscript than pull together a proposal. I’m not sure why they intimidate me so much.  I think the problem is that every write-up you find has a slightly different list of “things to include.”  Ugh.  I’m melding them together and will include:

  • Title.  Yes.  It seems like a no brainer but I’m afraid that if I don’t write it down I will forget it.
  • Book Description (sometimes called Overview).  Start with a hook and then go into the nuts and bolts.  Include word count, the target reader (age, gender, interests) and why the book is necessary.  Does your book include quizzes, sidebars or activities?  Also mention all the research you did.
  • Competing Books.  Other books on your topic published in the last 5 years.  How does your book differ?  My book covers a greater breadth than other titles and is more scientific.  Given the interest in STEM titles, I’m going to emphasize that aspect.
  • Bio/About the Author:  Why are you the ideal author for this book?  Include a brief resume.  Not everything but list the publishing credits that will help get your foot in the door. I am going to mention how many books I have as well as various types of educational writing that I have done.  But I will only list my STEM titles including those not yet in print.
  • Promotion: How to get your book into the hands of those would-be readers. What are you willing to do to promote the published book?  I can put my name out there as someone willing to do school visits.  I can also volunteer to do library programs.  Posting activities on my web site would also be a possibility.
  • Outline: List your chapters and summarize each.  In my Abdo outlines, most chapters are outlined in 12 lines or less.   For this book, I will include which animals are discussed in each chapter, why they were chosen, and what the sidebar is about.
  • Sample Chapters: Some agents want to see 3 chapters.  The one I am approaching wants only one.

How long should all of this be?  I’ve heard everything from 12 to 25 pages.  Now off to get to work.  I think I can, I think I can…


July 10, 2018

Research: Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary sources are eye-witness accounts.  If you are reading the words of an eye-witness, listening to a tape, or checking out photographs or artifacts, these are all primary sources.  You can find primary sources in museums and archives.

But you can also find primary sources in print.  Diaries, letters and even articles written by the researcher who collected the data (see scholarly journals and National Geographic) are primary sources.  This is true even if the published collection of letters lists an editor or the published diary includes a translator.

How is this possible?

Primary sources are uninterrupted.  A good translator isn’t interpreting the text of a letter or journal, but simply making it available to those who read a language different from the original document.  An editor who selects which letters go into a print publication is not altering the letters’ content.  There is no interpretation. Because of this even excerpts are considered primary sources.

I have recently been told that some people say that translations and published letters that list an editor are considered secondary.  To be certain, I googled it.  First I searched “translations primary sources.”  Then I searched “translations not primary sources.”  Everything I found, I’ll provide a brief selection below, so that translations, edited collections and excerpts are all primary.

What if your editor says, “No, I don’t include those as primary sources.  You have to see the entire letter or read the diary in the original Italian”? Fine.  Then I would try to find a different source.  Or I just wouldn’t list it as a primary source.  In all truth, most often I just include a bibliography.  I don’t generally divide it between primary and secondary.

Here are the sources I mentioned:

The Harvard Library Research Guide section, “Knowing a Primary Source When You See One.

The research guide for The University of Wisconsin – Madison library system.

A PDF research guide created by the Saint Mary’s University Twin Cities Campus Library.

If any of you know of a source that says translations, excerpts and published collected works are not primary, please let me know!


July 9, 2018

Highlights: Changes in the magazine’s submissions policy

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:02 am
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For the first time that I can remember, Highlights magazine is closed to submissions.  But don’t panic!  This closure is not permanent.  They have simply closed from 6/16/18 to 9/16/18.  During this time they are reading anything received before they closed their doors.  They should be done reading and reached a decision on all manuscripts in process by 8/31/2018.

When they re-open after this reading period, they will only be taking manuscripts on very specific current needs.  You will be able to see what they want here on Submittables.

If you submit anything to Highlights before they re-open, ,your work will be returned unread.

If you have something ready to submit to Hello Magazine, the Highlights family magazine for ages 1-2, or High Five Magazine, these two publications are taking submissions.  But be sure to check out their Submittables pages as well.

I’m curious to see specifically Highlights will be looking for when they reopen.


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