One Writer’s Journey

January 21, 2019

Source Bias: What to Use and What to Lose

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:32 am
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Research, accuracy and source bias has been on my mind a lot the last few days, and not surprisingly it started with a news story.  This particular story was the one about Nathan Phillips and a group of students from Covington Catholic High School.

One narrative has a group of white male highschool students mocking and trying to intimidate an Omaha elder.

In another, the elder saw tension building between the high schoolers and a religious group.  He and his people encircled the students, praying and drumming only to be mocked.

Another narrative blames it all on Black Muslims.

In yet another, Phillips was clearly trying to intimidate the high schoolers.

The problem in researching anything like 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 or not it will get in the way of accuracy.

I had the audacity to challenge a source posted by a friend of my husband.  “That’s just because it isn’t a liberal blogger.”

In all truth, I’m suspicious of liberal sources where this story is concerned.  They are going to be inclined to make the people wearing Trump hats look bad.  But I’m also suspicious of conservative sources.  See the Black Muslim comment.

The key is to find sources that are willing to make both sides look less than perfect.  For that, look at the New York Times.

Just about any topic can suffer from “bias issues.” The key is in knowing the limits to which you can trust a source.

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.



January 18, 2019

Mary Oliver: RIP

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:41 am
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Mary Oliver.  Even a non-poet like myself knows Oliver’s name. For those of you who may not have heard, Oliver died yesterday from lymphoma.

Personally, I always appreciated the straightforward truth of her poems, many of which were set in the natural world.  Even when I didn’t think I got poetry, I knew that even someone with a linear, logical mind like mine could appreciate her work.

One of the things that I appreciated most about Oliver is that she didn’t forget about the people who just weren’t sure they understood poetry.  In fact, she wrote a book to help them out.  A Poetry Handbook:  Prose guide to understanding and writing poetry was published in 1994 and reissued in 2015 by Harcourt.  That’s one of the books that I requested yesterday from the library. Maybe it’s just me, but I often feel the need to check out a book by an author when I hear that they have died.

In addition to poetry and books about poetry, Oliver also wrote essays.  Like her poems, her essays also celebrate nature.  She also wrote about others who have written of nature – Wordsworth, Shelley, Poe and Frost.

Not that Oliver’s work was without critics.  Feminists especially thought that Oliver simplified the relationship between women and nature. I can read that they felt Oliver’s attitudes put women at risk and somehow disempower women.  I can repeat it but I don’t get it.

Me?  I think she found herself and her own power in the natural world where she found freedom and a connection with something larger than herself.  I think she invited others, readers and writers, to do likewise.  If you don’t, you don’t.  Oliver isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but she definitely spoke to me and encouraged me to try my hand at poetry.


January 17, 2019

Finding Your Niche: Or Why I’m Not Talking to My Socks

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:52 am
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Finding your niche as a writer.  That’s one of the big steps in writing success.  When talking to non-writers, you may be a “freelance writer,” broad stroke.  But when you are talking to an agent or editor?  You should be a nonfiction educational writer, a children’s nonfiction writer, or something else fairly specific.

Recently I did an exercise to see what my niche should be.  Yeah, I pretty much already know what my niche is but these things can give you a nudge in a new direction or, in this case, a giggle.

The focus on this was in making big money fast.  What’s big?  Finance.  Tech.  The medicine of aging.  CBD.  Minimalization.

Sometimes the key is in knowing what isn’t right for you.  I have to laugh when I see all the minimalization articles, blogs and programs.  This niche is simply not one I can exploit and it isn’t just because my house is cluttered.

Some time ago, a friend gave me one of the books all about minimalization.  Hint:  Never ever give me something like this on a retreat.  Because when the author says “talk to your drawer of crowded socks and ask how they feel” everyone in the whole lodge will hear my laughing.  No seriously.  When I really cut loose, my laugh is not quiet.  And, incidentally?  My socks were worried for my mental health.

Now if this system works for you and this is a good niche for you – yay!  My point is that for me it is a bust.  I’m a nonfiction author.  With a warped sense of humor.  All “talk to your socks” encourages me to do is create rude sock puppets.

Still this does tell us about my ideal niche.  I’m not touchy feely.  I deal well with teenagers.  And I’m snarky. Finding your niche will increase your chance of making a sale and a big part of this is often finding what is not your niche.


January 16, 2019

SCBWI Announces 2019 Golden Kite and Sid Fleischman Awards

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:21 am
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On Tuesday, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) announced the winners and honor recipients of the annual Golden Kite and Sid Fleischman Awards. The Golden Kites are the first children’s literary award judged by the creators peers. The 6 categories are Young Reader and Middle Grade Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Non-Fiction for Younger Readers, Non-Fiction for Older Readers, Picture Book Illustration, and Picture Book Text. The Sid Fleischman Award is given for humor writing.
The winners are:
Middle Grade Fiction:
Winner: Susan Hood’s Lifeboat 12 (Simon & Schuster). (The descriptions were provided with the announcement so I am including them here.) This compelling novel in verse, based on true events, tells the story of a boy’s harrowing experience on a lifeboat after surviving a torpedo attack during World War II.
Honors titles:
Dusti Bowling’s 24 Hours in Nowhere (Sterling Children’s Books)
Susan Fletcher’s Journey of the Pale Bear (Margaret K. McEldery Books)
Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ghost Boys (Little Brown Books for Young Readers)


Non-Fiction for Younger Readers:
Barb Rosenstock’s Otis and Will Discover the Deep (Little Brown). The suspenseful, little-known true story of two determined pioneers who made the first dive into the deep ocean.

Honor Titles:
Sandra Neil Wallace’s Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery (Paula Wiseman Books)
Annette Bay Pimental’s Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon (Nancy Paulson Books)
Melissa Stewart’s Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers (Peachtree)


Non-Fiction for Older Readers:
Elizabeth Partridge’s Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam (Viking). A personal, moving foray into the Vietnam War and its impact that goes beyond the historical facts to show how the war irrefutably changed the people who were there.   Sue here: This book is currently in my to-be-read pile.

Honor Titles:
Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo: How I lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction (Graphix/Scholastic) Sue here: This book is currently in my to-be-read pile.
Gail Jarrow’s Spooked! How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America (Calkins Creek)


Picture Book Illustration:
Becca Stadtlander’s Made by Hand: A Crafts Sampler (Candlewick). A beautiful, one-of-a-kind volume invites readers to marvel at the time, effort, and care that went into creating handmade toys, tools, and treasures of the past.
Honor Titles:
Larry Day’s Found (Simon & Schuster)
Barbara McClintock’s Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain (Little Brown Books for Young Readers)


Picture Book Text:
Jessie Oliveris’s The Remember Balloons (Simon & Schuster). A tender, sensitive picture book that gently explains the memory loss associated with aging and diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Honor Titles:

Cori Doerrfeld’s The Rabbit That Listened (Dial Books for Young Readers)
John Himmelman’s Floaty (Henry Holt & Co. Books for Young Readers)
Troy Howell’s Whale in a Fish Bowl (Schwartz & Wade)


Young Adult Fiction:
Jane Yolen’s Mapping the Bones (Philomel). Influenced by Dr. Mengele’s sadistic experimentations, this story follows twins as they travel from the Lodz ghetto, to the partisans in the forest, to a horrific concentration camp where they lose everything but each other.
Honor Titles:
Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (Harper Teen)
Vesper Stamper’s What the Night Sings (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Sid Fleischman Award Winner:   
Angela Dominguez’s Stella Diaz has Something to Say (Roaring Brook Press).
A heartwarming story based on the author’s experiences growing up Mexican-American.
I’m sure a few of these titles will be new to you.  Check them out at your local library and see what has impressed your peers.  Although you may have to read each title twice – once for the pleasure and once to learn.




January 15, 2019

Best Writing Web Sites

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:19 am
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The 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2019One of the best things about getting together with other writers is sharing resources.  Whenever my critique group meets, the first 20 minutes is spent discussing business.  Whose acquiring and where we can go to get what we need to solve a problem. Sometimes people offer up a new-to-us resource.  Other times people ask questions.  Where did you find information on — ?  Where do you look when you need to find — ?  What’s your favorite place to go for — ?

The Write Life just put out their  100 Best Web Sites for Writers.  The description of each site includes a “post you’ll like.” To make this resource even more useful, they’ve divided things up into a variety of categories.

Freelancing:  This section focuses on how to make money as a freelancer.  One of my favorites, Funds for Writers is listed. I’m also looking forward to exploring Creative Revolt.

Inspiration.  This pretty well speaks for itself.  It was also a nice reminder to spend some more time exploring Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi Writers Helping Writers.  Among other things, these two are the authors of the Thesaurus how-to writing guides.

Writing Tools.  Need help finding a market or simply honing your work.  Check this section out.  Where to Pitch has a search feature that helps you find information on who wants work on various topics.

Blogging.  This section can help you find resources to start a blog whether you want a general writing blog or to blog a book (see Nina Amir’s How to Blog a Book.

I’m sure you get the point.  There are so many useful sites here that you are going to want so spend some serious time working your way through them.  Writers, illustrators, book authors and magazine writers will all find helpful resources on this list.  Maybe you’ll even find a few to share with your critique group.


January 14, 2019

Reading the Map: A Book Set in Every US State

Last week, I read an Abdo Publishing tweet about a pair of sisters who spent 2018 reading a book set in each US state.  Twins Elizabeth Krych and Rachel Van Houten have competed in various reading bingo challenges but in 2018 they decided to do something different. They challenged each other to read across the US map.  You can read about them and their challenge here.

Hmm. I’m always up for a reading challenge.  My hope is generally that they will take me outside my normal reading.  So I printed off a map and marked the four books I’ve already read.

So far my map includes:

  • Arizona: Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci
  • California: The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee
  • Dinetah (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado): Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Texas: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

The way that the sisters did it, you are supposed to count only one state per book.  That doesn’t quite work for Trail of Lightening since it is set in a post-apocalyptic US.  They don’t discuss geography in terms of US states because there is no US.  The story takes place in the Dinetah, the Navajo homeland between the four sacred mountains, parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

Do I think this challenge will expand my reading in any way?  Obviously.  I read a lot of books sets in the southwest and the south.  So this will push me into parts of the country that I don’t frequently explore.

But I’ve already discovered a problem pointed out by Elizabeth. Not all books are forthcoming about their setting locations.  Sometimes it simply isn’t in the description.  Other times it never becomes clear.  Hopefully that won’t be the problem with too many books.

The book I am currently reading starts in Georgia and then takes us to Kansas.  So which state do I count?  Since most of the story takes part in Kansas, that’s the one I plan to count.  I can already see that I will be searching the library catalog for some specific states that I don’t often explore.

Anyone care to join me on this challenge?



January 10, 2019

Picture Books: Opening with a Strong Hook

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:41 am
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The vast majority of picture books are 500 words or less. That means that a picture book author has 500 words to pack in character, story problem, setting, tone and a hook.  For those of you who don’t know the term, a hook is how you, literally, hood the reader.  What makes them want to read on?  The answer to this question varies from book to book.
The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier opens with:
Ruby’s mind
was always
full of ideas.
This beginning gives the reader two things – character and story problem.  How so?  From 7 words we learn that Ruby is a thinker, an idea person.  Because this is what Maier begins the story with, we assume correctly that this will have something to do with the story problem.  Firming up this assumption is the fact that the illustration shows Ruby sitting on the toilet lid with an easel and tablet beside her as she plans a project of some kind.  This kid has personality and I want to read on.
I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty begins with:
I want to be a
cat.  (This is said by a young frog)
You can’t be a cat.  (This is said by an adult frog/Dad)
This opening text sets the tone, showing us that this one is obviously going to be humorous.  We learn that the character is not content being himself and that his parents aren’t sure how to handle it.  That’s both character and story problem.  Young characters setting their own boundaries? That’s going to hook young readers who love the idea as well as parents who are all too familiar with the situation.
Nonfiction books or fiction that covers an unfamiliar topic can be tricky.
In Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designers Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear the first spread states:
Every story starts somewhere.
My story begins on September 10, 1890 in a beautiful
palazzo in the center of Rome. That’s in Italy.
Imagine a quiet room. Imagine a newborn baby looking up to see
her pappa frowning, her momma frowning.
When I read this book, I didn’t have clue #1 who Elsa Schiaparelli is.  Not one clue.  So the author begins with something that even clueless people like me can comprehend, babies are born.  Ta-da!  But even this simple event is going to prove problematic in this particular nonfiction story.  All this baby has done is come into the world and already mom and dad are unhappy.  Tone.  Story problem.  Setting.  And we went to read on to find out what is wrong.
With their tight word counts, picture books have to do everything a novel does but do it in less space.  Because of this, they have to start establishing story elements even as they hook the reader.

January 9, 2019

Characters: Making Them Three-Dimensional and Realistic

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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Earlier in the week, I was reading a Writer’s Digest guest post by teen author Lorena Koppel. In her post, “From YA to YEAH: 4 Ways to Keep Teen & Young Adult Readers Hooked,” she discusses a variety of things, including unrealistic dialogue, that turn off young readers. Among the topics in dialogue she discussed is “codeswitching.”

Code-switching, if you don’t know the term, is when someone switches between languages or dialects depending on who they are talking to. When I worked at the university, I saw this with the international students.  When they were talking to me, they spoke English.  When a group of Russian students spoke to each other, they spoke Russian.

When Koppel uses this linguistic term, she is referring to the different ways that we each speak to different people.  It may not be a matter of a whole different language or even a dialect but simply how formally we speak to one person vs another.  If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’ve seen this in the difference between how the Crowley sisters speak to their mother or father vs how they speak to each other.  Then there’s the switch that occurs when they speak to one of the servants.  The same thing occurs when the servants speak to each other vs a member of the family.

If you employ code-switching in your manuscript, your dialogue will not only be more realistic, your characters will also be multi-dimensional.  A pair of twelve-year-old cousins will use one vocabulary and set of behaviors with each other and another with their peers.  The way they speak with and behavior toward their teacher will be more formal and different from how they behave toward an adult they don’t know.  Add in a lack of trust and you can change things up yet again.

The reality is that no one acts one set way with absolutely everyone.  But too often our characters behave and speak in one way and only one way.  Use code-switching to make your characters more engaging and also more realistic.


Picture Books: Making It BIG and Personal

The other day, I heard someone comment that Where the Wild Things Are isn’t about the wild things or adventure. It’s about more than that. It’s about wanting to be loved.  In case you haven’t guessed, I read and listen to a lot when I’m on the treadmill.  I also have time to think as I’m step-step-stepping along.

Where the Wild Things Are is about both being wild/wild things and being loved.  One is the character’s outer journey (wild things).  One is the character’s inner journey (love).  One is the plot (wild things).  One is the theme (love).

But about some of the other picture books I’ve recently reviewed?

Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt is about a girl trying to figure out how to feed her friend’s family.  That’s the outer journey and plot.  But it’s also about friendship, the inner journey and theme.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is about a boy who loves mermaids (outer journey/plot).  But it is also about self-identity (inner journey/theme).

Life on Mars by Jon Agee is a humorous picture book about a boy who is searching for life on Mars (plot/outer journey).  It is also about finding something new (theme/inner journey).

Theme is going to help young readers connect with your book because the theme should be something they will identify with.  After all, what preschooler doesn’t want to be loved?  Be their own person?  Or find something new and fantastic?

The specific plot line is what makes each of these stories unique.  But it is also what you can’t duplicate when you write your own story.  Try to sell fictional picture book about looking for life on Mars to Dial and they’ll turn you down.  They’ve got Agee’s book.  But try to sell them an original, creative book about struggling to find something new and you may very well have a sale.

Inner journey vs outer journey.  Plot vs theme.  Your picture book needs both.


January 8, 2019

Daring to Dialogue: Writing Dialogue that Works

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:17 am
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Spice up that dialogue.

Somewhere, someone is delivering this piece of advice to a new or new-ish writer.  And, more often than not, the new writer sets out to do just that.

“Get out of my house!” she shouted.

“Why don’t I believe you?  How can you ask that after you got us both expelled?” he retorted.

In manuscript after manuscript, characters are sobbing out their dialogue, whispering, shouting, screaming, and st-stut-stuttering.  You want to create some spicy dialogue?  Quit trying to jazz up the dialogue tags.  Honestly, those are just place holders so that your reader knows who is talking.  Stick with she said and he said as much as possible. The spice should pepper the words that are spoken, not the tags that help readers keep the speakers straight.

Take a fairly simple line of dialogue.

“I hear them coming,” she hissed.

First things first, pet peeve alert.  There is not a single S in that sentence.  No one, but no one is hissing it.

Step One.  Get rid of the hissing.  And let’s add a bit more information.

“I hear them coming. They’re going to find us any second,” she said.

Our speaker and listener(s) are hiding.

Step Two. Let’s add something that has to do with setting.

“That squeak. That’s the loose board on the stairs. They’re going to find us any second,” she said.

Now we know that someone is hiding upstairs.  Phrase by phrase, we’ve made the dialogue more complex, more interesting and more informative.  And, if hissing didn’t make me a wee bit irritated, there are enough S’s that someone could actually try to hiss this.

If you still want to spice things up, do something about the dialogue tag. I’m not saying that you should go beyond said.  And don’t just chop them all off.  You don’t always need a tag but they do help readers know who is speaking.  You can also replace the tag with an action.  Again, make it meaningful.

“That squeak. That’s the loose board on the stairs. They’re going to find us any second.” She stood between the twins and the door. 

Now we know that our speaker is trying to protect two people.

When you spice up your dialogue, don’t just add fancy dialogue tags.  Instead, make your dialogue informative and make it work for your story.


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