Use Sensory Perception to Pull the Reader In

Photo by Harrison Haines on Pexels.com

Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I try to remember to bring sensory perception into play. It is one of the best ways that I know to pull my reader in.

The hard part is working in a variety of perceptions. The easiest ones are sight and sound. How does the sun look glinting off the surface of the ocean? How do the waves sound lapping against the sides of the ship? Easy peasy.

But the rule of thumb that I use is to work in three perceptions per page. The tricky part is that if I count sense of sight once, I can’t count it again. The same goes for sound. That means that I have to work in smell, taste, or touch/motion.

Take the ocean scene for example. You might think that a scent would be easy to work in and it might be for you. But in general I detest the way the ocean smells. It could be that oceanside areas tend to be humid and a bit moldy. Mold steps up my allergies and triggers my asthma. It could be my cranky imagination but I would swear that the ocean smell like fish poo.

Given the number of people who love the ocean, I should probably give that opinion and detail a miss. I could include the scent of sunscreen. Or the rise and fall of a boat on the waves. That would get me up to four. Personally, I think that taste is the trickiest one to work in.

Sensory perceptions work so well at pulling the reader in because they make things feel real. Think about it. Take a moment to relax with your eyes closed. What do you hear? I can hear water running. And tree frogs outside. What do you smell? I smell Simply Green cleaner and rain. For a sense of touch, the air is chilly.

Weave sensory details into your writing. It will make it feel real and concrete for your reader. Even if you think the ocean smells like fish poo.

–SueBE

What to Remember When Characters Break the Rules

Do not create characters who are too good to be true. Even your protagonist needs to have a flaw.

We’ve all heard this advice, or something very like it, at one time or another. And it makes sense. Perfect characters are off-putting. They maintain, and hold everyone else, to an impossible standard.

To avoid this, we introduce character flaws. We make sure that our characters make bad decisions. Periodically, they have to break the rules.

That said, you have to make it work. This rule breaking can’t be random. And it can’t be meaningless. Here are four things to remember when your character breaks the rules.

You Have to Know Why

Your character may not know why she is breaking the rules. Your reader may not know why. But you have to know. What is your character’s motivation for breaking the rules?

My husband and I have been watching Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy. It is a little embarrassing to admit that my favorite character is Klaus. It might be his inappropriate sense of humor. Or the fact that he breaks every single rule and guideline. But even when I didn’t know why he broke the rules, I knew there was a reason. After all, his siblings were never surprised even when they were profoundly disappointed.

Look at Whose Rules Are Being Broken

Not all rules carry the same weight. A character who is part of a gang or cartel will break society’s rules. Why? Because middle class, law-abiding rules just don’t matter. Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. Don’t lie. Pfft. This character isn’t going to care.

But the rules of the gang or cartel will be altogether different. Those rules are important because that is the society the character is part of. To the character, these rules matter.

Even a character who seems chaotic, and very few characters are as chaotic as Klaus, has a code. Know what it is and keep it in mind as you pick and choose which rules your character breaks.

Little by little you can make the reasons why clear to your reader.

–SueBE

3 Things You Need to Know about Browsable Nonfiction

Yesterday, an online friend posted an article about “browsable nonfiction.” What is that? I immediately wanted to know. And as I read it made perfect sense.

Browsable Nonfiction Defined

First things first, you need to know what it is. Browsable nonfiction is the nonfiction that I’ve always thought of as bite-sized. These are the books that young readers can pick up, read a bit and then but the book down again. It doesn’t have to be read from page one through page 40. A reader can just as easily read page 4, page 30 and then page 11.

Examples of browsable nonfiction include Guiness titles, DK illustrated books, and anything with a title like 1000 Facts about Faces (or whatever). They are written in bite-sized chunks and are often heavily illustrated.

Kid-tastic

The next thing that you should realize is that kids love these books. I can’t even tell you how many of these titles my son had. We’d be at a Scholastic book fair, and I’d be browsing chapter books or novels. “Doesn’t this look great?” He, on the other hand, would be loading up on browsable nonfiction. There were books about snakes and sharks, poisons and the Civil War. If he was remotely interested in the topic, one of these books could pull him in .

I hate that I disliked them so much because teachers and librarians know something I didn’t. These books function like . . .

Graphic Novels

Physically, they aren’t like graphic novels other than the fact that they are books. But they aren’t as intimidating as pages and pages of text. Because of this, they pull in young readers who may be reluctant or simply unwilling to commit to something long and dense.

They are also, according to this School Library Journal article, a great way to introduce fiction loving students to nonfiction.

I can’t say that I’ve always been a fan of graphic novels. But that’s changed. I love the art and the stories. I love the cinematic experience. So it’s about high time I got over my issues with browsable nonfiction.

I’ve never tried to write this type of nonfiction but maybe, just maybe, it is about time I tried.

–SueBE

TRUTH in Fiction

Truth

If you have an author presence on Goodreads, every once in a while they post a question. The idea is that various authors will post on the question and readers can go from post to post and see how different authors answered the same question. The most recent one was “what mystery in your own life could be a plot for a book?”

It probably isn’t appropriate that I laughed out loud when I read this.

First of all, I come from a family of story tellers. I grew up on tall Texas tales. The majority probably include a nugget of truth. But I did notice something about these stories. They fit into one of two categories – the unchanging story and the ever-changing story.

As the name suggests, the ever-changing story is vastly different each and every time you hear it. Why have you never met so-and-so? He died before you were born. A year later, the same person offers to tell you why you’ve never met so-and-so, and this time you get a completely different story.

To me, these stories are mysteries. Why do people tell them? I’m never entirely certain since they change so much from one telling to the next. My guess has always been that they are told to obscure the truth. In this case, maybe he probably married a yankee, grew out his hair and moved to a commune. That would definitely lead to a cover up.

But let’s not forget the unchanging story. It isn’t always completely unchanging. The teller may recall a detail that they forgot to add earlier. Someone else may remember that so-and-so was there too. They weren’t driving the Nash Rambler. It was the Studebaker. Or maybe it was the Renault. That was a sweet little car.

I gravitate to the unchanging stories. In part, it is because I suspect they are like folk tales. They contain a nugget of truth, something that we need to know. It might be that country folk are ingenious or that people will come together to help. These are the vital truths that are at the center of many of the very best stories.

–SueBE

What’s in a Pen Name? Pen Names and Gender

Last week I read an article about pen names. The idea was that authors often choose their names to hide their genders. And I have heard of this happening in a friend of a friend situation.

L.C.

A friend of mine is a romance author. She is also a member of Romance Writers of America. She told me about male authors in the organization who use female pen names. They have discovered that women authors aren’t interested in reading romance novels written by men.

I had never considered that someone might look at my pen name and assume that I am trying to hide my gender. For a project I recently completed, we were told to pick a pen name. At first I thought it would be something I would use only for this particular project. But, no. “You can use it whenever you want.”

Okay. I have to admit that I don’t entirely see the point. But the client is the client, and the client has the checkbook.

But I realized that I might want to come up with a second pen name. I’m not entirely certain that I would want to publish my mystery under the same name that I use for my children’s books. Yes, it is a cozy. That means no swearing, no sex and no on-screen violence. But it will still be a book for adult readers.

Not Elsie.

That would make two pen names. On bad days, I get my kid’s name wrong on there’s only one of him. I had to make these easy.

For the first project, I used L. C. Edwards. Those are my grandfather’s initials.

For my mysteries, I will use Elsie Edwards. It is actually a joke. When my grandparents moved, people heard my grandfather’s name. He went by his initials. They thought they were hearing Elsie and called my grandmother by that name. It took some time for her to get back to her own name.

What does this have to do with gender? I didn’t pick initials to hide my gender. I’m not trying to make readers, or buyers, think that I might be a man. Unless an author admits that they were trying to hide their gender, I wouldn’t read a whole lot into it. Sometimes L.C. is just L.C. and a substitute for a not fantastic pair of given names.

–SueBE

Thank You, Mom and Dad, or Why I’m a Reader Today

Mom, me and Dad. Birthday dinner.

My father passed away this week after weeks and weeks in and, more rarely, out of the hospital. I’ve spent a lot of time in dimly lit rooms thinking about a variety of things including growing up in my parent’s home.

Many of my friend’s parents had college degrees. They didn’t discuss this but as an adult I realize that engineer fathers and moms who taught meant college. Mom went to the community college after my sister and I were born. Dad got his bachelor in education the same semester my sister and I earned college degrees.

They didn’t have college but we had books. Mom read a variety of fiction, magazines and cook books. Dad preferred westerns, nonfiction about the American west, and thrillers. My reading didn’t mirror theirs but they encouraged it.

Dad knew that he had to beat me to the National Geographic. Even before I could read, I was fascinated by the photos, both the images themselves and the saturated colors. I pulled Dad’s books off the shelves and poured over images of cactus, ranchland, and all kinds of people.

Mom kept me supplied with books, many of which came from the library. We also got books as gifts from my parents and other family members. I was never sure why they were surprised when my luggage for a month long trip to the cabin included a suitcase of books. When we made the lengthy drive to west Texas, I may have been limited in how many books I could take but I made up for it in length. The summer I was 11, I read Alex Haley’s Roots. It took me all summer long.

Dad is also probably largely to blame (or the credit is his) for my becoming a researcher. State an opinion around Dad and you would get one question. Why? It was so much a part of who he was that one of his students dressed up like him for Halloween, lab coat, clip-on tie, and glasses. He then marched across the room saying, “Why? Why? Why?”

Maybe that’s why I ask this question so often when I critique a manuscript. My parents definitely impacted my life both as a reader and a writer and for this I am grateful.

–SueBE

National Book Award Finalists for 2021

My apologies. This was supposed to post on Wednesday, 10/6, but failed to do so. Thus it became Thursday’s post.

The finalists for the 2021 National Book Award were just announced. To me, the books that make this list always feel like they are “ripped from the headlines.” I know. It sounds cliche but it is true. Five books were chosen as finalists for the category Young People’s Literature. In addition to the list of finalists, I will give you the publisher’s description and a comment or two from yours truly.

The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor (Kokila/PRH)

Description:

Part historical fiction, part magical realism, and 100 percent adventure. Thirteen-year-old Mei reimagines the myths of Paul Bunyan as starring a Chinese heroine while she works in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885.

Aware of the racial tumult in the years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Mei tries to remain blissfully focused on her job, her close friendship with the camp foreman’s daughter, and telling stories about Paul Bunyan–reinvented as Po Pan Yin (Auntie Po), an elderly Chinese matriarch.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (Dutton Books for Young Readers/PRH)

Description:

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the feeling took root—that desire to look, to move closer, to touch. Whenever it started growing, it definitely bloomed the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club. Suddenly everything seemed possible. 

But America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff (Dial Books for Young Readers/PRH)

Description:

It’s the summer before middle school and eleven-year-old Bug’s best friend Moira has decided the two of them need to use the next few months to prepare. For Moira, this means figuring out the right clothes to wear, learning how to put on makeup, and deciding which boys are cuter in their yearbook photos than in real life. But none of this is all that appealing to Bug, who doesn’t particularly want to spend more time trying to understand how to be a girl. Besides, there’s something more important to worry about: A ghost is haunting Bug’s eerie old house in rural Vermont…and maybe haunting Bug in particular. As Bug begins to untangle the mystery of who this ghost is and what they’re trying to say, an altogether different truth comes to light–Bug is transgender.

Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon (Candlewick Press)

Description:

In this comprehensive, inspiring, and all-too-relevant history of the Black Panther Party, Kekla Magoon introduces readers to the Panthers’ community activism, grounded in the concept of self-defense, which taught Black Americans how to protect and support themselves in a country that treated them like second-class citizens. For too long the Panthers’ story has been a footnote to the civil rights movement rather than what it was: a revolutionary socialist movement that drew thousands of members—mostly women—and became the target of one of the most sustained repression efforts ever made by the U.S. government against its own citizens.

Revolution in Our Time puts the Panthers in the proper context of Black American history, from the first arrival of enslaved people to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Kekla Magoon’s eye-opening work invites a new generation of readers grappling with injustices in the United States to learn from the Panthers’ history and courage, inspiring them to take their own place in the ongoing fight for justice.

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan)

Description of this novel in verse:

Moth has lost her family in an accident. Though she lives with her aunt, she feels alone and uprooted.

Until she meets Sani, a boy who is also searching for his roots. If he knows more about where he comes from, maybe he’ll be able to understand his ongoing depression. And if Moth can help him feel grounded, then perhaps she too will discover the history she carries in her bones.

Moth and Sani take a road trip that has them chasing ghosts and searching for ancestors. The way each moves forward is surprising, powerful, and unforgettable.

Here is an exquisite and uplifting novel about identity, first love, and the ways that our memories and our roots steer us through the universe.

Sue here:

I hope that you see what I mean about the headline quality of these books. There are stories about race and racism, mental health and gender identity. I’m also surprised how little I’ve heard about these books as a whole. The only one I’ve seen press on up until now is Last Night at the Telegraph Club. I definitely hope that my library system has these books on the shelves because I’m off to make my requests. If you’ve read them, which one would you select as the winner?

–SueBE

Teen Tober

Every October librarians across the US celebrate Teen Tober. Throughout the month of October, librarians encourage teens to read.

The importance of this was made obvious to me over the weekend. I was sitting with my father in the hospital when one of the techs stopped to check on us. I was playing an audio book on my phone and she asked what type of book it was. This particular selection was a mystery.

“I almost never read,” she said. “I just never got into it.” I wanted to tell her that I was treating my father was essential oils and clover leaves but decided to play it cool, but it is definitely important to encourage teens to read.

As a teen, my son read a lot of licensed book titles – Star Wars, Tom Clancey, etc. He also read a lot of web sites and online articles. I always wished that he read more books but by not refusing to let him make his own choices, I feel like I encouraged him to read. It wasn’t a battle. It was a fun way to gather information.

When I was a teen, I discovered science fiction and fantasy. My friend’s father had a subscription to the “Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club” and they had walls and walls of speculative fiction. This was when I started reading McCaffrey and Cherryh. As a child I had read Nancy Drew but as a teen, I picked up my mother’s and grandmother’s mysteries, reading Mary Higgins Clark. I also read Agatha Christie, a friend’s favorite.

My parents always encouraged me to read but they did not encourage science fiction or fantasy. “I used to read it,” said my Dad, “but I outgrew it.” I can’t say that that has been my experience. Most of the types of books I enjoyed as teen, I still read today.

What books did you read as teen?

–SueBE

Research: Finding the Right Sources

The Who by Sue Bradford Edwards

Nine times out of ten, much of the research that I do for a book is conducted online. Part of the reason for this is that I am often writing about current topics for teens. When I wrote my books, there were few if any books available on the Zika Virus, Black Lives Matter or the Dakota Access Pipeline.

This means that I have to find accurate information online. Some of what I find has been published in journals or various news sources. Other material comes from scientific blogs and sites.

But when I was researching this book on The Who, where I found things changed. Sure, I could find plenty of sites and posts but many were fans posts, music recordings and public appearances.

For information on what it was like to be in this band when it was new, I had to find interviews and other pieces by and about the band members. This time I turned to published books. Some of what I used were a bit older, including one published in Britain. Others were newer and these includes memoirs by Townsend and Daltry.

Sure, I could have gone with newspaper stories but I have to say that newspaper stories about celebrities tend to be pretty sensational. Are they accurate? Maybe. But often they are not. And they also often cover information that I’m not going to include. Sure, I made it clear that there were parties and punches thrown, alcohol and drugs, but it wasn’t the focus of my book so only so much was included.

Is this self-censorship? No.

The reality is that even when you are writing 14,000 words, you cannot include every bit of information. You have to consider the story that you are framing and include only the material that completes this particular story.

Don’t ignore online sources just because someone you know disparages them. But do know how to fine a wide variety of sources. You never know where what you need will be found.

–SueBE

Publishing Is a Team Sport

Are you ready to be part of a publishing team?
Photo by Jopwell on Pexels.com

I just got comments back from my editor on my next book project. In spite of the fact that I didn’t get home until 9:00 pm, I opened the attachment to read through his suggestions. Some of them were picky but I found myself nodding as I read them. His ideas will definitely make for a stronger book, and he also helped me avoid duplicating material that will be in other books in the series.

If you find yourself frowning and fussing about an editor or agents comments, please remember this. Publishing is a team sport.

When I write a book for Red Line, I am generally working with my immediate editor and the series or managing editor. So there are at least two editors. Just to make things interesting, they also pull in a content consultant. This person has expertise in the topic area and reviews the manuscript to double check factual accuracy. At the late stage that this person gets involved, it can be irritating to have to add information or rewrite a chapter, but I’ve worked with content consultants who gave me access to material that had not yet been published. They had access to the data but I did not. I’ve also had content consultants explain things that I misunderstood.

Working on my own, I can write a really good manuscript. My editors help me bring it to the next level. The content consultant, and the fact checkers who come after, make sure that everything is as accurate as possible.

Alone, I would have a really good manuscript. As part of the team, I have a solid book.

Publishing is a team sport. Remember that when you are reading through an editor or agents comments. No, you don’t have to make every suggested change but remember – they want you to produce the best book possible. In my opinion, it is definitely worthwhile to be a part of a team.

–SueBE