One Writer’s Journey

February 5, 2016

Read the World

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:00 am
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reading the worldBack in December, I wrote about my plans to “Read the World.” The challenge is to read a book from every country in the world in one year.  That seemed pretty unrealistic since I would have to read something like 4 books/week, each from a different country.  Me being me, I decided to do it my way, reading 4 books or so a month.

Yesterday I finished books 4 and 5.  One was an audio book so I “read” those overlapping other books.  Anyway, here’s my list:

  • Afghanistan: The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future by Fawzia Khoofi
  • *Belgium: The War within These Walls by Aline Sax
  • *France: Hidden by Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, Greg Salsedo
  • *Norway: My Father’s Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde, illustrated by Oyvin Torseter
  • *The United States of America: The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon

The starred books are children’s books.  What have I discovered so far?  First of all, finding a book from Afghanistan was not easy.  Books about Afghanistan?  Easy peasy.  From?  Not so much.

But this book alone taught me why from is essential.  Fawzia Khoofi is Afghanistan’s first female Parliament speaker.  Yes, in spite of what we think we know about Afghanistan, she is a female political leader.  The speaker is elected within their house of Parliament.  Although there are some women, they are a tiny minority which means that the was elected by men.  By.  Men.  We don’t know half of what we think we know about Afghanistan.  And because of that I suspect that we misinterpret 90% of what we see.

One of the things that I loved about this book and about The War within These Walls, which is about the Warsaw Ghetto, is that neither of these books is about victims.  They are about wolves.  Not sure why that impresses me?  How do we normally think about Jews in World War II?  Women in Afghanistan?

Neither book downplays the negative but both highlight the strength and courage of people showing that they have not been beaten down.  Pretty awesome stuff.

I do question that so many of the book translated into English from Europe are about WWII in general and the Jewish experience in particular.  Is this also the lions share of what is published in Belgium and France?  I have no clue.  Or is that simply what is chosen for translation?  Again, clueless.

I have four more Read the World books here in my reading stack and they kind of drive the point home.

  • France: The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi about the revolution in Iran.
  • Germany:  My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve which is about WWII and the Jewish experience.
  • Lebanon: A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached.  War but not WWII.
  • The Netherlands: Soldier Bear by Bibi Bumon Tak which is about WWII.

Hopefully I can balance these with a few books that aren’t about war.  Anyone have any recommendations for books originally published abroad?




February 4, 2016

Manuscripts Wanted by Cricket Media

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:00 am
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Call for SubmissionsDid you know that Cricket Media posts manuscript calls with deadlines?  I didn’t have a clue until a friend forwarded a call from Ladybug to me.  What can I say?  On a good day, I learn something new.  There are only two deadlines for their various magazines at the moment and you’ll have to get moving to catch the first one.  But it is doable if you have a piece ready to go — you send your work in via Submittable so it is more-or-less instantaneous.

Cicada call for submission: Visions of the Future

Deadline: February 7, 2016

“The future. Things could get worse.* Or better. Or maybe just different and more deeply weird. Cicada YA lit/comics mag wants sci-fi adventures, utopian schemes, and dystopian thought experiments. Also: tell us how you would change your school, your community, social structures. Especially welcome: works by people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ folks, genderqueer folks, and other marginalized peoples. Submit poetry, fiction, nonfic, comics pitches, and blueprints for your Mars base.

“* Worst case scenarios we’re secretly pumped about: Zombie hordes. Space pirates. Internet brain chips (or like…eyeball implants???). Robot overlords. Ape overlords. Alien overlords. Teen lit mag overlords (HEY, IT COULD HAPPEN).”


Ladybug call for submission:  Adventure 

Deadline: March 23, 2016

“Ladybug is looking for remarkable tales to thrill very young children. For this audience, an exciting story could explore an experience as common as starting out at a new childcare center or as wild as setting sail in a magical ship. Wherever your sense of adventure takes you, we are interested in simple yet strong plots, memorable characters, lively language, and humor.”

Check out the complete guidelines for these two magazines and the other magazines in the group here and, as always, good luck!



February 3, 2016

Comparable Books vs Competing Books

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:34 am
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comparableWhether you are writing a query or a nonfiction book proposal, you need to know which books are comparable to your own.  Note: Comparable does not mean identical or competing.

You do need to know which books would compete with yours.  This is vital because you need to know that there is space for your book in the market place.  If there are five books on mouse vocalizations for preschoolers, you can’t claim that your book on the same topic for the same audience will have no competition.

But comparable books are a little different.  Or, as my grandmother would have said, they are a skootch different.

When you are trying to determine which books are comparable to yours, consider this sentence.  The audience for my book is the same as the audience for (insert appropriate titles here).  

You can’t give the world another Judy Moody or Stink but the humor in your chapter books might appeal to Megan McDonald’s fans.

You book about a group of princesses who double as secret agents is a bit too stark for Shannon Hale’s reader but might be perfect for those who appreciate Sarah Rees Brennan’s, especially if you include the necessary fantasy element.

If you write nonfiction, the above examples might not seem applicable but maybe you bring the passion to vocal music that Trombone Shorty Andrews brings to New Orleans’ jazz. Or you might have an eye for detail and comparisons like Steve Jenkins.  Or a talent with cryptids and the offbeat like Kelly Milner Hall.

Take the time to analyze your work and come up with someone whose work has a similar flavor.  Do this and you’ll know there’s a market for your type of writing and you can also take a closer look and make sure there is space in those reader’s lives for your work as well.


February 2, 2016

Graphic Novels and Comic Books

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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If you are interested in this literary form, California College of Arts instructor Matt Silady is offering a course, “Comics: Art in Relationship” through Kadenze.  The course starts on February 17, 2016 and features 5 sessions.  The description is sketchy enough that although I assume that means 5 weeks, it is an assumption.

Here is what will be covered in the 5 sessions:

  • Session 1: Defining Comics
    Identify key relationships in sample texts & demonstrate the use various camera angles on a comics page
  • Session 2: Comics Relationships
    Create Text-Image and Image-Image Panels
  • Session 3: Time And Space
    One Second, One Hour, One Day Comics Challenge
  • Session 4: Layout And Grid Design
    Apply multiple panel grids to provided script
  • Session 5: Thumbnails
    Create thumbnail sketches of a multipage scene

The time required to do the coursework each week is estimated at 10 hours/week.  This is a bit more of a time commitment than I can make right now, but it looks really interesting (see video below).  Hopefully some of you will be able to take advantage of this opportunity. Me?  I’m still waffling.  I don’t  have time but … I’m not an illustrator but …





February 1, 2016

Gender Norms

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:28 am
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gender stereotypesDon’t use stereotypes when you write.  I know you’ve heard that advice but have you ever taken it beyond character?

You know what I mean by character stereotypes.  These are the characters that tend to be cardboard and two dimensional.  The perky cheerleader. The brainy but clutzy computer geek.  The melodramatic drama student. When we use these character types, editors reject our work because it just isn’t original or carefully crafted.

The problem is that we have similar problems when we create plots that contain gender stereotypes.  Not sure what I mean?

Who experience prom woes?  A girl such as Lizzie Bennett in Prom and Prejudice. 

Who seeks vengence after a loved one dies?  Boys or men including The Crow and John Wick.

Who has to hide their gender?  Girls like Ruby and Lord Athen in A Riddle in Ruby. 

Who creates/purchases a robot to date?  A boy such as David in Girl Parts.

Who has adventures with a stuffed animal?  Girls like Trixie in Knuffle Bunny and Amanda in Amanda and her Alligator.

Who wants to play football?  Boys like Mo Jackson in Don’t Throw it to Mo.

I’m not panning these creative efforts but let’s face it.  They’ve been done. You can bet that if we can name two or three books and movies in each category above, then editors have seen hundreds more.  “I know . . . she doesn’t have a stuffed bunny.  It’s a stuffed giraffe. Or what if Trixie never found the bunny?”  Let’s face it, we’ve all written a derivative story or two.

How could we shake these stereotypes up? For prom, you could write a story about a boy who wants to go but his girlfriend is entirely underwelmed by the idea.  Maybe she thinks its a waste of money.  Maybe she refuses to wear a dress and her school has a dress code.

What about a young woman who must avenge the death of her husband/boyfriend?  By some means other than poison which is often seen as a woman’s weapon.

When you start to craft a story, think carefully about your main character?  Is your plot stereotypic for this gender?  If so, what could you do to make your story and character unique?



January 29, 2016

Portrayals and Prejudice

Yesterday, I read an article about the controversy surrounding The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz.  Admittedly, I haven’t read the book yet although it is on my list.  The Hired Girl is set in 1911.  The main character, fourteen-year-old Joan, is desperate to get off the farm.  She takes on a variety of hired jobs and in one interview she’s asked if she is Jewish.  Her response stirred up the controversy.

“I was as taken aback as if she’d asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me—I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then—as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.”

The controversy stems from this alleged negative portrayal of Native Americans.  I say alleged because it seems more like negative thoughts than an honest-to-goodness portrayal.

The book’s defenders point out that Joan’s attitude is accurate for the time. Furthermore, she apparently grows beyond this belief in the course of the book.

Questions were asked.  Answers were given.  Dialogue insued.

Birthday CakeContrast this to the controversy over A Birthday Cake for George Washington.  It is about George Washington’s slave and chef, Hercules, and his work to bake a birthday cake for Washington.  In one of the illustrations, Hercules and his daughter smile at each other.  Critics claim that this misrepresents slavery. “Slavery is bad!”

Not surprisingly, no one argued against that point although they did point out that the book doesn’t say slavery is good. The controversy continued and those involved with the bookself clammed up. No dialogue.  Just accusations.  I get the complaints because this is a portrayal, but I would really have loved to talk to the editor and gotten her view of things. But I also understand why she chose not to argue with people.

The protest grew and Scholastic pulled the book.  This makes me almost queasy. Like Mitali Perkins, I wish they had added to their book list instead of subtracting.  Additional books could create a dialogue.  Removing a book?  That’s just censorship.

I also wonder what will happen with future books, or books that might have been. I suspect that there are a lot of stories out there that will never be told.  Publishers will be too reluctant to take the risk even if the stories could broaden our view.

I hope my concern is misplaced. The problem is that I can’t think of a single case where censorship has led to greater intellectual freedom.




January 28, 2016

Naming a New Character

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:24 am
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Frankie’s sewing machine.

How much effort do you put into naming a character?  I have to admit that for me it varies.  In part because how I create a story varies from piece to piece.

Some characters come into being with a name attached.  Felicity has always been Felicity.  That said, her last name has evolved over time.

Other characters take a lot more effort.  When this is the case, I’ll know the character’s story problem and some of the steps that she takes to solve it.  I’ll be familiar with what she values in life and what she fears.  I’ll be rock solid on what she wants most of all.  Heck, I may even know her cat’s name.  And then, finally, I figure out her name.

I’m going to admit that I’m a little suspicious about my current character.  The novel is set in the Cold War.  I think it is set in 1975 but it might be as early as 1970.  She lives in the suburbs.  She doesn’t have a job.  Unless she works at Golde’s, a now defunct department store that had a talking minah bird that fascinated me.  In the appropriate season, she hunts mushrooms in the country.  She sews many of her own clothes — Jackie O being her fashion model.

As you can see, she hasn’t been entirely forthcoming with the details.  Thus my suspicion.  But I do have her name.  Franky.  Or maybe she spells it Frankie?  I know for a fact she does not spell it Franki.

I know she’s a Frankie/Franky for a variety of reasons. She’s strong and resilient and classy but a bit unconventional.  She’s a woman who knows what society expects and that’s well and good, when it suits her.  When she wants/needs to do her own thing, there you have it. She’s smart and well read but doesn’t have a college degree unless you count her MRS.  Definitely a Franky/Frankie.

But I still wanted to know when and where this name would be popular. If ever (more on that later).  Thank goodness for the Social Security Administration.  In addition to checking out the top 200 names per decade, you can chart a name’s poplarity since 1900. Frances was most popular in 1918 when it was #8 for women.  #8!  By 1940 it was #28. Frank was #693 for women in 1929.  Frankie peaked in 1933 at 246.

So Frankie was never incredibly popular but I’m okay with that.  My character’s name is Frankie (that’s the spelling I’m leaning toward), because it’s a family name.  My aunt’s name is Franky.  My Grandmother was Frank.  Neither Frank or Franky yielded a search at Social Security. My family is well known for names that aren’t exactly top 40 hits.  Modelle didn’t yield any results but, to my surprise, Beryl which was most popular in 1920, did.

Do you ever research a character’s name to see when it was most popular?


January 27, 2016

GoodReads Reading Challenge and Why I read so Much

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:22 am
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marketstreet_bgDo you know about the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge?  I’m not using it as a reading challenge but I am using it as a way to keep track of what I read.

Here is how it works.  Goodreads members pop over to the reading challenge page and click the proper button and then state the number of books that they plan to read.  My goal?  100.  It may sound like a lot to you but it should be doable.  Why?

I review two books/week at The Bookshelf.  I read around 100 books a year for that alone.  Initially I reviewed for the Post-Dispatch. When that gig dried up, I wanted to keep reviewing in part because I like to introduce new books to readers.  But I also want to know the market and the best way to do that is read.  Writing reviews helps me organize my thoughts concerning what I do and do not like about a book. My most recent review is Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña.

I also belong to the Florissant Presbyterian Church Book Club.  That’s another book a month for a total of 12.  We just read The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton.  Next up is Lila by Marilyn Robinson.  The book club is my pathway to grown up books.  Otherwise I frequently don’t get around to them.

I also manage about a book a month just for fun. Very often these are the audio books that I listen to during lunch.  I work at home which means that lunch time is just me and that mooch of a cat.  It’s nice to have something to listen to while I nibble.  Right now I’m listening to The Favored Daughter by Fawzia Koofi.  It is about a woman who is a politician, like her father before her, in Afghanistan.  Very powerful stuff.  My audio books account for about two books a month during the school year.

Then there are the books that I read for research and research alone.  How many of those are there each year?  It depends on what I’m researching but I very seldom read the entire book.

Clearly, I don’t need any encouragement to read more even more.  That has nothing to do with why I signed up for the challenge.  I signed up to let Goodreads track the books for me.  After I read a book, I look that particular title up on Goodreads and add the book to my “Read” shelf.  I also rate it (1 through 5 stars) and add the “date completed” or some such.  With this date filled in it is added to my Reading Challenge list.

I can organize the list in two ways – date read or rating.  I’m after the ratings.  I want to know which books are the most popular and which are the least.  That’s the sort of goofy information that can help me as I select the topic for my next project.  It is also a way for me to see the difference between industry buzz and popularity with readers.

If you want to see which 15 books I’ve already completed this year, pop on over to my Goodreads listing.  If you’re also doing the challenge, please comment with a link to your listing.  With 85 books still to go for the year, I could use a few suggestions…



January 26, 2016

What Are You Writing?

Colorful books on shelfWhenever a new writer comes to critique group, I ask, “What do you write?”

Can I say, without giving offense, that it is off-putting if they can’t tell me?  Too often the answer is “children’s stories” or “books for children.”  That’s too broad and it makes me think that you don’t know the answer in contemporary publishing jargon.

Hey, wait!  Aren’t writers supposed to think outside of the box?

You are, but if you don’t know what the heck you’re writing, you don’t know what box to avoid. If you are just starting to write for children and teens, here are some categories to know.

Fiction vs nonfiction.  It’s basic but I understand some of the confusion.  If you are writing a story about growing a garden and framing it as the experience of fictional Adam, what is it?  Fiction or nonfiction?  Without reading it, my guess would be fact based fiction.

Picture book.  A picture book is an illustrated book in which the text and the art equally tell the story.  These books give readers the info they need to learn about the world in general. The recent Newbery Last Stop on Market Street is a picture book.   Adults read these books to young readers.
Audience: Toddler to early grade school.
Length: Up to 3 manuscript pages.

Beginning or early reader.  The purpose behind these books is for new readers to be able to read them independently.  That meanst that vocabulary and sentence structure are simple.  Illustrations don’t expand on the story but provide contextual clues for the reader.  Look at beginning readers and you’ll see lables like “level 1.” Levels vary from publisher to publisher.  Elephant and Piggy.
Audience: 1st and 2nd grade.
Length: Up to 20 manuscript pages.

Chapter books.  These books may contains some illustrations but they are for confident readers who aren’t intimidated by a lack of pictures.  That said, these are still newish readers and the books tend to have a main plot line and no subplots.  Often published in series. Magic Tree House.
Audience: 1st to 3rd grade.
Length: 40 – 60 manuscript pages.

Middle grade novels.  These readers can handle at least one subplot.  Characters are discovering their place in the world so stories are frequently about family, friends,  and school.  It is rare for these books to include extreme violence, drug use or sex. Some romance, very light, is okay. Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Audience: 3rd to 6th grade.
Length: 100 – 250 manuscript pages.

Young adult novels.  Middle schoolers read some of these books and these are the books with less extreme content.  Books for high schoolers can include, but don’t have to focus on sex, drugs, etc. These are kids who are challenging the world although they may still be looking for their place in it. Graceling.
Audience: 7th grade and up.
Length: 200 – 350 manuscript pages.


January 25, 2016

Picture Book Writing: How Much Detail

galoshesRecently I read a blog post by agent Heather Alexander on whether or not to include illustration notes in your picture book manuscript.  In short, her answer is NO.

Yes, there are times that it is okay but most often the answer is NO.  Why is this? Because for the most part illustration notes are the author’s attempt to take over the illustrator’s job.  What color is Becca’s dress?  Not your problem.  What type of shoes does she wear?  Not your problem.  Back pack?  Not your (can you fill in the blank?).

The reality is that these details fall under the control of the illustrator unless they somehow impact the story.  And the truth is that most often they don’t.

One of the biggest problems that writers have is writing too much into a story.  When we do this, we don’t leave room for the reader to explore and stretch and make the story her own.  For more on this, you can read my post today at the Muffin.

Picture books are a bit trickier than your average novel or short story because we also need to leave room for the illustrator.  That means that you don’t need to include visual details.  The beauty of this is that when you  are writing a picture book you can reserve your precious word count for the details that are truly up to you, the writer.

Don’t tell us that Becca’s galoshes are yellow.  Tell us about the sound they make when she stomps in a puddle. Tell us how they smelled new out of the box.

Tell us why they matter to the story.  I’m not telling you to write Becca loved her galoshes more than anything in the world. Instead, give us the kind of detail that helps us reach the conclusion ourselves.  Becca wore her galoshes to school.  She wore her galoshes to bed.  She even wore them in the shower.  

No illustrations notes required and you’ve left room for your reader to come to her own conclusions about Becca and her galoshes.




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