One Writer’s Journey

August 22, 2017

YA: Writing It Real

I remember reading YA novels while my son was in upper elementary and middle school and thinking, “Whoa!  These are teenagers?  You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Kids with their own cars taking lengthy road trips.  Teens with credits cards buying this and that and hotel rooms?  No worries.

Of course, now that I’m the mom of an eighteen year-old, I laugh.  You have to be 21 to rent a hotel room or lease a car.  I know this because my son and his friends wanted to take a road trip this summer.  Did I say, “no”?  Did I say, “Over my dead body”?  Nope

.  I didn’t have to say a word.

With two guys saving up for cars, they weren’t going to sink all of their money in a lengthy trip even if it would be great fun.  And my son discovered the problem with renting the hotel room or car rentals while he was doing the research.

So I had to laugh when I read Vivian Parkin DeRosa’s Huffington Post article, “I’m a Teenager and I Don’t Like Young Adult Novels. Here’s Why.”  As she put it, most of these characters aren’t high school students.  They’re twenty.  And I have to agree.

Not that we always want our characters to be 100% typical.  When I was a teen, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels as well as Anne McCaffrey’s Pern and Cherryh’s Chanur Saga.  At no point did I really believe that I was going to be stranded in deepest, darkest Africa and live among the apes, find myself on a dragon fighting thread, or traveling space with humanoid beings with cat-like faces.  Never.

But that was okay.  In fact, it was better than okay.  It was amazing.

I went to a public high school.  I didn’t want my fiction to reflect my reality, thank you.  Not that I loathed my life but fiction was something else altogether.

I’m not saying that you need to confine your flights of fancy to speculative fiction.  But if you want to write realistic characters?  Make ’em real, people.  Teen readers know the difference.


August 21, 2017

Author’s Copies: I’ve Run Out of Space

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:25 am
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The too tall stack of author’s copies in search of a new home.

Another pair of author’s copies arrived in the mail on Friday – these are What Are Race and Racism?  The series, Race in American, is with Abdo. Once again, I had the opportunity to work with Duchess Harris who was the topic expert for this book.  After the author turns in an Abdo book, the topic expert reads through it and makes sure there are no serious omissions.

But I discovered something when Professional Gaming Careers arrived last week.  I’ve run out of space!

Up until now, my author’s copies have “lived” in a pile on the end of one shelf.  The problem is that they reach from one shelf to the next and then some.  What a wonderful problem to have!

But this means that I have to get moving cleaning out my office.  Snicker.  The first time I wrote that phrase, I typed “cleaning out my room.”  Yeah.  My office is a lot like my teen room.  A big desk and papers, books and piles galore!  I’ve made some headway over the summer but not a whole lot.

In my experience, and maybe it’s just me, the paperless office of the 21st century is a myth.  There isn’t as much paper as there would have been 50 years ago but there’s still quite a bit.  There are also a set of cards my son and I are making as well as 2 crochet projects and a knitting project.  I knit and crochet while I watch video lectures for the class I’m taking on Ancient Egypt.

But is that what I’m doing today!  Don’t be silly.  We are in the path of the solar eclipse as in 45 minutes from home we can see the full eclipse for something like 45 seconds.  We are not passing up that opportunity.

So for the next few days, my authors copies will have to share space with library books.  Why?  Because I have a library shelf.  Doesn’t everyone?





August 18, 2017

Plotting Your Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:03 am
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As an occasional writer of fiction, I understand how important plot is.  I even know how to use a plot diagram.  But I hate doing it when it comes to working on something book length.

When I use a diagram, I want to be able to fit everything on one page.  I don’t want to have to turn pages or scroll right and left.  Why?  Because it is jarring.  I’m visual and this pulls me out of what I’m doing.  And moving scenes from place to place on the diagram?  Ugh.  Drives me batty.

So I made myself a “full-sized” plot diagram.  The base is one panel of a triptych science fair board. It is approximately 1 foot by 3 feet.  The black line is the rising and falling plot.  The red lines indicate the 1/4 mark and the 3/4 mark.

My first plan for this is to use it to fix my yeti picture book.  It will no longer be a picture book and with ten chapters at my disposal I need a diagram that is big enough to work with.  I’m going to write-up my scenes/chapters on post-its and place them in the appropriate places in the board.

Need another scene between scenes 3 and 4?  No problem.  Post-its are easy to move.  Need to compress two scenes into one?  Again.  Not an issue since I can “stack” them and create a post-it column.

There will even be room if I want to break down the plot/scenes in a mentor text.  I can put those on a different color post it or use a different color pen and range them across the bottom of the board.


Once I have everything where I want it, I can lay the board down, pop my stapler open, and anchor the post-its in place.  That way I don’t have to worry about a nosy cat fluffing a scene off the board with her tale or rubbing it off as she makes the board her own.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some characters to torment.


August 17, 2017

Tension: Make It Count

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:39 am
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mixed-climbing-1204218_1920When we start a new piece of fiction, one of the things that we need to figure out is how to add tension.  One of the best ways to do this is to give your character a goal but have something stand in her way.

This something can be external. Perhaps two young characters want to win the grand prize but only one can be the big winner.  Not only will the two characters be in competition, they might also throw extra road blocks in each others way.

But the roadblock can also be internal.  The competition involves a spelling be.  Your character spells like a champ but has horrible stage fright. How will she ever compete in front of the entire school?

Tension is a tricky thing.  Give your reader a little tension and they turn to the next page.  Good, you’ve got them hooked.  But to keep the pages turning, you need to increase the tension.  One of the best ways to do this is to have some decision made by your character make things worse.

In the first example, your POV character might attempt to sabotage her competitor only to have it earn her a detention or time out.  Unfortunately, the rules say that only good student citizens will be allowed to compete.  The POV character has put her own eligibility in jeopardy.

In the second example, the character is given advice on how to control stage fright.  Unfortunately, in round 1 when she speaks to the back wall vs making eye contact, she stumbles and nearly falls of the stage.  Now she’s really scared to be up there.  Will she be able to keep going?

These are the steps that I’m working through in my current WIP.  I know more or less what will launch the adventure.  I know how it will end.  Right now I’m working out how to keep the tension up and within acceptable limits given that my characters are eight years-old.  It isn’t like I can leave them hanging from a cliff – or can I?




August 16, 2017

The Appeal of Series Fiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:59 am
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In contemplating a fix for a recent manuscript, I came across James Scott Bell’s post on what makes a great series character. As so often happens, this to me thinking . . . this time about the differences between a long-running series and stand alone fiction.

Especially when you write for children, a big part of fiction is character growth.  Whether your character achieves her goal or fails, somehow she grows.  This is kind of a big deal because our audiences are growing physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Creating character who also grow in the course of the story helps our readers identify with them.

But in a series, especially a long running series, this can be problematic. Imagine if the Boxcar children had grown.  Even if they had simply learned a new skill in each book, they’d be like four MacGyvers by now, able to build a spaceship from the junk found in the bottom of Violet’s purse. If they had matured physically in course of each book, young readers today, because the series is ongoing, would be reading the adventures of their great-great-grandchildren.

The reality is that the same-ness of the characters is part of what draws readers into a series.  Series characters are appealing in some way. Some of them have an amazing sense of style.  Others are driven and won’t take no for an answer. Whatever it is, they are characters who find themselves in the middle of fun adventures.  Readers know more or less what to expect and that’s what they want.  Predictable fun.

That can be an important thing in an unpredictable world.

For more on series fiction, see Writing a Series and How Do You Plot a Series. Fingers crossed that the idea I’m playing with is the fix I need for my most recent picture book manuscript.




August 15, 2017

Anthropomorphic Animals: Creating Picture Book Characters that Work

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:55 am

Using anthropomorphic characters in picture books can be tough.  Sometimes the problem is that we try to write to “type.” The giraffe that is too tall and wants to be tiny.  The prickly porcupine.  The smelly skunk.  The shy turtle.

Or we work too hard to go in the opposite direction.  The shy tiger.  The abrasive turtle.

The problem with stories like these is that our characters too easily become short cuts around creativity and hard work.  When an editor pops open our manuscript she thinks, “Not another one.”  Sure, your manuscript is new but she’s seen this sort of thing before.

The key to creating this types of characters is to make them fresh.  That’s what Amy Krouse Rosenthal did when she created Little Oink.  In many ways, Little Oink is an everyday, regular kid.  He likes doing things with his friends.  School is great.  And he adores his parents.

So what’s the story problem?  His loving parents are real pigs.  Little Oink is a neat freak.

What a minute!  Isn’t this just someone working too hard to go in the opposite direction?  That might be the case if the story was didactic and humorless but it isn’t.  Rosenthal clearly has a great sense of humor and it shows through in her writing that is both punny but also fun to read out loud.

“He dug playing with his pig pals.” Pig pals makes for fun reading to a group.  The humor?  The illustration shows them digging for truffles – a totally piggy thing to do but funny when paired with the text.

She also uses ironic reversals.  Instead of pushing him to clean his room, Mom and Dad tell him that he can’t have fun until his room is a “total pigsty.”  That’s a parent phrase (total pigsty) but used in a fun, ironic way.

This book works because it isn’t a lesson about neatness.  It is a book about being yourself but also loving and respecting those around you.  This is what makes the whole thing creative.

Or part of what makes it creative. Rosenthal has also done a great job making it something parents will enjoy reading aloud and kids will love hearing.  Little Oink is a great example of an animal character that works and works well.

Warning: Rosenthal is a professional.  Study up before you try this in your home office.

For another post on using animal characters, see Creating Distance Between Your Reader and Your Character.


August 14, 2017

Professional Gaming Careers

Friday, I posted on Facebook about seeing a Tweet from one of my publishers. The series is E-Sports: Game On!  That book on the left?  Professional Gaming Careers?  That one is mine.  Woo-hoo.

It’s a great feeling to see your book out and about in the world.  Then guess what came in the mail later Friday afternoon? My author’s copies!

This book was a unique experience for me.  Not only is it the only book I’ve done for Norwood House Press, it is the only book I’ve ever written on a career.

Written for ages 8-12 it is also a lower reading level and interest level than most of my books.  I’m not going to lie.  Getting some of the chapters down to the reading level was a challenge but it was also a lot of fun getting to do something new.

Confession time – I game.  I wouldn’t call myself a gamer.  I am far too casual to use that term.  But I do play.

I’m not nearly as good as most of the kids who will read this book.  But, like them, I can appreciate the ingenuity and innovation that went into the early games and the tie to model railroading.  And  I really enjoyed learning about people my son’s age to, however briefly, make a career out of game play.

The funniest moment?  When I overheard my son talking to one of his friends. “I can’t believe your moms is writing about gaming professionally.  Didn’t think a Boomer could do it.”

“She’s no Boomer!  She’s Gen X.”


Not sure if his surprise was a good thing or a bad thing but it was definitely a thing.  If you are going to write for young readers, sometimes you have to set aside your preconceived notions.  Listen to what they are telling you and try to see the world, however briefly, through their eyes.  You may find yourself scoring some points.



August 11, 2017

Set Your Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:33 am
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Parade. Alpine, Texas. 1924

Recently, Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency posted a summary of her ongoing series “9 Story Openings to Avoid.”  I started to skim the list but was stopped on item #2.  “White Room Syndrome.”  What is that?

White Room Syndrome is what Nelson calls it when a writer forgets to set the story.  They have a character or two. They have action?  But what they don’t have is any kind of setting.

It really isn’t a secret that opening scenes are tough.  Too much dialogue?  Boring.  Heart thumping action?  Who cares! We don’t know the character yet.  From the opening page, you need to strike a balance between starting the story and getting it up.  It’s no surprise that this balance includes that all important part of “setting it up,” the setting.

You have to let the reader know where and when the story takes place.  This doesn’t mean that you have to start with a header – Alpine, Texas. 1924.  Instead, as your character goes about buying supplies and hurrying to school, you give a few setting details.

These need to include the geography.  For this particular setting, you might mention the mountains.  And the desert.  The town name?  That’s a little more difficult but maybe you could work it into the name of a business or school – the Alpine Feed Store or Alpine Elementary.

Don’t forget the time period – that means time of the year as well as the year itself.  Winter?  Sunny but cold.  Maybe a dusting of snow.  Summer?  Heat, but it’s a dry heat.  A mid-summer night might include glow behind the mountains from a grass fire.  For the year itself, you probably aren’t going to get the exact year unless you have your character peruse a newspaper (please, don’t). But you can use details to give a feel for the time period.  A horse tied to a hitching post reacts to a passing car.

Essential though these details may be, you have to work them into the story.  Start with page after page of detailed narrative and you are going to bog things down and lose readers before anything happens.  As with all things in writing, your opening scene must be well-balanced.  Just be sure that balance includes your setting.

For more posts on setting, see “Researching Setting: Walk It When You Can” or “World Building: Setting and Culture.”



August 10, 2017

Top 100 YA Titles according to a SLJ poll

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:26 am
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In November of 2015, School Library Journal (SLJ) sent out a poll asking professionals in the field what books would make it onto their Top 100 Must-Have YA books.  The poll was answered by 274 people responses.  29% said that they work in a public library. 43 percent identified as school librarians. SLJ noted that the list contained both contemporary titles as well as genre fiction.

She did note one disturbing absence.  Only 2 books in the top 10 have diverse characters.  Looking at the top 50 books only expands that list to 7 titles.  SLJTeen and YA reviews editor Shelley Diaz noted this lack of diversity and wrote a blog post, “42 Diverse Must-Have YA Titles for Every Library.”

I have to admit that as I glanced at the top 10, I was feeling pretty good about myself.  After all, I’ve read six of them. Not surprising really since these are all popular titles.

1.The “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling.  I actually read the whole series in something like 7 weeks.  In truth, that’s not something I would advise. 
2.The “Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I liked these better than Harry Potter but that’s just me.
3. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Loved this one too.
4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  I have to admit that this is the one John Green I’ve skipped.  It sounds like a bummer book, unlike The Hunger Games which is all flowers and happiness.
5. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I’ve heard good things about this but . . . romance.
6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This one I’ve somehow just missed.
7. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. One of my all time favorites.
8. The “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth. I’ve read the first book and need to read the rest.
9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. This is one I want to read again.  I’ve listened to the audiobook and want to read the hard copy.
10. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Amazing.  Difficult.  Not fun. Yes, a bummer book, but amazing.

This part makes me look really well read.  But the rest?  Not so much.  I have to admit that without covers and descriptions, I know that I’ve read that author.  But that book?  I’m just not sure so I didn’t count it.

The Top 100 list includes both new titles and classics.  I’ve read all the classics.  I’ve read a lot less of contemporary books and that includes the 42 diverse books.  A bit part of the problem is that I don’t read a whole lot of YA unless it is a genre book.  The SF/F titles?  Those I’ve read.

So I’ll be heading to the library with my list.  You can request the full list and read the SLJ article about the list here. This includes both the Top 100 and the 42 Diverse Titles.


August 9, 2017

Picture Book Writing: How Many Picture Books Have You Read

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:15 am
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How many picture books have you read?   One piece of advice that I’ve heard time and time again is that if you are going to write picture books, you shouldn’t finalize even one manuscript until you have read 100 published picture books.  And these have to be recent picture books.  Recent?  That’s books that have been published in the last two years.

100?  Yes, 100.

That’s a lot, you say?  Yes, it is.  But it is essential.

Something that I’ve noticed is that a lot of would-be authors haven’t read anything since they were kids.  Or maybe since their own children were picture book aged.  They want to write because they remember how much their kids loved Sandra Boynton or Jan Brett.

And that’s great.  Really.  But you need to read recent books as well.  Reading 100 current picture books will be like a self-taught MA program.  Do this and you will learn:

How to keep it lean and mean. Picture books today are a lot shorter than the books that were published when my sister and I were kids.  I know this because we recently found a stack of our old favorites.  As I paged through them, I oohed and ahhed over illustrations that could still pull me into the story.  But I also noticed how long they all seemed.  And complicated.  Much more complicated than today’s picture books.  One main thread.  There are no tangents.  None.  I’d love to say that I always remember that.

How to tell a story in 500 words or less.  Telling a story in so few words is tricky.  And you need to read these kinds of stories to see how authors develop character, have their characters fail and try again, and do it all in so few words.

How page turns work.  No other book form is as reliant on the page turn as is the picture book.  Thing of that turn as the big reveal.  You can hide something behind it and completely change the direction of the story with the turn of a single page.  It is a built-in cliff hanger.

How to use picture book language. Picture books are meant to be read aloud.  Because of that there are language requirements that short stories and early readers may not have.  They have to sound playful and/or poetic when you read them out loud.  Practice this with your 100 books and you’ll learn how a picture book sounds.

Picture books are an art form.  Read and study 100 recent books to learn how this form functions and what is being done today.  And, if you really and truly love picture books, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it.


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