One Writer’s Journey

July 19, 2019

Picture Books: A Variety of Formats Telling Simple Stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:23 am
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Which structure should your picture book take?

One of the things that I discuss with my students are various picture book structures.  The structure for a particular book will depend on the topic or story.

Character has a problem.  In many fiction picture books, the character has a problem to solve.  The first and second attempts to solve this problem fail.  Tension builds and the character tries one last time before Victory!  Think of this as a play in three acts.

A circular story.  Some stories are circular.  These stories often deal with cycles such as the water cycle, the seasons, or day leading into night which then leads into day.  A nonfiction book about migratory birds can be circular since they undertake the same journey again and again. The stories satisfy young readers who have learned that some things happen again and again, regular and reliable.

A sequential story.  Journeys and building stories can sometimes be written in one sequence and one sequence only.  Why?  Because the stops along the trail or the steps in building something can only occur in a very specific order.  A leads to B leads to C, etc.

Cumulative stories.  Cumulative stories are a lot like sequential stories.  You pile more and more on until something happens.  Examples of this kind of story are The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and The House that Jack Built.

Decreasing stories.  On the flip side are stories with a countdown.  Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed is a decreating story.  The key items is reduced little by little until something big happens.

A story with a mission.  Some stories by their nature challenge the reader to take action.  Save a species, plant trees, clean a beach.  Some of these stories literally challenge the reader to go out and apply what they have learned.  “Go out and …”  In other stories, the challenge is implied.  “Wow.  If this person could plant 50 trees, I can plant trees too.”

Which structure should you use for your picture book?  Even if it seems obvious, that your story should be sequential, a subtle shift in emphasis could make it a decreasing story or a story with a mission.  Try more than one structure and see which works best.


July 18, 2019

How Adaptable Are You? Surviving in the Freelance Market

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:56 pm
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Sorry this is late going up.  A six hour power outtage yesterday wouldn’t have stopped me but someone had to prep for a calc test so he got my laptop.

Earlier this week, I saw this TED talk with Natalie Fratto, a venture investor.  She explained that when decided who to back, many investors look at the persons IQ (intelligence quotient).  She looks at the AQ (adaptability quotient).

Fratto explained that in our rapidly changing world, it is vital to be adaptable.  As she went on to explain, this is the difference between being Blockbuster and Netflix.

What does this have to do with writing?  If you are asking that question, you might be in danger of being Blockbuster so pay attention.

It is easy to tell ourselves that good writing is good writing.  Perfect your craft and you will be able to sell your work and, to a point, this is true. But what is popular and selling changes just as much as how it is presented.

So how do you know if you are adaptable?  Fratto looks for three things.

What if… Fratto calls this running simulations but I prefer the simpler what if?  Why?  Because many writers play the what if game.  What if this was to happen?  What if that was to happen?  You can play it with your stories, contemplating how a group of teens would survive if, but you can also play it in terms of your own work.  “I haven’t had an assignment from X in a while.  What if they are using fewer people?  Who else could I approach?”  Fratto encourages people to run simulations to practice manipulating information.

Unlearning.  When you unlearn something, you are going beyond learning a new skill.  You have actually unlearning an old one.  The example Fratto gave was someone who rigged a bike to turn left when he steered it to the right.  When you game, it is a lot like having to know that with X game, the A button makes you jump but on another you crouch.  In writing, it can be writing fluid, lyrical prose for one client and short, sharp to the point text for another.

Exploration vs Exploitation.  Are you someone who enjoys learning new ways to do things and does this before it is forced upon you? Than you have this skill.  It may be my strongest of the three simply because I love to learn new things.  I am learning to write graphic novels even as I play with poetry.

The beauty of adaptability and practiced by Fratto is that it can be learned.  Pick one of the three categories and play with it today, tomorrow and the day after.


July 17, 2019

Cover Reveal: The Dark Web

Over the weekend I was fiddling around on Amazon when I found the cover for my latest North Star title, The Dark Web.  It will be released in August.

I admit that as I’m writing a title, I sometimes wonder what the cover will look like.  What images will they use?  What font will they choose? And I’m almost always surprised with the direction that they take.

When I accepted this particular assignment, I didn’t know much of anything about the dark web.  My son, at twenty, knew a lot more.  “Which version are you writing?  The fuddy Boomer version or the truth?”

Yeah, no bias there.

But the more that I researched, the more that I saw his point.  For those of you who don’t know about the dark web, it is an area of the internet that is largely unregulated.  You access it through special browsers like Tor.

Because it is unregulated, it is the perfect place for illegal activity.  Narcotics and slaves are both sold on the Dark Web.  But whistle blowers also contact journalists through the Dark Web.  And people who are working against repressive regimes use the Dark Web.  Not comfortable with how Facebook is using your data?  That’s why some people go through the Dark Web. They don’t want their information being mined and used by others.

Don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t turn my kid loose on the Dark Web.  But then I didn’t turn my kid loose on the internet.

This was definitely an interesting book to research.  The cover?  I get someone using a mouse. That makes sense.  But a left handed man in a suit?  FBI?  Various Feds have been working hard to make it less anonymous.  Who knows?  Maybe next year I’ll get to write another title- The Deeper, Darker Web.



July 16, 2019

Harper Alley

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:03 am

Good news for graphic novel fans!  HarperCollins is launching HarperAlley, a graphic novel imprint for readers of all ages.  What does this mean?  As explained by Editorial Director Andrew Arnold, “We believe that a good story is a story that any reader can relate to. That’s what we mean when we say “readers of all ages.”

Arnold comes to HarperCollins from First Second where he worked with a variety of well known authors including Gene Luen Yang, Shannon Hale, LeUyen Pham, Hope Larson, Tillie Walden, and Jen Wang.

The first titles will appear in 2020.  HarperAlley plans to publish 10 titles per season for a total of about 30 books each year.  In addition to bringing in new work, they will acquire European and foreign-language titles that they feel are accessible to American readers.  The goal will be to add to the graphic novels already produced by HarperCollins including Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Making Comics, and Reinventing Comics; Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell’s Graveyard Book 1 & 2; Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona; and New Kid by Jerry Craft, released in February and already a bestseller.

Other editors throughout HarperCollins will continue to sign and develop graphic novels. But HarperAlley will have an independent team a editors and designers with graphic novel experience.

I’ve really been enjoying the graphic novels that I’ve read over the past year and will shift my focus to HarperCollins for a while.  That said, I’m also going to focus on finishing this second draft of my own graphic novel.  My goal is to use it to help sign an agent and hopefully land a spot at one of the many publishers who are producing the new lines of graphic novels.



July 15, 2019

Theme: How Broad or Narrow Should You Make It?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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Last week at critique group we ended up discussing theme.  One of our members had just run a picture book rewrite through the group.  She knew it needed another rewrite but what to bring forward?  And what to minimize or cut altogether?  A lot of this would depend on not only the plot but also the theme.

Theme is one of those topics that can be tricky to discuss.  Do you talk about it broad strokes – this is an adventure or this is a book about family?  Or do you get more specific – this is a book about being seen by your family?  The answer is (C) All of the above.

Adventure is the type of story.  A picture book can be an adventure, humorous, fantasy, nonfiction, or a concept book.

But when you start to discuss theme it gets a bit more specific.  The themes that I’ve written about include social justice, race, and health.  According to this post that I found by Linda Jo Martin, this is the thematic category.  I like that term a lot.  “My thematic category is justice.”

Still a little unsure about thematic categories?  Think of them as the catalog tags that you see listed in the front of a book, the subject tags under which the book can be found in the Library of Congress.  For Hafsah Faizal’s We Hunt the Flame the thematic categories, or subject tags, are fantasy, magic, blessing and curse, impersonation and Middle East.

From the thematic category we move to the theme.  What is the author attempting to say about this broader category?  I haven’t read Faizal’s book yet, it was simply sitting here waiting for me beside my keyboard, but here are some possible ways these themes could be developed.


  • Magic use requires a price be paid.
  • Used lightly, magic is a dangerous thing.
  • Magic and science are two sides of the same coin.

As explained by Martin, the specific theme shows us what the author believes about the topic.  It is an expression of her world view.

As you start to rewrite your work, identify the thematic categories.  Then look at the themes and what you are trying to say.  Knowing this will help you create a more effective story.


July 12, 2019

A New Manuscript: How to Start Writing

Getting started can be the hardest part.

One of my students mentioned to me that she is having troubles starting her manuscript.  She has the research.  She has the outline.  She just can’t get the words to flow.  Here are three different ways to start writing a new manuscript if you are having this problem.

When you worry that the beginning isn’t perfect or you aren’t sure how to pull the reader in.  Don’t start with the beginning.  Skip it and start with the body of your article, story or book.  Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you start with what will ultimately be chapter 2, chapter 5 or the end.  Start with a section in which you are confident.  Once you get that part written, you can write the preceding section or the following section.  Which part you write first is not important. Getting words down is important.
When you are intimidated by the blank page.  Some writers stare at that empty page and just can’t get started.  If you are a good typist, which I am not, turn off your monitor.   Write, write and write some more.  Then turn the monitor on.  Your page is no longer blank.  If you aren’t sure you can fill that WHOLE page, work with a smaller page.  I’ve roughed several picture books out on post-it notes.  Each note is a spread.  Filling these tiny little pieces of paper takes almost no effort.
Spellcheck, grammatic and all that underlining is distracting.  If you are certain you will remember to turn them back on, then turn them off.  Or you can write on paper.  Really.  That’s how the old timers used to do it.  In all truth, my first few manuscripts were written on paper because I didn’t own a PC or laptop.  I was a poor newlywed with a legal pad and an electric typewriter.  Sometimes I still write by hand.  It brings a different feel to the whole experience.
If I didn’t address your particular problem, feel free to comment below and I’ll try to help you find a solution to what is making it hard for you to get started.

July 11, 2019

Onomatopoeia or SFX

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:31 am
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This week, I’ve been rewriting my picture book level graphic novel.  I’m having a lot of fun with it but admittedly find myself asking questions I’m not used to contemplating during the course of drafting a manuscript.

What noise does someone make when they wretch?

What sound does a vacuum make?

What sound does it make when you punch a derelict space craft?  Okay, technically space is a vacuum but I still NEED a punch noise.

When I’m completely stumped, I google it and that’s how I found the page “Japanese to English SFX.”  Oh, SFX or graphic novel or comic book sound effects.  I can go to this page and search for vacuum or punch and see what they give as the English version.

I have yet to simply copy any of their suggestions.  But once I have a suggestion, I can play with it and make adjustments.

There are words for snoring (gaa goo), the flapping of cloth (fwap), and when things rattle in an earthquake (gara gara or goro goro).   There are something like 11 pages of sound words to play around with in my graphic novel.  Munchity munchity?  Um, no.

There are those moments that a bit of onomatopoeia feels spot on, like when the steam at the end of coffee brewing comes out with “Psssht” only for me to realize that while that is pretty much spot on the noise my coffee maker makes, it also looks just a bit too much like a swear word.

Personally, I’d rather not spell out swear words in a picture book level graphic novels.  My readers can sound them off the sidewalk or other tagged location like I did when I was a kid.

July 10, 2019

Poetry: The Zejel

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:34 am
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Maybe it is because I just finished reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners, but I’ve been playing around with poetry a bit more than usual lately.  My latest attempt is a zejel which you can find described by Robert Brewer here.

The zejel is known as an old Spanish form but Brewer points out that it may actually be a really old Arabic form.  Each lines has 8 syllables and the rhyme scheme works like this:  AAA, BBBA, CCCA, DDDA, EEEA, etc.

Eight syllables is bound to be easier than the eleven syllables in the stornello, right?   Seriously, let me maintain my illusion just a bit longer.  Poking around online, I also see that the zejel is meant to be spoken or recited, not written.  Alas, mine will be written because no one but no one wants me to try to recite a poem.  I haven’t done that since we memorized Poe in . . . grade 8?  I’m not even sure the world was in color way back then.

So anyway, here is my attempt at a zejel.

Super Powers

Are all super powers something
about which we would brag and sing?
Or would many more likely sting?

Sure, some would be able to fly
And others detect every lie.
But somewhere a hopeful young guy
only bends like a chicken wing.

And a woman afraid of heights
Cannot see far distant sights
Or fight like a long ago knights,
But flies like a bird on the wing.

Nope.  No one with a skill for rhyme or poetic form as anything to fear.  But it is still fun to play around with various poems throughout the week. If nothing else, it sharpens my sense of word play and the sound and feel of words.

Even if I’m no kind of poetic threat.




July 9, 2019

Rewriting: When One Section Is Clearly the Best

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:35 am
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It doesn’t matter if you are working on a picture book, graphic novel or novel.  When the time comes to rewrite your work and you read through it, one section will stand out.  “Wow.  This is really good.”

Good for you!  Take a moment to celebrate and then get ready to get to work.  No, I’m not going to tell you to cut this amazing section..  I am going to tell you to bring the rest of your work up to this level.

Cutting the amazing part doesn’t sound all that awful now, does it?  Because bringing everything else up to the level of amazing is going to be a lot of work but that’s okay.

At the moment, I am rewriting a graphic novel.  My first spread is amazing.  It isn’t just me.  One of my editors looked it over and confirmed my suspicions.  “This section is spot on!”  I start with a great description for the illustrator.  There’s action.  My three main characters each have dialogue.  I’ve even worked in sound effects and the story challenge.


The next spread isn’t as action packed but again you get to know my characters a bit better as they puzzle out how to solve the problem.  So that’s two really good spreads out of 14.  Not bad, not bad at all.

But it does mean that my other 12 spreads need to be pulled up to this level.  I’ve got some really good material in there but I have to admit it.  The rest just is not as good.  For the most part, there isn’t as much description.  My main characters don’t each have dialogue/play a significant part in the spread.  And I sometimes forget to use sound effects which is ridiculous because making up text to give voice to a fight scene, a spill, or something toppling over is half the fun of writing a graphic novel.

To solve these problems, I’m going to make a check list.  Then I am going to rewrite each spread and make sure that if an element is not present there is a darn good reason.  My checklist will look something like this:

Eva Dialogue
Morgan Dialogue
Carlotta Dialogue
SFX (sound effect)
Moves story forward
Atom Mom
Super power/mad science

That’s quite a check list and in all truth not all of it needs to be on each spread.  I probably don’t need SFX if the chorus comes into play.  And Dad, the twins, and Atom Mom don’t need to be in every spread but graphic novels make room for additional characters in the background.  I have to show the editor that I understand how a graphic novel works.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got 12 spreads to work my way through.


July 8, 2019

Copyright Free Photos

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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Last week, I was reading the Library of Congress (LOC) blog when I came across a post that included a photo of an ice cream vendor in long ago Cuba.  What?  The image was free for public use.  I read the post closely and discovered that the LOC holdings online include a section titled “Free to Use and Reuse Sets.”  These images include photos, posters, drawings and postcards that are copyright free and available for public use.

There are photos to do with ice cream including this Tiffany lamp (see left), Thomas Jefferson’s recipe (hand written), and a link to The Book of Ices…

Not looking for anything this light-hearted?  No worries.  There are also photos of African-American Women Change Makers including images of Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth (see right)  and a book of poetry by Phyllis Wheatley.

Other topics inclue World War I posters from various countries, Women’s History Month images, WPA images and presidential portraits.  When I popped open the page of World War I posters, I was surprised to see a poster printed in Hebrew.  The Women’s History Month images include a number of World War II photos of women doing various war time factory job.  I would love to have more of the context of some of these images.  I had to really think about this WPA poster. I mean, I know I lose it when someone folds down a page to mark their place in a book, but the WPA actually had a poster about it.

In addition to using these images in your work, you might also want to look through them when you need inspiration for a story, article or poem.  Take some time and see what the Library of Congress has avialable.




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