One Writer’s Journey

September 21, 2018

Banned Book Week

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:31 am
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Next week from 9/23 to 9/29 is banned book week.  Book banning continues to be a serious issue in the US.

It is one thing if a parent doesn’t think their child is mature enough to read a specific book and approaches the teacher, asking for an alternate title.  It is another altogether when a parent doesn’t want anyone exposed to other religions or questions of gender identity and demands that a book be removed from the school curriculum. Or pulled from library shelves.

That is book banning and censorship.

As a parent, I have to admit that I didn’t worry a whole lot about what my son was reading.  In part, this is probably because I knew most of the books well enough.  I didn’t have to worry what was in them.  I knew.  And we talked.  But then again I’m not going to object to a Muslim character, a transgender character, or a teen who swears.

Given what I write, you’ve probably assumed that I’m all for people of different outlooks being heard.  You don’t even have to agree with me to be heard.  But, and this is the important part, I will fight as soon as you try to silence someone else.

Why not celebrate next week by reading a banned book?  Here is a video that includes a list of the 10 most challenged books of 2017.



September 20, 2018

Graphic Novels: How to Format Your Script

Not long ago, I saw a call for authors to write nonfiction graphic novels.  Sounds great, but I don’t illustrate and I have no clue how to format the manuscript.  I tried looking it up online and . . . nada.

Part of my problem may have been that I was using the wrong lingo.  It is a graphic novel script.  I discovered this reading The Art of Comic Book Writing by Mark Kneece.

Kneece recommends three steps to writing.

The first is know what goes on in each Act.  Act 1 establishes main character and story problem and is no more than 25% of the total page count. Act 2 is 65% of the page count more or less.  Character attempts to understand the problem and make progress. Act 3 is more or less 10% of the total page count.  The main character puts forth huge effort at great risk and, hopefully, succeeds.

Next, the writer figures out what happens on each page.  This is a great place to pinpoint problems in pacing.

Finally, the writer creates a full script.  At this point, the author is figuring out how many panels will go onto each page and how the action will flow.  Once the writer knows what goes on in each panel, it is time to start writing.  The script for a single panel will look something like this:

Panel 1 – Description should be written here.  Some writers create lengthy complex descriptions. Others are much briefer.  It is even okay to include photos for visual reference.

Caption: Narrative goes here.  This is the narrative text often at the top of the panel.  “The chase had begun…”

Jane Doe: Dialogue.  Keep it brief.

John Doe:  Dialogue.  Still keeping it brief.

SFX: Onomatopoeia sound noises here.  Kapow!

Panel 2 – Description, etc as in panel 1.

Unlike book manuscripts, much of this is single spaced.  That surprised me.  So did the proportion of story given over to each act. I’m more accustomed to a 25-50-25 split.

There’s a lot more to this than the little bit I’ve written here.  This book is very thorough and helps walk you through the various steps, warning against common pitfalls.  I’m going to wait to finish reading it until I have a specific idea.  Otherwise I’ll just forget it all by the time I need it.

But now that I have a clue . . . I’m going to start reading more graphic novels.  Waiting for inspiration.



September 19, 2018

Picture Books: The Importance of the First Spread

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:51 am
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Do you regularly listen to podcasts?  I have to admit that I don’t.  Most of them are just too long to hold my attention, especially when they ramble on for 5+ minutes about things they want me to buy.  I have the attention span of my audience.

The exception to this podcast rule comes from SCBWI.  That’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for those of you who aren’t in the know.  Members can sign in and listen to a wide variety of interviews.  Non-members can sample a trailer.  Click here for the podcast page.

A while ago, I listened to an interview with editor Connie Hsu. She said something that really stuck with me.  If you want to write picture books, you have to be able to get voice, character and mood into one line.

Really?  That seems impossible.  But think about it.  A spread is roughly equivalent to a chapter.  And the first chapter of your novels needs to show voice, your character, and the mood/tone of the story.

I decided to look at some picture books to see how this works.

This is the first spread of I Don’t Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt.

“I want to be a CAT.”
“You can’t be a Cat.”

The first speaker is Frog.  The second speaker is Dad.

What can you tell right away?  Frog wants what frog wants.  Does it make sense?  Nope.  But it is what Frog wants.  He reminded me very much of a typical preschooler.  We have the tone, the character and what he wants.  Not to be a frog.  And we got all of that in eleven words. Can you pull that off?  Me?  I’d love to say yes but the nonfiction examples below look more like my style.

This is the first spread of Rice from Heaven by Tina Cho, illustrated by Keum Jin Song.

Out in countryside, across a bridge, to an island blanketed with rice fields, Appa and I ride.
We reach a place where mountains become a wall. A wall so high, no one dares to climb.

What do we get from this?  We have a first person speaker who is off on some kind of mission or quest.  And things are a bit scary – the mountains form a wall that is so high no one has the nerve to climb it.  They are someplace beautiful but the situation they are dealing with?  Not beautiful.  And you get that from 35 words.

Picture book writing is tight.  You don’t have words to waste.  And your story?  You have to launch it on that first spread.  If this sound do-able to you, then picture book writing might be right for you.


September 18, 2018

Reading Level: Taking It Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:31 am
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Most of the books that I write for RedLine have a reading level of about 7.5 to 8.0.  That’s good news for me because my natural writing level is in that range.

The book that I’m working on now has a reading level of 4.5 to 5.5.  I expected to have to play with things to achieve this.  RedLine always wants the first chapter and an outline before you proceed.  When I drafted the first chapter I was a little surprised to hit 5.2 with no fiddling required.  Whoa!

As I finished chapter 2, the online reading level calculator was down.  No big deal.  I’d just test them all once I was done.

Maybe my early success had made me bold but every single chapter tested too high.  Most of them weren’t even close.  I tried fiddling with chapter 2 several times but just could not hit the right level so I set it aside until Monday.

It helps to understand how reading level is calculated.  Most often, it involves word length, sentence length and possibly paragraph length.

Part of the problem is that when you try to adjust a chapter at a time, you make numerous changes early in the chapter and then . . . that should be good enough.  Right?  You quit making substantial changes.  I solve this by going through the book section by section. Each chapter has at least one subheading and two sidebars.  I reworked a single section and then tested it.  By the time I finished a chapter, I knew that each individual part worked.

One of the things that I do is look for more complicated words that can be swapped out for simpler words.  Apparently journalist tests higher than reporterExplained may be more specific but it tests higher than says.  Don’t dumb things down because your reader is going to want some of those fantastic words but explained really wasn’t that important.

When your editor asks for a reading level range, hit it.  It may take some work but better you work to write it than your reader struggle to access the information.


September 17, 2018

Grammar Gremlins: You Can’t Start a Sentence with a Conjunction . . . or Can You?

Grammar gremlin?

Yesterday one of my high school buddies messaged me.  “So I’m asking an expert. Is it ok to begin a sentence with ‘And’ …..I’m proof reading technicians remarks.”

Expert?  At bending the rules of grammar?  Yeah, that would be me.  I start sentences with conjunctions (And, Or, But) all the time.  But I got the feeling that she wanted the gospel answer.  So I looked it up via a Google search.  This is definitely something that people have opinions on. My search turned up 214,000,000 results.


I quick glance told me that I had no clue who the vast majority of these bloggers or other experts might be, but I did see one that I recognized, the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  Their site says that not only can you start a sentence with AND it has been done for quite some time.

“Firstly, has it ever been wrong to begin a sentence with and or but? No, it has not. We have been breaking this rule all the way from the 9th century Old English Chronicle through the current day. Many translations of the Bible are filled with sentence-initial ands and buts, and they even may be found in some of our more beloved—and prescriptive—usage guides. The 1959 edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style begins two sentences in a row with these prohibited words, and does so with nary a trace of self-consciousness.

‘But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.
—William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 1959′”

I start sentences with ‘and’ on a regular basis.  I also use ‘but’ and sometimes ‘or.’  Why then were we taught not to do it?

Although it can be an effective way to start a sentence, I suspect a lot of us tend to use it as a transition.  Imagine a whole string of sentences linked by conjunctions.  It would easily stretch into the far distance.

Does that mean it is wrong to do occasionally?  Absolutely not. But it probably isn’t something you should do for every other sentence.



September 14, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Testing Your Characters and Your Setting

Are your characters unique?  Is your setting woven into your story? These are the kinds of things that can make a story top-notch instead of ho-hum.  Here are some simple thing you can do to test how well you’ve done.

Change the setting for your story.

If your story is contemporary, consider resetting it 100 years ago.  If it is set in modern New York, move it to San Antonio.

If this is easy to do and nothing changes, you need to weave your setting deeper into your story.  The time period needs to be seen through the culture, the artifacts, and how people get around.  The environment needs to impact people’s clothing and outdoor activities.  The culture of where they are needs to come into play.

If your story can take place any-where and any-when, sadly you have work to do.

Swap one character for another.  

Two of your characters are about to confront the antagonist.  Swap the secondary character for a different secondary character.

Or your main character has just discovered who the informant is.  Swap this sneaky so-and-so for another secondary character.

Does your main character have two sidekicks?  Find a scene with both of them in it.  Can you cut it to only one sidekick?

Or find a scene with only one sidekick.  Can you swap this sidekick for the other.

Love interests, adversaries, and mentors can all be tested in similar ways if there is more than one.

You’ve probably guessed by now but if you can swap one for the other or eliminate one altogether, they are too much alike.  They are probably also two-dimensional. Contemplate what you can do to make them both interesting and integral to the story.

If you’ve discovered that your setting and/or your characters are ho-hum, don’t panic.  Rewrites are a great opportunity to fix problems just like these.  Speaking of which, I have a two-dimensional sidekick to bring into a three-dimensional world.


September 13, 2018

Entering Contests: Check All the Boxes

I’m almost halfway through another batch of contest entries.  I’m judging not entering, but this has given me some insight into how an editor must feel.  With that in mind, here are four tips that apply to contest entries but also to fiction in general.

  1. Follow the rules.  That doesn’t simply mean entering fiction in a fiction contest and nonfiction in a nonfiction contest.  It also means following instructions where formatting is concerned.  If you entry is being submitted by e-mail, this may not mean double space vs single space but it probably includes something about including your name, contact information and word count.  Do not send in my favorite story thus far and then flaunt the rules.  Do.  Not.
  2. Consider your audience.  Your audience includes not only your readers, God willing, but also the judge or editor who first opens your submission.  Pay attention to the mission of the magazine, website or publisher before deciding on your topic.  Not every topic is suitable for every audience.
  3. Hook your reader . . . but that doesn’t mean you have to lead with gore or physical threat.  Your reader has to care about your character before anything happens to them and it is very hard to pull off a story that leads with a violent situation. I’ve read stories that worked but they are few and far between.  It really doesn’t work with you lead with gore and then pop over to another scene.  What . . . wait . . . you just did that to try to be exciting!
  4. Don’t fail to develop your story.  When you have a low word count, some writers simply don’t include the character’s motivation or what’s at stake.  The protagonist is vague and where is this story set?  Sometimes they run right up to the word count and I know they just ran out of space.  Other times, they have several hundred words left.  Sigh.  Yet again, they are trying to build tension by making things mysterious.  Mysterious is not the same thing as vague.  Really.

I know those all sounded pretty negative, but I open every piece wanting to love it.  The only way to go is down so one of the best ways to succeed is by not losing any points.  And, honestly, those four things are the biggies.  Why not give yourself the best opportunity to succeed?


September 12, 2018

STEM Titles Coming Soon

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:08 am
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It really is a toss-up whether I prefer to write about social sciences and history or science.  I think that’s why anthropology was the ideal field of study for me.  So when my editor contacted me and asked if I wanted to do a title in a series of evolution, it wasn’t a matter of yes or no. Instead I asked how many I could do.  Evolution of Mammals and Evolution of Reptiles will come out in January.

They were difficult titles to outline.  Imagine trying to fit all of mammalian evolution into 15,000 words.  I ended up going through different mammalian groups and looking at various traits.  I wanted to cover some animals just because they are popular (dogs and horses) but then there were some that are just fascinating (whales).  Others fell by the wayside as I started trying to find sources because there simply wasn’t enough to create a descent chapter.

Researching these books was also a lesson in why you need to make sure your research is up-to-date.  Where various animals fit into the complex family tree that includes all species has changed as our knowledge has grown.  Every once in a while I’d look something up and get a big surprise.

But this is also why it is great to work with a good editor.  As much as I read, my editor has read things I hadn’t.  “I think you need to include this.” Writing rock solid nonfiction is definitely a team effort.

Whenever someone asks me to name my favorite title that I’ve worked on, I laugh.  They tend to change over time.  Right now?  I’d have to say these two books on Evolution.  Science and history.  What could be better?


September 11, 2018

MSWL Day: Use This to Research Agents

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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Are you looking for an agent?  Then you need to check out Manuscript Wish List Day (#MSWL Day).  It is coming up on September 12, 2018.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with #MSWL it is a tag used by editors and agents to Tweet about what they want.  You will see posts about agents looking for young adult novels, editors seeking books with great voice, and so much more.  I’m always surprised how specific some of the requests are.  “I’d love to see the Marvel universe with all autistic heroes.”  I made that up but some of the requests are just that specific.

All you need to do is go to Twitter and search for #MSWL.

The first time stopped by Twitter on #MSWL day, I thought I would search first thing in the morning and leave the feed up, checking it out throughout the day.  That way I would see all the messages.  Um, yeah.  I came home from yoga to find 400+ new messages.  I’m sure there are people who would scan them all.  I am not that person.

Instead, I waited until late in the day and searched for specific requests.  “#MSWL PB,” “#MSWL picture book,” “#MSWL  STEM,” and “#MSWL nonfiction.”

You can also check out individual agents or editors who interest you. Again, if they post often, just reading through their feed can be tough.  So you might need to search their name and #MSWL.  But my favorite way to do it is from the Manuscript Wish List site.  Click through then search for your agent or editor of interest.  On their profile page, in the center column is a button that says “See my latest #MSWL tweets.”  Guess what?  Click it.  I’ve yet to figure out just how the tweets are arranged.  Not by date.  Not by reverse date.  But you can skim them and see if this agent still looks promising.

You can also like tweets as they are posted.  Then you go to your twitter profile and click likes.  Everything you liked is going to come up which again might be a problem if you like a lot.

Fingers crossed that someone will tweet about something that just so happens to be lingering in your files.  If so, good luck with your submission!



September 10, 2018

Writing Picture Books: How Much Dialogue Is Too Much?

When writing a picture book, limit your dialogue.”

This is a fairly common piece of advice given to picture book writers. The reasoning behind it is that talking heads make for boring illustrations.  Good illustrations contain action and emotion.  There are different characters and settings from spread to spread.

And that’s not bad advice.  But the problem with it is that Dev Petty has written four picture books entirely in dialogue.  You heard me.  Entirely in dialogue.  If you haven’t read her books which were illustrated by Mike Boldt yet, you should pick up:

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog

I Don’t Want to Be Big

There’s Nothing to Do! 

I Don’t Want to Go to Sleep

Part of the reason that these books work is that they have serious kid appeal.  I don’t want to.  You can’t make me.  No!   Every parent has heard these phrases time and time again.  These stories are relatable both for the young listener and the adult reader.  Been there.  Done that.  Ribbet!

But the text also does all of the things that good picture books are supposed to do.  There are plenty of characters in I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. In addition to Frog and his father, there’s a rabbit, a pig, an owl and even a wolf.

There are also a variety of emotions.  Dad is a bit condescending at times – something I’m sure none of us have ever demonstrated when interacting with a child.  Frog is curious, excited, apprehensive and worried.  Wolf?  He’s just plain old grossed-out.  Settings vary as the characters swim, play in the mud and sit through a lecture.

Petty has proven that a picture book can consist of nothing but dialogue but that means that the dialogue has to carry the weight that the rest of the writing usually carries.  After all, there is no narrative to introduce new settings or characters or changes in emotion.

So now I find myself noodling over how to write a dialogue based picture book.  Clearly, I would not want it to be a character and parent.  But I feel it would also be derivative to make it a character and a grandparent.  So I’m thinking two young characters.

This is definitely going to take some thought.


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