Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Freelance Writer?

night sky 2I more or less lucked into my career as a writer.  It all started when I took a continueing education class with Pat McKissack.  I had just gotten married.  I worked days.  My husband worked nights.  I loved the class and I had time to write.  I still remember when I called my mom and told her that this was what I wanted to do.  “It’s about time you figured it out.”

Thanks, Mom.  Way to motivate a girl.  Just joking.  She had spotted the signs that I had the three traits essential to success in this field.

You have to be self-motivated.  When I started writing, I worked full time. Many new writers do but it would have been really easy to eat dinner on the sofa watching Spanish soap operas or go out with my girlfriends.  I realized that although Pat said encouraging things about my stories, they weren’t as good as what I saw in print.  If I wanted to sell, I was going to have to work and no one was going to tell me to do it.  Fortunately, I love to research and that helped keep me going before I started to sell.  And it also leads into another “essential trait.”

You have to be curious.  You have to learn the markets, what’s been published and what is selling.  If you are going to write nonfiction , you have to be eager to research and research some more.  Lucky me, I’m what my mother referred to as “insatiable.”  If there’s a drawer in a desk, I want to know what’s in it.  Crumbling buildings hold treasure or at least curiousities.  The internet is an endless rabbit hole. For some people, the number of possible paths are too much, because as a writer . . .

You have to be willing to take a chance.  Whether you are deciding to write this story vs that one, submit to X publisher, do a requested rewrite for an agent, or write an e-book, you are taking a chance.  Very seldom are you going to see an opportunity and know beyond a doubt that it is a sure thing.  That means that you have to be willing to try and fail and try again.

Keep trying, learning and pushing yourself and there will be sales if you have what it takes to get there.



How to Add Depth to Your Writing

depthFor the first time in quite a while, I am once again sending out manuscripts without a contract in hand.  And today was only the beginning. I’ve got another one to submit tomorrow.  And another to go out on Wednesday.  Still another is ready and will go out Thursday.  Deep breath.  Tale a deep breath, Sue.

It doesn’t matter how many sales I have.  If I’m lucky, sending material out like this means that I’ll get a rejection.  If I’m not so lucky, I’ll get feedback with an offer to read it again. How’s that unlucky?  I’m only joking, a little.  Getting feedback of any kind is actually great but it means that I’m running the risk of hearing one of the phrases that I dread.  “You need to add depth.”

I know enough to realize that this doesn’t just mean add to the word count.  Adding another scene isn’t the way to get the job done.

But what does it mean?  For different writers or different stories it can mean different things.

For some writers, your story may be too slight.  Yes, you have a plot.  It is a well-developed plot and your hero has to put out some serious effort to succeed.  That may be enough if you’ve written a picture book, an early reader, or a chapter book.  But novels, both for middle grade and young adult readers, often have subplots.  You may need to add one or more subplots that in some way mirror the main plot.

Sometimes the problem is that the reader needs more insight into your character.  Fixing this problem may be a matter of inner dialogue or making sure that some of the dialogue has not just text but subtext.

Last but not least, what is lacking may center on the setting.  You have details.  You have descriptions but they seem to be incidental to the story itself.  You need to find a to have the setting speak about the character, the story problem or a theme.

If an editor describes your story as slight or asks you to add depth, give the comment some thought.  Read your manuscript again with this comment in mind.  The key is to craft a solution that fits right into your story, seamlessly, as if it has always been there.


Self-Publishing: When Does It Make Sense?

book-829939_1920I’ve been noodling over the idea of diving into the realm of self-publishing.  Nothing huge, but I’d like to get some of my work back out there. Because of this, I’ve been considering what I write that would make sense to self-publish.

My educational books for young readers?  Nope.  Those make their way into the schools and school libraries because they are sold through reputable educational publishers such as Abdo.  School librarians know that they can trust Abdo’s books.  Any material I self-publish, even if I pay someone to fact check it, will not have that “seal of quality.”  To reach the same readers I currently reach, I have to go through a traditional publisher.

But I retain the rights to the how-tos that I’ve written for other writers.  These pieces have appeared in Children’s Book Insider, Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Market, The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, Children’s Writer Newsletter, and several other publications.  Taking a quick look at my vitae, I count some 130 such articles.

I’m wondering how much work it would take to rework some of this material into an e-book format.  I don’t know that I’d want to simply copy and paste the files as is.  I would want to update some of the older material.  After all, I’m sure that some of the editors and agents I interviewed are no longer in publishing. I could offer this material for sale on my web site but also when I speak at various writer’s conferences and workshops.

The biggest problem that I see is in book design.  I’m a total pill when it comes to this particular topic.  I don’t entirely see the point of e-books that don’t take advantage of the fact that they are . . . in fact . . . ebooks.  What’s the point of straight text without links or other electronic possibilities?  But I also dislike ebooks with super busy designs — I can work in mutliple fonts and colors, images, sidebars, videos and more.

I suspect it may be time to educate myself.



Hidden Human Computers

Hidden Human computersIt is always a great feeling when readers connect with your work.  But it is an even more heady experience when it happens before the book is officially out.  Early reviews of Hidden Human Computers, scheduled for release in early 2017, have this to say.

“How often do you see the diagram of a Jim Crow segregated dining room arrangement, in a book about Space and Math? How often do you read a book that discusses Civil Rights  and Halley’s Comet; the history of Black Colleges and the history of Human Computing; the evolution of aircraftand the evolution of government hiring policies?  How often do educators have one tool that teaches Science, Math, Social Studies and English — with a Black and female lens?” (Annie Winkler-Morey, The Minneapolis Project.)

“It’s told in a way that accepts its readers as smart and capable individuals while also telling a captivating story. At the same time, it doesn’t shame its readers for not knowing the information previously. Harris and Edwards, instead, are pleased and proud to be able to tell the stories of these important women. I very much appreciated the balance in the storytelling.” (Young Minds Need Stories.)

“Thanks to Hidden Human Computers, an emerging generation of thinkers will be able to have an ancestral relationship to the contemporary understanding of the universe. Black women, our literal and imaginary ancestors, were crucial to contemporary space travel, observation and astro-physics.” (The Feminist Wire.)

I am, to put it mildly, just a little jazzed.  Fingers crossed that the book is just as well received by our intended audience of young readers!



isn’t coming out but it is already bringing in positive reviews

(find all three)

The Writing Life: How Many Projects Do You Work on at a Time?

deskWhat kind of a writer are you?

Are you the type of writer who works on 1 novel manuscript at a time?  That’s the way my friend Kris works.  She starts working on a novel, contemplating the plot, getting to know her characters, studying her setting.  Then she starts writing ahd that the only thing that she writes.  She may shift to something else briefly if she gets a rewrite request from her agent, but normally she works on that one piece until it is ready to send to her agent.

Maybe you’re a writer who has 6 different manuscripts going at once.  Jane Yolen told me that she tends to work on several different manuscripts at once.  When she gets stuck on one she sets it aside and focuses on another.

I used to think that this was how I worked because I might be noodling over one, researching another, and writing a third.  But then I realized something. Although I’ve got a fiction piece in progress, a nonfiction book in the works, my blog posts, and an article for CBI, when it is time to get something done, than that piece is the one I focus on.  Sure, I may be researching a new nonfiction book while working on that fiction, but once I have a deadline in hand, all other big projects go by the wayside.  Yes, I still blog but I generally focus on one book manuscript at a time.

The reality is that there is no one way to work.  We each have different work habits, schedules and demands on our time.  The key is to find a way to write that works for you.  It doesn’t matter what works for Kris, me or even Jane Yolen.  Whether you write in long hand or type it out on the computer, work on one manuscript at a time or ten, you have to find what works for the one and only you.



Early Literacy: 1000 Books Before Kindergarten

reading boyThe St. Louis County Library system has an exciting new program — 1000 Books Before Kindergarten.  Studies show that children who have been read to since birth have an edge when it comes time to learn to read.  Why?  Because they have stronger language skills and vocabularies than children who have missed out on this experience.  Children who participate get prizes at 500 books and the full 1000 books.

  • What does this have to do with writing?  Think about the many ways that this program could be to your advantage if you write picture books. Ask to host a story time at your local library.  Read your books.  Read the books of other authors.  Simply watching kids react to books is great research for a picture book writer.
  • Offer various book related material as prizes.  Perhaps you could offer copies of your books or posters of your book cover.  Maybe you could even make a coloring page based on your book cover.  All of this gets word out about your book.
  • Does your church offer a preschool?  Offer a post-school story time for the kids and offer to speak to the parents about the importance of reading aloud to literacy.

I hope that you see where I’m going with this.  Even if you don’t live in St. Louis county, many libraries and humanities councils have early literacy programs.  Look for ways to hook into these programs, educate parents and turn kids on to reading.

It’s a great opportunity to experience your audience first hand.



Writing and Publishing: It is a Business

poutIf you are a writer who wants to sell your work, you are going to have to keep something in mind.  Publishing is a business.

When you get feedback from an agent or editor, don’t take it personally.  They are critiquing your work, not you.

As a writer, that can be hard to remember.  We invest so much time, energy and emotion into our work that what we have written becomes deeply personal.  Deeply.  When someone tells us that our setting isn’t strong enough, a scene needs to be cut, or our characters aren’t believable, we have to remind ourselves — this is not personal.  They are just trying to help us take our work to the next level.  That next level is 100% necessary if your work is going to compete the in market place. Whether or not you are a new writer or a seasoned professional, your work will be competing against the best of the best.

This means that when your agent tells you that no one wants dystopian YA at the moment, she isn’t telling you that you are clueless.  She’s telling you that your story idea likely won’t sell.  Remember, it’s a business.  This isn’t personal.

This means that when your editor tells you that she just isn’t passionate about this story, she’s telling you that this isn’t the right piece for her. She doesn’t think that she can take it to that next level.  Remember, it’s a business.  This isn’t personal.

When your editor asks you to coordinate your publicity work with the marketing department?  Still not personal.  The marketing department is in the business of . . . can you guess?  Marketing!  Selling books.

Your work is precious to you, and it should be.  It’s the only way you’re going to have the energy to take it from the initial idea to the polished final manuscript.  But if you are trying to sell your work, you need to transition from this personal approach to a business approach.  Why?  You are dealing with professionals.  Want to be one of them? Publishing is a business.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have the occassional tiny tantrum, but save it for your writer’s group.  They’ll understand and they’ve undoubtably felt the same way.


Women in Science and Women in Sports

women in sciencewomen in sportsWhat a great way to start my week.  My two most recent books are out from Abdo Publishing.  Women in Science and Women in Sports are part of the eight title series, Women’s Lives in History.

The most difficult part of these two books wasn’t deciding what to include and what to leave out.  That said, that was difficult.  No matter how many different women I included, someone was left out.  Some aspect of science or some sport were left out.  Between narrative, examples of sporting or scientific women, and the sidebars I worked in as much as possible.

The most difficult part was discovering and refining the narrative that linked them all.  These books are nonfiction.  The stories that they tell are factual, but I had to have an overarching narrative.  How were things changing in this field?  At this time?

As is always the case, I learned a lot writing these books.  Would I want to do something similar again in the future?  Maybe.  These were the two most difficult books that I’ve ever written.  I knew sports would be tough because my background in and knowledge of sports isn’t as broad as my background in science.  But science was just as difficult if not more so.  Let’s just say that I thought digesting physics so that I could write about it was tough until I had to work on the section on pure math.

Difficulties aside, I’m glad I wrote them and I can see them filling a need in the schools.  Yes, there are books out about female athletes and female scientists but they focus on a few people (Wilma Rudolph and Marie Curie). Yes there are few others but not as many as you might expect.  These books will help fill that void.

Really, really looking forward to having the author’s copies in hand.


Publicity: TeachingBooks

Black Lives Matter
The book that earned me this opportunity.

When I opened the e-mail, I wasn’t sure how to react.  I’d used the Audio Name Pronounciations on to help students learn the names of their favorite authors.  Once you hear some of them, you never forget how to say them.  Scieszka rhymes with Fresca.

But why would they contact me?  Sue Bradford Edwards. That’s pretty straightforward.

They has provided me with several links so I listened to Neil Gaiman explain his pronounciation and the origin of his family name. Maya Angelou explains how she got the name Maya which isn’t her given name.

Stories.  Hmm.  I can tell a story.  And, like much of what I write, this would be nonfiction.  I’m good at that.

It took me about a week to decide on a story.  Then I wrote it out and rehearsed.  When I could read it through out loud without stumbling, I called the handy dandy phone number and recorded my message.  You can hear it here.

It would have been easy to just let this opportunity slide.  After all, my name is easy to pronounce so I don’t think that teachers are going to look hither and yon for how to say my name. But as I poked around the site, I discovered that each author has a page.  The page includes links to their website and blog and at least one of their books. Otherwise, it is a great place for teachers to look for author information but also a “safe place” for young readers.

And now I’m a part of it.  What might be the most fun?  I can share this recording far and wide.  That means that I have an interesting little tidbit that I can share with people who are interested in me and my writing.  Now, I have to figure out how to imbed it in my web site…



Biography: How to write about someone who isn’t well known

Terrible Typhoid MaryMy audiobook of the moment is Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.  The title may be all Typhoid Mary all the time, but after listening to the first 1/3 of the book, I’d have to say that the focus of the book is on George Soper.  Soper billed himself as an expert on epidemics, specifically typhoid but he had no medical background.  He was a civil engineer.  I had a grad class on urban history so this makes sense — a big focus for the early civil engineers and city planners was public health.  They fought to keep people healthy as American cities grew.

What a timely topic!  But without Typhoid Mary I don’t think it would have been an easy sell.

George Soper?  Whose George Soper and why do we care?  Civil engineering just doesn’t have any play as a “sexy” topic.

Flash “Typhoid Mary” in front of an editor and you just might grab their attention.  Sell it from a new angle – a medical mystery pursued by a new kind of investigator and you’re reeling that editor in.  If you can find a way to make it sing, you’ve likely got a sale.  Clearly, Bartoletti did and this reads like an episode of Bones or a crime drama.

As much as editors tell us to submit the biography they haven’t already seen, the completely unfamiliar is a remarkably hard sell.  Too rarefied and editors know it will be tough to locate an audience, no matter how fascinating the subject.

This means that if you’ve found someone unknown, look for a way to tie them into something well-known or timely.  Even if someone doesn’t know Mary Mallon, they’ve probably heard of Typhoid Mary.  Fears of West Nile and the Zika virus are rampant and this ties into that mind-set.  Bartoletti also found a way to make it sound like true crime.  It may not be easy to make the connections but the more you can make the more likely you will be to make a sale.