Counting Books: Thinking out of the box

Just a few days ago, I reviewed Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book about Building by Kurt Cyrus.  It was a marvelous lesson in out-of-the-box thinking.

When I picked up the book, I expected something along the lines of one brick, two bricks . . . up through ten. But Cyrus gives the reader anything but the expected one through ten progression.  There are even numbers, specifically two, four, six, and counting by fives but never one through ten.  It is a book about building perhaps even more so than it is a book about counting.

I haven’t been planning to write a counting book, but now I find myself wondering how I might do it.  A book of count downs?  I wonder if that’s been done.  That could be a lot of fun dealing with space launches and race starts.

Squares?  1, 4, 9, 16, etc.   Hmm. I’m not sure how that one would work.

I’ll have to noodle this over while I’m on the treadmill.  I do have an idea for an alphabet book about trains.  Yes there are already train books but I’ve got a plan that would make this one different.  I hope it is unique enough to be “out of the box.”

At this point there are so many counting and alphabet books as well as books about shapes and colors that you have to come up with something creative to get a positive response.  Why buy your book when they can buy one illustrated by Dr. Seuss or featuring a favorite character.  Especially if you are considering a counting book, take a look at Billions of Bricks and see how your book stacks up next to the competition.


Poem a Day Challenge or PAD

Saturday is April 1st and it marks the beginning of the 2017 PAD (Poem a Day) Challenge.  The challenge is open to anyone, professional poet or novice, and is hosted by Writer’s Digest editor Robert Lee Brewer.  You can find his guidelines for the challenge here.

The purpose of the challenge is to write one poem each and every day throughout the month of April.  Brewer will choose several favorite poems to honor but really the whole thing is meant to be fun and supportive. Many participating writers post their poems on the site and comment on other people’s poems.

Although participants are encouraged to “poem as they wish,” any poems or comments that Brewer feels are hateful will be deleted.  To quote Brewer, “…if anyone abuses this rule repeatedly, I will have them banned from the site. So please ‘make good choices,’ as I tell my children.”

The types of promts Brewer posts vary.  Many of them are subject prompts — a falling apart poem, a visitor poem or a tape poem. Others start with a phrase such as “when (blank).”  One of last year’s prompts required participants to use six specific words within their poem.  I have to admit that I actually do better with these types of prompts vs those that ask for a certain poetic form — tanka, haiku or lymeric.  Although maybe a lymeric would be fun . . . there once was a poet from …

As always there are a many different things we can do with a single writing prompt. Part of what you come up with will depend on who you are and where you are in your life at the moment.  But Brewer encourages us to take a bit of time to brainstorm before sitting down to write.

But most of all?  Remember to have fun.


Inspiration: It Comes from All Over, Whenever

Inspiration can come from some pretty strange places. I found this cap in an antique store about 10 years ago. I spotted it because of the calcium carbide lamp on the front. I knew this was a mining lamp because my grandad used them in the mercury mines but the cap was so small. It is so small that no one here can wear it. I have it propped up on a mint tin, my salt and pepper shakers and a water-glass.  Yeah, I’m all about high-tech.  
Anyway, a bit of research revealed that this was a child’s cap most likely used in the Illinois coal mines. Yes, a cloth cap on a child in a mine.  Sigh, shake your head and read on.  It is definitely appalling.
The novel that I’ve had to set aside to write about the Dakota Access Pipeline is set in a community where the mines have played out. I just re-found this cap cleaning at my dad’s. I should be noodling over pipelines and water rights and the Army Corp of Engineers but I’m thinking about kids in mines and my novel.  
I have a new twist that will help increase the stakes rattling around in my head.  When I don’t have time to write it.  I sent myself an e-mail as a reminder and I’m hoping that will buy me some time.  If not, and the idea just won’t leave me alone, I’ll try to find fifteen minutes to work this into my “outline.”  It seems kind to call the increasingly chaotic jumble of notes an outline but there you have it.
Thank you, inspiration.  Your timing is just a tiny bit stinko.

The Chant: Another Poetic Form

trout trout troutOne of the poetic forms that we studied in Peggy Archer’s workshop was the chant.  The example that Peggy gave was from April Pulley Sayre’s Trout, Trout, Trout!  I have to admit, I didn’t see myself writing a chant so I didn’t take a lot of notes.

Bad, bad me.  Because the other when I was supposed to be paying attention to something else (like choir rehearsal), I started playing with the rhythm’s of bird names.  Single syllable names were slower.  Multi-syllable faster.  I needed both and I was going to need quite a few. Before long I was compiling a list by first letter with different columns for different syllable counts.  That a word list came into play isn’t entirely surprising since Peggy emphasized how helpful create a list can be as she works on a new poem.

In about ten minutes, I had a fair list bit I also had almost no idea what had been going on around me.  Sigh.  I put away my list and decided to pay attention instead of reading more about chants.

When I did get home so that I could do a bit of reading, here is what I discovered:

The chant may be the oldest poetic form.

It is called a chant because of the rhythm formed by repetition.

This repetition can be a single word or a line.

The repetition is important but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of the chant.  Something in the poem has to change.  That’s what makes it interesting.

Rhythm is a bit part of the chant, which could be why I was inspired to play with this form in choir.

Do a Google search and you can find numerous examples of chant poetry.  Some are short while others are quite long.


Me?  What I was playing with didn’t resemble any of the examples I found online. I want to read all of Trout, Trout, Trout! since it was the catalyst.  I just hope I can pull something together without getting totally lost in choir.


The Nonfiction Proposal: Or Rebooting My Agent Search

At this point all of my agent queries are dead in the water.  I’m going to have to wait until I finish the book that I’m working on before I can get any more queries out there.

No, I’m not procrastinating.  The first batch of agents didn’t want proposals.  They just wanted a query letter and X number of pages.  I was kind of surprised since I thought most agents want proposals but I wasn’t going to argue.  After all, I had rewritten the manuscript for an editor who wanted to see it.

Apparently, wanting a proposal is still the norm at least for about 2/3 of the agents I’ve researched.  It is apparently just a coincidence that none of these agents were in batch 1.  So what goes into a proposal?

Overview: This section includes the specs (title, word count and hook), short description of the subject, target market (reader age range), and why the book is necessary.

Markets:  Who will buy your book. Include stats. My current book deals with a STEM topic so I will mention that.

Promotion:  How to get your book into the hands of those would-be readers.

Competing Books:  Other books on your topic published in the last 5 years.  How does your book differ?

About the Author:  Why are you the ideal author for this book?  

Outline: List your chapters and summarize each.  In my Abdo outlines, a chapter is 12 lines max.

Sample Chapters: What I’ve seen listed most often is 3 chapters of the finished book. 

The entirely may be 15 or more pages long but the bulk of that consists of the outline and the sample chapters.  The rest should be detailed but fairly brief. For a more detailed look at what goes into a proposal, see my post from yesterday on the Muffin.

Don’t let a missing proposal keep you from sending out your work!


Story in Nonfiction

Today I’m going to write about one of the traps that nonfiction writers sometimes fall into.  We spend a lot of time and energy doing our research and as we research we uncover so many amazing things.

Did you know…?

Can you believe…?

I had no idea…!

And we want to share them all.  Because of this, our work sometimes spirals out of control.  That 500 word articles tops 1000 words.  The picture book stretches towards 2000.  A longer than expected word count definitely won’t work for a magazine piece if it is over the word count that the magazine publishes or the editor aske you to write.

A longer than expected picture book can work if it feels tight and co-hesive. But that’s the problem.  So often something that is over-long feels long.  Fortunately, there is a solution.

Focus on your story.  Yes, story.

Even if you are writing nonfiction you are telling a story.  It is your slant or focus.

This means that I wouldn’t write a picture book about all things Lakota.  Maybe I would write about Crazy Horse.  Or I might write about winter counts.  Or star quilts — I love Lakota Star quilts.  But all of this in one picture book would be messy and all over the place.

This doesn’t mean that you have to know exactly what your slant will be when you begin to do your research.  Just gather the information.  As you research, something will catch your eye.  Or you will find that you have some really interesting material about this right here.

Once you have chosen a story, then you know what facts to include.  And just because we call it a story doesn’t mean that anything is made up.  This isn’t fiction, but nonfiction.  “Story” is just a way to focus your thoughts and shape the written piece as you look for what led to your story, the attempts to solve or develop whatever, and then how it all played out in the end.

Again, your nonfiction has to be 100% factual.  But thinking of it as a story is a great way to pick and choose the information you will present your reader.


Scenes: Creating a Sense of “Being There” in Nonfiction

My most recent batch of students is busy writing away. They are deep enough into their work that they are attempting to create scenes.  A nonfiction scene is a lot like a fiction scene in that it is a great way to pull your reader into the story.  It uses dialogue and characters, setting and action.  Unlike the fiction scene, it all has to be true.

That means that if you include dialogue, you have to have dialogue to quote.  It has to be word for word.

That means that if you find “someone mentioned needing to buy new shoes” in a source, that is all you can write.  You cannot write ‘One of the students said, “I need to buy new shoes.”  Nope.  The problem is that the quotation marks imply that it is a direct quote.  To use the quotation marks, you need to have found those exact words.  “And I said to him I need to buy new shoes.”  “Marcus said to me, ‘I need to buy new shoes.'”  Something like that.

There are times that you have a bit of wiggle room.  When I wrote about a family of armadillos, I could describe the four young armadillos digging into the dirt and tearing into a fallen log when they heard insects.  Why?  Because they are typical armadillo behaviors.

But when I wrote about the protests in Ferguson in Black Lives Matter, I couldn’t say that a protestor did X or a protestor did Y unless I had that information from my source material.  Even if X and Y are both fairly innocuous actions, when I’m talking about people, I need to know that someone did it.  Otherwise I have to say, a protestor may have done X or may have done Y and that isn’t the sort of thing my editor is going to let stand.

Creating a scene can be tricky but if you have the facts to pull it together it is one of the best ways to pull a reader into your writing.



Poetry? Nah, I just write rhymes.

Last weekend, I attended Peggy Archer’s poetry workshop.  I sat and listened as she discussed rhythm and beats, near rhyme and true rhyme, soft and hard sounds and much, much more.  I was out of my element.  I’m a prose writer, honey.

Imagine my surprise when later that week I got an acceptance letter from Highlights Hello for a “humorous poem.”  I’d already blogged about the workshop in my post titled Poetry, Writing in Rhyme and Wordplay.

The irony of it all?  I still don’t consider myself a poet.

Poets write pieces fraught with meaning.  There’s symbolism and they use the rhythm of words and phrases to great effect.  What they write has layers and it is deep.

On a good day, I can pull off both rhyme and rhythm.  On an insanely good day, the rhythm doesn’t sound like a kid galloping across the hard wood floor — duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum.

Meaningful? Not so much.  There’s a twist at the end but rather than meaningful it tends to be quirky and funny (a little like me).

That doesn’t mean that I’m giving up.  Far from it.  As I walk the treadmill, I catch myself playing with the rhythm of words.  One, two, one, two, three, one, two, one, two, three.  Slower, faster, slower, faster.  Peggy has managed to arm me with a bit of knowledge so I’m quicker to recognize what isn’t going to work (galloping across the floor) and I better understand what does work.

I’m still not a poet but I’m a slightly less pedestrian creator of rhymes.  Hmm.  That’s sure going to be hard to fit on a business card.


Middle Grade vs Young Adult

How can you tell if a teen novel is written for middle graders or young adults?  For some people, the difference revolves around sex.  If the characters are doing it, it must be young adult.  But not all young adult novels feature sex.  Some people think it has to do with the stakes or just how serious the subject matter is.  But some middle grade books deal with things that are all kinds of serious.

One of my favorite examples of an oh so serious middle grade novel is Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand.  In spite of the fact that this book is for slightly younger reader it includes:

  • The main character has clinical depression.
  • Her parents are estranged from her grandparents.
  • Her grandmother is being treated for cancer.
  • Someone was blamed for a crime he didn’t commit to protect the town darling.

And those are just the things that I can remember just over half a year after reading the book.

Here are some of the differences that I’ve noticed.

Middle grade novels:

  • Feature main characters who are younger teens or tweens.
  • They have less autonomy thus may be sent to stay with grandma.
  • They sometimes require the help of an older teen to solve the story problem.
  • They are most often trying to find their place within their family or social circle.
  • If there is attraction, it is generally pretty innocent — kissing, hand holding.

Young adult novels:

  • Feature high school aged characters.
  • They have a lot more independence and usually don’t need anyone to drive them around.
  • They may require help but are more likely to go to a contemporary than someone older.
  • They are often trying to break away from their families or social circle.  They are becoming their own people and often rock the world back in doing so.
  • These novels are longer and more complex with more subplots.

These aren’t the only differences but they are a start to developing an understanding.  The more children’s novels your read, the more easily you will be able to tell the difference.  Teens question everything.  They know that adults are clueless.  Middle grade readers have begun to suspect and may gather the proof they need in the course of the story.



One Gay Character, One African American: Are you Just Covering Your Bases?

Recently, I read a post over at the Nelson Agency about the dangers of informing a first-reader at an agency or publisher that your manuscript has LGBTQ+ character or that it is diverse.  This particular reader said that when he read things like this in a query letter, he felt like the writer was going down a check list.

One gay character.  Check!

A trans character.  Got it.

Someone who is questioning.  Present and accounted for.

The suggestion is that, instead of stating this, you should just tell about your story.  If these characters are an integral part of it, the diversity will be obvious.

I can understand this request.  Diverse characters are fantastic but they need to belong in the story, and not like sprinkles on a cup cake.  They need to be part of the cake itself.

Back when I was a paid reviewer, I ended up reading tons of teen chick lit.  I’m female but I generally did not connect with these books written “for a female audience.”  For one thing, shopping is not my thing.  I do it to feed myself and avoid exposure to the elements.  But these female characters LOVED to shop.  And, to help them out, they all had a gay best friend.

He offered dating advice and fashion tips, often picking out the perfect shoes to go with that darling prom dress.  Oh, heaven help me.  This character was never key to the plot.  Never.  He was just there.  And gay.  Providing all sorts of essential diversity.

When you are creating your story, your plot should spring from the characters.  The characters shouldn’t be there just so that you can strike them off the list whether we are talking diversity of the racial, ethnic, religious, or LGBTQ+ variety.  It all needs to fit and work together instead of reading like that table of mismatched items at a yard sale.