Empathy: Why I Write What I Write

the lemon tree

Black Lives Matter (Abdo 2015). Hidden Human Computers (Abdo 2017). What Are Race and Racism? (Abdo 2017). 
Twelve books since 2014 and 3 of them are about race.  And don’t forget my book on the Dakota Access Pipeline.  As a society, we tell ourselves that that is all about the environment and energy but it too is about race.  
I never set out to write about race.  I’ve got a background in anthropology and history.  I want to write about people past and present, history and society and culture. That means that I end up writing about race, but that’s okay because I’m seeing again and again just how important that is.  
The book club I’m in read The Lemon Tree, adult nonfiction about Palestine.  It tells the story through the experiences of a Muslim man and Jewish woman who lived in the same house. His father built it. Her family bought it after his “abandoned” it. His story was about the Israeli government busing the Palestinians out of the area and then forcing women and children to march across the desert to their new homes.  
This was the first time that many people had heard the Palestinian side of the story.  They were shocked that I had heard it before.  And they didn’t react well to hearing it.  The book was clearly biased and anti-Israeli.  
In truth, I’d say the book was pretty balanced but it isn’t a pretty story.  When you are very used to hearing only one side of a story, a balanced portrayal sounds bad.
What we need in books and cinema and all types of media and art are more balanced portrayals.  We need to hear them and see them until we can look someone in the eye and say “Yes, that was bad” without trying to make an excuse.  
Is it odd that I write about race?  I don’t see how I can avoid it and still write honestly about history, culture and society.  



Cutting Words: What to do when you have way too many

About two weeks ago, I blogged about having to cut paragraphs and scenes.  This week, I’m cutting again but in a different way.

Late last week I got my editor’s comments on the electoral college book.  For a variety of reasons, my first chapter needs to be shorter.  No big deal, except that it is.  I had 470 words.  My editor wants me to take it down to 300.  Sure, she said “we” but I know she really means me and that’s okay.  I think.

I managed to take it from 470 to 425 by cutting a few sentences near the end that duplicated information from earlier in the chapter.  But now that I’ve done that its going to be a matter of cutting a few words here and a few words there.  I can’t whack entire paragraphs because the content is essential.

I need the ideas, but I also need to express them in fewer words.  Like 33% fewer.  Ouch!

Sometimes the easiest way to do this is to open a new file.  Then I to back to the old document and read the first paragraph.  Flipping to the new document, I rewrite the paragraph.  I’ve got the same ideas and hopefully I have fewer words.  Knowing I need to write shorter, this usually works.

In fact, it works easier than just snipping here and there.  Why?  Because when I do that it reads like I’ve snipped here and there.  Words are obviously missing.  It can feel patchy or clunky.  It definitely feels inelegant.

At one point in my writing career, I would have resisted going to an all new file.  It made me feel like I had wasted all that time.  And my words!  My precious words.

That was then.  Now I realize that a new file keeps me from fixating on what is.  It frees me to contemplate what needs to be.  In the long run, it’s a whole lot faster and less frustrating.

That said, I definitely hope I don’t have to repeat the process for chapters 2 through 8!


It Stinks! What to do when you can’t stand what you wrote

Every now and again it happens to the best of us.  You work and work on an article, blog post or chapter and . . . you just have to face it.  It stinks.  Can it be saved?

Maybe yes, maybe no.  But the first thing to do is walk away.

The blog post that I originally wrote for Tuesday was a dud.  Flat.  Listless.  I knew it wasn’t any good but I was just sick of it so I went ahead and finished the formating and scheduled it to go live.  Then I got up from my desk and did a few chores.  After loading the dryer and spreading the air plants out on a towel, I had gained just enough distance from the piece to know what was wrong.

A lot of the time when I don’t like something I’ve written, it is because I’m trying to force it in the wrong direction.  X might have inspired the piece but X is not the direction in which my piece should go.  Unfortunately, we writers can get strange when things don’t go as planned.  Instead of recognizing that the plan might stink, we fight it.  Don’t do that.  Let. It. Go.

Sometimes the problem is that we are tired.  We are so tired that we are like crabby kids.  Again, that’s when the break comes in handy.  Take a nap.  Get some rest.  Come back after you’ve recharged.  Does it still stink?  Can you see the problem or a possible fix?

Often, we are tempted to ignore that nagging feeling.  Just sending it in would be more efficient – right?  And efficiency is good – right?  Efficiency is good but unfortunately writing is not always efficient.  Sorry!   Often when I’ve ignored the feeling that something didn’t work, then my editor comes back to me.  “This part right here?  It doesn’t work.”  Yeah.  I should have known that.

Writing something that stinks is not a crime.  We all do it.  Just don’t ignore it until someone else points the stink out.



Your Online Persona: Reality with Limits

Recently I read a Writer’s Digest post about platform building and letting readers know the “real you.”  Something the author emphasized that I thought was interesting is that your readers need to feel like they know you.  But really?  They don’t.

This is because there are things that we all hold back.  Sometimes it is simply because this part of your life or your personality would not interest your readers.  The readers of One Writer’s Journey are interested in writing so they know me, the writer.  The readers of PrayPower are interested in prayer and faith, so they know me, the woman of faith.  Neither one is entirely real because neither one is entirely complete.  But that’s okay.

So how do you make your reader feel like they know the real you even when they don’t?

How do you make your reader feel like they know you even when you hold something back?  Here are four simple tips.

Make It Personal. You may not be showing your reader every single facet of your life, but no one really wants that.  Believe me.  But what you are doing is giving them a upclose look at a segment of your life.  Here, I give insight into how I write and how I manage my writing life. On PrayPower I write about prayer and faith.  This means that I’m not writing about yoga, unless it relates to one or other, or painting the dining room or the fact that I have no clue what that sound is in the far corner of my office.  Within this tight focus I have plenty of space to write about me and my work.

Don’t Reveal Too Much.  We all know that person.  The one who is constantly revealing just a little too much whether it is cleavage or about their personal life.  Do this once or twice and many people will give you the benefit of the doubt.  Make a habit of it and your readers will question whether or not they want to know more about you.  Because really?  What they already know they just can’t forget.

Write from the Heart. Write about things you care about. When you do this, your enthusiasm is obvious.  Your readers will connect with it and will want to repeat the experience.  That’s a great way to grow a following.

Readers want to know the real you but it’s probably in your best interest to limit it to the “you” that you bring out for parties and other social events.  The you that would rather be at home on the sofa with a good book?  There’s nothing wrong with her but it might be best to leave her alone til she’s done with that book.



Find Yourself as a Writer

Tracee Ellis Ross is a comedian and a producer, a model and an actress.  Obviously she is a woman of great talent but I have to admit that I was surprised when I saw an interview where she talked about journaling.  I guess that as a writer, I tend to think of journaling as a “writer’s thing.”  After all, it is a great way to find your personal voice.

So it makes sense that as a comedian, she would also need to find her voice.  After all, she wants to sound like herself and not someone else.

That’s something that each of us definitely needs to do as a writer.  Find your voice.

There are multiple parts to this.  First of all, take a good look at where you came from.  I’m in Missouri.  I grew up in Missouri.  But I was born in Texas and have deep roots there as well.  I live in the city or at least the suburbs.  But again, I also have deep roots in the country.  My grandmother grew up in a small town so my grandparents made certain that I spent a lot of time in the countryside.  But I’m also well read and well educated.  All of this shows in both my personality and my voice.  As my son puts it — I’m not sure if I’m a liberal red neck or a red neck liberal, but I can swing either way.

Second, you need to know who you are as a writer.  I am primarily a nonfiction writer.  That said, my audience is not narrowly defined.  It stretches from third grade through high school.  I write about history, race, science and anthropology.  These are the topics that interest me, and I don’t try to defend them.  Young readers who are interested in these topics will get it.  They like them too.

Third, you need to know how you approach your writing.  I can be more than a bit irreverent.  I see truths that make my fellow adults uncomfortable.  I take this truth very seriously but my sense of humor is strong.  My mother in law has referred to me as cheeky which I take as a compliment.

All of this goes into shaping the things that I chose to write as well as my voice.  It is who I am.  Not everyone gets it but that’s okay.  This is me and what I write.  I’m not going to say that finding this spot was easy or quick, but it was essential.

So now let me ask – have you defined yourself?


Story First, Theme Second

I’ve come across another example of a picture book that delivers a theme but does so without preaching.  If you are a picture book author, you need to read BunnyBear by Andrea J. Loney.

BunnyBear is a bear.  He can roar.  He can stomp.  He’s big and strong and furry.  But when he’s alone he likes to hop and eat strawberries. The other bears give him a hard time so he sets off to find someplace to be BunnyBear. When he sees a bunny, he follows it and scootches his way down into the warren.  It isn’t a flawless procedure and he is asked to leave by an older bunny.  But he is followed out by . . . she may look like a bunny but she is big and ferocious and has quite a roar.  She calls herself Grizzlybun.  Just to cement the lesson, BunnyBear has this to say to Grizzlybun. “You just look one way on the outside and feel another way on the inside. That’s okay.”

I don’t think you need banners and protests to know this is a book about gender fluidity but the cool thing?  It never says it.  Not once.

That makes it a great book for any kid who has ever felt like he or she did not fit in.  “What’s so great about that?” you ask.

That makes the book more marketable which, in the end, makes the book easier to sell.  If an editor or publisher doesn’t predict a strong enough interest level or see the possibility for a large enough market share, they are going to pass on your manuscript.  No matter how well written it is.

Something else that works in this books favor is the humor.  This may be a book about inclusion and being true to yourself, both serious topics, but it is also funny.  The images of BunnyBear squeezing through the runs into the warren are a hoot!  And then you have Grizzlybun looking oh so fierce as she stomps around BunnyBear.

This book puts the story before the theme of inclusion and does so in such a way that it becomes much more salable.  It is definitely a title we all need to study.


Focus: When You Need to Write

This past week has been a bit of a writing night mare.  I have writing to do.  Some of it I want to do. Some of it I have to do because deadlines are involved.  But I am just barely meeting those deadlines and I’m doing it with no wiggle room to speak of.  My focus has been, to put it politely, shot.  To prove that point, I went online to find information about the topic and came up on this handy-dandy infographic.

As is so often the case with something like this, all of these solutions are not THE solution at any given time.  But as I looked this over a few things jumped out.

Turn off the phone.  I’ve been trying to work with my cell phone nearby for a variety of personal reasons.  But my phone loves to buzz at me when someone comments on Facebook or when I get an e-mail.  Heaven forbid someone actually try to reach me.  And Amber Alerts?  They are important but I think I may have fractured my kneecap.  The phone needs to stay in my purse while I’m working.

Shut Off Everything You Are Not Using.  Um, yeah.  That’s a lot like my phone and embarrassingly true lately.

Time yourself.  This one works really well when I have vast stretches of time.  When I have a day to work, it is amazing how much time I can piddle away.  But when I set that timer, I write.

I this point, I think shutting things off is the best way for me to go right now.  It doesn’t help that certain people know when I’m at my desk and message me.  It also doesn’t help that I”m a compulsive message checker.  If there is a text or Facebook message waiting, I’m compelled to check it.

So if you can’t reach me today – there’s a reason for that.  I’m a writer.  I need to write.



Balance in Nonfiction

When you write educational nonficiton for young readers, you aren’t generally trying to sell one side of the story. Instead, you are laying out the facts so that your readers can make up their own minds. For some books, that isn’t particularly difficult. The Zika Virus isn’t so much a pro and con kind of story. I just had to make sure to get the facts straight.  I learned a lot about viruses and vectors writing this one.
For other books, including Black Lives Matter, the potential biases are more obvious. The title was enough to convince some people that the book was pro-Black Lives Matter.  They sent hate mail without ever reading a page.  Of course, they called me both an “angry black woman” and a “race traitor,” so it was pretty easy to write them off as deeply confused.  
But even books like Women in Science offered the potential for bias. And I’m not talking about either anti-feminist or Grrrl Power biases. One of the biggest issues was avoiding some of our biased attitudes about the science itself.  Nonscientists want there to be clean breaks between physics and mathematics and astronomy.  Scientists go where their research passions take them.  They might have a chemistry degree and work in astronomy.  Whatever!  The problem was my own in trying to decide which chapter was the best fit for each scientist.
My latest project is Pro/Con on the Electoral College. Not only am I acknowledging both sides, I have to seek them out and achieve balance. There are three “pro” chapters and three “con” chapters.  Still I did catch a few issues in how I had worded things in my outline.  There were a few places where my own biases were pretty obvious.  I’ve just turned in my outline so I’ll have to see if my editor thinks I’ve found middle ground or if I need to skew a bit more one way or the other.  If she finds a problem, I’m pretty sure I know what it will be!

Back It Up: Saving Your Bacon

Running a back up can save your bacon…mmm, bacon.

Recently I read a post over on InkyGirl.com, the blog of writer/illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi, where she talked about a routine update erasing a large number of her illustration files.  If she hadn’t had a full back up system in place she would have lost file after file.  Imagine watching files disappearing from your hard drive literally right before your eyes.

Um, how long had it been since I did a back up?

It only takes a few minutes to run the back up on each blog.  If you’ve never done that, just go to Tools, select Export.  Then you have to select what to export whether it be full content, comments or specific pages.  I back up my entire content.

But then came the real shock.  When I asked my husband how to find the back up for my hard drive, he looked at me like I’d lost my mind.  “It’s in the external hard drive. Norton does it automatically.  Just click on the program to find out when.”

Umm, right.  Apparently the latest version of Norton only has that feature if you pay for the upgrade for Premium.  Glad I found that out now.  Still not super duper happy with Norton.

Double check that back up plan!


Plot and Subplot: Using One to Strengthen the Other

Okay, this entire post is going to be littered with plot spoilers so if you haven’t read David Baldacci’s The Fix you may just want to come back later.  Although I normally listen to his work on audiobook, I took the opportunity to read this one and found a novel that uses the subplot to strengthen various points in the plot.

Let the plot spoilers begin!   You were warned.  No, seriously.  I did warn you.

Amos Decker is walking up toward the entrance to FBI headquarters when he sees a man shoot a woman in the back of the head.  Before Decker can reach the man, he shoots himself committing suicide.  From this point to the end of the book Decker and his cohorts are trying to figure out what happened.  Why did this FBI contractor kill a woman he seemingly had no connection to?  Why do it outside FBI headquarters?  Could this man have been a spy, unbeknownst to his wife and daughters?

As they gather information they come up with more and more questions.  Eventually the realize that a family member was in trouble and this gave the bad guys the leverage they needed to turn the contractor into a killer.

But the FBI makes some mistakes as they gather the information.  They make assumptions concerning the roles of men vs the roles of women.  Because of these mistakes, not everything makes sense and it takes them time to fill in the blanks.  But the mistakes that they make in the subplot (how did the bad guys get him involved) are mirrored by the mistakes that they make in the main plot (was there a connection between the murderer and his victim.

Because the same mistakes are made at both levels, it strengthens the themes and the plot points surrounding the assumptions we as a society make regarding gender roles.

Everything is layered and nuanced if you can use your plot and subplot to mirror plot points, errors, and themes.  Try it and see if your story doesn’t feel tighter and more cohesive.