Education: What Should a Writer Study?

I’ve always felt like the odd duck in the children’s writing community.  It seems like 90% of the writers, both published and up-and-coming, that I meet have backgrounds in education, literature or library sciences.

Me?  In addition to Freshman English and Junior English (both required), I took maybe two lit classes.  After all, I needed humanities credits. I’ve had two education classes.  My favorite was on teaching evolutionary theory.  The other was museum teaching strategies for classroom study through MOMA.  The closest thing to library sciences that I’ve taken was a course on copyright joint taught by Duke, Emory and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

My actual formal education started with a BA in anthropology.  I actually worked in archaeological graphics, creating maps and charts and drawing artifacts.  I’ve actually worked with funerary medallions from a cholera cemetery.  I then completed an MA in history, focusing on Asia, Latin America and the Modern US.  I chose these specialties so that I could construct my own specialty on immigration.

Why not literature or english?  I actually chose my MA program after I started writing.  I wanted to learn to do the primary research needed to correct mistaken ideas and attitudes about history.

But I’m also a life long learner, as they say. I take a couple of MOOC a year.  I just finished one on ancient Egypt that was painfully boring.  Yep.  Let me tell you.  It takes some serious effort to make Egyptian antiquities dull but this guy pulled it off.  I managed to learn a few things in spite of him but it was not enjoyable.

So what to pick next?  I narrowed it down to a course on historic fiction, one on interpreting illuminated manuscripts and another on osteo anthropology (what we can learn from skeletal remains).  I’d like to take all three eventually but decided to start with the osteo anthropology.  I’m working on a two book contract and didn’t want to have to read I-had-no-clue-how-much for the lit class.  I had a human origins lab that simply fascinated me.  So anthropology was an easy choice.  Anthropology and history have served me well thus far.

Now if’ you’ll excuse me, I need to watch a video lecture on the pubic symphysis and adult age estimates.



Look Forward: Advice for Swimmers and Writers

When my son was a newish swimmer, competing in the 25m breast stroke, I’d watch him bobbing up again and again. Every now and then, he’d sneak a peek to one side or the other.  It was obvious why he was doing it.  He wanted to know where he was in relation to everyone else.  It also slowed him down each and every time.

It took me quite a while to break him of this habit.  I finally counted how many time he did it in a single race and made him scrub the toilet that many days in a row.  One race.  Five days of scrubbing.  Habit broken.

If you’re a writer, it is just as important to keep your eye on your goal.  After all, that’s where you’re headed.  It is where you want to be.

Some writers have a problem with this because they are constantly looking at what other people are doing.  They want to be the next JK Rowling or, even worse, they think Rowling is a hack.  She never should have made it to big! It isn’t fair.  Her books aren’t all that special.

If this sounds like you, stop.  Just stop.  You are slowing yourself down.

You are not JK Rowling.  You will never be JK Rowling.  We already have one of those.  She’s filled that niche in the market.

You would have told the story differently?  Excellent.  Now is your chance to find your story, the story that only you can tell.  Don’t know yet what that story is?  That’s okay.  Work on your technique until you figure it out.  Develop some writing muscle and when you do know what story you are passionate to tell, you will be ready to take it from start to finish.

You would have made different career choices?  Again, hot dog!   That’s probably just as well because you are facing a different reality.  Your life experiences are different. Your writing is different. Your career should also be different.

Look ahead.  It really is in your best interest.



KidLit Cares: Hurrican Harvey

Like me, I’m sure that your hearts go out to those impacted by hurricane Harvey.  I have family and friends scattered throughout the state of Texas.  My kin is all far enough west to avoid the serious trouble.  Yes, they had to deal with rain and wind, etc. but they are safe.

Some of my friends had to evacuate.  Most of them already know that their homes are fine.  They are hoping the have power again soon.

If you’ve written for children for any length of time, you may already realize that you are part of a generous community.  If not, pop on over to this post on KidLit Cares and check out the auction there.  Author Kate Messner has once again organized an auction to benefit those impacted by the hurricane.  Following Sandy, KidLit Cares raised $35,000.

As of this moment (2:13 pm Central on 8/28), 128 members of the KidLit community have donated services to be auctioned off.  These services include Skype visits, critiques and more.

Me?  This is like looking at a Christmas catalog but I’d narrow things down to:

Item 48: 30-minute “pitch & learn” phone call with agent Erin Murphy.  Erin is a friend’s agent so I’ve heard scads of great things about her.

Item 67: Skype visit and “draw-along” and signed books from author-illustrator Grace Lin.  Grace Lin?  Wow.  I’d melt into a puddle over this one.

Item 87: 50-page MG or YA manuscript critique from author Jody Feldman.  Jody is a writing buddy and offers very insightful critiques.

Item 91: Skype visit & signed classroom set of books from author Cynthia Reeg.  Cynthia is another writer I know and her critiques are amazing.

Item 111: Picture book critique & “skip-the-slush-pile” pass from editor Mary Kate Castellani.  Skip the slush pile?  Seriously?

Item 112: 20-page MG or YA manuscript critique &”skip-the-slush-pile” pass from editor Mary Kate Castellani

Item 113: Skype visit & signed books from author Tracy Barrett.  Tracy is another writer I know and an amazing researcher who is super-passionate about her work.

Item 124: One hour of editorial time from editor Cheryl Klein.  If you’ve never met Klein, you may not know how valuable this is.  Passionate, astute, and a great teacher.

I would recommend that you head on over and see what is available and do it NOW because the auction has already started.  Items become available a few at a time and the first are only up until late afternoon today.  Bidding generously will not only bring something amazing into your life, it will allow you to help young readers and their families who have been struck a devastating blow.


Writer’s Market 2018 and New to Me Markets

For those of you shopping for your annual market guide for 2018, consider Writer’s Market.  Yes, I’m a bit biased because I have an article in this edition.  You can find “Why, When, and How to Co-author a Book” on page 41.

There are also pieces on publicity, e-mail newsletters and how much to charge for a wide variety of writing jobs.  All in all there are about 20 articles on a variety of topics helpful to those of us who make a living writing.

Or who want to make a living writing.

Or who just want to get a couple of things published.

There are sections  on agents and magazines, grants and book publishers. Yes, you can find a great deal of this information online but I have found that trying to find information on consumer magazines and trade journals online is pretty hit or miss.

I’ve been trying to break into some new markets.  Several times in the past I have focused my writing efforts on one or two publications.  The first time I did this, I was a brand new writer, selling to Young Equestrian magazine.  When it folded, I had just started writing how-tos for writers.  I switched my focus from YE to Children’s Writer newsletter.  Now most of my work goes to Abdo.

No, I’m not saying that I expect Abdo to fold.  Far from it – they are adding a new imprint and reaching out into new markets.

But as a writer I am happier when I’m not doing only one thing.  I’ve made one sale this year to Highlights Hello.  I’m almost ready to send them another piece.

Teen nonfiction.  Toddler and preschool poetry.  I’m not sure what I’ll be adding to my repertoire but this guide is almost 900 pages long.  I know I’m sure to find something.



MSWL Day: Coming Soon to a Twitterfeed near You

Are you, like me, one of the many authors looking for an agent?  Then you need to check out Manuscript Wish List Day (#MSWL Day).  It is coming up on September 12, 2017.

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

Throughout the day, agents and editors will post about the manuscripts they’d like to receive.  Last #MSWL day there were far too many tweets to scan them all.  I would periodically refresh the screen and scan, but I also did specific searches for things like “#MSWL PB,” “#MSWL picture book,” “#MSWL  STEM,” and “#MSWL nonfiction.”

You can also check out individual agents or editors who interest you.

  1. Go to Twitter and read their feed.  This can be tough if it is someone who posts very often.
  2. Go to Twitter and search #MSWL (agent or editor name).   This can be helpful if your target agents posts often.
  3. Go to Manuscript Wish List.  Once there, search for your agent or editor of interested.  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 reversed date.  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 might be a problem if you like a lot.

If you find a recent tweet that jives with something you’ve written, mention it in your query letter.  This is another way to show your agent or editor of choice that you’ve done your research.

You’ve got almost a month to do your research.  Look in your files for manuscripts that are ready to go.  Check out your dream agents and see which ones Tweet.   And, if on September 12th you find someone who seems like a good match for your work, good luck!


Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance, part 2

Yesterday I discussed just how to balance these elements in a chapter book.  In my two page sample, 3 lines were narrative, in this case interior dialogue.  Half of what remained was dialogue and the other half was action. I had been reading about not using too much narrative and wanted to see how much was too much for these younger independent readers.  Apparently, I am going to have to keep it tight.

Middle grade

But what about books for older readers?  Today I have samples from a middle grade novel, Gossamer by Lois Lowry, a young adult novel, The Demon’s Lexicon by Rees Brennan, and an adult novel, The Right Side by Spencer Quinn.  These were chosen without an ounce of science.  Basically all three were within reach of my desk chair.

So how do the various elements balance out?  In the middle grade novel, dialogue (again in green) makes up about 1/2 of the total text.  I counted roughly 26 lines of dialogue.  The rest was split about equally between action (orange) and narrative (pink).  That large block of narrative on the lower left is a flashback.  The rest is interior dialogue.  All in all, roughly 1/4 of the total is narrative.

Young adult

Like the middle grade, the young adult novel is fantasy so I expected it to be narrative/setting heavy.  This time around the blocks are almost equal.  Narrative has a slightly larger portion with 22 lines.  A small amount of this is flashback and even less is interior dialogue.  But I expected very little interior dialogue.  This mean character is not particularly self-aware.  Most of the narrative is setting.  19 lines each are dialogue and action.  So that’s a fairly even balance between the three elements.  And, yes, these two pages were chosen at random.


The adult novel was a completely different situation.  Action takes up half of the total with 31 lines.  Dialogue?  A scant 9 lines.  The remaining 22 lines are narrative.  Before making any decisions on this book, I’d want to do another random sample to see if it would have more dialogue. Why?  Because it felt like it had more dialogue than this.  That said, it is a book about a vet with PTSD.  She is far from chatty so this might be the rule while the parts I’m remember where the exception.

Whether your novel is a chapter book or an adult novel, it is clear that no single element should take up more than 50% of the total.  What works well for your book will vary with the type of book that you are writing as well as the type of scene. A battle scene will likely have more action than other scenes.  A scene where the sleuth solves the mystery might have more dialogue or narrative.

Still, you obviously can’t have any single element take up more than its fair share of space.  Not if you hope to achieve balance.


Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance

Tuesday, I read a Writer’s Digest piece on what characters say and what they think.  The writer discussed needing to get the balance between dialogue and narrative just right.

Balancing dialogue, action and narrative was one of the things we discussed when I did the novel rewriting workshop with Darcy Pattison.  I remembered doing a manuscript mark-up to see what the proportions were in your manuscript before deciding what you needed to change.

But what is the correct balance?  I suspect that a chapter book manuscript needs a different balance than a middle grade or young adult novel.  But what would that balance look like?

You know me – I need to see the answer.  So I scanned two pages of a chapter book text.  In this case, I randomly chose two pages in Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne.  Then I printed the scan and got out my highlighters.  Okay, in reality I tried highlighting it on-screen only to discover that I can’t mouse a straight line to save myself.  Any-who, I got out my highlighters.

I marked up dialogue in green.  Every time Annie or Jack speak, green highlighter.  As you can see, that’s about half the text.

Then I marked the action in orange.  Again, that’s about half the remaining text.

Only three lines are highlighted in pink – that’s the narration.  In this case, it is inner dialogue.  Three short lines.

Part of it would be the age of the reader.  They want action (orange) or to see people interact (green).  Thinking about what might be or remembering things?  Not nearly as interesting and there just isn’t much room for that if you are writing for the 2nd and 3rd grade reader.  So this is the balance that I’m going to go for when I draft my own manuscript. Equal parts dialogue and action with just a dash of narrative.

How much narrative can you have in a middle grade or young adult novel?  More but I won’t be sure how much until I break out my highlighters.


YA: Writing It Real

I remember reading YA novels while my son was in upper elementary and middle school and thinking, “Whoa!  These are teenagers?  You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Kids with their own cars taking lengthy road trips.  Teens with credits cards buying this and that and hotel rooms?  No worries.

Of course, now that I’m the mom of an eighteen year-old, I laugh.  You have to be 21 to rent a hotel room or lease a car.  I know this because my son and his friends wanted to take a road trip this summer.  Did I say, “no”?  Did I say, “Over my dead body”?  Nope

.  I didn’t have to say a word.

With two guys saving up for cars, they weren’t going to sink all of their money in a lengthy trip even if it would be great fun.  And my son discovered the problem with renting the hotel room or car rentals while he was doing the research.

So I had to laugh when I read Vivian Parkin DeRosa’s Huffington Post article, “I’m a Teenager and I Don’t Like Young Adult Novels. Here’s Why.”  As she put it, most of these characters aren’t high school students.  They’re twenty.  And I have to agree.

Not that we always want our characters to be 100% typical.  When I was a teen, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels as well as Anne McCaffrey’s Pern and Cherryh’s Chanur Saga.  At no point did I really believe that I was going to be stranded in deepest, darkest Africa and live among the apes, find myself on a dragon fighting thread, or traveling space with humanoid beings with cat-like faces.  Never.

But that was okay.  In fact, it was better than okay.  It was amazing.

I went to a public high school.  I didn’t want my fiction to reflect my reality, thank you.  Not that I loathed my life but fiction was something else altogether.

I’m not saying that you need to confine your flights of fancy to speculative fiction.  But if you want to write realistic characters?  Make ’em real, people.  Teen readers know the difference.


Author’s Copies: I’ve Run Out of Space

The too tall stack of author’s copies in search of a new home.

Another pair of author’s copies arrived in the mail on Friday – these are What Are Race and Racism?  The series, Race in American, is with Abdo. Once again, I had the opportunity to work with Duchess Harris who was the topic expert for this book.  After the author turns in an Abdo book, the topic expert reads through it and makes sure there are no serious omissions.

But I discovered something when Professional Gaming Careers arrived last week.  I’ve run out of space!

Up until now, my author’s copies have “lived” in a pile on the end of one shelf.  The problem is that they reach from one shelf to the next and then some.  What a wonderful problem to have!

But this means that I have to get moving cleaning out my office.  Snicker.  The first time I wrote that phrase, I typed “cleaning out my room.”  Yeah.  My office is a lot like my teen room.  A big desk and papers, books and piles galore!  I’ve made some headway over the summer but not a whole lot.

In my experience, and maybe it’s just me, the paperless office of the 21st century is a myth.  There isn’t as much paper as there would have been 50 years ago but there’s still quite a bit.  There are also a set of cards my son and I are making as well as 2 crochet projects and a knitting project.  I knit and crochet while I watch video lectures for the class I’m taking on Ancient Egypt.

But is that what I’m doing today!  Don’t be silly.  We are in the path of the solar eclipse as in 45 minutes from home we can see the full eclipse for something like 45 seconds.  We are not passing up that opportunity.

So for the next few days, my authors copies will have to share space with library books.  Why?  Because I have a library shelf.  Doesn’t everyone?





Plotting Your Story

As an occasional writer of fiction, I understand how important plot is.  I even know how to use a plot diagram.  But I hate doing it when it comes to working on something book length.

When I use a diagram, I want to be able to fit everything on one page.  I don’t want to have to turn pages or scroll right and left.  Why?  Because it is jarring.  I’m visual and this pulls me out of what I’m doing.  And moving scenes from place to place on the diagram?  Ugh.  Drives me batty.

So I made myself a “full-sized” plot diagram.  The base is one panel of a triptych science fair board. It is approximately 1 foot by 3 feet.  The black line is the rising and falling plot.  The red lines indicate the 1/4 mark and the 3/4 mark.

My first plan for this is to use it to fix my yeti picture book.  It will no longer be a picture book and with ten chapters at my disposal I need a diagram that is big enough to work with.  I’m going to write-up my scenes/chapters on post-its and place them in the appropriate places in the board.

Need another scene between scenes 3 and 4?  No problem.  Post-its are easy to move.  Need to compress two scenes into one?  Again.  Not an issue since I can “stack” them and create a post-it column.

There will even be room if I want to break down the plot/scenes in a mentor text.  I can put those on a different color post it or use a different color pen and range them across the bottom of the board.


Once I have everything where I want it, I can lay the board down, pop my stapler open, and anchor the post-its in place.  That way I don’t have to worry about a nosy cat fluffing a scene off the board with her tale or rubbing it off as she makes the board her own.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some characters to torment.