Author’s Copies!

Happy Birthday to me!  Guess what arrived on my birthday?   Author’s copies.

This was probably one of the hardest books to research.  I landed the job not long after President Trump won the election.  A Google search on “electoral college” returned tons of links but I knew that most of the material would be unusable.  My editors wanted a balanced historic take on this American institution.  I had to go deep enough to unearth articles written by political scientists.

Another tough thing about this type of topic is going beyond your own take on it.  I’m a political liberal.  Theorists on that side of the divide mark the College as racist and pro-Slavery.  As I read further, I uncovered material that discussed balance.  Was that just the Conservative party line?  I had to read further to find out.

I did a good job explaining the why of the college but my editor asked me to cut some of the history and bring in more of what was going on now.  I had achieved liberal vs conservative balance but not done as good a job with then vs now balance.

I have to say that I’m really happy with how this book turned out.  I learned a lot and I think I managed to present a complete picture that isn’t weighted too heavily one direction or the other.  The publisher has also done a good job with the book design.

The interior is clean and easy to read.  That’s a big one.  Some publishers tend to get carried away with special features, graphics and sidebars.  There’s almost too much to see.  They also don’t do a good job choosing images or they use low resolution images that look pixellated on the page.

Yes, yes.  It is my book baby so I may be a little biased but still?  I’m really happy with it.


Draft by Draft: Working Towards a Solid Picture Book Manuscript


A line of gold marks a repair. It isn’t invisible but it makes an intriguing change much like a rewrite does in your manuscript.

When I draft a picture book, I generally go through four drafts before I have a solid manuscript.  And by solid I mean ready to show people not ready to publish.

In draft 1, I get the story down.  This is just to lay out my concept and get the pacing down and achieve the right number of spreads.  Sometimes I show it to my critique group at this stage.  No, technically it isn’t ready to show people but if I’m experimenting with something they can tell me if my concept is flawed or I need to move things around.

In draft 2, I fix anything that my critique group found if the read draft 1. I make sure that I have everything I need on this spread.  Is there something for the illustrator to illustrate?  If it is nonfiction, are all of my facts in place.  My word count tends to expand a lot from draft 1 to draft 2.  But by the end of draft 2 things look pretty good.

Draft 3 is when I pull the word count back down.  I shift phrases and look for ways to make use stronger verbs and more concrete nouns.  My word generally drops between draft 2 and draft 3.  For some spreads this is my final draft but sometimes it takes one more to get it right.

Draft 4 is when I go through and make sure each and every spread sounds like a picture book.  Not everything is going to be playful and fun but a serious book should be poetic and/or lyrical.  Sometimes my word count goes up a bit in completing this final draft.

A solid manuscript isn’t achieved in a single draft.  Sometimes it helps to think of your rewrites as repairs – these tweaks and adjustments are often what glimmers in the end.


Using a Decision Matrix to Select an Agent

This weekend, I had to select which of four agents to have critique my manuscript at an upcoming  event.  I started by Googling each of their names.  By the time I had read a bit about each, I couldn’t remember which had looked like a great match.  Or had it been two?  And one didn’t rep half of what I do. But which one?

There was just too much information to keep straight. At least that’s how it felt at first.

Fortunately, my husband is the King of the Decision Matrix.  We’ve used this technique to buy a car and select a vacation destination.  It’s a great way to convert information to a visual format and compare apples and oranges.

pb mg ya nf other
Agent 1 X X X X Christian but interested in other faiths.  STEM. URL for “what I’m looking for”
Agent 2 X X Quirky nonfiction. Very into crystals etc.
Agent 3 X X
Agent 4 X X X X Weird. Creepy. Loved I’ll Love You Forever

The first thing that I did was list the names of the four agents.  Here, I’m calling them Agents 1 – 4.

Next, I included various types of children’s books – PB (picture book), MG, YA, NF (nonfiction).  Ideally, I want to find an agent who does a bit of everything because my own writing interests are diverse.  Reading up on each agent, I X’ed what each of them reps.  Agent 1 has a good spread but so does Agent 4.  Agent 2 listed only middle grade specifically although she also does nonfiction.  Agent 3 only does middle grade and young adult and doesn’t rep nonfiction.

This eliminated 2 and 3.  But I still had two equal candidates.

This time I read interviews and bios.  I quickly found that Agent 1 is Christian but also interested in acquiring work about other faiths. She’s interested in STEM and her wish list sounded like a go-to of things I’ve done or am working on.  Only one of my pet projects wasn’t specifically listed.

Agent 4 loves nonfiction. Especially the weird and creepy.  Pukeology would be her cup of tea.  Then I read about her favorite books.  I’ll Love You Forever.  Ugh.  Personally I”ve always considered that one both weird and creepy.

Using the matrix I could see that Agent #1 is an excellent match.  Agent #4 might also be and is someone I’ll consider submitting to after the event.

The next time you are trying to choose between several agents or several publishers and are having troubles keeping the information straight, draw up a decision matrix.  Not only does it make the information visual, it makes it easy to compare several things at once.  Give it a try the next time you find yourself question which project to work on next or which agent in a specific agency to approach.



5 Minutes a Day: First You Have to Believe

5 Minutes a DayIn September 2017, one of my fellow Muffin bloggers challenged everyone who reads the blog to state a big, hairy, audacious goal.  I decided that I wanted to finish a draft of my new chapter book.  If I could just squeeze in 5 Minutes a Day.

The problem was that shortly after decided this I landed a contract for two more teen nonfiction books.  Writing one of these books in just under two months is tough. Writing two in just over three was going to be brutal.  But I didn’t want to give up on finishing my chapter book.

When I set the 5 Minutes a Day goal, I had two chapters or 1000 words.   I hadn’t made noteworthy progress in 2 weeks.  But even working on the other two books, I managed 5 Minutes a Day.  Doing this for one month resulted in a finished draft. At 6,400 words, I knew it was short but it was a draft.  I blogged about this on the Muffin.

Reader response to this blog post surprised me.  People were absolutely floored that i had managed to do so much in five minutes a day.  I must have had an extensive outline.  I must have known exactly what to write. I must have some special trick because this just wouldn’t work for them.

Sure, I had a sketchy outline.  Ten chapters.  Two or three sentences per chapter.

The most important thing that I had?  Belief.  I believed that I could accomplish something worthwhile in 5 Minutes a Day. Without that belief, I wouldn’t have tried.  Without actually trying, I would not have finished my draft.

I hope you are ready to join me in making strides in your writing career throughout 2018.  But the first thing you must have is the Belief that it is possible.  You must believe that 5 Minutes a Day can help you achieve something worthwhile.  Why?

Because without that belief you won’t even try.

Click here to read another 5 Minutes a Day post.



Ursula K. LeGuin RIP

It is more than a little ironic that I found out about the death of Ursula K. LeGuin right after book club.  We met on Tuesday evening.  I came home and logged onto Facebook.  The news was all over my feed.

I’m not the only writer to think that LeGuin was an extraordinary talent.  I read her work as a teen.  I read her work as a writer.  I read her work as a mom.

Honestly, that’s when I discovered my favorte LeGuin books, reading to my son.  His godmother had given him a set of Catwing books.  We sat together and I read them aloud to him.  Four tabby kittens are born with wings.  Even their mother doesn’t know how this happened.  But they use their wings to escape danger.

We’re a family of cat lovers so a set of books about flying cats was magical.

LeGuin is probably best known for the EarthSea books and the novel The Left Hand of Darkness.  The EarthSea stories are about a group of wizards.  Harry Potter has often been compared to the wizard Ged.  The Left Hand of Darkness is about a human ambassador to a world filled with inhabitants who can alter their gender at will.

If you are more interested in reading her work on writing, start with Steering the Craft.  That one’s actually visible on the shelf above my desk. Each of the ten chapters deals with one aspect of writing including the parts of narrative and point of view.

I know that I’m echoing a lot of writers when I say that it is hard to know that the world is now missing this author who shaped so many young minds.  I’m definitely going to be rereading some of her work in the near future.  Why not check something out from your local library?



From Book Loving Kid to Writer

As a writer for young readers, I sometimes feel like the oddball. I’m not a former teacher or librarian as are many of my fellow children’s writers. And it sure is a smart path to take to becoming a children’s writer.  Experience in the classroom really helps you know what kids love and what they are ready for. 
The other things that I often feel singles me out is that I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. I grew up reading. And I read everything. Even when I was too young to read, I paged through nonfiction and looked at the images in my father’s books on the desert, my mother’s family medical guide, and my grandparents’ travel books. Absolutely everyone learned that they had to beat me to the National Geographic or I’d disappear with that one for hours.
When I did learn to read, I spent hours re-imagining my favorite stories. Sometimes I put myself in them. Sometimes I made them better. Sometimes I simply continued them, deciding what happened next.
And I loved school. I devoured every book my teachers gave me. I jumped into social studies projects and wrote a picture book for creative writing and drama. In geography, I memorized locations of countries and colored page after page of maps. History, geometry, chemistry, biology, music and art. I would have been hard pressed to come up with a single favorite class.
Part way through earning a master’s in history, I called my mom to tell her that I was going to be a writer. “It’s about time you figured it out.” I may not have wanted to be a writer way back in grade school, but my mom saw the signs.
The photo? The as of yet clueless but budding author in first grade. That’s me in the center row, 3rd from the teacher.

Research: Accidentally Discovering What You Didn’t Know

When Anna Rosling Ronnland talked to students who lived in Sweden, she asked them where they thought that the fit on a global scale?  Were they rich? Were they poor?  Or were they somewhere in the middle?  She was surprised to discover that they thought they were somewhere in the middle – not rich but not terribly poor.  (You can view her TEDD talk below.)

Ronnland realized that the perspective most people have has been skewed by what they see on media – natural disasters, horrible diseases and war often give a view of the poorest areas.   Beautiful vacation destinations and wildlife showed what was accessible to the very rich.

But what most of these students didn’t realize is that they were actually on the wealthy end of the global scale.  Media had skewed their perspective.

To help correct this, Ronnland created Dollar Street.  This site imagines the world as a street.  The poor live at one end.  The wealthy live at the other.  Everyone else is somewhere in the middle.  She sent photographers out to take photos of common things in homes throughout the world.  They take photos of bedrooms and bathrooms, where food is prepared and where it is eaten.

What Ronnland, and those who view the photos on Dollar Street, soon discovered was that in addition to material life based on culture, economics may actually play a stronger role.  Food preparation for the poorest people looks much the same in the Americas, Africa and Asia.  View the bedrooms of the wealthy and they look much the same.

This has me contemplating how we set our characters up to discover things.  We always portray confusion when someone moves from one culture to another.  And certainly language and customs will vary.  But there seems to be just as much variety from one economic level to another.  Maybe Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper wasn’t that far off.

Just a little something to consider as you craft your stories.  I know I have a new story idea thanks to watching the video.


SCBWI: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

I’m often asked whether or not I think it is worthwhile to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  I never hesitate to say yes but admittedly I am biased.  I was the regional advisor for Missouri for 10 years.  I would never have put that much effort into an organization that I wasn’t passionate about.

But like so many things, it is up to you to make it worthwhile.  When I first joined in the early 90s, I was a bit of a wall flower.  I was an inexperienced writer who didn’t have a lot to say.  I realized that I had a lot to learn but I found that by listening, most of my questions would be answered.  I attended small local workshops.  I read the newsletters.  And I absorbed everything.

By the time the big Missouri conference moved to St. Louis, I had a bit of experience as a writer. I had attended a handful of conferences in Springfield, Mo.  I was ready to volunteer.  Because I volunteered, I got face time with the speakers including agents and editors.  This is what many people think is the most valuable.  But I also got to know a number of other members.  When their editors needed writers, I expressed interest and landed several assignments.

As regional advisor, I attended a variety of events in addition to the ones we put on in Missouri.  I went to the big LA conference.  I’ve been to events in Illinois, Arkansas and Kansas City.  I know, I know.  It was Kansas City Missouri but it was a Kansas event.  I applied for grants and mentorships.

This coming year, I plan to take advantage of the some of the webinars.  I have to admit that I’ve yet to attend an SCBWI webinar although I have taken part in one on social and environmental justice for the Presbyterian Church USA.  What an experience!   I’m eager to duplicate it alongside fellow writers.

In my mind, the people are the best part of this organization.  There are so many generous authors and illustrators who are willing to share their time and expertise.  Yes, because of the internet, this is easier to find today than it was 20 years ago.  But SCBWI also has a wealth of publications, events and grants.  Published members have the opportunity to get their books on lists and take part in other programs to get their work in front of book sellers and consumers.

Study.  Listen.  Interact.  Say YES when an opportunity comes your way. Do these things and you will definitely get your money’s worth out of this organization.



5 Minutes a Day: Creating the Writing Life You Want

Back on January 1, I announced that I’d be testing out various tasks that will go into 5 Minutes a Day: Creating the Writing Life You Want.  The whole idea for this book came about after I blogged on the Muffin about writing my middle grade novel in 5 minutes a day.  You can read that post here – 5 Minutes a Day: Roughing Out Your Novel.

On Fridays I will be blogging about my discoveries and progress.  That’s when you can tune in here and find out about my successes and perhaps, more importantly, my failures.  I’ve already discovered a few things that don’t work or at least that make things more difficult. I’ll write about these things and what I’ve done to get past them.  I’ll write about what works well and what brings progress to a halt.

Throughout the year I’ll be writing about:

  • Outlining Your Novel in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Getting to Know Your Characters in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Drafting a Book in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Crafting a Rewrite in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Testing Your Novel to See What Works in 5 Minutes a Day

But as we know, writing is about a lot more than writing the book.  Sure, that’s the important part.  Because without the book you don’t have anything to publish.  But finishing the book is only part of the job. So I’ll also be blogging about:

  • Locating Your Dream Agent in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Preparing Your Submission in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Creating a Solid Web Site in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Brainstorming New Ideas in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Creating Your Own Office in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Researching Markets in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Keeping Your Work Circulating in 5 Minutes a Day

One of my editors has asked me to include things that people can do to free up some writing time.  With that in mind, I also hope to cover:

  • Taming Meal Time Madness in 5 Minutes a Day
  • Sharing Household Tasks in 5 Minutes a Day (No I don’t expect your family to love this one)
  • Tricks and Tips for Writing on the Go

That’s the plan so tune in next Friday, although I certainly hope you come back before then, for the first 5 Minutes a Day column.   And if you can think of something that you’d like me to cover, just leave a comment.



Writing a Fictional Story Based on Fact

If you like to write fiction based on fact, be sure to read Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. 

I have to admit that although the book was originally published in 2012, I just read it.  For the first time.  Yes, it had been recommended to me.  Yes, I had seen the book and therein lay the problem.  I had seen the cover.  It looked depressing and I have a soft spot for great apes in general, gorillas in particular.  I really did not want to be depressed about gorillas. But I finally read it and I am so glad that I did.

Applegate based her story on the life of a real gorilla that lived in a mall.  He hadn’t been with other gorillas for over two decades.  Now he lives at a zoo in Atlanta. Applegate knew about this gorillas life when she decided to write her story.  But she wanted to give Ivan the chance to be a real silverback.  The silverback doesn’t just sire little gorillas.  He is their protector.

If that is true, how can a gorilla who lives alone be a silverback?  This is why Applegate wrote the story as fiction.

Oddly enough, the real gorilla liked to paint so Applegate didn’t have  to add that detail.  But in order to give him someone to protect, she had to change the story.  So she added a baby elephant, Ruby.  Ivan promises to make sure that Ruby has a better life and thus has to do something to make it happen.

Not only does this fictional gorilla have the opportunity to be a real silverback, he also gets to be a strong protagonist.  In addition to protecting Ruby, he solves his own problem.  This isn’t some thing that was available in reality so Applegate fictionalized it to make a stronger story.

Writing fiction based on fact is tough.  When we try it, we are tempted to hold on to too much.  Instead we need to discover the Essence of the true story.  We need to make certain that ends up in our fictionalized tale and then craft the best possible story around it.

To read more on writing fact based fiction, check out Fiction or Nonfiction: An Opportunity to Craft the Best Story  and How to Write Fact Based Fiction.