My son is a STEM student.  In short, he’s working on an Associate degree in pre-engineering.  Then he’s going to go on for the four-year degree.  STEM has always made a lot of sense to us.  For those of you who may not be certain what the acronym means, it is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

The purpose is to encourage STEM learning in our students so that they, and we, can compete in a world that relies increasingly on science and tech.  STEM, and my love of science, are why I write STEM books like Hidden Human Computers, The Zika Virus, and The Dakota Access Pipeline. 

And then along came STEAM.  STEAM adds Arts to the STEM emphasis.  As much as I love art, until recently I had a serious STEM bias.  I didn’t get why they had added art.  I could repeat the reasons (it too is important and deserves funding) but really?  I wasn’t sure it belonged.

Then I talked to a friend whose daughter is a top-notch artist.  She was turned down for the STEAM line at the high school because her science and math weren’t good enough.  But what about the science and math focused students?  Did they get turned down if they lagged behind in art?  I seriously wanted to know because my kid is not an artist.

Nope.  They didn’t care if a kid who loved chemistry was a talented potter or painter.  It only mattered the other direction.

Seriously?  If it is going to be there, it should have the same emphasis.

Then I encountered a STEAM series of books.  Yay!  My young friend would love these!  Except, again, the art was tacked on and only loosely attached.

And now that I’m a true convert, this annoys me.  Geometry is a part of drawing and painting.  Chemistry is involved in glass work and painting.  Galileo and Da Vinci were both artists and scientists.  When and why did we separate them so completely?

Not surprisingly, I’ve checked out every STEAM book from the library.  If one of them isn’t amazing, I may have to get to work.


Theme: Tying It All Together

Today I read two really good posts on theme.  The first, written by Becca Puglisi, reviewed a session on theme that she attended at a conference.  In her post, Puglisi discusses the difference between the theme statement and the theme topic.  Using the play Hamilton as an example, the theme statement was “You have no control over who lives, who dies and who tells your story.”  The theme topic is much broader and expressed by fewer words.  Again, for Hamilton, it would be legacy.

Puglisi goes on to explain that every character relates to this theme in some way but not in the same way.  This is what creates the tension between characters and the tension in the plot although plot events may include wars, death, and more.  The factor that ties it all together is legacy.

The second post, by Sacha Black, is all about using theme as a golden thread that ties everything in the story together.  Her examples come from Hunger Games. Although she uses different terms, I’m going to use Puglisi’s terms to simplify things here.  The theme statement is “sacrificing yourself can lead to a greater good.”  The theme topic is sacrifice.

Again, she discusses positioning the protagonist and antagonist on opposite sides of this theme.  Katniss sees the good that can be done by making personal sacrifices.  President Snow only sees the good that can be done by sacrificing others.  Instant tension.

This has me thinking about a book I just read – The Bookshop at Water’s End by Patty Callahan Henry.  Very few books generate the discussion that this did at book club and a big part of that was the theme.  Everyone is doing the best that they can at the time.  I’ve yet to come up with a single word to summarize this – persevere?  There was no protagonist vs antagonist play here largely because when someone had a problem it was more likely to be internal and self-created than with someone else.

Every character was fighting a different battle or, if they faced the same issues, dealt with them in very different ways.  And the readers?  We all have very strong opinions about this book.  And, interestingly enough, I don’t think there was a single point at which we all agreed.

I’m not sure if this is something you can bring out from the start or if it is something that you have to bring the forefront as you rework a piece.  Me?  I’m hoping its the latter as I near 6000 words on my novel.



Accessibility: Helping Your Reader with New Concepts

Sometimes concepts are hard to grasp because they are beyond our experience.  We need to be willing to reach out and hang on while the author builds the framework that we need to access these new ideas.  But this can be made more difficult if the reading level is too high. New concepts paired with vocabulary with have to look up may bring readers to simply close the book.

I’ve been noodling this over for several days because of a conversation I had with an adult friend. Everyone in our Presbytery (think Presbyterian state if Presbyterian USA was a country) has been asked to read Waking up White by Debby Irving.  The book is about her awakening to be able to see the racial disparities that exist in this country – only white history being taught in schools, who has access to good housing, jobs and education, etc.

Most of the concepts were familiar to me but that’s no surprise since I write about racial justice and race.  While Irving has a college education and likes to flex her vocabulary, I didn’t think anything of it because it wasn’t beyond a lot of what I read.

But a friend told me that she was giving up on the book.  Irving’s experience was just too different from hers and she had no clue what the point of the book was anyway.  Granted, Irving’s countryclub childhood is radically different from my friend’s Nascar upbringing, but seriously?  Our “vacation” home has an out house and I’ve used a washboard.

Racial understanding and inclusivity are so important and I told my friend that I was sorry she wouldn’t be finishing the book given her work with the public.  That was when she admitted to me that she had to read the book with a dictionary beside her.

This is the sort of thing we discuss all the time in writing for children.  Build up the concepts bit by bit so that your reader can follow.  Don’t dumb the writing down, but make sure it is accessible.  Learning new words is good but being buried under them is not.

Maybe just maybe this is something adult publishers should consider if they want a book to be accessible to the general public.  I’ve read that the general public reads at a 7th grade level.

Will have to noodle this over.


Design for Writers

Last week, I spent some time creating a handout with all of my books.  I got the idea when I saw a similar list that Peter Reynolds created.  How cool would it be to have something you could slip into books, post on your site and more?  So I came up with this.  The file name indicates that this is attempt #5.  Given the fact that I fiddle with each attempt numerous times, it is probably attempt #10 or #15.

I’ve enjoyed playing with this but it makes me want to tweak my site, my blog, LinkedIn, etc.  I don’t really feel confident in my design skills but a friend recommended

She uses Canva because she doesn’t have Photoshop.  I use Photoshop, Illustrator, and Publisher which I used to make this.

But the good news is that Canva has tutorials.  A lot of it has to do with using the software but it also includes information on selecting a color scheme, creating a logo, solidifying your brand and how and why to edit photos.  And a lot more.

I spent some time playing with it last night and have selected a color scheme.  I’m not 100% certain that I’m going to stay with that because I may feel moved to go with something in the sepia category as in old maps. But I have to admit that these are the colors I’m drawn to time and time again.  So, at least for now, this is my color scheme.

I just realized that my Facebook author page and my Twitter feed aren’t on my to-be-updated list.  Wow. This is going to take some time but the more I think about it the more I like the idea of a single look.  Has anyone else taken the time to do this?



Author Copies: Meth and Steroids

Look what arrived Saturday!  I look strangely happy given the fact that I’m holding up books on Steroids and Meth. But that’s the way of author’s copies.  We get excited.

These may have been among the most difficult books that I’ve researched.  Everyone who is reporting statistics has a bias.

Treatment centers want business.  Use this once and you’re an addict.  Come get treatment.

Law enforcement wants to show how effective they are.  The busts they make are big and the criminals they take off the streets are potentially deadly.

Addicts?  They downplay the negative aspects, report only amazing things when using, and how on earth do you count them?  Very few people are honest about something that can land them in jail.

I learned a lot while researching these books including the role of the drug cartels in domestic drug use.  Yep.  It is cheaper to make drugs in Mexico and bring them into the country often by drone.  Border checkpoints?  Walls?  Who cares if someone has a drone.

For me, the scarier book to research was Steroids in part because I’m the mom of a teen athlete.  Granted, steroids aren’t as big a deal for swimmers as they are for some other athletes but wow.  Google steroids and you are going to find that everyone has an opinion.  It is way too easy for teens to find sites that discuss how safe steroids are to use and how clueless the coaches and doctors are.

I also had to deal with the fact that adults want to think that teens don’t know the difference between a steroidal inhaler and something to help them bulk up.  So I asked.

“No one is tootin’ on an inhaler thinking they’re bulking up, Mom.”

These will never be my favorite books but I do hope that they will help teens find accurate information.


5 Minutes a Day: World Building

Recently I read a post on the SCBWI Summer Conference Blog about Malinda Lo’s session on world building.  As a science fiction and fantasy author, Lo spoke on the importance of creating a culture and setting that make the story feel real.  This isn’t something that takes place only in science fiction and fantasy.  As I read this post, I realized that it is something I am doing in my mystery.

Here are 4 5-minute exercises you can do to help build your setting.

  1. What do people notice?  When someone steps into your world, what is the first thing that they notice.  I live in Missouri.  When exchange students from Malaysia arrived here in the fall, even these young people from Southeast Asia commented on the humidity.  Yep.  We’ve got that in abundance.  In the alpine deserts of New Mexico and West Texas, it is the space. At the base of a mountain or an overlook, you notice that you can see a remarkable distance.
  2. Unique food or drink. There is going to be something, no matter where you are, that no one else seems to eat.  Louisville has a turkey sandwich called the Hot Brown.  St. Louis has toasted ravioli and crab rangoon.  Texas and the Southern US?  Sweet tea.  What is it in your setting?
  3. What is the question that people ask?  In St. Louis, everyone asks where you went to highschool.  Outsiders don’t get it, but this question reveals where you live, your socio-economic status and whether or not your family has engaged in white flight. Other questions that can be just as telling are what sport your child plays and where you picked up the gift for a child’s birthday party.
  4. Unspoken rules.  Rules are something that Lo spoke about.  Unwritten rules are tough and every place has them.  I remember staying with my aunt in Florida.  She sent me to my room to change 4 times.  She wouldn’t say, “You can’t wear slacks to church.” Finally I had to start putting on my mom’s clothes which solved the problem.  She packed no slacks. I packed no skirts.  A lot of these rules have to do with clothing but there are also a lot of food rules – no one eats tacos with chocolate sauce or stuffs a turkey with hot dogs. What are the unwritten rules of your setting?

Take five minutes and brain storm one of these topics.  Work through all five of them and you’ll have pulled together information on the physical world of your story as well as the culture.



Writing Nonfiction: What to Include, What to Leave Out

There comes a point in every nonfiction project when you are left looking at all of the amazing facts that did NOT make it into  what you are writing.  “Oh, but that one is so . . . fun . . . cute  . . . sweet . . . shocking.”  Soon you find yourself wedging in this fact, and that one, and that one way over there.  You did so much research and you are not going to leave them out.

And, yes, you did do a lot of research.  That’s the nature of nonfiction.  You find out way more than you are going to use.

What?  Did I just say that you aren’t going to use all those glorious facts?

Yes.  Sadly, I did say that.

It is tempting.  I understand.  You don’t want all that hard work to be meaningless.

And it isn’t.  You needed background so that you could create your piece.  You have to know more than you are going to teach your reader.

Perhaps the hardest part of re-writing nonfiction is to remind yourself of the whole focus of the manuscript.  Whether you are teaching someone how to weave a table runner or discussing how to reduce single use plastics, you have a defined goal.  The facts that don’t support that goal, whatever it is, have got to go.

“Wait!  Wait!  I’ll create sidebars.”

And that does work to a point.  For those of you who don’t know what they are, a side bar is that block of text that is in a graphic box.  Most often, it is at the outer side of the page – thus sidebar.  Sometimes it is at the bottom.  It is essentially a mini-article about a topic that is mentioned in the main text.

Can’t mention it in the main text?  Then you can’t include it in a sidebar.

And that’s really okay.  You want your piece to be slick and focused.  That’s going to attract an editor.

All those other facts?  You can use them in a different piece of writing.  See?  Your time wasn’t wasted after all.


Writing: Returning to a Project After an Absence

A cup of the main character’s favorite tea.

Full-time writer, part-time writer, I don’t think it matters.  At some point you will end up putting a project aside and then having to get back into it.  To put it simply, it ain’t easy.

It has only been about two weeks since I worked on my novel.  But that’s two weeks without dabbling around in this setting or in this character’s voice.  For four days I gave the project the side-eye.  This was going to be tricky.  Maybe I just wouldn’t bother.  Fortunately I have an accountability group.  “Yay, you met your deadline.  Now you can write fiction.”

oh yay the enthusiasm overwhelms me

No really.  It does.  Not.

But Tuesday I was determined to write at least a page.  I just had to regain my feel for the story and the setting.  Fortunately, I have extensive Pinterest boards devoted to my settings.  I’ve pinned the heroine’s house and her wardrobe.  Her sidekicks?  I’ve pinned their houses too.  The scene I’m writing is the beginning of chapter 2.  I think. That could change.  But I do know it is in the main character’s kitchen. So I looked at those images and the rest of that house.  I also knew which two characters are involved.  They are two very different women so I checked both their boards.

I still didn’t feel quite ready to go.  Normally, I only read about a paragraph of what I’ve already written to get back into the story.  This time I read 2000 words, more or less.  I caught myself wanting to stop and edit chapter 1 which is why I don’t let myself read a whole lot before I start writing.  But wanting to fix led to wanting to write.

I planned to write a page of chapter 2.  I wrote an additional paragraph on chapter 1 and before I was quite sure what had happened I had written two whole pages for chapter 2.  We know more about the main character’s mom.  We have a bit of backstory on sidekick #2.

Other things that you can do to get back into a story –

Go back to what inspired it.  Song, movie or poem?  Re-experience it.

Are you writing historic fiction?  Look at photos from the time period.  Listen to the music.

Snack on something your character loves.  Cook her favorite dish.

Somehow, immerse yourself in the story world.  The deeper you go, the more you’ll find yourself think, that isn’t how it works in my story.  And soon, you’ll feel the need to write.


How to Write a How-to

I’ve been working on a 1960s Singer sewing machine that I found in a yard sale.  Job #1 – replace the motor drive belt.  How hard could it possibly be to replace a sewing machine belt?  Not so hard once you have a good how-to.  The manual?  No, it wasn’t poorly written.  That information just isn’t in it although it did contain a part number for the replacement belt.  The video on Youtube?  Do not get me started on that video other than to say it was not helpful.  Finally I found a well-written tutorial.

From crafts to science fair projects, publishers of various kinds buy how-tos.  Here, written as a how-to, are the steps you need to follow.

  1. Start with your ingredient/materials list.  Be specific.  That means that if you are writing a recipe, you need to write 3 Cups Flour.  For assembly instructions, don’t just say “screwdriver.”  Say “flathead screwdriver.”
  2. Keep steps manageable.  I’ve seen recipes that say things like “Make brownies according to package instructions, bake and cool.” That’s my friend is not one step.
  3. Instruct the reader to do things in order.  I once made a huge mess in the church kitchen while following the instructions on the coffee maker.  The words “before” and “prior to” do not belong in a how-to.  “After” is fine but “before” is not.
  4. After you’ve written out your steps, follow them.  If you are writing out instructions for something you know how to do well, this will be difficult but do exactly what you have written down. If that is impossible, add what you forgot to write down the first time.  Don’t worry. We all have to add things when we try to follow our own how-tos.
  5. Have someone else follow your instructions.  If they have any questions, rewrite again.

Writing and selling how-tos means writing smooth and straightforward steps with nothing missing and no time drains.  Editors and readers will thank you.


Book Covers: My Dog Books

Take a day off work and spend some time on the internet and look what you find.  Book covers!

These are two of the books that I wrote for RedLine earlier this year. They are part of a new Capstone Press series, Top Hybrid Dogs.

Let me put it simply – these books were a lesson.  Or perhaps I should say that they were a reminder. It has been a really long time since I wrote breed profiles for Young Equestrian.  

But I did write breed profiles.  So certainly I can do this.  No worries.

I pulled it off but, like I said, it was a reminder.

First problem?  These aren’t breeds, but hybrids.  To be a breed, Puggles have to be bred from other Puggles, not a beagle and a pug. Labradoodle parents have to produce pups that are consistently Labradoodle in appearance but that’s tricky because their coats can look like lab’s, poodle’s or Labradoodle’s.

So, not breeds. Check.

But a lot of people don’t seem to get that.  After all, they have a name for these dogs.  And if you can register your Labradoodle or Puggle in a hybrid registry, that makes it a breed, right?

Let’s just say that I had forgotten how tricky it was to pick out the accurate horse information.  It wasn’t any easier with dogs.

But it was fun.  Apparently, so was the photo research judging by the note I got from my editor.  Young readers?  If they love dogs, they are going to love these books.  And the problems I had writing them?  It will have been worth the effort knowing that our readers are getting fact.