Know Your Readers

Jimmy waiting for the trick-or-treaters.

Should your Halloween be super spooky or sparkly and Vamperina?

Our tendency is to say that this is dependent on age level.  Older kids are cool with spooky.  Younger kids need cute Vamperina.  And that’s true to a point.  A young reader’s creepy and atmospheric is Creepy Carrots.  For an older reader you can get much scarier and more ominous – something along the lines of The Coldest Girl in Cold Town.

But even then, you have to be aware that you are writing to a specific kind of reader.  There are kids who will like both Creepy Carrots and Vampirina.  There are kids who will find Vampirina too cute and Creepy Carrots too creepy.

But not all older readers can handle things that are really scary and atmospheric.  We saw Meg with a friend and her kids.  Her thirteen year-old son both loves and hates jump scares.  Meg was pretty much the limit of what he can handle.

Anything that builds up to true horror would probably give him a heart attack.  And I get it.  I love it, but I’m the same way.  My son begged me to watch The Walking Dead with him but then refused to sit with me.  I know something is going to happen.  As a result, I jump when the camera pans too fast which is pretty much every time the camera pans.  I jump when leaves twitch.  I jump a lot. I jumped at Meg too but I still love it.

Get your reader in your head.  Write the story for that reader.  But know that it probably will not be a story that appeals to every reader.  You just have to know your audience.


Outside Readers: Helping You Create Solid Content

It’s been a while since the publishing world went crazy over the thought of sensitivity readers.  Was it a great idea or was it censorship?  And whose pocket was this going to come out of anyway?

If you missed last year’s debate, the idea was that people writing outside their own experience need sensitivity readers to review their books.  These readers will help determine whether or not these authors have “sensitively” portrayed people from different groups.  

In my work for packagers, I often find myself rewriting based on comments from at least two editors, possibly a rep from the customer who wants the content, and a consultant.  Hopefully you will understand when I say that I found the idea of yet another layer of comments to reconcile with all of the others less than thrilling.  

Then I read this post from The Horn Book.  Jason Low, publisher and co-owner of Lee and Low Books explains that Lee and Low has employed content readers for years.  They just call them expert readers.  

What are they experts in?  It all depends on the book.  For one book, the reader will be an expert on a particular culture and that group’s history.  For another the reader may be an expert in a scientific field.  It varies from book to book.

When I read this, I laughed out loud. I already work with these kinds of experts.  At Redline, they call these people content consultants.  

My message?  Don’t panic.  Take a deep breath.  Publishers are not your enemy.  They just want to help you create the best, most accurate, book possible.  Is that really a bad thing?


The Great American Read: The Results

The people have voted and the results for the Great American Read are in and the winners are:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. Outlander (Series)
  3. Harry Potter (Series)
  4. Pride and Prejudice
  5. Lord of the Rings

The funny thing to me?  Except for the Outlander series, I think of these as teen reads.

To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my sons favorite middle school/high school books.  When I got a gift card for my birthday, he grabbed Go Set a Watchman. How can a mom say no to a book request?

My son enjoyed Harry Potter but the one who was nuts for this was my niece.  She and her husband are currently running through the audio books whenever they have a long drive. She also loved Pride and Prejudice.

Lord of the Rings was one of those books that everyone read in middle school and high school, back when I was a teen.

What does all of this mean?  Maybe that readers continue to love those teen favorites even as adults.  Maybe that teens loved the same types of books yesterday and today so much so that they often loved the same books.

I’m not surprised that To Kill a Mockingbird was the over all winner. It was a powerful book when it was initially published and the issues that it explores – prejudice and justice – remain vital even today.  Here is that the site for the Great American Read had to say about the voting:

“To Kill a Mockingbird led The Great American Read voting from the first week, and kept the lead for the entire five months of voting, despite strong competition from the rest of our five finalists. It also topped the list of votes in every state except North Carolina (who went for Outlander) and Wyoming (who preferred Lord of The Rings). Such widespread support from readers across the country make To Kill a Mockingbird a worthy winner of The Great American Read.”

Looks like it is time for me to revisit this classic.  Which book would you have voted for?


5 Minutes a Day: Explore the Library of Congress

If you aren’t familiar with the Library of Congress, spend some time whenever you have a few minutes and poke around.  There are so many resources available including a wide variety of research materials.

Two of the newest offerings are:

The Theodore Roosevelt Papers.  approximately 276,000 documents, this is the largest collection of Roosevelt documents in the world. The collection includes diary entries, letters and illustrations.

Betty Herndon Maury Maury Papers. Maury kept this two volume diary from June 3, 1861, to February 18, 1863.  It details her experiences during the Civil War and includes information on the part played by women as well as the impact on Confederate soldiers.

Other digital collections include:

Benjamin Franklin Papers. Approximately 8,000 pieces from the 1770s and 1780s. The collection includes both his work in politics and his work in science and although not all of it is online, this is a start.

Alexander Bell Family Papers: The online collection contains about 51,500 images of correspondence, scientific notebooks,  blueprints, and more.

After the Day of Infamy: These man-on-the-street interviews were recorded following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The collection consists of 12 hours total although I’m not sure how much has been digitized.

Ansel Adam’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar : I just recently learned about these photos so I was excited to see that they can be found at the Library of Congress.

In addition to the digital collections, you will find the following available online:

Library of Congress Magazine (LCM) which is available online.

Science Research Guides which are themed research guides with lists of resources.

Journeys and Crossings which are webcasts on various topics.

You aren’t going to get through everything that interests you in five minutes, but pop over to the Library of Congress (LOC) when you have tine and you will find a wealth of resources, story ideas, and more.


Suspense: Why You Want It and How to Create It

In a story, when we talk about suspense we are talking about the ability to keep your reader on the edge of their seat.  They firmly believe that something is going to happen.  It may very well happen soon.  And the reader feels tense.

Sometimes suspense comes with knowing something big is at stake.  The timer is counting down and when it reaches zero . . . ka-boom!  Or it can be a matter of a character being in a live-or-die situation. This live or die situation could be literal – air is running out, a bomb is counting down, or the virus is building in his system.  Or it could be emotional as the character competes at state, in the elementary school science fair or for the love or their teen life.

The situation is tense but how do you create tension in your writing.  Here are nine tricks to try:

  1. Write your story in the third person so that the reader can see something coming even if the character cannot.
  2. Limit things in time or space.  This could mean a countdown or limiting the character’s physical movement – they have to get off the bus, out of the cabin, or out-of-town.
  3. Reduce the time or space.  The timer suddenly starts counting down even faster.  Or the space available is reduced.
  4. Use a scary setting.  Don’t just put your character in a setting that they find scary. Use one that people find scary.  A deserted mental hospital. A dark space station.  Someplace high.  Someplace with spooky noises.
  5. Foreshadow, hinting at a problem before it arises.
  6. Pile on the complications.  Just when your character has the prize within reach, snatch it away and add another complication.
  7. Remove a key defense.  The character’s phone goes dead or a door slams down separating them from their friends.
  8. Create doubt.  Does the character wonder if she can succeed?  Maybe things are too closely paralleling an earlier failure.
  9. Through the details you include.  When you describe your setting, include suspenseful or creepy details.  Branches are grasping.  Sounds are secretive whispers.  A building settling is moaning in agony.

I’m going to have to create suspense as I work through my mystery and I don’t just mean the scenes that involve my would-be detective and the murderer. I’ve been writing all around it but I need to write the scene where they find the body.  Step by creepy step, I’ll need to layer in the details that will have my readers on the edge of their seats.


Fractured Fairy Tails: Go Big

I love it when I come across a new book that represents an original take on an old story.  Some, in my opinion, are harder to redo than others.  For me, one of the toughest is the Little Red Hen.  In part, this is because I so loathe how some versions of the original end.  I hate it when no one helps the hen and she’s so sweet that she shares with everyone anyway.

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  That’s the nicer version.  Ugh.  Can I just say that?  Ugh!

The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez is a completely new take on this story.  And Maier takes “go big or go home” seriously.  This is a completely different story than the one we all know.

There is no hen.  In fact there are no anthropomorphic animals.  The POV character is a little girl named Ruby.  The antagonists are her three brothers.  Mom, Dad and Grandma each come into the story although they aren’t in the text.  They were added by Sanchez.

In the original, the hen already knows how to grow the garden.  She just wants help.  In this version, Ruby finds some boards. She knows she wants to build something but first has to learn to use the tools.  Only then does she start to develop a plan.

The original has a chorus with the hen asking for help and the other animals saying no.  In this version, whenever Ruby asks for help, the brothers tell her no but they each have their own way of saying no.  “‘No way,” said Jose. I’m too busy.”  Maeir uses the brothers’ responses to create a chorus that young readers can look forward to throughout the story.  It is also a bit of humor for older readers and adult readers who are going to laugh when they read “no way (said) Jose.”

In spite of the differences, the broad strokes are the same and this is clearly the Little Red Hen.

  • The title mirrors the title of the original.
  • Your main character is trying to accomplish something.
  • A trio of antagonists refuse to help.
  • The call and response pattern (will you help/no I won’t) remains the same.

Why not take the time to have a bit of fun with your own favorite tale?  Change a character and/or the setting to give it a Halloween twist.  Try different combinations to see how it impacts the story and try to work in the same broad patterns as the original.  I’ve never sold one of these stories, but they are something I like to play with.



Genre: Can You Mix and Match?

Back when I started writing, we authors were told that we had to know where our book fit.  Pick a genre and stick with it.  It was the only way to know who your audience was as well as how and where to market the book.  You still get that advice but, of course, I couldn’t find any blog or post about it now that I’m looking.

But increasingly agents and editors are willing to publish cross genre fiction. Before we go deeper into this discussion, let’s emphasize something. Middle grade and young adult are not genre.  Those are age levels.  Neither is picture book a genre.  That’s a format.

A publishing genre is a broad subject category.  While mainstream fiction is generally not considered a genre, romance, mystery, horror, science fiction and fantasy are.  And there are more including westerns, humor and adventure.

So when I started writing, publishers would tell you that you needed to know if your middle grade novel was fantasy or a mystery.  There might be hints of one in the other but where would libraries shelve your book if it wasn’t clear.

While some people still say you can’t blend genre, others are conceding that not only is possible, it is often desirable.  In a large part, this is due to several successful series.  The first may have been Stephen King’s Dark Tower series which combined science fiction, western and horror.  And it wasn’t just books.  My son’s favorite TV series, Firefly, is a space western.

Books for young readers do this too although I suspect it may be more common in young adult.  Examples include The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth which combines historic fiction and fantasy and also What the Woods Keep by Katya de Becerra which combines fantasy and science fiction.

These blends open up a world of possibilities and I don’t think they are going away any time soon. But I also don’t think that they are new.  We’ve always seen books that combine fantasy and romance or science fiction and mystery.   In a recent Writer’s Digest interview, Alex Slater of Trident Media actually said that he would like to see more middle grade manuscripts that successfully blend genre.

Me? I’ve got some crazy, blended reading to do.


Copyright: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

copyright-3197524_1920Every now and again someone asks me if they should copyright a story before sending it to an agent or a publisher.  Some even suggest taking the time to get a piece copyrighted before taking it to critique group.

“You mean that you don’t trust me not to steal your work?”

“It could happen.”

“And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get smashed by a meteor.”    Oddly enough, I’m more popular with tween boys than I am with many of my peers.

You may think that filing for a copyright under these circumstances shows that you value your work.  It is worth serious money, and you want people to see this from the start.  Have you ever heard the expression “just because you think something doesn’t make it a fact.”

What filing for a copyright in these situations says is “I don’t trust you.”  Do you really want to work with someone you don’t trust?  Of course now.  So step one really isn’t getting copyright.  Step one is finding someone you trust.  If you’ve heard questionable things about someone, don’t send them your work.  Period.

Just don’t do it.

What filing for copyright really shows is that you don’t know industry conventions.  It shows that you may very well by high maintenance and require a great deal of reassurance and hand holding.  None of this makes you an appealing client or critique group partner.

Yes, I’m sure you can find a story about someone who had a piece stolen under any of these  circumstances.  But by looking at the shelves in your local library, you can find numerous examples of work that was not stolen.

I’m not saying that you should post it all over the place and leave copies strewn across your home town.  Just learn the conventions of your industry.  Write.  Rewrite.  Let the publisher file for the copyright.  Because that’s the way it works when they pay you to use a specific set of rights.


Recharge and Renew: Pajama Day

Last week, I rewrote a 15,000 word piece of teen nonfiction.  This week, I turned in a chapter and outline for my next project.  If you only count books under contract, this will be number 7 for the year.  If you count un-contracted projects, add two more to the tally.  And I wrote 2000 words on my mystery.

So what am I doing tomorrow?  I’m recharging.

Officially, I call these days Pajama Days.  Why?  Mostly because my introvert friends know what I mean.  “You’re spending the day at home in your pajamas?  Awesome!”

The best Pajama Days occur when I’m home alone. I love my boys but if you are an introvert you get it.  I don’t want to talk to anyone.  I don’t want to negotiate.  I just want to be.  Blessedly, this is turkey season.  For 36 hours, I will do what I want, when I want.  Among the possibilities are:

Crochet.  I have a school of goldfish and colony of bats in progress.  I will be working on them while I listen to an audio book and watch movies.

Audio books.  I’m listening to Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.  I started three other audio books before this one and quit each after one disk.  This one, in contrast, is amazing.  Which I hadn’t wasted time on the others.

Reading.  I’m almost done with Louisa Morgan’s A Secret History of WitchesI’m not sure how this happens but often the book I am reading is similar to the book I am listening to.  In this case, both involve magic.

Movies.  I have Pixar’s Coco and also Shetland.  I’ve been wanting to see Coco but getting an animated piece past the boys is tough.  Shetland is a BBC mystery set in the Shetland islands.  My husband is much less of a fan because the accents sometimes lose us.  But that’s okay because I love the atmosphere.

Prehistoric Marine Reptiles.  This is my latest MOOC class. I’m only a week in but I’m really enjoying it.  I took two or three history classes in a row so getting back into  science requires a mild adjustment.

If I feel like it, I may write.  I could also bead and work on the 1960s Singer I’m bringing back into shape.  There are about ten buckets of weeds in the front bed and I will almost certainly walk or row because I just feel better when I row.  But the best part?  I’m not going anywhere for 36 hours.


Because it’s Pajama Day. A day to recharge and renew my energy.


Series Writing: Recurring Conventions

Even if you don’t recognize the term, recurring conventions, you’ve spotted these elements in your favorite series.  Elizabeth Craig calls them tropes.  Camille LaGuire uses the term rituals.  These are the situations, settings and other elements that recur from book to book.

In Harry Potter, we have Harry’s scar and the fact that the Weasley’s are poorer than a lot of the other big wizarding families.  Miss Marple has her knitting and her ability to compare everything to her village of St. Mary Meade.  In Curious George, we have the fact that George is a curious little monkey and that, in spite of this, the Man in the Yellow Hat will, once again, leave him alone and expect him to behave.

All series have them, or at least they should.  In mysteries, I’ve noticed that a lot have to do with food, hobbies, books, or history.

Then I started thinking about my own mystery.  Yes, I’m only on book 1 but cozies tend to read like series.  Read enough of them and you’ll know what I mean.  All of this means that I should be thinking about these things even in book one.  So far I have several possibilities including:

The church choir in which she is a soprano

My character’s old-time cooking skills – pickling, baking bread, etc.

Her mother’s ability to take her from 50 year-old adult to 10 year-old child with one sideways glance

Her love of coffee

The way that her modern suburb feels like a small town – everyone knows everyone.

Is this going to be enough?  I think so but what is more important is deciding that they are the right recurring elements.  They have to be things that are interesting enough that readers come back to see what is going on in the town, in the choir and in the kitchen.

I suspect that I’ll have to shore up my recurring conventions as I rewrite the book.  Rewrite?  First I need to finish my initial draft.  Back to work!