Fan Faves: Writing a Story that Fits into an Existing Universe

Another week spent on rewriting but I’ve also fit in time to watch some more LibraryCon sessions.  Today I watched a session on Fan Faves or writing a story that fits into an existing universe.  The panelists were:

Jeremy Whitley who wrote My Little Pony, XMen, Hulk, Wasp and is currently working on Rainbow Brite. I have to admit that it really interested me to hear from a man who has written so many books with strong female characters.

Jo Whittemore who is writing Super Girl graphic novels.

F.C. Yee who is writing in the Avatar world.

When you write a book, short story or graphic novel for publication that is set in an existing universe, you have to get it right.  Mess something up and the fans are going to tell you all about it.

Because of this, authors who are invited to expand on this worlds have a lot of work to do.  When Jo Whittemore began writing about Super Girl, she had to do a lot of research to get CW approval.  Her slides showed the approximately 30 books that she read to make sure that whatever happened in her story was consistent with things that had happened in earlier stories.  She also read books that are still to be released.  She explained that one of the trickiest parts of her job is remember what fans already know and what they don’t because she has to be careful not to let anything slip.

I would think that to have the depth of knowledge needed to write one of these stories, you would have to be a fan.  But Yee emphasized that that brings its own issues.  He is a huge Avatar fan and when he writes a book for this series he has to be careful to keep his extreme fan tendencies in check.

This was definitely a reminder for any of us who want to try to write in someone else’s universe just how much work is needed to obtain the depth of knowledge required.

If you haven’t watched any of these sessions, they are still available.  Just register here and you will have access to all of the recorded sessions.


Indie Bookstores on the Rebound

Good news for authors and readers – independent bookstores are on the rebound!  Approximately 40% of indie bookstores closed from the mid-1990s and 2009.  But sales are up more than 5% over last year.

For those of you unfamiliar with this term, an independent or indie bookstore is a bookstore that is independently owned. It is a small business.

The great thing about these stores is that they are staffed by book lovers. Shop at an indie and you will find new-to-you authors and a sense of community. And that’s a big part of this upswing – people working to support their communities and small businesses. No, you won’t get the deal you’d get on Amazon but the author will receive a larger royalty and a local business owner will earn a living.

And an indie bookstore is going to offer you services you don’t get from Amazon.  At Shakespeare and Co in Manhattan, a special printer can print and bind a book, including a full color cover, in minutes if the book is not in stock.

I live in the St. Louis area.  My indies include Half Price Books, Left Bank Books, and Main Street Books.

Not sure how to find an independent bookstore? Type your zip code into the Indie Bookstore Finder at Indie Bound ( and you’ll get a list of the closest stores. I now have a list of 22 stores.  I would debate calling some of these indies since the list includes campus bookstores but I’ve definitely got some new book stores to explore.


NPR: Best Books of 2018

What?  This is not just another book list.

During the fall of each year, NPR Books staff asks for suggestions from staff members as well as book critics.  “Send us your favorite books of they year.”  The responses come in and are reviewed by NPR Books as they take care to eliminate duplicates and work for a good mix and balance.  Not sure what they mean by mix and balance.  Click through to Best Books of 2018 and you will quickly see what I mean.

The list is 319 titles long and fully searchable.  You can even select multiple filters but beware. This isn’t an either/or option.  If you select “Comics and Graphic Novels” and “Young Adult,” you get the two young adult graphic novels.

Select Young Adult and you get 22 items.  Mouse over a book cover and you get a brief description. Click on it and you are taken to a longer description.  This is going to take me a while to check out everything I find intriguing.

Oh, something else to keep in mind.  Pull up the full list, then go to Young Adult, and come back to the full list and the books will be in a different order.  That’s a bit of a problem because I want to find out about the one with the red truck on the cover.  It is no longer at the top of the page.

I heard about this list from my friend Traci Sorrell.  Her book We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is on the list. As much as I try to stay up on new books, I’ve only read a few of these and I’ve spotted several that are new to me that I find intriguing. There’s the graphic novel Photographic by Isabel Quintero about photographer Graciela Iturbide. The truck book is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, a postapocalyptic novel set among the Dine.  I’m also eager to read Dreamers, a picture book by Yuyi Morales about a family coming to a new country.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to pop over to my library’s catalog and start requesting books.


Primary Sources Online: The National Archive and Native American Treaties

The National Archive in Washington DC

Especially if you are writing nonfiction, but also for fiction, it is a good idea to include primary sources whenever possible.  Primary sources are first hand accounts.  Diaries, letters and even photographs are primary sources.  Primary sources are important because they are uninterpretted.  You get what someone at the scene observed.

This week when I was updating a lesson on primary sources, I popped over to the National Archives. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the archive of the US Federal Government. This is copies are kept of all documents that are legally or historically vital.  People use this material to research family history, veteran records and topics of historical interest.

Among other things, the Archive’s home page lists newsworthy items.  “Efforts Begin to Digitize 377 Native Treaties.”  What it comes down to is that efforts are underway to scan 377 treaties and supporting material.

One of the goals of the Archive is to make material as accessible as possible.  In this day and age, that means making it digital.

Pamela Wright is the Archives’ Chief Innovation Officer.  “The project boldly addresses three of our agency’s strategic goals: making access happen, connecting with customers, and maximizing our value to the nation,” Wright said. “We currently have over 65 million digital records available in the catalog. With over 12 billion textual records in our holdings, our big hairy audacious goal is to have them all available online one day.”

I have to admit that part of the reason this interests me is that it is hard to find unbiased material about early Native American history.  Because of this, anyone who writes about the contents of a treaty is going to pick and choose the parts that illustrate their own point-of-view.  This is why primary sources are so important and with treaties digitized I’ll be able to see, first-hand, what each of these treaties promised.

Spend some time at the digital archive.  You will find photos, senate and house records, military records and more.  My only warning – don’t do it when you are on deadline unless the research relates to said deadline.  The photographs especially tend to pull me in.


How NOT to Pitch Your Work

This weekend, I was reading blog posts and came across one by an editor who explained that certain key phrases in your cover or query letter will bring a hasty rejection.  I was surprised because I had seen warnings about some of them early in my career.  Apparently, the world has not wised up.

For those of you who don’t want to sour the deal before the editor or agent reaches your signature, here are five things to avoid.

  1.  God told me to write this.  Also avoid the variant “God wants you to publish this.” While you may be on a mission from God, telling a potential editor or agent this puts you into a category that you would rather avoid.
  2. I wrote this because I have a lesson kids need to learn.  Work worth publishing may very well contain a lesson but it can’t be preachy or heavy-handed.  Kids need your lesson about respecting their elders.  Wonderful.  In your letter, simply state that you’ve written a book about respect.
  3. Today’s books aren’t as good as the ones I grew up with.  Don’t like children’s literature?  Then don’t try writing for children.
  4. This will be as big as Harry Potter.  Even if you have a great idea, don’t announce that you are the next blockbuster.  Those are notoriously hard to predict.  Will your magical world appeal to fans of Harry Potter?  That’s another matter altogether.
  5. I know you don’t normally publish children’s books, but . . . If you know a publisher doesn’t normally publish children’s books, you should know that they aren’t going to want to look at yours.  Find a publisher that does.

Agents, editors and publishers are all on the lookout for great books.  But they also know that great books are most likely to come from professionals, people who love literature and media as well as their audience.

Impress them with great writing and your professional savvy.  You don’t want to send them the letter that is being discussed in the break room.


Happy Thanksgiving

For those of you who celebrate, I’d like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  Take the time to recharge your creative battery.

I don’t know if this is just a MidWest thing but our Thanksgiving day tends to stretch into Thanksgiving Weekend.  Thursday, we have dessert with my Dad and dinner with my sister and her family.

Friday we’re doing dinner here before my son has to work.

Saturday is lunch with a college friend.

Sunday after church we will have dinner with my husband’s turkey-despising family.

And I have two rewrites for two different books, both under contract. How much work will I get done on either of these project.  Probably not an awful lot because, like I said, Thanksgiving lasts the entire four day weekend.

But that’s okay.  Writing is a career that I love but you definitely need to take a break every now and again so that you have the energy to create.  See you on Monday!


Picture Books: Rewriting a Problem Spread

Recently, I had to polish up a picture book and get it out now.  This wasn’t something I was drafting.  These were fine changes.  Fiddling with word sound and rhythm.

I read my manuscript out loud. After all, a picture book is like a poem.  It has to work when read aloud. Most of my manuscript was fine but two spreads felt off.

I always suspect when I am doing this kind of rewrite that I change something, let it rest, and change it back again.  And then I do it again.  And again.  Maybe if I could keep track of my various versions there wouldn’t be so many.

Do not say “track changes.” NO.  I despise that Word feature.  I use it with my editors at RedLine.  Some areas of the manuscript will have very few marks.  Others have lots and lots of text struck out and added.  While it can be good to see what was removed, a section that has been worked over multiple times can be almost impossible to read in part because I’m mildly dyslexic.  It gets too busy and I can’t follow it.

When a single person uses track changes, it doesn’t always track all of the changes.  That means I can’t go back and see what the manuscript said before.

Fortunately, I found a trick that works for me. I opened up a clean Word document and copied the problem text, pasting it at the top of the page.  Then I pasted it in again and made changes to the second version.  Then I pasted it again and made changes to the third version.  There was no back and forth.  And I never had to rewrite a passage more than three times.

When I was done, I let it sit and then reread all three versions.  There was no guess-work.  No wondering if maybe the first version was better.  I had them all right there in front of me.

Try it and see if it works for you.


Change: When It Rains, It Pours

It looks like I’m moving out of my office, doesn’t it?  I have two boxes full of papers as well as a file organizer and several stacks of various things on the dining room table.

Not that I’m moving.  We just contracted with a new internet service.  Something about cutting the bill by 30% and increasing the speed five times.  With me working from home and using a lot of graphics and my son having to use various graphic intense educational programs, it was the thing to do.

But this meant cleaning off a large stretch of desk.  My desk is u-shaped and wraps around the room.

Was it worth it?  I would say so.  I can upload a photo in something like two seconds.  And my office feels much roomier without the stack of papers at my elbow.

So now I want to clean out some more.  But Thanksgiving is later in the week so I can’t leave it all in the dining room.  And I have two rewrites due in the next two weeks.

And it all started because we wanted faster internet.  Where will it all end?



Rejection: When I Refuse to Finish an Audio Book

I am a voracious reader.  Between print books and audio books, I have “consumed” something like 130 books so far this year.

That said, every now and then I refuse to finish a book.  If I’m reading it for book club but don’t like it, I’ll skim it.

But this past week, I’ve checked out 5 audiobooks I didn’t finish.  What keeps me from finishing a book?

Recommended but . . . I will pick up virtually any book that someone recommends to me unless I know this is an author whose work doesn’t speak to me.  But that also means that every now and again I’ll pick up a recommended book and realize I’ve made a big mistake.  For example, I do not like romance novels.  A mystery with romance?  That’s great.  An adventure with romance?  I can do that too.  But a romance just for the sake of romance?  It doesn’t matter if it is funny or the setting, I probably will not finish this book.

Narrator error . . . I don’t have to love the way that reader sounds, but it can’t be distractingly irritating either.  I’ve returned books with readers who have no inflection as well as readers who EMOTE.  One reader put so much effort into hamming up various accents that I couldn’t understand her.  Those books also go back.

Out-of-order . . . the last book that I had to take back was a goof up on my part.  I checked out something like book 11 in the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz.  Unfortunately, I’m on book #5.  Sometimes I can read a series out-of-order but this was just too off so I’ve requested the next book.

In truth, that’s about it for me.  Otherwise I listen to adult books and children’s books, fiction and nonfiction, translations, classics and more.  I actually like to listen to books about other cultures because then I learn how to properly pronounce names.  Adult nonfiction as an audio book is also often easier than reading.

But every now and again I come across a book I choose not to finish.  But five in a row?  That’s unusual.  Fingers crossed that the next one I pick up holds my attention.


Graphic Novels: Why Schools Like Them and Using Theme to Make a Retread Newly Relevant

Working my way through the LibraryCon Live! sessions, I’ve been finding out about a variety of new-to-me graphic novels. (You can register and log in to view sessions  here.)

Victor LaValle’s Destroyer is a Frankenstein’s monster story.  Some of the themes are true to the original (evil’s of science and environmental themes) while others are much more contemporary.  In LaValle’s version, police shootings of young African American’s also come into play.

Olivia Twist by Darin Strauss and Adam Dalva is, as you may have guessed, an Oliver Twist retelling.  It takes place in a dark future London complete with internment camps.

Various authors and editors that I’ve heard speak have discussed theme.  One of the reasons that theme is so important especially in these retellings is that it makes them relevent today.  Trying to interest a publisher in a Frankenstein retelling is probably going to earn you a yawn.  “Oh, another one.”  The trick is to bring in a theme that makes it current.

The beauty is that is not only current, it makes graphic novels useful for classroom discussion.  Where a discussion on police shootings may quickly get emotional when discussing it as a current event, discussing it as literature gives young readers a bit of distance. It is less personal. They are discussing a book vs discussing what is going on in their own neighborhoods and country.

This was an “aha moment” for me but it shouldn’t have been. When I was a newish writer, I remember hearing people talk about why so many picture books features animal characters.  We’re talking fiction stories where the animal characters stand-in for real children.  What we were told, and it still makes sense, is that by making the characters talking bears or whatever, you give young readers just a bit of distance.  A story that might be too scary becomes much less so when the characters are a bit less realistic.

Now I find myself thinking about classic stories.  How could you reboot Dorian Gray or the Hunchback?  What themes would help make these stories current and relatable for today’s young readers?