Book Categorization: How to Do It and Why It Matters

book heart“My new novel is a romantic mystery that takes part in a science fiction universe.”

“I’ve written a creative nonfiction concept picture book.”

Descriptions like these make me cringe.  Sure, some books really do cross over categories.  But most are more one thing than another. It’s important to know what the manuscript is so that you know where to market it.

If an agent represents creative nonfiction, that concept picture book may not be a good match.  You have to take a harder look at the age levels of the books they represent.  No picture books means no picture books even if they like creative nonfiction.

Writer’s Digest contributing editor Elizabeth Sims recently wrote a post, “Shelf Savvy: How Book Categorizations Helps Maximize Sales.”  In this post, she discussed how books by African-American authors sold better at Borders when their books were shelved in an “African American Lit” section.  Scattered among the other titles, whether literature, mystery or essays, they weren’t as easily found by would-be readers and failed to sell as well.

Not that you will have the ultimate say in where it is shelved or how it is marketed (romance or mystery), but you need to know what it is so that you know who to approach.

This follows the fact that you had to know what to call it to write it in the first place.  Picture books follow certain conventions.  Write your story in 500 words with the possibility for 14-16 unique illustrations and you’re going to get the right kind of attention.  Write your story in 6000 words with dialogue, setting instructions and sound effects (SFX) and you better send it to publishers who want graphic novels vs picture books.  Yes, both are illustrated but the conventions are different and you need to know what you’re working on.

Don’t let a category limit your work but know what is typical so that you can creatively push the limits and then market it to the right people.


Idea Generation: Storystorm 2019

Story_Storm_ParticipantI’ve already registered to take part in Storystorm 2019.  If you’ve never heard of this event, it’s a great way to start 2019 with a batch of new story ideas.

Originally, it was known as PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) and took place in November.  But Tara wanted to expand it beyond picture books. Now all types of children’s writers participate.

The basice idea is very straightforward. Throughout January you keep track of the ideas you generate.  The goal is to have 30 ideas by the end of the month or one a day for 30 days. There are inspirational posts and prizes for all who complete the program.  You can find out more about it here.

I found Storystorm so inspirational in 2018 that I didn’t quit when January ended.  I kept on adding to my list.  As I write this on 12/27, my list is something like 310 ideas long.  Yeah, I was a little disappointed.  I wanted one per day.

Some people discount this type of idea generation.  Who cares if you collect ideas if you don’t write them all? Not me and here’s why.

  1.  Not all ideas are created equal.  Some simply do not measure up.
  2. By getting into the habit of generating story ideas, you get into the habit of generating ideas.  It is my not-so-humble opinion that generating story ideas leads to generating other ideas.  Your stories become more original.
  3. Your list becomes a handy tool.  I have several projects that I plan to work on next year that came together because of this list.  I also use it when I need to come up with ideas for a query or pitch.  Or a nonfiction publisher puts out a call for proposals.

Lazar is now taking registrations.  Comment on the announcment post on her blog (linked here) to register.

This program is amazingly inspirational.  Why not take part and start your writing year in a whirlwind of creativity?

For more on idea generation, see “Idea Generation: Where Do You Get Your Ideas” and “3 Places to Turn for Story Ideas.”


Author Bias: Beware of Your Blind Spots

dandelionsWhen I first heard someone say we had to fight back, I was confused. “We who?”


“Fight who?”


“Them . . . who?”

“The ones who said we can’t do it.”

It was a confusing conversation.  But it was when I started to learn that not all girls had heard the same messages I had.  You like science?  Go for it.  My grandad, a mining engineer, gave me a sample bag so I had somewhere to put the rocks I collected on our walks.  Interested in wood working?  Soon I had my other grandfather, Bumpa, teaching me to tell walnut from cherry, etc.  I helped my father build a television when I was 7 or 8.  I fished.  I shot. Eventually I took chemistry and biology and pre-calc.  And it isn’t like there were no women in my life. I learned needle work and gardening and how to set the table.

Only as an adult did I come to fully learn that not every women I met had had the same encouragement.  Part of it, I suspect, was that my dad had daughters.  That said, he encouraged me to do what interested me – archaeology, history, geology and geometry.  But a lot of other relatives encouraged me as well as did my teachers.

This isn’t to say that the struggles other girls and women have faced are any less real.  It’s just that somehow, until I was an adult, they weren’t my struggles.  That’s when I found out that my boss was paying my male assistant a penny less than I made.  A penny.

Something that we have to remember as writers is that our experience isn’t everyone’s experience.  If someone questions something in your story because of their personal experience, listen.

The more aware you are of varying perspectives, the more informed your writing will be.  Just a little something I’ve been thinking about today.


Care and Keeping of a Writer

I had a great Christmas and I hope that all of you did too.  As always my husband and friends were spot on when it comes to the care and keeping of a writer.

First things first, I got books.  If you are a writer, you also need to be a reader.  This doesn’t mean you have to read books.  You can read articles.  You can read blog posts.  You should read what you intend to write but you should also read other types of literature as well.  You never know where you will find that critical bit of knowledge or inspiration.

The Poison Squad is by Deborah Blum.  She also wrote The Poisoner’s Handbook.  Her books are a spot on combination of science and suspense.  Love her work.

The funniest part is The Art of Comic Book Writing.  It has great info about writing graphic novels.  I bought it for my niece.  My husband bought it for me.

In addition to books, writers need to stay healthy.  Hence to new yoga bolster.  I want to expand my yoga practice.  Yoga helps my sciatica which can be a real problem for those of us who sit at a computer.  In addition to my twice weekly class, I want to practice at home.  That means that I would like to have a class mat and bolster (in the car) and a home mat and bolster (in my living room).  I’m half way there.

I’m not sure why but most of the writer’s I know have causes we are passionate about.  A friend gave me a necklace and bracelet from Made for Freedom, a group that fights human trafficking.  I will wear these with pride.   My husband also got me a utensil set (fork, spoon, knife, chopsticks, straw, toothbrush and cleaning brush) made out of bamboo.  With two sets my family will be able to avoid plastics when we travel.  So happy to have these because they will easily fit into my purse or the glove compartment.

Last but not least, writers also need to have fun.  My niece’s husband understands this and provided a carnivorous and an herbivorous tacosaurus.

Books. Health. Something meaningful.  Fun.  A balance is required to be a happy, healthy writer. What changes do you need to make to achieve balance in the new year?


Social Media: Making Better Use of My Time

I’m sure this is no news to you if you spend any time on social media. It can be a real-time suck.  I’ve decided that in 2019 social media will have to take up less of my time.  This will mean becoming more efficient or getting rid of some things.

Numerous people have recommended Hootsuite to me.  There is a free version and a paid version. The free version allows you to queue up to 30 things at a time to go up three different places.  I thought I would give it a try.

I chose my Facebook, my church’s Facebook page and Twitter. I spent an hour trying to queue up a post for my Facebook timeline.  Finally I accidentally moused over a slightly different part of the screen and up popped a notice.  Facebook no longer allows third party posts (Hootsuite) to personal Facebook Timelines.  Seriously?  There are about 12 carefully timed posts that I put up a week.  Hootsuite would have been a huge help.

But as I was reading up on this, I also discovered that I don’t need to use Hootsuite to schedule things on certain types of Facebook accounts.  Both my author page and my church’s page, for which I am an administrator, will allow me to write posts and schedule when they will post.  It doesn’t have to be right now.  I can plan posts for a week or a month or . . . who knows? I haven’t explored the limits yet.

In 2019, one day a week will be social media day.  I will write and schedule posts for my author page (scheduled on Facebook), my church’s page (scheduled on Facebook), my blog (scheduled here on WordPress), the PrayPower blog (also wordpress), my book reviews (still more wordpress), and Twitter (Hootsuite).  I’ll be reading and like things throughout the week, but this will hopefully make my own social media writing more efficient. That’s the plan anyway.

Will it work?  We’ll see in 2019!


Gladys West: One of the Great Women I Haven’t Written about . . . Yet

One of the toughest parts about outlining a nonfiction project is picking and choosing which information to include. When Duchess Harris and I worked on Hidden Human Computers, we included the stories of as many women as possible.  The problem is that the records from when these women worked are often incomplete.  Let’s just say that not every piece of paper and every name makes it neatly into an archive.

That’s step one.  Finding out that the women worked at NASA.  Step two was actually finding enough information about an individual to include in the book.

All of this means that lots of women who did important work are not in that particular book.  Maybe we didn’t even find their names.  Maybe we found their names but little or no additional information.  And maybe they didn’t work for NASA.

That’s the case with Gladys West.  In the 1950s and 1960s West was a human computer who worked for the Navy. Her work as a mathematician was instrumental in the invention of GPS.  In recognition of her work, she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame earlier this month.  This is one of the Air Force’s highest honors.

Where else might these women have worked?  Every branch of the military including the Coast Guard.  I also have my suspicions that they worked at a variety of defense contractors including McDonnell Douglas.  The tricky part will be finding them.

This is why I always encourage young readers to keep their eyes open. There are so many amazing stories out there. You aren’t going to find them all in one book.

You’ll need to keep reading. And me? I’ll keep writing because there is always another story to tell, another pioneering scientist who can inspire young learners to reach for the stars.


Audience: Why They Need to Be Defined

Recently we got an e-mail about the family Christmas celebration. Instead of drawing names and exchanging gifts, our regular practice, we are playing “rob your neighbor.”  “Each participant should bring a $20 gift that will appeal to anyone in the family.”  Following those instructions, we would each have to wrap a twenty dollar bill.

Sound cynical? Think about it.  There will be about 15 people participating.  This includes:

2 college students

2 retirees

2 athletes

2 engineers

3 history buffs

3 wood workers

1 artist

Several foodies only one of whom likes spice

Trying to appeal to everyone in such a diverse group risks appealing to no one because it is simply too generic and bland. This is why editors tell you to know your audience.  Try to write something that appeals to everyone and, again, you run the risk that it will appeal to no one.  It sounds cynical, but think about it.

My son is an engineering students who games and hunts.  He is Christian and politically a centrist.  He works as a lifeguard.  He loves military history, the Wild West and anything frontier.  Does he want to read it?  Oh, no.  But he loves good museums, historic sites and movies.

My mother-in-law is retired.  Gaming?  No.  Hunting?  NO.  Christian.  Yes.  Politically left.  She would rather not do anything physical although she likes to watch college basketball.  My son doesn’t even like to watch swimming.  She loves classical music which my son might recognize if it was used in a movie.  She likes history as in the Colonies, British and all things posh.  She is an avid reader.

Do you see much overlap?  They adore each other but the answer is no.  Even when the topic is something they both enjoy, as in history, they want to experience it in very different ways.

Know who your audience is.  Know what they want.  Then you can set about creating something that appeals to them.




Who Are You? The Unnamed Character

Recently, I read two short stories in a row where the narrators were not named.  This made me wonder about this whole unnamed narrator.

It is something new?  The short answer – no.  The longer answer – no but it isn’t easy to make it work.

Poking around I found the following works with unnamed narrators. Sometimes they are named for the role they play as is the case in In the Penal Colony and A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka, Philippe Claudel’s The Investigation, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Sometimes it is done to give the stories a folktale feeling – the handsome prince, the miller, the little match girl.  Other times it is done in a dystopian story to emphasize that a person is less important than what they do.

Sometimes it is done to blur boundaries.  Is a piece memoire or is it fiction? That is what readers are left to wonder as they read Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief as well as the books of Patrick Modiano.

Why not give your narrator a name and, through it, a concrete identity?  This can be done to show a variety of things including:

  • The lack of value that the character has in their society.
  • Shame or another reason to hide.
  • The character doesn’t even know themself so can’t be known to the reader.
  • Because it echoes a theme of blindness or cluelessness in the story.

As is often the case with this type of device, it can be hard to do well.  Doing this well starts with knowing why you are chosing to do it.  Because you think it will be fun to baffle your reader?  Not reason enough.  Figure out what this lack of identity means in your story before you give it a try.