Characters: Doing Things Right and It Still Goes Wrong

Recently, I rediscovered the Tweet to the right on Pinterest. It’s one I pinned that has been getting saved a lot lately.

Yet again, it really spoke to me.  I’ve been trying my hand at writing fiction and getting my characters into trouble without having them look like complete ding bats is tough.

I returned a book to the library without finishing it because the character seemed to be at the mercy of the story.  The author needed X to happen so it happened.

I think of this at the Amityville Horror effect.  You go in the house, a disembodied voice says “get out,” and instead you move in.  Really?  Cause there would have to be something awfully bad in the front yard for me to say inside.

How then do I put my character in a tough spot?  Here are a few ways:

Have two equally deserving characters competing for the same thing.  It could be for the blue ribbon at state or for a scholarship.  But there’s only one.  Who is going to win?

There are no good choices, only bad choices.   You can write these situations in either fiction or nonfiction.  In Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin, Ellsberg has to decide whether he will betray his friend or his country.  Put your character in a situation where something must be sacrificed either way. Think Hunger Games.

What other ways can you “write smart”?  Your character could make what seems like a good choice but it is based on misinformation.  Rebecca Roanhorse uses misinformation to great effect in Trail of Lightning.  Face it, her character is dealing with Coyote. You know the facts will be twisted but the trick is in figuring out how.

Writing smart isn’t easy but it will keep your readers reading.  And isn’t that our goal?


I Am a Writer

Last weekend at the retreat, we discussed the power we receive when we label ourselves – WRITER.  Before taking the label, one pair of writing friends met every Friday to write.  Some Fridays they got a lot done.  Other Fridays?  Not so much.  They’d visit and laugh and chat.

But once they put on that label? Writing together every Friday evening.

I started writing about the same time I started grad school. By the time I graduated I knew what I wanted to do, but I fought the label.  After all, I’d spent so much time at college.  I didn’t have student loans but all that effort?  How could I follow this path?

When I finally made the decision, I called my mom.  “Mom, I know I’ve put in the effort to get both these degrees but I’m going to be a writer.




“It’s about time.”


“It’s about time that you figured out that you should write.”

Yep.  Mom figured it out before I did.

I have to admit that I’m fortunate.  My family supports me in my writing.  As soon as I said I wanted to go on last weekends retreat, everyone checked their schedules to look for a way to make it happen.  But it goes way beyond that.

When we bought this house, we told the agent we needed 3 bedrooms.  There was never any question that I would work in a spare bedroom with a desk.  Nope, this is my office.  There’s no room for a bed.  My husband built a desk that wraps around three walls.  This is my writing space.

Of course, it took more than a desk to make it mine.  I write.  I rewrite.  I rewrite again.  And I submit.

Calling yourself a writer helps a lot. But in the end you have to write.

Still, first things first.  Repeat after me, I am a writer.


ReFoReMo: Learning to Use Mentor Texts

A mentor text gives you the opportunity to pattern your own work after some aspect of a published book.  You might study a mentor text to learn about how to pace your picture book, how use page turns, or how to use wordplay.

But as is the case with so many things, it can help to see the process in action.  Good news. ReFoReMo starts on March 1.  ReFoReMo stands for Reading for Research Month and was founded by Carrie Charley Brown who runs it with Kirsti Call.

Throughout March, a variety of picture book authors, illustrators, librarians and other picture book savvy folk write blog posts showing how they use picture books to study various aspects of these texts.

My favorite part is getting to learn about new-to-me books. People also use books I know so it is a great way to learn about applying various techniques.

If this sounds like something that might be useful you can get started now:

Registration, the schedule of presenters/blog post writers, and the book list can be found here.

You have to register to be eligible for PRIZES.  If you just want to learn from your fellow writers, drop in and read the posts.

For more on mentor texts, see Mentor Texts: Guiding Yourself through Writing a Picture Book. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a ton of library books to request.


Writing on Retreat


Write, write, write.

Just how much would you get done if you had unlimited time to write.  I pretty well found out this weekend.  I was at Toddhall Retreat Center (see photos) for an unstructured writing retreat.  I am going to be so productive!


Before leaving town I finished a very rough draft of my latest Abdo book.  Once I got to Toddhall, time to decompress.  I listened to two hours of my audio book and several WriteOnCon podcasts and videos while knitting.


I rewrote and cleaned up a synopsis and a query letter for Puke-ology.  I also reworked my proposal for a series.  All are ready to edit on paper.  Woo-hoo!

Still not sure how to proceed on the mystery, I decided to put that off until Sunday.


I finally sat down and made myself write 800 words on the mystery.  It was not pretty.  But I wrote a bit more.

This weekend really proved to me that I am not entirely a pantser.  If I don’t know where I am going, progress comes to a halt.  If I know or even if I have a vague clue, like with the nonfiction, I make good progress.

Will I do this again?  Not right away.  But I might try one of the study room at the library, somewhere close to home where I can write and not be distracted by the 7000 other things that need doing.



Writing Retreat: Adios and I Will See You on Monday

I am off to a writing retreat.  Bye-bye!

This isn’t a big event with speakers and workshops.  This is a group of 16 writers going out-of-town to write.  And eat.  The map also shows a labyrinth so I’m really hoping things clear up a bit.

I remember the olden days when I would say – I work at home.  I don’t need to go out-of-town to write.

I remember it and I wonder what happened?  My schedule Wednesday included:

9-10 yoga

11:30 pick up kid from school

1:30 out-of-town friend drops by for tea

3:30 meet another friend to walk

7:00 dinner

I did manage to draft a chapter but way too many of my days look like this in spite of the fact that I have a book deadline approaching. So I’m trying something new.  Thus the retreat.

See you on Monday and until then – happy writing!


New Nonfiction for Spring: A School Library Journal Webcast Event

It’s one thing to read a market listing – this is what we want.  It is something else altogether to hear the publishers talk about upcoming titles they are enthusiastic about.  But that’s the offer that School Library Journal is offering us in a free webcast.

Title: New Nonfiction for Spring

Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Time: 02:00 PM Eastern Standard Time

Duration: 1 hour

Description:  Who doesn’t love new and engaging nonfiction? From a delightful tale of a budding ballerina to STEM projects for Minecraft lovers — and everything in between — these fun and informational series and titles are sure to inspire your curious students and young patrons. Join publishing insiders for an array of nonfiction to deck out your shelves this spring!

Panelists include:

Anna Erickson, VP, Sales & Marketing, Amicus Publishing

Kate Riggs, Managing Editor, The Creative Company

Lizzy Mason, Director of Marketing & Publicity, Page Street Kids

Jim Marshall, Director of Marketing, Rosen Publishing Group

Jarad Waxman, Director of Sales & Marketing, Scholastic Library Publishing

The fact of the matter is that seeing what various publishers are promoting can give you an idea what to submit where.  What do I mean? If The Creative Company is excited about their book about wild horse rescue, you aren’t going to want to send them your own manuscript on this topic.

One of the things that I like best about School Library Journal and Library Journal web events is that if you can’t make it when the event is scheduled you will have access to a recording of the event.

Click here to register or find out more about this event.




Record Keeping: Submissions and Rejections

Earlier this week I had a lesson in why it is so important to keep careful submission records.  I was taking a break when up popped a new e-mail.  Because I would never stop and look at an e-mail when I’m writing.  Never.

Anyway, the e-mail went something like this:

Dear Sue BE, 

Thank you for sending us “The Best Manuscript Ever.” We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us at this time.

Thanks again for sharing your work with us. We wholeheartedly wish you the best of luck. Happy writing!


Madeline McEditor 
Groovy Publications

Hmm.  I had heard of the publisher but didn’t know much of anything about them except for the fact that I have never sent them a manuscript.  Never.  And I didn’t recognize the editor’s name either.

I pulled up Excel and the file I keep on all submissions and rejections.  First, I searched on Groovy Publications.  Not only had I never sent them The Best Manuscript Ever, I was right.  I had never sent them any of my work.

Next I scrolled down to The Best Manuscript Ever.  One editor and one publishing house had never responded.  I did a quick Google search on the publisher I had sent it to.  They had been bought out by Third Party Press (yes, another made up name) and Third Party had changed the name of the recently purchased publisher, now an imprint, to Groovy Publications.

As if an unknown publisher and an unfamiliar editor weren’t surreal enough, I had sent in my manuscript 2 and a half years ago.  30 months. Add the time factor to the reality of buyouts, mergers, name changes and musical editors and it what all but impossible that I would have connected the dots without my handy dandy Excel file.

This, my darling writing friends, is why we need to keep good records.  Because some day you too may get a rejection and think, “Who are you and why do you have my work?”



Writing Contest




One of the things that I really love doing is encouraging young people to write.  Thank you to the St. Louis County Library systerm for setting up this awesome contest.

Do you know a young writer? If so, the St. Louis County Library is having a writing competition for library patrons who are in from the 3rd to the 12th grade. Young writers are invited to submit an original story based on this prompt: someone wakes up in the morning, and no one remembers who they are.

Entries must be between 250-500 words for grades 3-5, 250-750 words for grades 6-8, and between 500-1000 words for grades 9-12. Story title is not part of the word count. Entries will be judged based on originality, story flow, continuity and mechanical elements (grammar, punctuation, spelling). The type of story is up to the writer – humor, mystery, etc.

Stories can be submitted online from March 1 to March 31, 2019. Help spread the word!

For more information check out the library’s page on the contest.


President’s Day

cuban missile crisisHappy President’s Day!

Have you ever written anything about one of our Presidents?  One of my books, 12 Incredible Facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis, touches on Kennedy’s Presidency.  I say touches on because there was so much that he did in such a short period of time.  This is just a small part of it.

I would also love to write a series on America’s First Ladies.  I think it would make a great group of early readers.

There are some great children’s books out there about our Presidents. Why not pick one of them up?  In addition to my book, here are a few suggestions.


  • The Many Faces of George Washington by Carla Killough McClafferty shows us why we need current source materials to show the latest and greatest information that is available about these and other people.
  • What To Do About Alice by Barbara Kerley isn’t exactly about Teddy Roosevelt but it does give you a good idea what it was like to grow up in the Roosevelt household.
  • The House that George Built by Suzanne Slade gives us an inside look at building the White House and laying down the ground work for future presidents and it is done in a House That Jack Built rhyme.
  • You’re On Your Way Teddy Roosevelt by Judith St. George has always been a favorite because it introduces us to a side of this rough and tumble President that few people today remember.

If you have a favorite I didn’t include, be sure to tell the rest of us in the comments below.


Loving What You Do: Taking Time to Learn

For me, a big part of loving what I do is taking the time to learn. Sometimes this means sitting down with a new-to-me how-to title.  Page by page, I learn about voice, bringing emotion into my writing, or scripting a graphic novel.  Other times learning something new means taking the time for a conference or workshop.

I took my son’s senior year of high school off, not signing up for any events that required travel.  As I eased back in, I noticed something – I was really having a hard time finding events that really excited me.  Sure, they sounded good but I wasn’t learning as much as I wanted to.  The problem was that I was treading familiar ground.

Then, by chance, I signed up for a Library Journal event.  It was online and it was free.  Whatever.  Nothing to lose.

Sometimes you really do get more than your money’s worth.  I think it was the fact that it was organized by people with a libraries focus.  Yes, everyone spoke on books.  Many spoke on writing.  But the slant was just different enough to feel fresh, new and exciting. The good news is that School Library Journal has another event coming up in March.  Okay, I looked it up.  It is on March 27, 2019.

Middle Grade Magic is all about middle grade literature and it is FREE.  I’ve already signed up and, if they would let me, I’d sign up again now that the full schedule is up.

10:00 AM | Booths Open

11:00–11:30 AM | Opening Keynote: Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks.)

11:30 AM–12:15 PM | Panel 1: Make ‘Em Laugh: Funny Reads
Georgia Dunn, Breaking Cats News and Lupin Leaps In (Andrews McMeel)
Lamar Giles, The Last Last-Day-of-Summer (HMH/Versify)
Kelly Jones, Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? (Knopf)
Geoff Rodkey, We’re Not From Here (Crown)
Moderated by Marybeth Kozikowski, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY

12:30–1:00 PM | Lunch Keynote with Kekla Magoon (Random/Wendy Lamb Bks.)
Sue here: If you’ve paid any attention to middle grade, you’ve seen Magoon’s name. She has three Coretta Scott King Honors and has been on the National Book Award Long List. The Season of Styx Malone was named an SLJ Best Book of 2018.

1:00–1:45 PM | Panel 2: Exploring “Tough Topics” in Fiction
Tony AbbottThe Great Jeff (Little, Brown)
Veera HiranandaniThe Night Diary (Penguin/Kokila)
Mae RespicioThe House That Lou Built (Random/Wendy Lamb Bks.)
Kate MessnerBreakout (Bloomsbury)
Sue here: I loved Breakout so I’m really jazzed at the opportunity to hear Messner speak.

1:45–2:30 PM | Panel 3: Graphic Narratives
Don BrownRocket to the Moon (Abrams)
Shannon HaleBest Friends (First Second)
Dylan MeconisQueen of the Sea (Candlewick)
Mai K. NguyenPilu of the Woods (Oni Press)
Brenna ThummlerSheets (Lion Forge)
Moderated by Mahnaz DarSLJ Graphic Novel Editor
Sue here: Shannon Hale and Brenna Thummler!  Sheets is currently in my to-be-read stack from the library.

2:45–3:30 PM | Panel 4: Fantastic Worlds, Incredible Journeys
Alane AdamsThe Blue Witch (Sparkpoint Studio)
David BowlesThe Unicorn Rescue Society: The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande (Dutton)
Carlos HernandezSal and Gabi Break the Universe (Disney)
Kim LongLexi Magill and the Teleportation Tournament (Running Pr.)
Allison MillsThe Ghost Catcher (Annick)
Moderated by Ashleigh WilliamsSLJ Assistant Editor, Middle Grade

3:30–4:00 PM | Closing Keynote: Ali BenjaminThe Next Great Paulie Fink(Little, Brown)

Continuing to learn is a must if you are going to grow as a writer and continue to love what you do.  If you want to take advantage of this particular opportunity, you can find out more here.