Voice and the Research Rabbit Hole

Research can be a dangerous thing. First of all, there is the rabbit hole effect where you go online to look something up and emerge an hour later without that particular fact, but with 15 others.

Then there are those moments when you have to listen to a piece of music and it gets stuck in your head. Hank Williams singing I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry has been stuck in my head since Monday night.  A lesson I was studying was discussing voice and they had us listen to Hank Williams, B.J. Thomas, and Cassandra Wilson.

Amazon.com: I Saw The Light [DVD] [2016]: Movies & TVThe author of the lesson encouraged us to listen to how the same song sounded completely different when performed by these three different singers.  Cassandra’s Wilson’s version is a soft jazz ballad, smooth as honey.  B.J. Thomas?  He is a popular singer from the 60’s and 70’s world of pop.  His sound was more Tony Bennett to my untrained ears.  Hank Williams carried it with the twang and soulful sound I associate with this particular song.

How do different singers each give a song their own unique voice?  In part, it is done with their choice of instruments.  A piano is going to create a completely different sound than the wail of a steel guitar.  Harmonies, background vocals and more can come into play.

What does this have to do with voice?  Thomas and Wilson didn’t just sing ala Hank Williams.  They took the song and made it their own.

When you write something, you need to make it sound like you.  If you tell the story of the Three Pigs, it should sound entirely different than if I told it.  And neither one of us should ever be confused with Jane Yolen or even another poet like Naomi Shihab Nye.  And if Hank Williams told the story it would sound uniquely like Hank Williams.

Did you know that Tom Hiddleston played Hank Williams in I Saw the LIght? Rabbit hole. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


The Power of the Denouement

I’ll be the first person to admit it.  In most pieces of writing, fiction and nonfiction, I tend to rush the ending.  I reach the climax, and I am ready to hit the road, on to new places.  That’s because what I’m writing is the ending, not a true denouement.

As defined by Writer’s Digest, the denouement is where loose ends are tied up and secrets are revealed.  That’s what I always think I am doing but still editors, critiquers and writing partners say the same thing – the ending is rushed.

Then I saw this post, Storyville: Why Denouement is Important to a Satisfying Story.  The denouement does more than tie things together.  Yes, this is where internal conflict and external conflict are joined. This is where you show that change happens.

But it is also where emotion comes out to play one last time.  A character who has chosen to save their people over love will feel that loss even as those around them celebrate.  A sleuth who finds out that the murderer is their mentor will be rocked to the core even as they are satisfied that it is over.  Emotions, both positive and negative, swirl throughout a strong ending.

This is also a time for revelations especially in post-apocalyptic stories.  The wall hasn’t been keeping monsters out, it has been keeping workers in.  Above ground is freedom but freedom comes with a price.

Even if a story is not apocalyptic, post or otherwise, there is truth in the denouement.  This is where the character realizes that she was driven not by justice but by revenge or that she has been manipulated by some larger power.

In my opinion, endings are especially hard to do well.  By tying up the action plot and the inner plot, bringing in emotion, and the sharp edge of truth, you’ll have a good start on getting it right.


3 Problems with Antagonists

Darth Tater. One evil spud.

Last week I stumbled across K.M. Weiland’s 7 Considerations for Your Antagonist’s Motivations.  I’ve been looking askance at the protagonist in the mystery I am currently reading and now I understand why in three simple points.

He’s just plain crazy.

First of all, this is problematic because mental illness carries such a huge stigma. It doesn’t help when so many writers create mentally ill antagonists.  If that isn’t where the author I am currently reading is headed, the other probability is just as big a problem.

Picture of evil.

Protagonists that are just evil incarnate are also hard to pull off.  Whether they are bent on world domination or ending the world, very few stories can carry off this type of antagonist.  This type of antagonist is just too big for most stories and really?  Good vs evil?  True, that is how most people think of themselves (good) and those who stand in their way (evil).

Dehumanized antagonists.

“He’s just an animal.”  “She isn’t even human.”  “His eyes pits with no soul.”  The third pitfall to beware is dehumanizing your antagonist.  This is something our society has done for far too long with people we don’t understand or value.  Don’t take this cheap way out with your antagonist.  Instead, do something that is much more difficult but also yields a more compelling story.

Create a character who is deeply human with a motivation you protagonist and even your reader can understand and sympathize with.  This will make your protagonists choices that much more difficult to make.

Think about it. Slapping down someone who isn’t human and is just pure evil?  There’s no moral quandry there.  It cheapens the struggle.  But having to struggle and take something away from someone you can identify with and quite possibly like?  That is much more difficult emotionally and, if played right, will lead to a more gripping story.



3 Things I Learned about Similar Ideas

Recently, I went online at my local library to request Don’t Leave, a picture book by Amy K. Rosenthal.  Not only did my library have that book, they also had another picture book by the same name, this one by Tom Booth. Curious just how similar the two books would be, I checked them both out.

Nor surprisingly, there were similarities.

  • Both books break the 4th wall and address the reader directly.
  • Both books challenge the reader not to blink.
  • Both books feature anthropomorphic animal characters.

That was it, but it made me think.  How often have I given up on a project because I hear that an agent has just sold something similar?  Or a pubilsher has announced a book by the same name?

But the pairing of Don’t Blink titles made me realize several things.

Don’t Give Up

These books were published a year apart.  It isn’t likely, but what if Rosenthal had heard about Booth’s book and given up?  She would have lost a publication.

But she finished her book and pursued publication and so should I because . . .

The Similarities Would Have Been Limited

Both of these picture books are about blinking and both challenge the reader not to blink.  But one is a bedtime story allegedly encouraging the reader to stay awake.  Every time you blink, you have to turn a page.  The second is a staring contest between the characters and the reader.  It is also a cummulative tale with more and more animals characters arriving until they all leave to do other things.

My book on a topic and a pubilshed book on the same topic would like be just as different.  Why?

Unique Perspectives

Each author brings a unique perspective to his or her work.  Yesterday, I was watching the Kidlit Distancing Social with Candice Ransom.  One of the things that she discussed is that if every person watching the video wrote a book about birds, they would all be different.

Each of us brings out own interests, experiences and talents to the table.  These things shape our books and make them unique.

That said, you should still check what is out there.  That way you will know how your work is unique and will be able to share this with potential publishers.




Poetry and a Book Give Away

What’s better than tigers? How about a picture book about a tiger?

When David Harrison commented on his blog that he still owed his son a poem about tigers, fellow author Jane Yolen responded.  Soon the two were spinning an idea for a poetic picture book about a tiger.

The good news is that their picture book, Rum Pum Pum is coming out on September 15, 2020.  Even better news?  You can win a copy here at Kathy Temean’s blog.

That’s one of the great things about poetry and picture books.  A picture book can be a poem.  A poem can be a picture book.

Although I love the wordplay in picture books, I only dabble in poetry once in a while.  And by dabble I mean play with writing.  I will dash off a poem as a writing exercise.  Every now and then an idea will pop into my head that is clearly a poem.  Will any of these ideas become picture books?

Definitely not the one I was play with this weekend.  It is a poem in two voices about the things people fear although these things aren’t a serious threat vs the things people do not fear although they probably should.

But I did come up with an idea for a children’s poem while watching the Kid Lit Distancing Social with David Harrison.  He was talking about children’s poetry, which is no shock given the amount he writes, when a new form popped into my head.

Is it really a new form?  I don’t know because I haven’t done the research on it yet.  It is just something I’m having fun playing with although it could become something.  And even if it doesn’t I’m having fun playing with it.  And as I have fun playing with my writing, more and more ideas pop into my head.  One is an adult short story, quite possibly flash fiction.  Another is a picture book.

Writing something I don’t plan to sell is a great way to stretch my creative muscles.



Does This Belong in My Story? The Ultimate Test

Laptop, Woman, Education, Study, Young, ComputerRecently I read a post on Fiction University, “Learning from the Mistakes of even the (gasp!) Greats.”  In her post, Bonnie Randall discusses wading through a book by an author that she normally loves.  Unfortunately this time around the main character is endlessly, and needlessly, sarcastic.  He has a bad relationship with his son, but doesn’t care.  His back story includes the one that got away.

Sarcasm (humor), character flaws, and lost love aren’t always a problem.  But they are in this case because none of them propels the story forward.  Because of this, they get in the way and slow things down.

What then is the ultimate test?  When you are reviewing your work take a good hard look at subplots, scenes, characters, and character traits.  Do they somehow move the story forward?  If so, they can stay.  If not?  I’m sorry but they need to go.

Yes, even if you love that particular sarcastic jab or that atmospheric scene.  The only way that they can stay if is you can give them a deeper, more essential part to play.

Think about it.  You have to give your main character a flaw.  Perhaps she is annoyingly sarcastic.  Was she one of a dozen kids and she used this sarcasm to get attention?  Make sure the readers know this but then take it another step.  Make either her sarcasm or her insecurity something that gets in the way of solving the plot.

What about lost love or a lost friendship?  Again, go beyond using this in an attempt to make your character more interesting.  Instead go into how it impacts the current story.

Just dropping a character trait, backstory, a setting, a character, or a prop into the story without weaving it in makes for a story that feels cluttered.  If you weave it in, it becomes something that impacts the rest of the story when tugged.

Give it a try and see how it impacts your work.


4 Ways to Celebrate National Literacy Month

Did you know that September is National Literacy Month?  I assume that if you are reading my blog, you are a book lover but some of the statistics might surprise you.  In 2018, 32 million adults in the US could not read.  In a middle class neighborhood, there are 13 books/child.  In low income neighborhoods there are 300 children/book.

Fortunately, there are a lot of things that writers can do to support literacy during physical distancing.

Support a literacy program. 

As tempting as it may be, adding books to your local little free library probably isn’t your best bet.  Of course now that I want to quote it, I can’t find the article but I read that Little Free Libraries are more of a way to flaunt middle class values than they are helpful.  The kids who have access to them generally have access to other books.  The kids who need them most have probably never heard of the phenomenon.

Model reading.   

I always see the recommendation that you read at home so that your children see you do it.  What about public reading?  Sit on your front porch and read.  Pick something like a picture book with a big profile.  Let the neighbor kids see you enjoying a book.

Make a video about a book.

Lately I’ve been making short videos about books that I’ve enjoyed.  I post them on Youtube.  You could discuss a book every Monday on Facebook live.  The recording will be available after your event. Your video doesn’t have to be slick or polished.  Just be enthusiastic.

Post Images.

Whether you are on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, share the cover of a book you love.  Whenver you read something you like, post about it and link the author’s name.  They’ll be thrilled!  And people will have something to look at other than a political post or a funny cat video.

What other things would you recommend?



Labor Day: Expanding Your Horizons

We didn’t get to spend the entire weekend out of town but we did make a run down to the lake.  I have to say that it was amazing to get out of the city and spend a day without a mask.  I had it in my pocket but we only saw people in the dining room (1 family per table) and on the patio on which we could all spread out.

When you live in the city, it can be hard to remember that there really are places like this.  Trees and sky.  Gravel roads and greenery.  People?  Not so very many.

I try to remember this when I’m tempted to state that no one lives in small towns any more.  And everywhere is cell phone accessible.  Not where we were.  We were someplace where people farm and hunt to eat.

It is super easy to think you know how these people think, but you might be wrong.  Sure, we passed a log home with a Trump banner flying from the front porch.  But the house next door had a sign that said “Missourian’s for Biden.” Down in this part of the country I’ve met trappers with chemistry degrees and carpenters with an enviable knowledge of history.

Not only does this part of the country help me recharge, it helps me check my assumptions.   And I get a taste of the animals I love writing about.  This weekend we saw a blue heron, a turkey vulture and what was probably an immature bald eagle.  I talked to a fourteen-year-old who saw a bob cat two months ago.  He also told me there are otters in the area although he hasn’t seen them.  Like me, he was glad to take off his mask and spend some time in the sunshine.

This is definitely something I’ll be doing more often.


Three Things to Remember about Diaologue in Nonfiction

One of the things that new nonfiction writers find confusing is how they can possibly include dialogue in their work.  It is easy enough if they are writing up an interview, but what about historic pieces that include dialogue?  Here are three things to remember.

Dialogue Provides a Connection

Whether you are writing a piece about a NASA scientist today or you are writing about mapping Africa, dialogue helps readers connect with the people they are reading about.  They may not be engaged in the conversation but dialogue provides them with the opportunity to overhear what was being said.

Something Else to Research

Writing nonfiction requires a lot of research and dialogue doesn’t help.  Each and every word you include within quotation marks has to be researched.  This is especially important because you are not only reporting something as fact, you are attributing these exact words to someone.  This means that to use them, you have to find them.

Where do you find quotations?  Diaries, letters and speeches are all great sources.  Autobiographies and biographies are good as long as they were put together by trusted writers working with reputable publishers.  But it is definitely worth it when you find something that packs a punch.


But quotes can also be problematic if the statement is long and rambling or is simply too difficult for your readers.  I run into this when I am research science topics and the quotes I find contain a lot of jargon.  The good news is that you can paraphrase although that does mean you cannot put it in quotation marks.  I recently found the following in “Six Months of Coronavirus” by Ewen Callaway, Heidi Ledford, and Smriti Mallapaty in the journal Nature.  First, a direct quote:

“People are equating antibody to immunity, but the immune system is such a wonderful machine,” says Finzi. “It is so much more complex than just antibodies alone.”

This is exactly what virologist Andres Frinzi said.  The next isn’t a direction quote but something the authors paraphrased:

But protective immunity, which can prevent or ease symptoms, could last longer than that, says Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology in California.

Paraphrasing can allow you to clarify a confusing quote or express something using words your reader will understand.

Dialogue, scene and action are all topics that I cover in my class “Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults.”  The next section begins on Monday with another section following in October.  Nonfiction writing is a great way to get your work into the hands of young readers.



Thinking Outside the Box During the Pandemic

Cat, Box, PredatorI’m going to try this post one more time before I shelve the topic and let myself process it some more.  I’ve been noodling over how now, during the pandemic, is a great time to flex a little and think outside the box.  But this idea didn’t coalesce until I watched the Kid Lit Distancing Social with David Harrison.  Somewhere past the middle he said that you should not break the rules without knowing you are doing it.

Granted, he was talking about writing poetry, but that’s really the broader idea that I’ve been playing with.  During the pandemic is a great time to break the rules.

Yesterday I read a great School Library Journal article about a Texas history teacher, Cathy Cluck and how she bent the teaching rules during COVID.  Like many teachers, Cathy is used to connecting with her students face to face.  How to do it when they are each sitting at their own screen?  Her answer?  A historic road trip. She could offer lessons from historic places.  She plotted out a road trip, Zooming live from some locations and creating videos at the ones she reached too early to use in lecture.  What a great opportunity to teach her students from location!

Teachers aren’t the only ones pushing the rules now that they’ve been forced outside of the classroom for a semester at a time.  One writer friend reported that she walked past her daughter on Zoom class and was surprised the girl was wearing a top hat.  A quick glance at the screen showed none of her classmates in hats.  “Why are you wearing that?”  “Why not?”

Why not indeed?  Why not write what hasn’t been done before?  Whether you are writing a picture book, a graphic novel, or middle grade nonfiction, try something that has never been done before.  Most often when we do this, we try to find a topic no one has covered.  Why not push it a bit and trying something that breaks the rules?

I’m working on a picture book that will feature images of babies which, as I wrote in “What You Need to Know about Writing Board Books,” will appeal to babies and toddlers.  But the text?  The text is humorous and written like an informercial or advotainment.  It will appeal to the parents and older picture book readers.  Does this follow all of the rules we are told to use when writing picture books?  Not so much.

But I knew it when I did it.  You’d think I was visiting historic sites wearing a top hat.