3 Things to Consider When Using Song Lyrics in Your Book

When I rewrite my cozy, each chapter will open with a verse, or part of a verse, from a hymn. Like a lot of writers I know, and a lot of the people I know, music is a huge part of my life. So it isn’t surprising that so many of us attempt to use it in our stories. Attempt? Yep. It doesn’t always work. Here are three things to keep in mind about using lyrics in your work, fiction or nonfiction.

Using song lyrics in your writing can be tricky.
Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

Deeply Personal

Music is deeply personal. I have far ranging taste and music that speaks to me ranges from rockabilly to heavy metal. Yeah, I’m kind of hard to peg down. But among what I love are old hymns. The problem is that what speaks to me may not speak to my reader. The lyrics I choose to include could hook some readers but others might put the book back on the shelf because of these same lyrics.


Lyrics are copyrighted. That means that if a song is under copyright, you have to pay a fee to include the lyrics in your own work. So think again before you include a line or two from an Ed Sheeran ballad. You will not only have to get Ed’s permission but also pay a fee.

This is probably why so many books include song titles. Song titles are not copyrighted. My character can listen to “Afterglow,” “You Better You Better You Bet,” and “Don’t Wanna Fight.” But as long as I do not quote any lyrics I don’t owe any money to Ed Sheeran, The Who, or Alabama Shakes.

Of course, there is a workaround but it means avoiding copyright music.

Public Domain

You are going to see it posted in various places that the copyright has expired on songs that were published before 1923. That is often but not always true. If the earliest AUTHORIZED publication was before 1923, the work is in public domain. If a song was published in 1914 without permission but the first authorized publication was 1930 it may still be under copyright.

You are going to have to do your homework to make sure that the music you want to use is copyright free or you are going to have to pay a fee.

I suspect this is why a lot of authors make up original folkmusic or lyrics for rockbands that exist only in the writer’s imagination. Me? I’m going to see what I can find in terms of copyright on hymns. The beauty is that we are still singing hymns that are well over 100 years old. Fingers crossed!


Picture Books: Written with Layers

One Dark Bird by Liz Garton Scanlon

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about creating layers in your picture book. Layers give your work depth and help make it marketable. This was one of the topics that Liz Garton Scanlon talked about in her webinar. I just read one of her books and it really drove the point home.

At the most basic level, One Dark Bird is a counting book about . . . birds. If you’ve got a picture book reader or you write picture books you know that there are a lot of counting book. There are probably even a lot of counting books about birds. So you are going to have to do more than that to bring your book into the market.

But this is also a book that defines murmuration. That’s an awful lot of birds to bring in one at a time, so that isn’t how Scanlon does it. She takes a unique approach. First you have One Dark Bird. Then you add in two more birds, then three more and so on. By midway, you have a hundred birds here and a hundred birds there. Then it is all about the murmuration.

So you have 1 through 10. And you have a murmuration. The numbers increase but then they also decrease so there is an introduction to math as well.

But this is a story that also spans a day, not 24 hours but the daylight portion. That’s part of the structure but it is also another concept within the book. Birds wake up with the dawn and they settle down as the sunsets. The young reader gets up in the morning and settles down to sleep as night falls.

Not all concept books are this complex but layers can help you create a book without direct competition. That is true whether you are writing a concept book or a fictional picture book about birds, ant or aardvarks. Take a look at your work-in-progress. Can you, should you, add a layer?


3 Reasons to Apply for an SCBWI Grant

Although I’ve never won a grant, I’m putting together my application for The Ann Whitford Paul—Writer’s Digest Manuscript Award.  Why bother?  For several reasons.


Without a doubt, the number one reason is an opportunity to be recognized for what I do. If you’ve written for any length of time, you know that writing is a fairly solitary occupation.  It would be nice to have someone say, “Hey, this is good!”  And what better way than through a grant.  Because that’s recognition that comes with a check to help you . .  .


The whole purpose for this grand is to give someone the opportunity to hone a top notch manuscript.  Quite often attending conferences, taking classes, and getting critiques takes money.  The award for this grant is $1000 and that would be a huge help.

Naming Yourself

But more important than either of these is that by applying you are naming yourself A Writer.  Why else would you apply for a writing grant?

The Ann Whitford Paul-Writer’s Digest Manuscript Award is for a single picture book manuscript.  To qualify:

  • You must be an SCBWI member.
  • The manuscript must be under 1000 words.
  • The manuscript cannot be under contract.
  • You must not have sold a picture book manuscript in the last five years.

If this sounds like something you would like to enter, submissions are open from February 1, 2021 through April 10, 2020. To find out where to send your work and to review the rules, click through here.

Even if you don’t need the money to work on your craft, you can use it for anything that will help you develop your manuscript.  This could include research fees or a new laptop.

A lot of writers talk themselves out of applying for grants or residency programs.  Don’t think about why you shouldn’t do it.  You’re a writer!  This is for writers.  Why shouldn’t it be for you?


3 New Offerings from Save the Cat!®

I’m excited to be taking part in the blog tour for Save the Cat!®. My post doesn’t go up until 3/19 but I wanted to give all of you the chance to take advangate of the various blog posts and enter to win access to the new course, Cracking the Beat Sheet.

I’m really enjoying this class. My middle grade science fiction novel, Air Stream, is changing as I work through the lessons! The new ending? So much better than the original!

First, what is Save the Cat!®? 

Save the Cat! provides writers the resources they need to develop their screenplays and novels based on a series of best-selling books, primarily written by Blake Snyder (1957- 2009). Blake’s method is based on 10 distinctive genres and his 15 story beats (the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet). Our books, workshops, story structure software, apps, and story coaching teach you everything you need to unlock the fundamentals and mechanics of plot and character transformation. 

Find out more about Save the Cat! by visiting their webpage.

About the Save the Cat! Cracking the Beat Sheet Online Course

This course is designed for writers to turn their idea into a movie or novel. This learn-at-your-own-pace online class helps you develop the 15 key “beats” or “plot points” of your story. Strung together, in the right order, these 15 beats make up the blueprint to a successful screenplay or novel. 

You’ll Turn an Idea into a Story by Learning to… 

• Create a solid beat sheet that will serve as the road map, and “backbone” of your story 

• Identify and know the key components of your story genre

• Learn the clichés of your genre so that you can break them like an artist 

• Plot your hero’s journey and “transformation”

• Troubleshoot your story idea for viability 

• Write a compelling logline or elevator pitch 

This Course Is for Those Who… 

• Want to troubleshoot an existing story 

• Have so many great ideas and struggle to choose “the one” 

• Are ready to write but not sure how to start 

• Are determined to finish a half-written story 

• Want to learn 

This Course Includes… 

• Over 3 hours and 17 minutes of original video production 

• 9 downloadable worksheets

• 3 reading assignments (book not included) 

• 4 homework assignments 

Course Value: $59 

Find out more information about the Save the Cat! Cracking the Beat Sheet Online Course by visiting https://www.savethecatcourses.com/courses/cracking-the-beat-sheet.

In addition to the course there are Story Cards, Beat Cards. and Scene Cards. I haven’t worked with those but you can find out more about them at the Muffin, the blog for Women on Writing. Click here to find out more. And visit the other stops on the tour (see below) to connect with a great group of writers.


The State of Publishing

What are your favorite types of social media?

I hope some of you signed up for the SCBWI Winter conference. It was this past weekend. I attended three sessions on Saturday and am looking forward to the viewing the Zoom links of those remaining. One of the sessions I’ve already seen was Jean Feiwel’s State-of-the-industry interview., she is Senior Vice President and Publisher, Feiwel & Friends, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Swoon Reads, Square Fish. At Scholastic, she oversaw the development of Animorphs and the Baby Sitters Club as well as the acquisition of the first four Harry Potter books.

She was an amazing speaker. I was impressed by her willingness to tell it like she sees it. She had some amazing news for publishing. As she pointed out, 2020 was the best year that children’s publishing has had in a while. Backlist titles especially sold well.

But she had other news that some people may consider a negative. Me? I’m not so sure.

She said that we definitely need to be active in social media. Yes, your book matters. And you obviously aren’t going to sell it if you don’t write it. But social media is a must.

She emphasized not only that it puts us in touch with our readers and/or those who buy books for them but there was more. It puts us in touch with the vast publishing community. And we need these people. They are, after all, our people. But they are also our support system and one of our greatest assets.

The good news is that this is something we can each control. We know who we are. We know what our strengths are. And we can find a way to utilize these strengths online. I don’t remember exactly what Feiwel said but it was soemthing to the effect of “not everyone wants to give interviews but there are so many other possibilities.”

Social media is changing all the time. What is your favorite type of social media? How can you use it to reach out to potential readers and/or book buyers? The possibilities are endless.



Facing a deadline.

It never fails. When I have a deadline, one of my students has a pressing problem. The phone/doorbell won’t stop ringing. The toilet mimics Old Faithful. The garbage disposal falls off and the sink empties into a basement closet. What is that dripping?

Okay. I’ll admit it. I’m exaggerating just a tiny bit for comedic effect. All of that didn’t happen for the same deadline. They were spread out over the years. But it doesn’t seem to matter how well I plan, something always happens when I’m on deadline.

I’ve conducted my last phone interview standing in my son’s fort, my head cocked to one side. Why? Because the power went out and the only operating cell tower was not close at hand. I’ve done hard copy edits leaning on the wall in the emergency room. And I finished keying a manuscript in parked at the corner of the library to use their wifi because ours was down. I’ve also done an edit in the car zipping off to my father-in-laws because my disk (remember disks?) failed and I had hours to retype and submit my article. No, I wasn’t driving.

Honestly, in the time of pandemic, deadlines are actually less stressful. My son is finishing his last class for his associates degree and he’s doing it from his room. That’s his office for tutoring as well. My husband? His desk is right behind me. If something comes up, they can handle it. That’s a huge relief.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to check my footnotes and make certain I alphabetized the bibliography. It doesn’t pay to wait until the last minute. The deadline gremlins may be lurking.


3 Reasons to Read Your Work Aloud

Take the time to read your work aloud.
Photo by Samson Katt on Pexels.com

One of my writing friends, Kris Nitz,  taught me to read my work aloud.  She explained to me that she does this even when she is writing a novel.  That seemed like a lot of effort but then I gave it a try.  I quickly came to see things her way.  Why?  Because reading my work aloud helps in these three areas.

Catch Mistakes

When I read my work aloud, I catch mistakes that I missed both on screen and in print. It might be a typo (chose vs choose). Or it might be repetition. This doesn’t mean that I’ve typed the same word word twice in a row. It might simply mean that I’ve used it too often in a single paragraph or I’ve repeated certain facts or transitions on the same page. Why are these things more obvious out loud? I have no idea. I’m just glad that they are.

The Beauty of Language

Something can be technically correct and still be clunky or awkward, much like the word awkward. I catch these things hwen I hear my work. I’m also more aware of the beauty of language and turns of phrase when I hear things read aloud. At first, I thought that was just my imagination but it is something my critique group has confirmed. They’ve noted my tendency to play with sound even in tween nonfiction.


Voice is all about sounding like yourself. When I write about certain things, I need to be careful. Archaeology and history sometimes send me back to academia. Soon, I fall prey to what my husband lovingly calls aca-da-babble or academic babbling. It is convoluted and wordy and uses ten thousand dollar words when much simply text would do. But when I read my work aloud? I sound like me!

So if you are having troubles developing your voice, read your work aloud. It can also help you catch mistakes or simply create text that flows. Try it.


Why Rewriting Is a Writer’s Most Valuable Skill

This GIF tells you all you need to know about my WIP.

Lilo on the left is my initial enthusiasm.  “This project is amazing!  Woo hoo!  This is the best idea ever.”

Stitch?  That’s the current reality – seriously?  Really?  Did I write this?  It is so lame.

And that, my writing friends, is why 90% of writing is in fact rewriting.  The idea, powered by enthusiasm, gets us started.

But that draft we get down on paper just is not as amazing as what we had in mind.  In fact, to get it even close, we need to rewrite.  No manuscript is perfect the first time around.  Not one.  Although some of them are pretty amazing even in the first draft, most require multiple rewrites.

Right now, I’m working on a contracted nonfiction project.  Before I start writing, I turn in an outline for my editor and I to go over.  Then I get to work.  That first draft?  Never perfect.  There are gaps.  THERE ARE COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS TYPED IN CAPS.  I fix these gaps and the capitalized issues in the next draft.

Then I check the word count.  The next draft raises or lowers, most often lowers, the word count.  It is also when I work on the reading level.  Then I print it out.

Why do I work from a print out?  Because I always catch things that weren’t obvious on screen.  As I later make the changes on screen, I also read aloud.  This gives me one last chance to hear it all and fix the rough spots.  Some writers can make their work sing without reading it aloud.  Others, like myself, need to hear their text read.

Yes, writing is a lot of work.  And many people get frustrated and give up when their first draft isn’t the sleek, star-bound story they imagined.  Unfortunately, giving up means that their story never really has a chance to take off.


Why You Must Evaluate Advice

Look before you leap. Writing advice is not one-size-fits-all.
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Whether you are reading blogs like mine, articles in Writer’s Digest, or tweets about writing, there are people everywhere who are willing to tell you what to do – never this, always that, and the most important thing for you to know. In part because there is so much advice out there, it is vital that you learn to evaulate it before you put it into action.

There are two things you need to examine.

Who Is Giving the Advice

The first thing to consider is who is this person giving out advice? In my own experience, very often the most outspoken people know the least. There is the person with no sales who tells you how to find editors or the novelist who picks apart your picture book manuscript. Granted, some of the advice might be spot on but some of it might not.

The other problem is the person who really is a professional but not in this particular area. A friend of mine had a manuscript panned when it was critiqued by an agent. The problem was that the agent knew nothing about this specialized type of writing. Her advice? Give it up and do something else although my friend already had three books published in this particular field. Ten years later all are still in print and selling.

Not everyone is in the know where your topic is concerned. But that isn’t the only potential problem.

Not Right for You

Their advice may not be right for you. At one point, and I don’t remember the context, Jane Yolen said something about how she did things not working for other writers. She wasn’t telling people that they couldn’t succeed. She wasn’t even telling them that they couldn’t follow in her footsteps.

But she was telling them that what she did worked for her where she was at that point in time. Publishing has changed. What worked thirty years ago isn’t likely to work today. A writer with a page full of publications can get by with something when a brand new writer could not.

This might have worked for her and it might have worked then, but it might not be the right advice for you now. Publishing is tricky to navigate, but it is possible. Just be sure to look before you leap.


3 Reasons You Need to Talk the Talk

Learn to talk the talk so you can discuss your work with other publishing professionals.
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If you are new to children’s publishing, you may be feeling a tad overwhelmed by the jargon. There are picture books, chapter books, and young adult novels. You have fiction, nonfiction, and informational texts. It may be tempting to shrug and ignore these terms. After all, you just want to write for kids. You can send in your work and let the publisher sort it out.

Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen. Here are three reasons you need to learn the lingo.

What Are Editors Requesting?

When an editor, agent or publisher puts out a call, you need to know what it is they want. After all, a nonfiction STEM picture book is going to be very different from a young adult novel with touches of magical realism. If you don’t know what they are asking for, how can you possibly know what to send them? If nothing else, Google unfamiliar terms. “What is magical realism?” (It is amazing! That’s what.)

Know What You Are Sending

You also need to know the lingo so that you know what you are submitting when you send something in. If you say that you are sending a picture book and the editor finds a 2500 word manuscript, you are going to earn a rapid ‘no thank you.” Using the correct terminology to describe your work shows publishing professionals that you too are a pro. That’s going to cast your work in a completely different light. And if it is the buzz of the next office Zoom meeting, it will be a good buzz. And, that’s what you want.

When It Is Time to Break the Rules

If you know the terminology used in publishing as well as the conventions of each type of book, you can sometimes get by with breaking the rules. Why? Because you know what the rules are and why this rule right here needs to be broken to tell this particular story in the most effective way.

Every industry has conventions and terminology. Learn what they are and then you can set about carving a space that only you and your work can fill.