Passive Voice: The Best Test Ever

“Eliminate passive voice whenever possible.”

My editor is so polite. He doesn’t have a fit when he finds passive voice in my work. But as soon as he mentions it, my mind goes blank. Sometimes I’m like that when you put me on the spot.

I think the big problem with this is my grammar education was limited. I learned more about grammar and parts of speech in English studying Spanish than I did in all my English classes put together.

So I feel like it is a struggle to find passive voice in order to eliminate it. Thank goodness for the Zombie Test.

If you don’t feel like watching the video, in an active sentence the subject is doing something.

Amber eats the apple.

Amber (the subject) eats. Yep. That’s active.

In a passive sentence, the subject is acted on.

The apple is eaten.

The apple (the subject) is eaten. Definitely passive.

But not all sentences that contain a “to be” verb are passive. Sometimes it is a linking verb.

The apple is fruit.

Not sure you can tell? Add the phrase “by zombies.” If the sentence makes sense, it is passive.

Amber eats the apple by zombies.

Nope. That doesn’t work so it is definitely active.

The apple is eaten by zombies.

That makes sense so the sentence is definitely passive. The Zombie Test. Learn it. Use it. Eliminate passive voice whenever possible. Your editor will be happy. And, no. That is not passive. In that case, it is a linking verb. Isn’t grammar something special?


Research: Do You Keep Your Sources?

Black Lives Matter
Dakota Access Pipeline

Saturday I had a conversation with some of my fellow authors. One woman told us that she has boxes of material on each book. And she saves it all.

Me? I have to admit that this is not my method for much of what I write. When I do educational books, I save PDFs of articles I download from the library. Print things out? Not for these books. I just use too much. For my current project, I’ve roughed three chapters so far and I have three and a half pages in my bibliography. At this rate, my bibliography will be 14 pages long. I simply cannot store that much material.

But these books are also out in one year or less. I’ve already gone over everything with my editor by then and their fact checkers have it all.

Ancient Maya
The Evolution of Reptiles

There are also very few print books on most of my topics. This was definitely the problem when I was researching for Black Lives Matter and The Dakota Access Pipeline. Or there are books but they are out of date. I had this problem with both Ancient Maya and The Evolution of Reptiles and The Evolution of Mammals. I have bought a total of 7 books while researching my various projects.

The Evolution of Mammals

How long do I keep the material? Given how few books I have for my various projects, it is incredibly easy to keep my PDFs. They are all on my hard drive and my back up. This is true for my works-in-progress and my books in print.

I can’t say that I have a paper free office but my references materials? Very few in print but PDFs can be saved under author name in the same file as my manuscript. So much easier than coming through filing cabinets upstairs and down.


What I’m Reading

The Ash House by Angharad Walker

I always have a ton of library books. There are the picture books stacked on the coffee table. There are the books for whatever I’m working on. And then there’s what I’m reading for fun.

My fun reading is a little dark lately. At the moment I’m reading a middle grade novel called The Ash House by Angharad Walker. When eleven year-old Sol arrives at the Ash House, he wants a cure. He’s been in pain for years and none of the doctors can help him. The Ash House is supposed to be where he goes to heal.

I’m about half way through the book and I don’t want to give anything away. But it is oh so creepy. And something is definitely wrong. It is middle grade horror so super atmospheric but not super gory. Just the way I like it.

The audio book I’m listening to is The Lost Village by Camilla Sten. I’m all of 30 minutes into a 9 hour file so I don’t have a feel for this one yet. The publisher’s description says that almost everyone from a village disappears in 1959. The only people that remain are a woman who was stoned and a newborn. In the story, a group returns to make a documentary in the present.

They are just arriving on site when I had to stop listening.

The description says that this is thriller vs horror. It is also a translated title. I’m seeing more and more of those lately.

Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m so into dark books lately. The one I’m working on is a bit dark but not thriller or horror dark. It is SF dark.

Maybe this is why I also have an ongoing stack of picture books. What are you currently reading?


Audience vs. Who Will Buy Your Book

When you write for children, you need to know about two groups of people. You need to know who your audience is and who will buy your book.


Your audience is your reader or the child to whom your book is read. Unless you write educational material for teachers or parents. If that is the case, your audience is made up of educators or parents.

If you write for young readers, your audience could be toddlers (board books), preschoolers (picture books), first graders (early readers), tweens (middle grade), teens (young adult).

Who Will Buy Your Book

If you write young adult, your audience is most often your buyer. After all, teens very often have their own money. But if you write for younger readers, your buyers will most often be the adults in their lives.

Why does this matter?

Because if you write picture books, you have to get your books past the adult gate keepers. If your book appeals to a four year-old but not their parents or grandparents, they probably will never see it.

But you’ve got an edge because you are, most likely, an adult. This means that you have a clue what appeals to adults. Possibilities are books that make good Christmas gifts, birthday gifts or baby shower gifts.

Why does this matter? Because you need to know there is a market for your work and where to find that market.

If I am appealing to the gatekeepers (adult buyers), I am more likely to connect with them on Twitter or Facebook. Maybe Instagram.

Teen YA buyers? I’m going to miss them completely if I focus on Facebook. For them I definitely need to head over to Instagram. Maybe even TikTok.

With a lot of book marketing falling to the author, it helps to know where to find your buyers. To know this, you have to have some clue who they are.


How I Built a Career in Children’s Nonfiction

I loved writing about archaeology in Ancient Maya.

I didn’t graduate from college planning to become a writer.  My degree is actually in anthropology.  I loved working in archaeology but took a new job at the university when it became clear that department wasn’t going to be around much longer. I didn’t much care for my new job.  I was paging through the university continuing education catalog when I found a class on writing for children.  I loved reading.  I loved buying books for my nieces.  Why not take the class? 

St. Louis author Patricia McKissack was a wonderful teacher.  Throughout the class, she explained story and character, plot and setting.  She showed us how to work in details.  She critiqued and encouraged.  During this class, I wrote a series of picture books.  They were not amazing. 

As my manuscripts slowly got better, a fellow writer bought Young Equestrian, a magazine for middle schoolers.  Not one issue.  She bought the whole thing and became the editor and publisher.  She came to a critique group meeting and asked us to write for her.

Horses fascinate me, but I wasn’t a magazine writer.  I wasn’t even a nonfiction writer. Still, someone was asking me to write for them. Thus began several years writing about horses and the people who love them.  I learned a lot.  

By the time the magazine folded, I thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.  A friend’s editor needed someone to write an article on writing.  There would be more work to come.  This seemed kind of risky.  After all, I didn’t write about writing.  Still, someone was asking for writers and I had an in. For years after this I wrote for Children’s Writer newsletter.  My work appeared in annuals like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market and Writer’s Market.  But editors move on and the newsletter folded. 

I’ve written crafts, activities and science fair projects.  I’ve written materials for the preschool classroom and testing materials.  I’ve written books for school libraries and books for reluctant readers.  

When you hear about an opportunity, do you look for a way to say yes?


Children’s Books and Earth Day

The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins

In celebration of Earth Day, I just read The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry. It is about Kate Sessions, a girl who grows into a woman who is passionate about trees. She is such a ground breaker that she even earned a college degree in science in 1881 from the University of California.

As an adult, she moved to San Diego to teach. This desert city was barren, without trees. Even City Park was tree free and not really a park at all. People used the land to graze their cattle. It was also where they dumped trash. Sessions did her research and brought in desert trees. As she planted trees in the park, people also bought trees from her, planting them at their homes.

When I picked it up, I didn’t realize it was about Balboa Park, formerly City Park, in San Dieogo. I love that park. And this book? I love it too.

Do you have a project that would be perfect for an Earth Day market? There are so many things that you could write about.

  • Conservation. This could include trees, water or soil. Animals and returning various species to the wild.
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle. You don’t hear this phrase all that often any more but people still talk about it using different terms. Minimalist living. Upcycling. Repurposing. What new could you bring to this conversation?
  • Social justice. When my husband and I started working with the Presbyterian Church green committees, we learned what a big part of the whole process social justice is. Why? Because the poor seldom have easy access to resources and frequently live in polluted areas.

No matter what you like to write, whether it is fiction, history, science or activities, you can find a way to work in an Earth Day theme. Why not start brainstorming something today?


Podcasts: Learn about Writing and Find Inspiration

Recently a group of writers were discussing favorite pod casts. While I sample writing pod casts, they are not my favorites.

My favorites are informational and cover a wide range of topics. They include:

It is amazing how often I come away from one of these podcasts with a writing idea.

Writing podcasts are a great way to learn about writing and marketing, especially if you are interested in indie publishing. Here are some of those on my feed, in no particular order:

  • DIY MFA Radio. Gabriela Pereira hosts this podcast that offers a weekly interview with authors and experts in the publishing industry.
  • The Manuscript Academy. Another podcast that offers interviews. These are with agents, editors and authors. About writing, business, and the publishing community.
  • Helping Writers Become Authors. Author K. M. Weiland’s podcast on inspiration and craft.
  • Writing for Children. Katie Davis hosts the Institute of Children’s Literature podcast that is up to 241 episodes.

I listen to podcasts while I do dishes and fold laundry. Knitting is also a good time to listen. If I haven’t included your favorite, please add it in the comments below.


Free to Use and Reuse at the LOC

From the Library of Congress
From the Library of Congress

Check out these awesome posters. They are from the Library of Congress and free to use. The library makes a number of images available. You can find them here on the Free to Use and Reuse Sets page.

These posters are both part of the “Libraries” collection and were printed by the WPA during World War II. I have to admit that the yellow poster first caught my eye because of the color. But then I noted what it was advertising. Our local libraries have had curbside pick up for quite some time because of COVID. I for one thought this was new. I should have known that if it was a good idea now it would have been a good idea at some point in the past.

Other images in this particular collection include both historic libraries and modern libraries.

Carnegie Library, Sheldon, Iowa. 1909. Library of Congress

Other collections include Maps of Discovery and Exploration, Posters of World War I, Veterans, Baseball Cards, Cats and Dogs.  Most of these digital offerings are photographs, postcards, posters, maps, and letter. But there is also a section of movies – Public Domain Films from the National Film Registry.

Maybe you are already working on something that might benefit from something that you would find in one of these sets. Or you might be noodling over what to write next. Inspiration could easily be found here.

The Route 9 Library and Innovation Center in New Castle Delaware. 2018. Library of Congress.

For my part, I’m contemplating what I could do that would involve Carnegie Libraries. I visited one with my writing friend Ann when we were in Eureka Springs, Arkansas about two years ago. Excuse me while I go noodle the possibilities.


SCBWI Crystal Kite Awards

I voted!  Members are casting ballots in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Crystal Kites Awards.  The Crystal Kites are voted on by your peers, fellow authors and illustrators.  There is an award for each of the SCBWI regional divisions worldwide. This means that as a member of the Mid-South, I vote for a book authored or illustrated by a fellow Mid-South member.

Yes, Missouri is part of the Mid-South. It doesn’t make a whole lof of sense to me but it doesn’t have to. You don’t even need to know what division you are in because it will automatically load to your profile page.

How do you vote?

  1. Go to the SCBWI site and log in.  You have to be logged in so this step is important.
  2. Once you have logged in and reached your member profile page, scroll to the bottom of the left hand menu and click on “Vote in the Crystal Kite Awards.”
  3. This will automatically take you to the correct region.  You can scroll down the page and click on “More Info” to find out additional information on any of the five books.
  4. Once you have decided which book you want to vote for, click on the “Vote For This Book” button for the book you have chosen.  You will be asked to confirm your vote and then you simply click “yes” or “no.”

I know it sounds tricky but once you make it to the actual ballot, just follow the prompts. It is super easy!

This is Round 2 which started on the 18th. You have until April 30, 2021 at 5 pm to vote. Winners will be announced in May. Good luck to all the authors and illustrators with books on the ballot!


Why You Need to Reread the Books You First Loved

The Tall Book of Make-Believe

I’ve been cleaning out and decluttering. This weekend, I got around to the bottom shelf on our bedroom bookcase. Book had been crammed onto the shelf but it hadn’t been dusted in several years. It was long past time to remove everything, get rid of the books I can’t explain, and dust.

And it was a good thing too because I rediscovered a treasure. My grandparents gave me The Tall Book of Make-Believe when I was five years-old. I loved everything about this book. I loved that it was tall and not shaped like other picture books. I loved that instead of being one story, it was a collection of poems and stories. I remembered that it included “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” a poem by Eugene Field. But I had forgotten so many of the illustrations, until I opened the book.

As I paged through the book, I came upon the bears bathing in a washtub and using a hair dryer. “I loved this picture!” Mice in a tea cup? A mouse brandishing a fork? Time and time again, I caught myself saying, “I loved this picture!”

Why these pictures? Is it because they are animals? Maybe. But I think a big part of it was that they are silly and fun. They made me laugh.

As a nonfiction author, I find myself writing about a lot of serious topics. I’ve written about the zika virus and COVID. I’ve got books on the assassination of JFK and the murders of Tupak Shakur and Biggie Smalls. War? That’s there too including both Pearl Harbor and World War I trench warfare. Then there are my books on race.

Don’t get me wrong. Serious topics are important. Young readers need books that explain the world to them. But something else they need? Books that are silly and funny. Stories that are goofy and make them laugh.

Those of us who write for young readers need these things as well. So tell me? What is it that makes you laugh?