Writing about Sensitive Topics by Writing about Something Else

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift | Book Review
Satire then.

Write about something that you feel strongly about and you run the risk of sounding preachy. The message can easily overwhelm the story you are trying to create. Fortunately, there are artists and writers who manage to write about sensitive topics. One of these creators is Zahra Al Mahdi. Zahra Al-Mahdi is a writer and artist who uses ink sketches on photographs and animation on live action to tell stories.

I recently saw her TED Talk, The Infinite Alchemy of Storytelling. In this talk, she discusses how she grew up in Kuwait getting information from screens, both the television and social media. The found that the information often contradicted either what she observed for herself or other information also derived from screens.

In her talk, she described a series of fictional animation interviews she created. Each piece was about an uncomfortable truth in Kuwaiti society. In one, a girl talks about how she wants to be just like her grandmother – cooking delicious food, beloved by all, and diabetic. Diabetic? Like the US, Kuwait has a diabetese epidemic. Adults model behavior and, in copying it, younger relatives end up with the same health problems.

Another interview Zahra created was about a horse breeder. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to realize that the topic is really the role of women in Kuwait. Zahra’s work shows how to use dark humor and satire to discuss her own culture in a way that is creative and, through her creative approach, avoids preaching.

What topics do you want to write about that could easily devolve into a sermon? I’ve written about race and social justice, American politics and the energy industry. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift discussed contemporary British politics by portraying a fictional land where people were divided by the height of their shoe or which end of a soft-boiled egg they cracked.

Perhaps a story about American politics could be framed by choice of hot dog topping. One group eats mustard and the other, shudder, prefers ketchup. Or I could have one group of people who reads only pring books and another that won’t put down their e-readers. What satirical world would you create?

–SueBE

3 Ways to Create an Unreliable 1st-Person Narrator

Everyone lies sometimes.

Last week, my book club met and it was all I could do to make it through the book. Why oh why didn’t I like it, I kept wondering. Then a friend in the meeting called the narrator unreliable and it all made sense.

I may be the only person in the US who isn’t in love with the unreliable narrator. In part, I think it is because this is so hard to do well especially if the story is told in the first person.

We all lie to ourselves. I think it is human nature. But an unreliable first person narrator is hard to pull off. Here are five ways you can make it work.

Desperate to Believe

One way to pull it off is to create a character who is absolutely desperate to believe the story that they are telling. This could be a woman who can’t face the death of her child, a man whose dishonesty led to the suicide of a co-worker, or a parent who simply cannot contemplate the evil deed done by their only child.

Can you see why each of these characters would need to believe the lie that they are telling? And they have to buy into it 100%.

Tricked into Believing

Another way to make it work is to create a narrator who has been tricked into believing something. Think about the various family fictions that people believe because that is what they are told. They don’t question how a penniless grandparent became wealthy. Or an incredibly loyal person, who believes other people are as loyal and honest as she is, at first believes that their employer is properly disposing of hazardous waste.

There are other people who know the truth and eventually it comes out but it is a slow struggle.

Make Her Snap

One thing that can make a narrator unreliable is if they act out of character especially if their actions would seem irratic and dangerous if anyone at all did them. What if your character is pushed to the breaking point and, out of rage, does something extreme? A tantrum in a restaurant? Something breakable heaved across the office? A nasty message left on the company web page?

This Writer’s Digest post really gave me a lot to contemplate and added having a character snap to my list. That said, I don’t know that I’ll ever be a huge fan of the unreliable narrator.

–SueBE

4 Places to Look for Ideas

Pixabay Puffin

“Where do you get your ideas?”

For me, the better question is where don’t I go? I once told someone that I’d have to walk aroud with a bucket on my head not to get ideas. Wouldn’t you know, what was the quote she decided to use?

But it is true. The world is a constant source of ideas. That said, I know that statement is so broad that it is useless. Here are four very specific places that you can go for ideas.

The National Day Calendar

One of my favorites is the National Day Calendar. You can find it here. Between June 24 and June 25, you have:

  • National Take Your Dog to Work Day
  • National Leon Day – which marks the point 6 months from Christmas (Noel – Leon, get it?)
  • National Strawberry Parfait Day

Each of these could easily become a nonfiction piece, a picturte book, or an element within a novel. There are so many interesting observances!

Pixabay

Pixabay Macaw

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Pixabay, this site makes photos available for public use. I’ll leave it up to you to read up on how to credit the photos because we are talking about something else entirely.

Sometimes I just go to the home page and look at new photos. As I am writing this, photos on the home page include a puffin (left above) and a macaw (right). Click on one photo and you can quickly access additional photos with the same tag.

If you are visual, this is something of a rabbit hole. There are people, animals, places and even fantasy paintings.

Library of Congress

Another great place to get lost is the Library of Congress site. You can look up things that interest you or, one of my favorites, is to scroll down the front page to trending items.

As I write this, these selections include information on the National Book Festival, the reopening of the Jefferson Building, upcoming in person and online exhibitions and more.

Scroll further down the home pages and you get items that are “Free to Use and Reuse.” At the moment, these are “Historic Sites.” My favorite? Drawings from a survey of the Taos Pueblo.

Nonfiction Ninjas

None of this grabs your attention? Not to worry. Stephanie Bearce wrote a great post on the Nonfiction Ninjas blog. The post is a list of great places to find ideas. It includes Accidental Science (yes!), Forgotten History, Inventors and much more.

If you have internet access, a story idea is never more than a few mouse-clicks away!

–SueBE

What Draws a Reader In?

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I read a lot. No seriously. I’ve read over 100 books this year. That said, that includes picture books, graphic novels and audio books, but let’s be real. I read a lot. I love books! This roster includes mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, some light romance and a host of childrens books. That list includes nonfiction of all kinds, historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction and all age levels.

So what is it that draws me to a book? It varies according to the genre.

Nonfiction for Adult Readers

Most of the adult nonfiction that I read falls under anthropology, history, Native American studies, or biology. But the common factor is that it has to be about something I know little or nothing about. Radium Girls? When I saw that book, I knew nothing about the girls and women who painted watch dials. It was equal parts disgusting and fascinating.

To hold my attention, nonfiction has to be well-written and fast-paced.

Graphic Novels

Although I read some nonfiction graphic novels, most of what I pick up are fiction and more humorous than dark. I just finished The Way of the House Husband. My favorite part in the first volume involved a rumba and a cat. Next up in the graphic novel stack is Ham Helsing. That one came home from the library with me based on the title alone.

I tend to avoid the super disgusting ones.

Romance

It has recently been brought to my attention that I read romance. For years I have boldly stated that I do NOT read romances. But then my friend Kris Bock e-mailed me. “My Furrever Friends books are romances.” So apparently I do too read romances. As long as there is something else that interests me. I’m a bit cat crazy and Kris set her books in a cat cafe.

Want to make me toss aside a romance? One night stands will do it.

Picture Books

For me, picture books are like a candy counter – varied and amazing. I love nonfiction about topics that are new to me. I love stories with quirky characters. I love books that make me laugh. Lyrical writing, gorgeous illustration, and stories with a twist at the end all make me look for someone to share it with.

There are very few picture books that I don’t like but I have to admit that 9 times out of 10 shorter is better.

My point? Not every book is going to appeal to every reader. Even if a reader reads a diverse range of books, there will be things they just aren’t interested in. It isn’t a flaw in the book. It is simply a matter of personal taste.

And really? This is why we need a wide variety of writers to appeal to a write variety of literary tastes.

–SueBE

Speculative Fiction in Series: Review of Public Display of Aggression by Hugh Fritz

Today is my day to post as part of the WOW! Women on Writing tour featuring book Public Displays of Aggression by Hugh Fritz. Check out this book to learn how to write speculative ficiton in series.

Why am I calling it speculative fiction vs fantasy or science fiction? Speculative fiction is any story set in something other than the real world. It can have imagined elements, fantasy or the supernatural. The world of Hugh Fritz looks a lot like our world but there is time travel, science fiction weaponry, and genies! So I’m using the broader term.

A quick summary of the book:

First, about the book:

Soleil and Flarence are brothers and immortal Genies, the sons of Mohinaux. They can shape the universe with their magic. They have long been the most powerful beings in the world, near immortal, but a human has created spell casting weapons. This is the first time the brothers have encountered magic in inanimate objects. Genies are normally resistant to magic but these spells impact them as well as their human allies.

They find themselves working against the human who has learned to harness magic, Darren (a Genie that was created not born), and an animated corpse. This former corpse is not only intelligent but fast and strong. He seeks revenge on his killers but resents being used by the others on his “team.”

How will it all play out? Who will still be standing on the last page? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Purchase Public Display of Aggression on AmazonOrganic BooksPageOne Books, and Barnesand Noble. Be sure to also add this to your GoodReads reading list.

Back to Sue and her review.

Fantasy is hard to do well. You’re introducing a complex story world and a host of characters. Often this is done with multiple points of view.

This is where a lot of readers give up. They get tired of guessing whose perspective they are currently experiencing. Hugh Fritz makes writing from several points of view work by simply announcing whose head the reader is in. Each change in point of view is marked by a subheading: Soleil, Flarence or Darren.

This eliminates this possible source of confusion.

Because this is a book in series, there is an overarching story. This story involves the interactions of a single Genie family, focusing on Soleil, Flarence, and Darren.

But each book also needs to have a stand alone story, something that happens in this particular book. In this book that story is the battle between two groups – the born genies and their allies vs Darren, the animated corpse, and a mad scientist.

Fritz does an excellent job of increasing the tension until the inevitable show down.

Series can be tricky to create. As a reader, I hate it when the book that I’ve just read feels like nothing more than the set-up for the next book. Fritz does an excellent job of creating books with individual story lines while also prepping the reader for the next book.

About the Author Hugh Fritz:

Hugh Fritz

Hugh Fritz is a fan of monsters, mad scientists, sorcerers, and anything that involves beings with incredible powers beating each other senseless. After years of writing research papers, he decided it was time to give reality a rest and let his imagination run wild. 

Find out more at: 

Website: http://www.hughfritz.com 
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Stories-by-Hugh-Fritz-397896477228957
Twitter: https://twitter.com/HughFritz1

–SueBE

How to Prioritize Your Writing

Am I the only one who has noticed this? With things opening back up, I am finding it more and more difficult to prioritize my writing. It isn’t just family things that are getting in the way. Writing related things are as well.

Last year, when everyone was in lockdown or social distancing, we discovered Zoom and online meetings. Not only did I meet with my critique group online, but I also started meeting with several mystery writers as well as other people who used to be SCBWI regional advisors.

It seems like no one wants to let go of these meetings which, in all reality, makes sense. Writing isolates us. Doing things that bring us into contact with other writers is essential. And yet . . .

There are only so many hours in the day. There are only so many days in the week.

Then I remembered something that I read recently. I think it was about Neil Gaiman, but I have to admit that I haven’t been able to find it again. So we will call this might-be-Neil-Gaiman person Maybe Neil. Anyway, I read that Maybe Neil decided that he wanted to be a speculative writer – graphic novels, novels, etc.

He learned everything that he could on that type of writing. When he was offered an editorial job, he turned it down. It was a good job. Maybe Neil would have earned a salary. There would be no more scrabbling for sales to pay the bills. But it would not have helped him achieve his goal – to be a speculative fiction writer.

I am a nonfiction writer. I also want to write fiction.

Earlier in the week I was offered the opportunity to take place in a blog tour for a writing book. I love the other books in this line but this one is specifically on writing for television.

“Ooo that could be fun,” Sue thought.

“Wait a minute,” thought other Sue. This is the Sue who is slightly less likely to run after shiny objects. “You need time to write. You have never in your life said that you want to write for television.”

“But it would be cool,” Sue thought.

“It will not help you finish writing your two novels.” This time other Sue was fairly forceful. In fact, she was forceful enough that I’ve been looking at a lot of other opportunities through this lense.

Is it going to help me get these novels written? If the answer is no, then it does not get any of my work time.

What writing goals are you having troubles meeting? Are they things that you really want to accomplish? If so, maybe you need to use a similiar technique to prioritize your writing time.

–SueBE

3 Ways Subplots Function In Your Story

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If you’ve ever drafted, or attempted to draft a novel, you know how tricky it can be to weave together a cohesive plot that rises and falls in all the right places and doesn’t feel contrived. For a novel with natural flow, something that feels realistic and lifelike, you may need to introduce a subplot.

What is a subplot? Think of it as a sidestory. It may involve only one or two characters vs the entire cast involved in the plot. And your story will likely be richer for the effort you put into creating another plot line. Here are four ways that subplots function in your story.

Theme

TV shows and movies are great for subplots that provide another perspective on the theme addressed by the plot. Your main character may be struggling with her self-identity after quitting a sport she played through middle school. Her best friend is struggling with her own self-identity after finding out that she is adopted, a reality that her parents hid from her.

When plot and subplot revolve around the same theme, it can also be a way to keep the story from being moralistic. It can help readers question the assumptions that they make about the importance of identifying as part of one group of people or another.

Tension

A subplot can also help increase the tension in the story. One way to do this is to have your main character working away toward their goal in the main plot line. Simultaneously, another character, perhaps a sidekick or other trusted friend, is also competing for the same goal.

If this goal is something that only one of them can achieve – winning a scholarship, first place in a tournament or athletic meet, etc – then tension increases as the reader sees the two plot lines converging. The characters in the story may or may not know that they are competing but for the reader? The tension goes up moment by moment.

Slowing Things Down

Here is another use of the subplot I hadn’t considered until I read this Writer’s Digest post. As I was crafting my cozy, it felt like my character was moving too quickly toward’s solving the mystery. Each scene led her closer and closer to naming the murderer. She was getting there far too fast.

A subplot is one way to slow this down. If my character is working to solve the mystery while also solving a problem for her aging parent and looking for a new job, there is going to be a lot getting in the way of hunting down that murderer. New to town, she’s going to have to do some digging to solve the crime but the subplots can provide obstacles that get in her way.

A subplot isn’t something that you are going to include in a chapter book for young readers. But middle grade novels, young adult novels and anything for adults generally includes one or more subplots. Use them to make your story richer and more realistic, because how often do our days go smoothly without interruption?

–SueBE

Wooftastic Books interviews Sue Edwards …

For today’s post, I’m reposting an interview that I did with Wooftastic books. Check out their dog-crazy book blog.

Being interviewed was a very different experience from doing the interviewing.  But I’m glad I’ve been the interviewer so many time.  I think it helped me give answers that were both complete and specific.

WoofTasticBooks

Kids love facts. They especially love it when they know something an adult in their life doesn’t know.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your books …

I am a nonfiction author who writes for the school library market. This means that the majority of my books are series titles and I write up to two books in the series. The publisher develops the series idea and invites various authors to write the books. This is work for hire writing which means that I get paid a fixed amount per title. It is a great gig because I know students are reading my books.

You’ve published a couple of dog books for children. What are they about?

I was invited to write two books in a series about dog hybrids. They showed me the list and I choseLabradoodle: Labrador Retrievers Meet PoodlesandPuggle: Pugs Meet Beagles.They…

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Rewriting, Revising, and Polishing

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The first draft of my cozy has been waiting and waiting and . . . yawn . . . waiting for me to get back to it. But I haven’t felt compelled. Fortunately, I’m in a mystery writer’s group with several other accomplished writers. Or perhaps I should said several other writers who are all accomplished. They have completed and published mysteries.

Today I talked with one of them about my manuscript. It finally hit me. I’m not looking at a revision. I’m facing a rewrite. What’s the difference?

Rewrite

When you rewrite a manuscript, you make substantial changes to the story. In my case, two secondary character’s are changing professions. One of my subplots is being completely discarded. This is going to impact my entire story.

But that’s okay.

I didn’t like my character. She seemed weak and whiney. And there wasn’t any way to fix this as the story stood. I’m not saying that every character needs to be an MMA fighter but I had to question whether or not my character would even have the get-up-and-go to solve they mystery.

How to solve this? By changing her backstory, what brought her to town, and the circumstances of her arrival. From start to finish, I’ll be reworking characters, how they relate to each other, and the plot. This is definitely a rewrite.

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Revision

In a revision, the story works. Your characters are three dimensional. The plot works. You’ve got a good setting. Your working on how you tell the story but that is not going to change in a substantial way.

Sure, you might be adding some transitions. And there could be clues to lay out in earlier chapters. You might even be taking out some things that aren’t necessary. There are sentences that repeat information relayed earlier. There could be a chapter that just doesn’t move the story forward. And you might be able to combine two characters into one. But the story? That doesn’t change.

Me? My story is changing.

Polishing

Last but not least, you polish your story. This is when you review individual work choice. You might go for a more imaginative verb or a more specific noun, but nothing massive is changing.

This is also when I read the story aloud. I want to hear the sounds of the words. I want to get a feel for how they interact.

Admittedly, I’m more comfortable revising than I am rewriting, but that’s okay. Fiction is still fairly new to me and I’m enjoying the learning process. Like I said, thank goodness I have a group of talented writers to help me along my way.

–SueBE