Accountability: Making Commitment Work for You

December is just around the corner. No, really. It starts tomorrow. And if you are anything like me you are looking around at everything that you meant to accomplish but didn’t. The reality is pretty simple – most of us are best at getting things done if we are held accountable. That’s why NaNoWriMo works so well for so many people. Announce that you are doing it and there is an expectation.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways what you can build accountability into even December.

Write It In

Do you use a calendar app to remind you when it is time to pick up the kids from school? The good news is that you can also program it to remind you to write.

A paper calendar isn’t going to ping you on your phone but that’s just as well. Everyone and everything wants to ping me so I can ignore that quite well. But if I put it on my calendar I am going to do it. I’ve even got a color coded system.

White washi tape – billing

Orange washi tape – writing deadline

Yellow washi tape – meeting

Grey washi tape – something to do with the classes I teach

Critique/Accountability Group

Another way to hold yourself accountable is to join a critique or accountability group although the two work a bit differently. A critique group involves critiquing work. If I know I am going to have a meeting every other Wednesday, I make sure to have something to share every other Wednesday. That’s at least two chapters a month.

An accountability group holds you accountable and, although they may also critique, that isn’t the point. My critique group is all children’s writers. My accountability group covers the writing spectrum. But they are both great motivators.

Take a Class

Another way to create accountability for yourself is to take a class. What you need to take depends on what you need to work on. I took a class on social media to help me plan out my posts. Efficiency in that area helps me have more time for my novels. I teach classes on researching children’s nonfiction, writing children’s nonfiction, and querying your work whether it is nonfiction or fiction, for children and adults. They are all offered through WOW! Women on Writing where other instructors teach about writing TV pilots, blogging, screen writing and more. Check out the listings here. With a class, the combination of a monetary investment and deadlines are a great motivation.

Different motivators work for different people. The trick is in finding one that works for you.


Transitioning to a New Project

It may take me a few days to emerge from the depths to start a new project.
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This weekend, my brother-in-law asked what I’m working on. Friday, I had a book due. It doesn’t help that it was a contracted confidential job. Sometimes when nonwriters ask what I’m working on, I blank.








“That wasn’t a trick question, Sue.”

But it was. Because I had just finished a huge project and hadn’t yet shifted to anything else. Sure, I know I’m finishing the class I’m teaching and the class I’m taking. I’m going to get back into my middle grade novel. I know this. But I hadn’t done it yet.

When you find yourself off in the fog like this, it is probaby a sign that you are tiny bit fatigued and maybe, just maybe, you need to take a break. That’s what I’m planning to do.
YES, I’m going to get the things I mentioned above done and I’m going to reread what I’ve written on my MG but I’m going to take a few days to more-or-less just be.

I’m planning to crochet. Maybe do some lettering. We’ve got left over bread from Thanksgiving so I don’t have an excuse to bake again but if the bananas go I’ll have an excuse to make muffins.

When you finish a project and you’re eager to move on to the next big thing, do it! You don’t have to fiddle around and do nothing much for several days. But if you feel the need to goof off, then do it!

As a society, we focus a bit much on tasks completed and goals. As a goal oriented person, I feel I can say this firmly and without apology. Sometimes we just need to be. Do something that isn’t writing related. Do something that no one else is going to get excited about or pat you on the back for doing. Put up your feet, drink tea and read.

Or, if you are like my brother-in-law, rebuild the fence. What can I say, physical labor relaxes him. Sitting stresses him out.

Take some time and when an idea starts bugging you, sit down and write. That way, at Christmas, when someone asks what you are working on, you’ll have an answer.

Or at least that’s my plan.


Happy Thanksgiving

For those of you who celebrate, I’d like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Take this time to recharge your creative battery.

I have a lot to be thankful for in my writing life.  This week book #36 is due tomorrow.

Once I get this done, I’ll be back to my middle grade science fiction novel.  I’ve really been enjoying writing fiction.

What about recharging? I’m taking time off today to celebrate.  And tomorrow.  And Saturday.  I don’t know if this is just a MidWest thing but our Thanksgiving celebration stretches across Thanksgiving Weekend. So for the next several days I’ll be meeting this deadline but I will also be having family time.

I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday.  See you on Monday.


How Long Do You Give a Book to Hook You?

How long do you give a book to hook you?
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This is something that a lot of writers don’t like to think about, but how long do you have to hook the reader? I’ve been to writing events where editors and agents will read to the end of the first manuscript page and then say whether or not they would read on. At some of these events, they only read the first 11 to 15 lines – a true first manuscript page.

When I talk to readers, people give me a variety of answers. Some will read 50 pages. Others read 20.

If the book or manuscript doesn’t impress, thumbs down! Rejection!

I have to admit that if I really don’t like something about a book, I will quit at the end of the first chapter. What can I say? If I don’t like it, I don’t read it. This isn’t like working with a trainer. I don’t NEED to do it.

So why do I put a book down? Sometimes the situation is just too improbable to believe. Put a timber rattler someplace timber rattlers aren’t found and pair that with a cistern in a ridiculous location and you’ve lost me. And, yes. We have a cistern. I’ve reassembled a pump, know how to soak the seal, and have seen a timer rattler.

Sometimes I really don’t like the character’s voice. This is a huge problem with audio books. I have to fall for the character’s voice and the reader’s voice. One or the other can be a deal breaker. I don’t like mean characters. I’ll read an anti-hero or a character who is hard but a meanie? No thank you.

And you absolutely cannot bore me. This is where things get really personal. Name drop clothing designers and high end whatever and I’m going to nod off. Other people might love that, but not me.

The book might also be a bad fit for me right now. I was sent a galley and just couldn’t read it. I love the author but the story was just too dark. My sister tried to read it and said the same thing. I gave the book to a friend and she devoured it.

Not every book is right for every reader. Even a reader who will love our work on Tuesday may be in the wrong place to appreciate it on Monday. Our job is to make our work as solid as possible.


How to Get Back into a Project

Here’s hoping my manuscript is half this glad to see me again.
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Before my dad got sick, I managed to work on my novel and my nonfiction book proposal every day. I’d made good progress on both and was on track to be done by the end of the year. But with him in the hospital, I was there 12 hours a day for two and a half weeks. I worked on contract work but these two project fell by the wayside. I’ve yet to get back to them.

My hope is that next week will be the week. But by then we’ll have been apart for two months. How do you get back into a project after a long absence? The nonfiction isn’t going to be a problem. I can slip back into nonfiction with very little fuss. But the novel? That’s going to take a bit of work fortunately there are several ways I can go about it.

Read what is written. If you’ve written several chapters for a longer book or several spreads for a picture book, reread what you’ve already written.  Don’t read silently.  Read it aloud so that you can literally hear the voice. That’s something that should help me with this project.

Revisit your inspiration.  What inspired you to write this piece in the first place?  Perhaps it is something you were inspired to write after hearing a news story on NPR.   Listen to this piece again.  Or reread the news article that made you want to cover this topic.  For me this is often enough to renew my enthusiasm and get me going again. I need to find some nonfiction to read.

Visit the time or place.  If you are writing a piece set in a specific time period.  Get back into that period.  Listen to music.  Maybe you can find a recording of a news cast or other period material.  Visit Youtube and see if someone has posted a video of your location.  Get a feel once again for the time and place of your story. I was about to say that I can’t do that but I do have a space exploration encyclopedia I can sample.

What’s been going on?  Ask your character what it has been like waiting for you to get back.  Why does she want you to get going again?  I know this sounds hokey but this technique always brings new insight into my story and makes me want to dive back in.

Engage in a writing or rewriting ritual.  Do you have something you do every time you sit down to write?  Mine isn’t a writing ritual but when I do hard copy rewrites, I set things up in the dining room.  I have my print out, an automatic pencil or nice pen, my licorice candle, and a cup of coffee.  I have no clue why this works, but it tends to get me going when nothing else does.

The next time you are trying to get over a long absence from a project, see if one of these techniques doesn’t get you started again.


Show Us Who Your Character Is

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Show don’t tell. Say that to me and you are going to get a look. It is one of those phrases I hate because it is . . . ugh! It is so hard to balance showing readers who your character is with creating a scene when a single narrative line would do the same job.

How do you know when to show and when to tell?

The reality is that you need to have a balance. If you can create an interesting scene that moves your story forward and shows who your character is, do it. If you can work in a detail that will be vital later in the story, DO IT!

As so often happens, life events moved me to consider this. This weekend, my family made a trek to the cemetery. We had to find the family section but this particular cemetery only allows markers that are flush with the ground. They make mowing easy but they make locating things tricky.

It took my sister an hour to navigate the winding drives and then to find the plot. Should I tell or should I show? I could simply say “Frannie had no sense of direction.” That’s telling.

Or I could elaborate.

“Frannie circled the lawns, shifting from second into first. She had to keep an eye on the road which made looking at the map tricky. She’s already had to stomp on the brake twice to avoid the geese that were everywhere – east, west . . . she wasn’t even sure which was which. At last she saw an oramental pond and an arched bridge. She pulled over and looked at the map. Getting out of the car, she stood at the highest point on the bridge. The grass wasn’t long but it was long enough that she couldn’t see a single headstone. If she didn’t know better she would think she was in a country estate and not a cholera cemetery.”

Okay, I have to admit it. I just threw in the bit about the cholera cemetery. It seemed to add the right ZIP to the whole thing.

In this case, I would go with the scene. From it we know that Frannie has a poor sense of direction, that she drives a stick, and that she’s in a cholera cemetery. That’s a fair amount of information for one short scene.

Use a scene to help pull your reader in, to create a sense of place and time, or to plant clues and foreshadow. Use narrative for transitions and to avoid ho hum scenes like the dreaded “waking up” scene. Narrative can also be a good way to supply backstory.

You may find that there is a certain amount of trial and error involved. Fortunately we all know that rewriting is a big part of the writing process.



What Is Your Picture Book About?

This is one of those questions that you see posed in many workshops about picture book writing. I most really saw it in the workshop with agent Sean McCarthy at the Kansas-Missouri Regional Conference. The way the question is posed is this:

What is your story about?

What is it really about?

If you are anything like me, this is the sort of thing that can leave you scratching your head. You know your story has to have layers. You know there’s a plot and a theme. Why is everyone making it so complex?

Then I read Borders by Thomas King, illustrated by Natasha Donovan. Admittedly, I had to sleep on it but by morning I got it. Really got it.

Do I really need to say this? Just in case someone is feeling fussy today. From here on PLOT SPOILERS.

Borders is a story about a boy and his mother travelling from Canada to the US to visit his sister in Las Vegas. That’s the simplest and shallowest explanation.

Borders is also about identity. It is about what we are forced to say about ourselves by those in power even if it is not how we identify.

How can the book be about both of these things? Because the young narrator and his mother are on a trip to visit his sister in Las Vegas. They are traveling from Canada. But they are also Blackfoot.

When the border guards ask for their nationality, Mom insists on giving one and only one answer. They are Blackfoot. It is simple. And, it is the answer.

But it isn’t the answer that the border guards want. It isn’t the answer that they insist on.

And yet, it is a legitimate answer. I’m not going to tell you how the story is resolved. For that information, you have to read it yourself. Like I said, plot spoiler not climax spoiler.

So, what is your story about? What is it really about? You might have to sleep on it but you should be able to answer both questions.


Research: How Much Is Enough

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“How much research do you need to do when you write a book?” This seems to be one of the most common questions that I get an a nonfiction author. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any easy answer.

Many people assume that it depends on the length of the project. Sometimes it does but a 500-word magazine piece can have as many sources as a book for 3rd graders. A picture book can have as many sources as a nonfiction title for teens.

A lot depends on what you are finding in each source. Sometimes I’m looking for a very specific fact. What date was X invented? What exactly did building Y require? I find myself pulling up manuals to check copyright dates and parts lists.

For some projects, much of my research is in book form. That’s always a relief because I can often find several page of useful information. But even then I need to havemore than one source.

You don’t need to find a magical number of sources. Three sources per fact? Five sources per manuscript page? Whatever.

What you do need to find is enough. Enough to tell the story. Enough to back up your facts. Enough to know more than you are revealing.

For a how-to with a brief introduction, you may need only two or three sources. For a teen nonfiction title you may need 400. No, that isn’t an exageration. When every page has three or four unique sources, they add up fast. I am currently writing a nonfiction title for teens. I just finished roughing Chapter 5 and I currently have 118 sources. With four more chapters to go, I’ll likely have at least 200.

You probably won’t know how many your are going to have until you are done. Because no matter how much research you do, as you write you will discover that there is something you still don’t know. And off you go in search of another fact.

To find out more about doing your own research, check out my WOW! Women on Writing class, Reseach: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults.


Picture Books with Inanimate Characters

A Home Again.

I request at least one book a day from the library. Novels, graphic novels, picture books. I request a bit of this and a dab of that. In the morning, I love to sprawl on the sofa, drink coffee, and read picture books.

I did a double take when I started reading A Home Again by Colleen Rowan Kosinski. In short, it is the story of a house. Yes, the house is the main character.

“How is Kosinski going to pull this off?” I asked. It is very hard to create a picture book from the point-of-view of an object. Drew Daywalt manages to do it in The Day the Crayons Quit because the crayons aren’t inanimate. They run around. They have adventures. In all reality they are children. No, really. Read the book with that in mind and you’ll see what I mean.

But a house? It can’t get up and move around.

And yet Kosinski pulls it off, because, (PLOT SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS PARAGRAPH) like the crayons, the house is really a child. It loves the family that lives there. It basks in the smell of baking bread. It enjoys laughter and running feet. And when the family moves away it is very sad. This sadness shows in the appearance of the house. When a new couple moves in, the house resists – water drips from faucets, lightbulbs unscrew and more. The people know this is the right house and they don’t give up and finally bring in their daughter and the house again falls in love.

Do you see what I mean? The house has the emotions of a child. It resists change, just like . . . me. It doesn’t want to be hurt again so it hunkers down and tries to be left alone.

All of the emotions that the house feels will be recognizable to the child reader. The desire to be a bit naughty to show how mad and hurt it is? Kids will get that too.

Some people may be tempted to call this a quiet book but quite a lot happens in its 32 short pages. It has depth and emotion and really the house is a three dimensional character much more than it is a static object.

Check out this book and see if you don’t come up with an idea or seven.


Collage and Copyright

What can you use in a published collage?
Photo by George Milton on

Yesterday one of my students asked about including a collage in her book manuscript. Her book directs students through a number of creative projects, one of which is making a collage. The students can naturally use copyrighted photographs and postcards of art in their collages. This is fair use.

But what my student wanted to know was what permissions she would need to include such a collage in her book. My first thought was “the collage is original so that makes it okay,” but copyright is an insanely tricky topic so I looked it up.

Some sources said NO, you cannot use copyright material. Others said that if you can easily obtain permission than you should. Hmm . . . what? Is that really how the law works? If it is easy, than do this, but if not than do that? I don’t think so.

And, also what are the guidelines to this for copyright and so forth? Part of the reason I ask this, is that for a lot of the collage work you can use images for personal use, but what about if you put your collage work into a book?

So my advice to her, and to you, would be this. If you want to use a copyrighted image in a collage that will be published (self/indie or traditional), then get permission. If you don’t want to hastle with that, use copyright free materials.

Fortunately there are a number of ways to find these materials.

  • Do a Google search for Creative Commons Zero or CC0 images. These are images that are free to be used however you want to use them.
  • You can find CC0 images at Pixabay or Pexels.
  • Some museums make all of their online collections available for use. One of these museums is the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. They have an extensive collection of paintings and photographs.
  • Some libraries put a small part of their collection online for free use. One of these is the Library of Congress. Check out “Free to Use and Reuse.”

I had never considered this before but I suspect this is why so much collage illustration is done with various types of art papers, fabric, natural materials and the like.  Getting permission for every copyrighted piece used in every collage in a picture book would be a huge task.

The solution? Non-copyrighted papers and CC0 images of all kinds.