Top Books of 2021

I’m always amazed when someone says that they only read 10 or 15 books in a year. Really? How do you do that? Granted, the last two years I’ve read an indescent number. This year I read 237 books including children’s titles, books for the adult reader, and graphic novels.

How do I remember all those books? The reality is that I don’t. Many of them are amusing enough while I’m reading them but once I close the cover — POOF.

Still I thought that I would page through my reading list and share the books that I liked the most. Please keep in mind, this is a little bit random. I read many wonderful books but these are the 13 that today strike me as the best. Last week it probably would have been a very different list.

Books for Young Readers

Picture Books:

The Night Walk by Marie Dorleans. Sue here: This is a different take on the family walk. I wanted to give this for Christmas but it wasn’t available at that time.

Busy Babies by Amy Schwartz. Sue here: I read a whole stack of Amy’s books and this was my favorite. So many babies keeping their adults entertained and out of trouble.

Early Readers:

Mr. Putter and Tabby Write the Book by Cynthia Rylant. Sue here: An oldie but a goodie.

Chapter Book:

Yasmin by Saadia Faruki. Sue here: I heard Saadia talk about writing this.

Graphic Novel:

Ham Helsing: Vampire Hunter by Rich Moyer. Sue here: A perfect choice for my wharped sense of humor.

Young Adult Novel:

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forma. Sue here: Really looking forward to book #2.

Books for Adult Readers

Graphic Novel:

The Way of the Househusband by Kousuke Oono. Sue here: This is another one that is perfect for my sense of humor. The main character is former yakuza and applying all his talents to being the perfect house husband. Too funny.


Becoming by Michelle Obama. Sue here: This is one of the books that I listened to and it was read by Michelle herself. Wow. Powerful book.


Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. Sue here: A host of neurotic but believable characters pulled me in and made me want to read not only this book but more of his work.

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield. Sue here: Excellent combination of science and suspence.

An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris. Sue here: This is an alternate history with magic. Excellent series! My husband is now hooked on these.

Hems and Homicide by Elizabeth Penney. Sue here: One of my favorite cozy mystery series.

The Martian by Andy Weir. Sue here: The novel that the movie was based on. Love the character’s voice.

Treat yourself to some of these books in the New Year. You’ll be glad that you did.


Voice: You Win Some, You Lose Some

Your character’s voice may be loud and clear but it won’t appeal to everyone.
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“I want to love your character’s voice.” So many editors say this, or something like it.

Me? When I pick up a new book, I want to love the voice too. I finish almost every book I start whether it is print or audio. If you need an estimate, I probably finish 90% of the books I begin.

But in the last month, I’ve returned three books unfinished. The first was a print book. I read about 30% of the book before I flipped to the end. Hmm. Okay. But I didn’t care enough to finish it.

The second was an audio book. I was baking Christmas cookies and doing dishes. The character was a whiny, deceitful pain. This isn’t to say that every character I read has to be a goodie, but this character wasn’t cutting it. The author is a favorite but I only made it through about ten minutes of the audio book. I may try the print book because that can make a difference.

The third was also an audio book. I’m almost 20% of my way through the book. Instead of listening while I cooked dinner last night, I started a new book. Hmm. Yes. That’s what an interesting character sounds like. I’m not 100% certain what is going on but I will keep listening and find out because this character is clearly someone who gets things done. The book that I’m giving up on is an award winner with a main character who has taken two decisive actions so far and one of them involved picking out a skirt. Help me! No, never mind. I’ll just quit listening.

The thing is – I don’t think any of these books are bad. The first is a popular mystery series. The second is by a VERY popular author. The third is an award winning book.

Sometimes the problem is that the reader (in this case, me) just isn’t in the right mood for the book. Other times the book would never suit this reader but other readers would love it.

When it comes to voice, you win some and you lose some. No character’s voice is going to make every single reader happy and that’s okay. That is why your manuscript may take many attempts to land with the right agent or editor. It is simply a matter of taste and timing.


Idea Generation: Storystorm 2022

I am taking part in Storystorm 2022. Are you?

Normally I have more writing ideas than I know what to do with. I think of new ideas while I am reading. Watching TV or a movie? Ideas definitely come to me especially if I am watching nonfiction. Museums are especially intriguing and I snap photos of exhibit descriptions and more.

This means that normally I end the year with pages and pages of ideas. 2021 has not been like that. I’ve had more than enough ideas for what I need to do but the latter part of the year has been a long dry spell.

When I saw that registration was open for Storystorm 2022, I signed up.  If you’ve never heard of Storystorm, it’s a great way to start the new year with a batch of new story ideas. Storystorm is always a good way to reboot my writing after a holiday break.  And, really? I think that most of us need a reboot coming out of 2021 aka 2020 Part 2.

Originally, Storystorm, then known as PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), took place in November.  Now it is in January and the basic idea is very straightforward. Throughout January you keep track of the ideas you generate.  The goal is to have 30 ideas by the end of the month. There are inspirational posts and prizes for all who complete the program.  You can find out more about it and register here.

Some people discredit maintaining an idea list.  After all, should it count if you don’t write the idea into a manuscript?  Pfft.  Whatever.  Here is why I do it.  

  1.  Not all ideas are created equal.  Some simply do not measure up.  That’s a fact but writing them down is still helpful.  Read on to find out why.
  2. By getting into the habit of generating story ideas, you develop your idea generation muscles. You generate more ideas and can afford to weed out the ones that just don’t measure up. As a result, your stories become more original.
  3. Your list of story ideas also becomes a handy tool.  Need an idea for a contest, a pitch, or an example in an article? Peruse your list.  Combine ideas.

Lazar is now taking registrations.  Comment on the announcment post on her blog (linked here) to register.

For more on idea generation, see “Idea Generation: Where Do You Get Your Ideas” and “3 Places to Turn for Story Ideas.”


The Best of Plans or What to Do When Asked for a Rewrite

Never fear. Underdog is here.

I always start the writing week with a plan. Yesterday I posted about my plans for this week. I want to finish the first draft of my middle grade science fiction novel Airstream. I got a bit done yesterday morning so I have 2000 words to go!

Monday I got an email. My editors wanted to know if I could rewrite a nonfiction manuscript in 7 days. Granted that is the normal turn around time but . . . but . . . I want to work on my novel! My family is home! I want to have fun!

So what do you do when your editor’s request comes when you have other plans? Let’s start at the beginning.

Take a Moment

First things first, take a moment. My first reaction always closely resembles panic. Maybe not full blown panic but I’m never excited. I don’t jump up and down, clapping my hands. Which is funny because I actually enjoy rewriting. But it takes me a bit of time to change direction.

Take the time that you need to review what you’re being asked to do.

Look at the request and look at your schedule.

Take a Look at Your Schedule

Out-of-town plans have been cancelled for the week. No, this doesn’t have anything to do with omicron. Not too many people head to the lake around New Years. We are usually the only ones there. But a bit part of that is that the weather is iffy.

This week, the prediction includes rain and dropping temperatures. We’d rather deal with that in town.

This means that I’ve got a bit more time to write this week. And I’d already done part of the work on my novel before this came in which means a bit more time to work on the rewrite.

Less Fussing, More Writing

I quickly e-mailed my editor and told her that I think I can do it but I’d like a little wiggle room because of New Years. We’re going to hope for Monday but she will have it by Wednesday at the latest.

The boys ran an errand and I got to work. By the time they got home, I was on chapter 2 or 9.

The key? Butt-in-chair. Or, as my mother would have said – quit fussing and get to work.

I also think that my super hero t-shirt has really helped.


Five More Days to Meet Your 2021 Goals

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Tic tic tic tic tic. The seconds left in 2021 are counting down. At least that’s how it feels if you have a writing goal from the year that you are trying to meet.

My goal is to finish a draft of my middle grade science fiction novel, Airstream. I set a goal to double my word count this month. Will that get me to the end? I hope so. I was doing really good, writing every day. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Christmas really got in the way. I did manage to write every day but only about 125 words each day.

I did the math and if I write about 511 words a day, I should meet my word count goal. Will that take me to the end of the novel? We shall see!

The biggest problem is that my husband and son are both home all week. You and I both know that I’ll be hearing a lot of “Hey, honey . . .” and “Mom, why don’t we. . .” Fortunately, 511 words isn’t much so it should be do-able.

What about you? Do you have goals that you want to meet? Here are some things to consider as you think about whether or not you want to push yourself the last few days of the year.

  1. This isn’t a great time to submit your work to agents. If they are reading, many want to start the year with a clean box. That may not mean good things for late submissions. If they aren’t reading, your work is just going to sit there. Instead perfect your query letter so that you can get your work out next week.
  2. You can always find a reason not to meet your goals. Your family is home. Today is a day with a “Y” in it. Instead of looking for reasons not to write, look for reasons to write. It’s a nice change of pace and you’ll eventually end up with something to submit.
  3. A small amount of progress is still progress. You may not have the time to write chapters and chapters but a small amount of progress, whether that is a few sentences a day or a page, is still progress. A bit of progress here and a bit of progress there will add up.

What do you say? Are you going to try to finish something up before the ball drops in New York?


Merry Christmas!

Music sheet Christmas stars!

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas. I know, I know. This is actually Christmas Eve.

But what does a writer do on Christmas Eve? She finishes baking cookies – chocolate crinkles and attic cookies (ginger molasses). She also finishes crocheting two final gifts.

And maybe just maybe she sneaks in some time to read!

I hope all of you take the time, if you are so inclined, to celebrate. It is a great way to recharge your creative battery. And once that is recharged you can come back ready to write next week or after New Years Day!


Do You Need Food in Your Story?

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Years ago, I was at a conference with Wendy McClure who was then an editor at Albert Whitman. At some point during her presentation she commented that she thought the Boxcar Children books were so popular because food features in every single book.

More recently, I’ve been working on a cozy which means that I’m reading a lot of cozies. So many of them include lengthy passages about food and even recipes. We certainly are a culture that is obsessed with food.

One writer recently commented on Twitter that two different people who critiqued her manuscript said that she needed to include food. I’m trying to remember the specific reasoning behind the recommendations but I think the idea was that it would make the book more interesting. Not surprisingly, when the writer asked about this on Twitter, plenty of people commented. I’d love to say that there was a consensus.

My take on this is that it depends on the story. For example, if your setting is a restaurant, bakery, or cafe, it would seem strange if you didn’t mention food. Likewise if your character’s profession involves farming or food preparation.

In my middle grade science fiction novel, I mention food several times. At least half my story is set on a space ship. Given the length of time that has gone by since the journey began, food options are limited and this is a real issue for one of my characters. When the first group of characters encounters a second group who have fewer resources, I again focus on food. I do this because, in my science fiction world of the future as is the case today, money brings better food options.

I am currently reading Do You Believe in Terra-Two? by Tomi Oh. The characters in this story are about to undertake a journey that will be decades long. Now, they have food options. On the ship, things will be very monotonous until their garden is up and running. One of the characters expresses her anxiety through an obsession about food – what she eats, what others eat, and what they will have in the near future.

On the other hand, I’ve been watching Season 2 of Alex Rider. While I’m sure he eats, after all I know he hates pizza with anchovies, I can’t tell you when was the last time food was mentioned. It just isn’t critical in any way to the story.

Food can be a bridge to bring readers into an unfamiliar situation but if food doesn’t matter to your story, it doesn’t need to have a prominent place. Like anything else that doesn’t move the story forward in some way, it should be left out to make room for something that does.


Why You Need to Call Yourself a Writer

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I’m not even going to ask if you are busy – this being the holiday season and all. It doesn’t help that this year, in addition to the regular holiday stuff, there are supply chain issues, shortages, and COVID.

If you aren’t finding time to write, most people would understand. After all . . . busyness.

But I’m going to be honest with you. I’m not most people. I’m a writer. And if you want to see your work in press, you need to call yourself a writer in December and throughout the rest of the year. Here is why.

Attitude Adjustment

Recently I blogged about the power of calling yourself a writer. You can read that post here on the Muffin. One of my regular readers wrote to me about her own experience in calling herself a writer.

She was at a writing event. Throughout the day, participants met with various groups of fellow writers. At each meeting, they were to introduce themselves. “Hello. My name is Sue and I’m a writer.” She explained that after doing this for a day, she felt a shift in her attitude.

She wasn’t someone who wanted to be a writer. She was a writer.

Priority Shift

Once you think of yourself as a writer, your attitude toward your writing will also change. It will become a priority.

This matter because most of us find time for the things we prioritize. Now, don’t argue. I see some of you building up to a real snit.

The closet you really want to clean out but haven’t cleaned out in three years? The baseboard that needs painting? The baby book you’ve been meaning to fill in for your high school senior? Dare I say this? It may sound good to call them priorities but they aren’t. And that’s okay. We’ve each got the same number of hours in every day and I’d much rather see you writing than cleaning.

Call yourself a writer and writing becomes essential. Writers, after all, write.


Seeing the World through Your Character’s Eyes

How you describe a room should depend on your POV character.

While I was writing yesterday’s post on setting, something crossed my mind. I have no clue whatsoever what color my character’s room is in Airstream. I know that is in her room. I know how she’s personalized it. But color? I have no idea.

In a way, this is good news. Color is really important to me – I knit, crochet, weave and bead. Although I wear a lot of black and grey, I love color!

But my character isn’t me. She doesn’t do hand work. In fact, she’s all about function, i.e. how things work. In reality, I’m also a functionalist but I’m a functionalist who likes pops of color. My character? I’m not sure color is even on her radar.

Airstream is a science fiction story that starts on a space ship. I suspect the whole ship interior is the same color – most likely a neutral. This would drive me mad. My character? If she cared, I would already know about it.

When you describe your setting, describe it in terms of what your character would notice. If you aren’t sure how it would vary from character to character, think about how different people react to the same place.

My son hates artificial scents. He gets that from me. But where I will quietly dislike them while my nose stops up, he lets you know about it. “What is that stench?”

My mother-in-law loves dark interiors. The paint doesn’t have to be dark but she loves heavy drapes and wide slat blinds. Ornate sofas and arm chairs with dark fabrics are a plus. Infuser reeds and floral scents abound.

My husband wants sunshine. Lots and lots of sunshine. Natural wood is good. Painted wood? There’s a circle in hell reserved for people who paint wood as far as my husband is concerned.

Now imagine that each of these people is in the same room. Each of them is likely to describe it every differently. How you describe the setting in your own story will depend on who your character is and how this character views the world.


Setting Sets the Mood

What color is your main character’s room?

I’ve been noodling over how to use setting in my story, so it was only natural that the real estate ad that a friend posted had me wondering – who would live here? Not only is the main body of the house octagonal, but the whole house is black. The siding. The roof. The floors. The interior walls. The shower tile is white as it some woodwork but for the most part the house is a light-sucking black.

The realtor went with the obvious, calling for all Goth to come check it out. And that makes sense. I can imagineone of my son’s friends in residence. She’s a tattoo artist in training who seems to make every decision based on whether or not it will make her look edgy. This house definitely evokes a dark mood.

But it also brought to mind the afghan my grandmother had on the black sofa in her den. Squares were various dayglo colors – orange, green, yellow, red. These squares were joined by black connecting stitches. It gave the overall effect of stained glass. What mood would the same house evoke if carpets and upholstery were bright colors and the table was set with orange Fiestaware?

Setting details matter to the tone and mood of the story. A flat black house is going to look grim. What if you want it to be the home of your villain but you don’t want it to be too obvious? Make the black highgloss and pair it with glossy white subway tiles and a black and white check marble floor. That’s going to look expensive and perhaps even unapproachable. Now pair the black walls with brighly colored modern art work, stained glass, and furniture in primary and secondary colors. It is no longer grim and actually matches the bathroom I designed for an interiors class I took in school. Ahem.

Use your setting to create a mood. But don’t just go with the obvious. And details to keep your reader wondering. “Is this the villain’s lair or a trendy artist’s apartment?”