3 Tips to Help You Avoid Bias

Look what arrived in the mail! Author copies!

This one was really tough to research. Everyone has an opinion about cancel culture. But I’m not writing based on opinion. I need to find facts and I need to avoid bias as much as possible. These tips will help you avoid bias when you have a tough topic to research.

Identify Your Own Bias

We are all biased. That’s the first thing that you need to realize. So when you start to research a topic the first thing you need to do is identify your own biases.

I understood the temptation to use cancel culture. Think back to #MeToo. Often it seems like cancel culture is the only way to call someone to account for their actions.

But cancel culture makes me profoundly uneasy. It seems like someone can make mistep and find themselves at the center of a contraversy. I was going to have to be careful to avoid these biases in selecting my examples and writing about them.

Know the Difference Between Fact and Opinion

Everyone has an opinion on cancel culture. And many of the pieces published about cancel culture are based on these opinions more than fact. “So-and-so was ruined because they mispoke.” Were they? They were certainly embarrassed but how do you quantify ruin?

This sent me into the fields of psychology (the mental impact of cancel culture), communications (the stages of a scandal), and sociology (how scandals work within society). Once I found actual academic disciplines studying cancel culture I was on my way to understanding how it works.

Be Ready to Change Your Mind

Once you’ve identified your biases and found fact based information, you need to be prepared to change your mind. As I read, I learned about the birth of cancel culture and how it has been used by people who frequently have little or no power to otherwise demand justice. I may not like cancel culture, but I understand why some people feel they have no other way to be heard.

My publisher has each title reviewed by an expert who can tell us if I’ve covered all the bases. I owe a note of thanks to Sergei Samoilenko of CARP Lab for lending his expertise to the project. The Character Assassination and Reputation Politics Lab is an interdisciplinary effort that studies the impact of scandal, cancel culture and more. This one has definitely been a learning experience for this author!

–SueBE

Five Minutes a Day: Sensory Perception

One of the best ways to pull readers into your writing is with sensory data. It doesn’t matter if you are writing fiction of nonfiction, if you are using sense perception, readers are more likely to feel like they are present.

Although sometimes I include sensory information in my first draft, this is something that I hone during the rewrite process. At that time, I look over a hard copy of my manuscript and look for three senses per page. That’s three differenent senses, not two visual observations and a sound. Why do I do it this way? Because what we see is easy to include. Sounds are pretty easy. Motion or what we feel isn’t hard but many writers leave these kinds of details out. Scent and taste? Often the two hardest details to include.

So what can you do in five minutes? Here are three suggestions.

Inventory

You can’t fix what you’ve written until you know what you’ve written. First things first, take a print out and circle all the sensory information. You can circle it all in pencil or pen. Or you can get fancy – sight is in BLACK, sound is in BLUE, what you feel is RED, motion is ORANGE, scent is PURPLE, and taste is GREEN.

Evaluate

Once you’ve taken an inventory, go back and look at what you’ve got. You are probably going to have more sight observations than anything else. Maybe some sounds and a few that rely on touch. Good for you if any single page has three senses, but don’t worry if none of them do. This is fairly easy to fix. But there’s something you may need to do first.

Brainstorm

Before you start pushing yourself to fill in missing senses, brainstorm. Try to come up with five each. What? You’ve got enough sight observations? Probably but you might be able to come up with something better. Brainstorm five each in these categories: sight, sound, scent, taste, touch, and motion.

Do these three things, each in about five minutes on three seperate days. Then on a fourth day you can add to the perceptions in your scene and draw your reader in. It will be worth your while when you hook a reader until the end of your manuscript.

–SueBE

Just Say YES: Taking Advantage of Opportunities

This year I am working on two things: I am trying to find an agent. I am also trying to get my work into the hands of trade publishers. I love educational publishing but this is me trying to expand my reach and my audience.

What this means is that I’m taking advantage of Pitch Parties on Twitter. If you’ve never taken part in #PBPitch (Picture Book Pitch) or one of the others, the event allows writers to post their pitches on a set day when agents or editors will come look for pitches they like. Several agents I like had said that they were participating.

If an agent or editor likes your pitch, it is an opportunity to submit. So how many likes did I get?

As the saying goes – nothing but crickets. I didn’t get a single positive response. Not from an agent or editor. Several friends who aren’t writers and don’t know the protocols liked my pitches.

Big sigh.

It would be easy to get discouraged and I will admit that the week was not as productive as would have been the case if I had gotten several requests.

But on Friday, I got an e-mail from my educational editor. Did I want to take a book or two in a new series? It would have been easy to say no. After all, this isn’t for trade. This isn’t an agent asking for my work.

But it will also keep the lights on. And, as my husband says, although we like rice and beans it is nice to have something else in the cupboards.

I would never tell someone to give up on their dreams. And don’t crowd them out. Everything we say yes to takes up some of our time. But if we say no to everything we may fail to make the contact who will help us locate the opportunity we’ve been looking for.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some things to get done so that I can work toward my goals AND get those two new books done.

–SueBE

Loving Cover Art

I love when I discover cover art on a hard cover book. I don’t mean the title and author’s name printed on the binding. And I don’t mean the dust jacket.

I mean actual art work on the cover.

As much as I love the dust jacket art for A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger, I wondered if there was actual cover art as well. After all, the cover is a vibrant orange that just barely manages to peak out at the upper and lower edges of the dust jacket. You sometimes notice these things when you bring a whole stack of books home from the library.

I wondered why the book designer would pick such an explosive color and do nothing with it. So I took a peek. This was a library book so I couldn’t just remove the dust jacket. With it covered in a protective plastic sleeve and taped to the cover, I had to get creative. I slipped my phone inside. Talk about an awesome suprise!

Here is what my phone revealed.

This is the art on the front hard cover of A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger
This is the art on the back hard cover of A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger

Not all hard cover books have this type of art work. In the olden days, leather books were tooled and decorated. The cover of a book was a work of art in and of itself. To protect the leather covers in shipping, publishers began to add dust jackets. These paper jackets kept the leather cover clean and the art in good shape.

Today’s technology allows for a hard cover to be printed much as the dust jacket or the paperback cover is printed. Those are good. But I have to admit to be a little thrilled when I make a discovery like a bear girl hidden on the hard cover of a novel.

–SueBE

#booklover @LevineQuerido

Weaving Your Illusion: Creating Story

Funny that I should spot this when I did. I’ve been watching a series of Youtube lectures by novelist Brandon Sanderson. One of the things that he discussed in the video I was watching yesterday, The Illusionist Writer, was that although we as writers spend our time creating illusions, we need to do it well enough that the reader forgets that we are doing so.

When we fail, we are like the Wizard of Oz when the curtain is pulled back – fussy and agitated. “Pay no attention to the writer at the keyboard, awkwardly spinning out a plot and flat characters.”

When we do our jobs correctly, the story is gripping and dramatic and our readers are pulled in. They experience the lives of our characters and forget that we are there, sitting at our desks, typing out text, backing up to delete and typo, and then continuing on deeper into our story.

Here are three things that can remind the reader that there is a writer behind the story.

Sermonizing

Especially if you write for young readers, the problem may be that you are sermonizing. You’ve got a message to tell to the nations and you are, without fail, going to deliver it. It may not be a moral message. A lot of writers fall into the trap because “there is something kids today need to know.”

There probably is. But they aren’t going to read your book if you lecture them. And they aren’t going to forget that you, bossy britches writer, are at the keyboard.

How do you solve this? Spin a story. Let your important message emerge through a compelling related theme.

Episodic Plots

When events occur but don’t feel like they are linked in any way in the story, it is episodic. When this happens, it sometimes feels that the author is trying to tick off boxes. “I need a chase scene, a cliff scene, rising water in one scene, and a ticking time bomb in another.” The various events don’t feel connected in anyway.

How do you solve this? Make sure that there is cause and effect at work in your story. The character escapes while being chased by the baddie. The only way to do this is to slip onto a ledge over the edge of a cliff where the POV character realizes his sidekick is terrified of heights…

Motivation

Another problem that can pull the reader out of the story is character motivation. When characters lack realistic human-seeming motivation, readers often feel that they characters are simply serving the plot. If the story wasn’t there, there would be no reason for these characters to exist. They don’t seem real.

It is also problematic when a writer creates a situation where the characters acts “out of character.” This means that the character does something contrary to the motivations and the behaviors the reader has come to expect.

How to solve this? Character motivations can change as the story progresses. It is one way to show character growth.

You the writer may be making up a story, but you need to weave together a convincing illusion so that the reader is willing and ready to step into and inhabit your world for the course of the story.

–SueBE

Book Banning Close to Home

I can’t say it is pleasant to see a local school board in the news for book banning. Back on January 26, 2022, the Wentzville school board banned Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The book hadn’t been assigned in a class but the board ruled that it would be removed from all high school libraries.

One school board member, Sandy Garber spoke to a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She told the reporter that she didn’t consider the board’s action banning. They were protecting children from obscenity. To the parents at the board meeting who objected to the vote, Garber told them to go buy the book for their own children, but that she didn’t want it in the library for anyone else’s children to see.

Not surprisingly, the move did not meet with the approval of everyone in the district. Two high school students were represented by the ACLU in a class action lawsuit. The suit was filed on Tuesday, February 15. The suit states that the board violated the civil rights of students by banning multiple books including Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. According to the suit, removal of books threatens students’ ability “to learn and engage with a diversity of ideas and information, including seeing their own experiences reflected in the books and developing greater understanding of the experiences of others.”

In addition to The Bluest Eye, other books named in the suit include Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison and Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari.

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time will no that I oppose book banning. No, I don’t think every book is right for every young reader. But this wasn’t one parent talking to a teacher about their own child. This was a group of parents pushing the school board to make decisions that impact all young learners. A panel of librarians and parents from the district had read the books and recommended against banning Morrison’s book. Clearly not every parent wants the ban.

Parents are free to parent their own children. That isn’t banning. Banning happens when they try to parent everyone’s children, even children who need to see themselves in books with diverse characters.

What a relief that this vote has been challenged. For more on this story, see these Post-Dispatch articles here and here.

–SueBE

Snow Days: Sometimes You Need to Give Yourself a Break!

This week I made quite a haul at the library. I have a habit of requesting every single book that vaguely interests me.

My husband seems to think that is a problem. He should be happy they’re library books!

This week I have one cozy mystery (Wonton Terror), one novel (You Belong Here Now), two nonfiction titles (Krazy and They Were Her Property), five picture books (Have You Ever Seen a Flower, Ocean Meets Sky, Sergeant Reckless, It Feel from the Sky, Watercress), and five graphic novels (Louis Undercover, The Breadwinner, Wake, Grand Theft Horse, and Owly #2).

I’m confident that I’ll knock a serious dent in this stack because it has been raining, then icing, then snowing most of the day. Honestly, what better excuse for a snow day? So I’m trying to give myself a break.

The reality is that sometimes we need breaks. We might be mentally or creatively out of energy and need some time to recharge. For almost three weeks now, I’ve been spending an hour to ninety minutes a day on the treadmill listening to podcasts and watching videos. I feel better when I move and my viewing and listening have a tendency to yield writing ideas.

I probably don’t need to tell you that these are stressful times that we are living in. And a big part of this is taking care of ourselves. My husband’s office had their annual meeting today and they reminded people to let their supervisors know if they are feeling stressed, overwhelmed or anxious. But it also means taking care of physical issues.

Normally when I need to chill and recharge, I do handwork but one hand has been bothering me. I’m hoping it isn’t carpal tunnel or a tendon issue. It has been bothering me since I got my booster. It has gotten a lot better but hasn’t completely come around. Not to worry. I have a doctor’s appointment this morning. Hopefully he’ll have some exercises or stretches for me to do. He’s a big one for stretches.

In the meantime, I’ve got the wondrous polar fleece blanket, a cup of tea and a huge stack of books.

–SueBE

Five Minutes a Day: Refocus Before You Start Your Rewrite

I am going to restart my 5 Minutes a Day feature. It was one I enjoyed doing and is also a great way for each of us to start doing some new things with our writing.

One of my goals for this month is to reoutline my middle grade science fiction novel, Airstream. Admittedly, it isn’t something I’ve tackled yet. I need to look at what worked and what didn’t but I also need to avoid getting lost in the details. I’m not ready to line edit and I know it. This needs to be a big picture project.

Yesterday, I watched an SCBWI Winter Conference session with Stephanie Garber. She discussed the things that she keeps in mind as she writes and rewrites her manuscript. As I watched and walked, I watch these videos while I’m on the treadmill, I was thinking “Yes, that’s what I need to do!”

Here are the four questions I came up with that I need to answer before I start reoutlining my story.

Why Did I Want to Write This?

What was my impetus behind writing this story? For me, this is easy. I wanted to write a story about a girl who is really good at science but not so good with people. She resents being treated like a child, although she is, and confuses her overall intelligence with maturity and competence.

What Is This Story Really About?

At one level, this is a story about a girl who is super smart and resents being treated like a child. That’s the internal plot. But at a deeper level this is a story about family and belonging. That’s the theme. This is something that only becomes clear as the story unfolds.

What Larger Problem Is at Work?

As so often happens in a book, your character has an inner problem but there is also an external problem. This can also form a theme in your book. Since my book is science fiction, I took a page from Octavia E. Butler and her advice to look around you and see what problems may still be ongoing. This brings social justice and inequality into play – more themes!

What Do I Want the Reader to Feel?

Through much of this book, I want the reader to feel a sense of dread. I want them to be worried. My opening scene is ominous and creepy. My main character is missing something big but when the story opens we don’t know what that is. The big reveal is going to shift a lot of things in the story.

If you know your story well, you should be able to answer these questions in just a few minutes. Jot down the answers on an index card and keep it in sight. This will help you focus your story.

–SueBE

Try, Try Again: What to Do When Your Story Doesn’t Work

While I was writing yesterday’s blog post about why you need to know about inductive and deductive reasoning before you write a mystery, an idea popped into my head. It was an idea for a picture book mystery. If I played it right, it could be the first book in a STEM series. So instead of writing part of my work-in-progress, I sat down to draft this new book.

It was, no lie, a stinker. Hey, it is my manuscript so I can say that. It was boring. My characters were two-dimensional. There was nothing about it I liked. No worries. I hadn’t work on it for very long so I would just put it aside. Not every idea is a good idea.

Most afternoons, I spend time on the treadmill. While I was trit-trotting along to nowhere, I watched Kelly Yang’s SCBWI Winter Conference keynote. In her session, she talked about writing her latest book, New from Here. She spoke about problems with the first draft and her realization that her characters couldn’t represent every single child dealing with the pandemic. Instead, she needed to focus on how they dealt with it at a level most middle graders can understand, the family.

Okay. That made sense. But I had a niggling feeling that this advice could be applied to the manuscript I had left open on my desktop.

Nah. There’s no way. My story is a failed picture book. Hers is a successful middle grade.

But I still had ten minutes to go on that hateful treadmill. No, I don’t hate my treadmill. But wouldn’t it be easier to just abandon this manuscript?

Maybe, but a solution popped into my head. My POV character was every child. What do I mean? When I needed a treat that would go missing, I made the treat a cupcake, because everyone likes sweets.

But really? That’s not true. My son and I are both super picky when it comes to sweets. My cousin dislikes them in general preferring all things sour. I should have known better but I tried to make my character represent “every child.” Instead, I needed her to be an individual.

Yes, this is going to take me back to square one but that’s okay. It may also give me a character that can bring my picture book STEM mystery to life.

–SueBE

Deductive vs Inductive: Know the Difference Before You Write a Mystery

Who took the missing cupcake?
Your character can use inductive, deductive or abductive reasoning to find out.
Photo by Anna Nekrashevich on Pexels.com

Recently I saw a blog post on West 44 Books on the importance of inductive reasoning in books for tweens. As they explained, a story that uses inductive reasoning allows young readers to reach their own conclusions as they read the story. I wanted a more complete explanation as well as some information on deductive reasoning so I went to Live Science and found a post that explained both and a bit more.

In deductive reasoning, you start with a general statement or theory. You then make observations and reach a conclusion. That doesn’t tell you much, does it? Here is an example.

Major Premise: Reptiles have scales.
Minor Premise: Turtles are reptiles.
Conclusion: Turtles have scales.

Inductive reasoning starts with specific observations and moves toward the general. Here is an example.

Data: Every time I fly in an airplane, I get a sinus infection.
Hypothesis: The next time I fly, I will get a sinus infection.

There is another form of reasoning that Live Science discussed and that is abductive reasoning. You start with an incomplete set of data and form a conclusion.

Data: When I went into the kitchen, the cupcake I left in the cabinet is missing. I saw my brother leave the kitchen.
Conclusion: My brother ate the cupcake.

As pointed out by West 44 Books, Sherlock Holmes uses inductive reasoning. He observes, collects a lot of information, and then comes to a conclusion. Scotland Yard, uses deductive reasoning. They start the investigation with a theory in place and look for information that supports it.

So how does this work in your story? Perhaps you have a character who comes upon a crime, the missing cupcake, and then makes an accusation (abductive reasoning). They are challenged to prove what they’ve stated. It they only look for information that supports their statement, they are using deductive reasoning. When your theory is weak or false, you will eventually find information that contradicts it. But maybe this is how your character works early in attempting to solve the case. It is only when the find something that they can’t ignore that they move on to inductive reasoning and start making more comprehensive observations.

Hmm. That looks like an outline for mystery #1 in a series!

–SueBE