Before I declare a piece of writing done, I need to hear it read aloud. That may seem like overkill to you but it is a great way to catch repeated phrases, typos, and places that are just awkward.
I could read it aloud myself, but I really can’t. No. I’m being serious here. I start reading it aloud but by page two I’m reading silently. My eyes are following the words across the page but I’m not saying anything out loud.
And I need to hear it. That’s how I catch those last little mistakes.
Fortunately, Word has a fantastic Read Aloud/Speech mode. To find it, simply click on “Review” in your ribbon. Read Aloud is in the second grouping, under Speech. Position the cursor at the point that you want to start reading aloud. Then click the Read Aloud button. When you want to stop, simply click the button again.
If you click on the document to make a change, Word will also quit reading. I work around this by copying and pasting the text that I want Word to read in a blank document. I set the program to read that document and then pull my manuscript up to make changes as Word reads to me.
I think that 90% of the time, I fail to catch these errors by looking at the page because my typo is a real word. I hear the difference between “them” and “the” when I may not see it. These were also changes that Words spell check or grammar check did not underline for me and they both catch a lot of problems.
Most of what I catch using Read Aloud is pretty minor but at the end of a long day it can catch 10 simple mistakes that I might otherwise miss. And, really? I’d rather catch my own mistakes then have someone else catch them.
Do you always play it safe and write about things you know? Hmm. That sounded a little snotty and it shouldn’t. A lot of writers make a living writing about whatever they are an expert in — cooking, decorating, publicity, etc. Honestly? Capitalizing on what you know is a smart thing to do.
But a lot of us end up writing about things that we only know a little bit about. This was the case when I wrote Cancel Culture. I knew what the term meant. I had some idea how cancelling someone worked, but I had no clue about the background or breadth of this phenomenon. So I started reading and quickly worked to gain some level of expertise.
This is that Brandon Sanderson calls the 50% expertise that is fairly easy to achieve. Reading and research will take you to that level fairly quickly. Getting beyond that level is tricky. This is why Red Line Editorial, the company for which I write, employs content experts. A content expert reviews your book and points out the things that you need to change. Often they share information that still isn’t widely known. They are a blessing!
But what about fiction? Even if you write about a topic in which you are an expert, say basket making, you are going to have to populate your story with characters. These characters could all be like you but that’s likely to yield a world that looks flat and two-dimensional. How do you write about someone who is different than yourself?
As with other things, you start with your research. Me? I take a look at the people around me. If I’m not fairly familiar with someone who is a member of whatever category, be it ethnic, national, or neuro-divergent, I know I’m going to have to do even more work to achieve that 50% level of expertise.
Once I think I’ve got it, I face a decision. Do I count that I’ve got it right? Or do I ask someone to review my writing? My family is a wealth of engineers so I can find someone to look at the technical aspects of aircraft, manufacturing and more. I have friends who are trans, Muslim, and African-American. They can read my material and tell me if I’ve got it right or if there is some detail that I messed up.
Whether the people who read your work are expert readers or sensitivity readers, they can be a huge help in pushing your work beyond 50%. But you have to be willing to listen to what they have to say. Do you feel up to the challenge?
Today’s post is a little different in that I’ve got a Q&A with author Beth Bacon. Beth and I live in the same metro area and I ran into her electronically when she submitted news for our local SCBWI newsletter. She graciously agreed to answer my questions about her book, The Book No One Wants To Read.
SueBE: Thank you for joining us, Beth! Some picture books break the wall between reader and story by speaking to the reader once or twice throughout the book. But this entire book is a dialogue between the book as a character and the reader. What was your inspiration for this book?
Beth: About breaking the fourth wall, The Book No One Wants To Read is actually the sequel to my first book, I Hate Reading, which not only breaks the fourth wall, but also breaks almost every other rule in writing. I Hate Reading (HarperCollins, 2020) is a cheeky, non-linear dialog between two brothers who give tips on how to get out of their 20-minute reading requirement. But also, there is sort of a narrator in there, too, who responds to the brothers while also directly addressing the reader. Plus there are all kinds of literary hijinks like the dedication in the middle of the book and blank pages. So when I went to create the second book in that series, I knew I was going to play with the form of the book itself.
The second part of the question is about my inspiration for The Book No One Wants To Read. I used to work in the media center (a.k.a. library) of my sons’ elementary school. They had a rule: every student had to check out one book a week. I noticed that a steady group of kids would always gather in the shelves where the game-and-puzzle books were held. There was so much energy there! Those kids were so eager to check out those books, I’d overhear them negotiating. I realized these books were popular because they allowed the kids to obey the letter of the law (check out a book) while actually doing mazes or looking at optical illusions instead of practicing their reading. That got me thinking: could I write a game-and-puzzle book that was also a story? Could an activity book have a main character, who was humorous, yet flawed, and in the end changes for the better? It took me a while, but I eventually figured it out. The Book No One Wants To Read is a game-and-puzzle book that actually has a plot.
SueBE: I love that approach – a game-and-puzzle book with a plot. I feel like you’ve let us all in on a big secret. A big part of writing is rewriting. How did this book change during the rewrite process?
Beth: This was a challenging book to create because it’s so high-concept and it uses words, images, and the format of the book itself to tell the story. This book is a very visual book. It doesn’t have illustrations, per se, but it’s full of graphical elements. Once I wrote the main script, I worked with graphic designers to create the visuals. As we worked on the games, puzzles, jokes and illusions in the book, I revised the text to make it flow smoothly. For example, the book asks the reader to play “rock, paper, scissors.” It took a few tries to figure out what words and pictures were needed to make the game work, as well as provide instruction (in case a few people out there didn’t know how to play the game). Likewise, the book asks questions to the reader. The answers to those questions needed to be addressed in the book, but I wanted to allow the reader to answer the questions any way they wanted. So I had to carefully word the pages that follow the questions in such a way that they’d make sense no matter what. It was a big challenge, but the whole time I was like… “I just want to see if this is even possible.” So it was super fun for me, and I hope it ended up being super fun for the readers, too.
SueBE: As I was reading, I kept thinking how fun and unique this book is. What tips do you have for people who want to write for reluctant readers?
Beth: Even though some kids haven’t mastered reading, they are still smart and able. In fact, they have to be super smart and able, because they are always figuring out, on their own, to work around their reading difficulties. So writing for reluctant readers is about writing for intelligent, highly skilled kids… even though their intelligence and skills may not be measured and praised (or even noticed) by the grown-ups around them. So my main tip is, don’t talk down to reluctant readers. Treat them like the amazing, adaptable people they are!
The reality is, reading is hard—especially in English, where the rules of grammar and spelling are frequently and randomly broken.
But… Storytelling is an innate element of the human experience.
Sometimes for kids, the hard work of learning to read overpowers the innate fun of experiencing a story. So, I figure if I can make my books amazingly hilarious experiences, then sitting down with a book won’t be about “learning” or even about “reading.” It will just be natural and enjoyable.
I think all kids, because they are human, like wondering what will happen in a story. They like rooting for characters they have grown to love. I think kids like expanding their horizons and they like to laugh. When kids say, “I don’t like reading,” they are not saying they don’t like the things I just mentioned. What I think they are saying is: “I don’t like the hard and frustrating work of practicing a new, difficult skill.” And to that, I agree. No one likes to do difficult work. So I try to make it easy by using pictures that help inform the words. I use humor. I am very generous with white space. And most of all, I don’t try to preach or teach. I try to bring out what’s innate: storytelling and fun.
SueBE: Now on to your newest book. Can you tell us something about your latest picture book, The Panda Cub Swap?
Beth: My new picture book, coming out in September, 2022, is very different from my humorous books for reluctant readers. It’s more of an old-school picture book, designed to be read by a parent, teacher, or librarian to preschoolers or early elementary students. The illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful, painted by my friend Anne Belov. I like to call it a “coffee table book with a plot” because each huge, lovely spread is a work of art.
About the plot, this book is the true story of panda twins born at Zoo Atlanta in 2014… which is when I started writing it! (Yes, it took 8 years, a ton of dedication, and multiple revisions, to get from idea to printed book. Even now, I feel I will only believe it’s real when I hold it in my hands.)
Giant panda babies require a ton of work when they are first born. Panda cubs can’t see, they have no fur, they can’t walk, and their bellies even need to be massaged to help them go to the bathroom! It’s so labor intensive that mama bears can only care for one cub at a time. The zoo staff was eager to help, but they didn’t want to choose one cub over the other. So every few hours, they’d switch the cubs between Lun Lun’s den and their workroom. No one knew how Lun Lun would respond when they finally brought all of them together. Luckily for everyone, motherhood came naturally for Lun Lun!
SueBE: What an intriguing story! I can see why you felt driven to make it into a picture book. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your writing process and expertise with us!
Earlier this week I read I am Love: A Book about Compassion by Susan Verde. A quick summary – in this first person story, the narrator comes upon a girl who is going through a storm both figuratively and literally. The narrator shows compassion by approaching the girl and sheltering her with an umbrella. Again and again, the narrator shows love by not acting out when someone accidentally tramples their flowers and by being thankful, exercising, and through a host of small, daily act. Honestly this is an excellent choice for teaching young readers about love and compassion.
But this book is also an excellent lesson for writers in how to create books about abstract concepts for the youngest readers. The Amazon listing says that this book is for readers aged 3 to 8.
How does Verde do it? This isn’t a sermon. There’s no preaching about being good instead of being bad. There’s no lecture about not hurting the feelings of others.
Instead, Verde shows the narrator being kind, loving, and compassionate. First the narrator befriends a girl who is moving through a storm. The girl’s shoulders are hunched and her eyes are on the ground. But Verde doesn’t describe all of this. Instead she says, “When I see someone going through a storm of hurt and unfairness, of anger and sadness…” Example after example shows the narrator acting out of love and kindness.
Really, it is the ultimate example of show, don’t tell. But that makes the one critical review I read so ironic. The person was angry that Verde hadn’t show the character enjoying the wonder of a rainy day.
Um . . . because the rain was a metaphor? Of hurt, unfairness, anger and, dare I say it, sadness?
Using metaphor was an excellent way for Verde to show her character acting out of love. It makes the examples broader than they would be if she had described a specific situation. Definitely a book you are going to want to study before you write about something abstract.
Recently I saw a Q&A in Real Simple magazine where readers were invited to share their most controversial food opinion. There was the woman who doesn’t like potatoes and another who dislikes warm cookies. Another felt that lobster is overrated but another woman felt that the most overrated food is ice cream. Best food ever? One person insisted that it is Peeps (gag) and another spaghetti with parmesan and crushed potato chips.
Reading through the list I couldn’t help but think that this would make a fun characterization exercise. Here are ten questions for you to consider when creating your character. Obviously, you might need all of them but why not try?
What does your character hate that everyone else loves? I live in a beer crazy city. I loathe beer. LOATHE. I also hate White Castle hamburgers and caviar just tastes like you’re sucking on a beach stone (or so I assume since I’ve tried caviar but not the rock).
What food trend leaves your character cold? This could be fast food or a beverage or even something that is all over Pinterest. Think about it. Iced coffee. Pumpkin spice mania. Cookie dough ice cream.
Name a strange food combination that your character loves. This one is going to be tough because no one thinks that their favorite combination is strange. It usually takes someone else to point it out. One of my friends loves candy corn and peanuts. It actually isn’t bad. My family growing up always ate cheddar with apple pie.
What food does your character like but hates the smell of it cooking? Eggs? Rice? Just about any meat? Fish?
What holiday food is unique to your character? Maybe their family always had lasagna or ham on Thanksgiving.
What food does your character like only if it is fixed the way her mother made it? It could be meat loaf or fried chicken, mashed potatoes or biscuits.
What food did your character hate growing up only to discover that their mom or whoever just couldn’t make it? I loathed oatmeal until my husband made it for me. I had to introduce him to tacos with actual taco sauce. Ketchup will not even be on the table. I will launch it out the back door.
What travel snacks did your character grow up with? We had apricot nectar and Clamato, vienna sausages and saltines. My son grew up with Oreos and trail mix.
What will your character never, ever serve because they hated it growing up? LIver and onions? Lima beans?
What does your character consider comfort food? It doesn’t have to be the stereotypic mac-n-cheese. It could be BLTs or cottage cheese with sliced tomatoes.
Food preferences can show how old a character is, where they grew up, or just that they or quirky. Worried that your fiction may be stranger than fact? I grew up watching my father eat his favorite sandwich – peanut butter, baloney, mayo, a slice of onion and pickles. Gag.
Why not put a little thought into what your character will and will not eat?
I have to admit that I was immediately hooked when I saw the Publisher’s Weekly headline, “Sci-Fi for Kids is a Missed Publishing Opportunity.” Not only am I writing a science fiction novel for middle graders but I like including science in my nonfiction books. Any young reader who picks up The Dakota Access Pipeline will know how fracking works and in The Ancient Maya I discuss C-14 and how scientists can tell based on carbon what crops were grown in a certain area.
But including science can be a battle. When Duchess Harris and I wrote Hidden Human Computers, I knew that we needed to include how the women made many of their calculations. That meant explaining how to use a slide rule. We were challenged on including this because young readers don’t like science.
That’s exactly the assumption that Emily Midkiff wrote about in the Publisher’s Weekly article. She was taking a class on fantasy literature in grad school and decided to visit a local school library to see how small or large their fantasy collection was. She found a solid number of fantasy titles but noticed that science fiction was missing. Over several years she examined many library collections and noted the same thing time and time again. Science fiction titles just weren’t there.
She wondered about circulation and found something surprising. Fantasy titles circulated more than realistic fiction. Each science fiction title circulated more than the fantasy. Midkiff surveyed teachers and librarian who told her that they avoid science fiction for story time or group reading. Why? Because science fiction isn’t always popular and can be difficult or polarizing. Although they sometimes recommend a science fiction title to a specific child, they don’t call it science fiction.
Personally, none of this surprised me. I had a hard time getting the okay to review science fiction when I wrote for the newspaper. Why? Because the editor didn’t believe that “normal” kids liked science fiction.
But Midkiff pointed out something else. Around 2000, researchers looked at what books were taught and what was available in the classroom. Fiction dominated nonfiction and science was especially underrepresented. Yet when they were asked what they wanted to read, children went for the nonfiction.
Young readers are curious. Science is one way to satisfy their curiosity if only the adults in their lives will give them access. Now back to work on my STEM proposal and my science fiction novel. There are curious kids out there in need of good books.
Yesterday I took a webinar with Natascha Biebow on self-editing your picture book manuscripts. If you get the chance to see the video recorded by CBI, take it. This was a top-notch webinar in which she discussed both big picture edits, which she calls micro edits, and small picture edits, or micro edits.
One of the most important things in a picture book is to get rid of repetitive words. Face it, if your entire manuscript is 400 words or less, you don’t want to use the same word time and time again without good reason.
I’m a visual learner so I was dreading picking through an entire manuscript word by word. Don’t get me wrong. I have done it and I will do it again. But there are times that I still miss repetition. Way back when I started writing, one instructor had us create a file of every word in our picture book. Use it once, add it to the list. Use it again, add two checkmarks after the word. Use it again, add a third and so on. I’ll do it but I’d love to find a more visual way to do this.
Biebow suggested that we generate a word cloud. Hmm. I noodled this one over for a while.
Surely in a nonfiction manuscript about mountain lions, “lion” would be the most often used word? That would make sense. But what if I was to run my manuscript and the most often used word was “that” or “begin” or some other filler word? I ran my mountain lion manuscript and got a bit of a surprise. The most often used word wasn’t “lion” but “mountain.” Then I saw that both “lion” and “lions” were also used fairly often. That made sense. Sometimes it is plural and other times it is singular.
Just for fun, I also ran my fiction picture book Baby Browz. This one held a few surprises just because I was surprised that I used “nano” more often than a more common word like “can’t.” But I also noticed some ho hum words – tell, quality, and movement. I will definitely be re-evaluating this manuscript to weed out weak and repetitive words but only after I take a closer look at possible macro edits. There’s no point in sending this out until I’ve made it as good as it can be.
Some how, some way, I always consider what I am reading research. If it doesn’t feed into a current project it will almost certainly feed into a future project. Right? At the moment, I am working on a nonfiction title for 3rd graders. Then I’ll work on my middle grade science fiction title. Then it is back to my cozy.
Of course, I’m also squeezing a return to my graphic novel picture book in there. And I’m sending a poem back out and maybe a piece of preschool nonfiction. So, what am I reading?
In this week’s library haul. I have:
Write for Your Life by Anna Quindlen. Honestly, I can’t even remember why I requested this one. I think a writing friend recommended it!
The Kindred by Alechia Dow, a young adult science fiction novel. Science fiction – that’s research.
Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wondering Scholar by Kate Saunders. This one is a mystery but not a cozy because it is historic.
Unsettled Land by Sam Haynes. I’m noodling over writing something set in Texas. I just finished reading War on the Border by Jeff Guinn. I have a list of ideas already. My guess is that by the time I finish this book, I’ll have twice as many.
I am Love by Susan Verde. This is a picture book. I’m taking a picture book workshop tomorrow.
Schomburg by Carole Weatherford. Another picture book. This one is historic nonfiction.
Endlessly Ever After by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Dan Santat. I requested this one because Santat illustrated it. It is a choose your own fairy tale adventure and a much longer picture book. I’d love to write a choose your own but had never considered doing it for this level.
What have you checked out this week? How does it relate to your writing?
And three picture books, , , and
The last picture books, Endlessly Ever After, is . Really interested in exploring this title.
“Do something to make your work unique.” That’s the advice that we writers hear time and time again. Maybe you’ve heard it worded a little differently. “Why are you the only writer who could write this particular manuscript?”
Not to worry. I’m a nonfiction writer. I dive into the research and will pull up a scientific journal article for one short paragraph. I point that out because it was brought to my attention that not every nonfiction author is willing to do that. I actually heard someone say in a workshop that she only uses sources from which she can pull a lot of information.
I’m not going to say that isn’t wonderful when it happens. But let’s be realistic. If someone else has already written several spreads in your picture book or a full chapter in your book for older readers, then your work isn’t unique. It just isn’t.
Still, I know I’m not the only one who can do rock solid research using a large number of sources for a single manuscript. But how many of you researchers out there also draw? Earlier in the year when I took the graphic novel class with Melanie Faith, I rediscovered my love of line art.
So as I started working on the first manuscript for Wild Cities, I was wondering about how I could make it uniquely mine. Easy peasy, I thought. I’ll do a graphic sidebar for each chapter. I’ve attempted the sidebar for chapter one twice and it is just sad. Mostly because I’ve been trying to take short cuts.
Hmm. If I won’t do them with my research, I need to quit thinking like that for these graphic sidebars. I know what I need to do now for chapter one but decided to tackle chapter two. You can see my efforts in the photo at the top of this column. That’s my map on the far left. I’ve inked the land masses and penciled in the rest.
Three maps printed out to provide the data needed to draw one map. That seems to be about right. After all, this graphic sidebar looks pretty good if I do say so myself. I’ll finishing inking it today. That will be one down and seven more to go.
Just the other day, I saw a Tweet from a fellow writer who wanted to know if anyone else “talk to themselves,” by leaving themselves little notes in their manuscripts. Sure! Doesn’t everyone? I leave myself all kinds of notes. INCLUDE A BRILLIANT TRANSITION. BREATHTAKING SUMMARY GOES HERE. LOOK UP DATES. INCLUDE METRIC. My notes to myself are general instructional. I was ready to respond, but then I saw what he writes to himself. I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw something about cutting off your fingers if you can’t write better than this.
I was floored.
I do realize that humor doesn’t always come across well in social media. And maybe he was trying to be funny. Maybe. Either way, the tone rocked me back.
Then I saw this quote. My friend Lill Pluta and I take turns making memes to post on social media. We’ve been doing this for about 8 years because we are concerned about the amount of negativity that people put into the world.
This quote took me back to that Twitter thread. Yes, we all get frustrated when the words don’t come or the words that do come are awkward and clunky. It happens and we generally don’t like it.
When this happens, does it help to include negative self-talk in the manuscript? “Get it right! Seriously, get a day job if you can’t write better than this!”
Or is it more beneficial to give yourself a pep talk? When ever I get a kind e-mail from a reader, I drop it into my “nice letters” folder. That way they are all gathered in one place when I need a boost. I can page through letters where the writer tells me that I put into words a feeling they’ve been having about their work. Maybe I’ll find the one where a friend’s daughter used my book as the core for her “we should get a dog argument.” It didn’t work but I love that my words formed the basis of her case.
Sometimes I go back and read something that I’ve written that I especially like. As I explore the scene, I’m pulled into the setting and the mood. There are chills and ominous notes and it works. “Not bad, self!”
I’m not going to say that you always have to be upbeat and positive. But I do think that cheering yourself on is going to have much better results than anything negative. Hold up your potential, not your problems.