My family recently returned from a trip and I realized that traveling is like starting a new manuscript. You think you know what you are going to do. You plan and you pack and then you make the best of it.
When you travel, there are always things that you back that you don’t need. Not needing some of these things is a blessing – the gas can that accompanied us across the desert. We made it to town just as the Jeep dinged to tell us to fuel up.
There are also the things that you aren’t sure you will need but were a really good idea. For us, these included a drying rack, rain jackets, and spf 45 lip balm. We managed to experience two extremes – a dust storm and a down pour.
Then there are the things that we wish we had remembered. First up on this list – Sudafed. When I was a kid, allergies weren’t a problem. I don’t know if the issue was that I had never been there in May or if new residential patterns mean new planting patterns and new pollen. It would also have been nice to have a scarf to cover my hair with during all the wind!
What does this have to do with writing? At the beginning, you make a plan. Some of us outline. Others create a mind map. However you organize, the idea is that this will take you through a completed manuscript.
No matter how carefully I plan, there is always something that doesn’t quite work out. One section feels too much like another and one of them has to go. Of I’ve got two great scenes but there’s a blank spot in the middle. How do my characters get from one to the other?
Ninety percent of the time, I push my way through. Once I reach the end I have a much better idea what worked, what didn’t and what I should actually have included. Fortunately, rewrites make it all attainable!
Yesterday we got home from Alpine, Texas. Just from here to there, we traveled 2156 miles in 8 days. We also drove to Fort Davis twice, to the observatory and through the desert and the mountains. I think we totaled something like 2300 miles.
I’ve always loved the patriotism of Memorial Day but this year was a little different. We were taking my Dad home for burial. But we also had a reunion with cousins and their spouses. It was the first time my son had met some of these people. We told stories, because . . . Texans. Texans love their stories.
Newton, pictured above sprawled on my son’s duffle, did not join us. A friend’s daughter house and cat sat for us. In spite of the fact that he has been spoiled, Newton has let me know I must stay home and write.
Good thing I have plenty of ideas. You’ll be hearing about some of these throughout the coming week. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to readjust to Missouri’s humidity and get used to not spending so much time in the car!
When I agreed to write Investigating Fossil Fuel Pollution, I said yes because I welcome the opportunity to write STEM for younger readers. But I hadn’t considered what it would mean to write on a science topic for readers in second and third grade.
The majority of books that I write for the school library market are for tweens and teens. The Ancient Maya, Cancel Culture, and The Assassination of John F. Kennedy are just three of the books that I’ve worked on for readers in 8th grade and older. These books are 15,000 words long and from eight to ten chapters. That sounds like a fairly significant word count but I always make certain to pack in as much information as possible
Fossil Fuel Pollution was only 2,200 words. It is only five chapters long but includes information on oil spills, solid waste, water pollution, air pollution, and what readers can do to help. That doesn’t seem like much but the book is 17 manuscript pages long.
As always, I made a list of everything wanted to include. At this point, I was mentally thinking about it as everything I needed to include. When I started drafting the manuscript, I immediately realized that most chapters were running long and not just a little bit long. Some where over twice as long as I could make them.
This meant that I had to quit thinking about what I wanted to include. Instead, I had to contemplate what I could not, under any circumstances, leave out. What wouldI fight tooth and nail to keep in that book?
For the most part, I wasn’t cutting a word or two hear and a sentence there. I was removing paragraphs at a time. In part, this is why I don’t get into “slaying my precious words.” Sometimes something has to go to reach the target word count. That’s just that.
But the easiest way to bring myself to do this is to cut it and paste it into a file. Each book I work on is sorted into a separate Word folder. Many of these folders include a document called “stuff.” If I cut something that I later need, there it is. If my editor wants me to replace a sidebar and leaves the topic up to me, I go into this folder.
Once I got the hang of what I could fit into a chapter, rewriting went quickly. Younger readers are just as curious as older readers. Where a teen is ready to dig in, a second grader is only ready for a sample. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to write for this age group again in the future.
The vast majority of picture books are less than 500 words long. And, yet they include everything that a longer book has and often more. This was brought home to me as I read The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Does the name Ibtihaj Muhammad seem familiar to you? Think Olympics. Think gold medal. She is the first American fencer to compete in hijab. The illustrator is Hatem Aly who also wears hijab.
This is the story of a young girl, Faizah, whose sister decides to wear hijab to school. Her sister’s friends and her own friends are supportive but there are other kids, kids who yell hateful things. For me, the best part of the story was how her sister deals with the hate. She simply shrugs it off. I have to tell you in this day when so many people chant and carry signs and post online, a girl simply living her religion was a breath of fresh air.
So what are the layers of a top-notch story found in this picture book?
Asiya decides to wear hijab and it would have been very easy to create a second girl, the younger sister, who was simply a reflection of the first. But Faizah is her own person wearing her light-up shoes and counting her steps. Still she is someone who cares about her sister and that comes through loud and clear.
Some books demonstrate this staying power through humor. They make the reader laugh aloud and want to revisit the book again and again. Other books are like a warm hug and this book is of the hug variety. The sisters’ love for each other and their willingness to explain things to their classmates and friends warmed my heart.
Windows and Mirrors
Young girls who wear hijab will find themselves looking into mirrors with this book, seeing themselves and their female relatives in the cast of characters. But it is also an excellent window for non-Muslim reader, allowing them to gaze into the why and how of hijab.
Adult and Kid Appeal
Young readers will see themselves in Faizah, who finds herself confronting feelings that seem too big to face alone. But adults will also be drawn to this book, especially if they feel compelled to provide windows and mirrors to the young readers in their lives.
Not all books for young readers need the same level of adult appeal that picture books need to have. The reality is that a child won’t sit through a picture book that doesn’t engage them but an adult won’t buy a picture book they don’t find engaging.
Check out The Proudest Blue and experience a picture book that works in so many ways.
If you were writing a quirky modern mystery, how would your murderer commit the crime? Cozy mysteries tend have quirky characters that live in unique locations. What they don’t have are “on screen” murders, swearing, or on-screen sex. Sound tame?
Not really. Think about Murder She Wrote and Cabot Cove. The tv program wasn’t gory but there were way too many murders in that small town to consider it tame.
That the situation with a lot of cozy communities. And yet so many of the murders themselves are ho-hum. Not that murder is ever really ho-hum but 90% of cozy murders are fairly predictable. Someone gets shot and initially everyone thinks it was a car jacking or a burglary. Or someone gets stabbed and people assume it was a mugging.
This is only strange because cozy mysteries are full of quirks. In the Highland Bookshop Mystery Series, the detectives own a book store/bakery/B&B. Any of these businesses alone would be ordinary but the combination makes it unique. In the Apron Shop series, the detective owns . . . can you guess? . . . an apron shop. Yes, a shop that sells handmade aprons.
So, how would you kill the victim in a cozy? Tainted quinoa? Cyanide-laced CBD oil? Questionable berries in the small producer granola? It isn’t going to be enough to be quirky, you have to be quirky with purpose. Often the detective is trying to prove their own innocence or that of a friend. So if your character makes handmade items out of vintage fabrics, perhaps the victim had been killed by arsenic green. Or you could use the tainted quinoa if your character operates a vegan café. If your detective restores historic homes, the weapon might be a toxic stain or varnish.
Don’t go with the first ho-hum idea that enters your mind. Instead look for something quirky that is a top-notch fit for your story.
Several times a week, I check to see if my book covers are up on Amazon or my publisher’s site and late last week my persistence was rewarded. I’m not lying to myself. I know I’m not patient.
Any-hoo, these are the books for which I needed a pen name. The publisher requested that everyone on the project use a pen name. We are allowed to use these pen names for other work, not limited to this publisher.
It would have been so much easier if it was a name I would never again use. When I was picking out my pen name, I didn’t even consider that someone would think I was hiding behind it. A friend of mine is a romance author and member of Romance Writers of America. She told me about male authors in the organization who use female pen names. They have discovered that women readers aren’t interested in reading romance novels written by men. “A lot of people use initials to hide their gender.”
Nope. Not even close.
As I was trying to pick one pen name, I realized that at some point I might need a second pen name. If at some point I publish my cozy mysteries, I’m not entirely certain I want them to carry the same author name as my children’s books.
That would make two pen names. On bad days, I get my kid’s name wrong on there’s only one of him. This will only work if I make it easy for myself so for pen name number 1, I chose L. C. Edwards. Those are my grandfather’s initials and it it what people called him. That’s him below on the left. For my mysteries, I will use Elsie Edwards. The lady on the right is my grandmother.
It is actually a joke. When my grandparents moved, people heard my grandfather’s name. He went by his initials. They thought they were hearing Elsie and called my grandmother by that name. It took some time for her to get back to her own name.
What does this have to do with gender? I didn’t pick initials to hide my gender. I’m not trying to make readers, or buyers, think that I might be a man. Unless an author admits that they were trying to hide their gender, I wouldn’t read a whole lot into it. Sometimes L.C. is just L.C. although in my case it is also a homonym.
Read 1000 books before you start to write and submit.
Picture book authors, mystery writers, and middle grade fiction writers have all heard similar advice. Sometimes the number changes. Read 500 books or 5000. Read four books a month.
So how many should you read? I don’t know. I know excellent writers who never read more than 2 books a month. Me? I read about 200 books a year, including picture books and graphic novels.
I suspect the number of books needed is going to vary somewhat from person to person. All I know is that by reading so much, I’ve internalized a lot about what makes for an amazing book. I discovered this when I started writing fiction during the pandemic.
I’m not going to say that my work was so amazing that it required no rewrites because that wouldn’t be true. But I will say that my first chapter came together fairly quickly. I needed an ominous tone and, because of my reading and, admittedly also my movie viewing habits, I knew how to set an ominous scene.
I hadn’t learned everything that I needed to know simply be reading. Working on my craft has required reading how-tos, taking classes, and having my work critiqued. Still there is an awful lot that you can learn by reading, or listening to, vast quantities of books.
Picture Books and Poetry
Picture books and poetry are both meant to be read aloud. Reading piles of picture books and pads of poetry helps you develop a feel for the sounds of words and word play.
I may not read a lot but I do read some and horror is a great way to develop a sense for how to build tension and also how to create an ominous tone. You can find horror that isn’t all about blood, guts and gore.
Mysteries help you learn how to weave together complex plots full of dead ends, red herrings, and characters who aren’t what they seem to be. Cozies are an especially good lesson in creating quirky characters.
Middle Grade Fiction
Middle graders can be oh so serious but they also love to laugh. Reading middle grade books can help you see how you can work humor into even the most serious story.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Speculative fiction as a whole is a great way to learn to build bridges for your reader. How do you make a story work that is incredibly unlike the “real world” accessible to readers from the here and now? Read speculative fiction to learn how.
What about you? How does your favorite reading inform your writing? Consider this the next time you are paging through your favorite book.
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!