3 Questions to Answer Before You Start Writing

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I love it when I come across a piece of writing advice that goes beyond the genre that the speaker writes. Some time ago, I was watching a webinar on writing memoir led by Paul Bradley Carr. It wasn’t enough, in his opinion, to reach the end of the manuscript. He wanted the listeners to be able to create something that would be marketable.

What can I say? I love speakers who give us advice we can use.

To have any hope to create a commercially viable memoir, ala Carr, you need to be able to answer these three questions.

  1. Do you have something specific to say? This can’t be a vague piece about parenting. It has to be specific. Maybe your experience was in parenting a gifted child or triplets. That’s specific.
  2. Will this topic resonate with others? 6 percent of all students are gifted. Approximately 1 in 10,000 pregnancies results in triplets.
  3. Can you help in some way? Will your piece inspire or solve a problem? You can’t just be relatable. You need to be useful.

As Carr discussed these questions, it hit me that this approach goes beyond memoir. Truly, it is essential to all nonfiction writers. It doesn’t do any good to write any nonfiction piece that is vague or unrelatable.

For the sake of discussion, you are all about cooking. You want to write books that teach young readers how to put a nutritious, delicious meal together. If you create a proposal for a book that is going to teach readers to make breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for all four seasons and for people with a wide range of dietary needs . . .

Let’s just say that the Joy of Cooking has already been written. You need to be more specific.

Maybe you want to create a book for kids who are vegan or lactose intolerant. Or this is all about misleading food (looks like a cake pop but it’s a meatball). You need to have a slant. But you also need to show that there is a market for your slant. Misleading food? That might be a tough sell but you could make an argument for pirate food if you can provide stats for Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Can you help? Kids are good with straight up fun but you want adults to spend their money. What skills are you teaching? How are you helping build up their young learner. Be specific.

Whether you are writing a query letter or a nonfiction proposal, answers to these three questions will help sell your work.


How to Create Witty Repartee

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Whether you call it repartee, banter, or back and forth, witty dialogue is a great way to pull readers into your story. But wit is only going to go so far, and, if you want to keep your readers involved, this type of dialogue has be more than amusing. Here are three tips to make it sing:


In real life, something truly genius is said only once in a very long conversation. Witty? That can also take a while to come about. More often than not, we think of the truly gifted retort only hours later. But when you are crafting dialogue for your story, you need to get there much faster. We’ve all suffered through painful conversations but your readers have to do that in life. They don’t want to do it in literature.

Unless you make it matter. Does your character make a blunder that reveals something they found out by snooping. Do it! But again, do it fairly fast.

Don’t Shut the Reader Out

Often banter in real life revolves around being on the inside. I’m in my church choir. My friend and I are horrible with the banter and the inside jokes. Ninety percent of the time no one else knows what we are talking about. We have to limit it because we don’t want to other people to feel like outsiders.

If another character feels like an outsider, that is one thing. But you have to make sure that your reader knows what is going on and is in on the joke.

Make It Matter

Again, this is one of those times that real life and literature diverge. Witty repartee in real life is fine for its own sake. For your story, you need to make it matter. Are your characters flirting? That’s fine as long as the sexual attraction means something to the story or is a distraction, a red herring.

Or maybe your character is hinting at something that they know. It could be a means of threatening another character, “I know something you don’t want to get out.” Or it could be a fishing expedition because your character thinks that they may know something. If only they can get their verbal opponent to slip up.

Banter is amusing. There’s no doubt about it. But remember that as a writer you have to make every word count – even the clever ones.


Uniquely Universal: The Keys to a Winning Story

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Write the story that only you can write. Make it your own. It should be as unique as you are.

Got it? Good. Because we hear this advice frequently and this isn’t one I’m going to debunk. If your story isn’t unique, it is a carbon copy and publishers don’t want things that aren’t original.

But you also need to have a universal element. These universals act as bridges inviting readers into the world of your story.

I had a lesson in both earlier in the week. This year, the Bible study for Presbyterian women is on the sabbath. One of the things that we discussed was the sabbath of our childhoods. Most of us grew up in the St. Louis area where there were blue laws until the 1980s. These laws meant that the only retail available on Sundays was the grocery store. This meant no recreational shopping, no theaters, and so on.

Sounds restrictive? That’s how almost everyone in the group felt about it.

Not surprisingly, I was one of the hold outs. I loved Sundays. We went to church and then I went home with my grandparents. We had lunch. We watched movies — frequently Abbott and Costello or John Wayne. My grandfather and I would putter around in the yard. Maybe I would do a puzzle. At some point we all got our books out. It was divine!

If I wrote a story about this and how I felt about it, it would be unique. So I would have to find one or more universals to act as a bridge to bring readers into the story world.

Surprisingly, the bridge for our discussion was pie crust. Every single person remembered their mother or grandmother baking extra pie crust with cinnamon and sugar. This was a special memory for everyone although the crust form varied. My grandmother used small cookie cutters to shape it. Another woman’s mother twisted it. Yet another mom patted out a circle that she cut into wedges. But no matter. We had already connected over memories of crust.

So how do you do this in your story? Whether you are writing a speculative piece set in a future world or a piece of historic fiction set in Katmandu, you need to find universals that your readers will recognize. Often these universals come in the form of emotion. What are the things that make people feel cherished? Curious? Frightened? Angry? The emotion that you use is going to vary depending on the story and what emotion you want your reader to feel.

At first, it sounds contradictory. Make your story unique and make it universal. But noodle it over and you’ll find a way to do both!


Unexpected Inspiration

What does a stainless steel tree have to do with writing and books? It is all about surprises and inspiration.

We made a trip down to the St. Louis Art Museum last weekend because I wanted to see the exhibit on silks from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. I’ve recovered from a tendon issue and am again knitting and crocheting and want to get my loom back out. It was time for some color inspiration.

As we were walking from the parking lot to the museum, we stopped to admire the reflecting pool at the base of Art Hill. When we turned around to face the museum, I looked past the statue of Louis XIV and around one corner of the building I spotted a silver tree. What is that?

This stainless steel sculpture isn’t new, but somehow this was the first time I had spotted it. I mean really. It is as big as a tree!

But inspiration is a lot like that. I expected to go to the museum and be inspired by all of the glorious textiles. And I was. I noted the hanging (see below) created for a 60th birthday celebration and how contemporary it looked. Sorry for the reflections in the glass. They didn’t seem to take my obsessive need to take photos into consideration.

In spite of the 100s of Chinese dragons that I’ve seen in art of various kinds, this time something hit me. They look surprisingly like the local piasa painted on the bluffs outside of Alton, IL. If you’ve never seen the piasa, it looks like a dragon and has the face of a man with stag’s horns and lion’s feet. In the weavings, the dragons had expressive faces, horns, and clawed hands. The clouds around them looked much like wings.

Inspiration is so much like a trip to the Art Museum. You’re going about your merry way when all of a sudden – HEY! WRITE ABOUT ME! It will be interesting to see what stories this trip inspires.


Banned Books Week and Soft Censorship

When a book isn’t banned outright, it can be tempted to heave a sigh of relief. At least people can still read it. Right?


For those of you who aren’t familiar with soft bans, this is when a school or a district doesn’t entirely remove a book. Instead, the book is removed from library shelves to be kept in a safe area. Students can check them out if they have parental permission.

This means yet another piece of paper for parents to sign. Another piece of paper for school staff to deal with. And the assumption that a young reader will go up to the librarian and ask for this restricted book.

And, yes. There are young readers who will. My son would have been at the desk every time he entered the library. Maybe it would be because he wanted to read the book. But it would be even more likely that he wanted to stir something up. He has that type of personality. Where oh where did that come from? Ahem.

But then there are the young readers who may need to read about an LGTBQ character much like themselves. Will they have the nerve to ask for the book?

And all of this assumes that the young reader even knows that a particular book exists. A lot of books are discovered simply because someone sees the book and thinks, “This looks interesting.”

This is Banned Books Week. I thought this poster giving details about banning was pretty interesting. Why do people ban books? By and large, they would say that they are protecting the children. For some. ideas and people that are different are very scary things.

Sadly, many of the books that are challenged, either with a soft ban or an actual ban, are challenged because of gender, sexual, or racial content. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t parent but by narrowing access to a book, you aren’t parenting just your child. You’re parenting mine. And really, we all know why my kid is the one who would demand a restricted book.

What banned book are you reading this week? To read more about soft bans, check out this article.


Book Tour for The House on Linden Way by Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

The book is a ghost story with elements of horror and Gothic suspense. 

I am taking part in the blog tour for The House on Linden Way by Elizabeth Maria Naranjo. As you can see from the blog tour banner (above) my post reviewing the book will go live on October 3rd. From the press release:

This is a perfect October read – and here’s a bit more about The House on Linden Way

While passing through her hometown a decade after she left, Amber Blake impulsively revisits her old house on Linden Way. She only means to stay a moment, to show her three-year-old daughter Bee the place where she grew up. But when the kindly new owners invite them inside, Amber cannot resist.

Soon Bee is missing, the owners have disappeared, and Amber finds herself in a houseful of ghosts. Time takes on new meaning as she loses herself in living memories and a past that does not wish to be forgotten. 

As Amber fights the powerful lure of a childhood she’d long left behind, her tenuous hold on the real world slips further from her grasp. Is it merely nostalgia she’s battling, or something far more menacing? Who haunts the house on Linden Way, and where are they hiding her child? 

Categories: horror, gothic suspense, haunted house, ghost story, magical realism, thriller

Purchase your own copy on:  Amazon

About the Author

Elizabeth Maria Naranjo is the award-winning author of The Fourth Wall (WiDo Publishing, 2014). Her short fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in Brevity MagazineSuperstition Review, Fractured Lit, The Portland Review, Hunger Mountain, Hospital Drive, Reservoir Road, Literary Mama, Motherwell, and a few other places. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize,Best American Essay, and Best of the Net. All links to Elizabeth’s work can be found on her website at elizabethmarianaranjo.com.

Find the post launching the tour over at the Muffin.


Why I Write These Books

Last week, my critique buddies and I were chatting about our work. One of them asked me about a specific project and I realized that it has been a while since I discussed this here.

I work on a fairly wide range of nonfiction. The majority of my books, like the one picture above, are for tween and teens. The reading level is eighth to ninth grade and the book is 15,000 words long. There is a lot of information packed into one of these books. I love writing them because each book allows me to do a deep dive into a topic I don’t know much about but about which I want to learn more. And I always learn! That’s a plus because I was the curious kid who always wanted to know “why?” Now, I’m the curious adult.

I’ve also written four hi-lo books with two more under contract. A hi-lo title is for a reader who is somewhat behind in terms of reading level. So the book is high interest level, age appropriate, but lower reading level. This one is for older grade school and middle school readers who read at a third grade level. Without looking up the specifics, this one is 3000 to 3500 words long. That isn’t much when you consider it is about all the various learning disorders, how they impact young readers, and how these readers can learn to work around the disorders.

Writing hi-lo is so different from the first group of books above. They want the info but they don’t have the reading skills to take it all in. You need to give them something at their level so that they build confidence and skill. You can’t work in nearly as much information but it cannot feel slight. When I write these books, I look at each topic and subtopic I need to cover. What are the three most important things to tell readers about this topic? Then I carefully lead them into the new information step by step. I always reread a previous project to get to know this type of writing all over again.

Then there are the books that I write for 3rd graders. These are newly independent readers who want to know more. Again, these books are short. This one is only 2,200 words. But because they are often about broad topics I have to carefully consider what the reader absolutely has to know. One day, I may get more efficient at this type of writing but I tend to overwrite. Instead of fighting it, I just go with it and then look at what I have for that spread. What do readers absolutely need to know about this subtopic? What information do they need to fully understand this? What is surprising? These things stay and everything else (sob!) has to go.

Writing this short isn’t easy for me but I enjoy doing it. It gives me the opportunity to examine the essence of a topic and find a way to make it accessible to younger readers with smaller, developing vocabularies.

Really? I’m still a curious kid and writing several types of books allows me to cover a wider variety of topics and share them with my fellow curious kids. So why do you write what you are writing?


National Literacy Month

Library Haul 9/13/2022

Did you know that September is National Literacy Month?  When I saw that latest stat for adult literacy in the US, I was floored. In 2022, 79% of US adults are literate. That means that a shocking 21% are not. Of those who can read, 54% are literate to only a sixth grade level. And sadly, children who cannot read well become adults who cannot read well.

Now I’m assuming that if you read my blog, this matters to you. You are a book lover. You simply cannot get enough of the written word. So how do you encourage others to read and share your love? Here are 5 suggestions.

Give Books

Many of us give books to the children and adults in our lives, but what about kids who don’t have access to books. Even inexpensive paperbacks cost too much if you are having troubles feeding your family. Give $20 to your local school book fair. I hadn’t thought of this myself until a librarian friend posted that someone had donated $20 to her fair. It was enough to send books home with 5 or 6 kids who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a book of their own. You should have seen the smiles on their faces!

Recommend Books

One thing I disliked about reviewing was the demand that I pan books. Although I get that controversy sells, I’m not interested in telling people what books I dislike. I want to tell them which books I love. When you find a book that you can’t get out of your head, tell other readers about it. Incidentally, have you read High Conflict by Amanda Ripley? It is eye opening!

Promote Your Library

Libraries are about more than just books but literacy is still a huge part of what they do. If you are on social media, brag about your library. Post photos of art shows and book displays. Share an image of your weekly book haul and challenge people to guess what you are researching right now. Share posts from your library because this helps their metrics. Push them up so they can push reading!

Model Reading

I always see the recommendation that you read at home so that your children see you do it.  What about public reading?  Sit on your front porch and read.  Pick something like a picture book with a big profile.  Let the neighbor kids see you enjoying a book.

Lift Up All Reading

Many of us have a tendency to hold up how and what we read as THE way to read. “You don’t have a kindle? Your home is so cluttered.” “Comic books aren’t real books.” “That book isn’t challenging enough.” Don’t make reading a battle ground. If you don’t understand someone else’s choice, ask them about it. “Why do you love graphic novels? Tell me about it.” People love to feel heard.

What other things would you recommend?


Blog Tours: What and Why?

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Next week, I’m going to post about the blog tour that I’m taking part in, but I thought I would first discuss what a blog tour is and why you might want to do one for your own book. A blog tour is like a book tour but it is entirely online. It is an opportunity to promote your book in front of a wider audience. You can do a blog tour three different ways.

Invite Others to Write about Your Book

The way that is the least amount of work for you is to ask other bloggers to write about you and your book. They could write a review. They could post about why fellow writers should read your book. They could write about why your book would make a great Christmas gift. The possibilities are endless and depend on your book.

This relies on your ability to get them a copy of your book and whatever other materials they need. That said, it is the least work of the three options.

Offer to Guest Post

If you are willing to take on more of the actual work, you can offer to write a guest post. If your goal is 50 different participating blogs, you don’t have to write 50 different posts although you might want do customize each post just a bit. Can you come up with 10 different posts? You could write about:

  1. What inspired you to undertake this process.
  2. Your research.
  3. A location in your story.
  4. The actual writing of the piece.
  5. How it evolved during the revision process.
  6. How you chose the market for the piece.
  7. The writing rituals that kept you going.
  8. How you fixed the muddled middle.
  9. The play list that you listened to as you worked.
  10. Foods that appear in your story.

As you can see, some of these topics would work well for audiences of nonwriters. Depending on your book you could likely come up with even more ideas.

A Combination

The blog tours that I’ve taken part in have all been a combination of these two approaches. In some cases, people have guest-posted here on my blog. More often than not, I’ve reviewed or otherwise written about their book. I also generally post about the tour, telling my readers a bit about it before they see my post.

So why would you want to do the work required for a blog tour? To market you and your work. If you want to book school visits, virtually or in person, that would be something you could include in your bio especially if you are visiting library or education blogs.

A blog tour is also a great way to visit readers you wouldn’t physically reach in a book tour. Most book tours have a limited number of stops, but a blog tour opens up a world of possibilities.


Character Agency and Picture Books

If you aren’t familiar with the term, one way to think of character agency is power. A character who has no agency is an observer or a victim. Things happen around this character and to this character but not because of this character.

Agency can be tricky in picture books especially if you have a child character. Children don’t have a lot of power and one way that some writers attempt to solve this problem is to limit the number of adult characters in the picture book. The reason being that if adults aren’t there, they can’t take over.

But I’ve also heard complaints about this approach especially from African American writers. They content that creating picture books about their community demands adults and even large complex families. That is, after all, reality. And it is worth nothing that this can work and work oh so well.

In Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham, the family gathers at Granny’s every Sunday. The day of the story is the day the first person narrator is declared old enough to help. Granny teaches him how to wash and chop greens, prepare the meat for grilling and so much more. It is a real family experience but the young narrator still has agency.

How can he possibly have agency with Granny in charge? He could do the job poorly, but chooses to do it well. And in the end he goes above and beyond, using the skills he’s learned from Granny, to make something on his own – a cool, pitcher of sweet tea. The tea is the key because he does this all on his own.

That’s the key to character agency in a picture book. Your character has to take action. That action can work well and come toward the end of the book as it does here. The action could also be a series of bad choices such as if your character tries to sneak a snack or get dressed herself.

There are other work arounds. You can write a story with an animal character. You can also write a story with a childlike adult. The important part is to create a story that works.