Banned Books and Halloween

We went to a costume birthday party yesterday. My Halloween costume this year?

I am among the most terrifying of modern monsters – a school librarian (optional banned books included). For those of you who can’t read the covers, I’ve got Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I seriously thought we had Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird but I couldn’t find it.

Inspiration for this costume was provided by Amanda Jones and the many other librarians who are fighting for our children’s right to read.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with her story, Amanda is a school librarian in Livingston Parish, Louisiana. Amanda spoke at a school board meeting not as a librarian but as a private citizen. She spoke against banning. Not to long after that Citizens for a New Louisiana found out she was a school librarian. They took to social media, stating that she is fighting to keep pornographic materials in the school collection. They also said that she advocates teaching anal sex to eleven year-olds.

It isn’t true but that doesn’t stop people like this. Anything goes as long as they can shut her up.

Jones took them to court but the Louisiana judge was all meh. Its okay to tell these lies and hurt her feelings. But this is about more than hurt feelings. This is about social media bullies trying to silence her and anyone else who stands against them.

Jones is continuing her fight. If you’d like to contribute to her Go Fund Me account, you can contribute here.


Do I Need to Do Research?

Nine times out of ten, when I meet a new writer they tell me that they are writing some kind of fiction. “Oh, I write nonfiction.” “Not me. I don’t want to have to do the research.”

Hmm. Really? Because I do research when I write fiction too.

I may not do as much and it looks entirely different but I still do research.

This week, I’m working on a nonfiction hi-lo (high interest level, low reading level). My search history for today includes:

  • The cardigan at right, part of a potential Halloween costume.
  • Temporary fencing.
  • The definition of legal appeal, viable, and monkey boots.
  • When was the Constitution written?
  • Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Next week it will look completely different, but really this isn’t any stranger than normal.

When I’m writing fiction, my research again depends on what I’m writing. My science fiction novel required searches on:

Come back next week for a photo of my Halloween costume.

  • Astronaut training.
  • Space travel.
  • Space elevators.
  • Graffiti.
  • Nanobots.
  • Long-term shelf stable foods.

That’s all I can think of right now. I know there was a lot more, but as the mom of an engineering student and the wife of someone whose into astronomy and space exploration, a lot of my questions are answered at the dinner table.

Fiction picture book manuscripts can also require research. For my last one, I researched:

  • Harvesting nopales.
  • What do you call the various parts of a prickly pear.
  • Preparing nopales.
  • Where are nopales eaten?
  • What fertilizes prickly pears?
  • How long do prickly pears live?

Again, I’m sure there was a lot more but this is what springs to mind.

If you write nonfiction simply because you think it doesn’t require research, you may need to think again. And what other excuse will you have to look at pictures of cacti and desert animals and call it work?


Literary Snobbery and Trying to Build a Reading List

The other night I almost lost it. Over a year ago, my book club read The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian Refugees by Don Brown. Only three of us had ever read a graphic novel so when time came to recommend new books, I put this one out there.

If you don’t know The Unwanted, the first thing you need to realize is that it is a Sibert Honor title. This book places in the ALA awards.

And yet, one woman very vocally complains about it. Still.

It is, plain and simple, a case of literary snobbery.

I’m not sure why it surprises me when I encounter this. After all, I write for young readers. I write nonfiction.

When people find this out I get all kinds of responses. Of course, 90% are excited or supportive. These comments are from people who loves books and reading. What can I say? I spend a lot of time at the library and at bookstores. I normally enjoy being around people who read.

But there are other less supportive responses. “Oh, you’re still writing for children. Maybe you could try writing Oprah books.” No. No, I could not.

The one that always stumps me is “Have you written anything I’ve read?” I don’t know. You tell me.

Right now the problem is that we are getting ready to choose the 2023 reading list for book club. The person who is snobby about graphic novels is threatening to make us read a romance. Why? She knows I’m not a huge fan.

But really? Is that a smart game to play with me? She thought she was being clever. “We’ll only let Sue recommend something that is on her bedside table.”

We each get to recommend two books. I’m tempted to include How the Mountains Grew: A New Geological History of North America by John Dvorack. It is on my bedside table after all.

I’m joking – I think. I’m not really sure what I’ll recommend. What I do know is that literary snobs make me grouchy.


Brainstorming: How to Go Beyond the Obvious

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev on

I recently spent some time poking around my library’s catalog, I wanted to see some of the more recent Halloween picture books. The fact of the matter is that most holidays, Halloween included, have been done and done again. If you are going to write and sell a manuscript, it is going to have to go beyond the obvious Halloween topics.

One way to do that is to create a combo. Think of it as a pumpkin pie cheesecake. You have a layer that is pumpkin pie and a layer that is cheesecake but when you put them together you have something new.


Maybe you start with a song, like The Wheels on the Bus. What can you do with that to make it Halloween?

  • Instead of a school bus, you could have a ghoul bus.
  • Or you could abandon the bus completely and have a haunted train, a hearse, or a paddle wheel steamer. Okay, the hearse might not work but you see what I’m doing, I hope. With each idea, take a step away from the norm.
  • Leave behind transportation completely. Write The Bubbles in the Caldron, The Ghosts in the Mansion, or the Shades in the Swamp. Keep going until you have something undone and unexpected but fun.


Start with a Halloween or scary trope and find a way to make it unique.

  • Trope: The child who is afraid of monsters. You can’t do the monster who is afraid of children. That’s been done. But what if the child and the monster are both afraid of bunnies? Or song birds?
  • Trope: The ghost that makes scary sounds. What if, instead of scary sounds, the ghost made delicious smells like sugar cookies or peppermint? What if the ghost left sweet messages on post-it notes?
  • How would you reverse other tropes? You could use the watchful neighbor, flickering electricity, or music coming from downstairs.


Because I’m such a nonfiction nerd, I’m also contemplating how to combine Halloween with science or other nonfiction.

  • The science of photography. You could work this into a historical story about spectral photography which was a hoax.
  • Things that go bump in the night and the science of sound.
  • An international haunting conference which would combine with ethnography to pull in ghost beliefs from various cultures.

Whether you want to write a Halloween story, a Thanksgiving story, or a Christmas story, you are going to have to work to come up with an idea that editors and agents have not already seen. Think about what you can combine to create something new.


Why Write Scary

Yesterday, there was a high school shooting in our city. Depending on which news story you read, there were six or eight people taken to the hospital. Three people, including the shooter, died. Why on earth when the world is a scary place should we allow children to have scary books? There are as many reasons as there are children and scary books.


Done right, scary stories make for great entertainment. Way back when Where the Wild Things Are was released, Sendak was criticized for the scariness of Max’s fantasies. What did Sendak have to say? “The adults who are troubled by the scariness of his fantasy forget that my hero is having the time of his life.”

Suspense, the jump factor, and the joy of something creepy. All of these things are entertaining as long as they are age appropriate. And I think that is why a lot of adults would prefer to get rid of them. What is appropriate for one child at 7 may not be appropriate for another until 9.


While it is tempting to just go the simple route and say no to scary stories, these stories allow children to explore what scares them. And the reality is that we live in a scary world.

Don’t get me wrong. Our parents grew up in scary times. There were polio scares and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But they didn’t have social media keeping it right up in their faces all the time.

Hmm. That makes it sound like we enjoy scaring ourselves. Well anyway . . .

Scary stories give children a safe place to explore scary things. And the thing is that they can’t get away from all that is scary. Not really. Because we all have negative scary emotions. And the more that kids hear about how bad certain things are? The more they are going to question.

Books can be a safe place to explore these questions.

Books can be a safe place confront the things that go bump.

Because there are truly scary things out there in the world.


Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Are you a writer who believes that you should write each and every day? Or do you write only when the mood/muse strikes you?

I have to admit that I hate rigid rules like BIC – Butt in Chair. This is the idea that you put your butt in the chair and stay there even if the words don’t flow. The thought is that if you sit down to write every day, more often than not the words will flow.

Because I have contracts and deadlines, I live by BIC. I don’t really have the luxury of awaiting my muse.

But I very seldom take part in NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. This occurs each November and I often have deadlines in November.

But I realized that the last deadline on my calendar is November 4th. There is no reason not to get a late start and see what I can get done. I doubt seriously that I can manage 50,000 words in one month. And I haven’t actually decided if I’m going to try.

The thing is that I’m going to be free and loose with the rules. I’m not starting a project from scratch. Instead, I’m going to finish drafting a nonfiction title and the accompanying proposal. That’s goal #1. Then I’m going to see what I need to do on a picture book that is so close to being done . . . so very close! Then I’m going to check what I need to do on a middle grade novel. I workshopped it during a class so my vision for the completed project changed. I’m going to outline my plan and re-outline the novel. I’m going to work to have a goal done by the end of the year.

I suspect that BIC will see me making some serious progress. Are any of you doing NaNoWriMo?


How Writers Get Paid

Photo by maitree rimthong on

If you want to make a living as a writer it is important to understand the various way that writers get paid which also means you need to understand different kinds of rights.


The writing that I do for Red Line is work-for-hire.  That means that they own the copyright and I am paid a set amount.  No matter how much money these items earn the publisher, I’m done.  I won’t make any more.  

All Rights 

See work-for-hire.  An all-rights sale means that you are signing over all rights to the publisher.  Again, you make one lump sum.


A royalty is the percentage of the sales of your book. Different formats earn a different percentage. For example, you might earn 25% on an audiobook but only 5% on a mass market paperback. The more your work sells, the more you make but you don’t make anything until sales begin. Most publishers pay royalties twice a year. To find out more about royalties, check out this post at Author Mag.

Royalty with Advance  

When you sell a book, you are sometimes paid an advance against royalties.  The publisher pays you $2000 or whatever when you deliver the project.  When the work starts to sell, the publisher keeps track of how much you have earned in royalties.  You will get a check once this amount is greater than the advance because you have “earned out” your advance.

One Time Rights

This means that you give the publisher permission to use your work one time for one payment.  No royalties.  That was the deal I had with Young Equestrian and Children’s Writer.  You can resell this work to publishers who take reprints.

First North American Serial Rights  

This is like one time rights, but you are telling the publisher that they are the first ones in North America to publish this work.

This isn’t an exhaustive list but I hope it gives you some understanding of the terms you will see in various publisher’s guidelines

How to Make Your Story Unique

Earlier this week, I read a post on the Nelson Literary Agency site about making your women’s fiction glow. Whether you write women’s fiction, mysteries, or picture books, the post held lessons for us all. It was about making your story unique.

In the post, Angie Hodapp writes about going beyond your typical PTA meeting. This means that your PTA can’t be simply the mean girls vs the geeks. They can’t be dealing with ho hum ordinary issues like fund raising for new playground equipment. They need to be and do something new.

How does this apply to the rest of us?

Think about middle grade stories about school. You have books about school project. There’s making the sports team. There’s moving to a new school. There’s going to the school dance. And they’ve all been done and done again. If you are going to write about a typical middle school experience, you are going to have to make it unique.

The same goes for picture books. Typical topics include bed time, first day of kindergarten, spending the night away from home, and holidays. To sell, your work has to be unique and that can mean either the characters, the situation or both.

How can you find a way to take your story to the next level?

Characters and Setting

One way to do this is to make your characters or setting unique. In Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe, the narrator is Harold, the family dog. He’s sure that there’s something off about the families new pet rabbit and the evidence starts to add up that this bunny is a vampire.

Stories about kids suspecting their new neighbor of being a vampire or whatever had already been done. The Howe’s dealt with this by telling the story from a different perspective with comical results.

Rowland took her typical middle school story and added magic. Sure, there was a British boarding school but is was a haunted castle and a school for wizards.

Study the Competition

Hodapp recommends looking at best sellers. What tropes are these books using? Can you apply them to your own stories?

Look at the award winners in children’s books. Look at the books that have been selling for years. What is the BIG element that they bring to the story.

Frindle by Andrew Clements is about a class clown and trouble maker who takes on a dictionary mad teacher by getting a new word entered into her beloved dictionary. In your school story, how can the students turn the rules on a teacher?

Don’t Forget the Stakes

To make a splash, the stakes in your story have to be big. It can’t be that your character will be sad or disappointed. This has to be huge. In Clements story, the whole school gets involved.

You can also have big stakes in a picture book. Think about Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman. Dot isn’t just jealous of her new baby brother. He’s adopted and he’s a wolf! When you’re a family of bunnies this raises the stakes in a big, big way.

Make your story stand out from the competition by making it unique. You can do this by creating one-of-a-kind characters, setting the story someplace unique, raising the stakes, and more. Study what has worked in the past and then come up with a new take that is uniquely you. Make your solution your own to make your story sing.


When Should I Give Up?

This is a question I’ve been seeing lately although it has taken a number of forms. Some of these are:

  • When should I give up on this manuscript I’m drafting? Because I’m just not feeling it.
  • When should I quit querying this particular manuscript? I’m getting nothing but rejection.
  • I still haven’t made a sale. Maybe I should just quit.

The answer to each is going to vary. But really, let’s get this out of the way. Being a working writer is NOT easy. It isn’t for everyone. And some people are never going to sell. That’s just the ugly truth.

So when to give up is going to depend entirely on you. If you actually enjoy writing, if you can’t get stories in general or one story in particular to leave you alone, if your itching to sit down and work for at least a little while, then write. Keep writing. Don’t let other people shame you out of it.

I’m honestly not certain why this is something people question. No one questions why someone should watch football, visit wineries, or knit. Gaming is increasingly acceptable, numerous people I know are studying one martial art or another, and don’t even get me started about my horsey friends. No one but no one would tell you to give up these things if you aren’t earning a living at them. So if you want to write, write. If someone complains about it . . . all the responses I have for this situation are a tad rude. You might do best to come up with your own.

Now, what about that manuscript you’re drafting? When should you give up on it? Not every story idea is going to work. Some of them just fizzle. Honestly, this is why I jot down every idea I come up with and then let them go. Some I’ll come back to and some just aren’t worth my time. Sadly, I don’t always figure that out before I’ve spent some time trying to draft them.

But what about your story. Ask yourself what initially inspired you. Have you kept sight of that? Has a critique caused you to veer away from your original vision? If possible, return to this inspiration and vision and try again. That may be all you need to do.

If you are querying and hearing nothing but rejections, take a hard look at your query. Get your critique group to look over it. They may have some advice for you. If you are getting nothing but form rejections, take a look at your story. Is it truly unique? I’ll be posting about this tomorrow because this is something that we all struggle with. You can write a solid story that works but isn’t especially special. What can you do to make it sing?

If, on the other hand, you’ve written an exceptional story and you’re getting no where with it, reexamine who you are sending it to. They may be something in how you selected your markets that is just slightly off. Or the market may not be right for this particular story right now. You should be working on something else while you send your work out. It’s okay to quit submitting for a few months and then take another look at it.

Writing is, as I said before, hard. There are times even the most talented writers feel like giving up. But if you truly have the itch to write, eventually another story idea will pester you into sitting back down to write.


Halloween Books for Younger Readers

I love Halloween books. Love them.

And I don’t mean just books for younger readers. I love old school horror that relies on the creep factor vs gore. Stories that are atmospheric and keep you waiting for the thing that goes bump in the night are the best!

But I love Halloween books and creepy books for the youngest readers. Again, I think it is because it is creep minus the gore.

One of my son’s favorites when he was little was the Berenstain Bears Spooky Old Tree.  If you have never read it, it is an early reader picture book about whether or not the bears will dare to go inside this massive spooky tree.  Of course, they do it or it would be a really short and rather pointless book.

Another funny one is Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown. Jasper Rabbit loves to eat carrots until they day they start following him. Or are they? Just the thought of a kid, even a vegetable loving kid, being haunted by vegies cracks me up.

Humor goes a long way toward making a creepy or scary idea work for younger readers. How could you do this? Let’s take a horror movie trope and see how we can switch it up.

Bryan and his family move into a new house. Their next door neighbor peeks at Bryan from behind the curtains. She yells at him when his ball lands in her garden full of dead plants. He’s convinced she’s a witch.

There’s the trope. Now we need a funny twist.

The kid he asks to help him investigate is actually a witch.

What other tropes could you play with? Here are a few possibilities.

  • The evil doll that comes to life.
  • The abandoned playground (vs the abandoned house/camp/castle).
  • A cursed object. What if it was something ridiculous like a gum ball or bubble soap?
  • Instead of a horrible smell announcing all that is evil, what if the character is worried because scary things happen when they smell sugar cookies? Or french fries?

What could you do with one of these? Or maybe you can think of another trope you could mess with like spider webs, the sound of footsteps, or a creaking door. Anything is fair game? You just need to fins a way to make it silly and creepy.