Could Your Book Be a Book Club Pick?

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Recently I read a post about having your book chosen for a book club. Written by agent Kristin Nelson for the agency blog, the post discussed the dreams of authors hoping to land a spot on a Big Name club like Reese Witherspoon’s or the Good Morning America book club.

When clubs like these choose a book, it is instant publicity. But if the book is brand new, it means that the publisher was instrumental. Book clubs tend to plan ahead which means that the publisher sent out ARCs or Advanced Reader Copies.

Something that authors should keep in mind is that there are a lot of smaller book clubs. I’m in a club formed by members of my church. I started attending when my son was a toddler because I wanted to read books written for an adult audience. We just made up our list for 2023 but the joy of it is? We are a smallish group so we are pretty flexible. We could slip a book in and bump things back a month, no problem.

How do we choose our books? Sometimes I make up a list and everyone votes. This isn’t so much “we want these 11 books” as it is “that one doesn’t appeal.” This time everyone recommended two titles. We try to pick books that are available through the local library system as both print and e-books so that anyone who can’t afford to buy 11 books a year can still participate.

What this means for authors is that we don’t tend to read independently published books. Small presses interest us but, again, the books need to be available.

How do other clubs choose their books? I have no idea but I do know that my club has put one book on pause. They are interested in the topic but there wasn’t a readily available book at the library. The author is local as is the publisher. This means that I’m hoping to score a chat with one or both of them for the group. And they are super excited.

What does this mean for authors? Look for book clubs in your area. One of the easiest ways to do this is the search Facebook Events. Message the organizer and ask how they choose their books. Offer to help create a special meeting centered on one of your titles.

Book club members love books. We may not all belong to massive book clubs but we tell other people about books we love. That’s a great way to get your book into people’s hands.


Pause to Recharge

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Recently a fellow writer tweeted that she just didn’t feel like getting more queries together or polishing her work-in-progress. What she felt like doing was taking a break. What would the rest of us advise her?

My advice to her? Pause to recharge. Take the time you need to be ready to write. This doesn’t mean filling every moment with prewriting (research, outlining, etc.) unless that’s how you recharge. What it means it taking a break when that’s what you need to do.

This is hard to do and perhaps even harder to justify in our society since we are all perpetually graded on just how busy we are. “You hosted Thanksgiving? Pfft. I hosted and attended two others and did half my holiday shopping.” “Is that all? I’ve already got me try up and we’ve decorated cookies with the extended family…”

Step back and step out of the competition. Take the pause that you need to take. Recharge your creative batteries.

How you recharge is going to be completely unique to you. It might mean sleeping in or having a spa day. Perhaps you’d prefer to hike or stroll the paths at a local garden. Even in, or perhaps I should say especially in, winter, the Missouri Botanical Garden is one of my favorite places. Some writers read to recharge. Others love to watch movies or binge-watch television. Among the writers I know are cooks, beaders, quilters, knitters, and weavers. We draw, paint, and garden.

Making time to recharge can be hard to do when you work from home because you never leave work behind. Why not squeeze in one more page? One more deadline? And it doesn’t help when you have external pressure to work these extended hours.

But that makes it especially important that you take time off. It may take a few tries to convince yourself and those in your work life that this is necessary but that’s okay. Just repeat after me. “I’ll get to this asap but this weekend/evening is booked.”


Necessary Layers: What’s Inside a Flower by Rachel Ignotofsky

I’m not going to lie to you. The first thing that I noticed about Rachel Ignotofsky’s What’s Inside a Flower were the illustrations. There is just something about the illustrations that remind me of folk art featuring flowers.

As I read , I realized that there was more to the book than that. The text is also richly layered. There is the main text that tells all about how flowers produce seeds as well as the many types of pollinators and the flowers that give each a unique opportunity.

But that isn’t all. There are also the sidebars and notes throughout the text. For example, in the spread above, the main text is at the top of the page (Flowers create new seeds etc.) The sidebar is at the bottom of the page (When the pollen grain and etc.). The notes are in the bee’s speech bubble and also label the various illustrations.

A young reader can study each spread individually, reading first the main text or the notes and then reading the other and somewhere in there studying the illustrations. Or they could read the book straight through, first reading the main text, then going back to read the sidebars and notes, and then studying the illustrations. There is no right or wrong way to do it and this yields numerous possibilities.

This helps create the layers that picture book texts need to support repeated readings. The youngest readers may only want a portion of the text while the oldest pour over the entirety. And the illustrations are rich enough for the book to be “read” wordlessly.

Even the end pages add depth to the whole. Granted, non-illustrators aren’t going to get to dictate the content of the end pages but a rich text on your part will encourage additional layers from the illustrator.

These layers are what editors want to see from you and from me. Consider your current work-in-progress. Does it have the layers that it needs to compete with a work like this?


Happy Thanksgiving

For those of you who celebrate, I’d like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Take this time to recharge your creative battery.

I have a lot to be thankful for in my writing life.  I have a manuscript due 12/23 and two rewrite requests coming “momentarily.”  I’m just hoping that each editor means something slightly different when they say that!

What about recharging? I’m taking time off today to celebrate.  And tomorrow.  And Sunday.  I don’t know if this is just a MidWest thing but our Thanksgiving celebration stretches across Thanksgiving Weekend. So for the next several days I’ll be meeting this deadline but I will also be having a lot of family time.

I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday.  See you on Monday.


A Writer’s Gratitude

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There are so many things that I’m thankful for as a working writer. This isn’t a ranked list but I now consistently put #1 at the top.

1. My health

Just over a year ago, I developed a tendon problem in one wrist. I actually didn’t know or crochet for about 9 months. I was wondering if I would have to give up using my keyboard. It took occupational therapy for me to put it more-or-less behind me. But I’m going to say that I am much more aware of those little twinges and tingles than I used to be. Don’t take your hand health for granted.

2. My writing community

You hear a lot about the toxicity of social media. Honestly, I’ve encountered very little of it but I spend 90% of my time among other writers. This doesn’t mean that I’ve encountered none and a recent confrontation left me very grateful for my community. That means all of you, my community at WOW! Women on Writing, and my writing friends on Twitter. It’s great to have people who will hold me up when I need support and who cheer me on. Speaking of which, I’m also grateful for . . .

3. My family

Not every writer has the support of their family. My husband and son are both marvelously supportive as are my in-laws although my father-in-law doesn’t periodically stump me with a basic, “What are you working on?” He’s learned that goofy introvert that I am, I may need five or ten minutes to frame an answer. I’ve also got the support of my church family and that too means a lot. There’s one other writer in the mix but this group of engineers, accountants and more are a great sounding board and support system.

4. Technology

I’m also grateful to be working as a writer in the time of home computers vs the time of typewriters. I’m an awful typist and I can’t imagine having to create perfection on the typed page. I am simply that bad in spite of the typing class that I took in school. I came up in that overlap between computers and typewriters and I can tell you which one I prefer!

5. My editors and publishers

This list would not be complete without including the editors and publishers with which I’ve worked. I’ve learned something from each and every one of them and grown in the process. I’m not going to claim every lesson has been pleasant. The reality is that no one is suited to every type of writing and sometimes the lesson is that something is a very bad match. But that’s okay. Because I’ve also found several very good matches.

And for that and so much more, I am deeply grateful.


Don’t Vaguepost When You Pitch

Don’t make your pitch vague and ho hum dull.
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One of the hardest things to get right when we create a Twitter pitch or a query letter is the level of detail. Twitter pitches are limited to 280 characters. Queries need to come in under a page. When every keyboard click counts, it can be hard to tell what to include. As a result, we writers often cut to much and create a generic pitch that fails to even hint at what makes our story unique.

How critical is it? According to the agents whose blogs I’ve been reading it is all important. So that you can see why, I’ve whipped up a sample based on a much loved classic.

“After Max’s mother sends him to his room, he falls asleep. In his dreams, he has great adventures in a land full of monsters. Eventually the smell of his supper rouses him and he awakens in his room.”

I worked in the monsters but didn’t squeeze in their awesome “wild things” title. Gone too are the wild rumpus and Max’s role as king. And where’s his suit? Where the Wild Things Are is beloved because it is unique but none of that comes through in this summary.

When you summarize your story for either a Twitter pitch or a query letter, be sure to include the details that make your story your own. At a minimum, your reader needs to learn about your character (Max is clearly feisty), your setting (a land of monsters), and the conflict. Hmm. I missed that entirely since we all know that the conflict with Mom may be the catalyst to the adventure but it is not the primary conflict.

Once you’ve pulled this together, work in a few of the details that make your story truly one-of-a-kind. Use creative, colorful verbs. Here is the summary for Where the Wild Things Are from the publisher’s catalogue.

“When Max dresses in his wolf suit and causes havoc in the house, his mother sends him to bed. From there, Max sets sail to an island inhabited by the Wild Things, who name him king and share a wild rumpus with him. But then from far away across the world, Max smells good things to eat.”

Yes this is longer than what I created. And it is six characters too long for a Tweet. But you could find a work around or two to take care of that. Look at the level of detail and the specific action words. Max wears a WOLF SUIT. He causes HAVOC. He SAILS to the island. These aren’t monsters but WILD THINGS. They share a WILD RUMPUS vs an adventure. This is a wonderfully specific summary for a unique story.

This is the kind of summary that wakes an editor or agent up and makes them take notice.


Which Book Is #1?

Last week, my husband sent me an article about the Brooklyn Public Library celebrating it’s 125th anniversary. In celebration they took stock of the 125 most borrowed books. Not surprisingly, #1 was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. That is consistently one of my favorite books!

Here are the top ten most checked out books in the library’s history.

1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

2. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

3. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Suess

4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

5. Are You My Mother by PD Eastman

6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

7. Naruto Volume 1 by Masashi Kishimoto

8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

9. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

How many of them have you read? I’ve read all of them except Naruto which I have now requested from the library.

It’s no surprise that so many books in the top ten are older. But when you get past the top 20 you find more and more newer books. There are more graphic novels but there are also novels including Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling, Wonder by RJ Palacio, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems, and Kittens’ First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes.

I’m really tempted to make a point of reading through this list because I have to admit that there are fair number I’ve not read. But first, I am using it as a Christmas shopping list for my young cousins, niece and nephew. Click here to check out the full list.


3 Things to Do When the Series Parameters Are Vague at Best

What to do when the author’s guidelines offer no guidance.

Earlier this week I started working on a new project. Admittedly, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the guidelines when I took the job. I was in the middle of another book and I knew the dangers of losing my focus. Suffice it to say that this one was giving me fits and required all my energy. Some projects are just like that.

Yesterday, I opened the guidelines and read through them. Hmm. They may as well have said “write a book on Canada and do it in 5 chapters, ta da!” No, this isn’t about Canada but it also hasn’t been announced yet. So we’re pretending.

But all they gave me was the title and subtitle, the word count, the reading level, the number of chapters, and the special features. That sounds like a lot and I could run with this if I had worked with the publisher before. For a new-to-me publisher? Not really.

I could have taken a stab at it. After all, I turn in a chapter and an outline and rework it with feedback from my editor. But I have to admit that I like to at least get it close. Otherwise I have to rework the outline before I can really dive into the book.

I couldn’t just contact my editor and say, “Exactly what do they want?” After all, writing the book is my job. So what to do?

1. Ask for a mentor text.

Honestly, this should be your number one. My editor couldn’t give me a mentor text on a related topic because this is the first book in this particular area. But the book he sent me shows the level of detail that they want. It shows how the end the introduction and the tone with which they conclude the book. It gives me some idea how the chapters relate to each other in an incredibly broad topic. And it gives me a feel for voice.

2. Ask specific questions.

As is the case with many nonfiction titles for the school library market, this book needs to open with a narrative scene. My topic covers something like 300 years. So I asked my editor where in the timeline it should fit. Speaking of timelines, I need to create one of those too. All in all, I came up with three very specific questions.

My editor wants me to get it right with as little effort as possible. He’s also a bit chatty when he isn’t in a rush. So he gave me more info than I asked for, but I had to start the conversation. When you do this, make sure you aren’t asking “yes or no” questions. You want as much info as possible.

3. Don’t forget the big picture.

While I was at it, I sketched out a super short outline. If it was 30 words long, I’d be surprised. I bounced that off him too. This will let him know if I’m seeing the big picture.

It’s impossible to over-emphasize just how vital this is. Because if your overall focus is wrong, you are going to have to rethink the whole project. Suffice it to say, that I’ve been there rather recently.

All it took was one email and a response from my editor but now I feel like I can move forward with confidence. Between his responses and the mentor text, I know that he and I have the same goal in sight.

And that’s a whole lot better than “write a book on Canada.”


Creating the Introverted Character

Look closely to know if your character is truly an introvert.
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Yesterday I saw an article on creating introverted characters. I was super excited to see something that might as well have said “Creating Sue as a Character.” The reality is that I am a gold medal introvert. I can interact. I do interact. And then I am DONE.

So I clicked through and saw . . .

Don’t stereotype.

Consider what motivates the character.

How is this trait a strength vs a weakness? If you aren’t an introvert you might not immediately get this last one. Society is pretty determined to convince introverts that this trait is a flaw. But really? We know better.

And that was pretty much all that this particular article had to say. Really? What the actual heck?

Why was I so offended? This about it. This wasn’t new information. This was the same old/same old and what the author was really saying was “create a solid character.” Gee thanks. I’d never have come up with that on my own.

So here are Sue’s tips on creating a character who is an introvert.

Know the difference between quiet and introverted.

If you are an introvert, you already know what I mean. If you are an extrovert, read on. Introverts can be talkative. It can mean that they are energized or that they are on edge. Eventually they will need to power down.

Someone who is being quiet might be an extrovert. My husband has little to say and is very observant. But he’s an extrovert.

Know how your character recharges.

The difference between being an extrovert and an introvert is where you get your energy. An extrovert needs people. An introvert needs solitude.

But that information alone doesn’t tell you how this person recharges. I read, knit, and watch movies. Some introverts need to nap. My mom sewed or read.

Your extroverted character will also have a way to recharge. They might play a sport. Maybe they go dancing. They could be in a band. Everyone will have their own method.

When does your character speak up?

Most introverts have times when they will speak up. It might be around certain people or when speaking on a certain topic. I tend to be quiet around my cousins. My nuclear family? Not so much. But then you have to shout to be heard in that group.

Invite me to speak about writing to my fellow writers and I am there. Zero stage fright. But I’ve done it often enough and I’m confident in my topic. When is this the case for your character?

To create a rock solid introverted character, do the same things you would for every characters. They need a backstory, a motivation, and something they want. But they also need to really and truly BE an introvert.


Saying Yes: How I Built a Career in Children’s Nonfiction

I loved writing about archaeology in Ancient Maya.

I didn’t graduate from college planning to become a writer.  I loved working in archaeology but took a new job at the university when it became clear that the department in which I worked wasn’t going to be around much longer. I didn’t much care for my new job. 

One day I was paging through the university continuing education catalog when I found a class on writing for children.  I loved reading.  I loved buying books for my nieces.  Why not take the class? 

St. Louis author Patricia McKissack was a wonderful teacher.  Throughout the class, she explained story and character, plot and setting.  She showed us how to work in details.  She critiqued and encouraged. She always had something positive to say about your work. Honestly, I don’t know how she did that. During this class, I wrote a series of picture books.  I recently reread them. They were not amazing. They weren’t even mediocre.

After the class, I joined SCBWI. That’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. As my manuscripts slowly got better, a fellow writer bought Young Equestrian, a magazine for middle schoolers.  Not one issue.  She bought the whole thing and became the editor and publisher.  She came to a critique group meeting and asked us to write for her.

Horses fascinate me, but I wasn’t a magazine writer.  I wasn’t even a nonfiction writer. Still, someone was asking me to write for them. Thus began several years writing about horses and the people who love them.  I learned a lot.  

By the time the magazine folded, I thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.  A friend’s editor needed someone to write an article on writing.  There would be more work to come.  This seemed kind of risky.  After all, I didn’t write about writing.  Still, someone was asking for writers and I had an in. For years after this I wrote for Children’s Writer newsletter.  My work also appeared in annuals like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market and Writer’s Market.  But editors move on. 

I’ve cycled through various types of writing. I’ve written crafts, activities and science fair projects.  I’ve written materials for the preschool classroom and testing materials.  I’ve written books for school libraries and books for reluctant readers. Sometimes I got into a new type of writing because I saw a call for writers. Other times a friend let me know about an opportunity. 

At any point, I could have said no. And I have said no. But I generally look for a way to say yes. After all, I never know where the next opportunity is going to take me.