Before You Start Writing

There’s a lot to do before you start.

Hopefully I will soon be working on a project for a new client. But there are things that I need to do before I get started. As exciting as it may be to immediately start a new project, it is important to make sure that you and the person you are working for are in agreement.

First things first, you need to agree on exactly what the project entails. What is the topic? How long is it supposed to be? Because I write for young readers, I also make certain that we agree on the audience including age and reading level.

And this is just the beginning.

What is the timeline for the project? Not only does this matter for my client, who wants to know when to expect the finished project, it is also important for me, the writer. If my client wants something in a week vs in a month, they may have to pay more. It isn’t that the amount of work changes but expecting me to focus on something right this very second may come with a higher price tag.

You also want to be 100% clear on who is doing what. I am doing the writing. But what is my client going to give me? This is vital because agreeing on a topic is one thing. Being able to give me the presentation or article that launched the idea is going to help. And the more information the client can give me the better. In part, this is because I don’t have to do as much research. But it is also because the more my client can give me, the better sense I get of my client’s voice.

Another great way to get a feel for my client’s voice is through interviews. And voice is something I definitely want to grasp before I write more than a chapter or two.

I like to ask my potential clients to develop the list of responsibilities. Some people balk at this, but it can make for a smoother process. In part, this is because you will know right away if your client wants something you cannot provide. Or aren’t willing to provide. Either way it is important to know now so you can discuss it.

I know it seems like a lot to settle before you sign on the dotted line, but if the partnership isn’t going to work, you want to know that sooner rather than later.


Thank You, But No. When Not to Apply for a Job.

Right before Christmas I turned in a book manuscript. It was for my last contracted job. Sure, I’m probably going to have rewrites to do, and I’m still waiting for a few checks, but I don’t have another contract.

These are the times that I seriously look at agents and also apply for various assignments. But I’ve also learned not to apply for just anything. Here are my rules.

  • Don’t apply if you aren’t interested in the topic. Sure, it can be tempting to apply based on the paycheck alone but if you find reading or writing about chemistry boring, don’t apply for something that requires writing about chemistry.
  • Don’t apply if you don’t enjoy this type of writing. Not long ago, a friend sent me a job ad. The topic was one I enjoy, the pay was amazing, but I didn’t quite meet the requirements. My friend encouraged me not to talk myself out of applying so I took another look at the ad. As I read it, I realized that I’d done this type of writing before and loathed it. Absolutely, despised it. Of course, this means that I was also probably bad at it! Regardless, do not apply for something you hate doing.
  • Take a good, hard look at the application. Wednesday, I found a call for an article writer. I love the topic and I’m good at this type of writing. But then I looked over the application and realized that my clips and resume weren’t enough. I had to write a test piece. I looked closer and realized it wasn’t even the type of writing I was applying to do. Thanks, but no thanks.
  • Beware effusive flattery. About two years ago, I was approached by a publisher. They liked what I did and really wanted to work with me. I just had to turn in a test piece. I turned it in and they gave the job to someone else. They did this two or three times, gushing over how much they wanted to work with me all the while. Then I had a zoom call with a group of writing friends. We realized that they had approached three or four of us and that we had each been asked to write the same test pieces. The publisher had one book to assign and asked multiple authors to apply, gushing to each and every one of us.

Some of these places may be great places to work. But for me it just isn’t worth my time or effort to apply for writing I won’t enjoy, I’m not good at, or that involves hoops. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a proposal to finish up for a series idea that I’m excited about.


Finding Comp Titles

Who actually enjoys finding comp titles? I doubt seriously that any of you are waving your hands while chanting “Me! Me!”

For me, the tricky bit is that I can usually come up with one title but the second one proves illusive. It is either far too like the first or . . . I’ve got nothing. I used it all coming up with the first title.

Fortunately Jane Friedman just recommended a new tool in her Electric Speed newsletter. I have to admit that I’m not 100% certain how “Literature Map” works. To quote the site:

Gnod is a self-adapting system that learns about the outer world by asking its visitors what they like and what they don’t like. In this instance of Gnod all is about literature. Gnod is kind of a search engine for literature you don’t know about. It will ask you which authors you like and then think about which other authors you might like too. When I set Gnod online its database was completely empty. Now it contains tens of thousands of authors and quite some knowledge about who likes whom. And Gnod learns more every day. Enjoy!”

So, if I’m interpreting this correctly, when readers use Gnod, it asks them about the books they like. It has used this data to create a map that basically tells you “if you like Author X, you will also like Author Y.” The closer together two authors are on the list, the greater the connection.

What’s the likelihood that this is going to work for you if you are writing for children? I had my doubts especially if I delved into picture book authors. So first, I keyed in Zoe Foster Blake.

I have to admit that that wasn’t super impressive. The closest match is Sunni Overend who seems to write women’s fiction. Maybe there just wasn’t enough data to get a really good match for Blake.

This next time I keyed in Dan Santat. There was a lot more data here and the way it is delivered meant that I got to watch the other authors swirl around Santat until they gradually came to a stop.

There’s a lot more information here and I have to say that I can see Tara Lazar and Mac Bennett coming up as recommendations.

Just for fun, I keyed in YA novelist Holly Jackson. As I thought, key in a novelist and you are going to get even more results.

This may not be the only tool that you are going to need to find comps but it can’t hurt to have another way to find authors whose work is somehow similar to your own.


Storystorm 2023: Let’s Get Those Ideas Flowing

Normally I have more writing ideas than I know what to do with. I think of new ideas while I am reading. Ideas definitely come to me when watching TV or a movie, especially if I am watching nonfiction. Museums are a hot bed of ideas and I snap photos of exhibit descriptions and more.

This means that normally I end the year with pages and pages of ideas. 2022? I had more ideas than I needed but the latter part of the year has been a long dry spell.

So when I saw that registration was open for Storystorm 2023, I signed up.  If you’ve never heard of Storystorm, it’s a great way to start the new year with a batch of new story ideas. It is also a great way to reboot my writing after a holiday break. 

Originally, Storystorm, then known as PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), took place in November.  Now it is in January and the basic idea is very straightforward. Throughout January you keep track of the ideas you generate.  The goal is to have 30 ideas by the end of the month. There are inspirational posts and prizes for all who complete the program.  You can find out more about it and register here.

Some people discredit maintaining an idea list.  After all, does it really count if you don’t write the manuscript? Pfft.  Whatever.  Type-A as I am, I don’t need more rules in my life. Here is why I keep an idea list:  

  1.  Not all ideas are created equal.  Some simply do not measure up.  That’s a fact but writing them down is still helpful.  Read on to find out why.
  2. By getting into the habit of generating story ideas, you develop your idea generation muscles. You generate more ideas and can afford to weed out the ones that just don’t measure up. As a result, your stories become more original.
  3. Your list of story ideas also becomes a handy tool.  Need an idea for a contest, a pitch, or an example in an article? Peruse your list.  You can combine ideas just like the person who thought to create a cheesecake with a brownie base.

To sign up, pop over to Lazar’s blog (linked here) and comment on the post. Now I have to noodle over the idea my sister gave me at Christmas dinner. Who knew that her duck-sitting gig could be so inspirational!

For more on idea generation, see “Idea Generation: Where Do You Get Your Ideas” and “3 Places to Turn for Story Ideas.”


Have Yourself a Merry Christmas!

Music sheet Christmas stars!

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas. I know, I know. This is actually the day after Christmas. But Christmas is a multi-day event here.

Day 1: Christmas Eve and singing the Christmas cantata.

Day 2: Christmas Day service and Christmas dinner with my family. And a phone call from the fire department because a water line has ruptured at church and they can’t find the shut off.

Day 3: Christmas with my husband’s side of the family and really? I think we all need a bit of a break and some Christmas cheer after the whole deal with pipes, 16 degree weather, and lots and lots of water.

I’ll be back tomorrow with an opportunity. Then Wednesday I’ve got an interesting way for you to find comps. Today? Why not give yourself a little extra Christmas?


You Need to Take a Break When…

I have a deadline today. Yesterday as I was working through the last two chapters on-screen, the Christmas blizzard hit. I live in Missouri so think “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Blizzard.” I don’t think we got more than two inches of snow bet it spent a lot of time traveling horizontally.

And, disturbingly, the power kept blinking. It is really hard to concentrate when you are wondering if you are going to make it through the last chapter before the power goes down. So I’d hit save, close the document, and then e-mail it to myself. I can’t work comfortably on our laptop (the keyboard is too tiny) but if that was my only option?

Yet, I took several breaks. I walked on the treadmill – and the power didn’t blink once. We watched the first episode of the new Jack Ryan season while we ate dinner, and then I finished my last chapter.

Why would I risk a break with flickering power? Because it is what I needed to do. Even in the midst of blowing snow, there are 3 ways to tell that I need a break.

When I’m in LaLaLand

When I read through something and I can tell that it doesn’t work and I need just one more fact. So I google and read and google some more. After about five minutes, I close what I’ve been reading and . . . wait a minute? What am I looking for?

The temptation is to stay at my desk until I get at least this section done, but that’s a bad idea. I need to step away and mentally regroup. While I walked on the treadmill, I watched a video on cover design. No, I’m not designing a cover but graphics interest, I like the pretty colors and . . . wait a minute! I know what I need to do to fix that section.

Taking a break is a great way to revive my energy and my focus. But that isn’t the only time I need a break.

When I Change Something and Change It Back

Another problem is when I know a line doesn’t work so I change it. Then I reread it. And I change it back. I add information. Then I cut it. Everything that I do, I undo.

I need to step away and think about something else. Wednesday, I wrapped Christmas gifts. Thursday, I’d bake a sheet of cookies. I need to move around and think about something entirely different. Then I can come back to the project with fresh eyes.

When I Feel Antsy

There may be another term for this but my grandmother called it “feeling antsy.” I get restless. I can’t be still. I roll my chair back and if I’m not careful I bump into my husband. I’m feeling, to quote G-ma, “antsy.”

If I’ve already walked on the treadmill, I walk up the street and back or around the block. Well, not yesterday. I’ll walk in snow but we also tend to get ice and the high yesterday was 35 and that hit before lunch. By dinner when I needed another break it was 5 degrees!

Fortunately, the laundry room is in the basement. Take empty hangers down. Bring clean napkins up. Take wet towels down. Bring a load of whites up.

If you make yourself stay at the keyboard, nothing good is going to come of it. Nothing. Good. Get up. Go do something else. Think about something else. And recharge. Try it. It just might be what you need to get the words to flow, even when you’re on deadline.


Give Yourself a Gift This Christmas: Reedsy Templates

Photo by Lucie Liz on

If you haven’t seen it yet on December 9, Reedsy posted a list of their most popular templates. Check out the post and you will find. . .

Templates to Help You Develop an Idea

  • Book or idea development template
  • World building template
  • Character profile template
  • Character questionaire

Templates to Help Plan Your Outline

  • Three-Act Structure Template
  • The Hero’s Journey Template
  • The Save the Cat Beat Sheet Template
  • A book outline package

Templates to Help Format Your Manuscript

  • Standard manuscript template
  • Children’s manuscript template

I decided to download the template for a Children’s Manuscript to see how accurate it looked. What can I say? Sometimes people get some really strange/busy ideas about how to format a manuscript for young readers. So I clicked through on this one, dropped in my email address, indicated that I wasn’t a robot and then checked my e-mail.

Instead of the template on how to format a children’s manuscript, I got one for novels and memoirs and another for short stories. So, if you want the two of those, sign up for the children’s manuscript format.

If, on the other hand, you want to see how to format a children’s manuscript, sign up for all ten templates. You’ll find that sign up near the top of the blog post text.

There’s a bit of variation in how you can do this but this is a nice clean format. It shows how and where to include your contact information, how to format your book title and byline, how to format a piece in verse, and how to include illustration notes. It isn’t all exactly how I learned to do it but it is still reasonable.

What reasonable? It yields a manuscript that is clean and easy to read. Ta-da!

We often treat formatting as if it is something that will sink a sale and, more often than not, I just don’t think that is true.

I haven’t downloaded all of the templates yet but these look like good solid tools to help you get going on your next project. And they’re free.

Why not give yourself a Christmas present?


Best Books of the Year

I want to love the books I read this much.
Photo by Roberto Nickson on

What are the best books that you’ve read this year? I’m a voracious reader who has read 201 books this year. That’s counting picture books, early readers, and graphic novels so don’t get too excited! But I’ve read some amazing books. Here are some of my favorites:

Early Reader

Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Spooky Old Tree.

Rylant, Cynthia. Mr. Putter and Tabby Spin the Yarn.

Rylant, Cynthia. Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slope.

Rylant, Cynthia. Mr. Putter and Tabby Clear the Deck

I just realized that all of the early readers on my list are older books. That would probably not be a good thing if I was working on an early reader but I’m not. I love the Spooky Old Tree just for the simplicity of the text and the chorus. Do they dare? And Mr. Putter and Tabby are among my favorite characters.

Graphic Novels or Illustrated Texts

Fick, Emma. Border Crossings: A Journey on the Tran-Siberian Railway.

Oono, Kousuke. The Way of the House Husband.

The Way of the House Husband series is among my favorites simply because it is so ridiculous. He is former yakuza who now focuses on cooking fantastic meals and keeping house for his wife but in some ways he can’t escape his tough guy past.


Hadfield, Colonel Chris. An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth.

Zauner, Michelle. Crying in H-Mart.

Both of these books are fantastic in very different ways. Hadfield has a top notch sense of humor and Zauner is a no-holds barred memoirist. I had to wonder what at least one person thought about her portrayal in the book.

Middle Grade Novel

Ann Martin’s Rain Reign.

I didn’t read a whole lot of middle grade this year but this one was recommended by my friend’s daughter. Such a great, teary book.


Abrams, Stacey. While Justice Sleeps.

Bock, Kris. Someone Cruel in Coyote Creek.

Moreno-Garcia, Sylvia. Gods of Jade and Shadow.

Penny, Louise. A World of Curiosities.

Pooley, Clare. Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting

There’s a lot of variety in this section but I have to say that one of the things I really appreciate in a novel is honesty. These are characters who tell their truth even if it is not from my world of experience.

Picture Books

Ignotofsky, Rachel. What’s Inside a Flower?

Santat, Dan. The Aquanaut.

Very different styles of illustration but a large part of what grabbed me in each were the illustrations.

Young Adult Novels

Hur, June. The Forest of Stolen Girls.

Hur, June. The Red Palace.

Little Badger, Darcy. A Snake Falls to Earth.

Sepetys, Ruta. I Must Betray You.

Novels and young adult novels have similar appeal for me. My selections tend to be culturally diverse but tell a broader human truth. And they have to grab me. I’m not the kind of person who will read 50 pages to see if it grows on me. That may be a bad reading habit but it is mine. What books have you loved this year?


What Should I Work On Next?

Picking out your next project can feel like spinning a roulette wheel.
Photo by Naim Benjelloun on

Sometimes it is really easy to decide what to work on next.  Deadlines must be met, whether an editor is expecting your manuscript or you simply have to turn it in during their reading period.

But then you reach a point where you don’t have any deadlines.  That’s where I’ll be Friday. I can do this or that . . .

  • I have a picture book that is all but done.
  • I have a nonfiction book almost done but need to write the proposal. And a new final chapter because of some info a friend just sent me.
  • I need to reoutline and rewrite my middle grade novel. This isn’t a “start from scratch” but I am adding some new elements that will shake things up.
  • Then there’s my cozy.
  • Or maybe I should just start something shiny and new.

I don’t really think that last one is the best idea but isn’t shiny and new always a temptation? You haven’t messed it up yet so it is absolutely wondrous and perfect.

I read a newsletter today that suggested you work on a projected related to whatever it is that you can’t stop talking about. That really does make a lot of sense. You are going to have to really love a topic to carry it through to final. After all, writing is a lot of work and you aren’t likely to finish quickly unless you are working on something super short. A novel could take months or several years depending on how consistently you work on it.

My advice to you? Consider these things when picking what to work on next.

  • Go with your current greatest enthusiasm.
  • Consider your energy level. If you need to recharge but still want to write, pick something short or something that isn’t going to drain you.
  • Or maybe you need to do a deep dive. That may mean working on that novel.

Each of us is in a different place with our work. So what each of us decides to work on will be different. And what you pick today might be different than what you would pick in a month.

So tell me. What are you working on the first few weeks of the New Year?


Keep It Simple

Today I’m not so worried about overwriting or choosing the wrong word. After all, today I am finishing the last chapter of the book that is due Friday. When I rough a chapter, I just slap it down. I don’t worry all that much about vocabulary or reading level.

That said, when left alone, I tend to write at about an eighth grade level. I like to vary the length of my sentences. This means that although I periodically throw in what my father would have called a $10 word, they aren’t the majority of words in any given sentence. And the shorter sentences help pull my reading level back down. It pays to identify your writing tendencies so that you know what to guard against when writing for young readers.

This isn’t to say that I don’t completely mess up every now and again. Way back when, I wrote a piece about archaeology. If I remember correctly, I was explaining why and how to use a floatation system. In short, a floatation system uses water to separate tiny particles from a soil sample. Just what these tiny particles are will depend on the age of the site as well as the various activities that went on there. I’ve found fish scales, plant seeds, tiny pieces of bone left over from an ancient meal, beads, and more.

The problem was that I did a really horrible job explaining it. I slipped into what my husband lovingly refers to as acade-babble or academic blabbering. Just in case you aren’t sure, that’s not a compliment. I was throwing $10 words down in every sentence and my sentences were needlessly complicated. I sounded like a college text book. It was horrible!

Fortunately, my editor didn’t just reject the piece. After all, it was something she had asked for and needed! But I had to basically start from scratch because I had neglected to keep it simple. It isn’t that young readers can’t understand complex topics. They can and they do. But you need to guide them through the idea step by careful step.

And when I write about what I studied in college? I need to be certain to remember that!