One Writer’s Journey

June 22, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Outlining a Mystery

About two month ago, I wrote a post about outlining your novel.  I’m in the pre-writing stage of writing a mystery and I’ve been working on outlining my plot.  The problem was that something was missing.  It had to be.  My list was only about 20 scenes long.  Even I know that’s not enough for a novel.

So I started reading cozies, paying careful attention to the plot.  What I quickly realized is that I had outlined only part of the book.  I had the mystery, as in the crime, all plotted out.  A mystery novel is so much more.

Scenes that show us the character’s life sans mystery.

What is your character doing when she isn’t solving mysteries?  For an adult mystery, it often involves a job such as running a knitting shop or catering.  In a book for young readers the main character might be in the marching band at school or in pom poms. Whatever it is, these scenes show us what life is like when your character isn’t trying to unravel a mystery.

Sometimes these scenes take place at the beginning of the story.  In Last Wool and Testament by Molly MacRae, the main character is traveling to her Grandmother’s funeral.  This may not be how she spends a typical day, but the focus in these scenes is on family and friends and emotion.  This emotion is important because it will help readers identify with your character.

So throughout the book you can throw in more of these scenes.  Show your character interacting with family and friends. You can spend several five-minute sessions laying out these scenes.

Red herrings.

Other scenes are needed to drop red herrings into the story.  Once that mystery is launched, you need a string of suspects.  These scenes supply you with these suspects.  Perhaps your character overhears an argument, is sent a threatening text or someone tells a funny story that in hindsight may also contain a clue.

Again, spent several five-minute sessions noodling over how to make several of your secondary characters look guilty.  I’m including someone with a temper, a robbery, and a character who is hiding a secret.  The red herrings will be more obvious than the scene that actually gives the clues to the murder.  I’ll have to see if that works.

Plot.  Red herrings. Everyday life.  A mystery has to contain all three.  Fortunately it doesn’t take buckets of time to layer them into your outline.



June 21, 2018

Writer’s Block: Take a Walk When the Words Don’t Flow

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:44 am
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I’ve heard of people who go through days and months where they cannot write.  They are utterly and completely blocked.  For the most part, I don’t have complete blocks although I do have slow downs.  When it happens, I do these three things to get the word flowing again.

I get up and burn some calories.  I’m not one of those people who believes that no matter what you should stay at your desk.  Sometimes you need a break.  I used to walk the neighborhood.  I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing that but think I should start again.  More often than not I walk on my treadmill or row.

Experiments show that after taking a walk, people test better both in terms of memory and attention, and that seems reasonable.  When you walk, your heart pumps more blood and oxygen not only to your muscles but also to your brain.  Feed your brain and it’s likely to work better.

Other studies show that we can change the pace of our thoughts by walking faster or slowing down.  Just can’t get a flow going?  A brisk walk will jar those notions loose!

Most of us are fairly good at walking, so our minds wonder.  Yeah, imagine that.  A writer’s mind wandering.  Still other studies connect just this type of mental state with making mental breakthroughs.  One minute, I’m noodling over the grocery list.  The next, I know exactly what scene should come first.

The next time that you’re stuck, maybe forcing yourself to stay at your desk isn’t the best answer.  It might be better to take a walk and get both your blood and your ideas flowing.  You don’t have to go walk for an hour.  Try five minutes out and five minutes back.  That’s a ten minute break that didn’t lead you right to the refrigerator.  Like I said, I’m stuck on the treadmill for now – something about a heat advisory.  But I’m looking forward to getting back out in my neighborhood.  I have a few plot issues to work through.


June 20, 2018

Reading List

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:06 am
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Are you a PAL member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators?  PAL means “published and listed.”  If the answer is yes than SCBWI has an opportunity that you are going to want to take advantage of this opportunity.
The SCBWI is putting together a Recommended Reading List for 2018.  This is something they’ve been doing since the first list in 2016. The purpose of this list is to promote the work of PAL authors and illustrators.  Unlike resources that are just for members, this list is made widely available.  Teacher, librarians, and booksellers can digitally download all or part of the complete list.
This means that a bookseller who wants to feature Missouri or St. Louis authors could download just the portion of the list with Missouri.  Or a teacher could download the entire list and look through it for the perfect author to contact for a Skype visit.
Each SCBWI PAL author gets to send in information on one book that has been published or will be published in 2018. If you are an SCBWI PAL member, you should have gotten an e-mail about this opportunity.  In case it got caught in your spam filter, here is the pertinent information.
Fill in the following:
25 Word (or Less) Book Description:
Your City and State of Residence:
Publication Date:
Grade Level*:
Your Website:
*Grade Level should fit into one of these categories: PreK-K; 1-2; 3-5; 6-8; 9-12
Send this complete “form” to no later than July 16th.  This is a great opportunity to get your work in front of book buyers, sellers and those who can help you gain access to young readers.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a decision to make.  I’m leaning towards Dakota Access Pipeline.  

June 19, 2018

Picture Books: Writing a Biography

I’ve been reading picture book biographies lately in part because one of the women in my critique group at the retreat had written one.  It didn’t quite work, so I wanted to study what does.  Here are five things to keep in mind when writing a biography for young readers.

  • There are two types – a beginning to end biography or a slice of life. A slice of life biography covers an event – creating a sculpture or founding an organization.  Beginning to end is the person’s entire life, or at least that’s how I think of them because those I read were about people who are no longer living.  The author was able to state what the person’s ultimate legacy has been. 
  • No matter how interesting someone is, it is really hard to write a satisfying biography if they have not succeeded at something big. It’s that whole legacy.  That means that no matter how fascinated adults are with Bobby Kennedy a picture book biography would be tough.  You need to be able to summarize his legacy in one line – he created, he founded, he discovered.
  • Many picture book biographies use a chorus to state a theme.  In Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, the chorus is . . . can you guess it?  “He kept drawing.”  
  • The information in the text has to further the story.  In Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Erin McGuire, the author includes Harper Lee’s childhood friend Tru.  Harper Lee stood up for Tru when he was being bullied, which shows how important justice was even when she was a child.  They also wrote stories together.  But Tru was also Truman Capote who she reconnected with as an adult and a fledgling author. 

Writing a picture book biography requires sifting through all of the information you can find about an individual and finding that nonfiction story that will fascinate young readers.  It means choosing the details that support this story and crafting something with a beginning, middle and end even though it is still nonfiction.

It isn’t easy but a good biography?  It pulls the reader in and makes them want to know more.


June 18, 2018

Mentorships, Part 2: A Great Opportunity to Grow as an Illustrator

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:15 am
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This is so embarrassing that I’m literally red in the face.  Last week I blogged about the KS-MO SCBWI writing mentorship.  I completely left out the illustration mentorship.  So embarrassing.

Like a writing mentorship, an illustration mentorship allows a less experienced artist to learn from someone with more experience. It is a great way to learn what pieces make good samples and how to put together a good portfolio.

In this particular program the winner will work with our mentor to improve a single illustration over the course of the mentorship.  That may seem trivial (one illustration!) but learning how to change and improve your work is vital to making a sale.  Vital.

I can’t emphasize that enough.


Our 2019 Illustration Mentor is Maja Anderson. Maja is the illustrator of the first 3 books in the Keeker and the Sneaky Pony series for Chronicle Books. In addition, she is currently illustrating a grammar book for Pelican Books. This book will come out this Fall. She has also worked on several gift books with Hallmark Cards.  Visit Maja’s site to check out her illustrations.  I wish I could draw!

Why can apply?  Any current Kansas/Missouri SCBWI member who has not yet published in children’s book illustration although other types of publication (newspaper, greeting card, etc) are acceptable.  Not sure if you are out of the running?  E-mail your question to KS-MO illustration coordinator Amy Kenney at  Maja will critique the illustration twice during an agreed upon timeline, not to exceed one year.

The winner will also receive a scholarship covering registration cost to the Kansas/Missouri SCBWI Middle of the Map conference in 2018.

Don’t dawdle.  Deadline to enter is June 30, 2018.  For more information, visit the KS-MO SCBWI website.


June 15, 2018

One or More: How Many Manuscripts Do You Work on at Once

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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Last week at critique group, one of my writing friends commented that she had to set a manuscript aside.  After more than a year of research, she had found a published book that did it better.  She thinks she’ll probably come back to her idea, but until then she needs to work on something new.  Apparently, working on multiple things at once was a new idea to her.

Me?  I’ve got five manuscripts in the works at the moment.

  1.  I’m working on a rewrite of a picture book on prayer. An agent has agreed to look at it.
  2. I’m rewriting the cave picture book.  An agent has recommended a colleague for this one.
  3. I am outlining and then need to draft a cozy mystery.
  4. I am researching a new nonfiction project.  Fourteen pages of notes and more to come.
  5. I am currently working on a middle grade contemporary fantasy.

How can I work on this many things at once?  It helps when they are at different stages.

#1 doesn’t require any more research.  I’m working on shifting the emphasis and adding sidebars which will flesh out the manuscript.  After that I will rework the backmatter.

#2 requires a bit more research but mostly a major overhaul.  And I do mean major.  When I get stuck on #1 and need to let things settle, I work on this one.

#3 I’m reading how-to material on mystery writing, noodling, and then adding to my outline.  This isn’t writing per se but pre-writing.

#4 is research, note taking and photography.

#5 is stuck. I’ve written myself into a corner so I’m ignoring it while I work on other things.  Hopefully when I come back to it, it will be fresh and the solution will be obvious.

I have writing friends who work on one manuscript at a time.  That’s how I did it when I was a new writer, working and going to grad school.  When I’m working hard on a draft, I generally focus on one manuscript although I may be researching another one or two.

I’m not saying that this is the best way to work. It is simply how I work.  For now?  Tomorrow?  We shall see when tomorrow arrives.


June 14, 2018

Apples and Oranges: Comparing Your Work with Others

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:41 am
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Study what is already in print.  Learn from the best.  A lot of what we do as writers involves reading what others have published and comparing our work to theirs.  Its a great way to see what’s already in the marketplace and also to learn new techniques.  But it can also be discouraging.

Last week a friend commented on a post that she is taking a writing class.  Everyone in the class took 15 minutes to write a piece in line with that day’s free writing assignment.  In this case, everyone included the teachers.  When it came time to share, one of the teachers read her poem aloud.  The rhythm, rhyme and meter were perfect and she wrote it in 15 minutes.  My friend was super discouraged.

“Wait a minute.  This was the teacher that made the assignment?”


“I bet she didn’t do it in 15 minutes.  Even if she sat down and wrote it than and there, she’d been thinking about it.  She knew about the assignment ahead of time.”

Part of the problem with studying what is already on the market is that we end up comparing our unpublished work with someone else’s published work.  My weaknesses in the world of adult fiction include Suzanne Brockmann for her action scenes and complex plots and Sarah Addison Allen for her settings and details in magical realism.  But reading their work and getting discouraged is ridiculous.

They are multipublished in adult fiction.  I am not.

This is a published piece.  Mine is not.

Their piece has been edited and rewritten with the aid of a highly talented editor.  If I’m comparing my work-in-progress to their published work, I am once again comparing something new and raw to something published and polished.

Yes, you need to read the best work out there.  But realize what it is and what it represents in terms of experience, effort, and team work.  Learn from it but don’t let it hold you down.



June 13, 2018

The Great American Read

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:20 am
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I wasn’t at home the night that The Great American Read premiered on PBS so I haven’t yet watched the two hour special.  It’s one of my goals for the upcoming week.  I’m going to watch it while on the treadmill.  But I did immediately go online and check the book list.  100 favorite American novels.  I wondered how many I would have already read.

The answer:  34.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the number of books for teens and tweens including Charlotte’s Web, Ready Player One and The Harry Potter books.  And the classics such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Don Quixote.  There were also modern titles, among them Gone Girl.  

Of course there were also a few books that made me shake my head.  But I’m not going to pan anyone here, so there.

Visit your local libraries and book stores now and you will find Great American Read displays.  You can also find the book list and other information, including how to vote, here.

If I understand correctly voting continues throughout the summer.  You can vote on the PBS site.  Or you can tweet your choices using the appropriate hash tags that can be found on the site.  Yes, this means that you can vote more than once which is kind of awesome.  I would hate to have to choose one book over 20 other favorites.  Serious readers will understand.

Why not use this as an excuse to revisit an old favorite or meet a new best friends?



June 12, 2018

Copyright Terms and Payment

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 6:01 pm
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Copyright terminology can be confusing.  Fortunately, Brian Scott and has created an amazing graphic full of information.  I’ve run this graphic (see below) once before but it has been getting a lot of play on Pinterest lately.  I thought it might be a good idea to give you all a chance to refresh your memory.

In addition to copyright terminology, it is vitally important to understand when you will be paid.  Common options include payment on submission, acceptance and publication.  They seem pretty obvious.

Payment on submission = you get paid when you turn it in.

Payment on acceptance = is very close to the above but with the implications that someone has to okay your work.

Payment on publication = you get paid when the piece is published.

But I just learned to watch out for the second one and ask who has to accept it?  In the past, it has simply meant that when my editor said “this is good,” I got paid.  But recently I encountered a situation where the piece had to go through copy editing which means that I’ve been waiting 3 months for acceptance and I’m still waiting. Either no one else puts it through copy editor or they are a lot faster about it.

The moral of the story?  Ask who has to accept it.  Live and learn, people.  Live and learn.



June 11, 2018

Mentorships: A Great Opportunity to Learn and Grow as a Writer

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:42 am
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In a writing mentorship, a less experienced writer gets to work, often one-on-one, with a more experienced writer.  It is an opportunity to get personalized feedback from someone who has come to know your writing.  That’s so important because they know what your weaknesses are and can offer advice tailored to overcoming these issues. Critique, advice, reading and more are part of this type of relationship.

Often these types of relationships are informal.  I learned a lot from Pat McKissack who taught the class I took on writing for children.  Over the years, I could count on her for advice and a gentle nudge whenever I got discouraged.

The Kansas/Missouri Region of the SCBWI has a mentorship opportunity for writers.  The mentor for the upcoming year is young adult author Cynthia Leitich Smith.  Cynthia is the New York Times best-selling author of the award-winning Feral series and Tantalize series. Both adventure-fantasies were published by Candlewick Press in the U.S., Walker Books in the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand, and additional publishers around the globe.  In the fall of 2018, she has another contemporary YA coming out – Hearts Unbroken also from Candlewick. I’m eager to see this one because the protagonist is Native American and Cynthia hasn’t had a book with such a main character since 2002.

Cynthia has also published picture books, short stories, nonfiction essays, and poetry for young readers. I’ll leave you too look that up on her website because the mentorship this year focuses on young adult. To be eligible, you must be a SCBWI member living in the KS-MO region who has not yet published YA.  Applications must be turned in by the end of the month and include 10 pages of a manuscript and a synopsis.

This is program is free and I would strongly encourage any and all who are eligible to take advantage of this opportunity.  You can find out the details here.



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