One Writer’s Journey

March 10, 2017

Query Letters: Comparing Your Book to Another Title

One of the things that you need to do in your query letter is show the agent that you know something about the market.  Many writers do this by comparing their work to a book that is already in print.

As with everything, there is a right way to do this and a wrong way to do this.  Do not state that your book will be the next Harry Potter/Nancy Drew/Little House on the Prairie.  While everyone wants to be wildly successful, you don’t want the agent to just roll his eyes and then delete your query or send you the dreaded “good luck in finding representation elsewhere.”

The book that you chose to compare to your own should also be current.  That’s part of the problem with Nancy Drew and Little House.  Yes, I loved them.  Yes, I read them all.  But they were published then and this is now.  You want to show the agent that you’ve read something recent and that you know the market.  

These comparisons wouldn’t tell your target agent anything about your book.  They would just tell her something not altogether positive about you.

Instead, make a comparison, using a contemporary title, that hints at your book.  “My book has the same fantasy meets the Wild West feel as Rebel of the Sands.”  “Like Ronan in the Raven Boys, Jed is abrasive but compelling.”  This doesn’t say that my book will be an international seller like Rebel of the Sands.  I’m not claiming to have the same series potential as The Raven Boys.  But I am telling the agent something about the feel of the book.  In doing so, I’m also making her aware that fans of the popular book may also like mine.

Comparing your book to a successful, current title isn’t an easy task to do well but it is something that will tell the agent about both you and the manuscript.  Just make sure that it sends the message you intend.



March 9, 2017

Welcome to Sesame Street!

This is a great opportunity for any writer who can pursue it.

Sesame Street Writers’ Room is a new fellowship opportunity from the creators of Sesame Street. Who is it for?  New writers from underrepresented racial backgrounds. Sesame Street has always represented diversity on screen and this is a behind-the-screen opportunity for people of any of these groups: Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, Native American, Middle Eastern, or multiracial (two or more races, which may include white).

Applicants must:

Be 21 years-of-age at the time of the fellowship  this summer (dates online)

Have an 11 page script to apply

Be able to get to New York City for week night discussion sessions.


This really is an amazing opportunity to hone your script writing skills.  To find out more, visit the Sesame Street Writers’ Room here.  The application is due at the end of the month so don’t delay!


March 8, 2017

Query Letters: Connecting with the agent

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:04 am
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A query letter is a business letter.  Check.  That’s easy and straightforward enough that most of us get it.

A query letter is also the writer’s opportunity to connect with the agent.  But remember, it is still a business letter.

Did you hear the agent speak at a conference?  Then say so.  “When I heard you speak at the Mashed Mangoes SCBWI conference, your wish list included picture books about tropical fruit.  Enclosed…”  In much the same way I’ve reminded agents that we had dinner together as fellow conference speakers.

In much the same way, you should also let the agent know if your manuscript is a good match for a recent #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) post on Twitter or their profile listing on the Manuscript Wish List web site.  Just be sure to keep is short and simple.  “On March 2, 2017, your blog post included a call for …”  “Your February 22, 2017 #MSWL tweet …” You don’t have to quite them word for word.  Just mentioned the post, tweet or whatever.  This will let the agent know why you have chosen them and that you aren’t sending your work to every agent in the SCBWI directory.

But keep it business like.  If the agent likes dogs and you have a canine manuscript, say so but don’t gush on-and-on about man’s best friend.  If the agent tweeted about Firefly and you have a manuscript with the same feel, say so without confessing your undying love for Nathan Fillion or Gina Torres.

Loved her hair?  That’s awesome.  But keep it to yourself.

Think he has great taste in messenger bags?  Cool!  But don’t mention it.

You want to make a connection but you don’t want to come off stalker-ish, creepy or just plain strange.  I know, I know.  Most of us don’t need to be told that but my job at one conference was to follow the editor to the restroom and make sure no one bothered her while she was doing her business.  Yep.  I was a bathroom bouncer.

Make that connection but be professional.  As Cobra Bubbles would say in Lilo and Stitch, “Do I make myself clear?”


March 7, 2017

Theme: The Opposite of Preaching

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:08 am
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Throughout March, I am taking part in ReFoReMo or Read for Research Month.  In this picture book writing challenge, you read a wide variety of books and then read blog posts by  various authors on how to use the mentor texts to improve your work.

One of the books for last week was Jacob Grant’s Cat Knit.  Personally, as a knitter, I was immediately hooked.  That said, I do suspect that Grant has been the recipient of an unwanted sweater or three.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it tells the story of Cat and his friendship with Girl.  One day, Girl brings home a colorful new friend, Yarn. Cat quickly bonds with Yarn and their friendship grows.  But then the unthinkable happens.  Yarn becomes a snug, itchy sweater.  Cat abandons his friend outside and only then notices just how awfully cold it is.  Fortunately, Cat and Yarn are reunited although one suspects that there might be more knitting to come.

On the surface, it all looks pretty simple.  You have a story about a cat, a girl and yarn.  It is a book about knitting.  And that’s true enough but if you go a bit deeper and you’ll find the theme.

Cat Knit is also a book about friendship  and change.  One friend changes and the other friend is initially resistant and just can’t deal with it.  Fortunately, before it is too late, Cat realizes that “Warming up to something new takes time.”

Except for that last bit in parenthesis, Grant doesn’t say it.  He implies it.  He writes about it.  He hides it in a story about a cat, a girl and yarn.  Because he makes this part of the lesson covert, it is one of the themes of the book and teaches without preaching.

Don’t preach.  We hear that bit of advice all the time.  Fortunately we have Cat Knit and Jacob Grant to show us how to do it right.


March 6, 2017

Emotion: Making the Reader Feel It Too

What is the most vital job that you have as a writer?  To hook the reader and keep them reading.  To do this you need to emotionmake them care about what you are writing.

In fiction, this means making the reader care about and relate to the character.  One of the best ways to do this is with an emotional connection.  Even if the character is an alien, a sprite, or a yeti, you can help your reader connect by bridging the gap between reader-experience and character-experience using emotion.

First things first is identifying your character’s emotion.  It sounds a little goofy but there you have it.  So often when I am reading a manuscript from a newer writing, the character is moving from event to event without an identifiable emotion.  You might get the occasional jump when they are startled or “ouch” when they are hurt, but that’s about it.  So first things first, identify the character’s emotion at this point in st0ry-time.

Second, think about the emotion as it relates to this particular character.  How does it feel?  What does it mean?

It is way too easy to say, Chet was mad.  Amy was happy.  Bartholomew was confused.  Fantastic.  But how does it feel to these characters?

This is why I have such a love affair with The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  Each entry lists a wide variety of reactions to each emotion.  What are the external responses?  What are the internal responses?  How does a character respond who is try to suppress this emotion?  How does this emotion change if it is felt over an extended period?

Let’s take anger.  My husband bites his bottom lip.  A friend of mine, if angry enough, literally sees red.  People clench their fists, grind their teeth, narrow their eyes and more.  One friend sounds extremely country when he’s trying his darndest not to throttle someone.  Each person has a different response.  Some are external, observable by anyone who cares to take note.  Others, like seeing red, are internal and only the person feeling this emotion may be aware.

Use some of these indicators in your writing to help your reader connect with a familiar emotion.  In this way, you will help them bridge the gap from their world to the world of your character.



March 3, 2017

Mysteries: Edgar Nominees Announced

For those of you interested in writing mysteries or at leat books with a strong mystery element, here is a reading list to help you learn how to do it right.  Mystery Writers of America have announced the nominees for the 2017 Edgar Awards. You can see the entire list here — the only two categories I’m giong to discuss deal with books for tweens and teens.

The first is for Best Juvenile (middle grade) novel.  The five nominees are:

Summerlost by Ally Condie (Penguin Young Readers Group – Dutton BFYR)
OCDaniel by Wesley King (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books)
The Bad Kid by Sarah Lariviere by  (Simon & Schuster – Simon & Schuster BFYR)
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand  (Simon & Schuster – Simon & Schuster BFYR)
Framed! by James Ponti (Simon & Schuster – Aladdin)
Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry by Susan Vaught (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books)

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I have read only one of these books so far — Some Kind of Happiness which I really liked.  I’ve talked to some authors who really disliked it.  They felt it was too heavy for middle grade.  And it did deal with a lot but the worst of it, in fact most of it, didn’t happen “on-screen.”

The nominations for best Teen (Young adult) novel are:

Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Hartinger (Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse)
The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry (Christy Ottaviano Books/Macmillan)
Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown BFYR)
My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier (Soho Press – Soho Teen)
Thieving Weasels by Billy Taylor (Penguin Random House – Penguin Young Readers – Dial Books)

Admittedly, I haven’t read a single one of these books but I have a reason.  I’m writing a young adult novel.  I tend not to read novels of the same level that I’m reading.  For me, it is a necessary step to keep my voice true.  Sometimes I can read something that is very dissimilar to what I am writing but it is a risk.

Still, these books are definitely going on my reading list.  If you are considering writing a mystery, check them out.


March 2, 2017

The Beginning: Set Your Story Up for Maximum Impact

freedomovermeYesterday, I read Freedom Over Me, Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan.  This was one of the books most recently read by the American Library Association.  Honestly, I need to send them a thank you note because until I saw this book on the award list, it had escaped my notice.

As the title makes clear, this is the story of 11 slaves.  What the title doesn’t tell you is that these are 11 people who have molded themselves into something of a family.  They have the work that they do for the master — carpentry, sewing, cooking, farming — and many are so talented that they are “hired out” and bring even more benefit to the estate.  But they also have their lives out of the master’s eye.  They have means of using their gifts to benefit their fellow slaves and dreams of how they might use these gifts in the future.

Doesn’t feel especially fresh when I tell it like that, does it?  But it starts with a poem from the POV of the master’s wife.  He has just died.  His widow is afraid to manage their estate alone because she has heard about slave revolts.  Instead, she will sell them and move home to England were she will feel safe among her own people.

Read that part again.  Safe among her own people.

Do you see how powerful this set up is?  From the widow’s worries and words, we move on to the lives of the slave people who are once again being offered for sale which will surely mean that they will lose the families they have built.  And all of this will happen after losing their African families.

The impact is profound largely because of how Bryan set up the story.  The poor grieving widow is afraid.  She has lost her husband and although he built this estate, she feels she must sell it and move home.  Where she will be safe.

Turn the page and you are looking at 11 people who are being auctioned off.  Eleven people who will very soon not be safe.  They will, once again, not be among their own people

Now think about your own work-in-progress.  Do you have a set up this powerful?  If not, what might you do to rock your reader back on their heals?  To make them see things in a new light?

Think about it.


March 1, 2017

50 Precious Words Writing Challenge

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 9:07 pm
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green-eggs-and-hamInterested in competing in a brief, and I do mean super short, writing challenge?  Tomorrow, March 2, is the 50 Precious Words Writing Challenge.

Author Vivian Kirkfield created this challenge in honor of Dr. Seuss whose birthday is March 2.  Seuss apparently wrote Green Eggs and Ham when Bennet Cerf, founder of Random House challenged him to write a children’s book using only 50 words.  Seuss did this obviously using many some of them multiple times since the book’s word count is 700.

Kirkfield challenges writers to write a complete story with a word count of 50 words or less. Post the story on her blog (look for the March 2 post) and you will be elligible for one of 20 prizes including:

Critiques from agent Essie White

Enrollment or a discount on a class such as Making Picture Book Magic, Art of the Arc or a webinar.

I decided to give it a go.  Face it.  Roughing a new manuscript is always more fun than rewriting, reworking and fixing an old one.  I have about half the spreads I need and 57 words.

Failure?  I don’t think so.  I have, after all, half a new manuscript!   Off to do some poking around to find the inspiration for 7 more spreads.  It may not win the contest, it may not even be eligible, but this was enough to get me started on a new manuscript.  Woo-hoo.



February 28, 2017

Picture Book or Magazine-Length Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 5:51 pm
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Oonce-upon-a-time-719174_1920ne of the most difficult things for new writers, and even experienced writers, to grasp are the differences between different types of writing.  How does an early reader manuscript differ from a picture book?  How does a magazine story differ from a picture book manuscript?

Today, I’m going to talk about how a magazine story manuscript differs from a picture book manuscript.  And let me emphasize something.  We are talking about manuscripts.  Once the two pieces are published, the physical form of the published piece takes over and dominates the form of the story or manuscript.

That’s why we are focusing on manuscripts.  So how does a magazines piece differ from a picture book?  First lets cover how they don’t differ.

It isn’t length.  Manuscripts for either form can have a word count of well-below 100 words to several hundred.

It isn’t focus.  Magazine stories focus on the protagonist.  You generally don’t have to the time or space to bring in numerous siblings or the entire class.  But a picture book can also have this super tight focus.

There are two principal differences between a magazine story and a picture book.  The first is illustration possibilities.  Due to the format, a picture book has 32 pages.  Some of these pages may become back matter.  There is going to be a title page.  But you usually need at least 14 spreads.  If you don’t have 14 distinct illustration possibilities than you probably aren’t writing a picture book manuscript.

The second principal difference is lasting appeal or value for the buck.  Is your story something that a parent or grandparent would be willing to pay $16.99 to read again and again and again?  If the story isn’t going to hold up to multiple readings, either to a classroom or a single child, then it isn’t a picture book.  This means that a picture book story has to have depth and adult appeal.

Take a look at your manuscript.  Have you created something with 14 distinct illustration possibilities? These can be changes in action, tone or setting.  The illustrator can zoom out or zoom in but you have to give this person a story they can work with.

Now look at it for value/depth.  Is this something that you can see an adult reading again and again?  Neither type of writing is easy but it is all much easier if you know what to look for in your work.


February 27, 2017

Research: How much is enough?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:40 am
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books-1605416_1920Recently someone asked me how much research is enough to write a book.  Do I use 20 sources?  Thirty?  Do my books for teens require more than the third grade books?

I wouldn’t say that age level plays as big a part in the amount of research that I need to do as the topic itself.  If there are books that you can use as resources, I may not have to use as many sources, especially if one or more books has a lot of information.  But if the topic is something new with fewer books already on the subject in print?  Then I am going to have to use more sources. If you have to use a lot of articles, you will have a huge bibliography.

Perhaps these numberw will show you what I mean.  For Ancient Maya, I used 52 sources including a number of books. when I wrote Black Lives Matter, there were no books for teens and almost nothing for adults on this topic.  I used 188 different sources.  The Zika Virus was similar with so much new material coming out and my bibliography had 120 sources.  But what about a book that is something of a survey?  Women in Sports covered the history of women in modern sports. Not baseball.  Not basketball.  Sports.  I used 206 sources.

These books are all 15,000 words long.  My books for 3rd graders are much shorter at 3500 words.  12 Incredible Facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis required 43 sources and I used 48 for the book on esports, both of which are comparable to the number of sources I used for the Maya book.

Although I understand why I teacher would tell a student to use 5 sources or 10, I would never answer this question with a number.  There is just too much variety depending on the topic and what else is in print.  Instead, I would say that you should research until you can start writing.

Just start.  Develop an outline if you are writing a longer book.  If you are writing a picture book, outline it and maybe rough it out.  This will tell you where you information is scant and what you still need to research.  I don’t worry about researching too much.  Research is too much fun to get stingy about it.  But I also don’t worry about researching too little.  If you’ve come up with a topic that has never been covered, which is what you need to do to sell, you are going to have to put in the work required to write a full and satisfying manuscript.  That is what is necessary much more than a specific number of sources.


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