One Writer’s Journey

January 31, 2018

Author’s Copies!

Happy Birthday to me!  Guess what arrived on my birthday?   Author’s copies.

This was probably one of the hardest books to research.  I landed the job not long after President Trump won the election.  A Google search on “electoral college” returned tons of links but I knew that most of the material would be unusable.  My editors wanted a balanced historic take on this American institution.  I had to go deep enough to unearth articles written by political scientists.

Another tough thing about this type of topic is going beyond your own take on it.  I’m a political liberal.  Theorists on that side of the divide mark the College as racist and pro-Slavery.  As I read further, I uncovered material that discussed balance.  Was that just the Conservative party line?  I had to read further to find out.

I did a good job explaining the why of the college but my editor asked me to cut some of the history and bring in more of what was going on now.  I had achieved liberal vs conservative balance but not done as good a job with then vs now balance.

I have to say that I’m really happy with how this book turned out.  I learned a lot and I think I managed to present a complete picture that isn’t weighted too heavily one direction or the other.  The publisher has also done a good job with the book design.

The interior is clean and easy to read.  That’s a big one.  Some publishers tend to get carried away with special features, graphics and sidebars.  There’s almost too much to see.  They also don’t do a good job choosing images or they use low resolution images that look pixellated on the page.

Yes, yes.  It is my book baby so I may be a little biased but still?  I’m really happy with it.


September 19, 2017

Middle Grade vs Chapter Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:05 am
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Middle grade novels like these have subplots.

Last week I blogged about where middle grade novels fit into the “book with chapters” spectrum.   On one end, you have chapter books.  Chapter book readers have just mastered reading on their own.  Because of this, sentence structure is straight forward.  Internal dialogue is kept to a minimum.  You have a plot and no subplots.  Chapter book characters may venture into the world to have adventures but they return home.

Unfortunately, about half way through my first draft I realized that my characters are not in the chapter book sweet spot – 8 years old.  They acted 10 and as soon as I realized that it just felt right.  But character age isn’t the only different between a chapter book and a middle grade novel.

Chapter books tend to be from 4500 to 7000 words long.  Middle grade?  Younger middle grade like my book range from about 10,000 to 20,000 words long.  Gulp.  How on earth am I going to take a story from one range to another?

Back in August I did a study of the balance between action, dialogue and narrative.  Chapter books where almost 50/50 dialogue and action.  There were only a few lines of narrative on each page.  In the middle grade novel I sampled, dialogue was still about half of the total.  Action and narrative were each about 1/4 of the total word count.

This means that I can use more of my word count to build up that world and color in the setting.  I also have space for a flashback or a bit of inner dialogue.

But wait!  There’s more.  I can also add a subplot.  Thank you to Mary Kole’s post “Writing a Novel Subplot.” She is definitely responsible for sending my thoughts in this direction.  As she explained in her post, a subplot can take several forms.

A secondary story for my main characters.  This could work rather neatly as they gather scientific evidence on their find while trying to get back to their family.

A story driven by one of the secondary characters.  I don’t see this working.  Unless I make another change.  Right now I have a buddy story with two cousins as the main characters.  If I make on of them the main character and the other a secondary character, that character could have his or her own plot line.  Not sure I want to do this but it is a possibility.

A story driven by the antagonist.  That won’t work for this book simply because there is no “bad guy.”  Circumstances conspired against them and I can’t see giving circumstance his own plot line.

Something going on elsewhere in the story.  To an extent, this is happening but it is more of the series story arc than a story arc to be explored in one particular book.  Thinking forward, but first?  I need to work through that subplot!


August 24, 2017

Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance, part 2

Yesterday I discussed just how to balance these elements in a chapter book.  In my two page sample, 3 lines were narrative, in this case interior dialogue.  Half of what remained was dialogue and the other half was action. I had been reading about not using too much narrative and wanted to see how much was too much for these younger independent readers.  Apparently, I am going to have to keep it tight.

Middle grade

But what about books for older readers?  Today I have samples from a middle grade novel, Gossamer by Lois Lowry, a young adult novel, The Demon’s Lexicon by Rees Brennan, and an adult novel, The Right Side by Spencer Quinn.  These were chosen without an ounce of science.  Basically all three were within reach of my desk chair.

So how do the various elements balance out?  In the middle grade novel, dialogue (again in green) makes up about 1/2 of the total text.  I counted roughly 26 lines of dialogue.  The rest was split about equally between action (orange) and narrative (pink).  That large block of narrative on the lower left is a flashback.  The rest is interior dialogue.  All in all, roughly 1/4 of the total is narrative.

Young adult

Like the middle grade, the young adult novel is fantasy so I expected it to be narrative/setting heavy.  This time around the blocks are almost equal.  Narrative has a slightly larger portion with 22 lines.  A small amount of this is flashback and even less is interior dialogue.  But I expected very little interior dialogue.  This mean character is not particularly self-aware.  Most of the narrative is setting.  19 lines each are dialogue and action.  So that’s a fairly even balance between the three elements.  And, yes, these two pages were chosen at random.


The adult novel was a completely different situation.  Action takes up half of the total with 31 lines.  Dialogue?  A scant 9 lines.  The remaining 22 lines are narrative.  Before making any decisions on this book, I’d want to do another random sample to see if it would have more dialogue. Why?  Because it felt like it had more dialogue than this.  That said, it is a book about a vet with PTSD.  She is far from chatty so this might be the rule while the parts I’m remember where the exception.

Whether your novel is a chapter book or an adult novel, it is clear that no single element should take up more than 50% of the total.  What works well for your book will vary with the type of book that you are writing as well as the type of scene. A battle scene will likely have more action than other scenes.  A scene where the sleuth solves the mystery might have more dialogue or narrative.

Still, you obviously can’t have any single element take up more than its fair share of space.  Not if you hope to achieve balance.


August 23, 2017

Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:42 am
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Tuesday, I read a Writer’s Digest piece on what characters say and what they think.  The writer discussed needing to get the balance between dialogue and narrative just right.

Balancing dialogue, action and narrative was one of the things we discussed when I did the novel rewriting workshop with Darcy Pattison.  I remembered doing a manuscript mark-up to see what the proportions were in your manuscript before deciding what you needed to change.

But what is the correct balance?  I suspect that a chapter book manuscript needs a different balance than a middle grade or young adult novel.  But what would that balance look like?

You know me – I need to see the answer.  So I scanned two pages of a chapter book text.  In this case, I randomly chose two pages in Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne.  Then I printed the scan and got out my highlighters.  Okay, in reality I tried highlighting it on-screen only to discover that I can’t mouse a straight line to save myself.  Any-who, I got out my highlighters.

I marked up dialogue in green.  Every time Annie or Jack speak, green highlighter.  As you can see, that’s about half the text.

Then I marked the action in orange.  Again, that’s about half the remaining text.

Only three lines are highlighted in pink – that’s the narration.  In this case, it is inner dialogue.  Three short lines.

Part of it would be the age of the reader.  They want action (orange) or to see people interact (green).  Thinking about what might be or remembering things?  Not nearly as interesting and there just isn’t much room for that if you are writing for the 2nd and 3rd grade reader.  So this is the balance that I’m going to go for when I draft my own manuscript. Equal parts dialogue and action with just a dash of narrative.

How much narrative can you have in a middle grade or young adult novel?  More but I won’t be sure how much until I break out my highlighters.


June 21, 2017

Balance in Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:30 am
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When you write educational nonficiton for young readers, you aren’t generally trying to sell one side of the story. Instead, you are laying out the facts so that your readers can make up their own minds. For some books, that isn’t particularly difficult. The Zika Virus isn’t so much a pro and con kind of story. I just had to make sure to get the facts straight.  I learned a lot about viruses and vectors writing this one.
For other books, including Black Lives Matter, the potential biases are more obvious. The title was enough to convince some people that the book was pro-Black Lives Matter.  They sent hate mail without ever reading a page.  Of course, they called me both an “angry black woman” and a “race traitor,” so it was pretty easy to write them off as deeply confused.  
But even books like Women in Science offered the potential for bias. And I’m not talking about either anti-feminist or Grrrl Power biases. One of the biggest issues was avoiding some of our biased attitudes about the science itself.  Nonscientists want there to be clean breaks between physics and mathematics and astronomy.  Scientists go where their research passions take them.  They might have a chemistry degree and work in astronomy.  Whatever!  The problem was my own in trying to decide which chapter was the best fit for each scientist.
My latest project is Pro/Con on the Electoral College. Not only am I acknowledging both sides, I have to seek them out and achieve balance. There are three “pro” chapters and three “con” chapters.  Still I did catch a few issues in how I had worded things in my outline.  There were a few places where my own biases were pretty obvious.  I’ve just turned in my outline so I’ll have to see if my editor thinks I’ve found middle ground or if I need to skew a bit more one way or the other.  If she finds a problem, I’m pretty sure I know what it will be!

December 14, 2016

The Balancing Act that Is Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:45 am
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balanceHopefully when you read this I’ll have a full draft done on my next book.  Hopefully.  I’m only about 1/3 of the way through my last chapter and my willpower is more like won’t-power at the moment.

In this first draft, I do try to get everything in the right order but I don’t worry about things being smooth and perfect.  Or not.

I also don’t worry too much about whether or not I have enough information.  That’s something I’m going to address in the next draft.

When I prepared chapter 1 and my outline last week, my chapter was way too long.  This wasn’t a problem that I could correct by cutting a word here and a word there.  I had to eliminate entire paragraphs.  This meant less background information and fewer examples.

As I draft chapters 2 through 5, I’ve noticed that my word count is very close to perfect.  The reason that this worries me is that I should have to edit a paper draft to tighten things up.  This should be when I get rid of those extra words especially -ly adverbs or replacing a weak verb with two adverbs with a single strong verb.

I suspect that, as I worry about surpassing my word count yet again, I’m being too cautious.

I always have to add more information when I write the second draft.  That’s when I fill in the blanks — things that weren’t in my notes or that obviously need clarification with another example.  Instead of spending the time to do a great deal of research, I simply type a question or comment in CAPS and then highlight it.  When completing draft 2, I go back and do the research needed to fill these blanks in.  This time around I’ll be rereading each chapter and looking for places that the information isn’t dense enough.  I’ll add to any area that seems a bit weak.  Then I’ll cut to make it all fit.

I want to give my readers as much information as possible without overwhelming them.  As are so many things with writing, its a balancing act.  Here’s to leveling things out in the next draft!


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