One Writer’s Journey

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 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.


February 25, 2016

Mentor Texts: A Right Way and a Wrong Way

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:03 am
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Flapper, Purple, Vintage, Retro, Female, NostalgiaI have to admit.  I’ve been struggling to get going with my latest fiction idea.  Granted, it is an adult novel so it will be longer than anything I’ve written to date but that isn’t what’s been slowing me down.

I’ve been working from a mentor text.  Several agents have tweeted that they would love to see a character ala Miss Fisher.  I love Phryne Fisher.  Love.  LOVE.  Seriously.  She’s a favorite and I suspect that therein lies my problem.  I know this character well.

I’ve been playing with my character and I know her name (Frankie).  I know where she lives (St. Louis, North County).  I know when the story takes place (1975).  The problem is that I find myself waffling on some of the details.

No, no.  She can’t be married.  Miss Fisher isn’t married.

She can’t work full-time.  Miss Fisher doesn’t work full-time.  Other than detecting, she doesn’t have a job period.

Miss Fisher isn’t in college.

Miss Fisher doesn’t live in an apartment.

And it goes on and on and on.  It finally hit me last night while I was taking a shower (I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower).  When I do this, I’m not using Phryne Fisher as a mentor character.  I’m trying to use her as a template, to create a more-or-less exact copy.  And that’s well and good if I want an agent or editor to say “Wow.  Is this time-travel fan fic? Why is Miss Fisher in Missouri?”

Of course, that isn’t what I want so I need to spend some time getting to know my character as MY character.  She’ll be like Miss Fisher in that she’s sassy and independent.  She’s smart and she’s driven to see that justice is done.  She doesn’t have hang ups about what side of the tracks someone is from.  The word NO is more of a challenge than a dictate.

But if I am going to make her my own that will probably be where the similarities end.

Like Dottie, Frankie sews.  She’s from outstate Missouri and has a real can-do attitude.  At least in book 1, she lives in an apartment over a storefront.  I think she may be a church goer.

The only reason that she’s coming into focus is because I’ve quit trying to recreate Miss Fisher in bell bottoms.  Using a book or character as a mentor doesn’t mean duplicating it.  Instead, use if for pacing or tone.  Extract just a bit of flavor.  And then make it your own.


May 4, 2015

Picture Books: Learning from published texts

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:29 am
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This book helped me learn about the nonfiction story arc.

As promised last week, this week, I will be writing about various things I learned at the Missouri SCBWI Writing Retreat at Conception Abbey.  One of the first lessons I learned this year was how to study a picture book.

When Katherine Jacobs, editor at Roaring Brook Press, recommended that I take a look at Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris, I requested it and several other books by Morris from the library.  I even made a special trip to pick them up.  Yes, I’m one of those geeky people who has a dedicated library day.  That said, I’m not above making an additional trip to pick up requested items.

At home, I read Bread, Bread, Bread as well as Hats, Hats, Hats and On the Move.  As per Jacobs instructions, I read them to study story arc.  How did Morris build tension?  I read her books and I read them again.  And then I showed them to my husband.

“How does she format the story?  How does she create tension?”

“It’s about bread.”

“But what about the story arc?”

“Can’t we just discuss the plight of the Hemmingway Hero?”  Great.  He hates Hemmingway but he couldn’t pick up on the arc either.

I read them again.  Nada.

And then, something clicked.  Type it out.

First I typed out Bread, Bread, Bread and then Hats, Hats, Hats. Looking at this bare bone manuscript, something became clear.  The arc.

Bread started out with examples and worked in surprises to notch up the tension.  Then it showed how it is made and how it arrived in one boy’s home, building anticipation.  Hats worked through contrasts.  The arc was subtle but without the illustrations or the page turns in my way I could see it.

Whether you are studying picture book wording or rhyme, level of detail or pacing, type the manuscript out.  Leave breaks between spreads but don’t make any illustration notes.  What you have is the stripped down version of the story ready for your edification.


March 24, 2015

Picture Books: Mentor Texts

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:48 am
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Mentor textsIf you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I’m a fan of using mentor texts.  A mentor text is a book that you use as a guide in one particular aspect of your own writing.

You might use Wolfie the Bunny as a mentor for including a chorus in your picture book.

Graceling is an excellent example of how to include a plot twist.

The Shattering has the best unrealiable narrator that I’ve ever encountered.

Any and all of Sharon Shinn’s texts are excellent examples of character description.  By the end of the book you KNOW what this character looks like but it is fed to you in dribs and dabs.

Need a lyrical text?  Look at Jane Yolen’s books.

But sometimes you chose a mentor text and it just doen’t work.  That was the case when I looked at Home by Caron Ellis as an example of how to bring my picture book ending home.  Ellis makes her book on varied home work by ending it at her own home.  Get it?  She brings it home.  I know.  It sounds corny but it really works.

I’d tried something similar with my prayer book.  But no one who read the new ending liked it.  It felt disjointed.  Compared to the rest of the book, it felt narrow.  And the really funny part?  After reading my manuscript, someone recommended that I read Home.  Been there.  Done that.  Have the draft to prove it.

Mentor texts are a great way of learning what can work in a story but sometimes they are just as valuable for teaching you what doesn’t.



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