One Writer’s Journey

April 19, 2018

Writing Nonfiction: What to do when you’re stumped

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:16 am
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Recently someone asked me how much research I do for a book.  Really, it all depends on the topic.  My current book, which I can’t discuss in detail just yet, is STEM title.  I have 142 sources but part of chapter 2 has been giving me a hard time.  The topic is full of medical jargon and I thought I had figured it out, but my husband wasn’t sold.  He’s my first reader and the paragraph just didn’t hold together.

So today I called a friend.  He’s not a writer but he is a nurse.  He’s my go-to source for all things medical.

Diet and nutrition?  One of the women at our church writes and tests recipes for the cooking show sponsored by a local grocery store.

Economics?  My husband has a degree in finance and is a cost analyst.

Engineering?  It depends on the type.  For some things I go to an electrical engineer who was friends with my dad.  Aeronautic?  My brother-in-law.  Chemical?  My son.

If I don’t know anyone who specializes in whatever is confusing me, I start looking for museums, state parks and universities.  I’ve contacted biologists, geologists and more. I even contacted someone who was quoted in an article I used as a source.  “This is what you are quoted as saying.  What did you mean by this part right here?”  When I explain that I am a children’s writer, people are generally willing to help.

When I go to someone for help, I always have my specific questions ready, but I also discuss what I think I know with them.  That way they can tell me if I have something wrong.  Today I actually read part of a source.  “Can you explain this to me?”

You can’t write about something if you don’t understand it.  Be willing to approach someone and ask for help.  So many people will share what they know if it means they have the opportunity to educate young learners.



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.


December 1, 2017

Strong Nonfiction: One Way to Nurture the Passions of Young Readers

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:54 am
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Yesterday, I read a publishing blog about writing STEM steries to nurture girls to pursue their interests in STEM.  While I agree it is essential to nurture girls, I’d like to think of us nurturing all young learners.

Growing up in the 1970s, I was always encouraged to pursue my interests. My grandad was a mining engineer.  I had my own sample sack that I carried when we went on walks.  If I fancied a rock, I picked it up.  Back at home, I got a science lesson.

My father taught electronics at Ranken Technical Institute.  I helped him build a television when I was 7.  I know I was 7 because I was home from school with the chicken pox.  I helped him sort transistors and various parts and read the directions out loud to him.  That may not seem like much but let’s be real.  I was 7.

He encouraged me to do every science thing I ever wanted to do.  I built rockets.  I took chemistry and physics in school.

But I also embroidered and drew.  I read voraciously and absorbed history everywhere we went.  I remember being surprised, as an adult, the first time someone told me that girls my age had not been encouraged to study science.  The statistics back that up, but it was not my personal experience.

I was lucky.  My parents encouraged me to learn about what fascinated me.  A full range of topics were available but nothing was denied to me.  Nothing was forced on me.  Except ballet.  I do remember being coerced into take years of ballet.

Let’s definitely keep writing great STEM books.  But let’s also write great books about history.  And about the arts.  Let’s fill in the gaps and make an attempt to nurture all of our children.


October 26, 2017

Mind Your Tone: 3 Ways to Teach without Preaching

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:43 am
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Last week, I checked Her Right Foot out from the library.  I wanted to see how another author handled a patriotic theme that could easily become preachy.  Why?  Because I’m getting ready to try my hand at a patriotic book.  I wanted to see how another author handled a similar topic.

Here are three things that I learned reading Dave Eggers book.

Start with the Facts. Eggers started with a history of the Statue of Liberty.  He covered who first conceived of it and why.  He went into when and how it was crafted and what it took to erect it in the United States.  For page after page, he focused on indisputable facts.

Throw in some humor.  Eggers may be writing about a serious topic but he doesn’t pass up the chance to make a cheeky comment.  “You have likely heard of a place called France.”  “If you have heard of France, you have likely heard of the French. They are the people who live in France.”   Silly helps lighten the mood as he moves into serious, even controversial, themes like freedom and immigration.  I have to admit that at first I found it a little irreverent, but that’s okay.  Because my son, in 3rd grade, would have adored the book that much more because of this somewhat sassy tone.

Let your reader take that final step.  Eggers has written about immigration. He has written about the Statue of Liberty going out to meet those who are in need of liberty.  He doesn’t say that certain people sitting in certain oval-shaped offices might do well to do the same thing.  He didn’t write the word Syria.  He writes about Lady Liberty stepping down from her pedestal.  “She is not content to wait. She must meet them…”  But that final step?  The one that would take it from teaching to preaching?  Eggers doesn’t make it.  He leaves it to the reader.

Humor helps.  Trusting the reader to make connection helps.  Sticking with in arguable facts also helps.  Fingers crossed that I can manage to pull off something that works even half as well!


October 3, 2017

Infographics: Get It Across Visually

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:14 am
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I’ve spent a lot of time lately noodling over infographics.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this phrase, an infographic is a visual means of getting an idea across.  According to Erica Boynton on Onespot, there are 8 different kinds of infographics (see their infographic to the right).  They are:

The Visual Article: A long, complex article that has been made visual.  The Onespot infographic is just this type of infographic – recreating the text of the blog post in an image.

The Flow Chart:  A flow chart uses “if X, then Y” statements to guide the reader through a series of choices to make decision.  Possibilities that have to do with writing might include “do you need to add tension to your novel” or “should you take that writing job.”

The Timeline:  This is a great way for readers to keep track of the events preceding a big moment in time.

The List:  I tend to think of lists as more of a sidebar than an infographic but a list can easily work either way.  There are lists in the infographic.

Number Love:  Think graph.  There’s one of these in the infographic as well, “Searches for Infographic.”

Versus Comparison:  These can be a lot of fun if you are doing something with a complex pro/con component.  In writing it could be self-publish or traditionally publish?  E-book or print?

Data Viz:  A simple way to convey information that would be really complex in written format.  This could work for a science article on the steps in digestion.

The Map: This is a great one when your information has a geographic component.  Think “The Most Popular Picture Books in the US.”

For my current project, we are encouraged to make suggestions for Number Love (graphs) or Data Viz.  Me?  I’d love to work with a map but my current project just wouldn’t benefit.  Sniffle.

Would you current nonfiction topic benefit from an infographic?  If so, you might want to try roughing one out.  Read up on how to do it on this post, Promoting Your Work: Creating Infographics about using the web tool


July 31, 2017

Compelling Nonfiction: 4 Rules for Writing Important Stories

I’ll be the first to admit it.  Sometimes, by the time I’ve finished writing one of my more difficult books, I have troubles remembering why.  Why in the heck did I think it was a good idea to write about Black Lives Matter?  I definitely had the same doubts by the time I finished What Are Race and Racism?

But difficult projects are often the most important.  Why?  Because they are the stories that need to be told.

Here are 4 tips for those of you contemplating such a project.

  1. Write about the things that annoy you.  Writing about something that is controversial and people argue about.  If it is a topic that people are passionate about, young readers will want to read it and librarians are going to be more interested in having the book on their shelves.  This is also the topic about which you will be passionate enough to finish.
  2. Question your assumptions.  When we write about things that tug at our heart-strings, we have to remember to question our assumptions.  It is easy to assume that a source is spot on and 100% correct because it agrees with what you believe.  Look for the proof that you need to back up that opinion.  You may not like what you find but that’s okay.  You’re trying to get at the facts.
  3. Don’t expect everything to be black and white. We’d love to answer all of our readers questions.  But sometimes there is a fact that you simply cannot find or something that has yet to play itself out.  When things are unclear, admit this to your reader.  Give them the facts, some people say X, others say Y and this is why we don’t know who is right.
  4. Give the panoramic perspective. Looking for sources that disagree with your assumptions and admitting what we don’t know are important because you should be giving your reader the big picture.  I knew which side I agreed with when I started writing the DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) book but I portrayed both sides.  When I wrote Black Lives Matter, I gave the straight forward facts surrounding each situation.  It is your job to present your reader with the broader facts.

Writing about difficult topics is hard, there’s no doubt about it.  From finding the facts and laying them out in a way that let’s your reader come to their own conclusion, it is a tricky balancing act.  But it is definitely worthwhile.


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!


September 29, 2016

Top Nonfiction Picture Books

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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cup-1010916_1920Earlier this week, writing buddy Stephanie Bearce asked me for a list of the Top Nonfiction Picture Books in the last 5 years.  Where to start?  There are so many book lists out there — bestsellers, various ALA awards and more.  I decided to start with the top nonfiction as selected by School Library Journal.  Here’s the list I compiled based on their recommendations.  Note: These are not all of the picture books on their lists.  For example, I eliminated poetry because I’m a nonfiction author, not a poet. I also eliminated some of the ones I haven’t read or didn’t like. Yes.  I’m a fickle pickle.:

Don Brown’s Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revoluion. (Roaring Brook 2013)  Study this one if you want to write about a well-covered topic.

Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus (Eerdman’s 2014).  The text, illustration and book design worked together really well on this one.

Jason Chin’s Island: A Story of the Galapagos (Roaring Brook 2012).

Lois Ehlert’s The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life (Beach Lane 2014).  An author/illustrator I adore but somehow missed this book.  I’ll have to pop by the library site.

David Elliot’s On the Wing (Candlewick 2014). Fantastic collection of “bird” poetry.

Bryan Floca’s Locomotive (Richard Jackson Book, 2013).

Gary Golio’s Bird and Diz (Candlewick 2015).  I love Golio’s books.  How did I miss this one? Popping over to the library to send in a request.

Steve Jenkin’s Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World (Houghton Harcout, 2014).  Love Jenkins books both for the illustrations and the fun animals I get to meet.

Angela Johnson’s All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom (S&S 2014).  This is illustrated by E.B. White.  After hearing him speak at a conference, I’m eager to see this book and how his illustrations demonstrate the points he made.

Sandra Markel’s The Long, Long Journey (Millbrook 2013).  This is about the godwit. The what?  Yep, study this one for how to write about a bird that isn’t a household name.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Rhthym Ride: A Road Trip through Motown Sound (Roaring Brook 2015).  Another request.  I’m something like job security for the librarians.

Mara Rockliff’s  Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France (Candlewick, 2015).  Loved this book!  Loved it.  History and intrigue made a great combination.

Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands (Roaring Brook 2014).

Duncan Tonatiuh’s Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (Abrams 2015).  Another great one.  Love the theme and the coverage is really thorough.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s Seperate is Never Equal: Syvlia Mendez and her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Abrams 2014).  Powerful story but I especially loved his Maya-inspired illustrations.

I did notice that most of the books that made the list were from big name publishers.  That said there were a few that weren’t so that’s hopeful.  Remember that these are chosen by SLJ. These are books that are top notch for a the school market.  That means that there are doubtlessly a lot of books that are excellent but don’t meet that criteria.  Still, that’s the criteria I went with since I want to teach.  Yes, I want to do so in a fun way but I want my books in the schools.

Anyway, this is the list.  Ta-da!  Hope it is helpful and  Happy Reading!


July 5, 2016

Chapters: How Many Is Just Right?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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A few days ago, I pulled out my outline for What’s Up, Chuck?  If I’m going to have it ready to submit by the end of August, I had better get to work.

I hadn’t worked on a new chapter for a while so I didn’t actually remember what chapter I was writing.  It turned out to be chapter 4.  Cool. That puts me at just under half way since I told the editor there were 10 chapters.  Actually, she asked if there were ten and I said, “Yes!”

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t remember numbers.  Phone numbers, house numbers, room numbers, number of chapters.  Pbbt.

According to the outline, there will be 7.  That’s great in terms of the fact that I am over half way.  That’s not so great if the editor really and truly wants 10.

Just how important is it that there be 10 chapters?  It depends.

If I was working on a book for an ABDO series, the number of chapters would be important.  After all, these are books published in series which means that each book needs to cover similar things.  The format needs to be the same.  This means that the number of chapters need to be close if not the same.

But this isn’t for a series.  Does that mean I can completely ignore “10 chapters”?

Unfortunately, maybe not.  There is always the chance that the editor knows how many chapters work well in this kind of format (a picture story book).  She is, after all, the one with the experience in taking a piece from manuscript to finished book.

I should probably attempt 10 if I can divide things up in such a way that it feels natural.  If it doesn’t feel natural, then I’ll have to go with a different number of chapters.  Fortunately, I’ve already spotted a few changes that I can make to expand the number of chapters.  It’s all in how I group the information.

For now, I’m going to focus on drafting the whole.  Once I have a complete draft, I can play around with how I group the information.  I’ll try for 10 chapters if it works.  If not, we shall see what we shall see.



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