One Writer’s Journey

December 31, 2018

Book Categorization: How to Do It and Why It Matters

book heart“My new novel is a romantic mystery that takes part in a science fiction universe.”

“I’ve written a creative nonfiction concept picture book.”

Descriptions like these make me cringe.  Sure, some books really do cross over categories.  But most are more one thing than another. It’s important to know what the manuscript is so that you know where to market it.

If an agent represents creative nonfiction, that concept picture book may not be a good match.  You have to take a harder look at the age levels of the books they represent.  No picture books means no picture books even if they like creative nonfiction.

Writer’s Digest contributing editor Elizabeth Sims recently wrote a post, “Shelf Savvy: How Book Categorizations Helps Maximize Sales.”  In this post, she discussed how books by African-American authors sold better at Borders when their books were shelved in an “African American Lit” section.  Scattered among the other titles, whether literature, mystery or essays, they weren’t as easily found by would-be readers and failed to sell as well.

Not that you will have the ultimate say in where it is shelved or how it is marketed (romance or mystery), but you need to know what it is so that you know who to approach.

This follows the fact that you had to know what to call it to write it in the first place.  Picture books follow certain conventions.  Write your story in 500 words with the possibility for 14-16 unique illustrations and you’re going to get the right kind of attention.  Write your story in 6000 words with dialogue, setting instructions and sound effects (SFX) and you better send it to publishers who want graphic novels vs picture books.  Yes, both are illustrated but the conventions are different and you need to know what you’re working on.

Don’t let a category limit your work but know what is typical so that you can creatively push the limits and then market it to the right people.


February 2, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Start with Knowledge

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If you’ve accepted that you can accomplish amazing things writing for five minutes a day, good for you!   That’s a big part of the process. You won’t try if you don’t think you can succeed. But you also have to start with a plan.  And the first step in that plan?


I bet you expected me to say an outline.  And we’ll get there.  But first you have to start with knowledge.

What do you want to write?  Do you want to write poetry?  A picture book?  Humorous middle grade? A young adult fantasy?   Then you need to know the parameters of the genre.

If you want to write a picture book, you need to know something about the structure.  How long should be manuscript be?  Read picture books and observe how each spread is a scene and how page turns function.

If you want to write middle grade or young adult, spend some time learning how the two differ.  It is more than the age of the reader or character.  It also impacts the type of plot whether it is humorous, fantasy or both.

If you plan to write fantasy, read about the different types of fantasy.  How does magical realism differ from high fantasy or space opera?  Learn what is expected of each.

My five-minute project for the year will be a mystery.  I’m going a bit wild here and throwing caution to the wind.  I’m going to attempt a cozy for grown ups.  Oooooo.

Of course this means that I first had to discover whether or not a cozy requires a corpse.  In reading up on this type of mystery, I’ve also discovered that my knowledge of same is dated.  Or Australian since the newest cozies I’ve read are by an Australian author.

Spend a few minutes reading up on your genre.  Once you’ve done that?  Request something from the library.  You’ve still got a bit more reading to do.

5 minute tasks to boost your knowledge:

  • Read about the type of project you want to write: children’s poetry, picture book, etc.
  • Check out lists of books.  What published books fall into this category?
  • Request several titles.  If you haven’t read relevent titles published in the last 3 years, request several.

Get started and we’ll be back next week to talk about outlining.




May 30, 2017

Know Your Audience: Write What They Know

My library shelf contains the latest haul from the St. Louis County Library.

“Write what you know.”

It doesn’t matter if you are trying to make your first sale, collect additional clips or having problems with writers block.  Sooner or later someone is going to give you this bit of advice.  Someone other than me.

I’m much more likely to advise you to write based on what your readers know.  This doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to what they know.  Young readers are curious, often more curious than adults.  But what they know will help you determine what they understand and how to explain things to them.  If you write fiction, knowing what they know can help you shape your plots.  So what do they know?

Preschoolers:  Just about everything is new to this audience but that doesn’t mean that everything goes. They are still exploring things close to home which is why books about colors, noises and basic routines are so popular.  Take a look at Sandra Boynton’s books which include Blue Hat, Green Hat; Moo Baa La La La; and Pajama Time. 

Kindergartners and Grade schoolers:  Developmentally this is an extremely broad range.  They are exploring an expanding world.  At the younger end, this includes school which accounts for the number of kindergarten stories.  There are also a lot of books about friends and family and a wide range of nonfiction concept books, animal books, and books about all of the things they are touching on in school including both history and STEM topics.  These are readers who are beginning to understand how broad and diverse the world is and they want to explore it in fiction and nonfiction.

Middle School:  These readers are pushing boundaries beyond family and school.  What they discover often does not coincide with what they’ve been taught.  Books about people who don’t quite fit in or who challenge what is accepted are popular.  So are books about discoveries and break throughs.  These readers are also exploring good and evil often through fantasy or mysteries.

Young Adults:  Teens are exploring and heading out to find their place in the world.  They are challenging, questioning and demanding answers.  Because of this, the books that they love often make adults cringe because their lit often feels “no holds barred” to established adults.  Check out authors like Matt de la Pena and A.S. King.

Knowing something about where young readers are in the world can you help you understand when an editors critiques your manuscript and tells you that is sounds too old or too young.  But the best way to understand, is to read.  I always have a stack of books from my local library.  Use published books to help you learn what young readers need and what publishers are buying.

Isn’t it great that reading is “work” when you’re a writer?



January 6, 2017

Books with Chapters vs Chapter Books: Why You Need to Know The Difference

writing-termsLast night we had someone new at critique group. I don’t just mean new to our critique group.  I mean new to any professional critique group.  I realized this when I noticed that she called anything and everything that has chapters a chapter book. This really drove home why it is so important to know the terminology before you start to submit your work.  Use a term wrong and editors will realize you don’t know the industry.  Here are a few of the book related terms you need to know.

Board Book: This is a book for toddlers.  It is made out of cardboard and is meant to hold up to small people who don’t have the finesse not to damage a picture book.

Picture Books:  These fully illustrated books are written for children preschool-aged through grade school although most of the audience is preschool through about 8.  The text and illustrations work together to tell the story, each telling slightly different parts of the story.  Because of how they are printed, they are most often 32 pages.  The text may feel advanced since it is read to the child.

Early/Beginning Readers:  These books have a smaller trim size than a picture book.  This gives them the appearance of a “big kid’s” novel.   Many are fully illustrated but instead of expanding on the story the illustrations are there to help the reader decipher the text.  The text is easier than that of a picture book.

Chapter books:  These are for readers who are reading independently.  They aren’t ready for the longer books that middle graders read but they want the chapters.  The still enjoy illustrations but most if not all illustrations are black and white. Think Magic Tree House.  No subplots.

Middle grade novels.  These are for older grade school students.  Yes.  Older grade school.  Remember kids tend to read up.  Subplots are to be expected but these books aren’t nearly as edgy as young adult books.  There is a lot of diversity in terms of reading level and maturity of content.

Young Adult Novels.  These are novels for middle schoolers and high schoolers.  In spite of what some people think, all young adult novels are not super sexy but these kids are heading toward adulthood.

Using chapter book to describe true chapter books, middle grade books and young adult books is going to mark you as a newbie.  Don’t do this to yourself.  Read.  Learn the terminology.  Talk to other writers.  Then submit your work.  Otherwise the first impression you make on the editor will be one of confusion vs giving your work the opportunity it needs to shine.


July 8, 2016

Speculative Fiction: What’s In a Name

jupiterRecently I was with some of my writing buddies and we were discussing, no surprise here, books.  Specifically, we were mulling over what to call Cinder by Marissa Meyer.  Since it focuses on technology and feels a bit grungy, I tend to want to call it futuristic steam punk because science fiction just doesn’t feel precise enough.  Of course, then we found ourselves discussing books that are futuristic and involve both magic and tech.

I thought of this today when I came across a column on speculative fiction.  Speculative fiction is fiction that . . . you’re gonna love this . . . speculates.  Otherwise, speculative fiction is all fiction that isn’t realistic.  That includes:

Science fiction:  Futuristic fiction based on science.  See Cinder and the other Lunar Chronicles books.

Fantasy:  Based on magic.  Wing and Claw by Linda Sue Park.

Science Fantasy:  Is it science or is it magic?  Has elements of both but you may be deep into the story before you know which is which.  Think The Golden Compass as well as McCaffrey’s Pern books.  Also Sharon Shinn’s Archangel series.

Horror:  Things that go bump in the night.  Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood.

Alternative History:  Things that didn’t quite happen.  May include magic as well as changes in the historic timeline.  See Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda Series.

Magical Realism: Life as we know it with a magical twist.  My favorites are by written for adults by Sarah Addison Allen.  For young adults see The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman.

Read a few of these books and you’ll catch yourself wondering if I’ve put them in the correct category.  Shouldn’t it be there?  Or maybe it fits better here?  And that, my friends, is why the term speculative fiction comes in handy.  You might be done with a book before you decide where it goes and you may change your mind five or six times while reading it.

When that happens, it probably isn’t as important to nail down what to call it as it is to recommend it to another lucky reader.


January 26, 2016

What Are You Writing?

Colorful books on shelfWhenever a new writer comes to critique group, I ask, “What do you write?”

Can I say, without giving offense, that it is off-putting if they can’t tell me?  Too often the answer is “children’s stories” or “books for children.”  That’s too broad and it makes me think that you don’t know the answer in contemporary publishing jargon.

Hey, wait!  Aren’t writers supposed to think outside of the box?

You are, but if you don’t know what the heck you’re writing, you don’t know what box to avoid. If you are just starting to write for children and teens, here are some categories to know.

Fiction vs nonfiction.  It’s basic but I understand some of the confusion.  If you are writing a story about growing a garden and framing it as the experience of fictional Adam, what is it?  Fiction or nonfiction?  Without reading it, my guess would be fact based fiction.

Picture book.  A picture book is an illustrated book in which the text and the art equally tell the story.  These books give readers the info they need to learn about the world in general. The recent Newbery Last Stop on Market Street is a picture book.   Adults read these books to young readers.
Audience: Toddler to early grade school.
Length: Up to 3 manuscript pages.

Beginning or early reader.  The purpose behind these books is for new readers to be able to read them independently.  That meanst that vocabulary and sentence structure are simple.  Illustrations don’t expand on the story but provide contextual clues for the reader.  Look at beginning readers and you’ll see lables like “level 1.” Levels vary from publisher to publisher.  Elephant and Piggy.
Audience: 1st and 2nd grade.
Length: Up to 20 manuscript pages.

Chapter books.  These books may contains some illustrations but they are for confident readers who aren’t intimidated by a lack of pictures.  That said, these are still newish readers and the books tend to have a main plot line and no subplots.  Often published in series. Magic Tree House.
Audience: 1st to 3rd grade.
Length: 40 – 60 manuscript pages.

Middle grade novels.  These readers can handle at least one subplot.  Characters are discovering their place in the world so stories are frequently about family, friends,  and school.  It is rare for these books to include extreme violence, drug use or sex. Some romance, very light, is okay. Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Audience: 3rd to 6th grade.
Length: 100 – 250 manuscript pages.

Young adult novels.  Middle schoolers read some of these books and these are the books with less extreme content.  Books for high schoolers can include, but don’t have to focus on sex, drugs, etc. These are kids who are challenging the world although they may still be looking for their place in it. Graceling.
Audience: 7th grade and up.
Length: 200 – 350 manuscript pages.


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