One Writer’s Journey

May 15, 2020

The Three Dangers of Making Assumptions

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:35 am
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Newspaper, News, Read, Moon Landing, Child

At 3, I was not reading the paper. I was monitoring the dessert table. (Stock photo/not me)

The other night I was listening to the Fiber Nation podcast.  As they discussed textile history (yes, that’s a thing), they got around to the manufacture of the first US space suits which were assembled by the seamstresses at Playtex.  What?!  I paused the recording and found my husband…

“Yeah, I knew that.  We saw it in a documentary.”

“No.  I’d never heard this before.”

“I’m sure you knew this.”

Assumptions in writing are dangerous things and this leads us to dangerous assumption #1.

  1. Don’t Assume That Everyone Knows What You Know.  This is a big one when you write nonfiction.  My husband assumes I know every space fact he knows.  He has been a space and astronomy enthusiast since we were kids.  “Didn’t your parents have a party for the moon landing?”  Yes! And I can tell you exactly what we ate (french onion soup and cherries flambe).  No matter what my project is about, I have to lead into it in such a way that my readers can follow step by factual step.  But that’s not the only danger with assumptions.
  2. Don’t Assume Everyone Is Clueless Because You Were Clueless.  When I come up with a book idea, I have to be sure that it will be new to my readers so I look for books already in print on the same topic. This is especially important when you are brainstorming about popular topics like space exploration. If there are no books on your topic, there is one more assumption you need to avoid.
  3. Don’t Assume There Is a Market.  Just because a topic interests me, I can’t assume it will interest everyone. I have to make sure it isn’t a regional topic unless I am willing to go with a regional publisher.  There is nothing wrong with that but it will determine where I should submit the manuscript.

Assumption can really trip you up when you are writing and submitting your work.  Try to avoid them.


October 10, 2019

Inanimate Objects Tell It Like It Is

How do you take a step back from an emotional topic and give young readers the space they need to read and learn about it?  Linda Skeers recommends using an “unnatural narrator.”  Think inanimate object.

One of the topics that Skeers discusses are riots, specifically the Stonewall Riots.  Rob Sanders rights about the riots in a way that is suitable for young readers by showing everything from the perspective of a wall that stood where the riots took place.  You can read Linda’s post here.

What would the cobblestones on the St. Louis riverfront have witnessed?  Families arriving to leave again by wagon train.  Lewis and Clark. Floods.  Parades.  Possibly even the Dred Scott trials.

What about a rivet on the space shuttle?  I’m assuming there are rivets.  If not a rivet, a tile.  The construction of the shuttle. The first time the crew sees it. Pre-flight checks.  Launch.  Space.  Reentry.

Then there are belongings of famous people.  Abe Lincoln’s top hat.  I almost said Maria Tallchief’s toe shoes but toe shoes get disgusting so I’ll give that one a miss.  An explorer’s spy glass.  A musician’s violin.  Oooo.  I like that idea.    An inventor’s soldering iron.  The fresnel lens in a light house.  The Mona Lisa.

I think I would avoid trying to write from the perspective of an animal.  This came to me as I was contemplating an explorer’s horse.  As much as I adore horses, I think it would be a lot of “good forage,”  “Oh, no!  What’s that?”

I’m going to read a couple of the books that Linda recommended but I’m thinking this is form I might want to play with . . . ooooo, a printing press.  A river boat.  No, a keel boat.

Yeah, this is definitely a form that intrigues me.


September 12, 2019

Fiction or Nonfiction: Which One Do You Choose?

Which do you choose? Fact or fiction?

When you find a compelling story, one of the decisions that you need to make is whether you are going to write it as fiction or nonfiction.  There are a number of factors that impact my decision.

I will write the story as nonfiction if:

I can find the complete story.  If I can find not only what happened but why it happened, I consider writing nonfiction.

The full story has a compelling ending.  Not every event can be traced to a satisfying conclusion.  But when they can, nonfiction is a great choice.  Remember that satisfying does not mean happy. Someone who was cheated out of an invention or the money that got for said invention or simply could not get what it was worth because of their class or race can make a compelling if unhappy story.

It pulls me in and doesn’t let go.  What more is there to say?

I will write the story as fiction if:

I cannot find the complete story.   Often there are gaps that simply cannot be filled.  This may happen because the research material is located overseas or is not in a language I read.  Then I write a fictional story.

The story does not have a compelling ending.  Again, this might happen if there are gaps.  Or it might simply be that the person made awful decisions.  In reality, people make a lot of bad decisions but in literature this can get old fast.  Want to justify a bad decision?  Create a fictitious reason that is seemed like a good decision.

I can improve on reality.  Sometimes I find myself reading about a past event and I think what would happen if so-and-so hadn’t lost/missed the boat/failed to make X connection?   Fictionalizing an event lets me play with what-ifs and what-might-have-beens.

Still not sure which way to go?  When that happens to me, I tend to write the piece first as nonfiction.  If there are gaps I cannot fill or questions I cannot answer, then I rewrite the piece as fiction.  Anyone who has read good historic fiction knows that fiction too can be a great way to tell a story that is full of truth if not entirely true.


August 21, 2019

Children’s Nonfiction: Changing with the Times

The world is a rapidly changing place but this isn’t a post about trends.  Okay, I guess it is in a way.  But it isn’t a post about chasing trends in nonfiction.

Instead, it is a post about writing nonfiction for today’s young readers in today’s world.  What does this mean?  Keep the internet in mind as you develop your idea.

If you have an idea for a nonfiction article or book, the first thing that you should do is Google it.  And I don’t mean do a search on “horses” when your idea is to write a book about how the horse influenced plains culture.  Be specific.  Google “post contact plains culture” or “plains culture influenced by the horse.”

You want to get as close to your topic as you can because if you can.  Look through several pages of search results.  Do you see everything you were going to include?  Then don’t write the book.

Whoa!  What?

That’s right.  If a search online can turn up the information that would be in your book pretty much as you would present it, move on to another topic.  To sell an article or a book in today’s market, you need to go beyond the internet.  The problem is that if you could find the information quickly and easily, so can your reader or your reader’s parents and teachers.

To sell your idea, especially if it will be published as a hardcover book or a library bound book, you need to make it unique.  This means that it can’t have been published before as a book.  But it also means that it can’t be discovered in a simple search.  Otherwise, way pay for the book when you already pay for data and/or internet access?  It doesn’t make sense.

There are a variety of ways that you can do this.

Be creative.  Combine ideas that have never been combined before.

Be a good teacher. Explain complicated things in a way that young readers, their parents, and teachers can understand.  This is especially important when dealing with science.

Be yourself.  We each have a unique way of approaching the world.  Too often we try to fit when, as a nonfiction writer, it is time to make your own way into the publishing world.


July 23, 2019

Graphics: When to Include Them When You Aren’t an Illustrator

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:40 am
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Now that Earning, Saving and Investing is up on Amazon, I wanted to talk about one of the challenges I faced in writing this book.

Money is an abstract concept so writing about it is never easy.  I found myself struggling to make my explanations as concrete as possible.  This was especially difficult when I was trying to explain things like simple interest vs compound interest or what type of investment you might consider based on how long you are willing to tie up your money and how great a risk you are willing to take.

When I had roughed out the section on interest, it took me two pages to explain what I wanted the table to include.  “For simple interest, you compound the interest thusly so this space would show X and this space would show Y.”  Explaining compound interest looked like I was trying to write out a calculus problem without using any mathematical symbols other than the numbers themselves.

Finally, I roughed out the table.  The formula for simple interest and the appropriate numbers ran down the left column.  The formula for compound interest and the numbers took up the right column.  The columns were lined up so that readers could compare month by month.  It wasn’t a thing of beauty but it was a lot easier to understand than my long, drawn out explanation.  Along with my table, I noted that I didn’t expect it to go into the text “as is” but here is where I got the formula.

For two other sections I gave up on my “if X then Y” explanations and simply created flow charts.  I worked them up on Illustrator but first I wrote a post-it note for each “space” and laid the tables out on sheets of cardboard.  That helped me see where things would fit on the final chart. Again, I let my editor know that in no way did I consider this final art.  It was just easier to convey the information to her graphically, in much the same way that it would be conveyed to the reader.

Just a little something to think about as you are struggling to describe a chart, table or graph textually.  It might be easier just to mock it up.


June 19, 2019

Research: How Much Is Enough

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:52 am
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Recently, one of my students asked how much research I do for a book before I start writing it.  When I write a book for Abdo through Red Line, I have to turn in an outline and Chapter 1 for approval.
At this point in the project, I do what I call “broad stroke” reading.  I want to get a feel for the topic and see what other authors have covered.  I want to make sure I cover what is essential and bring in some new material as well.  When I write an outline,  I include a chapter title and two or three points per chapter as well as the topics for the sidebars in each chapter.  My bibliography at this point is usually about 20 items long.
While I wait for a response, I do more of my research, looking for the details that I need to flesh out the next chapter.  When I think I have enough material, I start writing this chapter.  I write myself notes – ADD TO THIS PARAGRAPH or LOOK FOR A GOOD EXAMPLE – and keep on writing.  Sometimes I rough the whole chapter.  Sometimes I rough a section.  Then I do more research and fix that chapter or section.
This keeps both the writing and the research fresh for me.  If I’m tired of writing, I can give myself a research day.  If, while working on chapter 3, I found the info that I need for chapter 6, I just make a note on the outline.  “See X article or URL.”
I don’t have to do it this way. I can research the whole book before I start writing.  But I tend to get lost in the research which isn’t a bad thing because I LOVE doing the research.  I know people who can’t write a word until they have the whole thing researched.  But, like I said, I would never get started that way.  This is what works best for me.

September 5, 2018

Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults

If any of you are interested in learning to write nonfiction, I am teaching Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults through WOW! Women on Writing.  The class starts on:

Monday, September 10, 2018
Monday, November 12, 2018

This is an 8 week class that includes:

Week One: Which Market Is Which. One of the most difficult aspects of selling your work is figuring out who wants what.  This week includes an overview of markets and how to do your own market research.

Week Two: Choosing and Narrowing a Topic. Students learn to evaluating possible topics and narrow them in order to slant your work to fit into a competitive market.

Week Three: Evaluating and Selecting Sources.  One of the most common questions that I’m asked is how much research you need to do.  This lesson will guide students through research including learning about source bias as well as information on primary vs secondary sources.

Week Four: Interviewing Sources.  No matter how  much research you do, you won’t always find the information that you need.  When and why to do an interview as well as how to write your own interview questions.

Week Five: Preparing Your First Draft. This lesson focuses on creating the first draft including whether or not to outline your work, how to tell if material is age appropriate, and using fiction techniques to enliven your work.

Week Six: Refining Your Manuscript. No piece is ever perfect in just one draft. How to create the final manuscript that they wanted to create all along.

Week Seven: The Icing on the Cake. Sweeten the deal for potential editors with sidebars and activities, photographs and more.

Week Eight: Completing the Package. The cover letter, query letter, and proposal.

In addition to lectures, each week includes an assignment which I will review.  This means that I will be giving feedback on your bibliography, rough draft, final draft, query letter and more.  Find out more about the class here and do let me know if you have any questions. I’ll admit that the class is a lot of work but in the end, you’ll be ready to choose topics, develop manuscripts and submit your work to publishers.


August 23, 2018

Writing Nonfiction: What to Include, What to Leave Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:11 am
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There comes a point in every nonfiction project when you are left looking at all of the amazing facts that did NOT make it into  what you are writing.  “Oh, but that one is so . . . fun . . . cute  . . . sweet . . . shocking.”  Soon you find yourself wedging in this fact, and that one, and that one way over there.  You did so much research and you are not going to leave them out.

And, yes, you did do a lot of research.  That’s the nature of nonfiction.  You find out way more than you are going to use.

What?  Did I just say that you aren’t going to use all those glorious facts?

Yes.  Sadly, I did say that.

It is tempting.  I understand.  You don’t want all that hard work to be meaningless.

And it isn’t.  You needed background so that you could create your piece.  You have to know more than you are going to teach your reader.

Perhaps the hardest part of re-writing nonfiction is to remind yourself of the whole focus of the manuscript.  Whether you are teaching someone how to weave a table runner or discussing how to reduce single use plastics, you have a defined goal.  The facts that don’t support that goal, whatever it is, have got to go.

“Wait!  Wait!  I’ll create sidebars.”

And that does work to a point.  For those of you who don’t know what they are, a side bar is that block of text that is in a graphic box.  Most often, it is at the outer side of the page – thus sidebar.  Sometimes it is at the bottom.  It is essentially a mini-article about a topic that is mentioned in the main text.

Can’t mention it in the main text?  Then you can’t include it in a sidebar.

And that’s really okay.  You want your piece to be slick and focused.  That’s going to attract an editor.

All those other facts?  You can use them in a different piece of writing.  See?  Your time wasn’t wasted after all.


August 8, 2018

Writing Nonfiction: The First Draft, One Hot Mess

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:45 am
Tags: , , ,

I’m drafting a new book this week.  This isn’t a picture book.  I can actually create a picture book first draft that isn’t terrifying. I’m not saying it is great but it doesn’t make you want to hide.  A first draft of a 15,000 word nonfiction for tweens?  Oh, what a mess it is.

I have an outline which my editor approved so the basic structure is there.  In draft #1, I fill in the information.  This is everything the young reader needs to learn about this aspect of the larger topic.  That’s it.  I solve the rest in subsequent drafts.  Note the S.  Drafts.  There will be more than one.  The things that I fix include:

Filling in the gaps.  When I wrote the first draft, I mark all gaps WITH NOTES TYPED IN CAPITAL LETTERS AND OFTEN HIGHLIGHTED IN YELLOW.  These are places that I need to add information I couldn’t find.

Double check the order.  I always try to get things down in the right order in the outline but sometimes something that looks perfectly functional in the outline doesn’t work where it is in the manuscript.  I don’t do much moving of sections but this is where it happens.

Cut duplicate information. Sometimes I end up repeating myself.  Often this is because I forget something will be covered in a sidebar and I write it into the main text.  Now is the time to decide where it belongs and get rid of the other.

Creating transitions.  In the first draft, I go from topic to topic.  I don’t worry about it being smooth.  Why? Because I can fix it now.

Fix the word count.  Normally I’m pretty close.  Sometimes I have to cut.  But that’s okay because most everything we write can stand to be tightened.

Reading level.  Because this is educational and part of a series, I have to hit the right reading level.  I’m usually close.  Fortunately, I’ve found which reading level is my natural writing level so I can get by with minor tweaks.

A first draft doesn’t have to be perfection.  It just has to pull information together so that you have something to work with.  Make a mess, then fix it.



July 19, 2018

Research and Outlining: Which Comes First?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:02 am
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This week I started my next project for Red Line.  Next Thursday I have to turn in Chapter 1, an outline, and a bibliography.

One of my students wanted to know if I research or outline first.  This is one of those the chicken or the egg kinds of questions.  In most cases I work on them simultaneously.

When Redline asked me to write about the Ancient Maya, I was faced with a topic that was far too broad for a single book.  I could write about their cities, how they lived, their religion or their science.  I could write about how we have learned about them and what we don’t know.  The theories about why their civilization declined are numerous.  Mayan technology, mathematics and agriculture are all worthy topics and far to vast to squeeze into one volume.

Fortunately, Abdo had given me a list of things to include so that the book would parallel the others in the series.  I used this list as a rough outline.  With that in hand, I started my research.  I needed the topics in the outline because simply searching on the Maya was too broad. With that kind of search the material I found wouldn’t be focused or detailed enough.  But with the topics I could find what I needed to know to create a detailed outline.

So the process goes like this:

Read the spec sheet.

Do a small amount of research, looking for topics that would make good chapters.

Create a rough outline, possible just with the chapter titles.

Research and outline chapter 1.  Research and outline chapter 2.  Etc.

Is this method perfect?  Not really. Sometimes I’ll discover information that isn’t in the outline but should be so I have to combine chapters. Sometimes a topic turns out to be too narrow to carry a chapter.  But this is when I want to find these things out. Editors generally don’t consider your outline to be the final word but it does let them know what you consider important and which topics you plan to cover.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some research to do and an outline to smooth out.



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