Super Hero Writers

Last weekend Super Heros flew to Chicago to gather for SCBWI Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day. This year my conference posse grew from two writers to four, including one of my VCFA classmates. We happened to sit in the Maw-ha-ha section of the audience, but there are no villains in writing and illustrating for children.

Only Super Heros!

This year we kicked off the day with an inspirational keynote by author / illustrator Don Tate. If you aren’t already familiar with his work, check it out. I especially loved how his artwork grew and changed over time into his own unique style. New this year was a Skype keynote by Kirsten Cappy of on finding your audience, advocates, and being an ally in book marketing.

In my breakout sessions I learned about The Enigma of Voice from agent Linda Pratt, How Motivation Drives Story from Viking Children’s Books executive editor Kendra Levin, and Revising and Editing MG / YA from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers assistant editor Nikki Garcia. All wonderful presenters that I’d recommend if you ever have an opportunity to see them speak.

As always, there was learning for all levels of writers and illustrators, even those returning to the conference for the sixth time like me. I am always struck by what a vibrant, creative, FUN community SCBWI is, more so this year because I attended a much drier (but also very important) structural engineering bridge conference earlier in the week.

This year at Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day there was one Super Hero that kept popping up in every session and conversation: Diversity! Or “Writing the Other,” as it’s more frequently called in writing circles. This topic is more than a trend, it’s a new frontier the publishing industry has embraced.

I was glad to hear about the SCBWI-Illinois Diversity Initiatives, such as the auction of John Parra’s painting FRIDA on their website, the Diversity Has Many Voices buttons for sale at their events, the Diverse New Member Pathway, and the Many Voices Outstanding Manuscript Prize. It was also reassuring to hear the big publishing houses all have diversity committees focused both on their employees and their authors / illustrators.

Change is slow, but know that progress is being made.

In my own writing life, I was recently selected for the Writing the Other focus workshop at my next VCFA MFA WCYA residency. Exciting, yet frightening. To prepare for this workshop, students will read diverse children’s fiction as well as online discussions of Writing the Other. Identity markers in diverse books include race, religion, sexual orientation / gender identity, physical disabilities, mental health disabilities, body type, generation, socioeconomic class, etc.

To prepare myself for this focus workshop, I’ve been listening to VCFA archived lectures on Writing the Other as well as checking out great resources available for everyone:

TED Talk: The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Blogs: A is for Aging, B is for Book, Disabilities in Kidlit, Reading While White, Latinx in Kidlit, etc.

Article: 12 Fundamentals of Writing “The Other” (And The Self) by Daniel José Older.

Magazine: The Writer’s Chronicle: October / November 2016 Edition theme is Writing the Other

Book: Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

Whatever form of media you prefer, this important information is out there.

Inform yourself.

This week especially, after an election that has divided our nation and struck fear in a large percentage of our population, have empathy for your fellow Americans and listen to their many voices.

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The Objective Correlative

In writing, as with many other aspects of life, you don’t know how much you don’t know until someone wiser teaches you. I started out over ten years ago knowing nothing other than I loved reading stories and wanted to learn to write them.

My learning journey began by attending writing conferences to learn the basics. That is a great place to start. I learned key things like the difference between the content and length of the various levels of children’s literature. Show, don’t tell. Plot structures such as The Hero’s Journey and The Three Act Structure. Writing mechanics that can flag you as a newbie writer, such as adjectives, adverbs, and naming emotions. All important topics that made me feel I’d figured writing out and was ready to publish a story.

Not true.

I obtained my first agent and learned how much more there was to learn about character development, emotional arc, and the heart of the story. I hadn’t realized stories need both an external (plot) quest and an internal (emotional) quest that both need to have progress and impediment throughout the character’s journey, and in some way are connected to each other. This type of topic was better learned in writing intensives or writing workshops. I attended many. Now I certainly felt ready to publish a story.

Still not true.

This is the point where many writers hit the wall. They know everything a conference or writing workshop can teach, their manuscripts are getting partial requests, but they never quite make a sale. Something is missing from their writing and they don’t know what. But the only way to find out what is missing is by learning from someone who is a published author.

I am not suggesting anyone stalk a published author to glean information. Don’t do that. Not even at a conference. Seriously.

The answer for me has been the MFA. All the writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts are award wining, published authors who know exactly what it takes to bump your manuscript from good to great. They lecture on these topics at residency and comment on the specific items a student needs to work on during the semester.

The first big tidbit of information I gleaned from my MFA: Objective Correlative.

In ten years of writing conferences and workshops, I never once heard this term mentioned. It must have been stated fifty times at my first MFA residency, both in seriousness and as some inside joke we first semester students have not quite figured out yet. I’m certain it’s buried in one of the archived faculty lectures. Upperclassmen, please tell us which one so we’re in on the joke, too!

The first thing I did when I got back from residency was look up the definition of the objective correlative. I’ve since watched five lectures related to the topic and read eight student critical thesis that listed it as a keyword. I’m still beginning to figure out how to incorporate this new tool in my writing, but let me share the basics I’ve uncovered.

T.S. Elliot is credited as first defining the objective correlative as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

That’s a mouthful. It required further research for me to understand. I’ve found four ways (so far) this objective correlative can be used. Let’s say the object I select is a horse.


1)   Single Use Object

In this case, I am not actually writing a story about horses. If I am writing about a school-aged kid who is being bullied on the playground and the teacher never sees it happen. The class goes on a field trip to a farm (where there is a one time exposure to a horse), and the bullying continues. This kid has been told not to react to the bullying because that’s what the bully wants. How can the writer show what the kid is feeling on the inside (without telling) while he pretends not to care on the outside? A rearing horse in the scene could be an objective correlative for the kid’s true feelings. He may even go so far as to think how much he wishes he were a horse who could rear up and kick away bullies.

2)   Object’s Relationship to Character Shows Character’s Relationship to Plot

In this case I am writing a story about a character who owns a horse he is supposed to take care of. But he doesn’t. Just like his parent doesn’t take care of him. The boy’s feelings of abandonment and depression are internal feelings that can be difficult to show. The horse would have physical signs of not being cared for, such as losing weight or growing a shaggy coat, that could be an objective correlative for how the boy is feeling inside. Then when the parent does begin to take care of the boy again, and thus the boy takes care of his horse again, both boy and horse flourish. The horse’s external plot arc is a smaller, mirror image of the boy’s internal plot arc.

3)   Object is a Symbol of the Changes in the Novel’s Situation

In this case the horse does not necessarily have its own plot arc. It is a symbol of changes going on in the story. If I am writing a story about a boy whose sibling is kidnapped, a horse he loves at his riding stable could be an objective correlative for the turning points of his sister’s kidnapping. At first the boy is riding the horse as his sister watches. All is well. The sister is kidnapped. The boy feels powerless. The police won’t let a kid help search. But when his favorite horse gets out of its pen at the riding stable, he can take part in the search. He distracts himself from the missing sister by searching for the horse. Both the sister and the horse are found in the story climax (not necessarily together). The boy’s internal worries about his missing sister are mirrored by his external search for the missing horse.

4)   Object Builds and Releases Story Tension (Endowed Object)

In the theatre world, an “object must be shown great honor and respect before it can be endowed with the ability to hold and project meaning and heart.” In this case the horse is not just a horse. The main character assigns great meaning to the horse early on. Perhaps the boy tells all his deepest secrets to his horse, endowing it with a special position in his life. If the boy then loses a leg in an accident and can only “walk” using his horse, there is an emotional reaction in the reader. If that same horse is then injured or dies, an even stronger emotional reaction occurs in both the boy and the reader.

No, I don’t write stories about horses. But I am trying out the many uses of the objective correlative in my own stories before I move on to studying another new topic: Mood.

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Secret Hobbies

Ten years ago writing was my secret hobby. I had a story bubbling inside of me that slowly seeped out in stolen moments alone with my laptop. That secret hobby morphed over time from “something just for me” into a possible second career. My path eventually led me to VCFA, and hopefully publishing is waiting for me beyond graduation.

After a few years of serious writing, I missed my secret hobby. The “something just for me” shifted from writing to art. I started with oil painting and moved into acrylics, watercolors, alcohol inks, oil pastels, inks, quilts, and – most recently – stained glass. On the horizon I glimpse glass fusion. That seems like a random assortment, but there is one common core: Designing and Creating. The same thing I love about crafting a new fantasy story world can be carried over into planning a new art project.

My art is no longer my secret hobby. I’ve showed family and friends. Many of my pieces hang in my home. I’ve even shared a few photos on this blog. That said, it’s a huge leap from hobby artist to illustrator.

In the past year, I’ve started to sit in the back of the illustrator sessions at writing conferences, looking at my new peers to feel out whether I belong among them. Story characters inspired my most recent watercolor paintings, and I started digital sample pages for a graphic novel. My toe has dipped into the illustrator ocean. It may take another ten years for me to pursue that idea with any seriousness.

This weekend, while on a break waiting for Packet 2 writing feedback, my husband and I strolled through a local art fair. I took home these gorgeous copper hummingbirds made by local artist John Lamar.


My husband scoped out the artist booths and asked me when I’d be ready to exhibit at this art fair. The question floored me. I’m not a real artist, am I?

Maybe I could be someday, but I’m not ready to fill that art fair booth just yet. There aren’t enough hours in the day for a possible third career. Baby steps: I’ve bravely added pictures of my art to my writing website.

Please be kind, so I don’t flit away from art like a startled hummingbird.

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Writing Four Hours A Day

In his book, On Writing, Steven King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” That concept is the foundation of the VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. In my first semester I will read 50 books, write ten critical papers, and write / revise 200 creative pages. I’m already 2/5 of the way there.


The program requires 25 hours of work per week. Four weeks per packet. Five packets per semester. Four semesters in the program. That’s 2,000 hours. One fifth of the 10,000 hours it takes to become a master at any skill.


My goal: 4 hours per day.


Where does a wife / mother / home owner / structural engineer find four free hours in her busy schedule? That is the dilemma that holds so many writers back. If you only have one hour per day to devote to learning your craft, you can still get to 10,000 hours, but it will take over 25 years.


Writing is important to me. I found my four hours. I’m not a morning person, so there’s no reason to delude myself into thinking I’ll be waking up four hours before my family. If I did, I’d barely be coherent enough to type.


Instead my hours are broken up throughout the dead time during my normal daily schedule: while I watch my daughter wait for the school bus, over my lunch hour, while I wait for my daughter during her extra-curricular activities, and after my daughter does to bed. Before VCFA, that was time for calling, texting, or Facebooking. Now I’m not as in touch with the world, but I’m making my dream happen one hour at a time.


The more interesting thing is where these four hours are happening. In parking lots. At Beef-a-Roo (which somehow always generates creative ideas for reasons I cannot explain). In parent waiting areas. At Starbucks. In the park. At the library. In the Hanson kitchen.


The hardest place for me to work is actually at home. I’ve had to carve out several happy writing places:


Our front bay window overlooking the humming birds is magical (and within view of the school bus stop).


Our three-season porch has a great breeze and the steady hum of vehicles driving by.


Our back patio is finally re-paved and ready to enjoy the cooler fall weather outside.


The newest addition to our household is a writing desk for our treadmill. It seems I am coordinated enough to walk and type at the same time.


This holiday weekend I’ve been enjoying breakfast in bed followed by entire mornings curled up in this creativity cocoon.


The only place I haven’t written in the last two months: my writing desk.

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VCFA WCYA Residency: My Trip to Hogwarts

Vermont College of Fine Arts.

A.K.A. Brigadoon


This place bears an uncanny resemblance to Hogwarts. The staircases don’t move, but the buildings seep tradition and history.


There’s an eerie fog. A forest off in the distance. Even a bathroom stall door that moans like Myrtle.


Students gather from around the country and are sorted into advisor groups with a mysterious method much like the sorting hat.


There is magic here. The magic of a class of children’s writers who support each other, name themselves, and become a family over two years together. The magic of a network of alumni who’ve already reached out to welcome first semester students into the fold.


There are readings, costumes, dances, amazing guest authors such as Maggie Steifvater (who read tarot cards at my lunch table!), and an awesome faculty of writers to guide us on this MFA journey.


Every writer leaves Brigadoon changed.

Not from the weight of reading lists, critical essays, and creative pages looming before us.

From finding the family where we belong.




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Wild, Wild Midwest

IMG_7648Last weekend 500 Wild, Wild Midwest children’s authors and illustrators gathered in Chicago for the SCBWI regional conference. The faculty list was a who’s who of awesome children’s authors, featuring keynote speeches by Lisa Cron, Sarah Aronson, Linda Sue Park, and Candace Fleming.

Here’s my conference top five list:

5. I randomly sat down next to an awesome author at dinner who lives near me. My critique partner and I thought we were the only SCBWI members in the Rockford area. Now we have another writer to commute to conferences with.

4. I bravely took off my author hat to attend my first illustrator breakout sessions. Eric Rohmann presented a great session on The Language of Pictures which was extremely helpful for this hobby artist attempting to cross the bridge into illustration. His presentation discussed how illustrations are different from stand alone art pieces because they need to show movement, draw the eye to specific places on the page, and use the page turns for suspense and surprises. Then Kristi Valiant presented a session on digital illustration demonstrating how she adds texture to drawings to mimic traditional art mediums.

3. After a diversity update showcasing the many grants and internships started by We Need Diverse Books, one author in the audience shouted, “If everyone here donates $5 we could fund a writing grant.” An avalanche of people rushed forward with cash in hand to do exactly that, raising over $3,700.

2. Linda Sue Park. Need I say more? I attended her three hour intensive on revision, which was incredible. If you ever get a chance to see her speak, take it. Not only is she a great teacher, she had an inspiring story to tell in her keynote speech about her book A Long Walk to Water. This book is classified as historical fiction, but it is based on the true story of her friend Salva, a Sudanese “Lost Boy” who was air lifted to the United States in the mid 1990’s and has since established Water For South Sudan to drill wells for clean water. This book has inspired classrooms all over the country to hold fundraisers to bring clean water to children in Sudan.

1. It’s probably no surprise, book nerd as I am, that I stood in line to get many author and illustrator signatures. When I met Sarah Aronson and mentioned I would be attending her alma mater, Vermont College of Fine Arts, she squealed, leapt out of her chair, ran around the table, and gave me a big hug. Then she proceeded to give me encouragement and advice for my program, as well as the name of another local alumni. There truly is no other writing community as supportive as SCBWI!

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Sample Illustrations

Shooting Stars 1

Where has Jennifer been for the past two months?

Attached to my new digital drawing pad. It’s become a third limb. After only three hours of online webinars on how to use Manga Studio 5, I’ve reached below average functionality in the program. Seriously, it’s a big change from drawing and painting by hand. Especially when I normally paint landscapes that do not include any people. That said, it was time well spent because my new drawing software came in handy when I needed to design a custom baby shower invitation, and I somehow stumbled through creating my first ever sample illustrations.

How did this happen?

It all started with that New Years resolution to write a graphic novel. The text of the manuscript took me less than two weeks to write. It’s amazing how much quicker the writing goes with only 1000 words of actual captions and text. So much of the story is told using the illustrations.

My next step was researching how to query a graphic novel. I found nothing online. Even literary agents who represent graphic novels didn’t list their graphic novel submission guidelines – only procedures for picture books, traditional novels, and non-fiction. I assumed that meant a graphic novel would be submitted similar to a picture book, meaning a debut author could submit a text only manuscript and later be paired with a more experienced illustrator.


Special thank you to agent extraordinaire Kelly Sonnack for taking the time to answer my newbie graphic novel questions. According to Kelly, it is very difficult to sell a debut author graphic novel without sample illustrations. Agents (and editors) need to see 20 to 30 pages of sample art along with the graphic novel manuscript. She recommended 5 to 10 pages be inked and full color. The rest of the pages can be rough blue line sketches.

What? I can think of a million exceptions to that rule. Tons of comic books and graphic novels are produced by a three person team: author, inker, and colorist. But those are experienced, published authors and illustrators with a track record and a portfolio of their work. Debut authors are an unknown quantity. As a newbie, you have the burden of proving your text lends itself well to being illustrated as a graphic novel.

Maybe you’re worried you’re not a great artist. That’s okay. Graphic novel illustrations range from stick figures to artistic masterpieces. Pick a style you’re comfortable with and go for it. Maybe an agent or editor will suggest pairing you with a more experienced illustrator after they see the potential in your manuscript. Or maybe you’ll surprise yourself with the quality of illustrations you produce.

Here’s a link to my first sample illustrations: Part 1 of The Shooting Stars. Eight pages with three full color illustrations to give a feel for the finished look of this section of the story.

Only 22 more sample pages to go, with ten new characters and ten new settings to draw. When you consider the artwork, writing a graphic novel is a much slower process than writing a traditional novel.

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Starting the New Year with New Art Forms

It’s no secret I’m a creature of habit. If my online calendar crashed, my life would fall into utter chaos. I make lists. Even lists of my lists. There’s only one way to juggle so many balls for myself, my husband, and my daughter. I take organization to crazy, scary new levels.

Yet I have an artistic side that loves to create – within pretty rigid boundaries. I write children’s novels and paint landscapes with oils. Within that comfort zone, I’ve always felt free to experiment and create. Occasionally I stray into the realms of acrylic or watercolor paint for my landscapes, but they are very similar mediums to oil painting. And I’ve ranged from middle grade to young adult audiences with my novels, which really only changes the length and maturity of the story.

For the first time this year, instead of resolving to exercise more and eat healthier (which are admirable goals I usually forget by February 1), I decided to push myself into completely new artistic terrain.

I recently completed my first landscape paintings with alcohol ink, a very un-brush-like medium of painting.



And I started my first stained glass panel, which added breaking pliers and a soldering iron to my brush box.


My biggest new risk: writing a graphic novel manuscript. Maybe even attempting to illustrate it too!

I was pulled into this unfamiliar terrain by my daughter, who loves stories but is a reluctant reader. She’ll eagerly listen to me read all my favorite middle grade novels, but when the time comes to sit down and read a story herself, she’s all about graphic novels. It’s been a challenge continuing to put great age-appropriate material in her hands, especially because she isn’t interested in super heroes. So far the big hits have been Rapunzel’s Revenge, Amulet, Baby Mouse, Phoebe and her Unicorn, Zita the Spacegirl, and Bones. I was thrilled to discover most of these great graphic novel series are available in her school library. But she’s read them all and is seeking new material.

Enter Abigail and the Snowman.

My daughter has officially crossed over to reading comic books. So my research moved in another new direction: searching for the best E for Everyone comic book series. And the impossible quest: finding a child friendly comic book store to take her to. Special shout out to Toad Hall Books and Records for helping me on both fronts.

During my hunt I discovered the new Jem and the Holograms comic book series. I’m officially hooked on a comic book for the first time in my life. I may have even secretly drawn some fan art in my doodle book.


My daughter is upset it’s rated T for Teens. So I started to write my first middle grade graphic novel for her – basically Jem and the Holograms for a younger audience. Not fan fiction. I used a multicultural cast of characters modeled after the third-grade girls in my daughter’s after school program.

My search for guidance on writing a graphic novel manuscript played out much like my original search for graphic novel series for my daughter to read. There are gems out there, but be prepared for a massive hunt to find them. My best resource: my awesome sister who loves manga and graphic novels. But if you don’t know anyone already familiar with the comic / manga / graphic novel marketplace, there are awesome author / illustrators with tons of helpful information online. Google Mark Fearing or Scott McCloud to get started. From there, create and explore to the limits of your imagination.



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Ornaments are Memories

IMG_4795I love Christmas. Few things make me happier than seeing the lights and decorations go up, hearing holiday songs start playing, and watching the joy and wonder on children’s faces when they open gifts from Santa. That said, it’s a very stressful season to be an adult. All that decorating, baking, and shopping takes time. Fighting crowds and traffic can be maddening. The gift shopping list seems to grow every year, stretching the budget. Plus there is so much pressure on parents to squeeze in all the Christmas traditions we grew up with plus many more that have been invented since then. It’s easy to get caught up in the To Do list to prepare for Christmas and lose sight of what matters more.

This year as we decorated the Christmas tree my daughter announced, “Ornaments are Memories.”

Her observation stopped me short. Instead of stressing about how long it was taking her to decorate the tree when we had so much more on the To Do list, I sat back and watched her hang ornaments. With each one she picked up, she looked it over and smiled, wondering where it came from. Some she knew, like the ornament series her grandmother and I give her and the crafts we’ve made together. Others from my childhood she asked about. Her favorites are the picture frame ornaments with her yearly Christmas photos in them and the family ornaments with all of our names and the year on them.

Ornaments are Memories. Memories of the time we’ve spent together as a family celebrating the holiday season. Memories of what matters more than our To Do list.

After we finished the tree, I sat down at my laptop to work on the photo calendar I always make for my mother and myself. Usually I buzz through the year’s photos at lightning speed to get the calendar ordered while it’s still on sale and will have guaranteed delivery by Christmas. This time I stopped and actually looked at the photos. Wow did this year fly by. We were crazy busy, and I always felt a few steps behind my plan, but the photos don’t reflect that. There were so many amazing family moments and experiences. So much love and joy. Nobody’s life is perfect, but overall we had a great year.

Maybe it’s okay if the photo calendar isn’t ordered until after Christmas (Sorry mom!). Or if the gifts aren’t wrapped with as many fancy ribbons and bows. Instead let’s focus our time and attention on what matters more than being a Christmas Super Mom and out holiday-ing others:

The families we’ll be celebrating with.

The families we don’t know who could maybe use our help this year.

The spirit of giving.


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Writing Characters Who Don’t Look Like You

IMG_4305Last weekend my critique partner and I journeyed into Chicago for SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day. Once again it was an event filled with awesome people in the publishing industry (or aspiring to be), invaluable knowledge, and heaps of inspiration. This year the topic that really resonated with me was diversity, in a session by Andrew Karre, Executive Editor at Dutton Children’s Books, titled “Writing Characters Who Don’t Look Like You.”

Diversity in books is not a new issue. It’s been debated at length in literary circles and on Twitter. There’s even a website devoted to the cause called We Need Diverse Books. Awareness had been raised. Authors, educators, and parents want things to change. There’s still one fact no one can change: published literary works in the US are already heavily skewed toward straight, white, male, able-bodied characters and cultures.

Things are slowly changing. Authors such as Renee Watson, Linda Sue Parks, Joseph Bruchac, and Gary Soto are producing great children’s literature with multi-cultural characters and settings. Resources are emerging to cultivate more authors of color who can then publish authentic multi-cultural novels. Agents and editors are actively seeking diverse manuscripts.

The question raised at Prairie Writer’s Day in Andrew’s discussion: is that enough to correct this issue? The United States population is approximately 63 percent Caucasian. That means over half the authors currently publishing novels are likely Caucasian, and they are adding to the huge collection of work already published by Caucasian authors. If white authors only write white characters, diverse books statistically cannot catch up. Ever.

The first reaction of many white writers: “I write colorblind fiction. I don’t mention race or skin color because it doesn’t matter. People are people.” While that is true in theory, it is impossible to truly write colorblind fiction. Skin color is one small piece of diverse fiction. The character names, foods, family members living in the home, clothing worn, games played, traditions, religious beliefs, challenges faced, and character voice are all deeply rooted in the culture. A white author will write what they know, and default to white culture, unless they make a concerted effort not to. That effort involves extensive research and interaction with the culture the author is trying to write. Beta readers need to include members of the culture depicted to insure the author’s ignorance isn’t accidentally offensive.

Andrew asked the audience (consisting of ninety percent Caucasian women) why writers aren’t writing diverse characters. The number one answer: FEAR. Fear of getting it wrong. Fear of accidently offending. Fear of hurting rather than helping the cause for diverse books.

A little fear is a good thing. It drives you to do your research and try your best. Making the effort is always better than giving up or ignoring the issue.

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