One Writer’s Journey

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.

–SueBE

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!
–SueBE

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!

–SueBE

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!

–SueBE

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.

–SueBE

 

June 23, 2016

Plot: Essential for your Biography

nonfiction plotOne of my students this semester is writing a biography of two well-known historic figures.  When you write about someone who is already the topic if numerous books, one of the trickiest things can be finding something to write about that isn’t the focus of anyone else’s book.  Fortunately, my student has done that because the friendship between these two people hasn’t been covered in writing for children.

You might think that writing her book would now be easy peasy, but you’d be wrong.  She still has to find a plot, or theme, to shape the book as a whole.  What do I mean?  This will be a story about their friendship but what about it? Possibilities might include:

  • How one of them taught the other person a valuable lesson
  • How together they overcame a problem that neither could conquer alone
  • Something surprising that they pulled off
  • Something they did that was secret

Come up with a plot (or some might call it the theme) and it will help you shape the story as a whole.  With it, you know which facts and events to include and what to leave out.  You also create something that is more engaging for the reader because it is represents a cohesive whole.   because there is never ever room for every fantastic fact that you find.  The theme will also shape the story that her piece of nonfiction tells.

Biography isn’t the only type of nonfiction that you need to shape.  You also need to do this with memoire and just about anything that isn’t an encyclopedia.  But even a manuscript about a topic that is broadly defined will leave some information out.  A book about how the city of St. Louis was founded, in part, by a fourteen year old won’t include information on the battles between Catholics and Protestants.  It will focus on how someone so young was put in charge of chosing a site and exactly what part he played in chosing the site and afterwards.

The beauty of nonfiction for children and teens is that it is lean and mean.  That’s what makes is so engaging and fun to read.

–SueBE

 

May 11, 2016

Voice: Nonfiction vs Fiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:39 am
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singer recording.jpgIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that I don’t like to read middle grade fiction while I’m writing middle grade fiction.  When I do, the other author’s voice has a tendency to sidetrack my character’s voice.  Annoying!

That said, I don’t have the same problem when I write nonfiction. That’s a good thing since I read a lot of reference material, nonfiction all, whenever I undertake a new project. I think the primary reason for this is that my nonfiction voice is so well-developed.  As my son describes it, I sound like a very well read pirate.  When I glare at him, he translates this as “educated but irreverent.”

Because I have developed my nonfiction voice, I can read nonfiction that is poetic or chatty without getting sidetracked.  I can read a rhyming picture book.  I can read a scholarly article.

The only time that I sometimes lose track of my nonfiction voice is when I write about something that I studied in college.  I’m usually pretty good when its history or cultural anthropology but when I write archaeology?  Acadababble emerges.  Acadababble is, quite simply, academic babbling.  No longer do I sound smart but cheeky.  I sound like a professor.  The reason? The hours spent working in archaeology at this point still exceed the hours spent writing about archaeology for a nonacademic audience.  The solution?  Write, write and write some more.

Incidentally, that’s the same thing that will eventually make relocating my fiction voice easier.  Write, write and write some more.

–SueBE

 

March 16, 2016

Writing a Proposal vs Writing the Whole Book

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Browse, Page, Scroll To, Book, Book Pages, Paper, Books

How to pitch your unwritten book.

One of the topics at last Saturday’s Missouri SCBWI workshop was the book proposal.  I have to admit that although I know what goes into a proposal, I’ve never written one.  The purpose of a proposal is to get a contract, and quite possibly an advance, without having to write the entire book first.  The proposal gives the editor a feel for your writing, your take on the subject and the market for this particular topic. The parts of a proposal are:

  • Your Title
  • A Book Description: What is it about and why will kids love it?  Include estimated length of the finished book.
  • Audience:  Age, gender, interests.
  • Outline: Chapters, chapter sections and sidebars as well as special features of any kind.
  • Competition:  What is already on the market? How is your book unique and why will people buy it instead of the other guy’s book?
  • Estimated time to finish writing the book.
  • Promotion.  What are you willing to do to promote the published book.
  • Resume.
  • Writing Sample.  A chapter or two of the book.

In addition to getting a contract before you finish the book, a proposal also allows the publisher to request changes.  Whether they want you to make it longer or shorter or change the reading level, changes are often easier to make before the book is done.

I think this might be the way to go with the NASA book.  It will let us get it on the market in a matter of weeks vs months and whichever publisher snatches it up will have the chance to make their mark on it before we take it to the point that it is submission ready.  That is sounding better and better all the time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a second chapter to draft.

–SueBE

 

March 27, 2015

Tension: How to build it in a well known event

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TensionOne way to build tension in fiction is to hide information from your reader.  Of course, you also have to hide it from your narrator but it works to keep your reader on the edge of his or her seat.  How then do you do this in nonfiction?

If you are writing about a little known event, sometimes all you have to do is tell your story.  None of your readers know about this particular wagon train.  They haven’t heard about this specific blizzard.

But how do you write about a well known event like Pearl Harbor or the Titanic?  You take your clue from the above.  You zoom in on a very specific part of the story.

Adults and many teen readers know the story of Pearl Harbor.  When I wrote my book about this particular battle, it was obvious in chapter one that we lost.  In fact, that’s just about where I started — with the attack itself.  I then built up the tension by focusing on certain people:

  • a young welder who was blown overboard.
  • a pilot, wearing his pajamas, scrambling to fuel and arm an aircraft.
  • a new, inexperienced radar operator.

Readers skim the text wanting to see if these individuals survive and how they contributed to the day.  Were they heros or were they part of what went wrong?

You can also use knowledge of this big, bad end event to build the tension.  Let the reader know that it is coming, it is closer, it is here right about . . . NOW.

Fiction writers also create tension in the language and descriptions that they use.

For Pearl Harbor, this was easy.  The bombs I wrote about didn’t just “go off.” They exploded.  They blasted.  They detonated.  Aircraft looked lethal.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, building the tension takes attention to detail at the personal level.  Take the time to do it right and your reader will be pulled in until the bitter end.

–SueBE

 

March 13, 2015

The Nonfiction Book Proposal Demystified

If you want to make a living as a writer, you need to be familiar with Nina Amir’s work.  A few weeks ago, I reviewed her book Authorpreneur.  Today, I’m reviewing The Nonfiction Book Proposal Demystified.  This review is part of the Muffin blog tour for this most useful book.  At the end of this post, I’ll even tell you how you can win a copy of the book.

I have to admit that I’m amazed by the number of writers who have never written a proposal.  Many of them, in fact, refuse to learn how.

I get it.  A proposal is a huge amount of work.  Amir gets this too, and that’s why she opens The Nonfiction Book Proposal Demystified by acknowledging this fact.  Then she tells you why you need to know how to create this business plan.

That, after all, is what a proposal is.  It is a business plan that you use to convince an editor or agent that you are a top-notch business partner.  You know what you’re doing, you’re willing to do the work and you are the kind of writer who can and will succeed. By creating a proposal you show your would-be agent or editor that not only is there a market for your book, but that you know what this market is and are well aware of any competition.

Self-publishing so you think you don’t need to know how this works?  Think again.  Create a proposal and you will have identified the market for your work.

After explaining why you need to know how to create a proposal, Amir talks about how proposals have changed in recent years.  She then goes on to identify and explain each section including: Overview, Markets, Spin-Offs, Promotion, Competing Books, Complimentary Books, About the Author, Mission Statement, Author Platform, Chapter list, Chapter summaries and writing sample.

I know, I know.  Quit panicking.  It’s a huge amount of work but it is totally worthwhile when it lands you that contract.  And each part really is essential.  Some sell your idea (Overview, Chapters, Sample).  Some show that there is a market (Markets, Competing Books, Complimentary Books).  And some sell you, the author (Spin Offs, Platform, Mission Statement and Promotion).

All three areas are essential.  You aren’t going to sell without a solid idea.  Even a solid idea needs a viable market.  And you have to be just the right writer to take it on.

Personally, I really liked the sections on Spin-off, Complimentary Books and Mission Statement.  I’d never considered needing this specific information but I can easily see why it is necessary.  You, the author, will be more appealing if you have ideas you can spin-off the original. Complimentary books aren’t direct competition but help show reader interest in the topic.  And the Mission Statement?  It sells not only the author but the usefulness of the book.

The beauty of this book is that Amir anticipates authors and their issues.  I can hear it now.

Worried Author:  Even if I do the research, how do I put it all together?  How should the proposal look?

Amir:  Not to worry.  Here are links to templates you can use.

Worried Author:  But wait!  I don’t have a query letter. I  don’t even know what goes into one…

Amir:  Gotcha covered.  Here’s how to write it.

I would definitely recommend this book to the author who needs that final nudge to market their idea and find just the right publisher or agent.  Want a copy?  Pop on over to the Muffin and use the Raffle Copter form to enter the drawing.

Then get busy on that proposal!

–SueBE

 

 

 

 

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