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

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July 24, 2017

Don’t Dumb It Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:48 am
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Do NOT dumb it down.

I spent a lot of time pool side this weekend and ended up talking to fellow swim team parents that I don’t see very often. I compared work stories with one of the dads who asked what I had been writing.  He nodded sagely as I explained the Dakota Access Pipeline book and the media literacy book.  Then I mentioned the Electoral College.

He said, “That must have been really hard to dumb down.”

“No.” Inhale four, exhale six.  Stall for time. Frame your response.  “That’s what you do if you want the editor to bounce it back.  You just have to figure out how to explain it so that the reader can relate.  And you have to do it without blowing your reading level.”

If you writing for children, please, please, please do not dumb things down.  Do. Not.

Kids are smart.  They are set on “maximum learning.”  If you write children’s nonfiction, it is your job to give it to your reader in managable bites.

Dumb it down and you make it clear that you don’t respect them.  You aren’t sure they can handle it.  Bad.  Just bad.  Don’t do that.

Does this mean that you can write about absolutely anything for young readers.  No.  Just . . . no.

Some things aren’t age appropriate.  Other things just won’t interest them.

Astronomy for a preschooler?  Day and night.  The earth moving around the sun.

Astronomy for an early grade schooler?  Planets and moons. The different characteristiccs of different planets.

By the time you get to high schoolers you can write about the chemistry involved.  Physics, biology and systems all play a part.

Come up with a topic that matches your readers interests and age level and you won’t have to dumb down a thing. In fact you might find yourself hurrying to catch up.

–SueBE

 

April 6, 2017

Nonfiction Research: What If You Can’t Find the Facts that You Need?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:21 am
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Monday I’ll be turning in a book on the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Invariably 25% of the comments/questions that I get from my editor will be requests for more information.  Why did this person do X instead of Y?  Where did he get this idea?  Why didn’t he do Z instead?

Most of the time, I can see why she wants me to add these things, and sometimes I actually manage to pull it off.  But there are other times that the information just isn’t anywhere that I can find it.

That’s the wacky things about doing research, especially historic research.  You may suspect that a give fact is out there in the world someplace, but that doesn’t mean that it is indexed or searchable.  Someday, someone may stumble across it but you haven’t managed to find it yet.

When I can’t find the information needed to answer my editor’s question, that’s what I tell her.  “Wow. I’d love to be able to answer that but I can’t find the information.”  Fortunately, that has never been the case for a critical fact.  It has always been something she was just curious about or thought would make a nice addition.

But what do you do if the fact is essential?  The problem with writing nonfiction is that you need to find the facts.  If the information you find says “we talked about how to spend the money” but doesn’t quote any specific dialogue, you can’t write out anything in quotation marks.  You may know that a soldier or a student did X, but have no idea what that person’s name was which means that in your telling, they must remain nameless.

If your story doesn’t work with only facts that you can find, try writing it as fiction.  In your author’s note, you can always explain which information is factual and which was cooked up in the author’s brain.  Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you have to be able to create a solid story.  Which way you choose to go with it depends on your idea, the facts that you can find, and your inclinations as a writer.

–SueBE

 

March 24, 2017

Story in Nonfiction

Today I’m going to write about one of the traps that nonfiction writers sometimes fall into.  We spend a lot of time and energy doing our research and as we research we uncover so many amazing things.

Did you know…?

Can you believe…?

I had no idea…!

And we want to share them all.  Because of this, our work sometimes spirals out of control.  That 500 word articles tops 1000 words.  The picture book stretches towards 2000.  A longer than expected word count definitely won’t work for a magazine piece if it is over the word count that the magazine publishes or the editor aske you to write.

A longer than expected picture book can work if it feels tight and co-hesive. But that’s the problem.  So often something that is over-long feels long.  Fortunately, there is a solution.

Focus on your story.  Yes, story.

Even if you are writing nonfiction you are telling a story.  It is your slant or focus.

This means that I wouldn’t write a picture book about all things Lakota.  Maybe I would write about Crazy Horse.  Or I might write about winter counts.  Or star quilts — I love Lakota Star quilts.  But all of this in one picture book would be messy and all over the place.

This doesn’t mean that you have to know exactly what your slant will be when you begin to do your research.  Just gather the information.  As you research, something will catch your eye.  Or you will find that you have some really interesting material about this right here.

Once you have chosen a story, then you know what facts to include.  And just because we call it a story doesn’t mean that anything is made up.  This isn’t fiction, but nonfiction.  “Story” is just a way to focus your thoughts and shape the written piece as you look for what led to your story, the attempts to solve or develop whatever, and then how it all played out in the end.

Again, your nonfiction has to be 100% factual.  But thinking of it as a story is a great way to pick and choose the information you will present your reader.

–SueBE

March 23, 2017

Scenes: Creating a Sense of “Being There” in Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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My most recent batch of students is busy writing away. They are deep enough into their work that they are attempting to create scenes.  A nonfiction scene is a lot like a fiction scene in that it is a great way to pull your reader into the story.  It uses dialogue and characters, setting and action.  Unlike the fiction scene, it all has to be true.

That means that if you include dialogue, you have to have dialogue to quote.  It has to be word for word.

That means that if you find “someone mentioned needing to buy new shoes” in a source, that is all you can write.  You cannot write ‘One of the students said, “I need to buy new shoes.”  Nope.  The problem is that the quotation marks imply that it is a direct quote.  To use the quotation marks, you need to have found those exact words.  “And I said to him I need to buy new shoes.”  “Marcus said to me, ‘I need to buy new shoes.'”  Something like that.

There are times that you have a bit of wiggle room.  When I wrote about a family of armadillos, I could describe the four young armadillos digging into the dirt and tearing into a fallen log when they heard insects.  Why?  Because they are typical armadillo behaviors.

But when I wrote about the protests in Ferguson in Black Lives Matter, I couldn’t say that a protestor did X or a protestor did Y unless I had that information from my source material.  Even if X and Y are both fairly innocuous actions, when I’m talking about people, I need to know that someone did it.  Otherwise I have to say, a protestor may have done X or may have done Y and that isn’t the sort of thing my editor is going to let stand.

Creating a scene can be tricky but if you have the facts to pull it together it is one of the best ways to pull a reader into your writing.

–SueBE

 

February 14, 2017

Love and Writing: Do you have what it takes to write children’s nonfiction?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:20 am
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heart-762564_1920I will never forget when I called me mom to tell her that I’d decided to write for kids. I was a university research assistant and about to finish a masters in history.  I loved learning but I had pretty much had it with university level education. I’d taken scads of classes, written papers and even a thesis based on original research.  I was ready for something new.

I expected Mom to ask me if this was the best use of my degree.  I expected a question or twelve.  She only had one thing to say.  “It’s about time you figured it out.”  You gotta love a woman who knows her kids well enough to know when they’ve landed the ideal career.

The reality is that writing children’s nonfiction is perfect for me.  I’m something of a factual pack rat.  I love information.  Archaeology?  It is THE BEST.  Biology?  What could possibly be more exciting!  Ethnography?  Fascinating!  Teaching someone how to write a specific type of poem, create a painting that displays tints and shades, or how to make a reflective model of a cat’s eye?  More fun that you can possibly imagine!

Is what you are currently writing your true love? If not, keep looking.  I’ve heard of writers struggling for years in one genre only to try another and discover a perfect fit.

You might also want to consider the following questions:

Are you interested in a wide variety of topics?

Do you find yourself trying to figure out how something works or is assembled?

Do you get lost when you do research, following one fact to another to another until you are in the midst of something else entirely?

Do you love learning something new?  Trying something new?  Helping someone else explore something new?

If you answered yes to these questions, you might seriously consider children’s nonfiction.  Or you could ask your mom.  She may have already figured out your perfect job.

–SueBE

 

 

September 30, 2016

Writing Tough Topics

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:20 am
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grrI’m one chapter away from a full draft of the race and racism book.  One chapter should be about 1850 words.  Unfortunately, I’m running short.  That’s no great surprise.  When I write for Abdo, I’m used to creating a 9 chapter outline.  This time around the outline was only 8 chapters.  Because I’ve more or less internalized the “proper chapter length,” assuming a 9 chapter outline, things are running short.  Fortunately, this is a fixable problem.  In truth it is a whole lot easier than distilling all of our problems with race and racism into a single 15,000 word book.

I’m also contemplating a complete fabrication.  Not within the book.  You know me — Ms. Nonfiction all the way.  But I’m getting a little prickly about the reactions I get when I tell people what I’m writing about.

If anyone challenged my right to write about this as a white woman, I’d understand it.  Not that I really consider racism a “black” topic.  A lot of groups have been subjected to racial discrimination. It’s never just one group.  And it doesn’t happen in isolation.  It isn’t black history.  It is US history.

That said, some people make it pretty obvious that they’re amazed I would write on race.  After all, I’m white.  Why should I care?

Sigh.

I care because it matters.  I care because it is a topic that impacts our schools and our lives every day.  I care because it is a topic that large numbers of people cannot choose to ignore.  Maybe, at least in part, I care because other people do ignore it.  That’s something I promised myself I would never do — ignore a situation where an adult needs to step in and tell someone to knock it off.

But, when I do tackle a tough topic, I reach this point.  I start to wonder why — why did I do this to myself?  Again?  Why not pick up something easier? Why not just right about bunny rabbits and sunshine?  I could tell people that’s what I’m doing.  “Oh, Abdo asked for a book on duckies and bunnies and fluff.”

Why not?  Oh, right.  Because no one would buy it.  Sunshine and cuteness may be warm and fuzzy but they aren’t me. So it’s time to just duck my chin down and get to work.  One more tough chapter to go.

Then, I get to do the rewrite.  Oh joy.

But it is a needed book.  It is a book that will benefit young readers.  And I’m just ornery enough to write it.

–SueBE

August 3, 2016

Writing Nonfiction: The Steps in Producing a Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:23 am
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Anatomy, Bacteria, Bacterium, Bowels, DiarrheaOne of the things other writers frequently ask is what steps I use in writing a book.  I have a process I mean to follow, but each book is a unique experience.  What I plan to do and what I actually pull off are two separate things.

I’m working on the book formerly known as What’s Up, Chuck?  Now the working title is Puke-ology.  Note to self:  When you change the name of your work-in-progress, don’t change only the title page.  Change the header, too.

Step 1.  Start with the research.  Before you can decide what to include in your book, you need to do a good portion of the research.  I had already written a complete draft of this book as a 600 word picture book.  I had all of the research I needed and then some for that shorter version.

Step 2.  Write a first draft.  In writing this longer version, I’m discovering holes in what seemed like abundant research for the shorter book.  But that’s okay.  The first draft lets me know what I need to go back and research.

Step 3:  Fill in the holes.

Step 4.  Punch it up.  The voice for this one is cheeky and a bit irreverent. This draft is when I pull that together.

Step 5.  Take it to critique.  When you have a vision, it can be hard to take any criticism but I always listen to what I’m being told.  What didn’t work for this reader and why?

Step 6.  Fix whatever needs fixing.  Sometimes my critique buddies need another example or they found the way that I’ve worded something confusing.  Other times they want me to shift something to another chapter or delete a sidebar.  I review their recommendations and make my changes.

Step 7.  Hard copy-edit.  It’s always tempting to skip this step but I catch things (wordy bits, repeated phrasing) in hard copy that I never notice on-screen.  I finish this off by reading it aloud.  Other mistakes are only obvious when I hear them.

These are my steps when I write nonfiction.  That said, each book presents different challenges. My next book will require weaving together two narratives along one timeline.  When I start working on it, I’ll customize my plan to fit.

–SueBE

July 26, 2016

Writing Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:29 am
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Capital Days : Michael Shiner's Journal and the Growth of Our Nation's CapitalI love it when I find interviews with fellow authors.  This week, I discovered Library of Congress interviews with nonfiction author Tonya Bolden.  When I was reading the description of her book Capital Days : Michael Shiner’s Journal and the Growth of our Nation’s Capital, I was thrilled to see that she is known for illustrating our nation’s history by focusing on the story of a single person.  Anyone who knows me knows that I love this type of history.

When the students asked Bolden how she begins a project, she told them that she always start with a panic along the lines of “can I pull off this story?” The reality is that each book she writes presents unique challenges so she can’t say “this is do-able” based on the fact that she’s already written a large number of books.  That said, she always calms down when she starts to do the research and sees the story begin to emerge.

Like me, she goes back and forth between research and writing.  As she writes, she discovers blank spots in her research but she doesn’t let this stop her writing.  Instead, she marks each of these things with TK.  She explained this as meaning “to come” although she says that as copy marks go it doesn’t make sense, but believes that the combination isn’t found in any English word so you can use it and easily search it out in a manuscript.  She researches, writes with a lot of TKs, and then goes back to discover these details once she knows where the story is going.

One resource that she recommends for those who write history is a subscription to Geneology.  This subscription allows her to read historic newspapers online.  That said, this access comes with a warning. With so much information available online you have to be careful not to get lost in it and never come out to write.

 

For more tips from Bolden, be sure to check out these LIbrary of Congress videos – Every book begins with a panic, Research skills, and History benefits us all. Personally, I’m waiting to get a handful of her books from the library.

–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

 

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