One Writer’s Journey

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
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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.



June 7, 2018

Research: How to make it manageable when you are finding too much info

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 6:21 am
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Mount Vernon

Recently one of my students asked me a question.  She is working on a biography and busy collecting as much information as she can find about her chosen topic.  Her problem isn’t too little information but too much.  Did I have any tips so that she wouldn’t feel overwhelmed?

A big part of this is often solved by narrowing your topic.  Let’s say you are writing a biography of George Washington.  Not that this would be a good idea because the market is already saturated, but we’ll still use George as our example.
You are going to find an awful lot of information on George.  In fact, you will find almost too much to handle unless you narrow your topic.  You could write about George’s childhood or George and Martha.  Or you could write about his role as a messenger.  Any of these topics would narrow down the material.
But what if, for some reason, it was important for you to do a comprehensive biography?  That is when I think of the information in chunks.  One chunk would be George as a child.  Later you would have teen George.  Then George the messenger and so on.
Yes, I would still need to work with enough information for a birth to death bio of George  and I will almost certainly end up finding more information than I need.  But by working with just a bit at a time I can hold that particular portion in my head and temporarily ignore the rest which helps avoid that feeling of being buried under facts.
The latter technique is what I do when I write a teen book for Abdo.  The Ancient Maya and Trench Warfare in WWI are both huge topics.  But when I break each into 9 chapters, I can look at just one aspect at a time.
Each project is a bit different from the last, but this has worked for me so far.  Feel free to let us know in the comments if you use a different method.

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.


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.



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.



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.


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.



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