When I was a kid, I loved to go fishing with my grandparents. On a good day we’d bring home a mess of bluegill or catfish for breakfast the next morning.
Looking back, it seems that good anglers and good writers have a few things in common:
1. They learn from others. Like fishing, the craft of writing has a big learning curve. You likely won’t land a big contract the first time you toss your line out. Just as you might take tips from a more experienced angler, you can shorten your writing learning curve by seeking out more experienced authors, taking classes, attending conferences, and finding a good critique group.
2. They use the right bait. Successful anglers spend a lot of time choosing just the right bait or lure for their target fish species. Think of your submissions as your bait. Start by making them irresistible. And don’t send them out scattershot—take the time to research each agent or editor you are querying and make sure your submission is the right fit for them.
3. They keep their line in the water. If you pull out your line and there’s nothing on it, the best thing to do is to check your bait and toss it right back in. Writers need to do this too. If you get a rejection, don't let it stop you in your tracks. Consider any feedback carefully, and then send your story out again. It may take a lot of tries to hook an agent or editor, but it’ll never happen if you don’t keep your hook—that is, your book—out there.
4. They are patient. Like fishing, writing takes a lot of time and patience. But if you stick with it and keep improving your craft, you’re bound to find success eventually!
Ninjas need to be swift, self-disciplined, and focused. They can't waste time. Nonfiction writers can benefit from similar practices.
When my children were young, I learned to fit writing into the corners of a busy schedule: during 15 minutes in waiting rooms, 20-minute nap times, 30-minute swim lessons, 45-minute music lessons. Amazingly, I got lots of writing done in those short but precious periods of time. How?
By focusing on small but significant tasks. By thinking strategically. By writing in sprints.
Knowing I have a limited period of time helps me concentrate on a single task, focusing my energy and attention. With a block of several hours, I can fool myself and fritter away an hour "warming up" or surfing the Web. But with only 30 minutes? I’m racing against the clock.
Even when I'm not waiting for someone, I can set a timer for 15 or 30 minutes to do a writing sprint. The key to making this period productive is to focus on one small, specific task that can be accomplished in that short time span.
What can be done in short sprints of focused writing? Here are a few ideas:
Revising and Editing
Try mixing in sprints with your writing marathons. Like interval training in physical exercise, doing short, intense bursts of activity can build up your writing muscles and increase your productivity.
I love doing work for hire. It increases my writing portfolio, helps me explore new topics, and keeps a paycheck coming to my mailbox. But I’ve heard many authors scoff at doing work for hire.
“If it’s not my idea, I don’t want to write it.”
"There are too many rules.”
“The deadlines are too short.”
“It feels like being back in school.”
Let’s take the last excuse first. Being back in school is a GOOD thing! I’ve learned so many things from my WFH editors. They taught me how to stay within word count, write to a certain readability score, and meet a short deadline. I learned how to negotiate with an editor, proof galleys, and follow the publisher’s guidelines. These are all skills that are taught in writing classes and workshops. Guess what? I got paid to learn those lessons!
And as far as being assigned a topic – I think of it as a learning adventure. I’ve discovered how hybrid cars work and how solar panels are constructed. I know about tsunamis, guinea pigs, and container gardens. The big bonus is that researching a new topic often gives me ideas for my own projects.
WFH is starting to sound better and better, isn’t it? If you are up for a writing adventure take a look at these websites. Trust me – you’ll be glad you joined the WFH team. I know I am.
Evelyn Christensen has a great site with links to WFH publishers.
Harold Underdown gives the low down on book packagers.
Editorial Freelancers Association has excellent resources.
Molly Blaisdell provides a solid list of publishers and packagers.
*Work for Hire – when a publisher hires an author to write a book on a specific subject for a predetermined audience.
by Pat Miller
Autumn in Texas lasts about 48 hours.
Few of our trees change colors. Instead they cling to their green leaves until, one cool day, they shed them like a sneeze.
For Valentine's Day three years ago, my husband bought me this Shantung maple. Its Texas SuperStar description bragged that it "...turns spectacular red or red–orange in late fall. "
The first fall, the tree showed absolutely no color but green. Maybe it was still too young.
The second fall arrived. No red, no orange, not even brown.
I was full of hope this third autumn. Mentor trees across the street flaunted riotous reds and oranges.
One crisp day, half the leaves fell off. Still green. I decided my maple was a dud. Spectacular was not in its vocabulary.
Winter winds revealed how wrong I was.
Turns out, this slacker tree is actually perfect. It was selected from among finer trees by a female mockingbird.
The tree's stubbornly green leaves protected her and her family until they and the leaves flew away in their season. Mama Mocker thought this was, indeed, a spectacular tree.
I overlooked what was hiding in plain sight.
This maple revelation reminds me of my writing journey.
For years I tried to write fiction. One story was rejected 32 times before publication. The others continue to migrate through publishers.
I thought it was because I was new at this. So, I attended conferences, took online classes, and faithfully showed up at my computer.
Year two and three went by, and my fiction was still "green". Mentor texts and colleagues revealed their secrets, but my imagination refused to get vivid. My stories were duds.
Then one spring, I tried my hand at nonfiction--a biography. Research became addictive, my subject became a family member, the writing was more effortless. Turns out, creating color from my imagination isn't my strength. But constructing a nest to support the life of another is.
Maybe your writing strength is hiding in plain sight. Besides fiction, try biography, science, poetry, and magazine articles. Perhaps you'll discover a spectacular talent!
When I’m stuck on a word, line, phrase, or rhyme to improve my writing, my first instinct is push onward until I’m totally frustrated. This pressure totally eliminates my usual “I love my job!” vibe. To get back to my happy place, I force myself to loosen up by taking a walk, or a nap. And magically, as I relax, those elusive words pop into my head.
Wondering what other writers do when the words have stopped flowing, I’ve queried my very best ninja author buddies for their solutions to getting stuck. Here are their suggestions:
Pat Miller’s strategy for dealing with the danger of being stalled is a digital tomato timer. It goes off every 20 minutes for a mandatory 5 minutes away-from-the-desk activity. The mini deadlines keep her focused and the breaks give fresh eyes.
Nancy Churnin and Michelle Medlock Adam’s favor music – Nancy like songs that tell a story, and Michelle is a Sinatra fan. Also, hot cocoa and fresh popped popcorn are big hits.
Stephanie Bearce loves sewing and making up her own patterns. If I don’t have some sort of craft or creative element in my life - I have a much harder time writing.
Wendy Lanier and Nancy I. Sanders prefer making lists and brainstorming with their husbands whether they’re eating out or running errands.
Linda Skeers plays Tetris. “I'm doing something with my hands and one part of my brain, but the other part can wander and work on plot points, phrasing, new ideas, etc. It's my go-to for relaxing and pondering. That and taking a shower. I get my best ideas in the shower!”
Christine Liu Perkins digs deeper into research. “I've made some terrific serendipitous finds this way.”
So, the next time you’re stuck, frustrated, or pounding on those computer keys, the ninja consensus - finding what relaxes you is the key to creativity. Whether it’s listening to music, crafting, taking a walk, a talk, a break, a nap, or a shower: find your happy place and the words will flow.
What techniques work for you? Please share in the comments.
by Wendy Hinote Lanier
I hate writing. I love having written.
The above quote is often attributed to Dorothy Parker although there’s no evidence she ever said it. But lots of other writers have—including me.
Sometimes writing is easy. It just flows out of you. But if we’re honest, most of the time writing is the result of hard work and more than a few tears. It doesn’t come easily. And there are lots of times when you’ll do almost anything (remember that drawer that hasn’t been cleaned out in years?) to avoid it.
I have to admit, I’m a champ at avoiding my writing tasks. I’m so good at it, I’ve had to find ways to force myself into positions where I MUST write. I share a few of them here in the hopes it will help you become more productive, too.
by Linda Skeers
Fiction writers can keep readers on the edge of their seats and flipping pages by creating exciting and compelling page turns. They do this by making sure there’s drama and tension and suspense throughout the manuscript.
But how do nonfiction writers do that when they are dealing in facts and information? The same way – by borrowing a few fiction techniques!
1. Ask a question
Readers are curious little beings and if you pose a thoughtful question that intrigues them, they’ll keep reading to discover the answer. Tease and tantalize them into wanting to know more and they’ll be hooked! Don’t rehash what they probably already know about your topic – dig deep for a tidbit that will surprise and amaze them. And then keep doling them out!
2. And then what?
Think about page turns and use them wisely. Mention a problem or obstacle and make readers wonder IF it can be resolved. Raise the stakes. Hint at what could happen if the problem isn’t resolved.
3. Make it fun
Use descriptive and lyrical language whether you are talking about rocks or rabbits. Sprinkle in action verbs and sensory details – make each scene come alive for the reader. Try to create compelling scenes that draw a reader in and keep them interested. Great nonfiction should be as exciting and interesting as fast-paced fiction! Avoid passive language and bland verbs. Reading it aloud can help you “hear” where you can punch up the language.
4. Use the element of surprise!
Forget the nonfiction from your youth – it’s a bright new day! Steer clear of dry, textbook explanations and find a unique way to present your information and your readers will be hooked. What about a unique narrator? Or unusual format? Fun sidebars? Activities? Humor? Look at your topic sideways and upside down – find a new angle or perspective that hasn’t been done before. Be adventurous! Be daring!
5. Kindred spirits
Remember what it was about your topic that first caught YOUR attention. That passion (and sometimes obsession) will shine through your manuscript and will spark the same desire for knowledge and need to know more about your subject in your reader. Enthusiasm is catching!
Do you want to write nonfiction with the skills of a ninja but not sure where to start? Get your feet wet writing for magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals.
To train in and sharpen your nonfiction skills, it’s okay (I even encourage you!) to write for the no-pay/low-pay market. This is where they pay you about three cents a word or nothing at all except complimentary contributor’s copies of the magazine you’re published in. Your key payback is that you watch your published credits build while your confidence and skills at executing published nonfiction grow.
I’ve written for the no-pay/low-pay market for years. An added perk? Most editors who work in the no-pay/low-pay market want to climb the rope and work toward the top of their game just like you do. Chances are, they’ll want to bring you with them.
For example, one day I got a phone call from a publisher I’d never worked with before. A publisher of nonfiction books. An editor I worked with in the no-pay/low-pay magazine market just got hired to work for this publisher and recommended my name as a potential author for their new project. Would I be interested in writing four holiday books for them?
The result? Four work-for-hire book contracts! True Books: Earth Day, Independence Day, Passover, and Easter. Four nice unexpected paychecks I hadn’t calculated into my income yet that year.
Do you want to be a professional ninja of published children’s nonfiction books, but aren’t sure how to take your career to the next level? Start landing assignments writing for the no-pay/low-pay market or other magazines and periodicals. For information on magazines and their writer guidelines, go to Evelyn B. Christensens's extensive listings at Writing for Children's Magazines. Go to Ev's site as well as look in a current children’s writers market guide.
You’ll soon be climbing your way to success!
by Peggy Thomas
Ideas are like radio waves. They are all around us, and you simply have to raise your antenna to tune in. That means being observant, reading widely, talking to people, and being open to the world around you. The more you practice being aware, the more ideas you’ll accumulate. Unfortunately, not every idea becomes a book (at least not my ideas).
Before you plunge head first into writing, ask yourself a few questions:
#1. Is the idea kid-friendly? You may love the idea of writing about the history of buttons or the 2008 economic crash, but what would a 4th grader think. Even if you suspect that a young reader’s eyes would glaze over, it doesn’t mean your idea is dead. Just figure out a way to make your story more relevant to a young audience. For example, you could focus on kids who lost their homes during the economic crash. Or compile the most bizarre and zany facts about buttons.
#2. Has anyone else written on this topic? Do a quick search on Amazon, or conduct a more thorough search on WorldCat.org, which contains the records from more than 10,000 libraries.
Don’t panic if another writer had the same idea. You can still write about buttons, especially if the competition is more than five years old. Librarians tend to refresh their nonfiction every few years to keep their collections current. However, you do not want to write the exact same book, so…
#3. Can I add something new to the conversation? Look for cutting-edge research. Approach the topic from a different angle. For example, rather than a book about all buttons, focus on one collector, one time period, or write from a button’s point of view. When I wrote about George Washington, I approached it from a farming viewpoint in George Washington Plants a Nation (Calkins Creek, 2014).
#4. Can I find enough information? I’ve had to drop several projects simply because I could not find material. Look for primary sources like letters, diaries, period news articles, and people to interview.
Then you will be able to write a well-researched book with a fresh slant that any kid will love.
by Nancy Churnin
A nonfiction ninja needs detective skills. So, put on your Sherlock Holmes cap, and track down your subject. If your subject is dead, contact that person’s descendants or those who knew the person well.
What you learn can make the difference in unearthing details that will bring your story to vivid life or correct errors made in previous biographies.
How do you find these people?
Newspapers and magazine articles. If the person is alive, articles will probably tell you where that person was living as well as where the person was working at the time the article was written. Look up the place of work and if your subject is no longer working there, ask where the subject might be. If dead, obituaries will tell you the survivors or where the person donated records. Your subject’s alma mater can help track down heirs.
Universities and publishers. If the person and heirs are impossible to reach, look up experts on your subject. Often that person can be found teaching at a university where emails are easy to find. The expert may also point you to resources that can get you going on your own original research.
Travel. If you can, go to the actual place where your subject lives or lived and walk the streets that person walked, go to places that person might have frequented and talk to people who know or knew your subject.
What if the subject or the family WON’T support the book?
While it’s your legal right to write about people who are famous without their consent, I have always opted against that. It is hard to get a story right even with all the resources at your disposal. It’s also hard to market the best of stories. It’s a big help to go out there with support.
If your hunt leads to putting your manuscript aside, remember that even for the best of detectives, not all cases get solved. But with these tips, the percentage that you do solve should go up. Happy sleuthing!
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