Outlines are often used for planning how to structure a piece before writing. However, I find outlining helpful not just for prewriting, but also for post-writing, analyzing, and revising. What do I mean?
Constructing an outline after writing a draft is helpful in the revising process. A post-draft outline enables me to see what I actually wrote on the page, not what I planned to write or think I wrote. I number the paragraphs in chronological order, then write brief descriptions of each paragraph’s main idea. The headings are the book chapters or article sections; the subheadings are the paragraph descriptions.
What gets revealed is the flow of ideas. I can see where I carried on for too many paragraphs about X, but glossed over Y with one skimpy paragraph. I see holes where I made unexplained leaps in logic from A to D—holes that will confuse readers. Hmm, there’s a tangent that belongs nowhere, an example that doesn’t explain. Ah, here I need to expand, provide a transition, increase the tension, spread out the clues, tighten the focus, or move pieces around.
Now I have a guide for revising!
Outlining helps me in preparing critiques of others’ writing. I may have vague feelings that certain spots of a manuscript aren’t working, but outlining gives me information about where and why it’s not working, and also what questions and suggestions I might offer.
Outlining mentor texts helps me figure out how they are structured, providing insights I can use to help in my own writing. For example, I wanted to write an article on honoring my ancestors at their graves in China, hoping it would lead to finally breaking into Highlights magazine. I looked through back issues and discovered an article one author wrote about her family’s Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. I outlined it paragraph by paragraph, picking up tips about structure and information that would capture the interest and understanding of young readers. “Remembering Our Ancestors” became my first publication in Highlights!
Sometimes rewriting involves radical restructuring. One editor suggested combining my drafts of two similar chapters. I tried several different ways without success until I outlined one chapter on the left side of a piece of paper, and outlined the other chapter on the right side. With their structures laid bare in parallel, finally I saw how and where the two chapters could be interwoven.
Outlining can be a simple but powerful tool for multiple stages of writing: pre-, post-, and mid-writing. Are there ways outlining has worked for you?
One of the questions I get asked most often at author presentations is how long does it take to write a picture book biography.
The simple answer is that it takes as long as it takes.
That’s the complicated answer, too.
There’s a hope and expectation that the longer we work at this craft of writing children’s books, the easier and faster it gets. Well, that’s true in some ways, but not in others. My first book, The William Hoy Story, took 13 years from the promise I made my friend, Steve Sandy, a friend of the Hoy family, that I would write this book, to the year it got published. You can chalk a lot of those years up to not knowing what I didn’t know about writing children’s books. When I finally got it through my head that I had to learn a new art form and started taking classes, doing challenges, getting critique partners and joining supportive writing groups, things accelerated.
Aha! I thought, holding my beautiful first-born book in my hands. I figured it all out! But while my second book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain, was comparatively quick, at several months, it wasn’t a straight shot from my head to the page. And my upcoming book, Beautiful Shades of Brown, which is part of the NF Fest giveaway, took four years from first manuscript to publication in 2020. So what happened?
Every opportunity to learn, including from the upcoming NF Fest challenge in February from the Nonfiction Chicks, will bring light to your journey. But while light may save you some stumbles, no one can make the journey but you, step by step, into an unknown place, crafting a story that has yet to be written. No one but you can be the hero or heroine of your writing quest, charging into empty space to build a place for a story to live where there was once only an unfathomable void.
Sometimes it will be obvious where to lay the bricks and wood and glass, to see how the pieces fit together. Other times you may get stuck, fumbling with words. You’ll marvel when they spark fire – what a feeling! And you’ll sigh and try to persevere as they crash and topple in your brain while you’re working with all your might to craft the details that will give your story room to breathe.
In other words, it takes as long as it takes.
Keep going and you’ll get there. Remember: to the stubborn, belong the spoils.
Like everyone else this week, I will gather round a Thanksgiving table and celebrate the many blessings in my life. But today I lift up a few things that make my job as a nonfiction writer easier and more enjoyable. I am thankful for:
I’m sure all of you have a lengthy list of gratitude too. So how can we give back?
Let us know what you are thankful for, and how you give back.
If you’ve been to any writers conference lately, you’ve no doubt heard lots of talk about building a platform. And, you’ve probably learned that one of the best ways to grow your platform is to increase your social media following.
But, just how can we grow our online following? Well, it would take more than one blog post to fully answer that question, but here are three tips to help you improve your online numbers and your engagement.
1. Be Authentic:
People can spot “a fake” almost immediately, so be genuine when you post updates. For example, if you aren’t a savvy cook and yet you’re coming out with a cookbook, don’t promote yourself like you’re the expert. Instead, be self-deprecating and play up your inabilities to cook. Have fun with it! People are tired of folks showcasing their “perfect social media lives”—be real. Your connections will love you for it, and they’ll be more apt to listen to you when you share about your latest books, future speaking gigs, etc.
One of the most liked and shared posts I ever made happened this past winter when I posted a picture of my feet wearing two different boots. I just happened to glance down at my mismatched feet while sitting under the dryer at my hairdresser’s, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I snapped a picture, posted it on Instagram & Facebook, and said something like, “You know you’re on way too many deadlines when you look down at your feet and discover that you’re wearing two very different boots. At least they are both black, so there’s that…”
My followers loved it! Many commented that they’d worn different shoes to work before, so not to feel too badly. Others said they were having that same kind of week. Still, some just messaged, “Thanks for the laugh.”
2. Be Overgenerous:
Always give more than you take. It’s totally fine to share the cover of your latest book and promote it on all social media platforms, but make sure you’re also giving back and not always in advertising mode.
For example, you could offer a coloring sheet related to your children’s book or some other kind of free downloadable (Perhaps, some of your backmatter or a sidebar you didn’t end up using could serve as a nice freebie.)
Entrepreneur and Author Gary Vaynerchuk has been giving away content from his books before they were ever released for years, and yet his books are always bestsellers!
So, why should we be overgenerous with our information? It builds authority, credibility, trust, and likability, and it increases our online presence because people will share you and your valuable content.
3. Be Consistent & Caring:
You can’t post once every two months and expect to gain much of a following online. Post often, even if it’s just a repost of a funny meme you found, or one that you created in Canva. (Hint: You can use a scheduler to post across several social media platforms all at once.)
Can’t think of a clever status update? Why not ask your followers a question, and see how many responses you receive? It can be something as simple as, “So, how’s your Monday going?” or something as specific as, “Anybody else watch the Thanksgiving Day parade? What was your favorite float?”
Don’t be afraid to engage with your followers. Get to know them and let them get to know you—the real you.
Lastly, when interacting with your followers, whether it’s on your personal Facebook page or within a LinkedIn group, always try to add value when sharing information. Be that “go-to guy” or “go-to girl.” When you answer questions, without asking for anything in return, you become more likable, and people will be more likely to share you and your books with their friends and family.
Ok, there you have it—three tips to get you started on that all-important platform building. Now, go forth and post!
By Lisa Amstutz
The past few years, I’ve helped to judge a writing contest. Each judge reads dozens of submissions and picks their favorites. Surprisingly often, there is a clear consensus on the winners. Something makes these submissions stand out above the rest.
This experience has given me a glimpse of what an editor must face on a daily basis. Her inbox is filled with manuscripts, many of which are perfectly nice, well-written stories. She’s already sent 20 polite rejections today: “This story is well-written but it just didn’t grab me.” “It’s a good story, but not right for me.” As she opens yet another email, what could possibly make her jump out of her chair and shout “Eureka!”? In a word: a hook.
So what’s a hook? Editor Frances Gilbert recently posted an excellent Twitter thread on this topic. To summarize, a hook is something so important, seasonal, timely, unique, funny, or extraordinarily well-written that an editor can’t resist it. It’s that something special that grabs a reader’s attention and pulls them in.
Hooks are easy to spot once you start looking for them. Try to identify the hook in the books you read. Go to a library or bookstore and browse the new books. What do you think made an editor fall in love with this story? What made you pick it up?
Next, go home and look at your manuscript. Would it stand out in an overworked editor’s inbox? Would it jump off the shelf at Barnes & Noble? If so, congratulations - you have a winner! If not, look at your story again with a critical eye. Maybe you need a punchier title. Maybe you need to simplify your concept or amp up the humor. Take the time to find your hook and really make it shine. Then toss out your line again—and just maybe you’ll land a contract this time!
By Stephanie Bearce
You bravely signed up for a critique at the conference.
It’s your dream editor!
Fingers and toes crossed, you go to the critique hoping she likes your manuscript.
Palms sweating, nervous chit chat.
Will she love it?
Will she offer a contract?
New writers often have daydreams that an agent or editor will love the manuscript they are critiquing so much that they will immediately offer a contract. Those of us who have been in the business for a bit longer know that dream is equivalent to winning the lottery. It can happen, unfortunately the odds are not in your favor.
But that marked up piece of paper you hold in your disappointed hand is a treasure map that can help you move forward on the path to publication. It’s a critique and you need to use it!
Here are five rules to help you get the most out of any critique:
Listen – If this is an in-person critique, go in prepared to listen to everything the critiquer has to share. She is an industry professional and she has expertise that can truly help you. Do not interrupt to try to explain your manuscript. Listen. And take notes! You’re going to want to remember the advice later!
Ask Questions – Go in prepared with questions you have about your project. Make a list and take it with you. This is your chance to pick the professional’s brain. Ask about markets, topics, sources, how to improve your work, or what are your next steps. If you are unclear about something she says – ask for clarification. The critiquer has the same goal you do – to make you a stronger writer.
Read – Once you have left the in-person critique, take time to read the written comments. Try not to feel defensive. It’s hard. She’s criticizing your baby. But remember the goal – publication! So, read it all – even the parts that hurt.
Set it aside – Once you have read the comments, set it aside for at least a week. Maybe longer. Do not jump into a total rewrite the next day. Let the ideas sit and simmer. Then go back and see which ones make sense for your vision of the manuscript. You do not have to take every piece of advice and implement it. But you should also be honest with yourself and recognize where your manuscript needs improvement.
Revise – After you have a good idea of the new direction you want for your manuscript – get back on that computer. Your project may need small tweaks or a complete rewrite. That is up to you! But smart writers take all the advice they can get. You never know when someone’s comments are going to spark an idea that will turn your story into a literary treasure.
By Susan Kralovansky
When I signed my first book contract, I thought the hard work was over. I was so wrong. The hard work was just beginning.
Then I planned a hugely successful book release party, and I thought the hard work was over. Again, the hard work was just beginning – I realized that I needed a plan for continued book sales and an income while writing that next book.
I muddled through what would have been a breeze if I’d had Kim Norman’s book Sell Books and Get Paid Doing Author School Visits. I’m a former librarian and an author who has done tons of author visits, and I still found Kim’s book filled with valuable advice. She systematically covers everything from creating presentations to needed equipment to organizing your contracts.
Norman begins by walking you through creating your presentation. As Kim says, “Author visits are as different as the books they’re about.” (p.7) She also covers:
• Setting up an author visit
• How much to charge
• Where to find schools that host authors
• Book sales
• Book signings
• Author websites
• Staying organized
In Kim’s final chapter, she shares advice from her writing friends. Rachelle Burk, Kelly Milner Halls, Marc Tyler Nobleman, to name a few, shared advice, humor, and “war stories.”
Aside from practical insider information and action steps, Norman shares the pleasures, pains, and strategies of author visits. In this in-depth, how-to, she shares the mistakes she has made, the secrets she has learned, and the joys of talking books with hundreds of thousands of children over the past dozen years. Kim is a great and generous teacher. She puts everything she does into simple terms, providing templates that allow us to replicate her methods step-by-step.
By Pat Miller
If you write picture books, you may have participated in StoryStorm, an online challenge for writers in January. For longer fiction, one can participate in the National Novel Writing Month challenge in November. And if you write poetry, there’s NaPoWriMo in April.
But there is no online monthly challenge for nonfiction writers. I mentioned this unfortunate gap to my friends in the Nonfiction Chicks.
Lisa Amstutz, Stephanie Bearce, Nancy Churnin, Susie Kralovansky, Linda Skeers, Peggy Thomas, and I are passionate about children’s nonfiction. Between us we’ve published 220 true books. “Why don’t WE host a month long online NF challenge?” we asked.
And that’s how NF Fest was born! February will now be the month for true book writers to enjoy a challenge of our own. We asked dozens of experienced, talented nonfiction writers to join us in inspiring, educating, and supporting those who write true books. They were quick to join us.
Here’s how NF Fest works. You register for the challenge between January 15-31. This will make you eligible for prizes.
You will receive a 35 day “calendar” of nonfiction-related activities. You will do one each day in February. These are brief and designed to help you develop or improve your research and nonfiction writing skills.
In addition, there will be a helpful post each day in February. Comment on each. That is how we can build community (and randomly choose prize winners.)
Our lineup includes science writer Melissa Stewart, history writer Candace Fleming, biographer Lesa Cline Ransome, and 25 other authors. Prizes include autographed books, critiques, and more.
You’re invited to join the Nonfiction Chicks in celebrating Leap Year’s February with the inaugural NF Fest. To receive reminders and updates, join our Facebook group, "Nonfiction Fest."
We can't wait to see you at NF Fest!
By Wendy Hinote Lanier
Nonfiction writing is all about disseminating information. The WAY we do this can be difficult to decide. Topics are easy. Those are the ideas that intrigue us and send us gleefully tracking down all the information we can find on said topic. But how we choose to organize that information can sometimes bring the writing process to a screeching halt. One solution is to tackle the subject with a layered text.
Layered text allows nonfiction writers to present information in more than one way—within the same publication. Each layer adds to the overall concept. And like the bricks in a wall, each bit widens the scope of the topic and supports the main idea. The great thing about that is a nonfiction book with multiple text layers can reach a wider audience. And that can mean more sales and larger print runs.
Here are a few ways to add layers to your nonfiction projects:
Illustrations – In a way, a picture book is the simplest form of layered text. Whether the book is a “read-to-me” or a “read-alone” book, the illustrations add another layer of information for the reader. Sometimes the illustrations just enhance the written information. And sometimes they actually add information that is not in the text. But regardless of the grade level, pictures are a great way to add information to a nonfiction topic.
Font size and reading level – In some nonfiction books there are two reading levels. Short simple text is often in a larger font. More challenging text is a bit longer and usually in a smaller font. In a 2013 guest blog post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s webpage, Melissa Stewart points out that these kinds of books are wonderful for Reading Buddy programs. Teachers love them because younger students can read the simple text, and their older Reading Buddy can read the more complex text. In this way both students practice reading, and they both learn new information about a given topic.
Sometimes the change in font is just for effect. In a fiction example, Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, the second font has the appearance of penciled in “improvements” by a boy named Alex. The second layer of text completely changes the original plot of the story.
Photos – Some nonfiction books are illustrated with photos. Others have both illustrations and photos. The photos show details often not discussed in the text. When used in combination with illustrations, they add yet another layer of information to the text.
Captions – Photos in nonfiction texts often include captions that explain what the reader sees in the photo. The caption can be as simple as an identifying phrase or as complex as a short paragraph.
Speech bubbles – Occasionally the illustrations in a nonfiction book have characters that talk. Their comments are added as speech bubbles. Usually, at least in nonfiction, the characters are making an observation about the concept being discussed in the main text.
One series that uses just about every type of layering mentioned in this post, including speech bubbles, is the Magic School Bus books. Although they should probably be considered “informational fiction” since the characters and events of the books are fiction, the concept of each book is pure science. To get the information across the author (Joanna Cole) and illustrator (Bruce Degen) use every tool at their disposal. The Magic School Bus books are chock full of text, sidebars, diagrams, labels, and more. It’s possible to explore the pages of a Magic School Bus book for hours even though it is technically considered a picture book. It’s all about the layers of text. Although they’ve been around for a while now, they’re still some of my favorites.
Diagrams – A diagram is a great way to explain things to a visual learner. Sometimes it’s the best way to explain something that would otherwise take a whole page of text. These days they are most often referred to as infographics.
Labels – Diagrams are usually labeled. The labels are another layer of meaningful text. However, photos and illustrations can also be labeled.
Factoids - Whether you call them Fun Facts, Factoids, or “Insert Topic Here” Facts, those little tidbits of information are another layer. Factoids are usually related to the overall topic and add something noteworthy not mentioned in the main text.
Sidebars – Sidebars are common in magazine articles and educational publications. They add additional information to something mentioned (without any elaboration) in the main text. Often sidebars offer an explanation of a concept with a bit more detail than just a definition.
Glossary – Sometimes all that is needed for some of the words in a text is a simple definition. A glossary is a mini-dictionary that defines words from the text that the author or publisher feels the reader may not know. In my experience, the definitions are generated by the author rather than copied from a dictionary.
Back matter – Most nonfiction writers enjoy the research process. They usually find way more information than they could ever hope to include in their main text. The back matter is a place to put the stuff that you find really interesting but just doesn’t go with the main text. The cool thing is, back matter can take many forms. (But maybe that’s another post.) Suffice it to say, the back matter can add another layer of information related to the topic of your book.
Author’s note - An author’s note usually offers some sort of explanation. It might be about what inspired the book, where the information for it was found, or a personal story of why that particular topic was of interest to the author. In any case, an author’s note can tie up loose ends and offer answers to those lingering questions the reader might have.
While the list above is fairly lengthy, it isn’t necessarily exhaustive. There may be others I’ve neglected to mention. As the author of over 40 nonfiction educational books for kids, I’ve used almost all of these. Often they’re all in the same book. And now my latest book has introduced me to a new one. I’m currently working on a project that will include several types of web content. There will be an online photo, an online video, and several online activities all associated with the book’s topic. And as other types of interactive texts are introduced, I suspect there will be additional ways to layer our nonfiction writing in the future.
For more examples of layered text nonfiction books see Melissa Stewart’s 2013 guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog here: https://cynthialeitichsmith.com/2013/09/guest-post-melissa-stewart-on-layer/
By Linda Skeers
You’ve gathered your information. Checked your facts. You’re ready to start writing but stop and wonder, WHO is telling this story? WHO is presenting the information? WHO is my narrator?
Maybe it’s not a WHO, but a WHAT.
An inanimate object. A thing.
Let me explain.
Many wonderful books have been written about Martin Luther King, Jr. How do you introduce him to children in a fresh and unique way? That was the task Eve Bunting gave herself -- and she succeeded with THE CART THAT CARRIED MARTIN.
The focus is on the simple, worn down cart that carried his coffin. Bunting was able to show MLK Jr.’s character by comparing his work ethic and struggles with that of the hard-working cart. By stepping back and creating a bit of distance, the story is still emotional – but not sorrowful.
This was just an ordinary cart – that eventually found a home in the MLK Jr. National Historic Site. “This is the humble cart that, not so long ago, carried greatness.”
Sometimes the perfect object can speak volumes.
That’s exactly what happens in Janet Nolan’s THE FIREHOUSE LIGHT.
Nolan had stumbled upon a fascinating little tidbit – a light bulb in the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department has been burning for over 100 years!
And nobody knows how.
Great fact. But is that a STORY?
It became one when she took a giant step back, looked at the bigger picture and wondered about all the events the light bulb would have witnessed through the years.
And THAT became the story!
The book follows the evolution of firefighting from volunteer bucket brigades to sophisticated equipment and new and improved techniques – always being illuminated by that single, amazing light bulb.
How do you handle an intense historical event filled with violence, hatred and prejudice in a picture book?
When Rob Sanders first entertained the idea of writing about the Stonewall riots, he thought so too.
Until he stepped back and focused on the two buildings that joined together to become Bonnie’s Stone Wall restaurant – the centerpiece of the event.
You’ve all heard the saying, “If these walls could talk”? Sanders gave them a voice. And they had a lot to say in STONE WALL – A Building, An Uprising, A Revolution.
By allowing the building to describe the events as they unfolded, it gives the reader an extra bit of space – space to take it in, understand it, but not be completely overwhelmed by it. It’s a safe space to view something so intense and powerful.
Looking for a fresh angle on your subject? Don’t stare at it too closely or you could miss an important element. Step back and look again – what else do you see? Specific objects? A place? What’s lurking in the corners?
By exploring your subject AND everything surrounding it, you might discover a unique and unusual way into your story – one that makes it stand out AND pull readers in.
We are ten authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.
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