If you have a tendency to cram every bit of research into your nonfiction, then watch The Great British Bake Off!
Seriously. It’s a lesson in editing.
Some of the challenges take 5 hours to complete. During that time, several cameras stalk the bakers, filming from every angle as they measure, sift and stir. But do we see every minute?
No, we do not.The show’s editors select only the images and audio needed to tell a specific story in the 1-hour time frame. They show only what we need to know.
We need to know enough about the recipe so we understand the challenge and will be able to judge who has excelled and whose soufflé flopped. We don’t see all the bakers; just the ones who are doing very well, and those who forgot to add the eggs.
Then, just before a commercial, judge Mary Berry says, “I’m worried about Jamal,” or Gasp! The top layer of a cake tilts. The editors want us to worry. They strategically created mini cliffhangers to hustle us back from the freezer with our Dove bars.
You need to be selective too.
Show readers only what they need to know. Select the facts and anecdotes that provide enough background so they will understand the subject. That might mean skipping over the middle years in the development of an invention, or leaving out the spouse in a bio.
Then create mini cliffhangers by placing a problem or question at the turn of a page in a PB, or at the end of a MG chapter.
The ingredients, or research, you didn’t use?
Bake another cake!
Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.
Yes, some of the best advice I received about writing has been from a fictional character, Ms. Frizzle, created by writer Joanna Cole for The Magic School Bus books.
Many assume that writing non-fiction is safe. How are you taking chances when you’re sticking to the facts? How can you make mistakes or get messy?
Ms. Frizzle was talking about the scientific method – which requires anyone wanting to discover new things to take chances by opening your mind to new ways of viewing the world.
That doesn’t mean you make up a fantasy about the world. It means looking more closely, deeply, introspectively about something that’s always been there.
Whenever you are describing something in a new way, you’ll probably make mistakes. Get experts to fact check your details. Instead of being afraid of those mistakes, learn from them. If you got something wrong, chances are your young readers may be confused by those details, too. How can you explain it in a way that’s accurate and memorable?
Whenever you try to write something new, you have to get messy. It can take innumerable revisions before your story matches your vision for it.
I thought I’d finish my first picture book biography about William Hoy, a deaf baseball player of the 19th century, in one afternoon. I had the facts. He was fascinating. I’m an experienced journalist, used to turning out three stories a day.
Now, eight books later, I laugh at the steep learning curve I had with The William Hoy Story. That first book took me more than a decade to revise, polish and sell. It took me that long to learn the craft and understand I needed to go beyond a safe arrangement of established facts and take chances with a fresh approach to telling a story. What started out as a birth to death narrative became a story that revolved around William Hoy’s use of sign language.
So take chances. Don’t worry if you make mistakes and get messy. Because if you’re not making mistakes and getting messy, you’re not taking chances. And if you don’t take chances, you lessen the chance you’ll get to that thrilling new place where your book needs to go.
Next came What is Christmas? and then What is Thanksgiving, both of which still sell amazingly well every year. Just this past holiday season, What is Christmas? was part of a collection of Christmas Classics board books exclusively sold in Costco. We tried What is Halloween but it didn’t sell as well in the CBA Market. However, it’s being re-released this year and we’re hopeful it will do much better this time around. And now, my latest book for kids, What is America? will hopefully spike in sales around Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, President’s Day, Veteran’s Day, and election time.
The beauty of writing holiday children’s books is two-fold. Both the general and Christian book markets sell them, and publishers need new holiday picture and board books each year. Here’s more good news: successful holiday books have staying power. In other words, holiday books may only sell seasonally, but they tend to enjoy many selling seasons.
Okay, full disclaimer here. Over the years, I’ve also written Memories of the Manger, The Shepherds Shook in Their Shoes, Happy Birthday, Jesus! Trunk Or Treat, Sparrow’s Easter Song, Little Colt’s Palm Sunday, Hooray For Easter!, My Funny Valentine, and Ha Halloween! Some of those titles—though they had an initial good run—are now out of print. But, as mentioned above, many of my holiday titles keep doing well season after season, year after year. And, because I know a good thing when I see one, I have yet another Christmas picture book that released this past November called, C Is for Christmas (Little Lamb Books). I plan to keep on writing holiday children’s books as long as there are holidays on the calendar, and I suggest you follow my lead.
Here are six tips to help you craft your own holiday children’s book:
One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received came from author Candace Fleming. This advice transformed my picture book process and made my writing much stronger. What was it? Look at your book as a series of scenes.
When I’ve discussed this light-bulb moment with illustrator friends, they look perplexed. They naturally see their stories as a series of scenes—perfectly illustrated in full color, of course—and assume everyone else does too. Sadly, my author brain doesn’t work that way.
So what is a scene? Most of us are familiar with the idea of a movie scene, or a scene in a play. But if you’re not an illustrator, you may have never considered scenes in a picture book. Here are a few basics.
To determine if your scenes need work, try paginating your manuscript or making a dummy. This will help you more clearly assess them. If you have trouble figuring out where to add page breaks, your scenes may need work. Another trick is to make a list of the scenes in your story. Summarize each with a sentence. Can you boil your story down to 12-14 sentences?
Once you get the hang of seeing in scenes, you’ll look at your picture book in a whole new light. Give it a try!
Lisa Amstutz is the author of 100+ children’s books. For more about her books, mentorships, and critique services, see www.LisaAmstutz.com.
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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