By Wendy Hinote Lanier
In the world of writing, there are a multitude of short courses, books, and blog posts about writing fiction. They talk about plot, character development, story arcs, point of view, setting, and so on. And all of those things are important for writing a good work of fiction.
But nonfiction projects don’t always work that way. Sometimes nonfiction writers use fiction techniques in their writing, but that part comes later in the process.
As part of a recent discussion, the Ninjas talked a bit about how we approach new projects. We thought it might be fun to compare notes in a format that you (our readers) can share with us. In this way, we can all learn from each other.
For me, the first step is almost always to log in to my CiteFast account and create a new bibliography. (Yes, I know CiteFast had a problem a few months ago. They were maliciously hacked, and I lost over 30 bibliographies! In the future I will be saving my bibliographies in other places as well. Lesson learned—the hard way.) CiteFast stays open on my computer any time I am looking for articles and information. And the moment I decide a source is worth using, I use this resource to create a bibliographic entry. This is a step that saves me time and heartache later.
My next step is usually to do an internet search on my chosen subject. At this point I’m looking for information, websites, articles, and anything else that helps me better understand my topic. As a nonfiction writer who sometimes does work for hire, not all my topics are of my own choosing. Sometimes when I start a project, I don’t know ANYTHING about it, so I literally have to start with a definition. Other times I may have an idea about where I’m headed, but I’m going to need a lot more information before I am ready to start writing.
As I begin reading articles and collecting information in earnest, I usually create a document folder on my computer to serve as a catch all for drafts, contracts, and anything else related to that specific project. I also create a literal folder (going old school here) in which to put printed articles, rough drafts, and other documents I may collect. I do this because I still like to print out and mark up web posts and articles I find helpful. Depending on the size of the project (article vs picture book vs middle grade), one folder can sometimes turn into several or even an entire box.
I know some of the Ninjas use OneNote in this phase of nonfiction writing, and it’s something I keep meaning to add to my arsenal. But, true confession time, I still haven’t made the leap.
After a reasonably thorough search of the internet, my next steps are usually to find books and sources other than online. A trip to the library may be in order. Or it might be that a field trip to see my topic up close and personal and speak with someone who is an expert may be just the ticket. This part of the process can be lots of fun. Not to mention tax deductible.
But at some point, the collection of information has to stop. Those research trails can turn into rabbit trails that never end if I’m not careful. So there has to be a point where I stop to assess what I have and begin thinking about how I want to use it. It’s here I usually develop a rough outline. It looks nothing like the one my seventh-grade English teacher taught me to write. (My apologies to Mary Ann Carrier.) At this stage it is more like a list of all the things I want to include. Or, if the project is work for hire, the outline is determined by the guidelines. What I think should be included doesn’t matter.
Once my outline is created, I start looking for holes. What needs further explanation? I formulate questions based on the information I’ve gathered and set out to find the answers. Once I’ve found them, I can adjust my outline accordingly.
Now, finally, it’s time to start writing. But before I begin, I have to make an important decision. What type of nonfiction will this project be? Will it be traditional, browsable, narrative, expository, or active? Then, I have to decide what kind of voice I want to use. Am I going for something humorous or is this piece more serious? (Do I have a choice? If it’s work for hire the answer is no. They pay me to follow the guidelines.)
For me, this part of the process sometimes means walking away for a while and letting a project simmer in the back of my mind a bit. Once I’ve made this decision, I have to decide if it works. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. But, after much deliberation and usually several false starts, a rough draft is finally completed!
It would be great if, given all the work and effort that’s gone into a project up to this point, a rough draft was near perfect. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case. This is the stage where a good critique group is so very important. Every piece I write is shared with the Ninjas or my in-house editor (my retired professor husband). Their feedback is critical. Based on that feedback I make edits and corrections. And, as I’ve learned over the years, the editing doesn’t stop until the project is actually published.
I wish I could tell you all my projects have been published. But the truth is I have boxes of folders in which there are multiple projects in various stages of development. Some are complete but unpublished. Others are in the outline stage. I even have an entire box just for ideas that contains notes scribbled on napkins, pages torn from notepads, and articles ripped out of magazines. (Sometimes I look at those notes and think, “That’s dumb. What was I thinking??”)
The approach I’ve described here doesn’t apply to ALL my writing. Not all my projects are nonfiction. Some are informational fiction. (With my background as a teacher, I want every book I write to be useful for learning as well as fun.) But this does, in general, describe my process for nonfiction. I wish it worked as neatly and progressed in as orderly a fashion as it seems to in this post. But it does work. The key is perseverance.
So, what about you? What’s your process?
by Christine Liu-Perkins
My favorite part of the writing process is doing research. I collect as much as I can. The upside of extensive research is having a wealth of information to draw on and learn from. But the downside is getting overwhelmed trying to process all that material.
How can one absorb and understand so much information? How do you get it off the page (or screen) and into your mind?
Studies shows that students learn best when they actively engage with material. Likewise for writers, the more we ponder, wrestle with, and ruminate over our research, the more we comprehend. And the better we understand a subject, the more deeply and creatively we can write about it.
How can we get research off the page and into our minds? "Get control over your topic by writing about it along the way," suggests one of my favorite books on academic research and writing (Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 66). Reflecting on smaller chunks of research as you gather it will help you avoid being overwhelmed by mountains of information later on.
Here are some ways to ponder, wrestle, and ruminate over your research:
Ponder, wrestle, and ruminate over your research along the way. You'll be well prepared when it's time to write that first draft!
By Susie Kralovansky
Celebrated during the fourth week of September, National Dog Week is a time to honor and celebrate our pets and best friends. Teachers, librarians, parents and grandparents can share a weeks worth of activities to teach children more about these wonderful animals.
After my last post about whether you need an agent, a reader posed a great question: How do you find a reputable agent who represents nonfiction (or any other genre)?
Here are some places to start:
1. Querytracker lists tons of agents and publishers. When you visit the site, you can search by genre, find contact info, see statistics about reply time, and more. The site also helps you track your submissions. There are other similar sites out there as well.
2. Look at resource guides such as Writer’s Market, Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market, and the SCBWI resource guide. Writers’ magazines like Writer’s Digest and The Writer often list agents and feature interviews as well.
3. Google is your friend! Find out who represents other authors in your genre by checking out their website or by searching (author’s name) and agent. If you’d like to learn more about a particular agent, check out their agency website and google interviews with them. Take a look at their social media and at www.manuscriptwishlist.com as well.
4. You may want to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace for a month to search agents and their sales. (It runs about $25/month.) Please note though that not all sales are reported to PM, and there can be a long delay before they’re reported.
5. Network. Ask questions in Facebook groups like NF Fest, or at SCBWI meetings. Talk to your writer friends about their agents. Be judicious in asking for referrals, though, so you don’t put your friends in an awkward position.
6. If an agent offers representation, it’s fine to take a little time to answer. They should be willing to provide referrals so you can talk to current clients if you wish.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives you a start on researching agents. Feel free to drop any questions or other tips in the comment box below!
Lisa Amstutz is an associate literary agent with Storm Literary Agency and the author of more than 150 books. Her most recent titles include Mammal Mania and Plants Fight Back. Learn more at www.LisaAmstutz.com.
By Nancy Churnin
When you write biographies, it’s hard to resist the urge to list all the great things your main character has done. You want your readers to know about all your person’s fantastic accomplishments. But if your story reads like a list, readers will be overwhelmed or bored.
What’s the solution?
Find a child-friendly theme that addresses WHY your main character did what he or she did. And limit yourself, if you can, to accomplishments that fit that theme. All you want and can do in a picture book is open a door –a slice of life that makes children hungry for more.
At first, I struggled to find a theme for my biography of Henrietta Szold. This woman created the first night school in America, founded Hadassah, the first charity run by women, and saved 11,000 children during the Holocaust. As I researched, I began to understand why there had never been a picture book about her. There was too much to say!
My breakthrough came when I discovered Henrietta’s admiration of Queen Esther, the Biblical queen who spoke up and risked her life to save her people. Every year, Jewish children celebrate Queen Esther at joyous, kid-friendly Purim celebrations. They dress up in costumes, eat hamentashen, and shake groggers – noise makers.
What if my theme was how Henrietta tried to be like Queen Esther in trying to save her people in her own way? As soon as that light bulb went off, things fell into place. Henrietta called her charity Hadassah, which is the Hebrew name for Esther. When she traveled to Nazi Germany and pled for visas to save Jewish children, she, like Esther, was pleading with the powerful to save her people.
That theme led to the title: A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah.
Not only did this theme fit the story, it provided another takeaway. It’s great to admire heroic deeds done long ago, but what’s most important is to help others in our own lifetimes. Like Queen Esther, Henrietta saved her people in the way that people needed in the time in which she lived. And that encourages children to think of the good things they can do now.
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.