My favorite book on writing nonfiction is Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. One key concept they discuss in Chapter 2 is the importance of having a question that drives the book: "Every work of serious nonfiction begins with a question the author has about the topic and ends with an answer the author wants to provide." (p. 77) That question determines how interested editors and readers will be in the book.
I find that asking an overall question also focuses my writing. Knowing what question I'm trying to answer helps me decide how to structure the book and helps in making those many decisions about what to keep and what to leave out. For At Home in Her Tomb, my question was, What do the tombs and their artifacts tell us about life in ancient China?
Sometimes authors reveal in interviews, Author's Notes, or blogposts what question(s) inspired them to create their books. Here are a few examples:
To identify the question driving your own project, Rabiner and Fortunato recommend recalling what originally captured your interest in the subject "and why you find it compelling enough to write a book to answer it . . ." (p. 78).
What's the question driving your work-in-progress? Defining that question will help you research, write, and market your book.
As writers, we spend so much time agonizing over our words that we tend to get attached to them. It’s hard to look at them critically when it comes time to revise. Here are some tips to help you edit your own fiction or nonfiction picture book in three simple—though not necessarily easy!—steps.
Step 1: The Big Picture
Before you worry about the nitty-gritty, make sure your story works at the “big picture” level. Ask yourself the following questions about your story.
Step 2: Scene by Scene
Now let’s zoom in a little closer. Start by breaking your story into spreads. You can do this by making a dummy or by simply leaving an extra space between spreads in your manuscript. You’ll need 12–14 spreads for a traditional 32-page manuscript.
Step 3: Polish Your Prose
Now that you’ve looked at the big picture and the scene by scene view, it’s time to zoom in even closer and scrutinize each sentence.
Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 100 books for kids and many magazine articles. She also offers critique and mentoring services for writers. See www.LisaAmstutz.com for more information.
Some writers like to use an outline to formulate ideas onto paper while others avoid an outline like the plague. If you’re just starting out as a nonfiction writer, the most important thing is not to feel like you have to fit into someone else’s box. Allow your brain to write as it wants to—outline or not. Until you learn to unleash the creative juices in your psyche as part of your individual and very unique writing process, give yourself the freedom to write in whatever way works best for you.
As you begin to acquire published credits, however, you’ll discover that the first thing many nonfiction editors or agents want to see is an outline. They want to know exactly where your manuscript is going and how it’s going to get there. They can’t be passing around your entire middle grade nonfiction book for everyone to read in preparation for editorial meetings. They want an outline. Clear. Concise. Complete. No secrets. No surprises. And no frills.
I remember one of the first times an editor requested an outline. I gulped. I had pitched them my nonfiction idea for a middle grade chapter book. How in the world was I supposed to know what was going to happen in Chapter 4? That would come to me as I wrote, right? Maybe so, but the editor required an outline. This request forced me to sit down and pinpoint the progression of my manuscript from Point A to Point Z with every single step in between. It took me three months of solid research and careful thought to prepare that outline.
The result? A 242-page nonfiction book for kids that has now been reprinted in its second edition, A Kid’s Guide to African American History (Chicago Review Press). You can buy it in stores and museums across the country. Even the Smithsonian sells it! Without taking the time to prepare that outline, however, I wonder if it would have been such a success.
Even a 32-page nonfiction picture book benefits from an outline. I used to just write picture books and let it flow. Not anymore. Now I map out the plot line and structure before I ever write the first word. An outline helps guarantee that the internal structure of my manuscript is solid.
For longer nonfiction projects, I usually have several outlines. I prepare a short, one-page outline to keep the overall scope of my project front and center. I create a 3-D outline by placing file folders in a pocket folder—one for each section or chapter—and tuck in ideas and information as I go. I maintain a growing working outline on my computer that functions as my research assistant.
As I note ideas, facts, or information on this outline, I also type in footnotes so I can easily find the source of that research. When I wrote my newest nonfiction for middle grades, Jane Austen for Kids, my shorter, chapter outline was 8 pages, about one page per chapter. My working outline was 32 pages long where I kept more detailed notes. Building a working outline makes the writing process easier in countless ways. Try it and see!
Anybody who has been writing for a while has been hit with the agent questions. It’s whispered and chatted about at conferences, workshops, and in critique groups. The questions sound like this:
“Do you have an agent?”
“How did you get your agent?
“Can you tell me how to get an agent?”
“Can I contact your agent?”
A good agent is worth her weight in toner ink and paper! She can negotiate a contract, critique a manuscript, and answer fifty emails all before her cappuccino cools. That’s why everybody wants an amazing agent. But--and this is a very big BUT –- an agent is only as good as the writer she is representing. To get an excellent agent you need to be an excellent writer.
New writers often believe that getting an agent is going to solve all their writing problems. The agent will edit their manuscripts, sell their work, and get them on the The New York Times Best Seller list. It’s a lovely dream, but it is not reality. Experienced writers WITH agents will tell you that it is no guarantee that their manuscript will sell. If the editors are not looking for a book about three-toed sloths and vampire bats – it’s not going to sell. What an agent can do is help you to navigate the market trends and get your work in front of editors who are looking for manuscripts in your content area. They can also be your biggest cheerleader.
BUT you may not be ready to look for an agent if you are not a polished, experienced writer. You only have one chance to make a first impression. You want it to be a good one. This is a check list that can help you evaluate whether or not you are ready for an agent.
1. Do you belong to an active critique group?
This is probably the single best thing you can do to prepare for an agent. Find a group who will tell you what is WRONG with your manuscript. You want people who are honest and will help you learn how to improve. And every manuscript can use improvement.
2. Do you have more than one polished manuscript or proposal available?
That’s right – more than one! Agents often want to see three polished picture book manuscripts. If you are writing for middle grade or young adult you need a full proposal and some additional ideas already in the development stages. Most agents want to work with you on multiple projects and you need to show that you are at that stage with your work.
3. Have you attended conferences and had professional critiques of your work?
Before you send your work out to an agent – get it evaluated by other professional writers. They can tell you if your story is ready or if it needs more work. And listen to their advice! Too often new writers discount the advice of other writers. If an experienced writer gives you suggestions for revision – consider it a gift and go revise! Negative feedback is not meant to hurt you-- it is meant to make you a stronger writer and build a better manuscript.
4. Have you had work published previously?
Have you published magazine articles or had work in professional journals? Have you done work-for-hire and learned how to partner with an editor? This can be a big plus when you are a nonfiction writer looking for an agent. Don’t discount the value of publishing in a variety of venues including hosted blogs and professional journals. Working with editors to hone your writing will be a huge advantage as you look for that perfect agent and those book contracts.
These are just suggestions for what you should do before you look for an agent. There are other things like contests, e-zines, and mentorships that can also help you reach the writing level that is necessary to attract a good agent.
Remember there is no substitute for hard work and lots of revision. Your manuscripts should be as perfect as possible before submitting to an agent. And then – if she is a fantastic agent – be prepared to some more revisions!
I have a writing coach—in fact, I have a number of them. Some work on retainer for an $18 one-time payment; many of them work for free. They are available day or night, weekday or weekend, holiday or workday. I hire my coaches at the bookstore or library. They live between the covers of carefully scrutinized children's books. My coaches are also called mentor texts.
A mentor text is a well-written book that gives you the structure, the language, the arc that you could use for your own work. It is especially useful when you hit a wall. I have a fat folder of research on an unsung, feisty American woman with lots of kid appeal. But where to start? What to put in and what to leave out? Should I use chronological, flash-back, anecdotal structure? I was stuck.
Then I came across Kathleen Krull’s Dolley Madison: Parties Can Be Patriotic! (Bloomsbury, 2015) at my library. A quick scan of the first page and I wanted to yell, “EUREKA!” I had found the coach to lead me out of my literary dead end. Kathleen Krull readily came home with me and has stayed for the last couple of weeks.
Dolley Madison is part of Krull’s series on Women Who Broke the Rules. That’s also an apt description of the heroine of my current work-in-progress. Studying the way Krull skillfully wrote Dolley Madison is like having her seated beside my desk, patiently tutoring me. Here are some of the things Kathleen Krull has taught me so far:
1. Use a topic sentence with details--but not always. Note how this topic sentence is followed by the quick fire of four telling details.
All the rules in the new country of America were stacked against women. They were like property, first belonging to their fathers, then their husbands. They couldn’t attend college. No respectable jobs were open to them. They couldn’t vote or have any role in government.
2. Use a relevant quotation to hammer home your point. The paragraph above ended with “In fact America’s FF (Founding Fathers) believed women in politics would be unnatural— ‘the world turned upside down.’”
3. When facts are skimpy, frame them with period details you know to be true. Instead of stating the bare bones fact that Dolley’s first husband and her child died of yellow fever in 1793, Krull fleshes it out this way:
Then the deadly yellow fever reached town in 1793. Spread by mosquitoes, the horrible disease killed one of every five people in Philadelphia. The victims, alas, included Dolley’s new baby and her husband.
4. Know your theme before you start and refer to it often. Krull’s first sentence is “Dolley Payne was born with extra zip.” The last two sentences of the first chapter are: “Good thing she had a third secret weapon working for her. That extra zip.” In another chapter, “Would Dolley come to the president’s house…and help? Would she! Dolley jumped in with her usual zest.” The last chapter tells us that in retirement at Montpelier, after a tumultuous and popular reign as First Lady, Dolley “was still the hostess with the mostest.”
5. Use emotional details. Emotion is what makes us connect to characters, even historical ones. With deft strokes, Krull includes heart touching details that bring Dolley, an 18th century woman to 21st century life. Here are three of them:
Any of Kathleen Krull’s many titles are a master class in nonfiction writing. Stop by your library or bookstore and invite her over. She may be just the coach you need.
You might think you’re organized, but are you really, really organized?
I thought that I had a great filing system. It's one that I had been using for years.
Then, I read my friend Nancy I. Sander’s blog on writing journals. Previously, I always began each project with a new folder where I stuffed every slip of paper, note, magazine article, and photos on my current project.
When the folder became unruly, I switched to a file box. When that box was totally crammed, I moved to tubs.
My materials were together, but they were a mess. I was continually looking for a line, phrase, page, etc. that I knew I’d written, but couldn’t get my hands on.
I assumed that this was just part of the creative process. It never occurred to me, until reading Nancy's first post, that there was a much, much better way to keep track of your work. I’m embarrassed to say that I have actually spoken at conferences on organization and writing. Yikes!
Nancy is truly the master of organization. Imagine this - a Table of Contents! And notes!
More importantly, imagine being able to know exactly where your images, quotes, resources, reference tools, opening and closing lines, etc. are!
Nancy explains her system in a series of seven posts. After these first few, each one will include organizational skills that every writer needs to know, right down to putting a sticker on the upper right-hand corner of your journal’s Table of Content since you will be flipping back to it so often.
One of my favorite posts was an explanation of the topics Nancy puts in her journal. This gem will always be on the inside cover of my writing journals.
I love notebooks, markers, stickers, and glue sticks. As a former librarian, I love cataloging information. This writing journal stuff was made for me. And now I can say (thanks to Nancy) that yes, I am really, really organized.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, writing for children isn’t easy. There’s more to this literature than meets the eye. And, as is the nature of children, one size certainly doesn’t fit all.
One thing an author has to decide early on is who their intended audience will be. A book that is appropriate for a toddler won’t cut it for a fifth grader. It’s not uncommon for authors to start a project without a clear picture of who will be reading the final product. It is important to know a little about the types of books appropriate for each age group and the generally accepted word length.
Books for babies, birth to about 18 months, are sometimes called novelty books. Usually 16 pages at most, they are often wordless or have a single word per page. They may have interesting textures to touch, make noises, or have pieces a baby can manipulate. Of course, their most important characteristic is they are durable and can survive teething and/or bath time.
Board books for toddlers, from about 18 months to 4 years are usually 24 pages. The word “board” refers to the type of binding and the pages which are thick cardboard. The word count ranges from none to about 100 words. Topics often include first words, labels, or finger play.
Concept books, for ages birth to 4 are books that teach concepts like letters, numbers, colors, or things that go. The maximum word count here is around 500 words.
Picture books are books for ages 3 to 8. The artwork is crucial to the story or concept. They are usually 32 pages. But nonfiction picture books can sometimes be 40 pages. While the word count for a story picture book ranges from zero to about 600 or 700 words, nonfiction picture books are typically longer. They are often in the 1,000 to 3,000 range.
Early readers are books written for kids ages 5 to 7 who are just learning to read. They are written to a specific reading level using leveled vocabulary. The word count begins around 250 words for the most basic reading level and goes all the way to about 3,000 words for more advanced readers.
Chapter books, also called young readers, are for ages 6 to 9. The word count varies depending on the age and grade level of the reader. They start at about 4,000 words for a book at the first grade level and go to about 10,000 words for a third grade book.
Middle grade books, often called MG, are written for ages 8 to 12 in grades 3 through 6. They begin at about 20,000 words and go to 55,000.
Young adult (YA) books are written for ages 12 and up. The word count ranges from 55,000 to about 80,000. The lower end of the word count is for preteen and young teens, while the higher words counts are for older teens through young twenty-somethings.
As with picture books, nonfiction MG and YA usually have higher word counts than fiction. They are typically between 5,000 and 85,000 words.
It’s important to note that the guidelines listed here are not set in stone. Editors and agents all have their own ideas about what they consider appropriate. But an author who doesn’t have a grasp on who their audience might be will probably have a tough time selling their idea to a publisher. After all, identifying the audience is an essential part of a query, proposal, or elevator pitch. That makes it really important to know who will read the finished book and keep the word count within acceptable limits.
Yes, there are exceptions. But it’s never a good idea to assume that your story is the exception. A word count that doesn’t fit the general guidelines might be the one reason an editor or agent chooses not to read it.
Tackling a picture book biography can be daunting! You’ve done your research, read books and articles, taken notes and have stacks of facts. Sometimes too many facts. Way too many! How can you sum up a person’s life for a child?
One way is to narrow your focus on just one aspect of their life – their childhood. Children love to know what people were like when they were their age. It makes an instant connection between your subject and your reader.
As you research, look for anecdotes, stories and incidents from your subject’s childhood.
Keep these questions in mind --What inspired their future endeavors? Was their skill, talent or aptitude apparent in their early years? Did they have a defining moment that led them down a particular path? Was their future success or achievement hinted at years before they discovered their life’s purpose?
Here are a few outstanding mentor texts that focus on a person’s childhood:
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim
An inspirational story highlighting Civil Rights leader John Lewis’s desire to encourage people to think, feel and act. But who can he practice his empowering speeches on when he’s just a young farm boy?
The flock of chickens he’s tending!
Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglas by Lesa Cline-Ransom
As a child, Frederick Douglas dreamed of a future where everyone was treated equal. He knew he had to do one important thing before that could happen – learn to read. No matter how difficult or how many obstacles he faced, he knew he MUST succeed.
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
Almost all children have a favorite stuffed animal. So did Jane Goodall. She adored her stuffed chimpanzee which led her to a life devoted to studying, living among and helping animals.
Before He Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford
John Coltrane LOVED all the sounds of his childhood. And what he heard as a young boy helped shape his amazing musical career.
Dig deep and search for those special childhood moments in a person’s life that have shaped their future. Having a child read about someone’s younger days and CONNECT to them is an amazing accomplishment. Imagine them closing a biography and thinking, “Hey, they are just like me!” or “I’ve done that, too” or “I know how that feels.”
Not only will your reader gain a deeper understanding into someone else’s life, they will believe that they too, can do amazing things in their life.
Because after all, we all started out as kids.
When I came across Dapré’s quote while doing some research on the Internet one afternoon, I loved it! I actually said out loud, “Yes!” You see, to write for children, we need to be where they are and listen to how they talk. We need to watch how they move and interact with the world around them.
This was much easier to do when my daughters were at home because we were “that house”—the house where all of the neighborhood kiddos gathered. I never had to work at being around children. Today, as an empty nester, I find myself having to work a little harder when I want to interact with my readers.
If you find yourself in that same situation, or if you write for the picture book market and you only have teens in your house, you’ll also have to get a little more creative to observe and interact with your readers. So, here are four tips to help you in that quest.
Yes, this will take some time, but it’ll be time well-spent. Get to know your audience and watch your writing become more raw, more real, and more relevant.
One key element that makes narrative nonfiction so compelling is the sensory details you weave into the story.
The reader feels part of the scene when they can hear the rattle of buggy wheels on cobblestone, or smell the putrefying flesh at a crime scene. The best way to collect those sensory details is to personally experience your subject. For example, I know that the skin of a beluga whale feels like a peeled hardboiled egg because I went to Sea World and touched one. But when a deadline’s looming, or travel isn’t in the budget (and you can’t time travel) there are still plenty of ways to sniff out those details.
3. Maps – When writing about Lincoln, I kept a map of D.C. on my wall so I could trace his travels through the city. From the White House could he smell bread baking at the Capitol, or hear the cattle grazing beneath the Washington Monument? And using a map of the White House I could ascertain Jefferson’s view from his office window. It faced west, so I could safely say, “Through the geraniums growing on the windowsill (a detail from a letter), Thomas could watch the cattle graze in the distant meadow. How many times did his imagination look even further west across an entire continent…?”
4. Google Maps Street View – It’s the next best thing to being there. When writing about George Washington Carver I viewed several of the houses he stayed in, and determined how close a lynch mob came to his doorstep. Now Street View also features the Grand Canyon, Eiffel Tower and the International Space Station.
5. YouTube – You can find everything from a video of a praying mantis laying eggs to a 1940 first full color newsreel of The Tournament of Roses. Your senses will be delighted with these sites, and you can pass those details to your reader.
What sites do you rely on to give your stories that whiff of reality?
We are eleven authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
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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