By Nancy Churnin
In Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking 1983 work, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he explains how people learn in different ways – musically, kinesthetically, verbally, interpersonally, intrapersonally, as well as logically. One form isn’t better than another. The important thing is to figure out a child’s best way of processing information and teaching with that in mind. Even within a smaller field such as nonfiction, we can see that there are different ways of presenting information about a similar subject.
Independence Day provides a perfect example. The Nonfiction Ninjas are all dedicated to the craft of nonfiction for children, but wow – the incredible variety in the stories they tell for July 4 should inspire writers to explore the many ways a topic can be explored and parents and educators to consider how different approaches might connect with individual kids. Pick a book and pair it up with a craft for a memory to treasure.
For the youngest children, Michelle Medlock Adams offers a board book, What is America? In simple, rhyming language, Illustrated by Amy Wummer and published by WorthyKids, it touches on symbols such as the flag and the Statue of Liberty, but concludes that the ideas of freedom and democracy are more important than symbols and monuments.
For elementary school kids ready to dig into thoughtful picture book biographies, Peggy Thomas offers two award-winners about our Founding Fathers, both published by Calkins Creek. Farmer George Plants a Nation (illustrated by Layne Johnson), draws from Washington’s letters and diaries, to focus on our first president not as a politician or even general, but as a farmer, inventor, and scientist. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation (illustrated by Stacy Innerst) shows our third president as a planter who loved to watch things grow, making a connection with how he cultivated his garden and the expansion of the new nation.
Kids will find a compelling perspective on what patriotism means in The Impossible Patriotism Project by Linda Skeers. This fictional story, illustrated by Ard Hoyt and published by Puffin Books, has the ring of truth because Linda draws from a mix of real and personal experiences to craft this poignant story of a boy who has to come up with a patriotism project for class. Caleb longs for help from his father, who is away at war, and his solution reminds us of the tough sacrifices made by the families of those who serve to give us the freedom that we celebrate.
Middle graders can dig with delight into Top. Secret Files: American Revolutionary Spies, Secret Missions, and Hidden Figures from the American Revolution from Stephanie Bearce (Prufrock Press), and learn how George Washington had his own secret agents, hired pirates to fight the British, and helped Congress smuggle weapons.
by Peggy Thomas
Many of my fellow Ninjas have had new books released, but due to the coronavirus quarantine they haven’t been properly “launched.” Today, we’re celebrating Susan Holt Kralovansky’s newest title, How Fire Ants Got their Fire, which came out in March.
It was a treat for me to see this book in print because I got to see the story grow, or should I say take shape, during critique sessions. The key parts were there from the beginning: the main character appropriately named Ky-Anne; good ‘ole Texas expressions kids are likely to adopt; and a secondary story line. Susan’s story became leaner as she moved the secondary story line to the illustrations, which gave the story even more depth.
Unlike the rest of the Ninjas, Susan illustrates her stories with mixed-media collage. Take it from me, this won’t be a quick one and done read. Your kids will want to stop and examine all the little details, from the hundreds of ants to Granny’s army boots. Check out Susie’s process in this blog post – Even Illustrators Have to Do Research.
And like a true nonfiction writer, Susie couldn’t resist sharing a few facts with her readers. Each jalapeno on the end pages is literally peppered with a spicy tidbit. In the back matter she also shares Ky-Anne’s Prizewinnin’ Chili recipe, and where the idea for this story came from.
If any of you are thinking of writing an origin story, also known as a pourquoi tale, study Susie’s How Fire Ants Got Their Fire for a succinct lead, superb pacing, and a fun blending of facts and fable.
By Susie Kralovansky
Although it may not seem like it from the looks of my office, but I’m obsessed with Marie Kondo, her books, and her Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Condo.
While reading her book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, it occurred to me that her rules for tidying could also be the perfect rules for revisions.
The revision process is not about decluttering your story or making it look nice and neat for editors. Instead, it is about revising in a way that will spark joy when reading your final draft.
1. Commit yourself to the revision process.
Writing is revising and rewriting. And revising again. And again. Keep in mind the words of a pro: “I love revision. Where else can spilled milk be turned into ice cream?” – Katherine Paterson.
2. Imagine your ideal manuscript.
Paste your draft into a dummy. (If you’ve never made a dummy – take 8 sheets of paper, stack them landscape style and fold them in half. Staple along the fold.) Does your manuscript fit? Too much information? Too little? Your dummy will guide you as you make revisions.
3. Finish discarding first.
Go through your manuscript line by line. If it sparks joy (moves your story forward) keep it. If not, discard. This way, you’re not wasting time revising materials that could eventually be cut.
4. Revise by category.
Does your first page grab the reader? Do you have a satisfying ending? Will this keep your reader engaged from beginning to end?
Have someone read your story aloud. Is your writing sparkling? Did your reader get stuck or stumble?
5. Ask yourself if it sparks joy.
“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” – William Faulkner. This is the hardest part - hanging on to those elements you love. They may have special meaning but will probably have your agent or editor rolling their eyes.
Remember, you’re not choosing what to discard, but what to keep. And, you only want to keep the good stuff that makes you and your manuscript shine – with joy.
Repost from 5/2019
It’s a sad fact of the writing life that no project is ever perfect the moment you get it down on paper. Some first drafts are better than others, but we all know it takes multiple revisions to create that final product. There’s a long road from inspiration to publishing—usually with a few detours along the way.
Because it takes editing and revision to create a final manuscript worthy of print, you’d think there would be some agreed upon set of rules for editing. But there’s not. If you Google “types of editing” you’ll find a lot of different answers. There are some common terms, but not everyone agrees on how to define them. It’s just confusing.
My take on all this can be summed up in two statements. One, it really doesn’t matter what you call it. Editing is just working out the bugs and making sure your piece is “practically perfect in every way.” Two, you’re going to need another pair of eyes to help you through the process—preferably more than one pair.
Let’s start with the other pairs of eyes. We’ll get back to the “working out the bugs” stuff in a minute.
You’re going to need a critique group. No matter how well you write, you need a group of writers who write at or above the level you do and can give you honest feedback on your work. That said, a good critique group is hard to find. It took me years.
A critique group should provide you with an HONEST evaluation of your work. That’s important. So many would-be authors just want a forum in which to have others read their work and tell them how wonderful it is. No one likes to hear the negatives about their “baby,” but it’s an essential part of the editing process. You can’t fix it if no one ever tells you what the bumps are.
In its best form a critique group should be a place to learn new skills, hone your current work in progress, and share information. When you find the right combination, you’ll know it. Hold on to it. A good critique group can, and should, make you a better writer. It’s worth the effort it will take you to find one.
As for that pesky editing stage—it doesn’t actually stop until a publisher prints the first run. If you’re one of those authors who resists changing anything or taking constructive criticism, you’re in the wrong business. And if you’re considering self-publishing, just know the ENTIRE editing monkey is on your back. You’re responsible for the whole thing.
Whether it’s your critique group, an editor from a publishing house, or you have to hire someone—it helps to know some editing terms. As mentioned earlier, the waters are a little murky about exactly what these terms mean, but here are a few about which there is general agreement.
Copy editing: A copy editor looks for errors in punctuation, spelling, and grammar. They make corrections as needed.
Line editing: A line editor looks at your book line by line. They study your sentence structure and word choice to make sure your sentences convey just the right meaning. They look for run-on sentences, fragments, and clichés. And they’ll help you clarify what you meant to say, eliminate unnecessary words or jargon, and generally make sure the sentence sounds right to the reader.
Developmental editing: A developmental editor looks at the “big picture” of your book’s organization and structure. They look at pacing, characters, plot, subplots, dialogue, point of view, order, flow, and consistency. They’ll let you know if you’re leaving out important information the reader needs. They’ll also let you know if there is something that needs to be cut. Developmental editors help you see your work as readers see it.
Content editing: (also called substantive editing) Content editing falls somewhere between developmental editing and line editing, although the term is often used interchangeably with both. Content editing involves tightening and clarifying each sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter. It focuses on making sure the manuscript fits the tone needed for the target audience and stays true to the author’s voice. A content editor doesn’t move whole chapters around, but they may suggest you rearrange scenes or paragraphs within a chapter to improve flow and understanding.
Proofreading: A proofreader is much the same as a copy editor. The difference is a proofreader works with the final formatted proof of your book. In addition to the things a copy editor might be looking for, they look for typos, inconsistent headings or page numbers, line and page breaks, and the placement of tables and other visuals. It’s the proofreader’s job to catch any mistakes the copy editor missed as well as any problems with formatting.
The beauty of a good critique group is that they can potentially provide all types of editing for you. Different people in your group will likely excel in different types of editing which will benefit you in the long run. You, in turn, can provide editing help for your fellow writers and learn while you do it. It’s a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship.
That said, if you insist on doing the Lone Ranger thing, don’t expect someone to provide these types of services for free. It behooves you to know what kind of editing you need (see definitions above) so you can discuss this with whomever you hire to make sure you’re both on the same page. That way there will be no unrealistic expectations on your part. If you are self-publishing, ALL the editing will be your responsibility. If you are publishing through a traditional publisher, some parts of the editorial process will be provided by the house. Still, it’s worth remembering, you have a greater chance of being published if you present a polished product from the outset.
Learning New Tricks: Keeping Sources Organized
By Peggy Thomas
I am a file by the pile person. I keep my research in a big tote, and never can decide how to organize the material because I never know exactly how I’m going to use it. But over the years I've learned several ways to keep my reference citations, especially for quoted material, accurate and accessible.
Going old-school has kept me organized for many years, but I am always eager to learn a better system. Thanks to Pat Miller, fellow NF Chick and creator of the NF Fest, I now use OneNote, which came with Windows 10 and Microsoft Office. It’s a computer program that lets you gather info from all types of media. The ones I am supremely giddy about are video and audio files.
For my new biography, I’ve been viewing dozens of documentaries, TV news clips, old radio interviews, and promotional videos. Much of it has not been transcribed, and it’s annoying trying to type and listen to a video or audio tape. I, for one, have a crappy memory and I can’t type fast enough. By saving the clips on OneNote I have all my quotes in one place regardless of the medium, and I can transcribe them at my leisure.
What is brilliant, is OneNote is also on my phone. I can be in a museum or archive, snap a photo of an exhibit, record my thoughts, and add them to OneNote. All my info will be waiting for me when I get back to my office.
OneNote is organized with files, and pages within the files. To add new info, open a page and click on Insert and then choose image, video, audio, screen shot, etc. OneNote automatically adds the link (also brilliant!). Here are a few examples: a passage cut and pasted from a website; a magazine article from a digital archive; an audio file; and video file.
What are your favorite ways to stay organized?
by Susie Kralovansky
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.
Peggy Thomas switches projects. Having more than one manuscript going at a time allows her to shift gears. While she's actively working on another story, she knows her subconscious is busy thinking about the first problem. She also agrees that a nap helps.
Nancy Churnin and Michelle Medlock Adam’s favor music – Nancy likes 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 prefers making lists and brainstorming with her husband when 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.
originally appeared 12/18/2018
When I started writing for children, I wrote pretty good first drafts. But when critiques came in, I didn’t know how to address the issues they raised. I could make minor tweaks in wording and add or drop sentences here and there. But I couldn’t figure out how to rework what I had written, how to see it differently, how to imagine something new.
One strategy that helps me get beyond seeing only a single way to write a chapter, article, or story is to brainstorm multiple openings. For thirty minutes or so, I push myself to keep writing until I’ve created five or six different beginnings.
Writing multiple openings lets me experiment with the tone, focus, structure, etc. It eliminates the pressure of "getting it right" the first time. Also, this process usually clarifies which opening is most promising: the one that makes me want to keep writing—and hopefully, makes the reader want to keep reading.
The first chapter in one of my works-in-progress describes the early life of the First Emperor of China (the one often known for his army of terracotta warriors). How could I start the chapter in a way that would draw readers in? Here are several openings I drafted:
Question: which opening do you think works best?
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.
originally posted 4/3/2019
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!
originally posted 12/4/2018
Writing nonfiction requires the skills of a ninja.
You must be great at tracking your quarry, skilled at telling a story, and able to slice and dice words at a moments notice.
Today I am going to equip you with one of the Nonfiction Ninja’s best secret weapons – Primary Sources.
Primary sources are documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation and were often created during the period you are writing about. Diaries, newspapers, government documents, letters, memoirs, and oral histories are all examples of primary sources.
These days the life of a Nonfiction Ninja is a little easier because there are some amazing websites that bring the primary sources right to your Ninja Lair. You can sift through facts and files with out ever breaking a Ninja sweat.
Here are some of the best websites for primary sources dealing with American History:
100 Milestone Documents
Includes documents that chronicle United States history from 1776 to 1965.
Eyewitness accounts of North American exploration, from Vikings in Canada in 1000 AD to the diaries of mountain men in the Rockies 800 years later.
Documents related to historical and current U.S. presidencies, such as speeches, official papers, and executive orders.
American Life Histories
Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940.
Full text of North American periodicals from 1740 through the 19th century.
Search and read historic newspapers published from 1690 to the present.
Scanned and redacted – images of FBI files of famous individuals and groups.
New York Public Library
30,000 images of New York City, costume, design, U.S. history, etc. from books, magazines and newspapers, as well as original photographs, prints and postcards, mostly created before 1923.
Advertisements, forms, programs, catalogs and time tables that capture the everyday activities of ordinary people.
Primary documents and personal narratives, 1960–1974
World Digital Library
Collection of print and visual resources
Originally posted 10-27-18
We are nonfiction 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.