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.
When I submitted the proposal for my newest book, Jane Austen for Kids, I also included a market analysis. A market analysis often helps publishers make the decision to offer a contract. Plan to include one with your next nonfiction submission.
Add the wisdom of an owl to your ninja expertise. Whoo-oo-oo knows? A market analysis just might help you land your next contract.
List three to seven book titles that could be potential competitors.
Look for books that meet these criteria:
Most publishers expect to see standard information for each competing book:
Search online to measure projected interest in your book. For example, if I wanted to write a picture book about a child’s trip to the dentist, I search, “How many children visit the dentist?” An article states 83% of children ages 2-17 went to the dentist in 2013.
Start with a paragraph that measures a specific interest in your topic. Follow with a paragraph about each book you’re featuring. In each paragraph, list standard information about each book, a short summary, and how your manuscript is different.
-Nancy I. Sanders is the children’s author of over 100 books including the how-to book for writers, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published and Build a Successful Writing Career. Visit her website at www.nancyisanders.com.
One of my favorite parts of nonfiction research is pouring through collections of historical photographs. From metal plate daguerreotypes and Victorian studio pictures to 1950s brownie camera photos, I love them all. It is like holding a tiny time machine in my hand. For a fleeting moment I can see into a world that is gone.
Historical photos can add depth and dimension to your nonfiction books. Editors love it when an author can provide photo documentation of the topic, and some book publishers require a certain number of photographs for each book project.
BUT and yes, it is a big but --- photos can be expensive. Purchasing editorial rights for some famous images can cost over $150 per photograph. Some publishers provide a modest budget for photographs, but others expect the author to purchase pictures with their advance. Either way, it is important for authors to find cost effective sources for photos.
There are numerous repositories for copyright free historical photographs. Some are well known like Getty Open Content, Library of Congress, and Flickr Commons. But other treasure troves of photos are can be found in local historical societies, libraries, and family collections.
The first stop for photos about your topic should be the area where the person lived or the place the event happened. Contact the local historical society. You may uncover pictures that have never been seen by the public. The cost editorial rights are usually minimal, or they may be willing to share them simply for recognition in the book.
When looking at photographs remember the following copyright rules:
All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. Works published after 1922, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
Check out these sources for copyright free photos
The following sites are great sources of copyright-free images:
"But what do I write about?!"
That was the whiny lament I often heard from my fourth grade students. And sometimes it’s what I hear in my own head as I stare at my blank computer screen.
Unlike writing fiction, where you must create everything in your own head, nonfiction ideas are everywhere. You simply have to be tune your mental radar to find them.
Here are five places that NF ideas pinged my mental radar.
1. Television. Your best bet are channels devoted to documentaries like A&E, Animal Planet, Discovery, The History Channel, and National Geographic. On Pacific Warriors, men and women were out fishing in the Pacific in kayaks, catching fish as big as their boats. The narrator mentioned that the swordfish is the fastest in the ocean, and that the ono is the most vicious fish pound per pound. Ping!
CBS Sunday Morning yields several pings each episode. In the most recent, I was curious to learn more about Nick Benson, the slowest writer in the world. Nick is a third-generation stone carver whose family has engraved many of the monuments and markers at famous tombs and memorials. Their shop was built in 1705—they are the second owners. You can view episodes online--be sure to have paper or keyboard ready.
2. Magazines. One I like is The Smithsonian. They have an online version. How can you resist an article about how “thousands of dead bugs became a mesmerizing work of extraordinary beauty?” In September, there was a short article about another fish that intrigued me. It's warm-blooded! The October, 2015 issue has an article about Armstrong Custer—not as hero but as horse thief. Ping!
3. Read newspapers. Read with an eye for something that makes you think, "Say what?" For example, in one of my local papers, an article mentioned there had been a German POW camp right here in my small Texas town. Ping!
4. Travel. I found the subject of a current project in a Texas museum that's smaller than my house. A recent trip to New Orleans yielded ideas garnered from a sugar plantation, a cemetery, a paddle wheeler, and a church. Your radar will be busy if you are aware and focused!
5. Wonder. Catch yourself every time you wonder--write it down. Waiting at a traffic light, I wondered how the mechanism worked that allowed longer green lights during peak traffic and skipped the turn light when no car was in the lane. Hmmmm... Yesterday I wondered how mosquitoes could find me even on a sunny day with a breeze in a wide open space. They bit me through my clothes! BONUS: If you are around children, their questions can be inspirations.
Once you get yourself attuned, the pings will become so frequent you might feel like a xylophone. You will need to use the note function on your phone, or keep a number of small notebooks stashed in your car, near the shower, in your purse or briefcase, and in the kitchen. Your pile of pings could lead to an essay, an article, a book. Or possibly, a blog post!
My husband, Kurt was thirty minutes into a three-hour bike ride when he had a stroke. And crashed. He woke up surrounded by biking friends and EMTs. The trip to the ER revealed that both his hip and clavicle were fractured, and he couldn’t move his left leg.
I was amazed as I watched the ER staff. I saw no hustle. No obvious sense of urgency. The same was true when he was moved to the ICU. Again, there was no alarm, no hustle. Not one person yelled, “STAT!” but the amount of work they accomplished was amazing.
As I watched these professionals, it occurred to me that I should try this methodical, efficient, stress-free movement from task to task to increase productivity in my writing life.
When a patient arrives in the ER, the doctors have a protocol they follow. Kurt’s fractures had been identified, but they weren’t addressed until the brain bleed was under control. The other items aren’t being ignored or forgotten, but there is no use fixing a broken hip if bleeding in the brain can’t be stopped.
The hospital staff begins each day with an assessment of the patient’s condition – something we can easily do with our writing. They then form a plan and check off each item as it is accomplished. Their mantra is to stay focused, stay calm, and reach out for help if they’re overwhelmed, all excellent writing advice.
Writers may have one, two, or even seven irons in the fire, but to move forward productively, we also need a protocol:
Ready to give it a try? Set up your own productivity protocol (STAT!) and find yourself moving methodically and efficiently through your writing tasks.
Writing nonfiction can feel a bit like writing a research paper. You may have a great time finding interesting tidbits to include in your writing, but if you can’t locate them a second time, they don’t do you much good. And if the old index cards and file box solution doesn’t work for you (it didn’t work in high school so it probably doesn’t now), I’ve got a better solution.
Back in the day, writing a bibliography was tedious and usually took almost as long as it took to write a paper. Thanks to the age of computers and the internet, this is no longer the case. Bibliographical generators online make it easy to create a list of your sources in whatever style you choose with the click of a mouse.
And these online generators can do more than just create your final bibliography. They can also help you verify your information to an editor or fact checker long after you have moved on to another project.
Start by creating a new bibliography for your project before you even begin to write. As you research, enter the bibliographical information into a generator for all of your sources. (You can delete entries later if you find that you didn’t use one.) Use your newly created bibliography to footnote your project as you write using the footnote feature in Word. Then copy and paste the appropriate entry from your bibliography into the footnotes.
Even if you don’t have to turn in a footnoted copy of your project to your editor, save a footnoted copy for yourself. At some point someone may ask where you found a particular piece of information. A quick look at your footnoted copy will tell you what you need to know without having to retrace your research steps.
Some bibliographical generators:
Citefast.com – www.citefast.com
Grammarly.com – www.grammarly.com/citations
EasyBib – www.easybib.com
Bibme – www.bibme.org
Cite4Me – www.cite4me.org/bibliography
For more information about nonfiction research see my video “Research for Nonfiction and More” and other videos from Nonfiction Ninja members at Serious Writer Academy on line. www.seriouswriteracademy.com
You’ve done your research, written your nonfiction manuscript but you still have lots of little tidbits of information left over. What can you do with it?
An Author’s Note lets you tell “the rest of the story”, fill in gaps, and provide extra information that just didn’t fit into the main text.
But you don’t have to stop there! Here are twelve more ways to use your extra research:
Don’t let those quirky, fascinating little bits of information go to waste. Find a unique way to include them – somewhere, somehow!
We are eleven authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
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