When I look back over my 15-year writing journey, one thing that stands out is the importance of writing mentors. These writers took the time to teach and listen, and consistently pointed me in the right direction. I would not be where I am today without their guidance.
My first mentor, Joanne, was a local writer whose work I admired. I screwed up the courage to invite her to lunch, and her encouragement was the push I needed to start submitting my work. Her invitation to a local writer’s group also opened a door to the writing world for me.
I met my next mentor at my first SCBWI meeting. As I listened to the critiques, I quickly realized how much I had to learn about writing for children. When the moderator mentioned a class she was teaching, I signed up on the spot. I continue to benefit from Laurie’s wisdom and insights to this day.
My agent has been another mentor to me. Before becoming an agent, Vicki modeled professionalism and a sincere desire to help other writers as our region’s SCBWI advisor. She continues that work today as an agent, and I continue to benefit from her example and direction.
There are too many others to list them all here. But I am so grateful to each one! The children’s writing community is amazingly generous and helpful.
So what should you look for in a mentor? To me, a good mentor is someone who is kind but honest about your work. They offer wise counsel and career advice. They help make you a better writer and human being.
A good mentor models success. They don’t need to be a New York Times bestseller, but they consistently achieve results in their own life in areas you want to emulate.
And finally, after listening and giving feedback, a good mentor will step back and let you make your own choices. Ultimately, it is your work and your career. You need to do what feels right to you.
The other side of this equation, of course, is becoming a mentor yourself. Wherever you are on your journey, don’t forget to extend a hand back to someone a step behind. There is nothing more rewarding than helping others succeed!
Who have been the mentors in your life? How have they helped you? Take a moment to thank them, and maybe give them a shout-out in the comments!
Lisa Amstutz is the author of 100+ children’s books. She serves as a volunteer judge at Rate Your Story and as Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI: Ohio North. Lisa offers critiques and mentorships for children’s writers as well as website design services. Learn more at www.LisaAmstutz.com.
Over the years my books have won various awards. For some titles, I worked with my publicist at one of my publishing houses to submit my books for awards. Basically, here's the plan we came up with (that I also use when I’m submitting titles on my own):
1. Prepare a budget for awards submissions. Be sure to include the cost of each of your books submitted, plus postage and envelope to mail it in, and the charge for submissions. If working with a publisher, find out if they have a budget for awards, too. Many do.
2. Make a list of places to submit your book to for awards. Note the cost for submission and the qualifications for the award. Only submit your book for awards if it meets their required criteria.
3. Be sure to include places that don't necessarily offer an award, but honor your book by including it on their list of recommended reads.
4. Make a calendar. The calendar notes the deadlines for each place you're submitting your book.
5. Start submitting. Especially submit to award sites that are free.
Here’s a link to my blog for a list of potential places to submit your book for awards:
The philosophy of the publicists I've worked with has been: Don't worry about whether your book wins the award or not. Submit if it's within your budget for one main reason: EXPOSURE. When you submit your book for an award, it lands in the hands of judges, many who are important folks in their circle of literary influence. For my titles that met the submission criteria, my publicists submitted my books for the Caldecott and Newbery awards and even for the Pulitzer Prize hoping solely for exposure.
One other thought...rather than aim for expensive awards such as the Mom's Choice Award if it's too far above your budget, consider contacting several mom bloggers who have a couple hundred of followers each. Offer to give them a free copy of your book if they'll review it on their site. I have one independent publisher who likes this approach and it has
earned them thousands of dollars of sales of my books and great exposure...for a much more reasonable cost!
-Nancy I. Sanders (www.nancyisanders.com) is the bestselling and award-winning author of over 100 books with publishers big and small including her how-to book for children’s writers, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children's Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career.
Rejections, critiques, revisions, more rejections. Let’s face it writing is a tough business and staying motivated can be difficult. I have found that one of the best ways to renew my writing spirit is to attend in-person writing workshops and retreats. Don’t get me wrong – I love the technology that allows me to attend writing seminars and classes in my jammies. But there is nothing that replaces the camaraderie and inspiration of fellow writers.
Sitting down with other writers and sharing questions, brainstorming, and problem solving can re-light that writing fire. Plus, meeting other writers give you the opportunity to develop long-term writing friendships. We all need writing friends in this journey. They are the ones who will cheer us past the rejections and get us back to the computer.
I’ve assembled a list of some of the best writing retreats. Some I have personally had the pleasure of attending, and others are highly recommended by writing friends.
Take a look at these great offerings and find the retreat that will renew your writing spirit!
Advanced Nonfiction Craft Retreat - KS/MO SCBWI - September 13-15 2019
Spend time working on your nonfiction projects and learn from James Solheim, author of It’s Disgusting and We Ate It.
Writing for the Educational Market - Highlights – June 23-27, 2019
Time for writing, and learning from nonfiction gurus like Jan Fields, Paula Morrow, and Karl Jones.
Master Class in Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults - Highlights July 13-17
Learn about the many angles of nonfiction writing from editorial to story structure. And enjoy time to revise and brainstorm.
Adventures in Nonfiction - Iowa SCBWI September 7
Network with other nonfiction authors and learn from Carolyn Yoder, Miranda Paul, and Jaqueline Briggs Martin.
Autumn Frost Retreat - Indiana SCBWI - November 8-11, 2019
Time for learning, networking, and writing in a lovely lodge.
Fall Focus on Craft Retreat - Maryland SCBWI November 1-3
Three tracks including PB, MG and Illustrators.
Squam Lake Writing Retreat – September 6-8, 2019
Speakers from Charlesbridge, and Candlewick with time for writing and renewal.
Big Sur Writer’s Workshop - December 6-8, 2019
Run by the Andrea Brown Literacy Agency, offers workshops by editors and agents with time for networking and writing.
Whispering Pines Writers Retreat October 2-4 and October 22-24, 2020
Rustic retreat in Rhode Island with one-on-one mentorship opportunities.
That inventor was 16 year-old Hanson Gregory, who became the youngest sea captain from Maine.The Washington Post interviewed him, then retired, on March 26, 1916. My first manuscript had a child questioning the captain, with his fellow mariners adding facts and humor to the story. It became historical fiction, and I imagined wacky illustrations by David Catrow.
I continued to dig. As I unearthed more facts, I realized my first approach was too cavalier. True, Hanson Gregory impulsively created the doughnut while serving on-board as a 16 year-old cook’s assistant. He later married but left his wife and children for months while commanding fast sailing ships. His cargo was dangerous; it caught fire when wet! Gregory even earned a medal from the Queen of Spain for saving the lives of her sailors. In the next version, I revealed Gregory’s life in a chronology that involved sidebars about the lime trade, tall ships and sea disasters, on-board cooking, and more. I got caught up in the period and the book became unwieldy.
A new tack was needed. Census records, death certificates, newspaper archives, letters, and public libraries revealed emotions and tragedies long forgotten. Four of Gregory’s nieces and nephews, all under age five, were killed by yellow fever in the same week. Two of the captain’s young children disappeared from census records and his grandchildren all died tragically. Finally, Captain Gregory was driven from the sea by the dominance of steam-power. I felt bound to bring this man back to life. But how to write about so much determination in the face of towering grief? What about the doughnut? This version was too bleak.
Next I uncovered a strong connection between this 19th century sea captain and modern day Dunkin’ Donuts. What about a book that developed that relationship? And what about the connection with the doughnut girls of World War I? Several attempts to write that version of events fizzled out when the emotional depth was lost.
After six months and 22 rewrites, my 200 pages of research were whittled to 1,071 words about this sea captain and his amazing career. That version did not sell.
I wrote yet another selection of facts with just 716 words, centered on Gregory’s invention of the doughnut. For all the rest, I had to choose just five short author notes. This version sold.
One burden of writing nonfiction is choosing what goes in the work (and gets read), and what remains in one’s research. Captain Gregory outlived most of his family and his story died with him. I grieved as I let the life I had discovered slip back into the soup of history.
Your charge, as you research and write, will be which facts to reveal. And which to leave out. In so doing, you may not change history, but you could alter your readers’ perception of the events.
This is why research is a blessing, and a burden. Choose your facts carefully.
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.
As nonfiction writers, we like to get the skinny on any given subject. Most of us are curious by nature. So we enjoy the process. And we like to share the stuff we’ve found. But sometimes we get bogged down along the way. That’s when an actual deadline can help us reach the finish line.
Whether your deadline is one given to you by an editor or one you impose on yourself, you can use it to help you get to your writing goal.
Start by putting your deadline on your calendar. (I use a large desk calendar for this purpose.) Put in all other important dates, including non-writing related events. Be realistic. Put in doctor visits or other appointments. And give yourself permission to attend that concert or spend the day on an outing with your family. But be sure to put as much of it as you can on your calendar from the get-go.
Now look at the days you have left. Note which days are writing days. Now think about how you might break your project into parts. Set a deadline for each part of the project. Meeting each mini deadline will move you closer and closer to finishing your project. Try to give yourself a few days at the end for your project to “stew” in your mind before you have to turn it in. Those days will be a gift if a family emergency or something else arises to demand your attention.
Plotting out your writing days in this manner, with mini deadlines along the way, will help you plan out your project. It will also take away some of the anxiety associated with having a big project due if you know you are on schedule. It allows you to finish the part you have planned for that day and gives you the freedom to stop or continue if you are on schedule.
For added visual reminder, you can create a sticky-note list on a wall near your desk. Write one mini deadline on each note. Date them if you desire. As you meet each goal, take down the corresponding sticky-note and throw it away. Each time you throw away a note, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. And the shrinking list reminds you that you are on your way to completing your project.
And before you know it: Presto! Your deadline becomes your finish line!
Choose a fun narrator.
Instead of just presenting information in the typical manner, let your subject take over and share their own story!
One Proud Penny – Randy Siegel
PENNY proudly explains how it’s made and offers lots of fun details about money – in his own voice.
Gross is good.
Dig deep for the most fascinating, gross, unusual, weird and amazing facts. Your readers will thank you for it!
Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History – Lois Miner Huey
This book contains lots of fun historical facts and doesn’t shy away from the gross stuff!
Add a fun sidebar.
Even if your subject is fairly serious, if you do find a fun fact or light-hearted example, put it in a side bar. This can be a breath of fresh air or some comic relief.
Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog – Adrienne Sylver
Its sidebars are full of extra facts and anecdotes relating to the humble hot dog. Really stretch and think outside the box to come up with tidbits that will surprise and delight readers.
New angle or twist.
Look for a unique way to present your information. Turn your topic upside down and inside out and shake it all about! Love geography? Want to introduce readers to the Arctic? Instead of presenting facts and figures, make the reader feel as if they are there.
You Wouldn’t Want to Be…A Polar Explorer – Jen Green
This series focuses on the nasty and negative aspects of jobs, lifestyles, and places throughout history. Written in second person, it helps the reader get up close and personal with the subject.
Language, puns, inside jokes.
Use words and phrases that match your topic. And remember that kids LOVE puns and fun word-play!
I Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are – Bridget Heos
Get it? BUZZ? Cracks me up every time!
No matter how serious you are, or how serious your subject is, a touch of humor can coax a smile, and maybe a giggle out of your reader. Go forth and be funny!
Over the years I've experimented with writing personal essays, articles, folktales, picture books, rhyme, biography, how-to's, inspirational pieces, historical fiction, contemporary novels, book-length nonfiction, and academic papers. As I experimented, I noticed things about myself:
Recognizing my writing strengths helped me figure out that nonfiction is my niche. Knowing my strengths makes it easier to decide which projects to pursue — projects that will keep me happy through the (sometimes years-long) process of working on them.
What are your writing strengths? How can you use your strengths to bring you joy in your writing?
For more thoughts on this topic, check out these two blog posts:
Amy Benson Brown, "The Importance of Recognizing Your Strengths as a Writer"
Colleen M. Story, "The One Thing Writers Miss When Trying to Improve"
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.
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