By Lisa Amstutz
The past few years, I’ve helped to judge a writing contest. Each judge reads dozens of submissions and picks their favorites. Surprisingly often, there is a clear consensus on the winners. Something makes these submissions stand out above the rest.
This experience has given me a glimpse of what an editor must face on a daily basis. Her inbox is filled with manuscripts, many of which are perfectly nice, well-written stories. She’s already sent 20 polite rejections today: “This story is well-written but it just didn’t grab me.” “It’s a good story, but not right for me.” As she opens yet another email, what could possibly make her jump out of her chair and shout “Eureka!”? In a word: a hook.
So what’s a hook? Editor Frances Gilbert recently posted an excellent Twitter thread on this topic. To summarize, a hook is something so important, seasonal, timely, unique, funny, or extraordinarily well-written that an editor can’t resist it. It’s that something special that grabs a reader’s attention and pulls them in.
Hooks are easy to spot once you start looking for them. Try to identify the hook in the books you read. Go to a library or bookstore and browse the new books. What do you think made an editor fall in love with this story? What made you pick it up?
Next, go home and look at your manuscript. Would it stand out in an overworked editor’s inbox? Would it jump off the shelf at Barnes & Noble? If so, congratulations - you have a winner! If not, look at your story again with a critical eye. Maybe you need a punchier title. Maybe you need to simplify your concept or amp up the humor. Take the time to find your hook and really make it shine. Then toss out your line again—and just maybe you’ll land a contract this time!
By Stephanie Bearce
You bravely signed up for a critique at the conference.
It’s your dream editor!
Fingers and toes crossed, you go to the critique hoping she likes your manuscript.
Palms sweating, nervous chit chat.
Will she love it?
Will she offer a contract?
New writers often have daydreams that an agent or editor will love the manuscript they are critiquing so much that they will immediately offer a contract. Those of us who have been in the business for a bit longer know that dream is equivalent to winning the lottery. It can happen, unfortunately the odds are not in your favor.
But that marked up piece of paper you hold in your disappointed hand is a treasure map that can help you move forward on the path to publication. It’s a critique and you need to use it!
Here are five rules to help you get the most out of any critique:
Listen – If this is an in-person critique, go in prepared to listen to everything the critiquer has to share. She is an industry professional and she has expertise that can truly help you. Do not interrupt to try to explain your manuscript. Listen. And take notes! You’re going to want to remember the advice later!
Ask Questions – Go in prepared with questions you have about your project. Make a list and take it with you. This is your chance to pick the professional’s brain. Ask about markets, topics, sources, how to improve your work, or what are your next steps. If you are unclear about something she says – ask for clarification. The critiquer has the same goal you do – to make you a stronger writer.
Read – Once you have left the in-person critique, take time to read the written comments. Try not to feel defensive. It’s hard. She’s criticizing your baby. But remember the goal – publication! So, read it all – even the parts that hurt.
Set it aside – Once you have read the comments, set it aside for at least a week. Maybe longer. Do not jump into a total rewrite the next day. Let the ideas sit and simmer. Then go back and see which ones make sense for your vision of the manuscript. You do not have to take every piece of advice and implement it. But you should also be honest with yourself and recognize where your manuscript needs improvement.
Revise – After you have a good idea of the new direction you want for your manuscript – get back on that computer. Your project may need small tweaks or a complete rewrite. That is up to you! But smart writers take all the advice they can get. You never know when someone’s comments are going to spark an idea that will turn your story into a literary treasure.
By Susan Kralovansky
When I signed my first book contract, I thought the hard work was over. I was so wrong. The hard work was just beginning.
Then I planned a hugely successful book release party, and I thought the hard work was over. Again, the hard work was just beginning – I realized that I needed a plan for continued book sales and an income while writing that next book.
I muddled through what would have been a breeze if I’d had Kim Norman’s book Sell Books and Get Paid Doing Author School Visits. I’m a former librarian and an author who has done tons of author visits, and I still found Kim’s book filled with valuable advice. She systematically covers everything from creating presentations to needed equipment to organizing your contracts.
Norman begins by walking you through creating your presentation. As Kim says, “Author visits are as different as the books they’re about.” (p.7) She also covers:
• Setting up an author visit
• How much to charge
• Where to find schools that host authors
• Book sales
• Book signings
• Author websites
• Staying organized
In Kim’s final chapter, she shares advice from her writing friends. Rachelle Burk, Kelly Milner Halls, Marc Tyler Nobleman, to name a few, shared advice, humor, and “war stories.”
Aside from practical insider information and action steps, Norman shares the pleasures, pains, and strategies of author visits. In this in-depth, how-to, she shares the mistakes she has made, the secrets she has learned, and the joys of talking books with hundreds of thousands of children over the past dozen years. Kim is a great and generous teacher. She puts everything she does into simple terms, providing templates that allow us to replicate her methods step-by-step.
By Pat Miller
If you write picture books, you may have participated in StoryStorm, an online challenge for writers in January. For longer fiction, one can participate in the National Novel Writing Month challenge in November. And if you write poetry, there’s NaPoWriMo in April.
But there is no online monthly challenge for nonfiction writers. I mentioned this unfortunate gap to my friends in the Nonfiction Chicks.
Lisa Amstutz, Stephanie Bearce, Nancy Churnin, Susie Kralovansky, Linda Skeers, Peggy Thomas, and I are passionate about children’s nonfiction. Between us we’ve published 220 true books. “Why don’t WE host a month long online NF challenge?” we asked.
And that’s how NF Fest was born! February will now be the month for true book writers to enjoy a challenge of our own. We asked dozens of experienced, talented nonfiction writers to join us in inspiring, educating, and supporting those who write true books. They were quick to join us.
Here’s how NF Fest works. You register for the challenge between January 15-31. This will make you eligible for prizes.
You will receive a 35 day “calendar” of nonfiction-related activities. You will do one each day in February. These are brief and designed to help you develop or improve your research and nonfiction writing skills.
In addition, there will be a helpful post each day in February. Comment on each. That is how we can build community (and randomly choose prize winners.)
Our lineup includes science writer Melissa Stewart, history writer Candace Fleming, biographer Lesa Cline Ransome, and 25 other authors. Prizes include autographed books, critiques, and more.
You’re invited to join the Nonfiction Chicks in celebrating Leap Year’s February with the inaugural NF Fest. To receive reminders and updates, join our Facebook group, "Nonfiction Fest."
We can't wait to see you at NF Fest!
By Wendy Hinote Lanier
Nonfiction writing is all about disseminating information. The WAY we do this can be difficult to decide. Topics are easy. Those are the ideas that intrigue us and send us gleefully tracking down all the information we can find on said topic. But how we choose to organize that information can sometimes bring the writing process to a screeching halt. One solution is to tackle the subject with a layered text.
Layered text allows nonfiction writers to present information in more than one way—within the same publication. Each layer adds to the overall concept. And like the bricks in a wall, each bit widens the scope of the topic and supports the main idea. The great thing about that is a nonfiction book with multiple text layers can reach a wider audience. And that can mean more sales and larger print runs.
Here are a few ways to add layers to your nonfiction projects:
Illustrations – In a way, a picture book is the simplest form of layered text. Whether the book is a “read-to-me” or a “read-alone” book, the illustrations add another layer of information for the reader. Sometimes the illustrations just enhance the written information. And sometimes they actually add information that is not in the text. But regardless of the grade level, pictures are a great way to add information to a nonfiction topic.
Font size and reading level – In some nonfiction books there are two reading levels. Short simple text is often in a larger font. More challenging text is a bit longer and usually in a smaller font. In a 2013 guest blog post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s webpage, Melissa Stewart points out that these kinds of books are wonderful for Reading Buddy programs. Teachers love them because younger students can read the simple text, and their older Reading Buddy can read the more complex text. In this way both students practice reading, and they both learn new information about a given topic.
Sometimes the change in font is just for effect. In a fiction example, Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, the second font has the appearance of penciled in “improvements” by a boy named Alex. The second layer of text completely changes the original plot of the story.
Photos – Some nonfiction books are illustrated with photos. Others have both illustrations and photos. The photos show details often not discussed in the text. When used in combination with illustrations, they add yet another layer of information to the text.
Captions – Photos in nonfiction texts often include captions that explain what the reader sees in the photo. The caption can be as simple as an identifying phrase or as complex as a short paragraph.
Speech bubbles – Occasionally the illustrations in a nonfiction book have characters that talk. Their comments are added as speech bubbles. Usually, at least in nonfiction, the characters are making an observation about the concept being discussed in the main text.
One series that uses just about every type of layering mentioned in this post, including speech bubbles, is the Magic School Bus books. Although they should probably be considered “informational fiction” since the characters and events of the books are fiction, the concept of each book is pure science. To get the information across the author (Joanna Cole) and illustrator (Bruce Degen) use every tool at their disposal. The Magic School Bus books are chock full of text, sidebars, diagrams, labels, and more. It’s possible to explore the pages of a Magic School Bus book for hours even though it is technically considered a picture book. It’s all about the layers of text. Although they’ve been around for a while now, they’re still some of my favorites.
Diagrams – A diagram is a great way to explain things to a visual learner. Sometimes it’s the best way to explain something that would otherwise take a whole page of text. These days they are most often referred to as infographics.
Labels – Diagrams are usually labeled. The labels are another layer of meaningful text. However, photos and illustrations can also be labeled.
Factoids - Whether you call them Fun Facts, Factoids, or “Insert Topic Here” Facts, those little tidbits of information are another layer. Factoids are usually related to the overall topic and add something noteworthy not mentioned in the main text.
Sidebars – Sidebars are common in magazine articles and educational publications. They add additional information to something mentioned (without any elaboration) in the main text. Often sidebars offer an explanation of a concept with a bit more detail than just a definition.
Glossary – Sometimes all that is needed for some of the words in a text is a simple definition. A glossary is a mini-dictionary that defines words from the text that the author or publisher feels the reader may not know. In my experience, the definitions are generated by the author rather than copied from a dictionary.
Back matter – Most nonfiction writers enjoy the research process. They usually find way more information than they could ever hope to include in their main text. The back matter is a place to put the stuff that you find really interesting but just doesn’t go with the main text. The cool thing is, back matter can take many forms. (But maybe that’s another post.) Suffice it to say, the back matter can add another layer of information related to the topic of your book.
Author’s note - An author’s note usually offers some sort of explanation. It might be about what inspired the book, where the information for it was found, or a personal story of why that particular topic was of interest to the author. In any case, an author’s note can tie up loose ends and offer answers to those lingering questions the reader might have.
While the list above is fairly lengthy, it isn’t necessarily exhaustive. There may be others I’ve neglected to mention. As the author of over 40 nonfiction educational books for kids, I’ve used almost all of these. Often they’re all in the same book. And now my latest book has introduced me to a new one. I’m currently working on a project that will include several types of web content. There will be an online photo, an online video, and several online activities all associated with the book’s topic. And as other types of interactive texts are introduced, I suspect there will be additional ways to layer our nonfiction writing in the future.
For more examples of layered text nonfiction books see Melissa Stewart’s 2013 guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog here: https://cynthialeitichsmith.com/2013/09/guest-post-melissa-stewart-on-layer/
By Linda Skeers
You’ve gathered your information. Checked your facts. You’re ready to start writing but stop and wonder, WHO is telling this story? WHO is presenting the information? WHO is my narrator?
Maybe it’s not a WHO, but a WHAT.
An inanimate object. A thing.
Let me explain.
Many wonderful books have been written about Martin Luther King, Jr. How do you introduce him to children in a fresh and unique way? That was the task Eve Bunting gave herself -- and she succeeded with THE CART THAT CARRIED MARTIN.
The focus is on the simple, worn down cart that carried his coffin. Bunting was able to show MLK Jr.’s character by comparing his work ethic and struggles with that of the hard-working cart. By stepping back and creating a bit of distance, the story is still emotional – but not sorrowful.
This was just an ordinary cart – that eventually found a home in the MLK Jr. National Historic Site. “This is the humble cart that, not so long ago, carried greatness.”
Sometimes the perfect object can speak volumes.
That’s exactly what happens in Janet Nolan’s THE FIREHOUSE LIGHT.
Nolan had stumbled upon a fascinating little tidbit – a light bulb in the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department has been burning for over 100 years!
And nobody knows how.
Great fact. But is that a STORY?
It became one when she took a giant step back, looked at the bigger picture and wondered about all the events the light bulb would have witnessed through the years.
And THAT became the story!
The book follows the evolution of firefighting from volunteer bucket brigades to sophisticated equipment and new and improved techniques – always being illuminated by that single, amazing light bulb.
How do you handle an intense historical event filled with violence, hatred and prejudice in a picture book?
When Rob Sanders first entertained the idea of writing about the Stonewall riots, he thought so too.
Until he stepped back and focused on the two buildings that joined together to become Bonnie’s Stone Wall restaurant – the centerpiece of the event.
You’ve all heard the saying, “If these walls could talk”? Sanders gave them a voice. And they had a lot to say in STONE WALL – A Building, An Uprising, A Revolution.
By allowing the building to describe the events as they unfolded, it gives the reader an extra bit of space – space to take it in, understand it, but not be completely overwhelmed by it. It’s a safe space to view something so intense and powerful.
Looking for a fresh angle on your subject? Don’t stare at it too closely or you could miss an important element. Step back and look again – what else do you see? Specific objects? A place? What’s lurking in the corners?
By exploring your subject AND everything surrounding it, you might discover a unique and unusual way into your story – one that makes it stand out AND pull readers in.
By Christine Liu-Perkins
Writing great nonfiction requires hard work and persistence. It may seem that luminaries in the field find the process easy, but let's take a look at what some of them have said about creating their books:
Steve Sheinkin was tempted to give up when it took nearly ten years and hundreds of rejections to get his first trade book published. Since then, his books have won multiple top awards.
In the process of developing Dangerous Jane, Suzanne Slade first wrote 82 versions in prose, 18 versions with a different theme, and then 26 versions in free verse.
Candace Fleming's first version of The Family Romanov was deemed "boring" by her editor. She then searched for a truth beyond facts and dug deep into Russian history to develop her riveting final story.
Laurie Halse Anderson hated her first few drafts of Thank You, Sarah, a picture book biography. Luckily, she drew a doodle that led to the breakthrough she needed.
Pamela S. Turner's proposal for Samurai Rising didn't sell. But after she wrote the full manuscript, she sold it to an editor who had earlier rejected the proposal.
Deborah Heiligman suffered the pain of giving up on a project after two years of research and promising leads. Fortunately, her next project became Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers.
April Pulley Sayre's picture book Stars Beneath Your Bed was rejected 52 times over eight years before it was published.
Jim Murphy submitted seven ideas to his editor that she rejected before he finally came up with The Great Fire. He sometimes spends a day writing a single sentence that he later deletes and might rewrite a manuscript as many as 50 times.
Before Phillip Hoose wrote Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, he waited nearly four years before Ms. Colvin agreed to talk with him.
Melissa Stewart struggled with the structure for No Monkeys, No Chocolate, a writing journey that took "10 years, 56 revisions, and 3 fresh starts." Take a look at her Revision Timeline for a chronicle of her process.
I hope these tales of perseverance encourage you in writing your nonfiction works!
Lately the Ninjas have been discussing middle grade nonfiction, specifically word count. How long is the typical book? It depends on what you call typical. Is it trade nonfiction, or a title in an educational series? To start with, the middle grade reader is considered 8 – 12 years old, or in 3-6 grade.
To blog or not to blog, that is the question.
For many of us, our time to write is so limited or constricted, it seems crazy to take on one more writing obligation. And yet, in addition to the Nonfiction Ninjas blog, where I share a nugget of hard-earned writerly wisdom once every three months, I started a blog, THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE, on my website nancychurnin.com.
And I made it weekly.
My motivation at the start was to give back to the writing community. When my books came out, writers, educators, book-loving folks with blogs hosted me – reviewing my books or doing interviews that gave me an opportunity to talk about my writing journey – what inspires me, what challenges me, what my hopes for my books are.
This would be my chance to do the same for other writers.
That’s a good enough reason to host a blog. But in doing it, I found an unexpected reward. I got to ask other writers all the things I wanted to know about what inspired them, what challenged them, what their hopes for their books are.
We talk about craft, about what we include and leave out of the narrative, about the surprises and the discoveries. In short, not only have I made marvelous friends through these interviews, they’ve become weekly dives into craft and motivation sessions that remind me why I love living in a world of words.
So yes, since time is finite, the hours I spend on the blog take away the time I have to write and promote my books. But there are wrinkles in time and tesseracts and the time I spend shining a light on others and learning from them deepens my work, makes it better and makes me better.
So, do you have the time to start a blog? Maybe the better question is whether you can come up with a better way of learning, growing and giving back.
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.
We are ten 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.
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