by Wendy Hinote Lanier
I hate writing. I love having written.
The above quote is often attributed to Dorothy Parker although there’s no evidence she ever said it. But lots of other writers have—including me.
Sometimes writing is easy. It just flows out of you. But if we’re honest, most of the time writing is the result of hard work and more than a few tears. It doesn’t come easily. And there are lots of times when you’ll do almost anything (remember that drawer that hasn’t been cleaned out in years?) to avoid it.
I have to admit, I’m a champ at avoiding my writing tasks. I’m so good at it, I’ve had to find ways to force myself into positions where I MUST write. I share a few of them here in the hopes it will help you become more productive, too.
by Linda Skeers
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!
Do you want to write nonfiction with the skills of a ninja but not sure where to start? Get your feet wet writing for magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals.
To train in and sharpen your nonfiction skills, it’s okay (I even encourage you!) to write for the no-pay/low-pay market. This is where they pay you about three cents a word or nothing at all except complimentary contributor’s copies of the magazine you’re published in. Your key payback is that you watch your published credits build while your confidence and skills at executing published nonfiction grow.
I’ve written for the no-pay/low-pay market for years. An added perk? Most editors who work in the no-pay/low-pay market want to climb the rope and work toward the top of their game just like you do. Chances are, they’ll want to bring you with them.
For example, one day I got a phone call from a publisher I’d never worked with before. A publisher of nonfiction books. An editor I worked with in the no-pay/low-pay magazine market just got hired to work for this publisher and recommended my name as a potential author for their new project. Would I be interested in writing four holiday books for them?
The result? Four work-for-hire book contracts! True Books: Earth Day, Independence Day, Passover, and Easter. Four nice unexpected paychecks I hadn’t calculated into my income yet that year.
Do you want to be a professional ninja of published children’s nonfiction books, but aren’t sure how to take your career to the next level? Start landing assignments writing for the no-pay/low-pay market or other magazines and periodicals. For information on magazines and their writer guidelines, go to Evelyn B. Christensens's extensive listings at Writing for Children's Magazines. Go to Ev's site as well as look in a current children’s writers market guide.
You’ll soon be climbing your way to success!
by Peggy Thomas
Ideas are like radio waves. They are all around us, and you simply have to raise your antenna to tune in. That means being observant, reading widely, talking to people, and being open to the world around you. The more you practice being aware, the more ideas you’ll accumulate. Unfortunately, not every idea becomes a book (at least not my ideas).
Before you plunge head first into writing, ask yourself a few questions:
#1. Is the idea kid-friendly? You may love the idea of writing about the history of buttons or the 2008 economic crash, but what would a 4th grader think. Even if you suspect that a young reader’s eyes would glaze over, it doesn’t mean your idea is dead. Just figure out a way to make your story more relevant to a young audience. For example, you could focus on kids who lost their homes during the economic crash. Or compile the most bizarre and zany facts about buttons.
#2. Has anyone else written on this topic? Do a quick search on Amazon, or conduct a more thorough search on WorldCat.org, which contains the records from more than 10,000 libraries.
Don’t panic if another writer had the same idea. You can still write about buttons, especially if the competition is more than five years old. Librarians tend to refresh their nonfiction every few years to keep their collections current. However, you do not want to write the exact same book, so…
#3. Can I add something new to the conversation? Look for cutting-edge research. Approach the topic from a different angle. For example, rather than a book about all buttons, focus on one collector, one time period, or write from a button’s point of view. When I wrote about George Washington, I approached it from a farming viewpoint in George Washington Plants a Nation (Calkins Creek, 2014).
#4. Can I find enough information? I’ve had to drop several projects simply because I could not find material. Look for primary sources like letters, diaries, period news articles, and people to interview.
Then you will be able to write a well-researched book with a fresh slant that any kid will love.
by Nancy Churnin
A nonfiction ninja needs detective skills. So, put on your Sherlock Holmes cap, and track down your subject. If your subject is dead, contact that person’s descendants or those who knew the person well.
What you learn can make the difference in unearthing details that will bring your story to vivid life or correct errors made in previous biographies.
How do you find these people?
Newspapers and magazine articles. If the person is alive, articles will probably tell you where that person was living as well as where the person was working at the time the article was written. Look up the place of work and if your subject is no longer working there, ask where the subject might be. If dead, obituaries will tell you the survivors or where the person donated records. Your subject’s alma mater can help track down heirs.
Universities and publishers. If the person and heirs are impossible to reach, look up experts on your subject. Often that person can be found teaching at a university where emails are easy to find. The expert may also point you to resources that can get you going on your own original research.
Travel. If you can, go to the actual place where your subject lives or lived and walk the streets that person walked, go to places that person might have frequented and talk to people who know or knew your subject.
What if the subject or the family WON’T support the book?
While it’s your legal right to write about people who are famous without their consent, I have always opted against that. It is hard to get a story right even with all the resources at your disposal. It’s also hard to market the best of stories. It’s a big help to go out there with support.
If your hunt leads to putting your manuscript aside, remember that even for the best of detectives, not all cases get solved. But with these tips, the percentage that you do solve should go up. Happy sleuthing!
by Michelle Medlock Adams
While doing research for my latest book, Dinosaur Devotions: 75 Dino Discoveries, Bible Truths, Fun Facts, and More! (TommyNelson, 2019), I realized that we can learn a lot from our dinosaur friends. Here are three “Dino Do’s” for my fellow children’s writers.
Do be like a Compsognathus (comp-sog-NAYTH-us). This little dinosaur, about the size of a chicken, worked smarter, not harder. Though he chased after and munched on small prey, sometimes he watched and waited, letting the more powerful predators kill unsuspecting dinos. Then the Compsognathus would sneak in and snack on the dead animals. It’s not that this dino was lazy; it was cunning.
Do be like a Corythosaurus (ko-RITH-o-SORE-us)--The Corythosaurus had exceptional eyesight and hearing and used those senses to survive. You’ll have to do the same if you want to survive and thrive in the children’s book world.
Do be like a Utahraptor (Yoo-tah-RAP-tor)--Experts believe Utahraptors stayed together throughout their lives, hunting in packs, and surviving by working together.
So, be like a dinosaur and grow your writing career as big as a Patagotitan.
by Lisa Amstutz
Does your picture book lack that spark that pulls the reader from page to page? Do people keep saying it feels like an article? If so, I have three words of advice: MAKE A DUMMY.
I critique hundreds of picture book manuscripts every year, and often advise making a dummy because IT WORKS!
1. It forces you to think visually. There’s an interplay of art and text in picture books that isn’t present in any other book format. As you create your dummy, make sure each spread is a separate scene, and that there is enough variety of scenes in the book to make it visually interesting.
2. It tightens your prose. Look at your text again, and take out anything that will be shown in the art. When you finish, read it aloud to yourself or a child. Does it read like a picture book? Make sure the language is sparse but strong.
3. It forces you to think through page turns. Add transitions or suspenseful language so the reader MUST find out what happens next. Study current picture books and note how the author entices you to turn the page. This doesn’t happen by accident!
4. It helps with your story’s pacing. Look at how many words are on each spread. Have you devoted at lot of text to one scene and very little to the next? Also keep in mind the age and reading level of your audience. How much text can they handle without getting overwhelmed?
A picture book dummy is easy to make. Simply fold eight sheets of blank paper in half and staple them in place. Leave the first and last spreads blank to leave room for the title page, author’s note, etc. That should leave you with 13 spreads. Cut out and paste your text onto the dummy or write it out by hand. Sketch out scenes to go along with it. Stick figures are fine.
If you don’t want to staple pages, use an online template. At the very least, paginate your manuscript.
Sure, it takes time. But it’s worth a try. It may just take your story from drab to dramatic!
Lisa Amstutz is a freelance editor and the author of 100+ children’s books. For more about her books and editorial services, see www.LisaAmstutz.com.
Whether you’re writing about bears or Booker T. Washington, the first page of your nonfiction picture book plays an important role. Note that this is not the first page of your manuscript. This is the text that will become the first page of the published book.
The best way I know to learn how to write a winning first page is to study the first page of current nonfiction picture books. Listen to the voice and see how it establishes the pattern for the rest of the book. Evaluate how the art works together with the text to establish a sense of time and place.
Three Key Categories
I’ve noticed the first page of most nonfiction picture books can be divided up into three categories:
Category 1: The first page introduces the MC or topic.
Category 2: The first page introduces the MC’s or topic’s problem.
Category 3: The first page introduces something significant that helps set up the problem.
Have you ever stopped to notice how the cover of a picture book works closely with the first page? The cover of many nonfiction picture books can also be divided into the same three categories. Take for example, the following titles.
This nonfiction picture book falls into the first category and introduces the MC on the cover:
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill
This following nonfiction picture book falls into the second category where the MC’s problem is introduced on the cover:
Dirty Rats? by Darrin Lunde
The following falls into the third category where something significant that helps to set up the problem is introduced on the cover:
The Camping Trip That Changed America by Barb Rosenstock
One of our goals when we work on our own nonfiction picture book is to create a winning first page. And since a picture book’s cover works so closely with the first page, we also want to create a winning title. By studying the first page of current picture books and incorporating their winning strategies into our own, we’ll be well on our way to success.
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
We are eleven authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
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