What would you do to get a good story? Track a tornado? Visit avolcano? Watch wolves copulate? Sometimes doing research means getting out of the library and into real life. It means trading in the computer for a pair of snowshoes, or maybe some hip waders, and joining scientists in the field.
I’m working on a project right now that involves wolf breeding research. In order to better understand it, I volunteered to become a member of the team of observers. Yes – that meant I had to go to wolf mating training - complete with diagrams and slides. I won’t share them here – this is a G rated site. But now that I am a trained observer, I get to spend the next few weeks hunkered down in a deer blind watching wolves poop, urinate, and hopefully copulate. Some people think I’m crazy, but I consider it a part of the radical research I am willing to do to write a great nonfiction book.
Hands-on experience helps authors understand the complexity of a subject and in turn relate it to their audience. Some of the best nonfiction authors go to great lengths to learn about their topic firsthand. Author Mary Kay Carson is often in the field with scientists and just spent last spring out chasing tornadoes. Patricia Newman’s award-winning book Sea Otter Heroes had her out on the water visiting the critters themselves. And just ask author Peggy Thomas about the time she gave an elephant a rectal examination. It’s all in the name of nonfiction writing and all for the desire to write the best and most accurate story possible.
So what nonfiction story are you working on right now and what lengths are you willing to go to gain in-depth knowledge about your topic?
Me – I’ll be the author wearing hand and foot warmers silently recording the deeply personal behaviors of mating wolves.
I can’t wait!
We’ve all done it. We walk into our local bookstore and there is an author sitting at a little table with a stack of her books trying not to look pathetic. We quickly duck behind the greeting card rack, and ooze over to the bargain bookshelves, acting especially interested in the History of Manhole Covers in Providence, Rhode Island. When she looks away in desperate hope to the next person coming in the door, you make a dash to the café. This calls for a stiff caffeinated beverage!
I’ve been on both sides of that torture device called the signing table. I’ve been the skulker and I’ve been the victim author. I’m a survivor of an interminable two-hour signing in which the only people who approached me were a woman asking for the bathroom, and a child wanting to know if I was J. K. Rowling.
But signings CAN be a way to interact with your public, whether it’s at a bookstore, a book festival, or a literacy night. The key is to think like a carnival barker. How can you entice, not the adult with the credit card, but the child with command of the adult with the credit card.
Here are some fun ways to draw children to your table, which will bring their parents and make both stay long enough to chat with the charming author and peruse her must-have books.
Many authors snag kid attention by providing an activity related to their book. For my book Substitute Groundhog, I provide everything to make a pop-up groundhog puppet that needs no supplies. I wrote a catchy jingle to go with it, and I act it out with the kids when they finish their puppet. While waiting for the child to finish, parents will flip through my books and ask questions. Or I ask them—“How many groundhogs would you guess we have in the wilds of Texas?” (Answer: none)
A final example is for my nonfiction book, The Hole Story of the Doughnut. I provide doughnuts printed on heavy cardstock along with sequins, gems, and small beads. Children first color the frosting and glue on the “sprinkles” while I chat with parents about the sea captain who invented this delicious treat as a teen cook’s assistant on a sailing ship.
Think about how you can make your table cover work for you (ALWAYS have a table cover), signage with kid appeal, activities that are easy and relatively quick and clean, and things to take away that have your books and contact info. It may lead to a sale long after the signing.
Good luck—and speak kindly to the next hopeful author you see sitting alone at a signing table. Maybe even buy her book. One day that might be you!
Nonfiction vs Informational Fiction vs Narrative Nonfiction: What’s the Diff? By Wendy Hinote Lanier
Nonfiction for children is getting a LOT more attention these days. And that’s a good thing. Because even when publishers and parents didn’t realize it, nonfiction was always WAY more popular with kids—especially struggling readers. Concrete concepts are much easier for a struggling reader to grasp than the more abstract concepts often found in fiction. Now that publishers (and writers) are more aware of this, nonfiction has become a topic of interest and much discussion.
In the past nonfiction books were generally just an overview of a topic told in a straightforward style. Today, this type of nonfiction is called traditional nonfiction. Although the internet has become the go-to source for traditional nonfiction, there is still a place for it in the book market. Most books for the library market are traditional nonfiction. They are often done in a series. The series covers multiple aspects of a given topic such as dance, cars, airplanes, pets, etc.
In addition to traditional nonfiction, all the extra attention has given rise to several new categories. Among them are terms like narrative nonfiction and informational fiction. The problem is, not everyone agrees on what they are.
The nonfiction discussion is frequently led by Melissa Stewart, and rightly so, since she is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children. In a 2018 article on her website (see melissa-stewart.com: Five Kinds of Nonfiction) Melissa names five types of nonfiction: traditional, browsable (think DK Eyewitness), active (how-to), expository literature (STEM concept using rich language), and narrative.
But what about books with angry clouds or talking animals? These books fall into a category called informational fiction—a term we’re hearing more and more. (Melissa, herself, talks about it in a 2016 blog post.) In this case a large part of the information in the book is true, but it is usually presented by fictional characters or in a made-up story line. Historical fiction is one type of informational fiction since it tells a story within the context of real historical events. The Magic School Bus books are also an example of informational fiction since the characters and story line are fiction, but the science facts in the text are true.
As a former elementary teacher often tasked with explaining the difference between fiction and nonfiction, I know the importance of being able to say, “This is nonfiction because every part of it is true.” The minute animals start thinking out loud or a magic school bus arrives on the scene, we are no long in true nonfiction waters. That said, informational fiction can be a great way to explain nonfiction concepts effectively and have fun doing it.
And then there’s narrative nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction tells a true story. No part of it is made up—even though the work may include conversation and detailed descriptions of certain events. All of the facts and quotes in a narrative nonfiction are based on careful research and can be verified through various sources. Sometime called creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction uses the literary styles of fiction. Good narrative nonfiction reads like good fiction. Many of Candace Fleming’s books are great examples since they are the result of extensive research and really great writing.
And just in case you stopped short at the term expository literature mentioned earlier: this is a type of nonfiction in which a narrowly focused or STEM topic is handled in a very literary way. All of the facts are completely true, but the presentation of them may be poetic, humorous, or very lyrical in nature. Many of Melissa Stewart’s books fall into this category.
So, in a nutshell:
Traditional nonfiction is a straight forward survey of a given topic. They are written in clear, concise language in an expository style.
Informational fiction presents facts and information within a fictional story.
Narrative nonfiction tells a true story with no made up parts in the form of a narrative.
Bonus: Expository literature presents information about a given topic in a literary way, but nothing is made up. Expository literature can be humorous or lyrical, but it never strays from facts.
No, it’s not the Oscars, or the Emmys, but it IS award season for the most outstanding children’s books published in the previous year!
The Caldecott (for picture book illustration) and Newbery Award (fiction) get most of the attention and hoopla, but there are several awards devoted to outstanding nonfiction and informational books for children.
Looking for an awesome mentor text? Want to read the best of the best? Award lists are a great place to start! Current and past winners are archived on each award’s website so it’s easy to create a Must Read list of titles.
Here are some of the awards given to stellar nonfiction books for children:
ORBIS PICTUS AWARD
Established in 1989 to promote and recognize excellence nonfiction writing for children. The award commemorates Johannes Amos Cormenius and his work Orbis Pictus – the World in Pictures (1658) considered to be the first book written specifically for children.
2020 winner: A PLACE TO LAND: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation – Barry Wittensen, author
Jerry Pinkney, illustrator
ROBERT F. SIEBERT INFORMATIONAL BOOK MEDAL
Awarded annually to the author and illustrator for the most distinguished information book published in the United States in English during the preceding year. The award honors Robert F. Siebert, the long-time President of Bound to Stay Bound Books.
2019 winner: THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science – written and illustrated by Joyce Sidman.
AAAS/SUBARA SB&F PRIZE
Celebrates excellence in science writing for children and young adults.
2019 category winners:
Children’s Science Picture Book – IQBAL AND HIS INGENIOUS IDEA: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet – written by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Rebecca Green.
Middle Grade Science Book – IMPACT! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World by Elizabeth Rusch
Young Adult Science Book – BUILT: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures by Roma Agrawal
Hands-On Science Book – ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL FOR KIDS: His Life & Inventions with 21 Activities by Mary Kay Carson.
THE BOSTON GLOBE—HORN BOOK AWARDS
2019 winner: THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality – written by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy.
YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) NONFICTION AWARD
2020 Finalists: FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle
THE GREAT NIJINSKY: God of Dance by Lynn Curlee
A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust by Albert Marrin.
A THOUSAND SISTERS: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II by Elizabeth Wein.
TORPEDOED: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the Children’s Ship by Deborah Helligman.
GIVERNY BOOK AWARD
Annual award given to an outstanding science book for children.
2019 winner: COUNTING ON KATHERINE: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk.
More 2020 award winners will be announced in January! Read the winners and the honor books and throughout the year, take note of your favorite nonfiction books and hold your own “Award ceremony” with your writing buddies. Formal dress not required!
Outlines are often used for planning how to structure a piece before writing. However, I find outlining helpful not just for prewriting, but also for post-writing, analyzing, and revising. What do I mean?
Constructing an outline after writing a draft is helpful in the revising process. A post-draft outline enables me to see what I actually wrote on the page, not what I planned to write or think I wrote. I number the paragraphs in chronological order, then write brief descriptions of each paragraph’s main idea. The headings are the book chapters or article sections; the subheadings are the paragraph descriptions.
What gets revealed is the flow of ideas. I can see where I carried on for too many paragraphs about X, but glossed over Y with one skimpy paragraph. I see holes where I made unexplained leaps in logic from A to D—holes that will confuse readers. Hmm, there’s a tangent that belongs nowhere, an example that doesn’t explain. Ah, here I need to expand, provide a transition, increase the tension, spread out the clues, tighten the focus, or move pieces around.
Now I have a guide for revising!
Outlining helps me in preparing critiques of others’ writing. I may have vague feelings that certain spots of a manuscript aren’t working, but outlining gives me information about where and why it’s not working, and also what questions and suggestions I might offer.
Outlining mentor texts helps me figure out how they are structured, providing insights I can use to help in my own writing. For example, I wanted to write an article on honoring my ancestors at their graves in China, hoping it would lead to finally breaking into Highlights magazine. I looked through back issues and discovered an article one author wrote about her family’s Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. I outlined it paragraph by paragraph, picking up tips about structure and information that would capture the interest and understanding of young readers. “Remembering Our Ancestors” became my first publication in Highlights!
Sometimes rewriting involves radical restructuring. One editor suggested combining my drafts of two similar chapters. I tried several different ways without success until I outlined one chapter on the left side of a piece of paper, and outlined the other chapter on the right side. With their structures laid bare in parallel, finally I saw how and where the two chapters could be interwoven.
Outlining can be a simple but powerful tool for multiple stages of writing: pre-, post-, and mid-writing. Are there ways outlining has worked for you?
One of the questions I get asked most often at author presentations is how long does it take to write a picture book biography.
The simple answer is that it takes as long as it takes.
That’s the complicated answer, too.
There’s a hope and expectation that the longer we work at this craft of writing children’s books, the easier and faster it gets. Well, that’s true in some ways, but not in others. My first book, The William Hoy Story, took 13 years from the promise I made my friend, Steve Sandy, a friend of the Hoy family, that I would write this book, to the year it got published. You can chalk a lot of those years up to not knowing what I didn’t know about writing children’s books. When I finally got it through my head that I had to learn a new art form and started taking classes, doing challenges, getting critique partners and joining supportive writing groups, things accelerated.
Aha! I thought, holding my beautiful first-born book in my hands. I figured it all out! But while my second book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain, was comparatively quick, at several months, it wasn’t a straight shot from my head to the page. And my upcoming book, Beautiful Shades of Brown, which is part of the NF Fest giveaway, took four years from first manuscript to publication in 2020. So what happened?
Every opportunity to learn, including from the upcoming NF Fest challenge in February from the Nonfiction Chicks, will bring light to your journey. But while light may save you some stumbles, no one can make the journey but you, step by step, into an unknown place, crafting a story that has yet to be written. No one but you can be the hero or heroine of your writing quest, charging into empty space to build a place for a story to live where there was once only an unfathomable void.
Sometimes it will be obvious where to lay the bricks and wood and glass, to see how the pieces fit together. Other times you may get stuck, fumbling with words. You’ll marvel when they spark fire – what a feeling! And you’ll sigh and try to persevere as they crash and topple in your brain while you’re working with all your might to craft the details that will give your story room to breathe.
In other words, it takes as long as it takes.
Keep going and you’ll get there. Remember: to the stubborn, belong the spoils.
Like everyone else this week, I will gather round a Thanksgiving table and celebrate the many blessings in my life. But today I lift up a few things that make my job as a nonfiction writer easier and more enjoyable. I am thankful for:
I’m sure all of you have a lengthy list of gratitude too. So how can we give back?
Let us know what you are thankful for, and how you give back.
If you’ve been to any writers conference lately, you’ve no doubt heard lots of talk about building a platform. And, you’ve probably learned that one of the best ways to grow your platform is to increase your social media following.
But, just how can we grow our online following? Well, it would take more than one blog post to fully answer that question, but here are three tips to help you improve your online numbers and your engagement.
1. Be Authentic:
People can spot “a fake” almost immediately, so be genuine when you post updates. For example, if you aren’t a savvy cook and yet you’re coming out with a cookbook, don’t promote yourself like you’re the expert. Instead, be self-deprecating and play up your inabilities to cook. Have fun with it! People are tired of folks showcasing their “perfect social media lives”—be real. Your connections will love you for it, and they’ll be more apt to listen to you when you share about your latest books, future speaking gigs, etc.
One of the most liked and shared posts I ever made happened this past winter when I posted a picture of my feet wearing two different boots. I just happened to glance down at my mismatched feet while sitting under the dryer at my hairdresser’s, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I snapped a picture, posted it on Instagram & Facebook, and said something like, “You know you’re on way too many deadlines when you look down at your feet and discover that you’re wearing two very different boots. At least they are both black, so there’s that…”
My followers loved it! Many commented that they’d worn different shoes to work before, so not to feel too badly. Others said they were having that same kind of week. Still, some just messaged, “Thanks for the laugh.”
2. Be Overgenerous:
Always give more than you take. It’s totally fine to share the cover of your latest book and promote it on all social media platforms, but make sure you’re also giving back and not always in advertising mode.
For example, you could offer a coloring sheet related to your children’s book or some other kind of free downloadable (Perhaps, some of your backmatter or a sidebar you didn’t end up using could serve as a nice freebie.)
Entrepreneur and Author Gary Vaynerchuk has been giving away content from his books before they were ever released for years, and yet his books are always bestsellers!
So, why should we be overgenerous with our information? It builds authority, credibility, trust, and likability, and it increases our online presence because people will share you and your valuable content.
3. Be Consistent & Caring:
You can’t post once every two months and expect to gain much of a following online. Post often, even if it’s just a repost of a funny meme you found, or one that you created in Canva. (Hint: You can use a scheduler to post across several social media platforms all at once.)
Can’t think of a clever status update? Why not ask your followers a question, and see how many responses you receive? It can be something as simple as, “So, how’s your Monday going?” or something as specific as, “Anybody else watch the Thanksgiving Day parade? What was your favorite float?”
Don’t be afraid to engage with your followers. Get to know them and let them get to know you—the real you.
Lastly, when interacting with your followers, whether it’s on your personal Facebook page or within a LinkedIn group, always try to add value when sharing information. Be that “go-to guy” or “go-to girl.” When you answer questions, without asking for anything in return, you become more likable, and people will be more likely to share you and your books with their friends and family.
Ok, there you have it—three tips to get you started on that all-important platform building. Now, go forth and post!
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!
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.
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