By Pat Miller
Want to improve your book’s structure?
Does it have enough action, enough scenes for illustrations. Do you want to identify emotion or trim the word count?
Then you need to self-publish!
Wait--I’m not talking about cartons-in-the garage self-publishing. This kind will be a DIY project and you will publish a single copy.
You will likely be the only person to read it.
It’s called a dummy and might be the smartest helper you’ll have. You will use your dummy to paginate your book, figure out how many words go on a page, where the page turns should be, and much more.
So, how do you make a dummy?
Think first grade. You can make a simple dummy by taking 16 or 20 sheets of printer paper, folding them in half, then staple, staple, staple down the left side.
I quickly moved from a folded paper blank book to ones from Target. They are also sold online. Oriental Trading sells blank books in 12 packs which are perfect for sharing with your writing group.
Here’s how I came to create a Sticky Dummy.
1. DECIDE WHERE TO START There is a preferred way to paginate your book that is determined by the publisher. If your dummy has 32 pages, where do you begin the text? Free picture book templates are available from authors Tara Lazar or Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Or examine how some of your favorite PBs are paginated.
2. CUT YOUR STORY UP Now you will create your first version of the book. You can cut up a draft or an outline. Here are steps I tried in some of my past dummies:
In my first dummy, I simply sketched in the outline of my story. Not a bad idea, but doing it this way made moving events around or changing things nearly impossible.
Next, I wrote the outline on sticky notes. They were much easier to rearrange, expand, or throw out. The headache came when the notes curled up, and over time, stuck to each other or fell out of the book.
I had better luck with typing up my stories and outlines, then cutting them apart and taping them to appropriate pages. They were easy to move. Problems came when there was a single skinny sentence per age. They bent as I turned pages and sometimes snagged each other. Repeatedly moving a taped strip can tear your blank book.
My hobby is making greeting cards, and that’s how I heard of this invention. These are Post-it Super Sticky Full Adhesive Notes. They are available in 3 inch squares or 4 inch squares in a large variety of colors. If you look closely at the green pad, you see a thin gray stripe on the right side. This is the only part of the pad that is not sticky.
The stickiness is stronger that the typical notes, but just as repositionable. Because the glue is edge to edge, there is no curling up. You could write your story or outline on the individual pages, but I thought of a way that works better for me.
Here is my hardcover blank book. The pink is the Super Sticky Post-it note.
Before printing my draft, I made the margins fit better on the notes. I then attached each with a glue stick. All four of these were cut from the same sheet of Post-it Note. The pink part makes them easy to move and reattach, and they stay flat.
3. MOVE THE FURNITURE Now that you’ve made or bought your dummy, it’s time to cut your story up and see how it fits. Will you have enough for so many spreads? Is there material to illustrate on each double-spread? What about the action, the emotion? You might even want to use one color of the Super Sticky Post-its for scenes, another for the connectors. Or maybe one color for text and another for sidebars.
For specifics on how to use your dummy, see Lisa Amstutz’s post, “Ninja Writing Tip: You Need a Dummy!” I think you will find that a Sticky Dummy will be just what you need to make your story deserving of a publisher’s hard cover!
By Christine Liu-Perkins
At a recent retreat of the Nonfiction Ninjas, we shared our old manuscripts and asked for thumbs up or thumbs down. Does that manuscript have enough potential to work on it further? Or should we put it back in the drawer?
I’ve been working on one particular project on and off for eighteen years. There’s something about the core that I love and think kids will love, too. I’ve written fifteen different versions, ever searching for the right approach. Various versions have been critiqued by fellow writers and by editors at conferences. One editor liked it so much that she called and left a voicemail! (I was shocked.) In the end, however, she couldn’t take it on. (Oh, I was heartbroken.)
I put it away, but never completely forgot about it. Finally, this year I had a new idea for how to frame it. I took a research trip for inspiration. I searched online for new information. To my surprise, I found material on my computer that I’d collected but never used that led to a breakthrough! I wrote a new draft in April and finished a revision last week. I hope I’m on the right track at last . . . .
Looking for a fresh approach to your manuscript? Here are a few ideas for inspiration:
By Linda Skeers
You’ve been writing and revising until your brain cells are sizzling. It’s time for a short break to give yourself a chance to recharge.
But what can you do?
Curl up with a cold beverage, bowl of hot buttered popcorn, and watch a movie about… writers! Hey – peeking into the lives of other writers, their craft, and trials and tribulations are almost a kind of research, right?
Here’s a list to get you started on your cinematic journey!
FINDING FORRESTER (2000) – novelist William Forrester mentors a high school basketball player with a passion for writing.
STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006) – how does a novelist kill off their main character when that character doesn’t want to die?
AUTHORS ANONYMOUS (2014) – a hilarious look at a writer’s critique group. You’ve all been in a group with some of these characters…
Writers with a touch of romance:
ROMANCING THE STONE (1984)
THE JEWEL OF THE NILE (sequel 1985)
THE BOYFRIEND SCHOOL (1990)
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)
Writer’s block and ethical/moral dilemmas:
WONDER BOYS (2000)
THE WORDS (2012)
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018)
Based on real writers
FINDING NEVERLAND (2004)
MISS POTTER (2006)
BECOMING JANE (2007)
On the spooky and suspenseful side:
THE SHINING (1980)
SECRET WINDOW (2004)
THE GHOST WRITER (2010)
Put your favorite movie about writing or writers in the comment section!
By Stephanie Bearce
Burnout is REAL!!
I just finished some tight deadlines and got both good and bad publishing news. My brain was fried. I had no desire to write ANYTHING! EVER!
Have you had days like this??
Where you question your writing career, wonder if you should give it all up and become a greeter at Walmart?
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view) I've been in this place before. All the creative energy was gone and no idea of what to do next.
This is when I know it's time for some fallow ground.
Fallow ground is soil that is left unplanted to rest and regenerate. Farmers have used this technique for centuries to enrich and renew the earth. It's something we humans can emulate by leaving time to be fallow. To rest and rejuvenate.
Creativity takes fertile soil. It needs to be rich in ideas and full of life-giving energy. If we keep working, the energy of our brain becomes as depleted as overused soil. We all need to have fallow time.
For me, fallow time means reading, sewing monsters, cleaning closets, and watching favorite old movies. Often it involves Jane Austen, Madeline L'Engle, Dorothy Sayers, and Elizabeth Peters.
Sometimes it just takes a few days. This time it took FOUR WEEKS! But now, the ideas are flowing again. I'm excited to tackle some new projects. I WANT to WRITE again!!
I know I'm lucky. My fallow times are not years, but weeks. However, I think this is because, like the farmers I grew up with, I know that I NEED fallow ground. I give myself permission to just be. It's what my brain and my soul need. Please, give yourself permission to enjoy some fallow ground.
And to celebrate fallow time - I'm giving away four of my "monsters". Leave a comment below that tells about your brain burnout or fallow time. You will be entered to win a sweet little idea monster to help you with your newest project!
By Stephanie Bearce
I had just finished the 13th round of revisions on my manuscript. It was spit-shined and perfectly polished. The topic was unique. I'd done months of research. This story was sure to sell. I opened up my email ready to send the manuscript to my amazing agent, and there was a note from fellow Ninja Chick, Susie Kralovansky.
DID YOU SEE THIS ANNOUNCEMENT?
There in Publisher's Weekly was an announcement for the sale of my story.
Exact same topic. Even the same title!
But not written by me.
I'd been scooped.
Was there some devious plot to hack my computer and steal my ideas?
Did some evil writer read my drafts and take my work?
Was I the victim of a good topic and poor timing on my part?
Anyone who has been in the nonfiction business for more than half a second has experienced the "Stolen Idea" phenomenon. Nonfiction writers are avid readers and researchers. We are always looking for a new topic, a new take on a holiday, critical anniversaries, and hidden gems of stories. It's like the California gold rush for nonfiction stories. And exactly like the gold prospectors, there will be winners and losers in the story mining business, too.
But simply because another author beat you to the editor's desk doesn't mean it's over for your story. There are a few tricks you can try.
1. Change the target age of your manuscript. Is there a need for a middle-grade manuscript on the topic? Change that PB into an MG proposal. Or vice-versa!
2. Try a different format. Could you change it into a graphic novel? Could you turn it into a collection by adding similar stories?
3. Change the focus of the manuscript. If you are writing a biography of a famous person, try focusing on an unknown aspect of their life.
4. Set it aside for a while. This does not mean giving up on the story. Simply give your story some time and space. You may come back at it with a totally new perspective or you may find a unique way to use your research and hard work.
Most importantly, don't get discouraged. There are more stories waiting to be discovered. Get busy digging!!
By Nancy Churnin
After publishing 10 nonfiction picture books, my first co-authored book, WHEN MAMA RINGS THE BELL, will come out in Fall 2023, co-authored with Shayna Vincent, for Albert Whitman & Company.
When should you co-author a book rather than be the solo author?
Often, being the solo author is the only option. My first ten books, all picture book biographies, were about people who are not alive. Not much of an opportunity for collaboration there beyond what I could conjure with research and my imagination!
But one doesn’t always co-author with a living subject. The decision to do so is subjective. Here are some factors to consider:
1.Does the subject want to play an active role in telling his or her own story? Some subjects or sources might want to leave it all to you. Others may have strong feelings about making sure their voice is not only heard, but acknowledged in the author credits.
2.Would you be appropriating someone else’s culture or experience by telling their story without them? One of the best way to ensure that you are respecting someone’s culture or experience is to partner with them in telling the story.
3.Would it be more rewarding for you, spiritually, to join voices with someone else?
For me, this third consideration was the deciding factor, although the second factor was important, too. WHEN MAMA RINGS THE BELL is inspired by Shayna Vincent’s experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer as a young mother in her thirties. It is told from the point of view of one of her young daughters.
Shayna didn’t ask to be a co-author when I approached her about telling her story. But as I worked on the manuscript, using her words, her experience, her feelings, her details, it was clear to me that the best story would emerge from our full collaboration. With regard to the third factor, it felt right spiritually to meld our words. With regard to the second factor, it felt right, morally, for her to have the credit she deserved by getting full credit for sharing the story that she wished she had for her daughters when she was diagnosed and would now help others.
Shayna lived the story we were writing. Not only did that merit credit as a co-author, but one of the added benefits was that as a full co-author, Shayna could be an even more powerful spokeswoman for families dealing with cancer and other serious medical conditions.
This is my first co-authored book, but it has been an incredibly rewarding and uplifting experience. I hope to do more.
Nonfiction Ninja Chick Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of 10 picture book biographies. When Mama Rings the Bell, co-authored with Shayna Vincent, is one of her three new books scheduled to be released in Fall 2023. It will be published by Albert Whitman & Company
by Susie Kralovansky
Often at a writer’s conference, “What’s the secret to getting published?” comes up. Here is my advice, simple and sweet:
Early in my writing career, I was one of those writers. I couldn’t wait to submit even when I knew a phrase fell flat or the ending was weak. My inner voice would say, “I don’t think it’s ready.” Did I listen? Absolutely not! Was it ready to be sent out? Absolutely not! But I was convinced (every single time, because I am a slow learner) that the editor or agent would recognize my genius and happily replace the word, phrase, or whatever my piece was missing. Did that process work? Never! Ever!
Again, the big secret – STUDY THOSE GUIDELINES!
You can do this. Good luck!
By Stephanie Bearce
Sunshine, swimming pools, hammocks under the trees; the lazy hazy days of summer are almost here. I'm all for basking in the warmth of the sun and taking some time to recharge your batteries. Just as long as you don't use summer as an excuse to neglect your writing!
Take a look at some of the amazing opportunities available to help you recharge, learn, and revise this summer!
Out of the Box Nonfiction- Traci Sorrell
WriteOnCon - online kidlit conference
Writing Science and Nature for Kids and Teens - Highlights Foundation
Nonfiction Kidlit Confab - Writing Barn
Summer Camp in Nonfiction - Highlights Foundation
Getting into Graphic Nonfiction - Writing Barn
How to Engage Readers with Activity Writing - Dana Rau - Writing Barn
Creative Connections Panel: Working with Agents and Editors - Writing Barn
Writing Leveled Readers for Education - Sonny Regelman - Writing Barn
Writing Nonfiction for Kids - Kidlit Creatives
Take a class and beat the summer slump!!
by Christine Liu-Perkins
I had underestimated the usefulness of a timeline until I was stuck in a confusing muddle of historical research. In desperation, I created a double timeline—one recording major events in the lives of the family I was writing about, and one recording major events in the early Chinese empire. At last, clarity! I gained many insights that had eluded me before, and what I learned enriched multiple sections of the book. That timeline was definitely worth the effort I invested in constructing it.
Timelines not only condense a lot of information, they also help us see connections and patterns, such as:
Interested in giving timelines a try? You can make your own using Microsoft Word or Powerpoint:
You might also include timelines in your manuscripts, activity guides, and presentations. Teachers often look for timelines and encourage students to make them. Here's some sources for creative examples:
How do you use timelines? Have any tips to share?
By Linda Skeers
One of the most important things a writer can do is to read, study and analyze books in their chosen genre – especially recently published, award-winning, and starred reviewed books. In the past, I would sit down to really study a book – to figure out what makes it tick and to somehow absorb some secret that would improve my own writing. Alas, I read and enjoyed a lot of books, but I wasn’t sure I was really learning anything from my own solitary study.
That changed when I became a part of a Picture Book Study Group. You know the saying “Two heads are better than one?” Well, imagine how much better six heads could be!
Reading the same books and sharing my thoughts and opinions with others and listening to their thoughts and opinions gave me a whole new perspective on HOW to learn from a mentor text.
My group formed from a casual conversation about wanting to dive deep into picture books with the hope that analyzing great books would help improve our own writing. We’ve been going strong for over five years, so I guess it’s working.
First, we agreed on some ground rules:
We also select books in the same genre or category so we can compare and contrast and see how different authors handled similar topics. Any subject works – how about TREES? Here’s a list of titles we could read and explore:
BE A TREE! – Maria Gianferrari
SURVIVOR TREE – Marcie Colleen
THIS VERY TREE – Sean Rubin
TREES – Tony Johnston
THE SECOND LIFE OF TREES – Aimee Bisonette
BEFORE WE STOOD TALL – Jessica Kulekjian
THE WISDOM OF TREES: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom – Lita Judge
THANK YOU, TREE – Fiona Lee
LISTEN TO THE LANGUAGE OF TREES: a story of how forests communicate underground – Tera Kelley
Again, five titles work well but this gives you an idea of what’s “out there” and worth studying! Topics can range from food to frogs and space to scientists.
Possible discussion questions:
Did one book stand out among the group? Why? (it’s interesting that we almost always have a different favorite and it’s enlightening to discover why certain books resonate with different people)
What was the writing style? Conversational? Humorous? Lyrical? Straight-forward? What other styles would work with this topic?
What was included in the Back Matter? Did it enhance the text?
What did the author do to keep readers engaged and turning pages? Was there something unique or surprising about this book?
Was a technique used that you could attempt with your own writing?
Would this book appeal more to adults than children? Why?
Other questions and comments will spring up during the discussion. Remember, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and you can learn a lot from someone else’s perspective – especially when it’s different than your own!
This also works for Middle Grade and YA – you just might want to limit the list to 2-3 titles each month.
Gather a group of writers interested in analyzing books in your favorite genre and start studying together – it’s a fun way to learn and share and it might just help you look at your own manuscripts in a new way!
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.