Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman - BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Marc Tyler Nobleman is the author of 70 books for children, both for educational and trade publishers. His recent picture book, BOYS OF STEEL: THE CREATORS OF SUPERMAN has been widely applauded, with starred reviews by Booklist, and Publisher's Weekly, and named a Kirkus “Best Children’s Book” of 2008. 
Marc, thank you for letting me pick your brain about the challenging genre of nonfiction picture books. And, for sharing your writing process with BOYS OF STEEL.

Why did you choose to write BOYS OF STEEL as a nonfiction picture book as opposed to historical fiction, or chaptered book for older readers?

The story had never been the focus of its own book, in any format. In my opinion, it had enough meat to stand alone, without being fictionalized. Because of the visual nature of the story, and the “storyography” (i.e. biography focusing on a defining incident rather than an entire life) approach I wanted to do, I felt picture book was the only way to go.

Nonfiction has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. How would you define the term “narrative nonfiction” today?

Narrative nonfiction is telling a true story as it unfolds—meaning that the reader learns about the events as the characters do, not with any writer intervention such as “An amazing thing was about to happen.” But it’s more than that. It’s telling a story with flair. With muscular rather than straightforward prose. With mini-cliffhangers whenever possible. 

Recent news about the picture book market has been gloomy. How do you think the market for nonfiction picture books is faring?

I don’t know statistics but I stand by the form. Now more than ever, nonfiction picture books are shining. Authors are covering topics that have never been the focus of any book, let alone picture books, and they’re doing original research in creating them. Plus some, like me, promote them as picture books for all ages, widening the market potential. There will always be a need for strong nonfiction, and, generally speaking, I feel strong nonfiction may have more staying power than strong fiction, especially if it’s an unconventional topic.

It is said that there is a piece of the author in every successful book. Was there something about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, their struggles, and persistence that resonated with you personally?

My school presentation focuses on the need for persistence. Every writer—most every person, on some level—can relate to that idea. When I was younger, yes, there were times I felt marginalized as Jerry and Joe did, though that was not the main reason I chose to write this book.

You are also a talented cartoonist. Did you consider illustrating the book yourself?

Not even for a moment! My art style is fairly limited. I wouldn’t be capable of creating anything near as vibrant as what Ross MacDonald did. I was lucky to work with him.

You received twenty-two rejections before your manuscript was picked up by Knopf in 2008? How many revisions did you tackle before it was finally acquired?

At least 18, and then more afterward.

BOYS OF STEEL is unique in its biographical introduction to two individuals. Where would we find it shelved in most libraries?

I would like it to be shelved with picture book biography. However, some libraries are shelving it in cartooning. I’ve talked with some librarians about this. I feel the book has greater effect if a young reader can discover it when browsing biographies. If it’s in cartooning, it will be mostly a destination book—in other words, a book that kids find when searching the catalog and then go to specifically. But in cartooning, kids will not be able to stumble across it when assigned a biography project.
Read Marc's blog post on the library quandry here

Your research for BOYS OF STEEL was exhaustive. When did you know it was time to stop digging and start the actual writing?

I am still researching it! I occasionally post new tidbits on my blog. I had known the main beats of the story for years, and I knew early on what the framework of my telling of the story would be, so I began writing relatively quickly.

Do you prefer to write from an outline?

Not exactly. I write down what incidents I want to include and work from that, but it’s not a traditional outline.

BOYS OF STEEL opens with Joe and Jerry as teenagers, and covers only about ten years. Did you struggle at all with choosing where to begin and end the story?

As mentioned above, I knew all along that I wanted to start just before they met and end just after Superman took off, so to speak. In comics circles, their story always ends on a sad note. For once I wanted their story to end on a high note—after all, their big accomplishment was culturally seismic. (I do get into the heartbreaking portion of their lives in the author’s note, but the story proper can stand alone without being inaccurate.)

Choosing which quotes, anecdotes, and details to leave out is often the hardest part of nonfiction picture book writing. What advice do you have for writers working in this genre?

Every detail must move the story along in some way. It may be necessary for plot, or it may reveal character in a way that no other nugget does. My books are pretty tightly constructed. I am always looking for fat to trim. My advice, generally, is to make every sentence count.

Do you think story theme comes organically or intentionally to an author? What do you think is the prevailing theme in BOYS OF STEEL?

I think the theme is persistence, which incorporates believing in yourself. I don’t think the theme always reveals itself to an author immediately. It may take some experimentation, at least for me.
Your Author’s Note is almost as long as the book text, and offers the riveting “story behind the story.”  Who do you think is drawn to the author’s note more, young readers or adults?  

I think the author’s note may be longer than the text. It addresses some rather sophisticated subjects (copyright, the Holocaust) so it skews a bit older than the main text, but plenty of teachers and librarians do read it to kids (most suited for grades 4 and up). I share anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book as well as research stories on my blog http://noblemania.blogspot.com.

I would imagine students, especially boys, love BOYS OF STEEL. Tell us what your school visits are like. With a nod to my home state, have you brought your presentation to Texas schools?

I have been thrilled that BOYS OF STEEL does seem to appeal to boys, especially boys at the critical age (typically 4th grade) when they begin to lag girls in reading interest. However, I did not write it as a “boy book.” And I am, of course, equally thrilled when it resonates with girls for any reason. I have been to Texas twice now since BOYS OF STEEL came out. Once I was in the Houston school district and more recently I spent two weeks in another Houston district, Cy-Fair. Sixteen schools (40 talks!) in two weeks! I needed some Superman stamina for that one! It proved easier than one might assume because the response was wonderfully enthusiastic. The book was nominated for a Horned Toad Tales Award and teachers and librarians prepped the kids well.
Speaking of school visits, take a peek at some of Marc's school visit recaps and his Ten Most Memorable School Visits 
What can we expect from you next?

My picture book on the story behind Batman—focusing on the uncredited co-creator and original writer, Bill Finger—comes out in July 2012. In the meantime, I’m working on several other nonfiction picture books—none superhero related! I’m also speaking quite a bit and working on some writing-intensive but non-book projects including a possible documentary and a possible TV show based on one of my books. Stay tuned to my blog for details when they become available!
Readers, while you're perusing Marc's blog, be sure to jump over to his post on picture book biographies for older readers.   

To learn more about Marc’s writing, research, and well-documented journey through the publishing world, pop over to his insightful and content-rich blog, Noblemania. Then take a peak at his wonderful cartoon work.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Author Debbie Gonzales on Teacher Guides

Author Debbie Gonzales is the current Regional Advisor for the Austin, Texas chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She brings forth an impressive resume jam-packed with experience as a teacher, school administrator, curriculum designer, workshop leader, works as an adjunct professor, and an MFA from Vermont College.  You might know Debbie from her oh-so-popular website, her Simple Saturday blog, or the new cooperative blog, Readerkidz.  I know Deb as a lovely, supportive, talented friend, so I’m honored to have her join us today.

Welcome Deb!

Thank you, Donna, for inviting me here today. I am truly honored to be here. For real!!

Tell us about your background in teaching?

I began my teaching career as a Montessori teacher. Years and years ago, there was a school in Dallas, where, if I worked as an assistant, my son could attend at half the tuition rate. I thought, “Hey! I can scrub toilets, if need be. I’ll do anything to be able to provide this amazing educational experience for my son.” Little did I know that, at that moment, I had found my life’s calling. Since then I have taught preschoolers, elementary-aged, troubled at-risk high-schoolers, and aspiring educators. I’ve worked with the privileged and the poor as a teacher, school administrator, curriculum coordinator, art director, creative writing workshop leader, technology coordinator, and – hopefully – as a trust-worthy friend.

How do you think your teaching and school administration experience has influenced your own writing?

Oh, my! I cannot read or write anything without considering how my words can be utilized as a part of the classroom experience. Honestly, Donna, this awareness has become a bit of an obsession for me. I know what kids like to read, what they hate to read and why they hate it. I work to make the latter more palatable.

As a teacher, what kind of books did you always long to have available for your students?

This is a really good question. Let me tell you a little story. In my Montessori Upper Elementary classroom, we participated in a weekly lesson known as Novel Study in which I would guide 4th, 5th, and 6th graders through an incremental, six-week deep study of various novels. I made a concerted effort to present a variety of genres – mysteries, historical fiction, fantasy, classics, debuts, and anything else I could get my hands on. My absolute joy was granted when a child would sheepishly confess that they couldn’t stop reading, and that they had read beyond the assigned week’s page limit. Hot dog! That kiddo had caught the Reading Bug, many times for the very first time in their young lives!

Do you think the reading climate in today’s classroom has changed from years past? Do you think it takes a different kind of book to pull kids away from technology?

Regarding the reading climate, today’s market is flooded with great titles enticing a novice reader to lose themselves in the compelling magic of story. With the publishing bar of quality has being raised so high and, with the availability of informative blog-o-spherical guidance such as ReaderKidZ, there are so darned many great books for kids out there to choose from. In addition, there are a number of note-worthy literary initiatives taking place happening all over the nation. However, when you boil all of this hoopla down to the rue, I maintain the essence of a child’s enthusiasm for reading is reflected in the value of literature practiced within the walls of a child’s own home. That’s the short of it, in my mind anyway.

Also, I don’t think that we need to pull kids away from technology. Instead, I think we need to embrace it. Why can’t a kid, after fulfilling conventional reading requirements, create a hyper-linked Q & A game based on the book’s plot points? How about, after demonstrating a solid understanding of the novel’s story arch, crafting a cool book trailer? What about a kid being offered the chance to create a PowerPoint presentation about characterization or setting or theme? What about creating a database of power words documented by page references? Or perhaps have the children re-write their favorite scene as a Reader’s Theatre and film their performance with a Flip Camera! These are examples of the types of activities using technology as a tool that I did in my Montessori classroom, and the end-products were absolutely incredible!

Your early reader series through New Zealand’s Giltedge Publishing is adorable. Please tell us about them.                 

I so love these books and the publishers who produce them. Each book is centered on a specific spelling pattern and the various letter combinations required in spelling that particular pattern. The publishers insist upon a quality product – an interesting story consisting of sound literary elements and that is relatable to the reader. All of this in less than 200 words!

Six of my stories have been published in the Word Level Reader Series, with two more to follow. Each contains a subtle message to be learned such as being willing to ask for help, turn the other cheek, or overcoming fear. And, as an added bonus, Giltedge has produced an amazing pen with an optic lens that reads the text aloud in any language spoken on the earth. Pretty incredible, isn’t it?  

What other types of writing have you done? Anything in the works right now?

Thank you for asking. I have a YA, The Hit, about a fast-pitch softball playing high-school girl whose promising public face rivals her private hell. I do love that story. It’s been stuck in a drawer for quite some time now. Donna, thanks to you, I just might resurrect it. I also have a historical fiction picture book, The Legend in You, about female athletic tribulations over the centuries that I’d love to see the light of day. Then there is my heartfelt historical-fiction middle grade novel, Bear Mountain, set in the Pacific Northwest that focuses on family, honor, and the majesty of Clydesdale horses. Of late, my focus has been on Alien All-Stars, a middle-grade novel about a boy’s struggle to align himself with an honorable friendship while being haunted by alien visitations.

Teacher Guides
How did you venture into writing teacher guides?
Years ago, when my daughter was in high school, I had the good fortune of working from home as an educational consultant for a group called the Cooperative Education Partnership, which provided accelerated learning opportunities for at-risk youth. My job there was to create coursework and end-of-course assessments that were aligned with statewide academic standards using textbooks, literature, computerized software, and anything else I could get my hands on. It was a huge job! But I loved both the freedom working at home offered and the opportunity to structure courses in a way I thought kids would respond to. 

I think the reason why I found success with CEP is that I created lessons from the student’s perspective, guiding them in incremental steps toward a final end product. The instructions had to be clear, the lessons interesting, short, cross-curricular, easy-to-follow, and fun! The woman I worked for was probably the most demanding professional I’ve ever encountered. In short, Dr. P was one tough cookie. I learned so much from her and that grueling yet marvelous two-year experience.

What is the difference between teacher guides, activity guides, book discussion guides, and reading group guides? 

Teacher Guides best compliment early readers, chapter books, lower and upper middle grade novels and non-fiction. In designing a Teacher Guide, I like to create sections to promote an incremental, step-by-step study structure. I try to think how to best serve the teacher who is using the book to teach comprehension, inference, application, and introspection. I also use page references in all of the discussion questions and activities. I love to imagine the child leafing through the pages of the author’s great book in search of the answer. 

Activity Guides best compliment picture books, although I include plenty of activities in my Teacher Guides. Activity Guides include discussion questions that refer to the book’s illustrations and text. As much as possible, I work to provide art, science, math, language, geography, and writing lessons in my Activity Guides. These are a ton of fun to create!

To me, Book Discussion Guides and Reading Group Guides are one in the same. These are perfect for YA and adult novels. (In fact, I’d love to have the opportunity to create one for an adult novel.) For these guides, I highlight plot points that illuminate theme or demonstrate character, delve into them initially through high-level questioning, and then go for the emotional jugular. I feel that guides such as these allow the reader to discuss things of the heart in a safely removed manner. Their heart isn’t broken, the character’s is. Yet, in considering the angst of a character the teen reader has the opportunity to consider their own.

When an author contracts with you to write the teacher guide, how do you tackle the challenge?

Whether a picture book or an angst-filled YA, each book offers a unique voice, or premise, or intention, and I try to make each guide reflect the author’s purpose, as I interpret it. While I maintain a consistent guide format, I want each guide to be as different as the book I am working with.

Do you access state academic standards to find curriculum tie-ins?

Sure I do. In addition to pulling from my years of practical experience, I continually peruse ton of fantastic websites, programs, books, lectures, YouTube videos, recipes, and just about anything you can imagine in search of interesting activities to modify creatively to compliment the project I’m working on.

Do you think there is a marketing advantage to having available teacher guides, both in terms of interesting a publisher and marketing the book?

Yes, most definitely, I do. A guide shows that the author is serious about the book’s shelf-life longevity. I’m not referring to the book’s store shelf life, but on the shelves of classroom. A well-crafted guide demonstrates how best to incorporate the story as an important part of the classroom curriculum. One author that I worked with prints out her guide, binds it in a folder, and presents it as a thank you gift during her school visits. Librarians often ask for them, too.

However, with regard to interesting a prospective publisher, I think it would be best to hold off on making the guide until a contract is offered,  after which I’d hop right on it! 

Click here to take a peak at some of the books Debbie has created Teacher Guides for. 

Finally, looking back on your writing career, do you have any “if I’d known then, what I know now...” advice for writers?

I think that everyone’s writing journey is unique to them.  No experience is wasted. Use what you know with confidence. I once heard Kathi Appelt say to honor every piece of writing. Do your best. Whether crafting an email, a church bulletin, a teacher’s guide, a blog post, or the next best-selling novel challenge yourself by writing as expressively as possible.

Contact information here

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Interview with Laura Purdie Salas - Writing for the Educational Market

Laura Purdie Salas is the author of more than ninety books for children and teens. That's right, NINETY! Before becoming an author she was a magazine editor, an 8th grade English teacher, and a freelance writer for adults.

I had the pleasure of participating in one of Laura’s online classes in 2008. I knew right away that, besides being a genuinely adorable and generous lady, she is a topnotch professional with skads of experience. So, I was thrilled when she agreed to join me here.

Welcome to my little corner of cyber space, Laura!

Thanks, Donna—I’m happy to be here! And thanks for your kind words. One of the things I really enjoy about my online classes (and miss, since I’ve been on a hiatus this year) is connecting with so many talented and enthusiastic writers:>)

Congratulations on the success of your recently released poetry book. Booklist describes STAMPEDE!: POEMS TO CELEBRATE THE WILD SIDE OF SCHOOL (Clarion, 2009) in this way: “The wild verses are positively shot through with simile and metaphor, and young readers will run just as rampant, flocking to these pitch-perfect portrayals of their peers and selves.”  Tell us about this books’ journey to publication.

Thanks, Donna! STAMPEDE was my first book for a mainstream trade publisher, and it was a long time in the making.

One day when my younger daughter, Maddie, was in third grade, she had two teeth pulled. I took her out for a milkshake, and she put two straws where her teeth used to be. Here's a Photoshopped version of this momentous occasion:

and I wrote a poem about it. (Not a very good poem.)

A few months later, I visited her classroom to lead the kids in some poetry. We all wrote poems that compared ourselves to animals. Those poems stayed in my head, and I thought a whole collection of them would be fun. Soon, tons of poems comparing kids to animals were thundering through my brain. That was in 2003.

I started submitting the manuscript to publishers in 2004. In late 2005, I sent it to editor Jennifer Wingertzahn at Clarion (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin). We had a few conversations the following year, and in September 2006, she made an offer on the book. The book came out three years later, and I couldn’t have been happier with how it came out!

How did you come to write for educational publishers?

In October of 1999, I went to a local (Minnesota) SCBWI conference. Editors from two educational publishers, Capstone Press and Lerner spoke at the conference. Because I was a conference volunteer (always a great idea), I got to be one editor’s helper and I got a manuscript critique with the other.
I didn’t go to the conference thinking, “Educational publishing: that’s for me!” But I was one of those kids who liked writing reports in school. Were you? So as the editors described how they worked, I thought, “I could do this!”
I followed up with both of those editors, and I ended up writing books for both companies. So the initial impulse just happened because of the situation. But then I went about it methodically and professionally.

Can you give us a few examples to show the wide range of nonfiction subject matter you’ve tackled for different age groups?

Sure! Let’s see…

I’ve written many books for the K-3 range. Here are a few titles:

A Fuzzy-Fast Blur: Poems About Pets
Y Is for Yowl! A Scary Alphabet
There Goes the Water: A Song About the Water Cycle
Coral Reefs: Colorful Underwater Habitats
From Mealworm to Beetle: Following the Life Cycle
Do Crocodiles Dance? A Book About Animal Habits
Whose Coat is This? A Look at How Workers Cover Up, Jackets, Smocks, and Robes

I started out writing more for upper elementary kids. Here are a few of those titles:

Discovering Nature's Laws: A Story About Isaac Newton
The Trail of Tears
Forest Fires
Write Your Own Poetry
How do educational publishers differ from trade publishers?

The most important, basic difference is that with educational publishers, you are assigned what book to write, and you write it the way the publisher wants it written. It’s kind of like being a reporter for a newspaper, where you are assigned stories. With trade publishers (99% of the books you see in bookstores are from trade publishers), you write the book first, and then try to find a publisher to publish it.

How does a work-for-hire contract differ from a royalty contract?

In a wfh contract, the company that makes the assignment (the publisher) owns the work you produce. They pay you, the writer, a definite, agreed-upon amount, whether the book sells 10 copies or 10,000.

In a royalty contract, you earn a percentage of the book sales. So if a book takes off, wins major awards, or something like that, you earn more money. Though the sad reality is that many, many books (especially picture books) never even earn out their advance (which is the money the publisher gives you up front, and it’s an advance against your royalties, in the same way you might get an advance against your paycheck—you don’t start earning royalties until your book has sold enough copies to “earn out” your advance). That means the advance, in many cases, is all the money the author earns.

 Do educational publishers publish only series?

In 99% of cases, yes. They publish in series, and the book you write will be part of a series, so you write it to match that series. Unlike trade books, where you want your voice to stand out and be totally original and different, in ed publishing, you have to be a chameleon and blend in to any series you’re part of.

Do educational markets publish only nonfiction?

I’d say 95% yes. A few have fiction lines, too. Often these are stories that also teach some content concepts or are remixes of classic tales. Here’s a link to Capstone’s fiction line, for example: 

What parameters are typically included in an assignment to an author?

This varies widely. But generally, you know the number of pages, the word count, the audience age, how it will be illustrated (with photos or art), and the general content you’ll cover. Sometimes they’re very specific: Chapter One will be the history of the sport. Chapter Two will be safety issues, etc. Other times, they are more general. This 32-page book of 800 words will cover mammals, their identifying characteristics, their variety, some extreme examples, their life cycle, and their range. If it’s an existing series, then the publisher will usually send you copies of other books in the series, so that you’ll have good examples to follow.

Educational books have always been a mainstay of school libraries. Do you think books by educational publishers today are different than they were twenty years ago?

Very different! Educational publishers today are aiming to not just provide accurate information but to also engage and entertain kids. The “report-style” book is slowly but surely giving way to appealing nonfiction that kids read because they want to! This is especially obvious as I look at the books I’ve done for K-3. Alphabet books, Q&A books, books organized around colors (like The Colors of Sports, or The Colors of Fall)…Nonfiction books take all kinds of fun approaches to learning.
What resources should a prospective writer use to identify educational publishers?

Because these books aren’t generally in bookstores, they’re invisible to many writers until you really look for them. I recommend a couple of things:

Go to your local elementary school and talk to the media specialist there and browse their nonfiction shelves. Every time you see a series, pop it out, skim it, and note the publisher’s name.

If you’re a member of SCBWI (which I highly recommend), they have a directory of educational publishers available online.

The Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, an annual market directory from Writer’s Digest, lists some educational publishers.

Join NFforKids, a Yahoo group, and check out people’s signature lines at the bottom of their emails. Many people on the list write for educational publishers, and you’ll see various publisher names there.

Are publishers looking for writers with a teaching background or English degree?

Of course, that doesn’t hurt. But really, you don’t have to know all about curriculum standards and such to do this writing. If you have that background, great! Make sure to tell the publisher. But if you don’t, you can still break in. What editors are most looking for are professional writers who can research well, write clearly and accurately, follow directions, and turn their manuscripts in on time. So emphasize those abilities!

What advice do you have for authors interested in writing for this market?

Make yourself a list of educational publishers. Study their websites, request their catalogs, and try to read some of their books, if possible. Then create introductory packets with a great cover letter (make it specific to each publisher, mentioning some of their series or titles), a writing sample or two, a resume if relevant, and a reply envelope or postcard. The purpose of your packet is to introduce yourself and ask for assignments. Then wait, follow up, wait, follow up…until you get your first assignment! If you’re persistent and professional, you can do it!

 Laura teaches several online classes, including “Writing Children’s Books for the Educational Market,” several poetry classes, and even a support group/goal setting class for writers.

If anyone’s interested in being on my monthly update list where I announce classes and events, you can email me from my website. No spam—just one email per month, at most. Also, I haven’t taught this online class this year because of a huge freelance project. I might be offering it again in the first half of 2011, but meanwhile, I’ve created a self-paced textbook that includes all the material from my class. You can read more about it here.

To find out more about Laura Purdie Salas, her many online classes, and her resources for writers, visit her website at  www.laurasalas.com and her blog at http://laurasalas.livejournal.com.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


A few weeks ago, I posted book trailers and release dates for a slew of Austin authors. This past Sunday, November 14th, a trifecta book launch party was held at Austin's Book People for Bethany Hegedus, Brian Yansky, and Cynthia Leitich Smith. For some reason, I'm unable to load the adorable photo of the day's three  shining stars. So, you'll have to take my word for it; they were in their element.

Talk about a celebration! Besides the delicious books just waiting to be snatched up by adoring fans, all in attendance enjoyed chili, cake, and the yummiest sugar cookies prepared by author Anne Bustard. Naturally, the foods were inspired by the featured books.

                        There was something for everyone. A picture book. A middle grade. A Young Adult

To see more photos from the event and read more about the festivities, check out Cyn's post on Cynsations.

Congratulations, Bethany, Brian, and Cyn!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Curriculum, Coaches, Teacher Guides. Oh My!

Happy Friday! It's been a hectic week in my little corner of the world. I won't bore you with the challenges of being home with a sick child while the refrigerator goes on the blink. And I refuse to paint the pitiful picture of ice chests now holding the contents of said fridge and freezer. Or, the fact that Murphy's Law is alive and well and laughing at the fact the hubby is out of town EVERY time the domino of misfortune falls. Nah, I won't bore you with that.

Instead, get a gander at the guests coming to Simply Donna in the next few weeks. I'll be dedicating a number of posts to curriculum tie-ins, educational publishers, and the benefits of coaches and mentors.

Laura Purdie Salas. Besides being the author of a bazillion books for children, mostly for the educational market, Laura teaches many online writing classes. Join us for this enlightening post on educational publishers.

Esther Hershenhorn. We'll take a peak at her book, S IS FOR STORY: A WRITER'S ALPHABET. Plus, you won't want to miss her insights as a writing coach, including a bit of advice about incorporating curriculum tie-ins into your books.

Debbie Gonzales.
Deb will walk us through her process of creating teacher guides for books. By looking backward through the process, you might just get some ideas about ways to incorporate learning opportunities into your work, thereby increasing your market.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Great Books on the Writing Craft

Looking for a good book about the craft of writing? You'll probably find one on my book shelves. Geez, I've collected quite a library of how-to books.

You'll note that some of these titles aim to improve writing conventions; some are geared to the researcher; some are geared to fiction; others are geared to the newspaper article. I do indeed return to them as mini refresher courses and doses of inspiration.

Maybe you'll find a few of interest to you.

Listed in no particular order:

Essentials of English: a practical handbook covering all the rules of English grammar and writing style

The Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 2000)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books (Harold D. Underdown, 2004)

Bird by Bird (Ann Lamott, 1994)

The Giblin Guide to Writing Children's Books (James Cross Giblin, 2005)

Children's Writer's Word Book (Alijandra Mogilner & Tayopa Mogilner- Writer's Digest Books)

Take Joy: A Writers Guide to Loving the Craft (Jane Yolen, 2006)

Write the Perfect Book Proposal (Jeff Herman and Deborah Herman, 2001)

Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Lynne Truss, 2003)

On Writing Well (William Zinsser, 2006)

Cite Right (Charles Lipson, 2006)

Writer's First Aid (Kristi Holl, 2003)

Picture Writing (Anastasia Suen, 2003)

How to Write a Children's Picture Book-three volumes (Eve Heidi Bine-Stock, 2006)

The Writer's Journey (Christopher Vogler, 1998)

From Pen to Print: The Secrets of Getting Published Successfully (Ellen Kozak, 1990)

Searching: A Research Guide for Writers (The Institute, Inc. 2000)

Children's Writer Guide to 2009 (new addition annually) (Writer's Institute Publications)

The Magazine Article: How to Think it, Plan it, Write it (Peter Jacobi, 1991)

Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg, 2005)

From Inspiration to Publication (Institute of Children's Literature)

Writing for Children and Getting Published (Allan Frewin Jones & Lesley Pollinger, 1996)

Word Magic: Your Source for Language that Enchants, Empowers, Confinces, and Wins Readers (Cindy Rogers, 2004)

You Can Write Children's Books (Tracey E. Dils, 1998)

The Anatomy of Story (John Truby, 2007)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books (Harold Underdown, 2004)

James A. Michener's Writer's Handbook (James Michener, 1992)

Writing Picture Books (Ann Whitford Paul, 2009)

The Weekend Novelist (Robert J. Ray, 2005)

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Robert Olen Butler and Janet Burroway, 2006) ***I haven't read this one yet. Highly recommended by a friend.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir on the craft (Stephen King, 2010)
*** Another one I haven't read. Yet!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Author's Notes - The Story Behind the Story

I recently submitted a NF manuscript to a few agents. Twenty-four hours later, a new worry crept into my mind. I hadn't included an Author's Note with my submission. I had followed the agents' guidelines, keeping my query and cover letters to one page. I certainly didn't want to add word count and pages to the tail of my manuscript. Without the Author's Note, the agents won't know how exhaustive my research has been; the years-long journey of discovery; the soul-wrenching inspiration behind the story; what happened to my subject(s) after the book ends; my subject in context to the world around him/her. The manuscript will have to stand on its own now. Was this an opportunity missed?

I polled a list-serve I'm on, as well as a handful of friends in the know. Half responded that an author's note should always be submitted with a nonfiction manuscript. The other half thinks there's no need. With no hard-and-fast rule on the subject, I kicked my worry to the curb.

This got me thinking about the importance of Author's Notes. I've been known to sneak to the back of a book and read this back matter "bling" before beginning page one of a book. Why? Because I'm fascinated by the story behind the written tale. Does that make me a wee bit geeky?

Author's Notes are not limited to nonfiction. You'll often find them in historical fiction, tall tales, folktales, legends, myths, and stories heavily influenced by iconic literary works. Picture books to YA.

Author's Notes can be compelling, surprising, and revealing. Almost always, they add a fuller picture of the subject, making the book that much more meaningful.

Peruse Author's Notes for:
*the author's inspiration
*interesting detours along a research journey
*to learn of liberties the author took with the story
*to learn where the truth meets the fiction of the story
*facts of interest to adult readers and buyers
*injustices, scandals, and dramas appealing to adult readers
*An expanded historical context
*An elaboration on curriculum tie-ins (we'll explore that in a future post.)
*The "rest of the story."

Naturally, because I've always liked show-and-tell, I'm including a small sampling to demonstrate a diversity of children's books with fascinating Author's Notes.

by Kathleen Krull (Knopf, 2009) Picture book biography
Author's Note reveals the unfortunate power struggle between this hardworking man and a huge corporation like RCA. glimpse: "...Philo Farnsworth may have won the race to invent TV. But he lost the war over getting credit for it during his lifetime." Fascinating and sad. Adults might find this especially interesting.

by Bethany Hegedus (Delacorte, 2010) Middle Grade Novel
Author's Note reveals the author's heart in the story. glimpse: "What I am is a storyteller, one who fell in love with the stories that have been swirling around slave quilts..." The historical research of the book in general offers many curriculum tie-ins and discussion points appropriate for students studying American history.

by Marc Tyler Nobleman (Random House, 2008)
Picture book biography
Author's Note reveals the dramatic legal struggle of creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, against DC Comics, after the two friends mistakenly sold all rights to the Superman character for $130. Much like Farnsworth's history, the story behind this story is nothing short of fascinating.

BUD, NOT BUDDY (Newbery medal winner) by Christopher Paul Curtis (Random House, 1999)
MG novel
Authors note reveals the family inspiration behind the story and a deeper introduction to the plight of African Americans during the Great Depression. glimpse: "Although Bud, Not Buddy is fictional, many of the situations Bud encounters are based on events that occurred in the 1930s, during a time known as the Great Depression." As a bonus, the author includes period photographs for added context.

by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Harper Collins, 2000)
Fiction picture book
Author's note expands on the facts about the Creek Nation of Oklahoma, the Ojibway of the Great Lakes, and how traditional jingle dancing dresses were made. The accompanying glossary adds even more. A fantastic example of a curriculum based addendum.

ETERNAL by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2010) YA Fiction
Author's Note reveals the author's inspiration behind the vampire-based tale, and introduces the impressive literary figures that inspired a few characters' names and, with thoughtful comparison, points out what sets this tale apart. The author shows her expansive literary knowledge with nods to iconic works of literature such as those by Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and more. This author's note is a prime example of how research plays into a wholly fictional tale for older readers.

by Kathleen Krull (Random House, 2004) Picture book biography
Author's note reveals the inspiration behind Giesel's most famous stories. Here, you'll learn which story was inspired by the rhythm of a steamer ship. Which was inspired by the sight of a stranger in a "pompous hat." Find out how his windblown desk of sketches gave birth to HORTON HEARS A WHO. And how two publisher bets resulted in THE CAT IN THE HAT and GREEN EGGS AND HAM. Four pages of Author's Notes reveal ever so much more than the picture book format allows. This is like having two books in one.

Don't pass up a good Author's Note. There's a revealing story behind every story.