Getting the Most Out of Writing Classes and Conferences

Hi, writers!

Last month, I spent a bunch of time reading picture books and blog posts as part of ReFoReMo, Reading for Research Month. It’s about using particular picture books as mentor texts to improve your own writing. I love this event every year! I read or re-read 71 picture books, looking at ways they demonstrated specific writing elements or techniques. And I read daily blog posts. The ones I really liked and learned from were the ones that included descriptions of HOW each book demonstrated the technique, or what made it a strong mentor text. [The posts that just said basically, “Here, read these 6 picture books and think about XYZ element” were pretty useless to me.]

Each day, I:

  • read the blog post
  • read the picture books
  • jotted a quick thought/reaction in my notes
  • left a comment on the blog post
  • took a few notes from the post itself, if it was in-depth and helpful
  • tracked the books in Goodreads

And, if I loved the book enough to give it a 4- or 5-star rating, I also took a picture of the cover and wrote and scheduled a social media post sharing it as an #amreading post on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

So, March ended, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Because I loved it, but it was a lot of work, too! Whew!

But I knew my work wasn’t done if I wanted to get maximum benefit out of this month of study. My learning was useless if I didn’t act on it. Let me repeat that.

My learning was useless if I didn’t act on it.

So I just spent about 90 minutes going through my notes and thinking about how what I learned impacts my own writing. This helps me sort out which techniques or approaches might be useful to me in projects I’m working on right now or that I at least have on the back burner. At the end of each useful post, I added a summary of my thoughts, highlighted in yellow. And if there was some action I think I want to take, I highlighted it in aqua. For example:

reforemo2018a

Here are a couple more roundup notes from other days:

reforemo2018b

reforemo2018c

And this still isn’t enough. NOW I have to actually take action on these aqua parts.

Don’t get me wrong: we do learn some stuff from osmosis. Hearing something, especially repeatedly, can eventually impact our actual behavior/writing. But I take in so much information! I go to a conference or take part in an online event like ReFoReMo, and I fall into the trap of thinking that participating is enough. It’s not. What you do AFTER the conference, AFTER the class…that’s what really determines how much you’ll get out of it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go add all my aqua tasks to my ongoing list of writing tasks!

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How Much Money Does a Writer Make? [2017]

Howdy, writers! First, my annual disclaimer:

If you think it’s impolite to talk about finances, skip this article!

Dollar_SignSo, one question aspiring writers often ask is, “Can I make a living at this?” It’s not a matter of greed, but of necessity. So many of dream of making a living doing what we love. But there’s little reliable information out there about what writers make. That’s partly because writer incomes vary so greatly, and partly because writers tend to be private about their incomes. Those doing very well probably don’t want to brag. Those making very little might feel embarrassed. Those of us in the middle might just be adhering to societal norms of not speaking about money. Luckily, I don’t care about societal norms:>)

Continue reading

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How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Step 16: Circle Back

How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book

Step 16: Circle Back

Step 16_ Circle Back

It’s no coincidence that these last three steps have “back” in them. Backmatter, feedback, and circling back are all important steps in this project.

So, you’ve now gone through all the steps of writing a nonfiction picture book. Is your picture book ready to submit? Probably not.

I know I’m repeating myself, but it fits this step. Writing is recursive. You rarely complete the steps once and in order. You will end up going back to repeat steps or expand on your earlier efforts. You will try different approaches and get feedback from new people. You will look at language many times over the course of writing a book.

Writing a book is exciting, wonderful, and sometimes utterly confusing. I have picture book manuscripts that took only a few weeks to write (a rarity) and picture book manuscripts that took months (common) or years (also common) to find their proper form and voice. And I’m sad to say that I have a number of back-burnered manuscripts that either 1) haven’t yet found their proper form and voice or 2) are exactly right (in my opinion) but are unmarketable (meaning no publisher thinks they can sell enough copies to be worth the investment).

So, first, take a moment and celebrate that you’ve gotten this far in the process!

Congratulations

And now…time to get back to work. Your job now is to figure out what your particular manuscript needs most and try to do that. That will mean circling back around to some of the steps you’ve already gone through and digging back in. This does NOT mean you failed at the step before! Circling back is simply the way the writing process works. It is the way writers work.

At some point, you will feel the book is the very best you can make it. You will have taken feedback and used it to make your manuscript stronger. You will have poured your passion and energy and time into writing and rewriting. You will have polished every word until it sparkles. And then you will be ready to start your agent or editor hunt. And please know that, as you get feedback from agents or editors, you might find yourself circling back to these steps again!

Thanks for coming along on this journey. I hope you’ve found this series of posts helpful, and I’m so grateful to those of you who have commented and shared them!

Best of luck with your nonfiction picture book–I hope it finds its way out into the world someday!

 

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How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Step 15: Get Feedback

How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book

Step 15: Get Feedback

Step 15_ Get Feedback

At some point along the path of writing your nonfiction picture book, you will need to get feedback. Perhaps at many points.

My writing group, the Wordsmiths, meets monthly, and as we pass out our manuscripts, we often introduce them with, “The LAST time you saw this, it was…”

You might get feedback from a critique group or from a paid editor. Both can be valuable. What is typically not valuable is feedback from people who love you or who are sitting on your lap when you share your manuscript. These folks love the experience of being with you and having you read. That colors their ability to give you useful feedback on your manuscript.

Here’s a bit more advice on feedback, from my book Making a Living Writing Books for Kids:

Making a Living for online use 2018_0126No matter how far along you are in your writing career, feedback is useful.

I’m a pretty flexible person, and when I do dancer pose (a yoga pose), it feels like my back leg is reaching into the clouds. But if I’ve been sick or stressed, my back leg feels like it’s dragging through a bog. I decided to see what the reality was. I couldn’t trust what I felt. I needed a clinical, disinterested observer: a camera. When I took a picture of myself, I discovered my dancer pose is somewhere in the middle. Not in the clouds. Not in the bog. Like most of my manuscripts.

It’s almost impossible to evaluate our own manuscripts. I’ve been writing a long time, and it’s still impossible. The only way I can see my work with a clear, evaluative eye is if I let it sit, out of sight and out of mind, for so long that I honestly don’t remember even writing it. That takes two to three years, and I am not that patient!

So I seek out honest feedback, usually, from my writing group (go, Wordsmiths). These critique group buddies keep it real. They help me nudge good drafts even higher. And they help me pull the mucky ones out of the bog. Occasionally, they just offer support as I give the wretched mess a good burial. No matter what, they help me see the truth of my own writing. And that’s the first step toward making my writing stronger.

Other times, my agent or editor or a trusted paid critiquer has provided the first feedback on a manuscript after I’ve gotten it into the best shape I can on my own. No matter where the feedback is coming from, I can benefit—my writing can benefit—from fresh eyes and honest comments.

Get Ready for the Gut Punch

Here’s the thing. In order for feedback to lead to an improved manuscript, you have to actually hear it! I heard a podcaster compare getting feedback to being gut-punched. But feedback is a punch I ask for, so I tighten my abs and prepare for it. And I don’t whine. Because if I ask for feedback and then reject it all, what’s the point?

Lisa Bullard and I had a coaching/critique service called Mentors for Rent, and many of our clients were at the very beginning of their writing journey. They had a lot to learn about writing for kids—and that was great. They wanted to learn. They took the feedback. They asked questions. I always have hope for those writers!

But there were also writers who interrupted every five seconds to explain why they did something, why it was right and we were wrong, and so on. They were unwilling to accept feedback. Afterward, I would wonder why someone paid good money to get feedback they didn’t want to hear.

I was a Creative Writing major in college and participated in hundreds of writing workshops—listening to 20 other people say what worked and didn’t work about my manuscript. And I was not allowed to say a word during their feedback. Not. A. Word. It was so hard—but really illuminating.

Before you ask for feedback, ask yourself if you really want it—if you’re open to change. If so, great! Then tighten your abs and get ready.

Writing is about communicating with readers. You should be keenly invested in ensuring your writing is communicating exactly what you want it to. If you don’t want feedback, a career as a writer probably isn’t for you.

And just so you know, I have published more than 120 books, and I still get plenty of feedback! Here’s a blurred picture of one page of a picture book manuscript from my critique group yesterday. See all those lovely marks letting me know where my story is not quite working?

PicsArt_03-14-04.00.32.jpg

Okay, your turn!

DO THIS NOW:

  1. Find 4 or 5 people to give you honest feedback about your manuscript. Double points if some of them are professional writers. Do NOT try to convince them why your manuscript is right and they are wrong.
  2. Let their feedback sit for a week or two to let any emotional sting wear off.
  3. Reread your manuscript with their feedback in mind. Identify the suggestions that resonate with you and the ones that don’t.
  4. Map out a plan for your revision. (What do you plan to change? How? Why?)
  5. Dive in!

Up Next: Circle Back

 

 

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How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Step 14: Come On Back(matter)

How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book

Hi, writer friends. I made it to Round 3 of Madness Poetry, where I had to write a poem for kids including the word “parlance.” Yeah. Anyway, voting is live, and if you’d go here to read the poems by Savannah Rogers and me and then vote for your favorite, that would be awesome! Savannah’s poem is terrific, and it’s fun to see how we came at this word from two different angles, but ultimately with the same theme.

Step 14: Come On Back(matter)

Step 14_ Come On Back!

Backmatter is, not surprisingly, matter that’s at the back of a book. Most nonfiction picture books have them, and educators especially love them!

Basically, backmatter might be anything that extends the topic and learning further for the reader.

Here are some fairly common kinds of backmatter:

  • author’s note
  • illustrator’s note
  • a further reading list
  • fun facts
  • glossary
  • diagrams
  • historical photos
  • timeline
  • charts to more fully explain concepts
  • a more in-depth look at the topic (backmatter might be longer than the entire main text, in fact)
  • activities/experiments

If you’ve been reading lots of nonfiction pictures (you have, right?), then you’ve seen plenty of examples. I have started a “backmatter is interesting” shelf on Goodreads, which I’m trying to remember to add books to when appropriate. You can check it out to see some good examples of different kinds of backmatter.

Also, know that it’s great to think about backmatter as you write your manuscript. And you should keep track of fun facts and cool things you come across that don’t fit in your main text. But you don’t necessarily have to have it completely written before submitting your work. The editor’s opinion, the topic, the number of pages, and more will all impact your backmatter. I often simply include a line in my query or cover letter (or right at the end of the manuscript) that says something like, “Possible backmatter options include a timeline of the major events, an explanation of the basic artistic styles, a glossary, and a list of further reading. It might also be fun to include a simple, adaptable art project.”

Here are pictures of the backmatter in Meet My Family! This is my newest picture book, and the backmatter for it is more in-depth than any I’ve done before.

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20180314_143208.jpg

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All of these are from Meet My Family!, with art copyright 2018 by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

DO THIS NOW:

  1. Identify at least five books with backmatter that you really enjoyed.
  2. Brainstorm at least four possible backmatter options for your manuscript.

Up Next: Get Feedback

 

 

 

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Madness Poetry: Round 3

Hi, writer friends. I made it to Round 3 of Madness Poetry, where I had to write a poem for kids including the word “parlance.” Yeah. Anyway, voting is live, and if you’d go here to read the poems by Savannah Rogers and me and then vote for your favorite, that would be awesome! Savannah’s poem is terrific, and it’s fun to see how we came at this word from two different angles, but ultimately with the same theme.

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How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Step 13: Storyboard It

How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book

Step 12: Storyboard It

Step 13_ Storyboard It

By this time, you hopefully have a draft that is a reasonable word count and feels like the right structure for your book. Now it’s time to storyboard. This is also called dummying out a story. The idea is to figure out what text (and possible) image will go on each spread of your book.

Picture books are generally 32 pages (though there’s a lot more variety in length than there used to be). So I typically am breaking down my story into 14 spreads, plus possibly a single page at the front and back.

In nonfiction storyboarding, I usually leave at least one spread for backmatter (more on that in the next step).

I’ve talked about storyboarding in my Picture Book Fixes: B course. So I’m just going to share with you my bonus video that shares several storyboarding options. Scroll down to the Class Curriculum section, and then click the Preview button  that looks like this:

bonus module

Also, if you look at the online resources page for that same course, you’ll find some more storyboarding resources under Module 5.

Here are several things I’m looking at when I storyboard.

  • Does each spread end with text that makes me want to turn the page and see the next spread?
  • Is there too much text on each spread? (Sometimes, a manuscript is in the “right” word count range, but I realize upon storyboarding that it’s way too text-heavy.)
  • Are there a great variety of illustration possibilities? I am a terrible draw-er, but I make some kind of graphic sketch of what might happen on each spread. If I realize I’m drawing the same thing over and over, then I have a problem with pacing and/or plot.
  • What is the overall arc of my book? How long am I spending on an introduction? How long on the conclusion? Where is the emotional high point of the manuscript? Does it happen too early in the book?
  • Does the rhythm of my text work okay?
  • Am I having to cram in multiple events on one spread? If so, I might have too much detail in my manuscript.
  • Are there places it might work to build in tension by trailing off the text at the end of one spread and finishing the thought on the next? Or by asking a question to engage the reader at the end of one spread and answering it on the next? A key component of the picture book format is the page turn. Are you using page turns to the fullest?

Here are a few of my storyboards. I don’t usually take pictures of them, so the photos were slim pickings!

Beagle storyboard

This is what most of mine look like, though usually on a printed chart, not napkins :>)

Wild Dummy

Here, I was adjusting the timing and pacing and didn’t add images, though an earlier storyboard had images. Bad ones.

IMG_4287

Here is my Post-It note storyboarding for If You Were the Moon, when I was trying to figure out what order to put the different jobs of the moon in.

See? It doesn’t matter how bad your storyboard looks! You won’t be sending it to an editor when you submit your manuscript. And the editorial team might decide to break up the text differently than the way you did. That doesn’t matter. The dummy or storyboard is simply a tool to help you ensure that your manuscript works within the confines of this form.

DO THIS NOW:

  1. Watch the video I linked to and choose a storyboarding method.
  2. Storyboard your manuscript and go through my bulleted points.
  3. What possible issues did your storyboard reveal?
  4. Figure out your next step to solving those issues. (And, yes, this sometimes means going back to an earlier step and trying a new structure, or choosing a new angle.)
  5. Get going!

 

Up Next: Come On Back!

 

 

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Poetry Madness!

Hi, writers!

The Thinkier Trophy

I’m taking part in a fun challenge this month called Madness Poetry, founded by Ed Decaria several years ago. This is the first time I’ve participated in a few years. Whee! The excitement and fear of putting a poem out there (written in 48 hours or less and containing a specific assigned word) TO BE JUDGED is all coming back to me.

But it’s all in good fun, and it’s a great way to stretch my writing skills. I survived Round 1, and Round 2 is live now (my word for Round 2 is “doling”). I’ve written two poems I never would have written otherwise, and I’ve concentrated on a poetic technique I don’t use enough: repetition. Because I like very short poems, I think I don’t allow myself to use repetition much, because I want to jam-pack the poem as full as possible of fresh words. But repetition has such a value of its own, I want to make better friends with it!

Here’s my Round 2 matchup. I hope you’ll go vote for your favorite poem and then explore some of the other matchups. You don’t need to be a poet to enjoy reading these K-12 poems.

Thanks!

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How to Write a Nonfiction Picture Book: Step 12: Cut It! The Long and Winding Read

How to Write a Nonfiction Picture BookHere’s something kind of funny. Back in the early stages of this process, I was brainstorming possible angles for writing a picture book about trucks or truckers. Not to really do it, but in order to share examples of how I approach things.

A couple of days ago, I was Ubering home from the library, and my driver mentioned trucking. He used to be a long-distance trucker! Even though I don’t really plan to write about this topic, it seemed like destiny. I asked him all sorts of questions about how long-haul truckers live on the road. I learned several interesting things that were tiny pieces of a possible story.

I thought this was a great example of how a topic might stay on the back burner of your mind for weeks, months, or many years, and you might learn little tidbits of things that eventually all tie together into a cohesive book.

Step 12: Cut It: The Long and Winding Read

Step 12_ Cut ItThis series is about nonfiction picture books. There are longer nonfiction books for middle-grade (4th-6th grade) readers, and those books are illustrated or photo-illustrated. But I’m not talking about those books in this series. I’m really talking about picture books for up to 2nd or 3rd grade at the oldest.

Here’s a truth about picture books and the current publishing industry: shorter is more in demand and is more salable. I love short picture books, so I’m happy about it. Other readers and writers long for the days when lush, detailed stories were the norm in picture books. No matter which camp you fall into, the facts are the facts. So if your goal is to write a picture book that has a better chance of selling to a publisher and then to readers, you need to pay close attention to length.

Aim for no more than 800 words, and that’s if you’re writing a picture book for school-age kids. If your book is meant for toddlers and preschoolers, it will need to weigh in at just a couple hundred words, probably. I’m talking about the main text here. If you’re using layered text (see Step 6: Structure It), you might be adding sidebars or additional text on each spread that is “optional reading.” For right now, just focus on the main text: the text that every person who reads/hears the book will read.

Here are the word counts of the main text for a few of my nonfiction picture books—note that all of these have a core audience of K-2 (kindergarten through 2nd graders).

Title Main Text Word Count (approx.) Sidebars/ Layered Text (approx.) Backmatter? (besides glossary/ suggested reading)
Snowman-Cold=Puddle 95 800 Author’s note, when spring starts
Meet My Family 150 800 Language chart, animal range map
If You Were the Moon 128 720 None
A Leaf Can Be… 110 0 Brief paragraph about each role

So, what if you check your word count and discover your main text is 1500 words—or longer? You cut. You cut a lot. In fact, you might need to rethink your approach and go back to one of the earlier steps, because chances are you’ve tried to cover too much information for this young age range. Maybe you took too broad or encyclopedic of an approach. Or maybe you had a good angle but just went into too much detail. You might want to try a whole different structure or approach. Or you might want to think about separating out the bare bones, crucial info that can be your main text, and think of an approach that incorporates some of the remaining text into sidebars or backmatter. Please know that trying multiple different approaches to figure out the one that “fits” into the picture book format.

Or maybe your manuscript is too long, but not ridiculously long. In that case, ask yourself, what is my single, specific idea for this book? Then read through your text, asking yourself after every single paragraph, “Is this information necessary to the specific idea of this book?” If not, cut it. Ruthlessly.

You can also think about what information can be shown through images and illustrations (more on this in an upcoming step). As with fiction picture books, these projects are true collaborations! The art does not just support the text. It works with the text, working equally to convey information to your reader.

In If You Were the Moon, for instance, my main text line of “Challenge the ocean to a tug of war” does not clearly tell the reader everything that spread conveys. But the art, showing the moon and the swell of the ocean, helps get the idea of gravity and tides across. And the sidebar text spells it out even more clearly.

challenge

Art copyright Jaime Kim, from If You Were the Moon, by Laura Purdie Salas

Sometimes we forget to leave room for the illustrations or photos, but they can do some of the heavy lifting. So leave some of those big boxes for them to carry.

If your book is a narrative—a biography or a story of an event—you might need to cut some events out. Telling a nonfiction narrative is as much about what you leave out as what you choose to keep in. Remember that you can never tell all the truth of any event or topic. So even if you’re telling the story of a true event, you still have to figure out your specific angle—what approach YOU’re taking to telling that story. What YOUR key idea is that will help guide what you cut and what you keep.

Your goal at this point isn’t a final polish. But you should be getting your manuscript into a structure now that makes it easy to hit your word count limit.

DO THIS NOW:

1)       Check the word count of your manuscript.

2)       Is it too long? Usually, the answer will be yes. Don’t feel bad.

3)       Determine whether you need to try some new structures/approaches.

4)       Brainstorm some ways you might use layered text or backmatter to lighten up your main text.

5)       Identify spots where you can cut text and allow images, charts, or diagrams to convey information.

6)       Write a new draft. Or six.

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My New Picture Book!

I haven’t been sharing my blog tour here about Meet My Family, but today’s post is specifically about the genesis and writing process of it: “I was always ashamed as a kid because my family was so different from my friends’ families. We had all sorts of strict rules (5 hours of TV per week maximum, couldn’t spend the night at a friend’s house because then they would expect to be invited to sleep over at our house, etc.), and I also had a sister with a brain disorder (now known to be OCD, but washing your hands hundreds of times a day back then just got you labeled as crazy). Trying to pretend my family was “normal” took a lot of energy and secrecy.” You can read the rest at Melissa Berger Stoller‘s blog.
And here’s the rest of my blog tour, if you’re interested! Click on the image to go to a page with clickable links.
Updated Blog Tour Graphic.jpg
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