Brainstorming Nonfiction Approaches

A couple of days ago in the Writing for Children Facebook Group, I shared this:


Someone asked me if I could explain a little more, so here goes.

In my morning pages a few days ago, I wrote:

I’m struggling with XYZ. Before, for my nonfiction books, I’ve had the structure in mind first—brief rhyming couplets led to the Can Be… books; Things to Do if You Are… poems led to If You Were the Moon. But now I’ve got a specific topic, and I’m struggling to find a fresh way to approach it. Possibly a poetic way. But definitely an unusual, unexpected way. I’ve been thinking of travel posters, maps, kid analogies, news segments…nothing feels quite right yet.

I’m a list-maker and a thinker. I want to know where I’m going before I start writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t discover one approach doesn’t work and then try another. And another. But I like to at least TRY to figure out my approach before I start writing. So I decided to brainstorm a list of 20 possible approaches. I’m going to share some of them with you, although I’ve changed the topic.

So, let’s say my topic was all kinds of boats and what their jobs are. Here’s part of my actual brainstorming list, and in some cases you’ll see other books mentioned that I loved certain aspects of and would want to reread and gather technique tips from!

  1. Boat Adventure! I’m bored. Do what boats do! Then kid tries all the different things that boats do. Bold and funny.
  2. Cause/Effect – Emphasize the cause and effect part in the three section intros: carry cargo, do science, have fun.
  3. Storyline like [xyz] – unknown thing is trying to figure out what to do. “You could” ___________ “like a” [kind of boat]. “No, that won’t work. End reveal is that the unknown creature is a human kid. Kind of expected.
  4. Compare/Contrast: Slice through waves (speed boat) or drift downriver (barges). Maybe rhyming, maybe not. But very short and young.
  5. Some boats carry things or people. Some boats do jobs related to weather and science. Some boats just want to party. Three different reasons boats are shaped and work like they do.
  6. It’s a great day on the water. What will you do? // Rhyming answers from different boats. Just one line per boat.
  7. Rhyming survey a la Feathers and Hair.
  8. Lyrical straight nf with emphasis on language. Reread A Nest is Noisy, When Spring Comes, Looking for a Moose, Weeds Find a Way.
  9. Prose but with a boat refrain. Check out Jazz Baby again.
  10. Boats writing notes/letters to someone back home? Or some other boat? Not sure who. Reread Dear Mrs. LaRue. (Carol already bought THE OCTOPUS POSTCARDS) Meerkat Mail. Dear Tabby.
  11. Take off on a nursery rhyme or cumulative story? Read The Bickleby’s Birdbath. And Two Boys Booed.
  12. What Boats Know—Little Lessons from Boats. Reread Christmas Cookies.
  13. Diary of a Boat. Or just story from that person’s point of view. Look at Diary of a Worm again.
  14. Boats by the Numbers: work in lots of boat facts by highlighting one size or speed or something about each one. Mind-boggling Numbers.
  15. Riddle format about the boats. In rhyme? See Eggs, 1, 2, 3. And the JPL one…
  16. Story where a group of boats all plan to meet up, but the boats start disappearing one by one. Turns out they’re all collaborating to accomplish something big.
  17. Boat school – School play or school’s newscast with students sharing what they did that weekend.

OK, those are 17 of the 23 I came up with. I’m running out of time and some of the others are too hard to shift to boats! Hopefully this gives you a clearer picture of what I mean when I say I’m brainstorming approaches.

Successful picture books are 90% concept and 10% execution. For nonfiction, fresh concepts are always sought after. After doing my list of 23, I have 2 or 3 that really stood out as fun things to try.

I also realized that after several “quiet” nonfiction picture books, I’d like to try something a little more on the funny/zany side. So I’ll try my first choice. And if that doesn’t work…well, I have 22 others to try!

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Storytime for Mixed-Age Audience, Pt. 2

A few people here and on Facebook asked how my storytime went earlier this week, so here’s an update!

It went OK.

How’s that for definitive? Actually, it went fine. I had a decent crowd–about 40-45 people total, including moms and big brothers and sisters. It was quite an age range, though I had a row of about 10-12 kids of the 4-8 years old range seated right up front, so that was nice.

And my ending went well. I came back to my opening point, about books being great friends to have, and then I encouraged them to make good book friends this summer. I applauded them and then said, “Thanks, guys!” And then I went over to gather my stuff and hand out Oreos (make a full moon when you take off one cookie!) and READ! bookmark. So I felt like the ending didn’t peter out like I sometimes do. I’ll continue to work on my endings in the coming year of presentations.

Here are some things I could have done better:

  • Try to control the space more and get all the kids sitting together, close to me. When they’re spread out, it’s REALLY hard to get momentum and enthusiasm going!
  • When I have very young kids (K and younger) volunteer for extra stuff, give them extremely specific directions. (“Hold this ribbon and sit right here on the bench until I ask for the green ribbon, OK?” Then after he/she stands and holds ribbon for wingspan for me: “Thank you so much! I’ll take the ribbon back now and you can sit back down. You did such a great job holding that up for me!”)
  • End sooner. I always try to give great value and plenty of content. But I have to relearn constantly that it’s better to end after 30 minutes (for pre-K and K, for instance) while everyone’s still fully engaged than to keep going to 45 minutes, at which point the fidgets have set in a bit.
  • Find a specific role for the older kids. My focus was mostly on the young kids, and I did throw in a few riddle-ku and such for the older kids. But the older kids were all spread out, and they kind of wandered in throughout the storytime (which was in a park pavillion), but I wish I had had something specific that they could have helped with. One time when I had to do a school visit session for half 1st-graders and half 4th-graders in one session, I created specific roles for both groups, and that worked really well. Hard to do without tech so that the older kids could read something on-screen, but I’m sure there’s something I could ask them to do…Will be thinking more about that!

I sent an evaluation to the librarian today, and I specifically asked her for tips on presenting to and engaging multi-age audiences. I’ll be interested to hear her advice!

Thanks, you guys, for the encouragement and support!


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Storytime for a Mixed-Age Audience

I’m heading out this morning to do a storytime in a park. The audience, according to the librarian who set this us, will likely range from toddlers to 12 year olds. This is the hardest kind of presentation for me! No control over how many kids and what ages they are.

I’m trying several new things with this one.

  • My presentation is totally tech-free (I usually show pictures and/or poems we’re reading together on a screen).
  • I’m featuring quite a few of my books that aren’t even in print anymore. That’s because I wanted to choose things that are really interactive–that I either already had props for or that lend themselves to acting out, etc.
  • I’m changing the words in a few of my poems/books to give the kids a refrain to call out. I’ve done this before, but not as much as I’m doing it today. Hoping I remember my “new words.”
  • I’m sharing a bit of an unpublished book. That’s because it’s a book of riddle-ku, and I want to see when the kids guess the answers. I’ve done this only once before. If the audience ends up being all toddlers, I won’t do this. But otherwise, I hope to share 3 or 4 riddle-ku.
  • I’m trying out a new message. I mean, my message is ALWAYS that books and reading and writing are amazing. But my specific thought I want to leave the kids with today is that books can make great friends. So I’ll share a tiny bit about my childhood at the beginning and come full-circle to that at the ending.
  • I’m trying a more definitive ending. No more wishy-washy trailing off. The ending is my weakest part of presenting. I just got a bunch of great possibilities for endings from my Facebook group for kids’ writers, and I’m going to work on some of them for school visits next year. Today, I’m going with just coming full-circle back to the beginning, and also doing that with a flourish–a tone of voice and body gestures that tell the audience, “That’s all, folks.”

We’ll see how it goes!

Also, I’d love any tips you have for mixed-age audiences. I have another one coming up in August that could be anything from toddlers to adults who write for kids. Yikes!

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Tough Love

I told my crit group to be meaner. Sure, I love that they’re supportive and all. But a lot of times, I just need to know whether something has that special something that might make it sellable. Because I don’t write just to enjoy writing (though I do!). I write because I want to create books, my favorite things in the whole world.

They couldn’t bring themselves to be mean, but after I read my picture book manuscript SQUIRMY, I could tell from their questions and confusion that it definitely was not working! That was draft 7 that I took in and shared, so it wasn’t a first draft or anything. But all 7 drafts were written in a single week–a fury of trying to take a vague concept and turn it into the very specific form known as picture book. A failed fury!

There were lots of encouraging comments like, “I think there’s something here.” “I love the language here.” “Don’t give up on this!”

But for a picture book, the concept has to work. I could write 20 more drafts polishing this, but without a major plot/structure overhaul, it would be like putting pearls on a pig. Pretty useless.

So SQUIRMY heads off to the dung heap. Unless, of course, I come up with some creative way to totally overhaul it. One group member suggested a twist that could be fun to play with. And I might. Eventually.

Right now, I’ll make a note of that twist on my latest draft, and then I’ll wave goodbye to this one. Or at least auf Wiedersehen (until we meet again). But that means I get to say hello to an idea that’s hanging out, waiting for its turn.

And I’ll keep working on making my crit group meaner:>)

[Addendum: To be clear, my crit group offers plenty of crit. Lots of questions and comments and talking about what isn’t working yet. It’s strictly being blunt about “dump this one” that I’m talking about!]

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Letting Things Go

It’s a week of learning to let things go, it seems.

Our younger daughter left Tuesday morning to head back to Scotland and ultimately to Cyprus, where she’ll be living for the foreseeable future. You might think overseas is overseas, but Cyprus feels more foreign–in language, in region, in familiarity. It’s a more dangerous area of the world, generally speaking. And it’s much more expensive to travel to and from, so we’ll likely see her less frequently. We’re so proud of her, and I want her to do the work she feels called to do. But my heart is also breaking.

Our elderly beagle is growing more frail. We just ordered doggy diapers (I’m sure he’ll love them–not!). He’s always had behavioral issues, and his body weaknesses are getting harder to work around. But he isn’t in pain, and so we do what we can to accommodate his needs. Our home smells like a men’s bathroom right now…ugh.

And my writing retreat with my other daughter is a no-go, because she’s sick.It feels like the final nail in the coffin. This collaboration is really challenging, largely because of the very health issues that are the core of the story. For many reasons, moving forward feels impossible. I’m frustrated because I’ve put so much time (both in terms of years, and in terms of hours just this week) into this. But I think it’s time to let this project go. Although I feel it could be a powerful book, I also feel like frustrations over the process are outweighing the possible future rewards.

Letting go kind of sucks, but sometimes it’s the only way to move ahead.

Posted in Laura's Writing Life | Tagged | 3 Comments

From Your Reader’s Perspective

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Looks great from up here!

I was sitting on my deck this morning playing Scrabble. While I sat there, I looked at the deck planters on our railing. When I look at the plants from inside our living room or from standing out on the deck, I can enjoy all the plants. The flowers, the spiky leaves–it’s all fun.

But when I sit in the fake Adirondack chairs on our deck, I am well below the level of the planters. As I try to figure out a Scrabble word, I gaze up at them and I see the undersides of everything. When I planted these planters, I tried to include plants that shot upward as well as plants that draped over the side of the planters. But not being a good gardener, I failed in some of the planters.

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But it’s not as interesting from below.

I think we do that in our children’s books sometimes. It can be hard to remember that child readers are not looking at our story the same way we are. We have to really set aside our adult point of view and shift to looking at things from the underside. We have to find a topic that is as engaging from a child’s point of view as it is from the adult’s point of view. And even more than topic, really, it’s the approach that we choose. We can write about bugs, for example, in a way that might be interesting to an adult who’s a gardener. But picture book readers are generally not gardeners, although they might plant a daisy or two with a little help. So if I wanted to write about bugs, which I don’t, I would need to find that intersection of childhood and bugs and come up with a way to approach the topic that will engage kids from right where they are.

In critiquing, I have seen a lot of picture book manuscript that look at things from the adult point of view. It never works.

I’m looking at a topic right now that a lot of kids haven’t even heard of. And I want to write a picture book about it. I think we need picture books about it. There have been a few, but I think there is room for many more. So, the first part of my challenge is thinking about how to approach this big topic that is rather controversial in a way that will interest kids and invite them into the topic in an engaging, un-scary way. That’s what I’ll be pondering on the deck later today.

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The Project That Never Ends

Do you know how when you start a project, you have in mind this wonderful picture of how it will look at the end? But then you get stuck in the middle of it, and it feels like quicksand, all disgusting and messy and NEVERending, and you just want to scramble out, escape, and never look at it again?

That is where I am right now.

I started a large nonfiction project, a book about the realities of making a living as a children’s writer. It’s a collection of tips, how-tos, basic information, ideas, and anecdotes. It is sprawling. And it is really a challenge to figure out the structure and corral all the correct information into the proper little parts of the book.

I am finding myself conveniently distracted by so many other shiny new stories I want to work on! I long to ditch this neverending project. With my daughter home visiting, and life extra busy–as it gets during the summer, I just don’t want to mess with it.

Luckily, I am stubborn. So I will continue the slog. I am determined to complete the first draft this week. (Sadly, this is not the first time I have said this.) Wish me luck!

I hope your writing right now feels more like a party than like quicksand. And if it does feel like quicksand, well, maybe we can virtually meet up for a Diet Coke together and cheer each other on. We can do it! Right?

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Your Jacket Flap Author Bio

With each new book, I update my author bio for the book flap a little bit to connect with the book itself. To help readers see how I actually fit in with the topic or theme of the book. For If You Were the Moon, here was my bio:

Laura Purdie Salas is the author of more than 125 poetry and nonfiction books for kids. Her titles include Water Can Be . . . , A Rock Can Be . . . , and Bookspeak! Poems about Books. She grew up with a dad who worked for NASA, so conversations about the moon and space happened daily. Laura and her family live in Minnesota, where Laura watches the full moon shimmer on Lake Superior, hang high over cliffs, or dip low and golden into her neighborhood.

This morning, I need to update my flap bio for my 2018 Millbrook book, Meet My Family! It is all about baby animals (yay!) and their different kinds of families. Who takes care of them? How do they interact? It’s an ode to diversity in families as well as a roundup of the specific family structures of various species.

So…I’m figuring out how to work in my hardworking mom and dad, bossy but nurturing big sisters, supportive and funny husband, and two great daughters. I also might share the fact that I grew up not knowing my extended family at all. Do I have cousins? I met one, one single time. Living aunts and uncles? Don’t know. Of course, while sharing this information, I also need to keep it under 100 words, so we’ll see what fits!

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Momentum vs. Deadlines vs. Why I Write

Right now, I am overwhelmed. I have my daughter visiting from Scotland for 6 weeks–yay! And next week one of my sisters is visiting from Florida for a week–yay! This is very good news, but…the additional household duties plus fun stuff plus visiting time = less work time.

I have (as usual) many different projects at different stages, and I need to figure out where to put my best efforts. What I am most entrenched in at the moment is the book that I’m writing for children’s writers. It’s under no deadline because I’m indie publishing it. But I had planned to write it earlier this year, and I’ve already had to delay it twice. I feel like if I could just devote a solid month to it I could get it done, and it’s frustrating me that I can’t do it.

I have also been in a morass of research and emails for back matter for my forthcoming picture book. What sounded so simple–a few foreign words sprinkled throughout–has turned into a real time suck, as I’m trying to confirm culturally specific, colloquial versions of these words, double-checking with native speakers in many countries. I’m still working on that.

Also, I just got a revision note from my editor about a poetry picture book that will be coming out in 2019. The editor asked if I could have my new version back to her the same day (of course) that my sister leaves to go back home. My editor is not a slave driver. She is very kind, and she knows I have family visiting. However, she’s working under a tight schedule and understandably wants the manuscript back as soon as I am able to do that.

I’ve been getting increasingly stressed. This morning, though I’m feeling slightly clearer. My energy, my momentum, is with the making a living as a children’s writer book. But when I look at the career goals I really want to reach, and where my heart is, I know that working on my trade books has to be my top priority. Not my indie-published books for writers, although I want to do those, too. And for the back matter book, an intern at the publisher is starting to help with that research.

I have decided that any bit of time and thought I have for the next few days is mostly going to go into the poetry revision. That has to be my top priority. Even though my momentum is really with another project right now, I know that once I open the manuscript and look at my editor’s notes, I will be excited to dig in, answer her questions, and make the manuscript the best it can possibly be.

I feel good about that. Oh! Except, I almost forgot. I also have a library event the day before my sister flies home. In fact, Maddie and Patty, my daughter and sister, are going with me on a little road trip. That deadline is not movable in any way. I want to blow away the librarian with my great presentation, and I want to get the kids there really excited about writing poetry. So, change of plans. Today (Saturday is a work day for me) I will finish that presentation preparation. Then I will breathe a sigh of relief.

Thennnnn, working on that trade manuscript revision will be my top priority in whatever work time I can carve out.

Once again, the making a living book for children’s writers is going to have to go on the back burner. Sob–I’m sorry, book, but maybe simmering for a while will be good for you!

Sometimes, when I have the luxury of time, I can write on the project I feel the most momentum in. Sometimes, when I have a speaking or writing deadline, I have to put that first. And sometimes, I have to put other projects aside to work on the project I care most about, the project that supports my bigger goals as a writer. I’m sure this will end up being the right decision! It’s just hard setting aside another project I feel so ready to FINISH! But every project is always there waiting patiently, ready to be pulled from that back burner and put onto the heat again.

Juggling projects, making decisions, and switching course on a regular basis is just part of being a working writer!

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Building Relationships with Editors

I was sharing in the Writing for Children Facebook Group (previously the Mentors for Rent Facebook Group) about some submissions I was making, and how some were to editors I have relationships with and others were to editors I’ve never had contact with. Several folks had questions, and I said I would share a bit more about these relationships–how they start and how they work–for me, anyway.

How Do They Start?

  • Often in-person meeting at conference or event. I have developed relationships with editors who critiqued my work or who I heard speak at conferences. An in-person meeting is a great place to start.
  • Speaking together at events. Being a speaker puts you on a professional level, so you’re slightly more on even ground. There are often speakers-only events at conferences, too—cocktail parties or whatnot. Those chance for conversation help you both get a feel for whether you might work together well.
  • One editor I submit to regularly was the judge for a writing fellowship—I didn’t win but got an honorable mention. Actually, now that I think about it, this was a few years after she critiqued a picture book manuscript for me at the annual L.A. SCBWI conference. Recently, I got another honorable mention for this same fellowship (different judge), so that opened up a new relationship.
  • Repeated personal feedback on your slushpile submissions. A few of my editorial relationships have come about simply from personal rejections. They reject my manuscript but say nice things and invite future submissions. Or they even take a manuscript to acquisitions. If the manuscript gets acquired, we clearly are building a relationship. But even the times a manuscript doesn’t get acquired, an editor has shown that he or she believes in your writing. This leads to more submissions.
  • Social media can also be a starting place—if you’re good on social media. I tend to be kind of awkward on it, so for me, it’s secondary. I do follow many editors on Twitter and such, but I’m not active (or interactive, really) enough to build relationships there. At least not at first. But if you’re skillful at social media, this is definitely an opportunity to stack the tiniest relationship building blocks.

Do This

  • Remind them of your previous contact—I never assume they will know who I am! I’ll say, “We met at NCTE last November when I stopped by ______’s signing at your booth.” Or, “We had a great conversation last month on Twitter about the pros and cons of glossaries in picture books, and I…”
  • Follow their lead in taking it to slightly more personal level (vacations, families, etc.). Wait until they mention anything outside of the strictly business/publishing realm before you share anything likewise.
  • Follow up an in-person meeting with an actual paper note. Not a submission—just a “so nice to meet you at…” I don’t do that frequently enough, but editors really appreciate it when I do. Who doesn’t love getting something other than a bill or a work task for a change?
  • Study what kinds of books they actually acquire! A ya publisher is not going to buy your nature poetry collection for preschoolers just because you enjoyed mojitos at ALA.
  • Submit your work through normal channels—email or snail mail. Not under a bathroom stall. Not during a cocktail party. Not as a dm on Twitter.
  • When awards are named, if you know the editor of an honored book, give them a shoutout, via social media or a brief email (if you are at the email stage).
  • Maybe send a holiday card if the relationship has progressed to the point where they’ve expressed the hope that you’ll find a project to work together on someday.
  • Be patient. Publishing moves slowly. Relationships take years to build.
  • Value the editors for who they are and the work they already do, not just for what you hope they might someday do with your own manuscript!

Don’t Do This

  • Don’t make them sorry they agreed to look at your work. Be polite, not stalkerish.
  • Don’t send more than one manuscript at a time unless they invite you to. It’s unprofessional, and it assumes way too much interest in your work.
  • Don’t send more than one manuscript every month or two, even if they reply more quickly. I have people I don’t answer emails from right away, because if I do, I get another email from them the next day. Pace yourself so they don’t dread seeing your name on an email or an envelope.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some things…who has something to add?

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