Tag Archives: how to write

01 Dec

3 Reasons I Failed NaNoWriMo – and Why It’s OK

I am a failure.
I signed up for NaNoWriMo–again. And again–I failed to make 50,000 words.

But I have good reasons.

World Building. I did massive work this month on world building. Since I’m writing a science fiction novel, I needed to invent technology, figure out where to locate installations, design the installations to meet the needs of my sff characters and the needs of the story, create scientifically accurate details throughout, along with the usual backstory.

I used Google Earth to investigate Mt. Rainier and the surrounding area, worked on backstory and characterization, and dug into the details of scenes. Many scenes that are still to be written have been written about; that is, I’ve written notes about who, what, when, where, why and with what emotion. When I do sit down to write the scene, it should go quickly.

November is Hard. I’ve never understood the decision to make November the NaNoWriMo month; it’s one of the busiest months for me. Arkansas has a major reading conference, besides the Thanksgiving holiday. All together there were 7-8 days I simply could not write because I was busy all day with other activities. For me, burning the midnight oil does no good, but at that hour, all I can write is crap. Still, I wrote steadily on the days that I could and made progress.

Writing Style. Fashion swings wildly. Many editors believe that writing should take a long, long time. The fad in the Indie world these days is very rapid writing. In the end–I write as fast as I can and still turn out something that pleases me. I must please myself, not an editor or a contest like NaNoWriMo or anyone else. I can only write as fast as I can write.

My Speed is OK

BlueOKIt’s really OK that I didn’t write 50,000 words this month.

  • I had a great time at the Arkansas Reading Association conference.
  • I had a great time with my family.
  • I wrote about 32,500 words, which is 32,500 words more than I started the month with. More than that, I know my characters better and know that it was a very good month of work.

That’s all I can say.

14 Oct

10 Writer Quotes to Keep you Working on Your Novel

30 Days to a Stronger Novel Online Video course

30DaysUdemy-960x540-150
Writing teacher Darcy Pattison teachers an online video course, 30 Days to a Stronger Novel. Each day includes an inspirational quote, and tips and techniques for revising your novel. Here are the 10 of the inspirational quotes.

LEARN MORE: ONLINE VIDEO COURSE.

Or sign up for more information on the availability of this course and other courses.

Pattison
The titles below are the first ten entries of the Table of Contents for the Online Video Class. Sign up now for the Early Bird list. You’ll be notified when the course goes live.

Mims: Online Video Course

Sign up for information on online video courses with Darcy Pattison. Discounts, deadlines, and more.

  1. The Wide, Bright Lands: Theme Affects Setting

    21-Morrell

  2. Raccoons, Owls, and Billy Goats: Theme Affects Characters

    22-singer

  3. Side Trips: Choosing Subplots

    23-morrell

  4. Of Parties, Solos, and Friendships: Knitting Subplots Together

    24-lengle

  5. Feedback: Types of Critiquers

    25-goldberg

  6. Feedback: What You Need from Readers

    26-king

  7. Stay the Course

    27-Parker

  8. Please Yourself First

    28-dillard

  9. The Best Job I Know to Do

    29-allen

  10. Live. Read. Write.

    30-Bratslav

Click Here to See 22 More Quotes for Writers

13 Oct

3 Ways to Know If Your YA Fiction Is Really New Adult Fiction

In the immortal words of Charlotte in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

I was privileged to have Deborah Halverson edit my Harcourt picture book, Searching for Oliver K. Woodman. When we met at a retreat, it was instant friendship, and anytime we talk, it feels like we’ve been friends forever. That’s why I am so excited about this new book. Well, I’m excited because it’s Deborah’s book, but also because it’s the first book I’ve seen to explain the latest fiction genre, New Adult. In Deborah’s capable hands, the topic comes alive and I’ve already got tons of ideas for stories. Here, she answers a basic question; but if you want more, you’ve got to buy her book!


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Guest post by Deborah Halverson

YA writers often ask me to explain the difference between Young Adult fiction and New Adult fiction when the story’s main character is 18 or 19 years old. Some of those writers are curious about this new fiction category that brushes up against their own, but others are trying to noodle out whether that upper YA story they’re working on is really NA. “Tell me what NA is, Deborah, and then I’ll know what I’ve got.” Happy to help! Here are three ways to determine if you’re writing a story about a young adult or a new adult.

DearEditor.com Deborah Halverson is doing a special giveaway for the blog tour for the kickoff of this book. Enter to win “One Free Full Manuscript Edit!

Pin Down Your Protagonist’s Mind-set

How does your character process the world and her place in it? Teens are typically starting to look outward as they try to find their places in the world and realize that their actions have consequences in the grander scheme of life, and they yearn to live unfettered by the rules, structure, and identities that have defined their lives until now. New adults finally get to live that free life they dreamed of—for better or worse. They move forward with the self-exploration they began in their adolescence, going big on personal exploration and experimentation and expanding their worldview. They get to build identities that reflect who they’ve become rather than who they grew up with, and they get to try things out before settling into a final Life Plan. All of this can be overwhelming even when it goes well—after all, even good change is stressful, and “change” is new adulthood in a nutshell. For some, though, the instability is a total freak-out. The clash of ideal vs. reality can shock their system. They’re gaining experience and wisdom hand over fist, but yikes. Luckily, new adults tend to brim with personal optimism, and their explorations and experimentations—both dangerous and beneficial—are endearingly earnest.

If this sounds like your protagonist and her circle of friends, you might have an NA on your hands. You can use this knowledge to give your story a solidly NA sensibility by exposing your character’s inexperience in her decision-making, by imbuing the narrative with a sense of defiance, by conveying stress, by conveying self-focus (not selfishness), by lacing the exposition with personal optimism, and by showing the character’s awareness of her growing maturity. YA characters who are overly analytical about themselves and others risk sounding too mature, but NA character journeys ooze with self-assessment no matter the individual details of their journeys.

Assess Your Circumstances

New Adult v. Young AdultIn fiction, the plot exists to push the protagonist through some kind of personal growth. Thus, our character’s mind-set and the plot are interdependent. Whether your character is a young adult or new adult, the circumstances of your story—the events, problems, places, and roles—should sync with that character. New adults tackle their problems with their new adult filters in place, whether the story is a contemporary one set in college, or a historical one, or a fantastical one. Self-actualization is an essential growth process whether you’re at a college kegger or battling evil overlords.

Once you’ve pinpointed whether your protagonist’s mindset feels YA or NA, consider if your plot events and the circumstances of your protagonist’s life jive with her concerns, fears, coping skills, maturity, and wisdom level. NA story lines tend to remove structure and accountability, tweak the characters’ stress levels by playing musical careers and homes, make money an issue, force the characters to establish new social circles at play and at work, show characters exhibiting ambivalence to adult responsibilities, show characters divorcing from teenhood, show characters striving to “move on from trauma” rather than to “survive trauma”, deny the characters the “ideal” NA life of carefree self-indulgence, put characters in situations that clash their high expectations for independent life against a harsh reality, and show the process of evaluation, of trial-and-error, of weighing exploration and experimentation against consequences, at least by the end of the story.

Deal with the “Sexed-Up YA” Thing

Romance is part of almost any older YA story, and certainly all NA. As it should be—romance is one of the three main areas of identity exploration after puberty, along with career and worldview (think politics, faith, and personal well-being and outlook). The difference is that teens are very solidly in the “what is love, what does it feel like?” realm, whereas new adults are generally working on who they want to be in a relationship, what they want from their partner, what they want from the relationship in general. That doesn’t mean they’re actively searching for Mr./Mrs. Right—there’s plenty of time for that!—but it does mean they want a satisfying, meaningful relationship. Where is your character on that romance spectrum?

Of course, romance isn’t really what people focus on when comparing YA and NA relationships, is it? Nope: it’s sex. So let’s talk about sex. In its early days, NA was accused of being “sexed-up YA”, but after reviewing numbers 1 and 2 above, you’ll see that the differences between YA and NA are more substantial than simply how explicitly you describe two bodies connecting sans clothing. Ask yourself your goal with the romance, and what level of sexual detail is necessary for that goal. Then consider your audience: NA readers are mostly adults of the same 20- to 44-year-old “crossover reader” demographic that shot YA into the publishing stratosphere. (A Digital Book World study reported 2013’s dominant YA crossover readership as being 20- to 29-year-olds; compare that to the 18- to 25-year-old age range of new adulthood). Those grownups can handle—and often flat-out want—explicit sex scenes. Some teens will read NA, but mostly they’re not into that mind-set yet so the stories don’t resonate with them, making them plenty happy to stick with the many great YA stories out there that reflect their current time in life.

Perhaps you determine that your character’s mind-set and story circumstances are solidly YA but you want/need to include some sex scenes in your story because the theme or plot of the story calls for it. In that case, maybe you have a solid YA that requires a “Mature YA” categorization to let readers know that there’s sexual content between those covers. Those scenes will be tamer than the full-on explicitness of NA—your are writing/positioning this story primarily for and about young readers after all, and there are gatekeepers involved—but the sexual content is there and readers are warned. Weigh your goals with your romance, your story’s scene needs, and your audience’s expectations and sensibilities as you make the NA/YA determination on this aspect of your WIP.

So there you have it. Three ways to know if that story you’re writing is Young Adult fiction or New Adult fiction. Good luck with your WIP, and with all your publishing endeavors.


Authorphoto_Halverson_8x8_small3Deborah Halverson is a veteran editor and the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies. Her latest book, Writing New Adult Fiction, teaches techniques and strategies for crafting the new adult mindset and experience into riveting NA fiction. Deborah was an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years and is now a freelance editor, the founder of the popular writers’ advice website DearEditor.com, and the author of numerous books for young readers, including the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth with Delacorte/Random House. For more about Deborah, visit DeborahHalverson.com or DearEditor.com.

28 Jul

How to Write a Book Series: 3 Crucial Decisions

To write a series of books, my biggest tip is to plan ahead. You may get by with writing one book on the fly—plenty of people do that. But for a series to hang together, to have cohesion and coherence, planning is essential. Here are three decisions you should make early in the planning process.

Decision #1: What type of series will you write?

Strategies for a series vary widely. For THE HUNGER GAMES, the story is really one large story broken down into several books. Or, to say it another way, there is a narrative arc that spans the whole series. Yes, each book has a narrative arc and ends on a satisfying note; however, we read the next book because we want to know what happens in the overall series arc. Jim Butcher’s ALERA CODEX is another series with an overall series arc; it was fun to hang out in this world for a long time.

On the other hand, series such as Agatha Christie mysteries (in fact, many mystery series fall into this category) are stand-alone books. What continues from one book to the next is the characters, the setting and milieu, and the general voice and tone of the stories. Once a reader gets to know a character, s/he wants to spend more time with that character. These readers just want to hang out with a friend, your character. A sub-category is the series of standalone books that adds a final chapter to set up the next book in the series and leaves you with a cliff-hanger.

I distinctly remember when I first read Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series about Mars. Each story is a standalone novel, but he hooked me hard. I started reading at noon on a Saturday and found myself hotfooting it to the bookstore at 4:30 pm because they closed at 5 pm and I had to have the second book to read immediately.

Rarer is the series that crosses genres. This type series begins with one genre, but moves into other genres as the lives of the characters progress. For example, a romance might continue with a mystery for the second book. And the third might move into a supernatural genre. These are rarer because one reason a reader sticks with a series is that they know what they are getting. It will be this type of a story, told in this sort of way and will involve these characters.

On the other hand, some series unabashedly cross genres but they do it for every book. Rick Riordian’s Percy Jackson series is a combination of mythology and action/thriller with a dose of mystery.

Notice that this decision centers on the plot of the stories in the series. Will you plot each separately, or will there be an overall plot?

Decision #2: Characters

Besides plot, you should make decisions about characters, and as with plot, you have choices. One choice is an ensemble cast that will carry over from book to book. Here, you have Percy Jackson, his friends and his family as constants. Each book introduces new characters, of course, but there is a core that stays the same.

Another option is to have just one character remain the same. Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot traveling around and the only constant was the gumshoe and his skills.

Whether you choose one character or an ensemble, you can add or subtract as you go along. But the characters must be integral to the story’s plot.

In developing series characters, think about cohesion and coherence.

Cohesion: Elements of the story stick together, giving cohesion. For example, if one alien in the family can use telekinesis (moving objects with your mind), then that possibility should exist for all members of the family. Of course, some might not have the power, or it may develop slowly for a child, but the possibility should exist.

Coherence: Elements of a story are consistent from book to book. If Kell’s eyes are silvery in book one, they are silvery in books two, three and four.

Decision #3: How long do you want the series to continue?

Many easy readers series go on forever. Think of THE BERENSTAIN BEARS, who continue their adventures and lives throughout multiple volumes. For this type series, the story possibilities are endless. Or think of a TV series, where the situation set up is rich with possibilities. I Love Lucy ran for years and years on the premise of a slightly crazy wife of a musician.

On the other hand, some series have a finite life span. For stories with a narrative arc that spans a series, the life span is built into the plot. However even for these, there can be spin-offs into related series. Think of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and Heroes of Olympia series. The A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy and John Gurney had a built-in limit of 26 books.

The Buddy Files Series, Book 1, by Dori Hillestad Butler

The Buddy Files Series, Book 1, by Dori Hillestad Butler

Sometimes, the length of a series depends on the publisher and the early success of the series titles. When Dori Hillestad Butler’s first book in The Buddy Files series, THE CASE OF THE LOST BOY, won the 2011 Edgar Award for the best juvenile mystery of the year, the publisher contracted for more.

For Sara Pennypacker, author of the CLEMENTINE series of short chapter books, the answer of series length depended on something else. In a presentation about writing, she said that she had to ask herself what she wanted to say to third graders. She came up with eight things. Pennypacker focused on the themes of each book (friendship, telling the truth, etc) and found that eight was the natural stopping place for her. Of course, she reserves the right to many more, if other themes present themselves. But she deliberately stepped away from doing a Christmas book, a Halloween book, a 4th of July book, a fall book, a back-to-school book and so on and so forth.

9781629440217-Perfect-PB-CS.inddMy books, THE ALIENS, INC. SERIES, just released in August, 2014, is about an alien family that is shipwrecked on Earth and must figure out how to make a living. It’s been interesting developing these stories and thinking about these three issues.

They accidentally fall into party planning and each book features a different type of party or event put on by Aliens, Inc, the family’s company. KELL, THE ALIEN, the lead-off story, is about a birthday party and of course, it is an alien party. Can the aliens pull off an alien party? The second is about a Friends of Police parade, entitled, KELL AND THE HORSE APPLE PARADE. Book 3, KELL AND THE GIANTS, explored the world of tall and how to keep a giant secret.

Can you tell just from the description some of the decisions I made? There isn’t an overall series arc. Rather, the characters, setting and milieu are set up and there could be endless stories in the series. However, like Butler’s dog mystery series, I am starting with four books and their success will determine future titles. There is a main character who is surrounded by friends and family and, of course, a villainess. These characters weave through the stories and provide cohesion and coherence.

Plan ahead and your series will be stronger. For those who accidentally fall into a series, it will be harder to sustain coherence. You may realize in book three that it sure would be nice if your character had to wear glasses. Yes, you can add it—but you run the danger of it being obviously done for the story itself. So, in my series, early readers have questioned things like the art teacher who is from Australia.

They ask, “Does it matter that she is from Australia?”

“Not yet,” I answer. I just know that I have seeded these early manuscripts with possibilities. If the series goes to books 5-8, I will have hooks to draw upon. So, while I haven’t plotted those books, I have still allowed room for them.

Resource: Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner (Writer’s Digest Books)

Want to write a series? What is your favorite series and how will your stories compare?

02 Jul

NOVEL REVISION CHARTS: 2 Tools for Smart Re-Thinking of Your Story

An aid to smart revising based on Darcy Pattison’s techniques

Guest Post by
Claudia Finseth

I recently took Darcy’s Whole Novel Workshop and read her book, Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise. Between the two, there was a great deal of valuable new information to process. I’m very visual, so one way I worked through and organized the information was by creating charts. To what are mostly Darcy’s ideas, I added a few of my own, and some I’ve learned in other workshops. Darcy has asked me to share these charts here on her blog.

The first chart is The Novel Revision Chart. As Darcy teaches, there are many types of revision to consider once we have a draft of a novel.

Finseth's Novel Revision Chart

This Novel Revision Chart show the different types of revisions and helps you prioritize the revision tasks. CLICK TO VIEW FULL SIZE.




Darcy’s workshops are based on critique groups. Participants work in groups of four, reading and commenting on each other’s manuscripts and. Taking the three critiques of my novel, I made a list of all the types of revision my group suggested for my novel: not letting the tension flag, pulling all my theme threads all the way through the novel, keeping my character age-appropriate, etc.


Attend a Novel Revision Retreat

The Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat will come to the Boston area in August, 2014. There are a limited number of spaces still available. See Anne Broyles site for details. Also available is a Build Your Website session and a Picture Book Workshop. Hurry! Spaces limited! And time is short!


Then, I identified where these types of revision landed on the Novel Revision Chart. If they landed somewhere on the Incremental Revision line, I figured I could work with what I had already written. The three types of revision mentioned in the previous paragraph all land there. If, however, the needed revisions landed on the Quantum Leap Revision line, then I figured maybe I should scrap this chapter or that and write it again from scratch. Or write the whole novel again in a new draft. Or take the novel apart and reorganize it in some major way. For instance, my second novel is probably really three novels. (Sigh.) But better I realize that now than waste time trying to fix it the way it is.

The point is, this chart can help writers identify how major or minor the next revision needs to be, as well as what kind of revision needs to be focused on next. It can save us spinning our wheels on the wrong kind of revision. How many times have we worked on verbs or sensory detail when what we needed was to introduce another character or change the beginning? Trust me: been there, done that, and it’s very annoying to realize I should have been working on a totally different kind of revision. The chart can make us smarter revisers.

The Line Edit Revision part of the chart is a reminder that the final revisions you do, once the novel is firmly shaped and sparkling with life, and just before submission, need to be these five types of micro-edits. Therefore, it is at the bottom of the chart.

Checklist for Revising Scenes.

But before we do any line editing, there’s the second chart to look at, A Checklist for Each Scene. As the first chart is a way of evaluating the revision needed overall, this second chart is for scene by scene revisions. As Darcy explains in Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise, each scene is a kind of whole of its own. Taking one scene at a time, a writer can use this chart in conjunction with Darcy’s book to make sure each scene includes all the elements required to create a tight, compelling scene that propels the reader into the next one.

Finseth Scene Checklist

After the major revisions and before the minor Line Edit revisions, you should do a scene check. CLICK TO SEE FULL SIZE.



I have these charts before me as I work. They are quick reminders of each step needed to flesh out and deepen a scene and ultimately write a novel that editors will want to publish because they are so rich and satisfying a read. I’ll make checks on the charts as I go, when I think I’ve accomplished each type of revision. And when I’m “done” I’ll put a big exclamation mark in sharpie marker, or a smiley face, or perhaps I’ll save them for the next novel.


Claudia FinsethClaudia Finseth is a writer and author living in Tacoma, Washington. She is published in non- fiction adult, poetry and short children’s stories in Cricket Magazine. Her goal now is to become an adept at the novel form. “Novels are hard!” she says. Her website is claudia.finseth.ca.

30 Jun

Do You Fear Starting a New Novel?

Today, I stare failure in the face.
Today, I am scared.
Today, I see possibilities as the possibility of failing.

In other words, I have finished all my self-imposed deadlines on other projects and cleared my plate of other tasks, so that I can start a new novel. And it terrifies me.

It’s an ambitious project, something I expect to turn into a trilogy. I have such hopes for this project: hopes that it will reach new readers; hopes that it will be fun to write and promote; hopes that it will be (I’m afraid to even say it!) a breakout novel for me.

And I am scared.

I’ve done my homework. Volcanoes feature large in this story, so last month while I was in the Pacific Northwest, I visited Mt. St. Helens.

Darcy Pattison at Mt. St. Helens

I recently visited Mt. St. Helens for research on the background for a new novel.



I’ve written samples for this story from different points of view, and even sold a short story based on the back story.

And yet–I am scared to sit down and start this. Yes, I’ve written the book on starting a novel and I’m still scared to start again. As ART AND FEAR puts it, I am scared that my fate is in my own hands–and that my hands are weak.

I SHOULD see the great possibilities of success.
I SHOULD approach this with excitement.
I SHOULD be so ramped up by now that the words would flow, as if bestowed from above, with angelic music swelling and…

No. Writing is work. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done or ever hope to do. But it’s also the most exciting, most fun, and most rewarding work I will ever do.

So, at 8:30 this morning, I’ll turn on my Freedom app, giving myself three hours of uninterrupted time. I will make a start. A messy start. But a start. And that will be enough for today. Just make a start, that’s my goal for today.

12 May

Scene: Fast or Fast-Paced?

Is your scene fast or fast-paced? There’s a difference, an important difference.

A fast paced scene has lots of small changes happening, which keeps the reader on the edge of his/her seat. Think of it as the last few minutes of a basketball game where the ball changes hands often, and the score bounces back and forth.

These could be called small zigzags of action and emotion, or it could be a rapid list of beats or actions. Each action lasts a short time, before something else happens.

Fast-paced scenes aren't necessarily fast scenes.

Fast-paced scenes aren’t necessarily fast scenes.




A fast scene means that the whole scene is quickly over. The entire beginning, complication, development, and resolution of the scene takes just a few moments, a few lines.

Fast-paced scenes are almost always welcome.
Fast scenes have a place in fiction when you need something to happen in an economical manner.

However, you should avoid fast scenes for the Big Moments in your story. These are scenes such as the Opening, the climax of Act 1 (sometimes called the Inciting Incident) which moves the action into Act 2, several big moments in Act 2, the scene that send the action into Act 3, and of course, the Climax scene. Those scenes need to take up more space, and should probably be fast-paced. But there’s more happening, emotional content, twists, and surprises; these are extended scenes. These are the things that make a scene big. Of all the scenes, the longest will probably be the Climax scene, by a matter of pages.

There are fast-paced, fast (or short) scenes.
There are fast-paced, medium length scenes.
There are fast-paced, long scenes.

Make sure you know when and where to use each one.

14 Feb

How to Ruin Your Novel’s Opening with a Few Wrong Words

Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.

A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.

Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE.
S&B COVER3-CS.inddJust from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.

Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.

Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:

Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.

I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.

03 Feb

NonFiction Picture Books: Research Required

How much research do you need to do for a children’s nonfiction picture book? Tons!

Nonfiction means that you have the facts straight, ma’am.

3 sources agree. Traditionally, writers look fora at least three sources to back up each piece of information. This means the content isn’t just a personal opinion or a poorly researched fact. Facts should be replicated in multiple studies and corroborated by multiple experts.

Primary sources. Just as in any nonfiction writing,it’s important to go to the primary source of information. Talk to scientists, look up research reports and email the authors of the study, go out and try something for yourself.

Dig deeper. Nonfiction picture books should dig deeper for information, for the meaning and interpretation of the facts, and for context. A biography of Shirley Temple, for example, would likely consider the Depression Era and the effects it had on the burgeoning film industry. For some, Temple’s films were seen as a cheap escape from the harsh realities. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said about her, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” And of course, if I was writing a book with that quote, I would have to tell you where I found it. (It’s quoted here in the UK Guardian.)

Tools for Research

My favorite tools for researching for a nonfiction children’s book include:
Google, GoogleScholar, and more. Here are tips and more tips for searching on Google. Did you know you can restrict the search to a certain website or ask Google to only tell you about information posted in the last year? GoogleScholar searches research journals. See the full list of Google products here.

Wikipedia. I know, people feel that Wikipedia is unreliable. But Clay Shirky argues in his book, Here Comes Everybody, that over the long run, it’s more reliable because so many people are able to edit it. Crowd-writing-and-editing is both the strength and weakness of Wikipedia. And yet, I find it great for an initial look at a topic; and the references are often the primary sources that I need. Don’t discount this one.

Library Databases. I recently taught essay writing to a group of home-schoolers and we took a field trip to a public library to look at their databases. These are databases that either aren’t available on the web, or cost too much for an individual to subcribe to. Most public libraries subscribe to an incredibly rich set of databases that offer a world of information; often these are available online through your library’s website. It’s one of the first places I look for info.

Follow up leads. Often these resources will send me off in multiple directions scrambling for more information, emailing scientists, reading dense research reports and so on. It’s not where you start, but where you end up that matters. Follow the trails, question everything and search for answers.

Two Nature Books as Examples of Research

My two recent nature books took different tracks for their research.

Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Natural Disasters for over 60 Years required me to interview the biologist on Midway Island about the conditions there during the tsunami and its aftermath. I also looked at video of the tsunami that hit Japan, debris fields in the Pacific, and photos of the desolation on Midway Island. Researching the life and times of the 60 year old bird–the oldest known wild bird in the world–meant going back in time to find out what storms had hit Midway in the last 60 years. Other issues arose: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, longline fishing and more. Each subtopic meant delving into the research to find details to include in the story. Though it is only 850 words long, it entailed a lot of primary research.


AbayomiCover-250x250-150Research for my latest nature picture book took a different tack. Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub The illustrator, Kitty Harvill lives in Brazil half the year and is involved in the environmental art community there. She heard about an orphaned puma cub and suggested the story. Because she knew the scientists involved, it meant lots of interviews, including Skyping with the scientists.

The reports about where the cub was orphaned included coordinates for the chicken farm where the mother was killed. I looked on GoogleEarth and found images of the exact locale, which helped me describe the events in more detail. Harvill actually visited the site and took photographs for reference for the art.

For this story, the context meant even more research. Why are pumas important in the Brazilian ecosystem? It turns out that there has been an increase in Brazilian Spotted Fever (similar to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in the U.S.). The largest rodent in the world, the capybara is the primary host for the ticks that carry the fever; and the biggest predator of capybaras are pumas. I researched ticks and tick-borne diseases, checking the World Health Organization to confirm that the fever has increased in Brazil. I looked at capybaras and their habitats. Puma diet consists of many other small mammals, including rodents. Were capybaras a large portion of what they ate? The questions went on and on.

Through it all, though, there was this main question: where is the story?
For me, it’s not enough just to recite facts. I want the emotional impact of those facts, the story. I found it in the original report of the cub who was orphaned. The owner of the chicken farm where the mother was killed said that he had no idea pumas might be involved in stealing his chickens. He said, “I’ve lived here for over 40 years and I’ve never seen a puma.”

That thought sat around for a long time, before it became the basis of the story: pumas were invisible.

Nonfiction picture books require meticulous research and each project takes on a life of its own.


Check out other 2nd Grade Picture Books for examples of nonfiction titles to study.




05 Dec

Frosty the Snowman’s Top 5 Writing Tips

Happy Holidays

Just got an e-newsletter from the North Pole and Santa passed along these writing tips from the Frosty the Snowman, posted for the young-at-heart who are writing novels this year.

Back by popular demand is my series on writing tips from popular Christmas figures. First published in 2007, they are updated here for your Christmas cheer.

Santa Claus’s Top 5 Writing Tips
12 Days of Christmas Writing Tips (live on 12/3)
The Gingerbread Man’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/4)
Frosty the Snowman’s Top 6 Writing Tips (live on 12/5)
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/6)

Frosty The Snowman’s Top 5 Writing tips

These tips are based on the popular song, “Frosty the Snowman.” Read about the history of this song. Oh, what a great 3-D snowman cake pan!

Frosty's Top 6 Writing Tips

Image by Daniel Novta

  1. Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul,
    With a corncob pipe and a button nose
    And two eyes made out of coal.
    Frosty the snowman is a fairy tale, they say,
    He was made of snow


    Extended character descriptions.
    Don’t be afraid to take time to describe the main character. One the continuum of character descriptions, this one is longer than you’ll find in most children’s picturebooks. But it works because this is a character story.

  2. but the children
    Know how he came to life one day.
    There must have been some magic in that
    Old silk hat they found.
    For when they placed it on his head
    He began to dance around.

    Point of view. Notice the point of view here. The attention is squarely on Frosty, not on the children who found the old silk hat. When you write a story for kids, you don’t always have to put the child as the main character.

  3. O, Frosty the snowman
    Was alive as he could be,
    And the children say he could laugh
    And play just the same as you and me.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Look at Frosty go.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Over the hills of snow.

    Language play. This section doesn’t add much to the plot, it’s just pure language play. But this is perfect for the younger audiences, who know that playing around with language is half the fun of reading a story or singing a song. Great onomatopoeia.

  4. Frosty the snowman knew
    The sun was hot that day,
    So he said, “Let’s run and
    We’ll have some fun
    Now before I melt away.”

    Conflict. Every good story needs conflict. And the character’s attitude in the face, well, in the face of certain death, is evident. It’s an attitude of taking joy where you find it and facing the future with courage.


  5. Darcy’s Best Writing Advice: Fiction Notes Books


  6. Down to the village,
    With a broomstick in his hand,
    Running here and there all
    Around the square saying,
    Catch me if you can.
    He led them down the streets of town
    Right to the traffic cop.
    And he only paused a moment when
    He heard him holler “Stop!”
    For Frosty the snow man
    Had to hurry on his way,


    Development of the conflict.
    The traffic cop provides an extra bump of conflict that adds to the story’s development. For picturebooks, it doesn’t have to be much; in fact, it can’t be huge, or you’re writing a novel. This is perfect, just the introduction of an authority figure who yells, “Stop!” but can’t really do anything to stop the breakneck speed of Frosty’s life.

  7. But he waved goodbye saying,
    “Don’t you cry,
    I’ll be back again some day.”
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Look at Frosty go.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Over the hills of snow.

    Hope. Children’s stories may end in tragedy, but the best offer a spot of hope. Notice also the nice repetition of the language play that sends the story off with a nice echo.

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