Sunday, January 24, 2010

Award-winning Nonfiction

It is so gratifying to work in a business where there are so many exemplary writers and such an abundance of awesome books. Congratulations to all the award winners and honor books that were announced this past week: to Hester Bass for winning the Orbis Pictus for The Secret World of Walter Anderson; to Tanya Lee Stone for winning the Sibert Award for Almost Astronauts; and Deborah Heiligman for YALSA's Award for Excellence in NF for one of my favorite books - Charles and Emma, just to name a few. This year there were dozens of excellent books to choose from and these awards just help to publicize what the rest of us already know - the art of telling true stories is alive and well and good reading!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Revision Relief

The revisions from the copyeditor came back for "For the Birds" a biography of Roger Tory Peterson. For this book they came via email and when I saw it pop up on my screen, my stomach tightened. I always get a queasy feeling, afraid there will be questions I can't answer and glaring mistakes pointed out. Why didn't I write fiction, I wonder. They don't have this kind of pressure for accuracy.

I take a deep breath and call up the text and see how many notes there are - 41. That amounts to more than one on each page. Ugh! My stomach flips. Then I start to read them. The copyeditor's first query is whether to use italics or underline a particular heading. Okay, I can handle that. I keep reading. More style and format questions -- do we use italics or quotation marks or both for quotes? Another easy one.

Then I get the queries to double-check names and dates. Is it called the Rivers School or The Country Day School for Boys of Boston in 1931? Is the Hunts Point dump a proper dump with a capital D? Should I include the full name of DDT in this picture book or not? I relax a little. Nothing I can't handle.

But one point brought up by an expert reader does present a problem. He questions some of the details of an incident that happened in Roger's childhood. I have to weigh my sources. There are discrepancies. The writer Edwin Way Teale, a friend of Roger's, describes one moth incident, and Roger's sister Margaret describes it another way. Are they writing about the same event? Roger did not write about it, so I don't have his word, but I feel like Margaret, who was there, would remember it well. Moths flew all around the house. So back to the drawing board I go. Is there another source out there? And if not, how can I write this scene accurately without killing it with phrases like 'some sources described...."

The revision process is a necessary evil. I hate being questioned about my research, but I welcome the opportunity to fix mistakes. I want to be proud of this book, and the only way to do that is to make sure I get it right -- facts, format and feeling.

Monday, January 11, 2010

There Is More to Writing Than Just Writing

Over the weekend I went to the SCBWI conference in Syracuse, NY and felt quite at home with the unofficial theme of the day - research. In the morning, nonfiction writer Clara McClafferty shared her process and the importance of keeping track of your resources from the start. Her tips:

About Internet information - "Print that baby out today." It might not be there the next time you need it. And note the date the site was last updated.

About calling an expert - know what you want and be specific. Don't waste their time.

And the best advice - When in doubt, ask. "I'm all about point-blank asking." (I loved her Arkansas accent)

Even the illustrators Debra Bandelin and Bob Dacey stressed their need to do research in their business. Bob noted that book illustration was 75% research and 25% illustrating. They take photographs, use magazine, book and Internet material, but the best reference is the real thing - that is why they still have 7 hermit crabs after doing a hermit crab book.

In the afternoon, Charlesbridge editor Randi Rivers outlined how to get the most out of your submission. And guess what? She encourages all writers to do their research. Read the kinds of books that you want to write. Know what is already on the market and how your story fits in or is different. Use market guides to choose the right publishing house for you and your manuscript. Go to conferences and meet editors.

It was unusual for a whole conference to have such a strong common thread running through it, but it reflects how important it is for writers to do the leg work. There is more to writing than just writing. And I agree completely.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A New Year of Writing

I don't usually take New Year's resolutions seriously, because like most people I don't follow through. But I do find that January is a good time to take stock of the projects I have been working on. I think it has something to do with taking down the tree, boxing up the decorations and returning everyday nick-knacks to their rightful places on the shelves. I'm ready to get things back to normal and get back to work.

Here is where I stand at the start of this year --
- Picture book biography of Roger Tory Peterson - is at the illustrator
- Writing Nonfiction how-to - on editor's desk
- WWII novel - finished, but I need to look more closely at character development
- mid-grade fantasy - just read chapter 7 to my critique group
- Preliminary research for a new biography subject

So, this year I need to call the editor about the how-to, polish my novel and dig deeper into Milosz's back story. I will finish my mid-grade manuscript and decide on who I will focus on for my next biography.

One year from now, I'll be able to look at this list and see how well I did. And I promise to tell the truth. Honest.