Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How to Be Your Own Primary Research Source

A month ago I made a rash decision. To shave my head to raise money for Roswell Park Cancer Institute. "Bald For Bucks" sounded fun at the time (my husband was going to do it too), and I definitely wanted to "pay it forward" for the great care he received and continues to receive at Roswell. It seemed like the least I could do.

Now, I'm two days away from getting buzzed and I'm anxious. Not that I'd back out or anything. I'm ready. So what am I nervous about?  Those are the feelings I want to get down on paper before the clippers strip me of these emotions and I'm faced with new ones.

As a nonfiction writer, the greatest primary source you have is yourself. You may be going to do something foolish like I am, or maybe you witnessed sea turtles hatching, or you have great knitting tips for beginners.  All of your experiences are viable and valuable research materials -- especially if you document it. Being able to pull out a journal and read -- "Sunday, July 7 -- We climbed the guano-covered steps up to the cave entrance and the Buddha inside. Bats flapped overhead.... It smelled of old wine." -- is like finding gold. It's been three years since I was in that cave. I didn't remember what it smelled like and would not have been able to write about it accurately if I hadn't have written it down.

When you want to write about a personal experience, and you know a head of time, it is just as important to nail down your BEFORE as it is the event itself or what comes after. You can rely on memory, but as I just proved, memory doesn't capture everything. So, that is what I'm doing today. What is my before experience with hair?

I've never been in love with my hair. It's poker straight, and the length rises and falls to the whim of my hairdresser who I love, but (Sorry Tim) has good days and bad. Now that it is graying, I find myself contemplating color, although I swore I never would. A buzz cut should be, and in some respects is a welcome challenge. I already went out and bought two scarves. One is black so I can wear it to perform in a choral concert without the lights glinting off my naked bean like a giant spotlight announcing that the 2016 Hondas are in.

My big concern is that I don't want anyone to think I am mocking them, or diminishing the agony of cancer and chemo and its effects. Will people ask me if I have cancer?  What will they say when I tell them no?

In a way this is me getting as ugly as I can -- 54, overweight (although I'm working on it), and bald. Can I, will I, still love myself? Did I before? Hell, I'm still trying to wrangle woolly eyebrows!

The best I can hope for is that this experience will be freeing.  At the very least?  It gives me something to write about.

Lesson -- Write it down! What you did, what it looked like, what it smelled like, felt like, tasted like, and especially how you felt about it.

**If you want to donate to Bald for Bucks click here.

Thank You!!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Only ONE! -- What's Up With That?

A few months ago I gave myself the gift of Publishers Weekly. It's my attempt at being more professional, more in touch with the business. 

It always comes before noon, and I manage to plow through most of it over lunch. PW has interesting articles on things like translating Polish poetry, and, of course, they have reviews of the newest books.

I usually scan the adult fiction section pausing briefly at the starred reviews. The nonfiction reviews, on the other hand, I read thoroughly circling the ones I'd like to purchase but probably won't, hopeful that I'll be able to interloan them in a few months. In the last issue, PW reviewed 38 nonfiction titles. I circled 3 -- Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga; Stalin's Daughter; and The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack: and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution.

The section that causes lunchtime to run over into writing time (or nap time, if I'm being honest) is the Children's/YA reviews. In the last few weeks that consists of   about three pages of picture books, more than a dozen mid-grade and YA titles, and one book of nonfiction.


ONE! What's up with that?

Now, I didn't stop to find the stats on how many fiction and nonfiction books are published each year by the hundreds of publishing companies in America, but I'm pretty sure that out of all those houses, large and small, there was more than one nonfiction title worthy of a PW review. But I could be wrong.

I sent off a query to PW, not expecting a response, but got an email back the very next day. John Sellers, the Children's Reviews Editor said, "While it is true that we often only have one nonfiction title in a given issue, that's not a hard and fast rule -- some weeks we have more, some weeks we have none." I could stop there and make it sound like PW is snubbing NF, but it's not true. Sellers went on to remind me that some NF titles often get featured in "boxed roundups of animal-themed books, picture-book biographies, science/history titles, concept books and so on." I still wondered about mid-grade and YA NF.

"As far as longer, "novel-length" nonfiction, we review a good amount of what we receive," said Sellers. " But we receive far more YA and MG fiction than we do nonfiction books for those ages."

Huh! I would hope that publishers send their nonfiction as well as their fiction for review.

I have a thought. If you have a mid-grade or YA trade book coming out soon (PW doesn't usually review for the institutional market), ask your editor if they'll send review copies to PW. Let's see if we can beef up the stats.

Thanks John, for explaining!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Happy Birthday Thomas!

Today is Thomas Jefferson's birthday, Celebrate with a Nonfiction Minute!
Learn how he became a smuggler and grew America's economy.

This Nonfiction Minute is a preview of my newest book Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation to be released in the fall.