Teachers Write 6.29.16 – It’s Q & A Wednesday!

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering. Today’s official author guests are Jody Feldman and Sarah Albee (so this is an especially great day for questions that relate to nonfiction and informational writing!) but other authors always pop in as well, so ask away! You never know who might show up.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 5.12.15 PM

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

162 Replies on “Teachers Write 6.29.16 – It’s Q & A Wednesday!

    1. Hi back at you, Sarah!
      Hello to all you teachers and librarians and anyone tagging along for this wonderful ride. This is an amazing forum Kate has set up. Hat’s off!

  1. Good TW Morning to all,
    Thank you Jody Feldman and Sarah Albee for joining us.
    I’m making it a point, this year, to follow each author I see here on Goodreads in addition to making sure I have their books in my MS library. I consider it research and professional development all in one.

    My Question for TW, is more for fiction relating to balancing pre-story v. action of the big event. There’s writing advice about beginning a story in the action. “Something has to grab me” an editor once told me when giving me crit for my wip.

    Some stories take time….laying the groundwork….planting the seeds or in the case of The Seventh Wish….laying the dynamite fuse.

    My question for authors is how did/do you develop a sense of how much “before” or back story to include in your work before “the big event”? I’m betting part of a published author’s answer will be it depends on the story…but, how do you know when you’ve hit the right balance of “the before” in the story to “the main event”?

    Apologies to Ms. Albee who is thinking….didn’t Kate just tell campers to ask questions about non-fiction?!
    My question for you is this! I have an opportunity to research at a major primary source library this summer. What tips do you have for researching with primary sources that newbies might not think about when starting out? Did you ever come away from a research chance and think “I wish I had….”?
    What’s your advice going IN to research as an author?

    Thanks to all the authors that make TW possible! It’s been wonderful for me for THREE years now!

    Linda Mitchell

    1. Hi Linda! You get to ask whatever you want, and, fun fact, I have written loads of fiction in my past life (and my pseudonymous life)! Also please call me Sarah!
      First, your research question: of course you’ll familiarize yourself somewhat with the place online. But I’ve never been very good at focusing on a library’s resources in a very effective way. My go-to strategy? Find the reference librarian, fall across the counter with hands outstretched beseechingly, tell her/him your topic, and beg for assistance. Librarians are AMAZING. I have done this at about a dozen libraries, and I still correspond with many of the librarians I met. They are happy to dig up questions and follow up requests I have.

      As for the story question: Jody will probably have wise words for you, but in my experience, my first drafts are fairly linear and are where I work out what happens in my story. Finding the right place to start is tricky, and you might have to try entering it a dozen times before you hit the “right” place, which you’ll know in your gut. When I talk to students, I point out to them the point in their story where you can see the engine revving. Then zoom, it takes off. Try to start at the zoom part!

    2. Hi Linda!
      That’s a great question about research. The best advice I can give you is to be flexible and look at EVERYTHING! Often there are other gems you’ll find and if you aren’t flexible you might pass them by to focus on what you are researching. Don’t do that! Those other gems might just take your WIP in a fabulous direction. Or it might spark another story. Enjoy! It’s a treasure hunt that will take your work to new levels!

      And I’d like to add a HUGE thank you for exploring all the TW authors for your library!

      1. My Library Assistant picked up Seeds! and she couldn’t stop talking about it. Thanks for making sure it’s in our world. I’m making her do the book talks on that book 😉

    3. Good morning, Linda!
      And thanks so much for supporting us as authors. Truly.

      Ah, backstory.I’ve struggled with the issue more than I care to admit. In answer, I’ll combine advice given by others with ways I’ve managed to work it out.

      I’ll begin by laying out 2 different scenarios I’ve been faced with because each had a similar solution.

      1.I just finished.a contemporary novel with backstory staring in the late 19th Century that directly effects the action. In my early drafts I front-loaded way too heavily. I knew that, and a trusted reader confirmed that yes, I had too much info dump.

      2. When I released The Seventh Level to my beta readers, I thought my opening scene was dynamite. No one could find flaws with it. Then my critique mate pointed out that while the scene was exciting, she didn’t yet know my main character well enough to feel the full impact of his actions. I had lost corralling the full potential of that scene. (That scene is not Chapter 3.)

      So here’s the best advice I can give you to address any opening. Find an interesting and important way to introduce us to your main character. Off the bat, show us and make us feel the stakes the character faces; maybe not all of them, maybe not what will be the essential emotional but at least one of stakes which reveals the heart of your character and your story. Once you’ve planted that, give us a big scene then parceling out the essential backstory so we have what we need to know* before we need to know it.

      Yes, that last sentence is easier said than done. So one method: get out a stack of index cards. Color code them if you like. For example:
      –Green for action/plot.
      –Red for emotional arc/character development.
      –Yellow for backstory.
      –Plain white for random scenes which don’t necessarily fit any of the above. (Then you’ll need to decide if these scenes actually fit into your book.)
      Then play with your cards. Deal them out into what you see is a logical order. Redeal them to see if a different order makes more sense or creates a stronger story. Don’t be afraid to go crazy, throw them into the air, play 52 Pick-Up and see what happens.

      In short: Introduce us to the MC before you launch into an essential scene. And don’t be afraid to experiment with sequence to give us the outcome you know you’re capable of relating.

      *Sometimes too much backstory falls into a common trap. There’s much that YOU need to know to write the book, but that WE don’t need to know in order to read, understand, and love it.

    4. Hi Linda!
      I’m struggling with backstory this very week, as I revise. It’s always a challenge! So just today I don’t feel very wise about backstory; let’s talk about RESEARCH TRIPS. 🙂
      Pre-planning is key. I’m assuming that your visit to this research library will be limited in time compared to the amount of material you might want, in a perfect universe, to consult. (Obviously, things are simpler if all you need is one particular article or recipe or photo! In which case: don’t forget to look around the edges at other sorts of things while you’re there, because you never know what you may find.)
      Usually we have a vast amount of material and a limited amount of time. If you know what you’re looking for, throwing yourself on the mercy of the librarian is always your best first step. But you can even take that step before arriving, as you plan out your research day(s). Figuring out, ahead of time, what you want to focus on and what you’re looking for will save time. Can you bring in a computer? Will you be taking pictures of articles? Do you have a filing system set up? Do you want to get a spreadsheet set up in advance? If you’re limited to a notebook, can you plan ahead how you want your notes to look? Don’t forget to label EVERYTHING clearly, so that you can cite it later (and file it properly)!
      If you don’t know yet your exact topic, but are just exploring a certain time period, I suggest looking through a local newspaper from that time. All sorts of wonderful things will be there! Making room for serendipity is an important part of research. (And not freaking out when you feel like you’ve been “wasting time”–some time MUST be “wasted” if treasures are going to be found!)
      best wishes,
      Anne Nesbet

    5. Hi Linda,
      I concur with Sarah regarding research librarians. And I would say the same about archivists. Tell them what you are doing. Be specific, such as “I’m writing _____ for ______. (In my most recent case I said “I am writing a picture book biography about _(not ready to share publicly, yet)___. I anticipate it being for children ages 6-8.”

      (I’m sorry for being a bit vague- I’m not ready to share my topic or the cool secret details I’ve discovered publicly, yet. I’ve been researching for a year. I don’t want to give away my gems).

      In once location, the archivist pulled out the COOLEST item I would never had known existed. She said, “If you’re writing for children, you might be interested in this.” I had read a letter written by my subject in which he had referenced the item she showed me. I did not know he had saved it and she did not know he had written about it.

      In another instance, an archivist connected me to a museum curator who connected me to a conservationist who had worked on the items made by my subject. ALL of those people were incredibly helpful to me. I got and AMAZING behind the scenes tour and got to view artifacts that have never been on display. They gave freely of their time and connected me to other people, as well. One person said she could talk about my subject all day (most experts are this way) and that she also has an ulterior motive: She has kids and she wants this book for them so they can learn about my subject.

      One caveat: do as much research as you can on your topic/subject BEFORE you go. I was given extra support because they could tell I was serious about my work. I told them I was a newbie and didn’t exactly know what I was doing. They said, “Oh, no, you’re a good researcher.” I really am not. I’m learning as I go. But I knew my subject and could talk clearly about what I knew. I had also discovered a key piece of research that I shared with the curator- that little tidbit is being used to update their exhibit. They appreciated my willingness to share my discoveries with them.

  2. Good morning Jody and Sarah,

    I know most authors have a writing group or others friends/colleagues that read their drafts and provide feedback. I’ve seen in some novels where authors either are or were classroom teachers and acknowledge their students for their feedback during the writing and revising process. Since your typical audience is children, do you regularly seek feedback from kids about a work in progress or sections of a work in progress?

    1. This is a great suggestion. One of our Spanish teachers at our schools is a published author. She’s working on another book that is for older kids, a little out of her comfort zone, and she was reading her manuscript to her students for feedback. Love this idea!

    2. Hi Deb!

      A wise person (and there have been many wise people in my writing past, and because I can’t remember exactly which wise person said this, I’ll attribute it to all of them), most kids love to be read to so much and are so enamored when they discovered that the Author(!) is reading it to them, they are often your easiest critics. So if I ever read parts of a work-in-progress to students during school visits, I take any positive feedback with that in mind.

      Case in point: I read the opening page+ of my WIP to about 20 different groups of kids during school visits a couple months ago. I’d never done that before, but I wanted to make sure the opening scene (without any real action) was grabbing them as much as it grabbed me. At the end that scene, I asked them to show me thumb’s up, thumb’s down or in the middle. As I expected it was about 96% up, 1% down, 3% in the middle. And it was because of that 4% that I went home to see what I could do to make the opening stronger.

      Here’s the exception to that. If you have a strong reader or two who will be blunt and honest with you, go for it. (I’m fortunate to have had that when my own daughter was my target readers’ age. And now grown, both my daughters have turned into my best critics.)

      The bottom line, though, is that a good, well-crafted story will grab people and not let them go, no matter the age of the beta reader/listener.

    3. Deb, I sure did!!! I teach middle school students in a Creative Writing elective. My first children’s book, Merry Christmouse, came about with one of my classes. I realized I couldn’t teach them effectively if I wasn’t writing along WITH them.

      All along the way, I had them look at my draft. One of my best students shot me in the heart when she announced that there wasn’t much of a climax, and my main mouse character didn’t have much to fight for. Yikes.

      But it sure pointed out I’d taught her structure and she’d found my flaw. The book ended up with a great climax and resolution.

      I’m currently illustrating books 2 and 3, after disastrous illustrations from an artist. I showed them to my students, and they helped me articulate all of the artistic problems.

      Your students can be very valuable! Plus, they need to see you in the writing process.

    4. Hi, all! Just wanted to chime in that I love to use teen BETA readers for my books. I often make these connections through school visits in person or Skype. I think the trick with teens (or kids!) is to tell them specifically what you want from them. For example, I will often say, in addition to did you like it or not like it:

      Please flag anywhere where you got bored and it was harder to pick up the manuscript.

      What did you want more of? What was there too much of?

      Did you care about X character?

      I have learned amazing things about my books from my teen beta readers, including the one who said she couldn’t finish it because it just wasn’t her thing. But she had loved my prior books, so I wasn’t willing to dismiss that feedback and I looked hard for why I lost her, etc.

      Anyway, I’m off to try to post this by doing the math!

      1. Gae, sometimes I print out articles for my kids (that I”m raising) about issues they face and ask them to highlight with a marker “what rings true” for them….it’s amazing what I learn from that.

  3. Hi Deb,
    I do have a small group of “beta readers” that I show all my manuscripts to, and one of them is my daughter. She is now 20, but she’s been my go-to reader since she was in middle school.
    My NF books are tricky to share with kids, because so much changes during the design process. They are heavily dependent on images, and often text gets cut, or becomes a caption. That said, I absolutely ask kids for their opinions when I visit schools–they help me with design considerations, word choice, and future book ideas.

  4. Good morning,

    I would love to know what tools, tricks, and technology authors are using to help organize their research especially if you have more than one project going on. In the old days, we organized our research projects with index cards. Today, I know there are several online tools or apps, and I find myself trying to use all of them. Which is silly if you think about it, why save everything three times. So for all you writer’s out there, how do you organize your research?

    1. I like Scrivener as a way to organize my research notes–it has a virtual index card program that’s super handy, and it’s easy to shuffle chapters, etc. Once I finish a first draft, I switch to good old MS word. I also keep end notes in every draft of my ms, and send those to my editor with the final draft, so that the fact checker can have some background. These end notes are not what will ultimately be the back matter (they’re way more detailed than back matter generally is).

    2. Even with fiction, I do a fair amount of research. Much of it may not appear in the books, but it colors the story.

      My organizational tactics appear entirely disorganized to the naked eye. I use no software, no spreadsheets; not much at all. I have research subfiles in my main Work-in-Progress files. My copy-and-paste Internet research goes int there. Mostly, though, I have 11″x17″ sheets of paper with all sorts of brainstorming and lists and bits of info, in different colors. I keep those (folded in half) in folders. And most of the time I happen to know where everything is.

      Not that this is useful to you, not at all, but just confessing how the other half writes. 🙂

  5. Good morning, thank you for doing this, it’s nice of you to give of your time this way.
    My question is for Jody, about what the process was like for you to find an agent? What kept you going as you waited for responses and do authors ever recommend their friends or others to their agents? Thanks.

    1. Oh Martha!
      It’s true confession time for me. But I can say this with a smile because perseverance won out. I probably queried agents for 10-15 years before one said yes. I know about the waiting of which you speak.

      Do note, when I started, there were no online resources because there was no online. Things move much more quickly these days. Research is so much easier. Printing out and mailing manuscripts and providing return postage won’t make you broke either. While the physical process was much different, the essentials are still the same. I may have started my agent search with the dinosaurs, but I’m going through the same process with my daughter right now.
      It’s hard and draining and emotional. The hopes are so high and the rejections can make you fall so low. My best advice:
      –Don’t waste anyone’s time by querying agents who don’t represent what you write. (Guilty)
      –Don’t query too early in your process. (Guilty) Send only your best, most polished work. You may have only one chance to impress people from such a limited pool.
      –Don’t wait too long to move on if you’ve submitted work as an exclusive. (Very, very, very guilty.I wasted 2 years, 2 different times, waiting for a decision from 2 agents who were slow to pull the trigger either way. So guilty. And too hopeful.)
      –Make sure you feel comfortable with your agent as a person. He/she will become your business partner for the life of your book(s). (Guilty. Met her at a conference.)

      Once you’ve sent off your queries, shove that fact into a locked room in your mind. Unlock it only when absolutely necessary. Go about your daily business. Find joy where you find it. Embrace new ideas. Connect with new characters Write the next new thing. Move forward. The first book you write might not be the first book to cause an agent to sign you on. And that agent will love to know that there will be more books for him/her to represent.

      So much more I could say, but I’ll stop there. Ask if you have any other questions. And I’m very happy to give back to a community that has given me so much!

      1. Thanks Jody for sharing your struggles. It has been helpful. Now to go find a locked room. Best wishes to you.

        1. One more thing. I forgot to answer your last question. Only occasionally (rarely, really) do I tell a writer s/he can use my name in querying my agent. In reality, the only good that does is to speed up the process. If my agent loves the writing, she’ll offer representation. If not, being my friend won’t help a whit. 🙂

    2. I’d add a couple things to Jody’s response…

      When I was looking for agents, I found a subscription to Publishers Marketplace to be helpful because you can quickly & easily see who represents the kinds of books you write.

      Also, the ONLY thing that keeps me sane when I’m waiting (and this goes for back when I was querying agents as well as when I’m waiting on news from an editor now) is writing a new book. Let go of what you sent out there and pour your heart into something new.

      1. Thanks so much for the encouragement. It’s kind of all of you to share your experiences. Appreciate it so much.

    3. Also…I think stories of people being referred to agents by their friends are greatly overplayed. It’s a myth that you need to know someone and also a bit of a myth that an author’s recommendation opens up magical doors, in my opinion. There are no magical doors. It’s just a long process that you need to muddle through. Writing helps.

      1. Hey, Dawn: I\’m a lazy outliner, etc. and one of my favorite ways to keep track of stuff is using Pinterest (I don\’t use it for anything else!) But I do create story boards for my works in progress and store photos in there and maps, etc. And it is such an easy way to keep stuff all in the same place. You can see my boards here: https://www.pinterest.com/gaepol/

      2. As for the referring to an agent thing, I just wanted to add that my agent has never liked a single thing I referred to him, so I’m often loathe to. Kiss of death! 😉

    4. My incredible getting-an-agent story…is, er, not so incredible, really, but it’s mine, NO ONE CAN TAKE IT AWAY FROM ME. My first request for pages came from an agent who did a manuscript critique for me at an SCBWI conference – that’s not something that happens all of the time, and it’s not something to expect, but it does occasionally happen. She rejected me! I then queried agents, one of whom requested pages, then requested revisions, and seemed to be on the verge of offering representation. She rejected me too! I queried another 30+ agents. They all rejected me! An agent then sent me an email out of the blue after reading my blog, so I happily sent her pages. She rejected me! She did say she’d be happy to read again if i were to follow up on her suggestions, though – a revise-and-resubmit offer, basically. I took some time to overindulge in doughnut consumption. i queried some more, and one of those agents FINALLY offered representation, at which point I went back to the revise-and-resubmit agent and said hey lookit, I have another offer but I’d rather work with you. Glory be, she offered representation, and I’m thrilled to have been her client ever since.

      And to second Kate’s response, when I was querying I tried very hard to pay attention to the prevailing wisdom about querying agents, especially if it was something that everyone seemed to be saying, and EVERYONE said “don’t ask authors for referrals to their agents, it requires authors to take time and energy away from writing in order to respond, and it ultimately won’t make a difference in how your work is perceived by the agent.” I wanted to do it the right way, you know? I wanted to pay my dues and do the legwork, demonstrate that I understand and respect professional and personal boundaries, and join the community of children’s authors feeling confident that I’ve been conducting myself like a peer from the get-go.

  6. Good morning!
    In researching for a non-fiction book, do you ever reach a saturation point where you begin to get overwhelmed with facts? How do you know when you have enough “meat” and can stop researching? I would think that between the internet, experts in the field, primary sources, and your own observations it must be difficult to know when to say STOP.

    1. That’s absolutely true, Kim. And I love the research phase so much, it’s easy to convince myself I have more to do (and it’s usually true). But it helps to have deadline pressure, and/or limited time to get a project accomplished. As I start writing, the writing part moves to the foreground, but I continue to research as I realize I need to fill in my knowledge gaps and/or find out more about a person or event.

    2. Good morning, Kim! That is a great question. When I was researching for TSUNAMI: DEATH WAVE and HURRICANE, it was easy to get overwhelmed with facts, so I tried to keep my audience (ages 7-14) in mind and tried to picture them reading all that “stuff”! Coming up with a basic matrix of what wanted them to grasp, the most salient points, really helped in winnowing out the nonessential (but still fun, since I’m a geek!) facts from the major ones really helped. I hope that answers a little bit of your concern! Aloha!

    3. I don’t have words of wisdom to offer regarding this. Only my comment that I, too, have the same problem.

      Research is fun, people! 🙂

      But Sarah’s comment rings true to me.

  7. Good Morning! I have two questions. What’s the best platform for hosting a blog? Also, in addition to writing books, what other sorts of writing and publishing have you been involved with and (okay, maybe this is 3 questions) how do you feel that has helped you with your book publishing? Thank you!

    1. Hi Barb–I use WordPress for my blog, and it’s fairly use-friendly.
      I got my start as an editor, working at Sesame Street. My first published books were Sesame Street books. I also wrote for a lot of kid magazines, back in the days when magazines were profitable (sniff). There are some online sites where writers can get themselves noticed–Huffington Post comes to mind, although I’m not a fan of their model of not paying writers. Still, I know a lot of just-starting-out writers who got their start there.

    2. I also blog (too infrequently and as part of my website) through WordPress. In addition, I’m part of a MG author group blog (plug for https://smack-dab-in-the-middle.blogspot.com/) which uses Blogger. Both are very similar, easy to learn, and are so popular that you’ll find the answer to any issue through a web search.

      My background is in advertising. Little did I know at the time, but advertising might have been the second leading contributor to my fiction writing skill set. Reading was #1. In creating ads, you write with a target audience, a specific customer ever (main character?) in mind. You also have to write to deadline, create every day, and be open to criticism and the revision process. You have to write with precise language and with an interesting voice that compels consumers to listen to your whole message, identify with what you’re saying, and move to action. It’s not that different with books.

    3. OOH I LIKE THIS QUESTION, I’M JUMPING IN, MWAHAHA! Hi Barb, I’m still a relative newbie – two published novels so far, and essays in three anthologies – but I’ve been writing in one way or another for the bulk of my life. I did a fair amount of writing original comic book stories for fun as a teenager; I took classes in short story writing and playwriting in college; and I’ve done a significant amount of communications work in my non-author careers, including website copy, email promotions, requests for proposals, project planning, etc. In recent years I’ve spent time crafting language for things like online advocacy campaigns, author presentations, and panels, and I consider speaking engagements nearly as much of a vehicle for writing as essays and novels. Not all of that stuff has been interesting or fun, to be frank, but it’s all contributed to my understanding of how to communicate effectively via the written word, and I’m a big believer in the idea that writing of any kind, whether it’s superhero fiction for kids or conference proceeding notes for fellow library professionals, gives us a way to hone the skills we use to pursue any and all types of writing projects.

      1. Thank you! I’m hyper aware that my MFA in creative non-fiction does help me write “really good” IEPs , as a special ed. teacher, but my life as a high school teacher also challenges the time I have to put into my WIP. I’m curious and optimistic about exploring other avenues for my work than just my one “book” in progress. I’m fascinated by how writers balance the different types of writing they do and what spurs them to tackle one form/ genre or another.

  8. Thank you Jody and Sarah for joining us. I’m so grateful to everyone for donating their time and expertise. My question is this: As a writer of non-fiction, what tips might you have for both me and my students about putting the research done into your own words. I find kids struggle when using facts about a science or historical topic with restating the information. And it is hard when a fact is a fact! Any tips or strategies for restating?

    1. I emphasize a writer’s voice when I talk to kids about NF writing. Nowadays, we NF writers are ALLOWED to have a voice, and not simply spout facts, as many old-time NF books did, pre-internet. The principles of good writing apply every bit to NF as they do to fiction. Strong opening, vivid verbs, pacing, line length, etc. Yes, there are only so many ways you can say that George Washington was born in 1732, but if you’re writing on a subject about which you feel passionate, your essay should be much more than facts.

    2. Hi Tracy!
      I don’t write NF, but I can relate to your question. Sarah’s answer is spot on, and I could have left well enough alone, but I felt the urge to answer from a different perspective.

      I used to work in advertising and was often required to write a variety of ads using the same fact list.Take your basic high-heeled pump, for example. It’s remained virtually unchanged through the ages. And yet, I’d need to come up with multiple ads for the same style every season. What always worked best was to focus on one feature and center that particular ad around it; for example, color selection or lower heel height or the fact that it came in a wide range of sizes.

      Perhaps, it might work for some students to select a fact that particularly interests them and move that to the center of their writing instead of structuring it in the linear fashion usually presented in texts and other fact-based research books. Just a thought.

  9. This is my first year in TW and I am already blown away by the inspiration, motivation, and wealth of knowledge and expertise. Thank you all so much for being a part of this community!

    I was just wondering what your thoughts are on the “literary nonfiction” genre. I have a great idea for a story using this perspective, but I struggle with knowing how to keep things nonfiction when you’re creating characters that need obvious development. This seems to require some shading in between the lines from me as a writer, but do I bend the truth in that case? Does this mean I need more research?

    What have been your processes for research? Where do you start, how do you keep notes? What’s worked for you?

    1. Hi Jenn–the current thinking among NF writers and editors is that you really can’t make anything up, including inventing dialogue. If you do, it becomes historical fiction “based on a true story,” which is a perfectly valid genre–it’s jus not NF. There are ways to finesse conjectural thinking, i.e. “She might have been thinking. . . ” but you have to be clear about that. Have a look at Steve Sheinkin, who is a masterful narrative NF writer. In BOMB, he describes the day the US agents came in search of Albert Einstein at his beach house. Steve researched what the temperature was that day (hot), and in the scene he describes rolled-down windows, wiping of brows, etc, but in an interview I read somewhere, he confirmed that everything he wrote is verifiable.

      1. I’m in love with Steve Sheinkin 🙂 It might be better off as historical fiction to get the voice of the characters I’m after. Or I’ll have to look at these wonderful mentors more closely to see how they pull off this wizardry! I’m driven by characters, but when working with true events and real people, it seems impossible to bring character to life without fear of twisting the history of it all. I will definitely study up and rethink my options! Thanks so much!

      2. I’d recommend Candace Fleming, too. She is AMAZING at this, as well. (Check out her book The Romanovs. It’s YA, but the lessons I learned from it translate to my picture book biography).

        And if you have the opportunity to take a workshop with her on the topic, sign up ASAP! I learned so much from her. She put us through an exercise of writing a paragraph of NF based on a set of facts she had collected. It was eye-opening.

    2. Good question, Jenn. When writing my “creative nonfiction” travel adventure biographies, in which my main characters travel back in time to, say, save Langston Hughes in SHATTER WITH WORDS, I let the characters develop as they needed to, because the action in the story hinged on them. At the same time, I needed to do much more research about where Langston Hughes was on certain days, even going so far as to call a university library to double-check facts -known biographies contained conflicts, and it was important to know for the sequence of events. That said, however, I’d encourage you to develop your characters and let them drive the story, but not bend the truth. You can “write in between the lines,” but it makes sense to keep the facts as they are, so that future fact-checkers don’t have apoplexy! Start by reading the well-regarded books on your subject and then use their bibliographies to continue your research. Don’t hesitate to interview people, either. They are surprisingly cooperative when you say you are in the throes of writing a book!

      1. Oooh, I’ll be checking this out! My 8th graders do a few stories and poems by Hughes in our opening month of school and they dive in to all types and levels of literature! I contemplated calling someone for an interview, but was pulled back off the cliff by fear. Me, writing a book!? Says who? 🙂 And how will they react to someone writing a “book” that may never go anywhere? Do they care?

    3. If what you’re writing is nonfiction, it’s really not okay to make up details to fill in the gaps in your research. Inventing dialogue, fleshing out character traits that aren’t supported by primary sources, etc. isn’t acceptable. Once you do that, you’re no longer writing nonfiction but historical fiction or fiction inspired by a real story (which is also fine). But it’s really important to distinguish one from the other.

    4. In addition to Steve Sheinkin, I’d recommend taking a look at books by Loree Griffin Burns – her scientists in the field books are great.

      1. Gae, sometimes I print out articles for my kids (that I”m raising) about issues they face and ask them to highlight with a marker “what rings true” for them. It’s amazing what I learn from those moments

      2. Right response—this one is to Kate’s response. Also, don’t miss Tanya Lee Stone for non-fiction. Word on the street is she and Sheinekin are buds 🙂

  10. Good morning campers!

    My students engage in many research assignments during the school year (in both social studies class and ELA class). There seems to be a real push to use the Internet to accomplish this research. This makes me very nervous because it seems like there are more unreliable sources on the Internet than reliable sources, so this leads me to my questions for the authors:
    – While researching, do you find yourself using the Internet more than books and interviewing/experiencing (a person/place/situation)?
    – What research advice would you give a sixth grade student (while researching such topics as what ancient legacy had the greatest impact on the world or were the Dark Ages dark or not or should schools have later start times – these are just a few examples of assignments from this past year)?

    Thank you in advance for any feedback. I greatly appreciate your time.
    Happy writing!

    1. omg, Andy…..I cannot resist answering you with my Teacher Librarian fingers. Databases, man! My favorites for ELL are world book online and Gale’s Kidsinfobits (that I still use with up to 8th grade) because you can immediately translate text or speech into multiple languages.
      The citations are also provided in multiiple formats at the bottom of each article….plus there are links to more and ways of zapping info. into google docs…..Let me know if you need more ideas…..or if I’m being obnoxious here because you already use these.

      1. Thank you, Linda!

        We actually use those sites and I love them. The students also use Go Grolier Online and Opposing Viewpoints. We have an awesome database at our school library. The weird thing is that the students still find their way back to “Googling” topics, which is okay IF they end up on a reliable source.

        I also love that the citations are provided in multiple formats (I love the layout in CultureGrams). The students use EasyBib (in google docs) – love it.

        Thank you again for the instant feedback. You sound passionate about the library. You will be happy to know that it is my favorite room in the school building. I would rather be in the library than my classroom – the opportunities for learning information are endless.

      2. Amen to what Linda and others have said. I don’t think google is a big-bad-thing, particularly as SO many great primary sources are now available in digitized form. But yes, assessing the reliability of a site is the critical skill for kids to learn. Even Wikipedia is an okay starting point–not as a citable source, but as a place to find reliable sources. Many wiki articles have excellent bibliographies that lead you to real, original research.
        Like Nancy, I supplement my internet and book research with expert interviews and on-site visits (when possible).

    2. Hi Andy
      Happy to add my two cents here on researching. I use a lot of books in my research, but as a writer of science I use mostly first person visits and interviews with scientists. I do, however, find You Tube videos helpful in some circumstances. They sometimes allow me to see research that has taken place. The Internet sometimes serves as a jumping off point for my research – a place to locate the folks I need to interview. The Internet can’t replace my university science library, but it is another tool in my toolbox!

      1. Thank you, Nancy!

        I love the last sentence (“The Internet can’t replace my university science library, but it is another tool in my toolbox!”). I also love your website. I just ordered The Story of Seeds.:)


      2. I, too, found some YouTube videos helpful.

        My forthcoming book, FLYING DEEP, invites readers to imagine themselves piloting Alvin, a deep-sea submersible that dives 2 miles below the ocean’s surface. In addition to visiting Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute where Alvin is based and climbing inside Alvin while it was in for maintenance, I watched videos of Alvin launch and recovery. That especially helped me get the sounds right.

    3. As Sarah mentioned, there’s a wealth of primary sources available online now, which is fantastic for researchers, so I’d never say shy away from the Internet. But I do think it’s a great idea for everyone – kids and adults like – to start in a library with paper books first. It provides a more solid foundation from which one can evaluate online sources and process information.

  11. Thank you for your time and sharing your expertise, Jody and Sarah! What are some tips you would offer student writers for making informational writing as engaging as it can be? I appreciate your suggestions!

    1. Great question! I struggle with this myself, so it’s hard to write with students and show them how.

    2. What I found in teaching writing with high school and middle school and elementary students was promoting the concept of “personal voice.” With a few writing exercises and focusing in on their main goal for the writing, they “got it,” and were off and running, using strong verbs and vivid details to support their informational writing. They can even get a giggle from a well-turned phrase, written with voice.

    3. Hi Dalila and Jenn–have a look at my answer to Tracy, above. Informational writing still has to be good writing. As professional NF writers, we need to offer kids “added value” beyond the information/facts they can easily google on the internet. Good NF writing may have a compelling narrative, fantastic images, and, in my view most importantly, an engaging voice!

    4. That’s a really tough one, Dalila.
      My first thought was that of Margo’s. Make your writing sound like an extension of you. How would you explain this concept if you were talking out loud? In fact, I often encourage students who struggle with any kind of writing to record themselves speaking the story or the assignment then writing down what they’ve said. But if you/they were to do the same for an informational piece — knowing it’s just throwing ideas out there — they may find a place where their talking gives the topic some personality.

      One other thought. Remembering my school days, we were so focused on getting the FACTS on paper and getting them exactly right I have a feeling there was almost a fear of straying too far. So perhaps they need to be reassured that you welcome some creativity. Personally, I might have the students approach a topic in three columns/sections or in three different documents:
      1. The facts surrounding the topic
      2. Their reaction to the facts
      3. Any personal experience even tangentially relating to the information

      If those ideas are laid in front of them, they may feel more comfortable integrating everything into a more engaging piece.

    5. Yes, this is difficult for my students, too. I try to get them to infuse their writing with their own sense of WONDER as they write because other kids will also wonder about the same things. I also encourage them to find at least one “wow” or little known fact to include. However, they still struggle with NF writing. Looking forward to getting some other ideas. Thanks, TW and authors!

  12. Good morning! Sorry to make you early risers wait. My only excuse is that I’m a little west of some of you and need a minute to put two words together. After I post this, I’ll go back and tackle your questions. But first, one quick thought: If an answer brings up more questions, feel free to ask another … or again. There are so many ways to answer most questions, and the response I think best might not be satisfying to you. And we want you to be satisfied. Enough of this from me. Let’s hit the questions!

  13. Hi Campers, Jody Feldman and Sarah Albee! TY authors for being here for us. I’ve studied NF for 3 years now and have a few questions. First, at what point in the research process do you contact experts in the field. I have heard different things. Candy Fleming says wait until almost the end of the research, find the holes you can’t fill in, then ask the experts.
    My PB bio has come to a halt due since there is not enough info re: quotes, her childhood,her writings/diaries. What would you./do you do when you reach this point: urn it into historical fiction to add interest? This would mean moving from PB to MG, I think. I love this woman architect’s story and don’t want to give up. TY.

    1. I would concur with Candy about waiting until you’ve done a good amount of research already. But it sounds like you are working on a bio of a still-living person? Or perhaps there are experts that have access to her life (such as family members) that you would like to interview? If that’s the case, I would approach them sooner than later! Good luck with your project.

    2. Hi Kathy!
      It’s my pleasure to be here!
      I’m sure our NF experts will answer this, but I’ve had to do some heavy research for plotlines that required I get the scientific facts straight. Although I could do a lot preliminary writing, much of the action hinged on whether my assumptions were truths. So I went/will go to my experts in phases (#3 hasn’t happened yet):
      1. To reel in the info I needed to proceed.
      2. In the middle when I had even more questions
      3. With as complete a draft as I can get (pre-editor) so those who offered can read and see if I’ve stuck to science.

  14. Good Morning!
    My question can apply to both non-fiction and fiction. When writing for childen (Middle Grade specifically) does anyone have any tips for injecting humor? What does a 8-12 year old find funny? Thank you!

    1. I like to think my books have a fair amount of humor in them. But fun fact–the funniest bits are things I add at a very late stage of revision. I try to use a lively voice from the get-go as I begin writing, but adding jokes, plays on words, funny similes, punny headers tend to take place after multiple drafts.
      It could be useful to find some mentor texts of writers whom you find funny, and “look under the hood” at the parts that make you laugh. Writing humor is hard work! It just has to LOOK easy.

    2. Humor is often about the unexpected twist — it is surprising, but inevitable. Kids those ages enjoy not only slapstick, but also the clever surprises. Read some of the great books out there for that age group listed as “humorous” to get a feel for your audience. Above all, I love the advice of other writers who say “Give your readers credit” — as in, stretching their minds and appealing to them on a higher level — and you’re off and running. Using a funny main character helps knit your story together and seeing events from his/her eyes automatically can infuse humor. Have fun!

    3. To Margo’s comment I would add: MG readers are often amused by the embarrassing. Anything that mortifies a kid in front of peers–for example, an outrageous parent–is funny…as long as it isn’t mean. Kids are unnerved by meanness, but find humor when the banana peel doesn’t cause bruises.

    4. If you find a precise formula, Shannon, please bottle it up and send it to me.

      Ask any writer of books, movies, TV … anything. It is much harder to make people laugh than to make people cry. I\’m newly a beta reader for someone trying to break into the sitcom world, so I am at a heightened awareness of the challenges with writing humor.

      I\’ll give you some theoretical advice, but that\’s the easy part. The hard part is coming up with the funny stuff.

      1. Create full characters who lend themselves to humor. The best humor is the type that comes from the characters and their situations.
      2. In that same vein, give your characters different personalities so that they can play off one another. If you\’re working with something already written, you may need to consider recasting a character or two to find someone(s) who brings all the qualities you need.
      3. Potty humor goes only so far. Yes, the kids love a good fart joke, they roar over poop, and they love the visuals of poodles wearing feathered hats and sticking out their tongues, but the real funny stuffy comes from the situations in which you place your characters.
      4. With that in mind, look for scenes that might be dragging a little or others that might need a little comedy to break the tension. Sit with these scenes for a while. What might bring about some humor? Does one of your characters trip? Can bird swoop down from the clear blue leading to something funny? Did the milk go sour? What weirdness happens if a pen runs out of ink? Or there\’s not enough chairs? Or they spy a turtle in the middle of the road?
      5. In other words, you just need to do the work. You need to let your mind open up to all sorts of randomness and hone in on the one bit of humor that might be right for the characters and their situation.
      6. Other ideas to rev up your humor skills: Read books or articles on humor writing. Take an improv class. Watch stand up comedians on Comedy Central, particularly paying attention to different styles (joke tellers v. storytellers). pacing, and audience reaction.

      One caveat: Don\’t try to force it, especially with kids. They can sense when you\’re trying too hard.

  15. I\\\’d like to jump in here.Finding an agent is one of the toughest parts of the whole publishing process. I was very diligent: I scoured issues of PW to note when agents were listed in the Forecast section. I also looked in the Acknowledgements of books similar to the kind I wanted to write to see if agents were named and thanked. Then I sent out a thousand queries–and received a thousand rejections.Finally a personal contact who agented for adults offered to represent me–and although she was able to get my first book published, it wasn\\\’t an ideal arrangement. She urged me to get a specifically kidlit agent, and with one book in print, and an offer on the table for a second, I had my pick of the best agents. What I learned from this experience was this: It\\\’s not enough to have \\\”an agent.\\\” You want a GREAT agent with experience and contacts in the genre you\\\’re interested in. Also, don\\\’t give up the search. Some of the agents who rejected me the first time around were eager to represent me on the second pass! One other thing: it\\\’s crucial to follow directions EXACTLY when submitting to an agent. Some agents post submission rules just to weed out those who aren\\\’t paying close attention (and who presumably won\\\’t be professional when signed). Good luck–and don\\\’t give up!!!

  16. Jody and Sarah, it’s so generous of you to answer our questions. My fiction writing tends to be heavy on dialogue and the narrative driving the plot. The descriptions that I pen end up sounding stilted. I’m always unsure of how much description to weave into my story. Are there any strategies to help figure out how much description is needed in a scene? Are there ways to practice forming vivid, concrete pictures without getting excessively wordy? I’m not looking for a magic formula here 🙂 just some helpful hints. Thanks so much!

    1. Have you tried using a mentor text for this? Take a book that feels like the sort of book you’re trying to write and highlight the dialogue with one color, the narration with another, for a chapter or two. You’ll get a great sense for what kind of balance might work, and doing the same with your story will let you know where you might want to change the balance.

      1. This strategy sounds really effective! I know just the MG mystery set in South America that I will use for this exercise. Thanks!

    2. Yes, to Kate’s thoughts.

      Plus something else. I’m a very visual writer. I need to envision scenes before i type them. When that’s causing me fits, I will do some really bad sketching (of the scene); sometimes, I’ll storyboard. Then come the words. I try to describe the pictures I’ve sketched along with all the associated actions and emotions. I figure if I need to see that part of the story, my readers do, too. That’s when I know the description is essential.

  17. Writing informational text is something I don’t find as engaging as fiction or poetry, unless it’s something like a personal narrative. I love reading it, though! As a writer, what advice,do you have for stretching myself in an informational direction? Thanks!

    1. Read some Dear Abby columns and some Letters to the Editor and pick out what engaged you: was it the strong viewpoint? The snarky sarcasm? Pick a subject about which you have a strong opinion and write a letter to the editor about it, using strong verbs, so you can get a feel for your own “personal voice.” Read authors who have that sense of personal voice — like Christopher Hitchens or John Feinstein. There are many — and use one of their pieces as a template for some “imitative writing.” Have fun!

    2. I feel the same way Theresa! In answer, take a look at my reply above to Dalila. (Question #12. And no worries about overlap. You’d asked before I answered; just hadn’t seen yours yet.) Maybe that will help? If you want more, let me know, and I’ll reach into my bag of tricks!

  18. My number one suggestion is to find a topic you’re passionate about. Something you care about deeply. When I hit on a topic I love and begin working on the research, I become that BORE who won’t shut up. My kids get a stricken look on their faces when I start in on talking about my WIP in a social setting. If you care, a lot, your writing will reflect it.

  19. Good morning Sarah and Jody,

    My questions are based on my students as researchers. Once you have a research topic how do you narrow down the focus? Also do you jump into the research first or develop a list of questions? What search engines are best for the most reliable sources? What is your rule in making sure the information is indeed true?


    1. Hi Heather– Wow lots of great questions in there. Sometimes my research centers on a single question, such as: how did people go to the bathroom before they had flushing toilets? And that can expand and expand into a much larger area of research (in my case, my mission statement became: the history of sanitation = the history of civilization). As I like to tell kids, some fiction begins with a “What if” question (What if a boy discovers he’s actually a wizard?). Nonfiction can start with a simple “Why?” or “How?” question.
      The valid source information is super-fraught, as all you teachers know. Even primary sources may be slanted in favor of the writer, or his wealthy patron, and many stories of marginalized people, or those with an oral tradition, have not made it into the written historical record. But we have to try our best. Letters, diaries, multiple accounts that show differing perspectives, and basic common sense (“Where is the writer coming from here?”) can inform a researcher’s determination as to what actually happened. But as we all know, the veracity of many stories from history we thought were true are much more complicated.

  20. No question from me, but I am enjoying the questions (and answers) from others and happy that I have written for a third day in a row (different Starbucks).

  21. Good Morning! My question is about dialects in historical fiction for middle grade books. Do you think introducing dialect variations is important for this age group?

    1. Dialects are very, very difficult to do well – and easy to overdo. Used sparingly, I think they can inject a sense of place into historical fiction, but I’d suggest reading a LOT of voices from that time period & region to get a sense for the music of the dialect before you do too much with this. Leaving it out is better than doing it wrong.

  22. Thank you for your time and knowledge! I would love to write more informational texts, but find that when I do, the result is pedantic and dull and resembles a very dry textbook. What do you recommend that I do to avoid this problem?

    1. Hi Jennifer–Apply the same principles of good writing that you think are just for fiction to your informational writing. Have a look at a writer you admire and see what he/she does to enliven factual information. Magazines with great writing are great for this–the New Yorker, Harpers, etc. Informational writing is all around, and there’s so much that is great. Kids can access all the facts they need on the internet. But what the internet can’t offer is an exciting way to spark their passion about a topic.

  23. Where do you get the confidence that your story is something others would like to read?

    1. I’m sitting here laughing, Sharyl. That’s an outstanding question, one for which I have no immediate answer except for this word: arrogance. I’m really a nice, considerate person and have never been called arrogant (at least to my face), but I think you need to start the process with the conviction that you have a new, exciting vision for a story and you’re the only one who can tell it in the best way.

      But let’s return to your word, confidence.
      Confidence comes from preparation. Personally, I’ve discovered that in this business, I lack confidence when I haven’t put in the necessary work. About a year ago, I sent what I (mistakenly) thought was a finished novel to my agent. When she called a couple weeks later, she nicely told me that, no, it wasn’t ready for prime time. Her words initially hit me in the gut, but within 10 seconds I was nodding in agreement because I hadn’t developed the characters enough, hadn’t given my main guy enough motivation, hadn’t upped the stakes, hadn’t edited some scenes to make them relevant to the story or make them interesting even. Part of me breathed a sigh of relief. Deep down, I knew that if we’d tried to push it from the nest to see if it would fly, the book would have fallen with an ugly thud.

      Bottom line: Just do it, especially from the start, even if you have to fake it; own a sense of confidence. Be arrogant even. But be open as well. Trust your gut and your favorite beta readers. Put in the work. Then the true confidence will follow.

  24. Thank you for your time today! When did you start to think of yourself as a writer? Who are your writing mentors?

    1. I’ve thought of myself as a writer since I was a kid, but I think we all have moments where our confidence fades. My mentors are the authors whose work I loved as a kid – especially Beverly Cleary – but also writer-friends like Sarah and Jody, Linda Urban, Loree Burns, and so many more.

    2. Similar to Kate, I feel as if I continue to be mentored by every book that has even a single scene or a single line or a single word, perfectly placed, to take my breath away. I pause and I try to inhale whaever lesson I might learn. I find information and inspiration at writing conferences, even still. Early on, though, I was fortunate to come across a course given by Patricia McKissack. And maybe that\’s the moment I thought of myself as a writer.

      I\’d been employed as a copywriter for years, but that was a job. It wasn\’t until I signed up for the course that I told anyone I might give fiction a whirl. And when I admitted this, out loud, that I was more than a copywriter, it suddenly turned serious for me. At that moment, I felt as if I were all in; totally committed to doing everything in my power to keep growing as a writer.

    3. I took a long time to think of myself as a writer. Even once I was no longer teaching — truly writing much of the time and submitting like crazy– if someone asked me what I did I would say,” I’m an educator.” I identified that way for many years, even after I left the classroom.

      I don’t think I had a particular turning point, rather I gradually began to embrace the label “writer” over time. Maybe I’d say I was a former teacher, now writing books for children, or some such. Now I’m willing to say “I’m a writer.”

      I do think there’s something that happens when you allow yourself the label. It feels more real somehow. I just took a long time to get there. In part, probably because I loved my teaching job and truly identified as a teacher first.

  25. I work with fifth graders and one of my goals has been to help them write about nonfiction with style and voice. I was wondering whether you could recommend mentor texts that you think model this as well as other strategies that you find helpful. Georgia Heards book on writing nonfiction has been one of the more helpful resources. I also find that the style used in Wonderopolis has been a successful mentor for my students

    1. Hi Mona–it warms my heart to hear there are teachers like you who are doing what you do. Nonfiction writing can be a spectrum, from lyrical/poetic, to lively/humorous, to exciting/dramatic. Jacqueline Woodson, Melissa Stewart and April Pulley Sayre are great examples of poetic, lyrical writers. Steve Sheinkin, Candy Fleming, and Gail Jarrow write wonderful narrative prose. Georgia Bragg, Kathleen Krull, and (I hope) I write more lively/humorous prose.

      1. Thanks for your suggestions. I love Jacqueline Woodson’s writing but haven’t thought about how it can support our nonfiction writing. I did try out using blackout poetry with students research and it really was fun. Glad that it is summer and I can check out the writing of some of your suggested authors!

  26. Hello, Jody and Sarah! Thank you for donating your time and expertise to us here 🙂

    My question has to do with generating research topics. I seem to be able to guide my students to find fiction things to write about, or even memoir. We do some heart mining activities from Nancie Atwell’s work that seem to help with this. But I can’t seem to help them make the connection to interesting nonfiction research topics. How do you find the right blend of passion, interest, and ability to research into a good topic choice?

    1. Great question Brian. I like to tell kids that EVERYTHING has a story. The past is what happened. History is the stories people chose to tell about the past. Once you look around, you start to realize that there’s an amazing story behind everything: the light bulb you just turned on, the clothes you’re wearing, the food you’re eating, the sport you’re playing. I usually ask kids to brainstorm five or ten quick ideas that they’re passionate about, whatever that may be. Then we look at their list and 100% of the time, there’s a compelling topic to research. If you have to tie it into a unit, like the American Revolution or the Middle Ages or something, that’s fine–as long as kids can have some choice in what they can write about.

      Also–interviewing a knowledge keeper is an excellent way to get into a topic. Find an old person, or just someone who lived at the time you’re interested in, and talk to her. That’s the other cool thing kids can discover: EVERYONE has a story.

    2. Your answer may be in your question, Brian, and apologies if you already do this, but …

      I’d mine your students’ fiction writing (story ideas) for non-fiction topics. If, for example, one kid has a scene with a fire, s/he might be interested in researching:
      *The Chicago fire
      *How to become a firefighter
      *Using fire in cooking
      *How fire was discovered

      Or if one includes a scene which shows a passion for dogs, s/he can turn that into a number of great research topics:
      *Dogs in healthcare (therapy dogs)
      *Dogs in the movies/TV
      *Dog rescues
      And that last one made me think of Kate’s Ranger in Time series. What books do these students choose from the library? Is there a thread you might pull to suggest topics? Can you have them read their next book not only for story, but for interesting bits they might want to explore?

  27. I have a lot of ideas for books.. titles as well as stories. When I sit down to write I get some out then I hit a wall, usually pretty fast. What can I do to keep going and actually finish a book 🙂 THANKS in advance for all of your help and the daily activities that you are providing for us … I really appreciate it !!

    1. You are far from alone, Karen. I get this question often, both from adults and kids. Here’s my advice, three simple words: Commit to finishing.

      Easy to say, sure. As easy as chasing that bright, shiny, new idea. But you wouldn’t drop an old friend when a flashier version came along, would you? Be loyal to your idea, too. How?

      Make yourself a deal. You are not allowed to start writing anything new until you write through to The End of your current project. If you drop that current project in favor of something shiny, you may not return to previous project ever. That’s the law. Sure, feel free to take 30 minutes (set a timer) to jot down notes for the new piece, but then stow it away and keep it locked up as a reward for finishing.

      And absolutely, you will hit a wall or hundreds of them. But that’s the challenge. That’s when you need to step away and take a walk or take a shower or watch TV or remember your nighttime dreams (because your brain does not have an Off switch). Solutions and ideas will come. You can do it!

      1. I agree with Jody! It’s really not an easy thing to commit to finishing a manuscript, Karen, so I totally feel your pain, and pushing on through to finish a project is a challenge that I suspect I’ll never be free of. But yes, you have to push on through.

        Something that’s very important for me when I’m struggling to finish a draft is to try and squelch any thoughts about the quality of the draft, because those thoughts pivot to GAH THIS IS TERRIBLE, BURN IT, BURN IT ALL DOWN with no effort at all, and if I pay attention to those discouraged thoughts, it’s much harder to keep going until I can legitimately type “The End.” My younger brother’s a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and years ago he gave me a piece of advice that I still think about on a regular basis: when starting something new, you probably have to be bad at it for a while before you get good at it. This holds true if the something in question is “writing in general,” of course, but I think it also holds true for individual projects. When starting a new manuscript, it’s gonna be bad for a while, and it’s easy to stop working on it because it feels bad. Don’t. Keep working on it until it’s done; that’s the way to eventually make it be good.

    2. I concur with Jody on this one. Your first draft has just one job: to exist. If you can get it down on paper, then you have something to revise. Try to let go of worrying whether what you’re writing is good. All it has to do is exist.

    3. I think it was Hemingway who said that he never ended a writing session until he knew where he was going with the next session. I try to do this, too– not always possible, obviously, but when you can do this, it does give you forward momentum. Tell yourself that you’re allowed to change your mind, but try to have a general idea for the next time you write.

    4. I often have the same problem. I’ll start a project, but then I start questioning the idea, what I’ve planned, etc. It’s so easy to let those walls become overwhelming. When I shared this on Jo’s site yesterday, she encouraged me just to write instead of plotting. I sat down and cranked out about 400 words without stopping or questioning myself or the storyline. I think that I needed permission not to get swept away with the planning element.

  28. This question and answer is great! I’m learning so much by reading these. My question is about writing biographies. My students do a research project related to the American Revolution every year and many of them choose to write a biography. I have become discouraged with the quality and accuracy of many of the biographies that I have found for them to use in research. I have set a goal of writing a biography of one of the lesser known figures of that time period. My question is, what do you recommend for learning how to write and structure a biography for middle grades? I have been reading biographies by authors who I admire and interviews with authors like David McCullough. Also, it seems like recent biographies for kids are picture books with a lot of text. Is this the trend now? Thank you!

    1. Hi Becky,
      You might encourage your students NOT to write a birth-to-death biography, but rather, after researching the person’s life, to figure out what made that person notable, or great (or for that matter, evil). And then perhaps to start with an incident in the subject’s life that encapsulate’s the essence of that person. For instance, if they’re writing about George Washington Carver, they might think about what it was about him that made him the man he was. For me, it was his burning desire to get an educate, in the face of huge obstacles. To keep learning, to constantly be curious. I hope this makes some sense.

    2. I would love to hear other answers on this one, but in the meantime, I’ll put in my 2 cents. And please don’t take this as my doubting your teaching style, Becky. I’m just relaying my take on such assignments when I was in school way too many years ago.

      I remembering those biography/history reports, and I’m not remembering them fondly. It seemed like such an uphill task to spit out the info I accumulated from resources; not hard, but multi-tentacled and dull. I’m wondering if some of your students are silently daunted by what they perceive as the assignment. I’m certain my teacher would have been thrilled if, instead, I’d found a fascinating aspect of the war or a smaller piece of a figure’s life and/or accomplishments. And I would have embraced it, would have thought of it more as if I were tasked with finding a golden needle in a sewing kit instead of combing through a haystack for an ordinary one.

      Don’t know if it helps you at all, but if was fun for me, traveling back in time for a few minutes 🙂

      1. Thank you! Some of my students do choose to research other things, like a battle or political cartoons. I’m thinking of surveying my students for their thoughts on this – I haven’t picked up that most of them are finding it dull and we certainly try to make the experience lively. Thank you for your thoughts!

        1. I doubt that most of them find it dull. Maybe overwhelming? Or maybe it was just me, and an inside voice wanting to be creative at a time when learning was much more by rote.

    3. There are SO MANY amazing picture book biographies out there now! If you need a place to start, try my Pinterest board. I update it regularly. I only pin books I’ve read an thought were good. https://www.pinterest.com/mcusolito/picture-book-biographies/

      I’d suggest reading lots and lots of PB bios with your kids. (Their word count it likely similar to what you expect your students to write, so they’re the perfect mentor texts). Look for how the author paired down a person’s whole life to a 32 page book. What aspect of their life did the author focus on? What’s the thread of the narrative? I helped my son’s 5th grade class do this years ago and the results were pretty good!

      You could do a min-lesson each day using PB bios. Maybe focus on the opening/closing of the book one day. The narrative arc another. etc.

  29. Hello Sarah and Jody-
    Thank you for taking time to help today. I paid for a critique at a conference. The remarks were a bit confusing. In one place the agent was confused as to the piece (a picture book for my first graders) was fiction or non fiction. At the end she remarked that she liked the story. I wrote this so my students could learn facts about the life cycle of the butterfly and be entertained at the same time. My students love it! I’m just not sure how to fix it to send to an agent. Do I stick strictly with non fiction or can I weave scientific facts in with fiction.

    1. I actually meant to type in the last sentence “can I blend fiction and non fiction”. Sorry – multitasking

    2. A book can be informational without being pure nonfiction, Jackie – my Over and Under the Snow, about a girl who goes cross country skiing with her father and discovers the secret world of animals under the snow, is technically fiction – a story about made-up characters on a made-up ski trip. But it’s also loaded with science in the form of accurate information about animals in winter. Maybe you’re looking toward something like that?

      1. Yes. That is what I am doing. Thank you. I was frustrated and ready to scrap the piece. I will revise and try again. Regardless of what anyone thinks, my students love it. In the end that is what matters to me. Thank you for taking the time to answer. You are a tremendous help.

  30. What are your thoughts on self-publishing? I have spent the last year researching and drafting a picture book biography. My colleague and friend has worked with me on this and will illustrate the book (she is an art teacher, and I am a librarian). My understanding is that picture books are usually submitted to a publisher with only the text, and then the publisher chooses the illustrator. That scenario obviously wouldn’t work for our partnership, so we’re thinking self-publishing is the way for us to at least get started and show what we can do. Is our thinking flawed? Do you have any advice in this area?

    1. You’re a brave woman, Susan! I say that because, to me, self-publishing is completely daunting. So please take my thoughts with that perspective. And for that reason, allow me to play devil’s advocate and point out several issues which, I hope, will help you answer your own question of flawed reasoning.

      *I’d be overwhelmed by the prospect of art designing, printing, marketing, sales, and accomplishing all the other tasks involved outside of writing.
      *In order to assure your book is not perceived as amateurish, I’d suggest hiring an experienced, professional, and unbiased editor. Art editor, too. Having had the privilege of working with editors, I fully understand how their input improves even those stories one may think are already perfect.
      *Yes, many bookstore owners take self-published titles on consignment; some do not.
      *Publishers, I understand, do not necessarily view self-published credits as “real” experience. Having a self-published book will not usually give authors/illustrators any advantages when approaching traditional publisher with their next projects.
      *Many self-published authors buy booth space at festivals and sell nice amounts of books, but it also takes up full weekends.
      *It’s very, very difficult to place self-published books in schools or libraries unless they are unique in content, unique to specific areas, or unless they are reviewed by two or more of the established journals.
      *I understand that said journals rarely review self-published titles.
      *I’d be scared that my sales might not cover the costs of editing, printing, etc.

      I’m sure you’ve weighed all this in making your decision, but I wanted to put it out there in case you missed something. All that said, many people personally thrive in the self-publishing scene; some professionally. Best of luck in whatever you decide to do.

      1. Jody,

        Thank you so much on giving me your honest perspective. All of the things you listed are things I am wrestling with, which is what lead me to ask the question :-).

        That being said, do you have any suggestions for how we could approach traditional publishers as a team/duo? The book really is the product of our collaboration. She came up with the initial idea, we researched it together, I wrote the text and we are editing it together, and she is creating the art for the illustrations. Is it possible to pitch the text and illustrations as a whole?

        Again, thank you so much for your feedback and perspective!

        1. I’m hoping someone with more experience in this will chime in. I’ll have to go with what I believe t be true, but will definitely defer to others with authentic knowledge.

          If I were in your position, I would take two approaches.
          1). Take the traditional query route. Identify right-fit editors and just go for it.
          2). Attend as many SCBWI (or other) conferences I could comfortably drive to, sign up for editor/agent critiques and try to connect with the professionals there (and learn stuff along the way).

          I do know of people who have approached editors as a duo but have offered to split up if it would serve the project, but it sounds as if that’s off the table for you.

          The only true advice I can give is to make the words and pictures as perfect as you can make them. Only then should you start your queries.

          1. Thanks so much, Jody! I was just looking at the SCBWI conference, so I’m glad to know that’s something you recommend. We’ll keep working and revising and trying to connect with the right people!

  31. Hi Susan–I’m going to let my picture-book-writing friends answer this one, but I will say that publishing a picture book is super expensive. There are certainly successful books out there that have been self-pubbed, but they tend to be middle-grade on up. The only recent picture book that pops immediately into my mind is the Rabbit Who Won’t Go to Sleep book. Yes it sold a bajillion copies, but aside from that one, I don’t know of many that get mainstream attention. But I’m eager to hear what others have to say!

  32. First, thank you so much for taking the time to interact with all of us budding writers. I am thrilled to have this opportunity and so grateful for your time and dedication. Here is my drawn out question: What is an authentic writer’s voice? Is it an amalgamation of all the writer’s voices you admire and try to emulate along with a touch of uniqueness acquired through socialization, reflection, and practice? I notice that my writer’s voice is me trying too hard for the most part – I try to avoid clichés and use untried metaphors, but I still find myself being someone I’m not in conversation. Should your voice be influenced by the writer’s you admire, or should you try to be yourself as much as possible? I’m guessing you will say that my voice will develop and settle with practice, but my main question is about how much it should be influenced by other writers. Thank you so much for any insight you have on this!

    1. Miranda, that’s a great question. Voice is that ephemeral quality we all strive for and that we thoroughly enjoy when we see it in the written word. I guess the answer to your question is, “All of the above”! Of course, we’re influenced by the writers we admire, but it is important to find our own voices — which will be different at varied times, depending on our audiences, our purposes, and so on. My favorite way to focus on a “true voice” is to write a letter to the editor that you would never want published; let all your true thoughts on an issue loose. Do the same for a fictitious Dear Abby letter response. Once we get in touch with our feelings (now, doesn’t *that* sound crunchy granola!), we’re better able to use our voices when we write. Again, we need to keep our audience firmly in mind. Have fun!

      1. Hi Miranda–I think Margo has given wise advice. A few things to add–I believe that nonfiction writers can–and should–have many different voices. While admittedly there are certain voices I am constitutionally incapable of personifying (lyrical and poetic come to mind), my voice does change from book to book. Before I set out to write, I consider my audience. How old are the kids? Do I want to make them laugh? Gross them out? Have them on the edge of their seats so they cant wait to turn the page? Then I try to strike the right tone and voice. I think it’s perfectly valid to look at other writers’ voices as you are crafting your own. For instance, have a look at Steve Sheinkin’s books BOMB and KING GEORGE: WHAT WAS HIS PROBLEM? They are written for different age groups, to be sure, but the former is dramatic narrative. The latter is conversational and much more humorous. Both by the same author. You see what I mean?
        Fiction writers do adopt different voices, although I suspect less dramatically than we NF writers. But look at books with unreliable narrators (I Am the Cheese, We Were Liars, I Want My Hat Back come to mind) as well as books written in the objective third person. Often the narrator has a very distinct personality (both Dickens and Roald Dahl come to mind.) And so yes, a fiction writer’s voice can be very different from one book to another.
        But ultimately, as Oscar Wilde said: Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

    2. Voice. That great, elusive writing quality.
      I’ve yet to find a perfect way to teach anyone about voice. I assume you’ve searched for articles online or have read chapter in writing books or have otherwise researched the subject. You’ve probably discovered that nothing will give you the magic words to crack the code. I’ll talk a little about the topic anyway.

      I’ve tried to describe voice by having people step outside of writing. Think of the difference among Barbra Streisand, Sia, Taylor Swift, Ethel Merman, Cher, Missy Elliott, and Lady Gaga for example. I’m not talking only about the quality of their singing, the timbre of their voices, or the like. I’m talking about the way they perform, the songs they choose, the clothes they wear. Now think about TV shows. Medical v. law drama v. superhero action. Sitcoms for 20-somethings v. sitcoms for 50-somethings. Modern Family v. Different Strokes v. The Brady Bunch. You get the idea. If any one of those examples were trying to take on the voice of another, it would probably be fodder for a skit on SNL. I hope this makes you think about the topic of voice a little differently.

      Now, to your specific question.
      I’m a big believer that the heart of your writer’s voice stems from who you are and how you appear to other people. It should only be affected by other writers to the extent that you use them as examples of how to invisibly blend voice with the story you’re trying to tell.

      More concretely, you may want to try this exercise to help you zero in on your authentic voice:

      Interview yourself as a character under several different circumstances. “Miranda,” you might say, “I know you’re having issues with Carter. Tell me about your latest incident and what you say to yourself when s/he talks to you that way.” Or maybe, “Miranda, describe your walk to the park.” Or, “Miranda, I saw you laughing hysterically on Monday. What was that about?” Then go. Don’t try to craft anything. Just write (or record) whatever comes to mind. Just go. Say what you, Miranda, would say if someone were interviewing you. Unrehearsed. Off the cuff. You should begin to find a real comfort level … and a voice that is authentic and believable and capable of telling a good story.

      1. So many great ideas today! I love even turning those pop culture references into a quick write. It would be interesting to have students write a topic from the voice of Taylor Swift one day and then change it to some one else the next day.

  33. Just popping in to say hi! Thanks for helping out today, Jody & Sarah! It’s nice to see several friends here! Thanks to all the authors sharing their 2 cents & to the campers who are asking some great questions! I’ve read the thread and it’s been wonderful! I’m learning a lot!

  34. Thanks for answering these questions! I always wonder how authors approach writing a character who is a part of a particular group (cultural, ethnic, gender, LGBTQ, religious, etc.) of which the author is not. In other words, how do you approach writing a character in a way that is authentic without stereotyping or misappropriating, and when is it okay (or not okay) to write within other people’s experiences outside of your own? Thanks so much for any thoughts!

      1. Thank you Sarah for the links. I’ve read the Kat Yeh one before and I’m just really fascinated by how this is playing out in the publishing world right now. I appreciate your time!

    1. I do fully understand that my answer will not come close to addressing the issue of writing diverse characters, but I wanted to jumpstart the discussion.

      I do have several characters of color in my books, but outside of a few slight ethnic nods, I don’t make a point of their ethnicity. Elijah, an important character in The Gollywhopper Games: Friend or Foe, is African American. I make a bigger issue of the fact that he’s scrawny. Only his father mentions that he’s black. In the same book, Hanna is Korean. She is fully based on a reader I’ve corresponded with ever since she first wrote me 5 years ago. I pulled any qualities directly from the person I’ve come to know. I could point out more characters, but my treatment of most is similar. I include people of different backgrounds, and not to win any popularity points, but because, in the situations I portray, it’s only realistic to include kids of all shapes and sizes and colors and backgrounds and beliefs.

      Does it make me a coward, or lazy, not to make strong plot points of their minority status? I hope not. So far, that’s not the point of the books I write. I hope, instead, it portrays kids as kids regardless of who they are.

      1. Whoops, that lower comment was meant to be here 🙂 Apparently I should stick to words because I can’t do the math after I write a comment.

        I wish there were \”like\” and \”heart\” options on these posts. Well put.

      2. Thanks Jody for the thoughts. With all the conversations going on in the publishing world now, it makes me curious to see how already-published authors are thinking about this or reflecting on their work. I appreciate your ideas! Thank you.

    2. As Sarah mentioned, there’s been a lot of discussion about this online, and I especially think it’s important to read the views of people from marginalized groups who are talking about the issue. The bottom line is that when you’re writing about someone from a marginalized group – and you’re not a part of that group – you’re most often writing from a place of privilege that makes it impossible for you to tell that story as well as someone from the community. So if you are going to take on that challenge, you’ll want to ask yourself why you feel you should and then do everything in your power to make sure your representation of that group doesn’t do harm. Stacy Lee has some thoughts on this, too – http://hyphenmagazine.com/blog/2016/02/dear-non-asian-writer So does Justina Ireland – http://justinaireland.com/dammit-this-is-a-blog/2015/10/30/two-truths-and-a-lie Both of these writers are worth following and reading a lot more if this is something you’re thinking about in your writing.

      1. Thanks Kate, as always, for your insight. I’ve bookmarked those articles to check out later today. It’s really interesting that you mention an author’s intentions for including characters from marginalized groups, and as Jody mentioned, their diversity might just happen to be a part of who that character is, or it might be the focus of a storyline. It’s always fascinating to read with that awareness. This year I did a presentation to my school staff about building diversity into our classroom libraries and used a lot of resources from WNDB and examples of recent conversations and controversies. Just following and taking part in the conversations on Twitter are a true learning experience, especially when the dialogue of those involved comes from a place of wanting to understand others’ POVs. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me today!

  35. Thank you SO much for all of the valuable questions and answers today! My question is related to finding a lit agent. Is it enough to have one MG manuscript completed without any additional ones? Will agents rep you with only one project? Thank you so much!

    1. What Kate said.
      Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I made the mistake of overwhelming an agent with multiple books, submitted all at once. It didn’t turn out well. 🙂