Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

In my previous post, I wrote about workshopping my first picture book biography at a writing retreat. Since then, I’ve rewritten the book so many times I’ve lost count.

There are many things I think about when I’m revising. Do I have a strong start? Is the ending satisfying? Have I weaved in sensory details that will make readers feel like they are right there with the subject of my biography? Have I included anecdotes to make the writing entertaining and used strong action verbs?

I had worked on all those things over and over again, but it wasn’t enough. When I read the manuscript out loud, I stumbled over the words in two paragraphs that weren’t working. In a picture book where every word is so important, two paragraphs is a lot. In one paragraph, it was a problem with transition. There was something missing, a question that needed answering. But answering it required too much explaining, telling instead of showing. I couldn’t pinpoint the problem with the other paragraph. I just knew it wasn’t right.

I set the manuscript aside for a few days and worked on other things. When I went back to it, I made minor changes, but those two paragraphs continued to taunt me. Then, as I was pouring yet another cup of coffee, my own good writing advice popped into my head – move it or lose it.

Time and again I’ve discovered that if something isn’t working in a manuscript, it’s for one of two reasons. Either the information is not in the right place or it needs to be deleted.

In the case of my picture book, it was one of each. The paragraph where the transition wasn’t working was easily fixed by moving one sentence up to an earlier paragraph. It fit much better there and it made a smooth transition into the next paragraph. As for the other troublesome paragraph, I simply deleted it.

Move it or lose it. It’s writing advice I’ve come back to many times. So why does it take me so long to realize it’s what I need to do? That’s something I can’t explain. I suspect that stubbornness plays a role, at least in the losing it part. I always think that the section I need to delete is the cleverest thing I’ve ever written. Of course, that’s not the case. I don’t miss the paragraph I deleted from my picture book at all. In fact, I hardly remember it was ever there.

I’m ready to submit my picture book to publishers now. I know that because even though I continue to pick at the manuscript, I realize that I’m making changes but not improvements. I’m satisfied that at this point I’ve done the best I can do. So I’m sending it off. Fingers crossed.

Trying Something New

The winners of the giveaway for my two latest books, Pope Francis and Cleopatra, are Kathy Young and Karla McMurrin. It’s the first time I’ve done a book giveaway. It’s part of a master plan to push myself to try new things, and I do need to push myself to do that. Being adventurous is not something that comes naturally to me. I’m more inclined to stick with the tried and true, which unfortunately is very limiting.

It’s that try-new-things attitude that has led me to writing my first picture book biography. I didn’t set out to experiment, but I had an idea for a biography and it seemed to me that it would work best as a picture book. So I began.

Of course, trying new things means there is a learning curve. I started by becoming a frequent visitor in the biography section of the children’s room at our library. I brought home armloads of picture books to study their style. I also typed out many of them because it helped me see how the writing flowed and how the books looked in manuscript form. Then I wrote my picture book.

After several rewrites, I had the storyline in place, but the writing was lacking. It didn’t have the “spark” of a typical picture book. It was obvious that I needed help. That’s what led me to sign up for the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) retreat that I attended a couple of weeks ago. I chose that particular retreat for three reasons.

First, the format allowed attendees to get feedback from speakers and peers on three different manuscripts. That was a lot of bang for my buck. I shared the first two chapters of a young adult biography, an article, and my picture book.

Another reason I chose that retreat was because of the speakers, which included Susan Campbell Bartoletti. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and her nonfiction has won awards that I can only dream about. Susan critiqued the chapters from my young adult biography. What I learned from her was that I am rushing the story. I need to bring in more details. That includes details that will give readers a sense of “place.” The subject of my biography grew up in Harlem in the 1940s, so I’ll be doing research to learn more about what Harlem was like then.

In one of Susan’s presentations, she talked about how she uses poetry to generate ideas. She also uses poetry to make the writing more lyrical. The poems don’t actually go into the final manuscript, but they help her find ways to make the writing flow better. That is something my picture book needs, so I’m trying to write some poems. The good news is that those poems are just for me. No one else will see them.

Another reason I chose the retreat is because it had some nice offerings for nonfiction writers. That’s kind of rare for conferences and retreats, which tend to focus more on fiction and picture books. I understand why. More people are interested in those types of writing and conferences and retreats need to appeal to a large group of people. So when I found a retreat that had good nonfiction sessions, I needed to get on board.

My critique from Susan Campbell Bartoletti was one of those nonfiction opportunities. Another was a Saturday afternoon workshop. We broke into groups where we read our manuscripts and got suggestions for improvement. I was in a picture book group which included both fiction and nonfiction writers and their comments were very helpful.

Finally, there was a Sunday morning presentation on writing nonfiction picture books. It sounded specially made for me. The speaker was Stacey Friedberg, an assistant editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, and she knew her stuff. My only regret is that I couldn’t take notes fast enough to get it all down.

It was a great retreat and I came home eager to challenge myself as a writer. First up, I’ll be focusing on my picture book getting it ready to submit to editors. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a publisher for it, but as Susan Campbell Bartoletti said, “No writing is wasted.” I know that’s true with the work I’ve done on my picture book. I’ve definitely learned a lot from trying something new, and if it doesn’t sell as a picture book, I’ll be able to use my research to write about the subject in a different format. In the meantime, I’ll be looking for more conferences and retreats that have a nonfiction element. If you know of any, let me know.

Celebrating Two New Books

CleopatraNational Geographic has released my two latest biographies for kids – Cleopatra and Pope Francis. I wrote Cleopatra before I started Pope Francis, but as Cleopatra went into production, there were times when the books overlapped. One day I would be making changes to the biography about Cleopatra, the richest woman in the world at that time, and the next day I would be writing about Pope Francis who has always lived simply. Writing about two so different people was fun and I couldn’t wait to get to my computer each day.

Cleopatra presented a special challenge. After more than 2,000 years, she is still one of the best known women in history. Even so, when I began my research, the first thing I learned was that we actually know very little about her. Turns out that many of the wonderful stories I have heard and read about Cleopatra are legend, not fact.

That was a problem. I wanted kids to know the true story, but how could I tell an interesting story when there were so few facts available? The answer I decided was to be very upfront with readers. So I began the book by mentioning a few things we do know about Cleopatra and then noted that much of her life remains a mystery. I included the stories I had read about her, but used the words “legend says” to indicate those that may or may not be true. I was glad my editors at National Geographic agreed with that approach. Everyone who worked on the book kept that goal in mind including Patrick Faricy, the illustrator who created the beautiful cover for the book.

I’ve always pictured Cleopatra as Elizabeth Taylor in the movie, but the artwork in the book shows a variety of interpretations of what Cleopatra may have looked like. They include a couple paintings of her as a blonde. As it turns out, the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra may be the most unlikely portrait. Cleopatra was the queen of Egypt, but she was not Egyptian. Her family came from Greece. The book cover illustration of Cleopatra shows how she may have looked when she was 18 and the new queen of Egypt. In that image, she has Greek features rather than Egyptian.

9781426322532[1]I was well into writing the Pope Francis biography when he announced his plans to visit the United States. Somehow that made working on the book even more exciting. Many of my recent books have been about people in history, but with Pope Francis I was writing about someone who was making history. I’m hoping my book will help kids learn more about the person who is creating such excitement with his visit to this country.519hB22MV4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

National Geographic released two editions of Pope Francis. One is written in English and the other in Spanish, Papa Francisco. Having a book released simultaneously in two different languages marks a first for me.

I’m celebrating the release of these books by giving away a copy of each one, Cleopatra and the English version of Pope Francis. To be entered in a random drawing, just leave a comment below. I’ll draw two names on October 16, one for each book, and then will contact the winners to get mailing addresses. Good luck!

Excuses, Excuses Graat Graat

I haven’t blogged for the last few weeks and there are a couple of reasons, or excuses, for that. The first excuse is a happy one. My husband and I are moving into a condo. After 43 years in our home, moving is a big step, but a good one. We’re happy with the condo and our new neighborhood. However, during all those years in our home, we managed to do a lot of accumulating. So although we’re enjoying our condo, we’re still sorting and getting our home ready to sell. That is why my second reason for not blogging lately came at such a bad time. A couple of weeks ago, I fell causing a small fracture in the cap of the bone going into my shoulder.

The accident wasn’t related to moving. It was caused by my own negligence in leaving things lay. Yes, it’s exactly what I used to warn our kids about doing. Obviously, I didn’t listen to my own advice, and I paid the price by tripping over my own clutter.

As fractures go, my doctor assures me that it is in a good spot and there is minimal displacement. So my arm should heal quickly. I just need to wear a sling to immobilize the arm and let the fracture heal naturally. However, it’s hard to type and spending a lot of time at the computer is painful, so I’m not getting a lot of writing done. Even writing with pen and paper is hard because the fracture is in my left arm and I’m left-handed. Hopefully, I’ll only be away from the computer for a couple more weeks. At that time, I’ll have some great writing news to share. So stay tuned…

A Writer’s Journal

doc067I’m celebrating an anniversary of sorts. It was at this time 36 years ago that I started journaling. I’ve made entries most days ever since. There were previous attempts at journaling, but I always gave up after a few weeks. So how is it that I’ve stuck with journaling for 36 years after so many failed starts?

The difference is that the journaling I do now is something that is useful to me. I do some writing about what’s happening in my life, but the main purpose of my journal is to keep my writing career on track. How does that work?

First, my journal serves as a storehouse for future writing projects. Whenever ideas come to me, I write them down in my journal. A look at only a few of the many notebooks I’ve filled over the years assures me that I’ll never run out of ideas.

My journals are also filled with ideas for improving my writing. Entries include tips from other authors that I’ve come across in my reading or picked up at writers’ conferences. There are also notes about biographies I’m reading – what I like about them and what I feel doesn’t work.

I write about the critiques I’ve gotten from my writers’ group and the changes editors want me to make. Accepting criticism is hard. I admit that sometimes those entries are a way to let off a little steam before I come around to accepting that their suggestions will make the writing better.

Journaling also helps me solve problems with my writing. As a beginning writer, I thought all I needed was a great idea. With the right topic, when I sat down to write the words would flow easily. I quickly learned it doesn’t work that way. There are days when everything is going well, but there are other times when the writing just isn’t coming together. So I journal about the problems I’m having. Putting those thoughts on paper helps. I’m amazed at how many times a solution to a problem comes to me before I’ve reached the end of the journal entry. Putting my thoughts on paper is a way of letting go and trusting that a solution will come.

I also journal about my writing goals. Reminding myself of what is important to me helps me make good decisions about what assignments I accept. If I take an assignment will I still have time to work on my own ideas?

Finally, journaling helps me plan my writing time. Like most writers, I’m often juggling more than one project and I worry about getting it all done without missing deadlines. So I journal. I put down on paper what needs to be done first and figure out a schedule for any other projects. Once I’ve scheduled everything, I can relax and focus on the work at hand. Of course, carefully laid plans sometimes fall apart. A project may take longer than I expected or something comes up. When that happens, I work out a new schedule during my next journaling session.

My journals are not fancy. I just use spiral notebooks. During back to school sales, I buy a supply to last a year. Each time I fill a notebook, I put a label on the front showing the date I started writing in that one and the day I finished. Then I file it away to read again when I’m looking for new ideas or writing encouragement. Because the best part of journaling is that it helps me see progress with my writing, and for me, there’s no better encouragement.

BellesCvrFnl_200[1]Baseball has been called America’s pastime, but in 1942 people wondered what would happen to the game. America was at war then and about half the professional baseball players were fighting overseas. Many thought that would be the end of professional baseball at least until the war was over. But Philip K. Wrigley, chewing gum magnate and the owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team had an idea. Women were taking on new roles working in factories producing tanks, ships, and other gear needed for the war effort. Why couldn’t they play baseball Wrigley wondered? He became the force behind the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Ball League (AAGPBL). The League began playing in 1943 and over 500 women would take the field over the twelve seasons of the League’s history. They played baseball, not softball, as the players so often needed to explain.

Diana Star Helmer first wrote about the “girls” of the AAGPBL in her book Belles of the Ballpark published in 1992. Her research included interviews with players. That gave her plenty of anecdotal information to tell a lively story about bus trips, curfews, and the delicate balance between playing hard and acting like ladies, which was expected at the time. The book was named to the New York Public Library’s “Books for the Teen Age” list.

Belles of the Ballpark is now enjoying new life with a second edition released this month by Summer Game Books. Diana’s husband Tom Owens, who is a writer and baseball fan, helped with the new edition which has almost doubled in size. New information includes interviews with players and other people involved with the League. It also includes sections about the researchers who have introduced new generations to the League. I asked Diana some questions about research for her book and how this second edition came to be.

What led to your initial interest in the All-American Girls Professional Ball League?

Our first year out of college (1988, Iowa State University, journalism) Tom was hired as co-editor and I was editorial assistant for Sports Collectors Digest, located in Wisconsin. This had been Girls League territory all those years ago, and Sharon Roepke of nearby Michigan made a set of players’ cards that she sent to the magazine. I remember the SCD ad man sauntering by my desk and tossing the cards down. “You’re a girl. You might be interested in these,” he said, not sounding completely complimentary.

Diana in an authentic game-worn Peoria Redwings uniform in 1990.

Diana in an authentic game-worn Peoria Redwings uniform in 1990.

Tell us about the research for “Belles.”

Research in the late 1980s meant no internet. If there were no books on your topic (there were none at the time on the AAGPBL) then one dug through library archives for old newspaper clippings. This might mean going to the relevant towns.

Ah, if only we hadn’t moved to Washington state just after I learned of the League, and just before I sold the book idea to a small, fairly new educational publisher for young readers. So, instead of just driving to Racine and Kenosha, as I could have done when working for SCD, I had to fly back.

Luckily, before moving, I had done an SCD article on the League and met the incomparable Anna May Hutchison. She invited me to stay in her home for an entire week after the book deal was sealed, opening not just her home but her heart. Without Hutch, the book would be vastly different and, I believe, suffer for that.

Sharon Roepke started me on this journey with her baseball cards, and was the first person I contacted, via telephone, to learn more. Sharon put me in touch with Anna May. I will always be gratefully in debt to her for that, and for her devoting so much of her life to this story and, by extension, to us.

As someone who likes her husband to be far away and very quiet when I’m writing, I have to ask: What is a typical writing day like when there are two writers at work? Also, how did you handle working together on Belles of the Ballpark?

I wrote the first edition, but I sometimes asked Tom for help on the game-action writing. He has been a life-long baseball fan, and I am a Johnny-come-lately.

We were first asked, “How can you stand working with your SPOUSE?” when we were both hired at SCD. The question is almost invariably accompanied by the claim, “I could never WORK with MY . . .”

For us, it’s always just been part of marriage, and some spots take more getting used to than others. But we have been blessed, for about 25 years now, in having two-story homes where we have had offices on different floors. We retire to our separate corners to work. If one of us has a question or discussion point (or wants company for a snack), we approach the other in his or her room and say, “Can you listen?” Sometimes the answer is, “Yes. What’s on your mind?” Sometimes the answer is “Just a second,” or “Five minutes,” or “Fifteen minutes.” The asker can then decide whether to wait nearby or just leave and try later.

The whole thing has probably been a bit tougher for Tom, who can listen to the radio while he works. I really like silence (well, birds don’t bother me . . .) So, if Tom wants to start cooking when I’m working, he has to do without music or baseball, for the kitchen is on the same floor as my office.

This plan, which we’re still perfecting, worked well for the second edition of “Belles.” We decided what material would be added, then divided the tasks. Each of us researched and wrote what was “ours,” then let the other serve as editor. We have learned, over the years, about our own writing styles (strengths and weaknesses) as well as each other’s. Remembering to apply this knowledge is invaluable! Tom, for example, knows he sometimes switches pronouns, and isn’t upset if I mention it. I will use $2 words when I could do well with ten cents, and I admit it when Tom catches me out.

It’s always great to see an out-of-print book get new life. How did this new edition come about?

In 2014, I decided to start key-punching “Belles” into my current computer. I don’t know why, really. I had recently begun self-publishing on Kindle, and thought it would be nice not to let this book be forgotten.

Two amazingly serendipitous things happened early in 2015. First, Tom discovered a “new” publisher devoted to baseball, Summer Game Books. SGB has done a number of reprints of baseball classics. It seemed like a match made in heaven and, after we got to know them, our hopes proved to be true! We love working with the people there, and they are able to offer marketing and design options that would be difficult for us on our own. The publisher delighted us by issuing the new edition in e-book and paperback.

The second lucky thing is that the film, A League of Their Own, which did not exist until after my book was first written, continues to attract attention. The movie has introduced so many people to the idea of the Girls League over these intervening years. Our publisher, Walter Friedman, has a young daughter who loves the film! The subject of the AAGPBL used to be a complete unknown. Hollywood changed that.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Write the book you want to read.” Fantastic advice that I’m afraid I cannot credit.

The Writing-Go-Round

It’s been only a few days since I sent the manuscript for my latest book off to my editors. That means I’m still adjusting to the loss. It’s what always happens. It’s a good feeling to finally finish a book, but there’s also a letdown. After working so intently on a book, when it’s gone, it feels like I’ve lost a dear friend.

Of course, I’m not completely done with the book yet. The editors will be sending it back with suggestions for rewriting. There will be more changes when the book gets to layout. That’s because of the unique features of the leveled readers I’ve been writing the last few years.

The first goal with every book is to tell an interesting story. For biographies that means presenting the facts in a way that holds the readers’ attention. With leveled readers, there’s the added challenge of making sure the writing fits on the page the way it should. Each two-page spread needs a certain number of lines. So the manuscript will bounce back and forth between my editors, the book designer, and me several times in the next few months while we work out the details. Even so there will be days and even weeks during that time when I don’t have anything to do on that book. That means I suddenly have time on my hands.

That down time is just part of the writing-go-round, the stages I go through with each book. The only way past the letdown of a finished book is to start the process all over again with a new project. Beginning is the most delicious of the writing stages. First, there’s the excitement of a new idea. That excitement only builds with the research. As I discover fascinating details about the subject of my new book, I’m certain that it’s going to be my best book ever.

That bubble bursts when it comes to the next stage – writing the first draft. I’ve learned to accept that my first draft is going to be crap. That’s okay because I can pull it all together with the rewrite. There’s just one problem: I can’t rewrite until I actually write something and that does not come easily. My head may be overflowing with good ideas, but my brain does not allow them to tumble out in complete sentences. Fortunately, I have a couple of first draft tricks.

The first trick actually starts with the research. Sentences and sometimes complete paragraphs come to me as I research. I jot them down in a notebook that I always have nearby. That way when I start the first draft, I don’t need to be terrified of a blank computer screen. I already have a few sentences and paragraphs that I can type in to begin.

I also set a goal to write a certain number of words each day. The first few days are stressful and I make a lot of trips to the refrigerator before I reach the day’s goal. At the end of each day, I print out what I wrote. Then I begin the next day by heading out to the coffee shop. There I rewrite what I wrote the day before and begin adding to it in longhand. By the time I get home to the computer, I’ve already made some good headway towards reaching the number of words for that day. Eventually, I get into a flow with the writing, and after several days or weeks depending on the length of the project, I have a first draft.

Then I’m ready to rewrite. That’s the part I love because I can begin to see the book coming together. I call it a rewrite, but actually it’s many rewrites and can cover a long period of time. I cut sections and rearrange paragraphs. I see holes in the writing, places that need more detail, and go back to the research to get the information I need to fill those holes. I submit the manuscript to my writers’ group. They are great at pointing out places that don’t make sense. I need that input. Sometimes an idea is so clear in my head that I don’t realize I haven’t given readers enough information to understand what I’m talking about.

I also think about something a middle school teacher taught me when I spoke to her English classes many years ago. She had a checklist she gave to her students to help them with the rewriting process. One tip on that list stuck with me because it was something I had never heard. It said to look at what was good in the manuscript and think about how to make it even better. So I work on the good parts too. I read the manuscript out loud. If I stumble over the words of a sentence, I know it isn’t quite right. So I do more polishing until I like the way it sounds.

Although rewriting is fun for me, it’s also intense. I get so absorbed in the writing that I forget everything else. I guess that’s why it feels like such a loss when the book is finished. So I take a few days to adjust. I clean my much neglected house and spend time with my equally neglected friends and family. But after a few days off, I can’t wait to start all over again with the excitement of beginning a new project.

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