Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Editorial Feedback

feedbackI just registered for a writers’ conference coming up in a few weeks. One thing I like about conferences is they offer opportunities to get feedback from an editor on a manuscript. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s hard to get that kind of attention these days. There was a time when editors sometimes made comments on a manuscript before returning it. At least that’s what I’m told. But those days are long gone.

Today, publishers are more likely to have a policy of contacting the author about a submission only if interested. Otherwise, nothing. So I seek out conferences where I can have a manuscript critiqued by an editor or agent who is speaking at that event. Critiques cost extra, but I consider it a good investment.

At the last conference I attended I got a critique of my first picture book biography, which I’ve been working on for a while. The editor noted a couple of main problems with it. One was the ending. The editor called it “anticlimactic.” No surprise there. I knew the ending wasn’t strong enough, but I had run out of ideas to try. The editor also said it was hard to connect with the subject of my story.

Another good thing about conferences is that attendees are often allowed to submit to editors and agents who speak at that event, at least for a limited time. That invitation includes editors from publishing houses that don’t normally accept unsolicited submissions. Because of that, I was also able to submit my picture book to an agent who spoke at a conference, and I soon heard back from her. She said basically the same things about my manuscript as the editor. I sensed a pattern.

Unfortunately, even though I knew what the manuscript needed, I wasn’t sure about how to get there. So I let it sit on the back burner for months while I tried to figure out the next step. Sometimes that’s the best thing to do with an unruly manuscript.

During those months, I worked on a variety of other projects, but the picture book was always at the back of my mind. Finally, the answer to what to do about the ending came to me in the form of an image of what I imagined would be a great final illustration. It gave me an idea of how I could end the manuscript on a high note. Anything I want to add about the subject’s life after that can go into an Author’s Note at the end of the book.

As for helping readers connect with my subject, I’m going back to the research to find additional details to show more of her personality. My new goal is to have the rewrite done in time for the upcoming writers’ conference.

frederick-douglassMy biography, Frederick Douglass, was released by National Geographic this week. Douglass, who was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland in 1818, was a powerful voice against slavery. He was also a prolific writer. In fact, he wrote three autobiographies.

I have mixed feelings about using autobiographies in my research. That’s because they are often poor resources for details, particularly dates. My theory is that when writing about their own lives, people feel they know the facts. After all, they were there. So they write what they remember without checking details such as dates. Then people like me come along and start researching them. As I draw from a variety of sources, it sometimes becomes obvious that some dates in an autobiography don’t jive with information from other sources. It doesn’t take away from the events themselves. It just means that in writing an autobiography, people are often most interested in what happened and are less concerned about when.

On the other hand, autobiographies are wonderful sources for quotes and for helping me understand how the people I write about think and feel about events in their lives. Douglass’s autobiographies are rich with details about what it was like to be a slave.

He wrote about his mother, who he saw only a handful of times before she died, and of his brothers and sisters who he never had a chance to know. Douglass figured out at an early age that education would give him power. He was determined to learn to read even though in some states it was against the law to teach slaves to read. Douglass learned, and it gave him power.

Douglass also wrote about freedom, something he risked his life to get. His first attempt to escape failed, but he was successful with his second attempt when he was 20 years old. He then began speaking out against slavery, which put him in great danger. He was living like a free man, but he was still property of the slave owner. There was always the fear that he could be forced to return to the slave owner where he might be killed, sold, or treated even more cruelly than he had been before his escape.

At one point, Douglass was in such eminent danger that he fled to England. There he became well-known as a speaker against slavery. The friends he made in England helped Douglass buy his freedom. In 1847, he returned to the United States as a free man. He continued to make speeches against slavery and started a black newspaper. During the Civil War, he served as an advisor to Abraham Lincoln and organized black troops to fight in the war. After the war, the slaves were freed, but they were still not treated equally. Douglass continued to fight for equal rights for freed slaves and for women who were working for the right to vote.

Douglass’s story is an interesting one and his autobiographies were a valuable resource for me. I’m thinking my book might be an introduction to slavery for some young readers. I hope it will lead to discussions about freedom and the importance of treating everyone as equals. It’s an important conversation at any age.

A Stressful Writing Stage

misscalimero134521953016_art1In my previous post I wrote about the excitement of starting a new project and the first stage of writing nonfiction, which is the research. But after that post, you may have noticed that I disappeared from blogging. That’s because I was busy with the next writing stage, the first draft.

I had a couple of deadlines for my current book. The first chapter and an outline were due last week. It’s not hard for me to come up with a basic outline, a listing of what I plan to include in each chapter. However, since I only have a few weeks to write the book once the outline is approved, I try to get more work done up front. That means by the time I turn in the first chapter and the outline, I have a pretty good first draft.

Unfortunately, the first draft is the hardest part for me. So I’ve spent the last few weeks writing and fretting. I did a lot of cutting and pasting to figure out the flow of the chapters and went back to the research many times to find what I needed to fill in holes in the narrative.

It seemed like I was doing a lot of work, but I had a long way to go and my deadline loomed. So I worried and daydreamed about how much easier my life would be if I gave up writing. As I contemplated telling my editor that I couldn’t do the book after all, the words “you’ll never work in this town again” played in my mind. Clearly, I had reached the next step in my writing process – the freaking out stage!

I’ve been there many times, so I knew how to deal with it. I needed to be more accountable with my time. I sometimes think I’m very busy writing when in reality I’m spending a lot of my time just thinking and worrying. So I did what I always do when I reach the freaking out stage. I started keeping track of my hours.

It’s not a complicated system. When I sit down to write, I jot the time down in a notebook. When I get up for a snack or a trip to the bathroom, I write down the time I stopped. When I get back to the computer to work again, I write down when I started. At the end of the day, I use my notes to figure out how much time I spent actually working.

Being more accountable for my hours helps me in a few ways. First, it gets me to the computer early because I’m hoping to show that I worked a lot of hours that day.

My time chart also keeps me from checking email or Facebook because as soon as I switch to something other than writing, I need to take myself off the clock. When I’m not keeping track of my time, I do those things without thinking. I guess I feel that as long as I’m at the computer, I’m working even when I’m not.

Finally, being accountable for my time helps me calm down. I begin to see that I can get a lot done in just a few hours when I’m focused on writing and not getting distracted with other things.

My time chart got me through the freaking out stage and I made my deadline for the first chapter and outline. Now I’m happily working on rewriting to meet my next deadline which is for the complete book. When you hear from me again, I’ll be on the final stage of my writing process, the empty nest. More about that later.

A Writer’s Notebook

research photoI’m starting a new book, which is always exciting. Especially since the first step is the research, my favorite part. I think of the research as a mystery to be solved. I start with a few general sources to get the basic framework. Then I follow the clues with one leading to another.

This makes it sound like my research is very orderly, but that’s not the case. As I follow clues, I often end up flying off in several directions trying to research different parts of a book all at once. It’s my special form of procrastination. Researching so many ideas makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something, but the truth is that I’m not making any forward progress.

Fortunately, I’ve learned to rein myself in a bit thanks to a tip I got from James Cross Giblin at a writers’ conference where he was speaking. He said that he always kept a notebook nearby when he was researching. When he got an idea he wanted to pursue further, he jotted it down in the notebook as something to investigate later. It was a way to make sure he wouldn’t forget that thought, but in the meantime, he could focus on the idea at hand. So I began keeping a notebook for each book. It has helped make my research time more productive.

In addition to jotting down ideas to check out later, I make notes about possible sources. Often the author of one source refers to another reference that I want to check, but following that clue when I’m in the middle of a productive writing or researching cycle is not a good use of my time. So I add the source to my notebook and check it out later.

Finally, I use the notebook as a place to store whole paragraphs that I might use in the text. I don’t set out to write paragraphs, but sometimes passages come to me and I don’t want to lose them. So they go into the notebook. A bonus is that those pre-written paragraphs help when I’m struggling to write the first draft.

I still tend to fly off in several directions at once when I’m researching. The excitement of a new book is hard to control. But my notebook can usually get me back on course. It helps me focus on following each clue one at a time.

In my previous post, I noted that it’s hard to find publishers for biographies for children about people who are not well-known. Hard, but not impossible. In fact, things seem to be looking up for authors who want to introduce a not so famous subject. It’s something Elizabeth Bird wrote about in a recent School Library Journal blog post. “These days, people are interested in celebrating more than just the same ten people over and over again,” she noted. She backed that up with a list of books about “comparatively obscure figures” that have been released just this year. They include two books about Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer; Lonnie Johnson, the rocket scientist who invented the Super Soaker; and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space.

An editor I met at a writers’ conference last fall also said the tide was turning a bit and publishers were getting more interested in doing books about people who are not well-known. Encouraging, but it doesn’t mean that all subjects are suitable for a children’s biography. Publishers are in the business of selling books after all. So in considering subjects for biographies, the author needs to find a way to make a not so famous person appeal to a wide audience.

Balloons_CoverOne way to do that is to find a tie-in to something familiar to readers. Melissa Sweet did that with her book, Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. Readers may not recognize the name Tony Sarg, but they are familiar with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. That connection creates an audience for a book about Sarg.

I’m hoping that kind of tie-in will help interest editors in the children’s biography I’m currently submitting. Most people have not heard of the woman I wrote about, but she does have a little known connection to someone that everyone knows.

A tie-in to school curriculums also gives subjects wider appeal. Has the person you’re interested in writing about achieved greatness in math or science? There’s always a need for books relating to those subjects.

DaredevilSometimes a not so-well known person has such an amazing story it can’t be ignored. That’s the case with Meghan McCarthy’s book, Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton. I knew a little about Skelton and her plane “Little Stinker,” but as McCarthy shows in her book, Skelton’s career as a pilot was just a taking off point. I won’t mention any of her other achievements because part of the appeal of the book is making those discoveries in the reading.

Another reason McCarthy’s book about Skelton has wide appeal is because of Skelton’s “grit.” As a woman born in 1926, she faced many obstacles of the time, but that did not keep her from reaching for her dreams. Stories about people who show courage and determination are inspiring for kids. Those traits are universal themes talked about in homes and classrooms. That makes them good subjects for children’s biographies even if the subjects are not well-known.

Original cowgirlLucill Mulhall is another example of a woman with “grit.” I had never heard of Mulhall until I read Heather Lang’s book, The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall. Out of curiosity, I searched the Internet after I read the book to see if I could learn more about her. I didn’t find much. It made me wonder why a publisher would take a chance on such an obscure subject. Perhaps that is best explained by a reviewer for Kirkus who wrote, “Mulhall may not be a household name, but Lang makes her memorable for anyone who admires go-getters who beat the odds and break barriers.”

It’s not easy to find a publisher for a biography about a relatively unknown subject, but it is possible. The author can improve the odds by giving some thought to the business side of publishing. That means finding a way to make a lesser known subject appeal to a wide audience.

People often tell me they wish there were more biographies for children about people who are not well-known. I know what they mean. I sometimes read about someone not so famous and think about how much fun it would be to introduce kids to that person. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find publishers for books about people who are not widely known.

I understand why. Publishers are in the business of selling books. Obviously, a biography about a well-known person will appeal to a larger audience than one about someone many people do not know. That presents an interesting problem for writers. How do they make their book stand out from the dozens, and in some cases, hundreds of books already out there about a particular person?

That’s not too hard with the leveled biographies I’ve been writing for National Geographic. Those books are part of a series and they have special features that make the books different from others about the same subjects. One of those features is the “Cool Facts” spread which offers opportunities to bring in fun tidbits about the subject. With the “In His [or Her] Time” section, kids can learn about what it was like when the subject was young.

Lincoln Tells a JokeThe style of the National Geographic readers helps me, but what about other writers who don’t have that framework? For them, the problem of making their book stand out becomes harder, but not impossible. The key is to find a unique point of view. That’s what Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer did with their book, Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (And the Country).

With all the books written about Lincoln, I didn’t think it was possible to say anything new about him. But the authors did it by focusing on Lincoln’s sense of humor. Many children’s books make the fact that Lincoln lived in a log cabin sound glamorous, but Krull and Brewer show the dirt floors and the beds that were actually piles of cornhusks. In the winter, snow blew through cracks in the wall. Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine and Lincoln had to help build her coffin. His childhood was hard, and he certainly had reason to be grim, but instead he turned to laughter. On Sundays, he and his friends escaped to the woods where Lincoln stood on a tree stump and read to his friends from a book called Quinn’s Jests.

Krull and Brewer’s book continues in that vein showing the challenges Lincoln faced and how he eased the pain with laughter. The authors include many of the jokes Lincoln told noting that he often laughed harder than anyone at those jokes. The illustrations by Stacy Innerst also provide humor. The one of Lincoln’s desk with the teetering stack of papers needing his attention is one of my favorites.

inventors-secret-cvr_largeSuzanne Slade wrote about two famous people in her book, The Inventor’s Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford. I’ve read Slade’s book many times and I’m still amazed at all the great details she included about both Edison and Ford in such a limited number of words. At first, she focuses on one at a time. There is a spread with some fun details about Edison as a boy. It is followed by a spread about Ford’s early years. Slade gives details about Edison’s early inventions. Then the focus switches to Ford and his dream of creating “a car hardworking families could afford.”

As Ford struggles with creating his car, he hears about Edison’s successful inventions. What’s his secret? Ford wonders. His determination to find the answer to that question drives the story forward. It’s a fun, fast-paced story that proves it is possible to write something new about a subject even though it seems like everything has already been said. It just takes a unique point of view.

Of course it’s also possible to find a publisher for a biography for children about a not-so-famous person. I’ll have some thoughts about that in my next post.

Rejection-754834[1]I saw an interview with James Patterson recently where he said he got 31 rejections with his first book. Of course, numbers like that are meant to be an encouragement to those of us who are racking up rejections. But the interview also made me think about how much publishing has changed.

Gone are the days when authors can joke about having enough rejection letters to wallpaper their offices. Part of that change is because these days many publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. They only take submissions from agents. Also, many of the publishers who do accept submissions have a policy of replying only if interested. That can be discouraging for writers.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to avoid some of that frustration because much of my work is for educational publishers and they operate a little differently. Those publishers know what they want, and they are looking for people to write the books they need. It means I start a project knowing that it is something a publisher wants. There is no stress about spending a lot of time on a project and then not being able to find a publisher for it. Also, if you do a good job for an educational publisher, there’s a good chance you’ll get future assignments. With today’s publishing climate, it’s nice to have those relationships with educational publishers.

Of course, I also have ideas, such the picture book biography I’m working on, which don’t fit the needs of educational publishers. And so I’m collecting rejections. So far, I’ve sent my picture book to an agent and four publishers. The agent, who I had met at writers’ conference, said the manuscript wasn’t competitive in today’s market. But she gave me some good tips for improving it. That kind of personalized attention is rare these days and I appreciated it.

As for the editors, one of them sent a form rejection with a short handwritten note wishing me well in placing it elsewhere. Disappointing, but at least it’s definitive. With the other three publishers, I’ve had only silence. They follow the policy of replying only if interested, which leaves me with mixed feelings.

I’m grateful that they even accept unsolicited manuscripts when so many publishers don’t. On the other hand, their silence gives me hope when it shouldn’t. I need to fight the urge to cling to the possibility that the editors haven’t had time to read the manuscript yet. After all, it’s only been a few months and we’ve all heard stories about the stacks of manuscripts waiting for an editor’s attention.

However, in my more realistic moments I realize that my book was most likely recycled months ago and I need to send it out again. I’ll do that, but first, I have rewriting to do. I made the changes the agent suggested, but as I continue to learn more about picture book biographies and read those that have been successful, I see other ways to improve the manuscript. So I’ll do some rewriting and then get it back in the mail.

In the meantime, I’m curious, writers, how do you deal with those “silent” rejections from publishers who only reply if they’re interested? How long do you hold out hope that your manuscripts are still under consideration?

 

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