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.