Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘writing’

Wrestling with a First Draft

As I’m nearing the end of another first draft, I’m reminded of how messy they can be. “Don’t worry about first drafts,” experienced writers advise. “The most important thing is to just get something down on paper. Allow yourself to write crap.”

I follow that advice. Yet what always astonishes me is how hard it is to get that crap down on paper. One thing that helps me is to set daily word goals. I most often set a goal of 500 words a day. It’s a word count I can reach with minimal hair pulling, and many times I surpass it. After all, the hardest part is just getting myself to the computer. Knowing I can quit after 500 words makes the whole process seem doable.

Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to set a much lower goal in order to lure myself to the computer. So I set a goal of 200 words a day. That only worked a few days and then I came to a complete stop. I soon realized why.

First, I don’t have a clear focus for the book. I need to be able to tell in a single sentence what is important about the subject of my book. Usually, I have that sentence clearly in mind before I start writing. But with this book, I’m on the last chapter of my first draft and I still don’t have a clue. I’ve had trouble making that decision because the subject has had so many accomplishments and she continues to achieve.

Second, I’m not sure of what I want to include in the final chapter. That indicates a problem with my research. Fortunately, I’ve come up with a plan to get back on track.

First, since this book is part of a series, I’ll read other books in the series. Then I’ll try to tell in one sentence what those books are about. It should give me a clearer idea of the focus for my book because reading what others have done is always a big help.

Second, I’ll go back to the research. Nine times out of ten, when I get “stuck” with my writing it’s an indication that I don’t have enough information. I need to dig deeper.

Finally, I’ll keep reminding myself to relax and just do the best I can on the first draft. After all, what follows is the rewrite, and that’s the part I love.

Four Tips for Using Quotes

Quotes add punch to biographies for children and that helps to hold the readers’ attention. However, simply inserting a quote here or there does not make the writing interesting. It’s important to know when to use quotes and how to make them fit into the flow of the writing. Here are 4 tips for using quotes effectively.

  1. Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words.

That was something I learned by chance when I was working on my very first biography which was about Alice Walker. I wanted to describe the day in 1961 when Walker left her small town in Georgia to head off to college. She took a bus to Atlanta, where the college was located, and made the mistake of sitting too close to the front. A white woman complained to the driver who asked Alice to move to the back.

I worked and worked on that paragraph trying to find a way to show how Walker felt about that experience, but I only got more and more frustrated. I finally realized it was impossible for me to describe how she felt. It was better to let her say it in her own powerful words: “But even as I moved, in confusion and anger and tears. I knew he had not seen the last of me,” Walker wrote in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

  1. Use quotes to show character.

In The Great and Only Barnum, Candace Fleming used a quote from P.T. Barnum to show his aversion to farm work as a child. “I always disliked work,” he noted. “Head-work I was excessively fond of. I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for money-making, but hand-work was decidedly not in my line.” It’s easy to see how Barnum’s gift for thinking up ideas for fun and profit as a kid may have led to his future as a great showman.

  1. Use quotes to build or expand on an idea.

In an article about how U.S. presidents kept fit while they were in office, I wrote this paragraph about Truman. “Harry S. Truman was famous for his early morning walks. Reporters and photographers sometimes tagged along, but keeping up with him was not easy. Truman kept a brisk and exact pace.” That provided the basic information, but I decided to show how brisk and how exact by ending with this quote from Truman’s memoirs: “I walk two miles most every morning at a hundred and twenty-eight steps a minute,” he noted. The quote also showed a bit about his character.

  1. Keep quotes short.

Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on too long. So it’s best to interrupt the dialogue with action or another character’s comments. It’s the same with nonfiction. A good way to keep quotes short is to weave in background information and then end with a short quote. It’s what I did with the paragraph about Alice Walker heading off to college. A long description of that day in Walker’s own words would have taken away from what I felt was a strong quote. So I provided the background about her sitting too close to the front of the bus and the white woman complaining to the driver. Then I ended with Walker’s words.

Finding just the right quotes and weaving them into a manuscript is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. They can turn a dull manuscript into one that holds the readers’ attention.

How I Found My Writing Niche

The subtitle for this post could be: How a Second Grade Boy Helped Me Launch My Writing Career. I’ve said many times that I started writing biographies after following the advice of another author who said, “Write what you like to read.” I remembered how much I enjoyed reading biographies when I was a kid especially stories about trailblazers such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Elizabeth Blackwell. But the truth is, it took me a long time before I considered writing any type of nonfiction. It was a second grade boy who set me on that track.

Like most beginning writers, I dreamed of writing fiction, particularly the mysteries and ghost stories I loved to read. Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait ‘Til Helen Comes remains one of my all-time favorite books. Joan Lowery Nixon and Lois Duncan were my idols. For years, I ignored the fact that there were more opportunities for writers in nonfiction. That’s because editors are always looking for nonfiction, but most writers want to write fiction.

My change in attitude came when I was working as a media secretary at an elementary school. Seated at my desk, I watched as a class of second graders hurried into the IMC for checkout time. My favorite part of the job was when students asked me to help them find a book. I was not disappointed on that day as a smiling young man approached the desk.

“Can you help me find a book?” he asked.

“Sure, what kind of books do you like to read?”

“Good books,” he said.

That was my cue to recommend what I thought were good books. “Have you read any of the Henry and Mudge books?” I asked. But they did not appeal to him. I recommended a couple of other possibilities from the fiction section, as I assumed that’s what he would want to read.

Then he surprised me. “No, I want real books,” he said.

“What do you mean real books?”

“You know, true stories,” he answered.

“Oh, you mean nonfiction.”

“Yeah, real books with facts and stuff.”

It didn’t take long to find him enough books in the nonfiction section to keep him busy for a while. I soon realized that there were many other kids like him, kids who liked nonfiction. They wanted to read about dinosaurs, sports stars, bugs, unusual buildings, airplanes, and faraway places, almost any subject imaginable.

For the next few days, I thought about that student and noticed how many other kids asked to be directed to the nonfiction section. I also thought about the author who advised me to “write what you like to read.” It soon became clear to me that I should be writing real books, in my case, biographies. Once I focused on biographies, the publishing doors started to open. I had found what I was meant to write, and I thank that second grade boy for setting me on that path.

 

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.

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.

Writing Picture Book Biographies about Not So Famous People

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.

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