Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘Writing Advice’

The Beginning of an Adventure

I’m celebrating an anniversary this year. August 7 marked 40 years since I first started journaling. I decided to celebrate by reading some of my early journals. That’s been an interesting experience.

I guess I should say I’m celebrating the anniversary of when I started journaling and actually stuck with it. There were other attempts, but those didn’t last beyond a couple of weeks. So how did I go from another failed attempt to making journaling an essential part of my day? The answer was in my early journals.

As I began reading my first journal, I was surprised to see that the entries were so short. Once in a while, I had an idea for an article, and I sat down and wrote the whole first draft in my journal. More often, my early entries were only a couple of paragraphs.

What’s even more surprising about those early entries are the times I stopped writing mid-sentence. On August 26, 1979, I wrote: “Some days are just too busy. You look around and see all that needs to be done and you know that it’s….” The sentence ends there. I suppose I planned to come back later and finish that thought, but it didn’t happen. The next entry was August 27 and I was off on a completely different topic.

It’s a little creepy to see something like that forty years later. Where was I going with that thought? It’s a mystery that will never be solved. On the other hand, I do understand how that could happen. Maybe it was early morning and the kids woke up interrupting my thought. Or maybe I was writing in the afternoon and there was a ruckus in the back yard that needed my attention. My kids were four and six then and there were a lot of interruptions. Or maybe I was writing at night and fell asleep mid-sentence. At that time, I didn’t have a regular schedule.

Those early entries also showed a lot of frustration about finding time to write. In those days, I read all I could about becoming a writer. Those books stressed how important it was to write a certain amount each day and to write at the same time every day. Good advice, but I was failing miserably. Sadly, I let that inability to do what the experts said hold me back as a writer.

Journaling was different. I didn’t worry about when I worked or how much I wrote. I simply focused on doing the best I could. And guess what? Those journal pages started adding up, and soon manuscript pages were adding up as well. Focusing on writing what I could whenever I found time freed me to just write. I think that’s why I stuck with journaling this time around. I saw it as a first step in launching a career I had dreamed about ever since I was a kid.


“Move It Or Lose It” for Tighter Writing

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.

Give Readers Something New

This week, I sent my editor at National Geographic a manuscript for another leveled reader. I always think I’ll give myself a few days off after meeting a big deadline, but that never happens. The pull of starting something new is too strong, especially knowing that the first step will be the research. For me, that’s one of the best parts of writing nonfiction and I can’t wait to get started.

JimIn 1991, before I had written my first book, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop in Bloomington, Illinois. I chose that workshop because one of the instructors was James Cross Giblin. He was a long time editor at Clarion and had also begun writing nonfiction books including biographies. With his experience as both an editor and as an award-winning writer, I knew I could learn a lot from him. I wasn’t disappointed.

One thing he said at that workshop really stuck with me. He said that he always tried to give readers something new. His research was not done until he had found information that had not been included in other books about a subject. It’s advice I try to follow.

Sometimes, that’s easy. When I wrote my biography about George Washington Carver I had access to so much primary source material that finding new details was not hard at all. But my job became much more difficult when I wrote about Oprah Winfrey.

That book was part of a series for third and fourth graders about people who had overcome great odds in achieving success and then gave back. I didn’t include Oprah in my original proposal, but my publisher wanted her in the series. I agreed that she certainly belonged in such a series, but there had been so many books about her already. I worried about how I would ever find anything new. The answer came when I focused on the theme of the series and began looking for stories to show how she had helped others. That was when I found an anecdote showing that she had already begun helping others when she was in elementary school. As a third grader, she heard about starving children in Costa Rica. She responded by collecting money on the playground for them.

Sometimes finding new information means getting creative with the research. I was discouraged with progress on my biography about Mahalia Jackson because I wasn’t finding anything new. I told myself that my book was different because while others focused on her gospel singing, I was including information about her fight for civil rights. Even so, I still didn’t feel like I was bringing something new to the table.

Then I came up with the idea of looking at her through the eyes of others. I knew she had been friends with author Studs Terkel, so I decided to research him. I learned that he had interviewed her a couple of times, and I located those interviews. They gave me some great quotes that had not been included in other biographies about Mahalia, and it made me feel that I had done my job.

It’s been more than 20 years since I attended the conference in Bloomington where James Cross Giblin talked about giving readers something new. But it’s advice I still think about every time I research a biography. Trying to bring something new to the table is a challenge, and I’m not sure I’m always successful. But it definitely makes the research interesting, and I hope the extra effort shows in the final result.

What about you? What advice have you been given that is still guiding your work or your personal life even many years later?

Writing Advice

“Write what you know” is advice authors often hear, but I’ve been intimidated by it sometimes. It leaves me wondering what I know about that could possibly interest anyone else. So I’ve expanded that idea to: write what you care about. Nancy Furstinger has followed that advice better than anyone I know.

She is a lover of all types of animals and an adoptive mom to both dogs and rabbits. She also specializes in writing about animals. It’s those two loves that have led to her most recent picture books.

5677929[1]The first, Maggie’s Second Chance, is about a pregnant Lab mix who is abandoned in an empty house. The Realtor finds her and takes her to an animal control facility where her puppies are born. They are adopted, but Maggie is not. Jeff, a fourth grader, is upset when he learns from his teacher that if Maggie is not adopted, she will be euthanized. Jeff and his classmates convince the city council to open an animal shelter, and it is through that shelter, that Maggie is given her second chance.The book is based on two true stories. One is about a dog Nancy rescued. She was abandoned in a house after her humans moved. Nancy planned to foster her until a forever home could be found, but as Nancy admits, she flunked Fostering 101. She adopted the dog renaming her Jolly because that best described her personality.

Nancy and Jolly

Nancy and Jolly

The other part of Maggie’s story came together when Nancy read about a fourth grade class in Texas. They were upset when they learned that unwanted dogs in their town were being euthanized. Determined to do something about it, the students and their teacher, Diane Trull, convinced their city council to set up a no-kill shelter. In 2003, the Dalhart Animal Wellness Group and Sanctuary (DAWGS) was founded. Diane and her family work with children ages nine to eighteen to run the shelter. Although their resources are limited, they have rescued more than 7,000 animals.

imageedit_1_8691751036Nancy’s new picture book, to be released April 1, is also based on one of her adopted pets, a large New Zealand white bunny appropriately named Marshmallow. Her first three years were spent in a tiny outdoor cage until Nancy adopted her and she became a house rabbit. It’s something that happens too often when bunnies are given as Easter gifts. Children enjoy them for a short time, but they quickly lose interest and the bunny is soon neglected.

Nancy and Marshmallow

Nancy and Marshmallow

That is the fate of Bella, the bunny narrator of The Forgotten Rabbit. When the children grow tired of their Easter bunny, she is left outside in a cage without enough food or water. Fortunately, another girl, Rosalita, rescues Bella turning her into a house rabbit. Nancy adds fun and tension to the story by having Rosalita set up an obstacle course for Bella and then entering her in a rabbit agility competition.

“Write what you know” is good advice because, as Nancy shows, it works. What do you know? What do you care about? The answers to those questions could lead to some of your best writing so far.

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