I’ve noticed a surprising number of comments in writing forums from people who don’t know the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing. In self-publishing, the author controls every step of the process (including quality) and foots the bill for everything.
In traditional publishing, the author writes and submits a manuscript that a publisher feels they can make a profit from. The author pays for nothing except certain marketing efforts. The publisher’s editor secures an illustrator and works with the author to make the book as good as it can be. This overly-simplified infographic reveals the process.
Some of today’s most celebrated nonfiction writers for children share how their writing processes reflect their passions, personalities, beliefs, and experiences in the world. Editor Melissa Stewart offers a wide range of tips, tools, teaching strategies, and activity ideas to help students learn to craft rich, unique prose.
I’ve taught two online picture book biography classes this summer. My students were so pleased with the masters-level content, their recommendations led to quite a few inquiries about my next offering. So, I’ve scheduled a fall class, beginning October 18th—perfect timing for getting a manuscript ready for a 2021 submission. I hope you’ll join me. Click here to read recent testimonials.
A well-crafted picture book biography looks simple, doesn’t it? In reality, an author must research like a scholar and then distill and shape facts as a storyteller—all to capture the spirit of the subject on the page for young readers. It’s a worthwhile challenge. In this six-week online masters-level class, we will peek inside approximately 75 mentor texts to cover a wide range of craft topics. Between classes, you will be challenged with helpful resources and writing exercises designed to help you find your story’s sparkle. And because publication is the goal, the business side of writing will be covered, too. See below for a list of topics.
This course is appropriate for all experience levels but especially meaningful for intermediate writers who have a picture book biography subject in mind.
Some topics to be covered include:
Nonfiction vs. fiction
Narrative vs. expository
How to analyze mentor texts
Finding your connection to your character
Choosing a tight angle/focus
Point of view and psychic distance
Theme (the heart of your story)
Structure (there are so many great options!)
Beginnings & Endings
Research & organization
Revision & Submissions
The publishing and income process
Class recordings will be available to registered students for two weeks after each session
BONUS #1 — A guest author will join us for a Q&A session, offering you an additional industry perspective
(previous guests include Barb Rosenstock, Laurie Walmark, Deborah Hopkinson, Lesa Cline-Ransome)
BONUS #2— To facilitate ongoing conversations and to create a community of like-minded colleagues, class attendees will be invited to a private Facebook group.
BONUS #3 — At the end of the 6-week class, you will have the opportunity to purchase a deeply discounted developmental p.b. bio. critique from me for $125.
OR you can join one of my small-group online manuscript critique groups (often referred to as workshopping–max of 5 writers) for $150, which includes a developmental critique from me, feedback from four of your peers, and a group Zoom meeting to brainstorm each manuscript.
One of my favorite things about writing nonfiction is research—part scavenger hunt and part archaeological dig into the past. But what’s the best way to organize the resulting mountain of research? It’s a question that always pops up in forums and writers’ groups. The truth is, there is no single right system. Much depends on the topic, the volume and type of materials, and most importantly, each person’s individual style.
Early in my writing career, I flailed my way through index cards, spiral notebooks, file boxes, endless manilla folders. The problem was that, when I needed to find a detail, fact, or quote, it was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. So I pursued a more streamlined process—one that allowed easy access for my immersive writing style and comprehensive research style in a low-tech way. When it comes to my work, I want to be able to find what I’m looking for immediately. For some writers, software programs like Scrivener or Evernote are perfect tools for that goal and their own styles. For others, the spiral notebooks and index cards that make me a little dizzy, are ideal. To each her own! I experimented widely until I settled on a system that works for me. No doubt, my process will evolve over time, but here’s my current 4-step system:
#1—Research like the dickens—beyond the obvious sources
#2—Create digital file folders for thoughtfully-labeled, easily-sharable, digitized or scanned documents, interview transcriptions, etc.
#3—D-ring binders—the perfect adjustable container.
* If the book is topical, I organize the binder by related sub-topics.
* If the book is historical or biography, I organize chronologically, with necessary sub-topic categories, too.
* I print the most reliable sources for the binder.
#4 Create a Book Bible—
* Open a Word document and turn on Navigation Pane or Document Map (usually under the Sidebar option)
* Create category headings using a heading style, which automatically triggers the navigable sidebar, like a table of contents. Clicking on one of the headings jumps the cursor to that section of the document. No more scrolling. Nifty, huh?
* Extract relevant quotes, details, information from the binder sources, books, and interviews, and type them under the appropriate headings, with citations. (Most often, a single source, like a book or newspaper article, has information that fits under multiple categories. For example, a single eyewitness account for King of the Tightrope can include rope information, Blondin’s background, Niagara details, and Blondin’s costume—all of which can be extracted for different category headings. This is especially important when there are conflicting details across sources. It’s much easier to scrutinize disparities when the accounts are in one place.
Creating a book bible is tedious and time-consuming, and the process makes me grouchy. But once completed, I feel empowered and confident. A single book bible (usually 50-100 pages for a picture book) contains the most relevant and important information for my book project in one Word document. When does it come in handy? When it’s time to craft a bibliography; when I need to share a source with my editor; when I’m knee-deep in revision or rewrites and need to quickly find information; if anyone questions the content in my nonfiction narratives. And just imagine how ready I’ll be if Hollywood comes knocking, or if an opportunity related to one of my books arises in the future, when the research is no longer fresh in my memory.
Could I write a nonfiction picture book without researching as deeply and as widely as I do? Probably. Could I wrangle the research without going the extra mile with my binders and my book bibles? Sure, but it would feel like wearing ill-fitting shoes. I know myself and my immersive writing and research style enough to know that condensing and containing information is what I need.
Writer friends, you do you. Whatever your style, however you roll, allow yourself time to flail around until you find what works best for your unique comfort level. In the meantime, I hope you’ll share your own suggestions in the comments.
Above: Book bibles for Step Right Up (92-page document), Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (54-page document), and King of the Tightrope (49-page document) Below: A Sample page from my King of the Tightrope book bible, with partial sidebar visible
There’s a common belief among new nonfiction writers that primary sources are the only way to find absolute facts. Secondary sources are assumed to be inferior, less trustworthy, less valuable.
I beg to differ.
Don’t get me wrong, I get a rush when I find primary sources. As kids in my school visits can attest, I’m downright giddy when I talk about turning the pages of original 19th-century newspapers or scrolling through microfilm. I’ve had palpable reactions while donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling Beautiful Jim Key scrapbooks at the Tennessee State Archives (Step Right Up), or when I found Lincoln’s handwritten letter with his duel terms (Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words). For each book’s research, I was reminded that primary sources are not a guarantee of accuracy.
The primary sources I uncovered while researching for King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara were especially suspect.
When I found the first biography of Jean Francois Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, published in 1862, I thought I had hit pay dirt. In the preface, the biographer claims that Blondin himself was part of the book’s creation. It was as close to an “as-told-to” account as I could ask for. If Blondin was feeding the author information and approving the content, the book was as good as a primary source. What a gold mine! Or so I thought!
Seems like everything ever written about The Great Blondin originated from this book, either directly or secondarily. I believed every word until I expanded my primary source search and dove into secondary sources with a critical eye. AND, luckily, I successfully tracked down a well-informed descendent of Blondin.
Following are just a few of the many inaccuracies found in the primary sources I turned to:
The 1862 collaborative biography claims that young Jean Francois was accidentally introduced to acrobatics and tightrope-walking when a traveling troupe camped near his French home. He purportedly taught himself the skills of acrobatics and funambulism and was quickly considered a prodigy. His parents sent him to L’Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon—a special school for acrobats. By the age of nine, the biographer states, the future Blondin was orphaned. What a story! An orphan who grows up to be the best in his field. Unfortunately, much of the book was falsified.
My ultimate research revealed that, in truth, Blondin was part of the third acrobatic generation in his family. There was no circus camped near his home. He came to his vocation naturally and was part of his parents’ act even as a toddler. He literally grew up on the rope and on stage. As for the acrobatic school in Lyon—my research revealed no such school—a fact confirmed by Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.
Later, the biography claims, as an adult sailing to the United States for a two-year acrobatic tour, Blondin proved the only person brave enough and strong enough to dive into the Atlantic during a raging storm to rescue a rich nobleman that had been pitched overboard.
Nope! Not true. According to the ship’s passenger list (another primary source), there was no nobleman. And, since there’s no other record of a storm during this sailing, I must assume the entire episode is an invention.
As for the sad fact about Blondin becoming an orphan at age nine…you guessed it. It was false. Though his father died while Blondin was young, his mother lived into her 50’s, dying while adult Blondin was performing in the U.S.
I’ll never know if Blondin falsified his story for this biography or if the author falsified Blondin’s involvement and simply made stuff up. It was not the only primary source with unreliable information.
In 1859, Blondin carried Harry Colcord, his agent, across the Niagara River on his back, much to the amazement of all who witnessed it. Colcord’s later accounts of his experience, and of Blondin’s process of engineering his ropes, survive as primary sources. Unfortunately, Colcord was quite a storyteller, and he changed his details with each telling. In one interview, he was quoted as saying that sixteen horses powered a windlass on the American side of the Niagara River to stretch Blondin’s rope. I believed it, hook, line, and sinker. Maybe I subconsciously wanted it to be true because of the drama of the scene. Illustrator Adam Gustavson even created a gorgeous spread depicting the equine laborers. Then I discovered that it was false. There were no horses used in the stretching process. Grrr! Poor Adam had to change his illustration.
We cannot assume that primary sources are accurate. Sometimes, the creator has a biased perspective or a limited perspective or, naively, incorrect facts. Sometimes, the source is exaggerated or altogether falsified for dramatic effect.
Newspapers, too, are notoriously inconsistent. You can’t imagine the frustration of finding wildly different reports about the size of Blondin’s walking rope—from 1 1/2″ to 7″ diameter, wide, circumference, thick, around—even the units of measure were inconsistent. And, don’t get me started about the lack of reportage about Blondin’s process of engineering his rope across the gorge. What details do exist are also inconsistent and missing chunks of information. For those missing details, there were no primary sources to refer to.
The best secondary sources result from the distillation and evaluation of information from many sources and different perspectives. While a primary source is like seeing facts through one rigid lens, a good secondary source is like a carefully curated panoramic view.
Had I relied solely on primary sources for King of the Tightrope, I would have invariably perpetuated falsehoods. Thanks to modern experts, engineers, scholarly analysis, and a family connection, I was able to uncover the true story about The Great Blondin and his notable feats at Niagara, and the STEAM connection that threads my narrative together. I can feel confident that my book—a secondary source—will provide accurate information going forward. Had my topic been purely science or technology-based, it would have been equally important. Consider how breakthroughs of the past would be viewed today.
Dig for those primary sources, friends. But don’t stop there. Look for quality secondary sources that will help you form a more complete and accurate picture of your topic. You’ll feel triumphant when your true story comes into focus.