By Peggy Thomas
As a nonfiction writer I am, by profession, a nosy person. I root around scrutinizing other people’s lives and work.
But when Margery Facklam, my mother and award-winning children’s author, suggested that we collaborate on a how-to guide for writing nonfiction, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be scrutinized.
Although I’ve taught writing for years in workshops and through the Institute of Children’s Literature, this was going to be different. Did I have the guts to bare all in a book?
The first job was to remember what it was like when we began. What were our greatest hurdles? Where did our ideas come from? How did we develop them into viable projects? How were we able to catch an editor’s eye?
Basically, what do we know now that we wished we knew then? Those were the tips we wanted to share with our readers.
Like the good little archaeologist that I trained to be in college, I sifted through the detritus of past book projects: old manuscripts with editorial notes, query letters (ones that worked and ones that didn’t), floppy disks I could no longer access, and cassette tapes of interviews with scientists that I thought I conducted professionally, but now make me cringe because my voice sounds so young and naïve.
But those tapes reminded me that I do have information to share, some of it learned the hard way. For instance, Tip # 1 – Make sure a spouse, neighbor or grandparent is watching your toddler while you conduct a phone interview. I still remember that moment of panic when my daughter poked her head into the office just when the expert was finally divulging the good stuff. The professor kindly excused me so I could deal with my daughter’s playdough issues, but I felt as if I had been caught in the act of pretending to be a real writer. Here was my chance to save others from that embarrassing fate.
And speaking of embarrassing, what about the time an interviewee became enraged because I didn’t tell her I was taping the conversation. I actually wasn’t (I was writing notes), but that didn’t seem to matter. Another lesson learned. Tip # 2 – Always tell your interviewee if you are recording the conversation and how you are recording it.
I feel I need to redeem myself for a moment. There are anecdotes in the book that relate some of my successes, too. Like the time I sold an article to Cricket Magazine, and the editor loved it so much he asked for a recipe. Unfortunately, the article was about eating insects. Tip # 3 – Bake mealworms in a pan with sides so they don’t crawl off and commit suicide on the bottom of your oven.
|Peggy and Margery|
But we didn’t want a narcissistic book that was just about our process; after all, there is no single correct way to write. So we picked the brains of dozens of other nonfiction writers.
We even let editors weigh in on subjects like voice, marketable ideas, writing to themes, and what they like to see in cover and query letters.
After five years of research, we discovered that writers of children’s nonfiction have two important characteristics in common – a penchant for learning and an enthusiasm to share that knowledge.
I’m sure there are many more writers out there who fit that description, and our hope is that this book will help them hone their craft, so, someday they will become the authors we interview for the second edition of Anatomy of Nonfiction (Writers Institute Publications, 2011).
Enter to win a critique by Peggy of a nonfiction picture book manuscript or the first three chapters of a longer nonfiction manuscript and a signed copy of Anatomy of Nonfiction by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas (Writers Institute Publications, 2011). To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with “Anatomy of Nonfiction” in the subject line.
Author-sponsored. Deadline: Dec. 12. Eligibility: international. Anyone can enter! However, the manuscript must be written in English.