WRITING NONFICTION: From Boring to Exciting

In my previous blog, I talked about writing book-length fiction for adults and how to make your writing stand out from all of the other submissions. In this blog, I want to talk about writing nonfiction.

Nonfiction is a different animal, but it has some of the same requirements as fiction. For example:

You want a strong beginning that carries throughout your story.

You want to be able to tell your story factually and creatively.

You want to be able to verify your facts.

Most important, you must have strong credentials to be able to write on the subject of your choice. If you are going to write a book on the history of the Empire State Building, at the very least you want to have a close blood relative who helped build it, thus giving you a credible reason for your interest in writing about it in the first place, not to mention never-before-seen photos of the building’s construction, rare blueprints or schematic drawings, and interviews of people who were involved or associated with the project.

There are other things that reflect on how your work of nonfiction will be received by a potential publisher.

1. Write about something that really interests you. Emerson said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” He was right. Pick a subject that bores you and you’ll write a boring book (if you manage to finish at all); but if you’re fascinated with your material you’ll not only enjoy writing it, you will write a book that conveys that excitement to the reader.

2. Be quiet and listen. With all that is available on the Internet, a great deal of research can be accomplished without ever leaving your computer. But to write a comprehensive, book-length work of nonfiction, you will want to go beyond the Internet for primary and even secondary sources, as well as tidbits of information that will make your writing fresh. Biography, true crime, narrative, how-to and self-help are different types of nonfiction that can be improved with the inclusion of information received through personal interviews. This requires you to be both sociable and a bit of a recluse. It’s definitely not for the morbidly shy. You have to cold-call a lot of perfect strangers, and in some cases get them to tell you their darkest secrets. Why should a stranger tell you anything, especially since you are going to broadcast it to the world in book form? That is where “be quiet and listen” comes in. You sympathize, and you listen for however long the interview takes. You will be amazed at how often people will seize the opportunity to talk when they think someone is interested. So, when interviewing, don’t just tick off a laundry list of questions; let the person talk, be quiet and listen, and respond to what he or she is saying. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

3. While working on his final novel, THE LAST TYCOON, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notes in all caps: ACTION IS CHARACTER. It is, and it is applicable in both fiction and nonfiction. Human beings are far too complex to explain away with just a few adjectives. Yet this is probably the most common mistake I see as an agent and professional editor in the submissions I receive. Although “show, don’t tell” doesn’t apply in every situation, an experienced writer will use the technique more often than not. Let your reader see and hear how your characters behave, and let your reader (for the most part) draw his or her own conclusions.

4. Be prepared. Fiction writers can get away with a certain amount of spontaneity in their writing; indeed, half the fun (and agony) of fiction writing is finding out where exactly your story or novel is going as you write it. If you’re Faulkner, it’s okay to fill a glass with bourbon and branch water and get slowly potted while you (or your genius or daemon or what you will) channels the deathless prose of Absalom, Absalom! However, nonfiction writers don’t really have that luxury, and biographers certainly don’t. First, you have to do your research. Then you find your structure (is it chronological, thematic, a little of both?). Finally, you put all those quotes and factoids in their proper order. I find it helpful to start with a bare bones outline. Then I start adding to that outline such things as main events. From that I am able to plug in my research. This is an over-simplification because in reality even just these basic steps require months of writing and revising before a final, coherent story forms. The important thing to remember is that you must be prepared: good research leads to a strong structure which leads to a coherent story.
5. Final notes before submitting your manuscript. I am a perfectionist and perform my work tasks under the belief that “first impressions count.” With this in mind, there are a few things you need to complete or at least prepare for before submitting your nonfiction manuscript to an agent or publisher.

– Cover page: This should include your book title, your name, address, e-mail address, telephone number, and any other methods of contacting you, like fax or mobile numbers.

– Table of contents: Most word-processing packages will work this out for you. However, not all of them will update automatically. The last thing you should do before printing out your manuscript is to make sure the table of contents is accurate. It is annoying and time-consuming for an editor to try to find a chapter based on an incorrect table of contents.

– Figures and tables: Your publisher will probably have guidelines for how these are to be produced. The standard way of numbering figures is to use the chapter number as a reference. For example, the first figure in chapter three will be Figure 3.1. The first table in chapter three will be Table 3.1. If the publisher has asked for figures and tables to be provided separately as well as in the body of the text, make sure you do so. And always double-check the numbering. A numbering convention that changes halfway through the manuscript is unsettling and unprofessional. So are duplicate numbers. If you add in an extra figure or table, make sure you re-number all the subsequent ones.

– References and further reading: Many nonfiction books use references or lists of further reading. It is your moral obligation to reference another author or researcher’s work where you have used his or her words or ideas in your own manuscript. There are several different styles for referencing. Harvard and St. Martins are two of the common styles. I use the Chicago Manual of Style, but check if your publisher has a particular format they want you to use. Double-check that any reference used in the text is also present in your bibliography or references list at the end of the manuscript. Your further reading lists should be set out in the same way to give the reader enough information to find the book or article if she wants to take a topic further.

– Index: Indexing can be a nightmare. It is also almost impossible to do at manuscript stage as you will not have the final page numbers. However, you can compile a list of index entries and sub-entries. This will help you later if you are expected to do the index. Some publishers use professional indexers so this option might be available to you. However, professional indexers will rarely know the subject matter as well as you, so they might miss key phrases. It is better, if a lot more work, to compile the index entries yourself and then let the publisher decide how to take that list forward.

– Proofreading: At this point you are too close to the text to give your work an accurate proofreading. Give it to someone you trust for a final proofread or hire a professional book editor to proofread your work. Ask your proofreader to also be on the lookout for paragraphs that make no sense or that are not clear. As you are a subject-matter expert, it is often easy to churn out whole pages that make perfect sense to you but mean absolutely nothing to your reader. There is no point in having beautifully polished prose if it is not accessible.

– Your final read through: Once you have your manuscript back from the proofreader, you are free to incorporate anything the proofreader has suggested or not. As you read through the suggested changes, try to read the text yourself with a fresh eye. There comes a point where you have to stop editing, but if you think you can improve something, you probably can.

– Presentation: it goes without saying that your final manuscript (in paper format) must be double-spaced, neatly printed with sufficient margins and numbered pages. If you are e-mailing your final version, the same rules apply. Avoid widows and orphans on pages. Set the margins wide. Double-space, add page numbers and proper header, and make sure that section and page breaks are logical without leaving blank pages in the middle of your manuscript. Whether you are using snail mail or e-mail, include any other files, like photographs, copies of figures and tables, and your biography for the cover. I like to include a dedication at this stage as well.

Hopefully, I have been able to give you some constructive pointers to use the next time you are writing nonfiction. For my next discussion, I want to bring you up to date on the new exciting things that have been going on in the Barbara Casey Agency.

Thank you for stopping by.

Barbara

THE BASICS OF WRITING FOR CHILDREN

For this blog, I want to discuss some of the basics in writing children’s books such as the different types of children’s books, current trends, and what needs to be included for the age they are written.

As an agent, I receive several hundred manuscripts a year written for children—everything from illustrated picture books to new/young adult novels. As an author, in addition to my six published novels written for adults, I have had two middle-grade novels, and two young/new adult novels published. Over the years, I have learned a few things that make a children’s book appealing to an editor, and I have observed many changing trends. It is some of those things I want to share with you.

To begin with, children’s books are not a genre, but a specific kind of writing. The books themselves embrace almost the same genres as adult fiction and nonfiction, with the added dimension of being age-specific. The term “Children’s Book” is broad, and it covers everything from the picture book, which is simply captioned pictures, to the sophisticated young/new adult science fiction novel. Within that range, you can find historical fiction and nonfiction, adventure, romance, mystery, detective, science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Themes and subject matter change rapidly in children’s books. What might be popular today will probably be forgotten tomorrow. Gone are the days of Pokey Little Puppy and The Shy Little Kitten. A vivid, and sometimes harsh, reality has spread through all age groups. Now for picture books, we have Suzie Cockroach, the story of a black child living in a New York slum area with no friends other than a cockroach that lives under the kitchen sink. Or, more recently, Everybody Poops and Poop Is Fun. And we don’t want to forget that book that came out not too long ago titled, It All Began with a Bean, and it answers that all-important universal question of what would happen if everyone had flatulence at the same moment. What was once considered a nice book for children has been shoved to the background and replaced with cutting-edge reality and off-beat humor.

In order to be successful in writing for children, it helps to have a broad knowledge of modern fiction. Except for books written for the very young reader, children’s novels these days are expected to have logical plots, themes, character development, and style. So what are some of the genres you will not find in the children’s book world?

– You are unlikely to find erotic horror (although there are vampire stories at the YA level), and you won’t find straight erotica.

– You won’t find romance at the younger levels (although it certainly flourishes on the YA shelves).

– You probably won’t find police procedurals, but certainly mysteries are popular at both the middle grade and young adult levels.

– Books about friendship are common, and may lay the ground for later romances.

Although there are always exceptions, in general children’s books usually follow certain rules:

– Children’s books are usually shorter than books for adults.

– Characters are usually young; the rule of thumb is that the main protagonist and the viewpoint of that character(s) should be one or two years older than the intended readers.

– Books for young (pre-teenage) readers will probably have a simpler vocabulary and less introspection.

– Endings will often be “for now” or “until the next time”. For example, a romance between two 14-year-old protagonists can rarely end in any kind of permanency. If seeking a happy or satisfactory ending for a children’s book, you should look for the best solution “for now” (at this point in the protagonists’ lives).

– Happy or satisfactory endings still rule in books for young children, but teenagers are just as likely to find their books ending sadly or resignedly.

– The “freedom” of childhood is less likely to be used as a theme in modern children’s books.

– The main difference between writing for younger readers and writing for adults, apart from the age of protagonists, is that the writer should see things from the viewpoint of a child or teenager. Whatever the situation, you should focus on the way it affects the young protagonists. Certainly adults should be presented as well-rounded and credible characters, but they are not the main focus. If you find yourself empathizing with your child-character’s parents instead of with your hero or heroine, you must change direction—and remember that you are writing about children rather than for them.

– Young adult or teenage fiction is still considered part of the children’s book world. The ages of the protagonists will probably be somewhere between twelve and twenty. Teenagers are generally more skeptical and less accepting than younger children, so this should be reflected in their fiction. In my young adult novel, The Cadence of Gypsies, the story centers around three high-spirited 17 year olds, all three orphans, and all three with intelligence quotients in the genius range. They accompany their teacher to a small village in Italy in an attempt to help her discover the truth of her own past. There is mystery, humor, fear, and sadness throughout the story written at a level that can be felt and understood by older teens and adults. Because it is written for older teens, I was able to write from the viewpoint of the three girls as well as some of the other adult characters revealed in the story.

– Picture books, sometimes called picture story books, will have a short text which usually falls between 400 and 800 words. It will almost certainly have thirty-two pages, it will begin with a statement or setting out of a situation, and it will close with a punchline or affirmation. The illustrations will interpret rather than illustrate the text, and will add quite a lot of information. The main character(s) will probably be a young child, who may interact with an older person, animals, toys, or even fantasy characters.

– Falling between the picture book and young adult novel come chapter books or middle grade novels. These are novels of most genres with subject matter and characters designed to appeal to children. They come in a variety of lengths and formats, from the quick and easy reads illustrated lavishly with line drawings to the more substantial books for older, more confident readers. Mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy are especially popular with this age group. Children’s chapter books may well be longer than young adult novels, but will usually fall somewhere between 10,000 and 70,000 words.

– Most recently a new category called “New Adult” has been added, and this category includes books that are written for readers in their early twenties, already finished with school, and probably out in the work force. These books focus on themes and problems associated with that age group, and are more explicit in word choice. The length of a new adult novel can vary, but it tends to be slightly longer than a young adult novel, around 60,000 words and up.

I hope this information will help you as you try to decide where your voice is and which age group it will appeal to. Good luck!

Barbara

CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND “HAPPILY EVER AFTER”

Many of the submissions I receive as an agent are children’s books. I find that inexperienced writers often decide to write a children’s book because they think it is easier than writing for adults. That simply is not true. There is more latitude when writing for adults. Things like change of perspective or point of view, length of text, language and word choice are just some examples. When writing for children, however, there are certain things that will make your manuscript stronger. For example:

1. Keep the first chapter short. By keeping the first chapter short, the writer gives young readers a boost in confidence, a win, a success. Our youngest readers are often intimidated by the length of a book. By keeping the first chapter short, the reader gains immediate gratification and is more likely to tackle subsequent chapters

2. Do solve the main conflict of your story. Open-ended conclusions are fine for adults, but kids—especially young kids—need closure. They need to feel that all is right with the world—their world.

In Mercer Meyer’s classic picture book There’s a Nightmare in my Closet, a young boy is afraid to turn out the lights and go to sleep. He is absolutely positive there is a monster lurking in his closet. He solves the problem by confronting the nightmare—who is afraid of the dark, too—and inviting it under the covers with him. As the two snuggle down to sleep, the boy says, “There might be another nightmare in my closet, but my bed isn’t big enough for three.” That is a satisfying ending.

3. Do have your protagonist solve the main conflict in the story—not a doting auntie or kindly teacher. Give the power to the children—not the adults.

In my young adult novel The Cadence of Gypsies, three high-spirited 17 year olds, with intelligent quotients in the genius range, accompany their teacher and mentor, Carolina Lovel, to Frascati, Italy, a few weeks before they are to graduate from Wood Rose Orphanage and Academy for Young Women. Carolina’s purpose in planning the trip is to remove her gifted, creative students from the Wood Rose campus so they can’t cause any more problems (“expressions of creativity”) for the headmaster, faculty, and other students – which they do with regularity. Carolina also wants to visit the Villa Mondragone where the Voynich Manuscript, the most mysterious document in the world, was first discovered and search how it is related to a paper written in the same script she received on her 18th birthday when she was told that she was adopted. That search will fill in all of the missing pieces of Carolina’s past, but it also allows her students to discover something meaningful within themselves, accept their own pasts, and look forward to the future

4. Do have your protagonist change in some way by the end of the book. He or she should learn something significant about his or herself and the world. Valid changes must be gradual and tied logically to your plot and characterizations

5. Do remember to end your story when it ends. After the climax, when the main conflict is solved or the situation accepted, the story is over. Tie loose ends quickly. At the conclusion of Cinderella the glass slipper fits, crowds cheer, the wicked stepmother is foiled, and Cinderella and her prince live happily ever after. THE END. Readers aren’t the least bit interested in reading about where the prince took Cindy on their honeymoon, what they ate for breakfast, or who cleaned the cinders from the palace hearth.

6. Do offer honesty… and hope. Not every day is a sunny one, but your protagonist should always triumph, should always get what he or she deserves—and so should your villain.

The philosopher Aristotle believed that history shows us things as they are, whereas fiction shows us things as they could be or ought to be. Offer children a satisfying ending in which hope plays a paramount role: that they have the power to change their lives to what could be… and should be.

Next time I will discuss the different types of children’s books, current trends, and what needs to be included for the age they are written.

Thanks for stopping by.

Barbara

A QUICK OVERVIEW OF PUBLISHING: The Importance of a Marketing Plan

Never has getting published been more difficult than it is today. With computers, more people working at home, and the use of digital, lap-top, electronic, print-on-demand, and self-publishing, in addition to traditional publishing, manuscript submissions are at an all-time high. Publishing houses are inundated. With competition being at the level it is, less than 3 percent of all submissions are accepted for publication. This is astounding! Because of this, it is absolutely imperative that writers do everything they can in order to create their own edge. That includes preparing a workable, realistic marketing plan.

Whether a writer is approaching an agent or a publisher, professionalism is a must. This means clean submissions, properly formatted, carefully edited, and sent to the correct editor or agent with an appropriate cover letter. It also means following the specific guidelines requested by the agency or publishing house you are submitting to. It is like going to war with defined rules of engagement, beginning with the elements that must be included in a good cover letter: title of manuscript, word count, background information on the author, brief synopsis. Attach sample chapters and, of course, your marketing plan. This is such an important “first impression” step to getting a manuscript read that many times a writer will pay a professional editor to write the cover letter.

It used to be that once a publisher contracted for a work, he took on the responsibility of also marketing that work for the purpose of gaining the most sales. The most an author had to do was occasionally show up at a book signing event that had been arranged by the publisher. Today, most publishers reserve the bulk of their marketing budgets for their big-name authors already under contract. All of the other authors pretty much have to fend for themselves. This means going out and beating the bushes for book signings, speaking engagements, attending book events, writing news releases and anything else you can do in order to sell your book. Creativity is a definite plus.

I first got the idea for my novel, Shyla’s Initiative, when I read an article about a little-known offshoot from the ancient religion, Santeria. The story explained how even today it is practiced throughout the country, especially in South Florida. I immediately began visiting all of the botanicas I could find, interviewing Santeria priests who would talk to me. This background paved the way for Shyla’s Initiative, my story of a writer who was starting to feel trapped in an unhappy marriage. The fact that she had married outside of her culture contributed to the problem, among other things. Throughout the story, there is an underlying, mysterious thread that eventually connects my protagonist, Shyla, with Santeria that eventually reveals her purpose in life. In doing my research, one Santeria priest in particular was helpful and invited me to one of their services that included animal sacrifice. I even offered to pay him for any inconvenience, but he adamantly refused, saying he would be punished by the orishas if he accepted money. He asked only that I give him a copy of my book when it was published.

When my book was published, I returned to the botanica several times in order to give him a copy of my book, but he was never there. Weeks passed, and with the passage of time I began to get an overwhelming feeling of apprehension that I had failed somehow. Perhaps I had even angered the orishas.  I needed to get my book to that priest!

Eventually I did, and even though it had been several months since I had spoken with him, he recognized me. He smiled when I gave him a signed copy of my book, then he spoke in the ancient language of Santeria. I believe it was a blessing and not a curse since my feelings of apprehension quickly disappeared. After that I went back to all of the botanicas I had visited when gathering my research and left books for them to sell. It turned out to be a wonderful marketing tool.

So how do you go about preparing a marketing plan to include with a submission—either to an agent or to a publisher?

BE SPECIFIC: What can you do, personally, to promote your book? For example, if you are a school teacher, perhaps you can promote in the schools. What about business connections? Your activities in the church or synagogue? Does your best bud belong to a book club? Will the owner of the little gift shop you like to browse in be willing to display some of your books and sell them on consignment?

My novel, The House of Kane, is a mystery that takes place inside a major New York publishing house. Aislinn Marchánt, a writer and editorial consultant, is hired by the major New York publishing company, Kane Publishing House, to help determine why several submissions sent to them have mysteriously disappeared only to be published later by another publisher. Are the editors at Kane simply not being diligent enough with the in-coming manuscripts, or is there something more sinister going on? Because of my work within the publishing industry both as a published author and a literary agent, I was able to realistically portray what actually goes on with submissions behind the closed doors of major publishing houses, and because of this realism and the story itself, The House of Kane was considered for a Pulitzer nomination. Two years later, my novel The Gospel According to Prissy was also considered for a Pulitzer.  I didn’t win a Pulitzer, but the fact that both books were submitted for consideration has been a useful marketing tool.

BE PREPARED: Once your book gets published, marketing takes a great deal of time and preparation. Remember, the publisher is saving his marketing money for his big-name established authors, so it doesn’t hurt for you to plan a budget as well. Know in advance how much you are willing to invest in marketing your book. Personally visit the bookstores in your area and outside of your area if you are able to travel to let them know you are available to do book signings. Show the bookstore managers your book and leave information that they can review later. Send out news releases. Send out announcements. And get involved with social media on the internet.

BE CREATIVE: Think outside the box. One of my own personal favorite things to do in marketing is to introduce myself to the directors of libraries locally as well as regionally. I do this in person whenever possible thereby building a relationship with the people who work in the library. Then, when my next book is released, I take a copy by to donate to the library or to their “Friends of the Library.” Invariably, that leads to sales.

You will be able to come up with your own ideas based on what is going on in your life. Organize those ideas into a good plan that you can include with your submission to an agent or publisher. You will be surprised how this one element of your submission will contribute to your getting an offer of a publishing contract.

Good luck!

Barbara

THE NEXT BIG THING BLOG HOP

I have been invited to be a guest on THE NEXT BIG THING BLOG HOP Wednesday, February 6, 2013 to discuss my latest novel for adults, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO PRISSY.. Please join me here where I will be answering questions and discussing other things of interest to writers. I would love for you to share your comments and thoughts, as well as ask questions.

Hope to hear from you then.

Barbara

HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT AGENT

I have just returned from speaking at the Scribblers’ Retreat Writers’ Conference on Saint Simons Island, and I wanted to share some of the things I brought back with me.

The conference was held at the beautiful Lodge at Sea Island Resort , and some of the amenities included “butlers” (several), a rose petal bubble bath, and cookies with milk at bedtime. As if that weren’t enough to make me glad I had been invited to be a guest speaker, the people who were responsible for organizing the conference couldn’t have made me feel more welcomed. Without doubt, this was one of the better conferences I have attended.

Partial View Of Lobby, The Lodge at Sea Isle, St Simons, GA

I have discovered over the past sixteen or so years that I have been giving talks on writing, or being an agent, or on the publishing industry in general, the make-up of each audience is different, and because of that, the questions following my talks seem to take on different patterns. At the Scribblers’ Conference, the room was booked full, so I had the opportunity to answer several excellent questions that fell primarily into the category of how to find an agent. I will briefly summarize some of my comments here.

There is no question that if you have a manuscript ready to submit, you are much better off if you have a good agent to represent you. Most publishers now only consider manuscripts that are agented.  Another big advantage is that an agent takes on the responsibility of keeping track of submissions thereby freeing up your time to write. With the right background and experience, a good agent will know which editors in which publishing houses to approach with your work.  If you are fortunate enough to receive an offer of a contract, your agent will know what to negotiate in that contract and can advise you on the things you should accept.  Once the contract is executed, a good agent will follow your manuscript through the publishing process and offer advice on such things as cover design and marketing.  When the book is released, an agent will continue to work with you on marketing ideas, keep track of royalty payments, investigate subsidiary and foreign rights as well as film and television opportunities, and be the go-between for you and the publisher should any problems or disputes arise.  I have overly simplified the work of an agent here, but this gives you a general idea of what an agent does.

If you decide that you want an agent to represent you, it is often just as difficult to find the right agent as it is to find a publisher.  Do your homework and work up a list of agencies that work with the type of material you have written.  Writers’ Market and Literary Marketplace are two excellent resources that list agencies, what they represent, and how they wish to be contacted.  Once you have a list of potential agents, look at their web sites. What books have they placed?  Do they charge fees?  How long have they been in

Colonnade, Golf and the Sea at The Lodge

business?  Do they give the appearance of professionalism?  Do they look like a company you want representing you? Once those questions are answered, you should have a good feel for which agencies you want to contact.  Each agency has its own submissions policies, and you will need to follow those guidelines.  Response time can vary from one week to three or four months, so be patient.  If you are contacting several agents at once, mention it in your cover letter.  (I will talk more about what makes a good cover letter in another blog.)  If you receive an offer of representation, is that agent someone you feel comfortable with?  Do you feel that person shares your passion for your writing and will work hard to find a publisher?  If so, you are on your way toward getting published.  Keep in mind, though, that having an agent doesn’t mean you will automatically receive a book contract and a huge advance.  It is only a tool to help you get published.

Barbara