Writers are always told ” write about what you know.” So when I started to delve into the world of children’s writing , that was not great information for me; because I wanted to write nonfiction, about new and unknown subjects or places. I come from the background of writing feature news articles for adults. I have always been more comfortable reading and writing nonfiction. But after an almost two year stretch of acceptance and revisions for a nonfiction kid lit biography I wrote, came the ultimate rejection from a great publisher. I was crushed. I then decided to step out of the comfort zone and try writing fiction picture books instead of nonfiction.
Write about what you know: Family, nature, humor. I wrote my first fiction picture book about two years ago and received requests from a couple of publishers who liked it, but wanted some edits. Still haven’t sold that title, but it has led to more fiction writing. My newest manuscript is being read by a few agents and editors right now and I feel confidence in it. It’s funny and kids like funny; it has a feline main character who can read and write.
Working on tightening my fiction writing led to me recently selling my first online short story, written with a lot of dialog; way out of my comfort zone of writing nonfiction narrative. I still plan on writing kids’ nonfiction; I have started on some new ideas for researching in the next few months. But sometimes it is good to try new things and step outside of that comfortable box and stretch your goals a little. For me, the fiction writing led to better writing and revising and I can say it was worth it to take on the challenge.
I am primarily a lover of non-fiction writing and books, but once in a while a great fiction read comes along. In the past few months I’ve realized that historical fiction like Outlander, TV shows like Mad Men or a children’s book about Golda Meir can be important tools for a writer to look at character development based on true historical events. Using research and facts first, as a backdrop, one can find a character’s qualities to write about. Did living during wartime or leaving one’s country help develop your character’s strengths and dreams? I usually spend hours or days on research before deciding which way my character’s story will progress.
After researching some facts about strong women in the 1920s and 30s labor and feminist movement, I’ve taken notes for a children’s picture book biography about one of these strong women. But I have decided to put that on the back burner for a few weeks and have started a fiction picture book about my grandparents journey from Poland and Russia to America, spurred on by some of the non-fiction research I did for the bio. I have started to write about my grandparents on other occasions, but now after reading more about the time period I felt ready to tell their story. From butcher to seamstress, shop owner and milliners, all four of my grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe with stories to tell. As I write about the grandparents on my maternal side, I hope their interesting story will come alive on the page as I edit and revise to make some details of their journey into historical fiction fun for young kids to read.
As a child I was a voracious reader, devouring fiction books with great characters at almost a book a day. So it came as a great surprise to me as an adult writer how difficult it really is to craft and create an interesting character in my own books. As a young adult I became more of a reader of non-fiction and biographies and still favor that genre, with the exception of historical fiction.
As a writer of 3 children’s manuscripts in the past two years, I find it easier to do the research than the writing and certainly the editing. My editor for my first non-fiction bio for kids about an inventor, gave me great advice. She told me to find heart in the story. I never realized until after a year of revisions that crafting a good non–fiction character requires not just telling their story, but fleshing out a believable and interesting portrait with respect to the character’s history. Like a good fictional character, the real person you are writing about needs to grab your reader’s interest. I needed to find a voice for my character, even though his biography is written in the third person.
Writing for kids is very different than writing for adults. And when writing non-fiction it is very easy to get too technical for young readers. When I stepped back and thought about my audience as being seven to ten year olds, I had to revise and edit my original drafts many times and add less technical vocabulary and contextual clues. In writing a book about an inventor for a young audience, you have to find the excitement in that inventor’s process and the creative process of inventing. As a new writer in the children’s book field, I was also inventing my own process of using a combination of the research facts and the elements of storytelling to respect the subject I was writing about, the inventor, Lewis Latimer. I hope my journey as a writer and the love I have developed for my subject, telling about untold heroes in history, will appeal to my young readers. Maybe they will find their voices as writers as they are already on their path as readers.
Right now I’m reading the Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Like Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and the German novel, The Reader, it is a book about books. Or the love of books. Could you live without books? Or music? Sometimes I think of all the senses, if I had to lose one, sight would be the worst for me to lose. I would not survive without reading or seeing nature. Reading opens other places, other worlds. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series and how he grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, reading and watching ships from foreign countries sail by his childhood home. Early fodder for his future imagination. Someone one said write about what you know. For memoir writers, perhaps? But as George has shown, the world of fantasy can sure inspire a lot of kids and adults alike. Reading took him many places beyond his neighborhood and made him the writer he is today.
As primarily a lover of and writer of non-fiction, I give it up today for the fantasy and novel writers with their creativity and vivid imaginations.