Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Nonfiction Truths: Finding Your Theme in Nonfiction


At Home in Her Tomb
Writers tend to talk about theme less than they talk about characters, plot, and even setting. When theme does come up, it's usually with fiction. Yet identifying a theme can even help in writing powerful nonfiction.

Christine Liu-Perkins, author of At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui, says, “My book is about a set of 2,100-year-old tombs in China that had over 3,000 well-preserved artifacts, including the body of a woman. I decided to write about the tombs as a time capsule, the various artifacts revealing what life was like during that period. Coming up with a theme really helped me develop the focus and content for my nonfiction book, and also helped in pitching my proposal to the publisher.”

Shirley Raye Redmond gives another example. “Before writing my first draft of Blind Tom: The Horse Who Helped Build theGreat Railroad (Mountain Press Publishing), I narrowed the focus of my story and identified my story theme by answering the following questions as thoroughly as possible: who, what, when, where, how and why? I then abbreviated my answers so they fit concisely on an index card. On the back of the card, I wrote my theme statement: With perseverance, ordinary people (and even a blind horse) can play important roles in shaping major historical events. I kept my ‘focus card’ where I could see it as I drafted—and later refined—my story.”

For my fictionalized biography of Olympic runner Jesse Owens, I considered the various lessons of his life in order to focus the book. Because he overcame ill health, racism, poverty and a poor education to become one of the greatest athletes the world has known, a theme quickly presented itself: Suffering can make you stronger, if you face it with courage and determination.

With this in mind, I chose to open the book when Jesse was five, and his mother cut a growth from his chest with a knife. I ended the chapter with his father saying, “If he survived that pain, he’ll survive anything life has to offer. Pain won’t mean nothing to him now.” Jesse shows that spirit again and again throughout Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker (Simon & Schuster), written under the name M. M. Eboch. Identifying that theme helped me craft a dramatic story, and may even inspire kids to tackle their greatest challenges.

In your theme, you can find the heart of your story. It’s your chance to share what you believe about the world, so take the time to identify and clarify your theme, and make sure your story supports it. Through your messages, you may influence children, and perhaps even change lives.

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Chris Eboch is the author of You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Getting Started In Educational Publishing Work for Hire

Last week I provided an overview of educational publishing. Today I’ll go into more detail about how to get “work for hire” (WFH). This article was originally published in Children’s Book Writer. Publishing professionals mentioned may have changed jobs, so please do your research before submitting any work.

To be considered for WFH assignments, most publishers request a resume, a list of previous publications, and a writing sample. At ABDO, Hedlund says, “We want to know what you are interested in writing about and what makes you qualified to write for that area – education or avid interests are helpful.”

Bender Richardson White accepts submissions from potential authors, but networking can be more valuable than writing samples. “Overall, I use authors I have met and know,” Bender says, “those that come as recommendations, and those that I track down and get to know. At book fairs, book exhibitions, and writers’ conferences such as SCBWI, I am always on the lookout for new authors to extend our range. For specialist subjects, I will seek out authors via the Yahoo Group NFforKids, or by reviewing books on the market and tracking down the authors via the internet.” Note – Bender is one of the organizers of the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference, June 10-12, at Iona College, New Rochelle, New York!

When writing for a series, individual titles must fit perfectly with the overall series, so writers may be asked to write a targeted sample. “I definitely like to see a sample at whatever grade level we are asking for before we go forward with a project,” Heller says. “If there is an outline available, I ask them to write off that, just to make sure the writer really has a grasp on the voice and tone for the individual project. It also helps to have a list of some previous work-for-hire experience to see what might be a good fit.”

Building up to Steady Work

Breaking in can be a challenge, but a successful first project can lead to steady work. “We are lucky to have a core group of writers that have worked on many of our series for some time,” Heller says. “We consult with other editors as well to see if they have worked with good and reliable freelance writers.”

Whether writing nonfiction or fiction, the best work for hire writers are flexible and have a broad range of skills. “We love it if a work-for-hire writer is able to write across age-ranges,” Heller says. “It opens up more possibilities for both them and us if they can transition from chapter-book to middle-grade, for example.”

Duke shares additional WFH tips. “Be willing to revise and do what’s necessary and what the editor asks promptly. Meet your deadlines. Don’t be needy or a pest. Be professional and make your emails short and to the point. Ask questions early on if there’s something you need to know about the assignment. Make the subject line of emails specific. Make the editor’s work easier in any way you can by doing your job well.”

Why write for hire?
  • Get published and release more books
  • Hone your writing skills
  • Find new opportunities
  • Write on diverse topics
  • Get to know the editors and work with them
  • Books are published quickly
  • Most companies pay quickly
  • Opens the door to school visits for pay

Why Not?
  • Short deadlines (often 1 to 6 weeks) require fast writing
  • Detailed research and footnoting required
  • You may need to provide an index, glossary, captions, and sometimes photo research
  • You don’t control titles or content
  • It takes time away from your own trade writing
  • Usually no royalties

Resources:
  • Writing Children’s Nonfiction Books for the Educational Market, by Laura Purdie Salas
  • Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career, by Nancy I. Sanders
  • The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) provides a listing of educational publishers to members. 
  • The US copyright office has legal information on “Works Made for Hire” online: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ09.pdf


Stop by next Wednesday for a look at another kind of work for hire, writing for standardized tests – or subscribe to get posts automatically and never miss a post. You can use the Subscribe or Follow by E-Mail buttons to the right, or add http://chriseboch.blogspot.com/ to Feedly or another reader.


Chris Eboch is the author of You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Educational Publishing: Steady Work for Career Writers

This article was originally published in Children’s Book Writer. Publishing professionals mentioned may have changed jobs, so please do your research before submitting any work.

When people first dream of writing for children, they typically imagine crafting original novels or picture books. However, few authors can sell enough original work – or earn large enough advances – to support themselves. Many writers who make a living from writing supplement their own projects with writing for hire.

For writers, the term “work for hire” (WFH) usually means freelance work done as an independent contractor. Most WFH pays a flat fee, although some publishers pay royalties. Payment can range from a few dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the project.

A contract is necessary to clarify the legal status of the work, including who holds the copyright – usually the employer. A written agreement also clarifies other terms. “Make sure your fee is clear and ask ahead of time about how soon you’ll be paid,” advises Shirley Duke, the author of many nonfiction books. In addition, “Get a contract and check out the publisher or packager to make sure they are reputable. Ask [your colleagues] if anyone has worked for them before.” These precautions ensure a satisfying experience for everyone.

Books for Teaching Kids

Educational publishing provides many WFH opportunities for children’s book writers. These books are frequently nonfiction, are often designed for classroom use, and are targeted at specific reading levels. For example, ABDO has three divisions: ABDO Publishing produces nonfiction for grades PreK-12; Magic Wagon produces fiction and nonfiction for grades PreK-8 and includes picture books, beginning readers, graphic novels, and chapter books; Spotlight licenses popular fiction.

Magic Wagon accepts original manuscripts from authors. Stephanie Hedlund, Editorial Director of Magic Wagon and Spotlight, says, “As a series publisher, we want to see an outline of how a submission can be a series of four to six titles.”

Only about 5% of authors are hired through original submissions, however; most ABDO books are developed in-house. “We accept author resumes and review them for work-for-hire assignments,” Hedlund says. “We are always looking to add graphic novel authors and illustrators to our author stable.”

Many educational projects are produced through book packagers. Bob Temple, President of Red Line Editorial, Inc., explains, “The lion’s share of the projects that we handle are complete, beginning-to-end book development projects for educational publishers. We work with publishers to develop ideas, then produce the books using our in-house staff and freelancers, including all editorial and design work.” 

Book packagers use many freelance authors. “We have a large database of authors who have worked for us in the past, or have been recommended to us, or have sent us their information,” Temple says. “When we have a new project, we search for authors who have experience in the subject matter, reading level, writing style, etc., that the project calls for.”

In this internet era, WFH jobs can come from anywhere in the world. Bender Richardson White is based in the UK but works with American and Canadian publishers. Editorial Director Lionel Bender says the company handles, “Both single titles and series of highly illustrated nonfiction for children grades 2 upward, mostly for the schools and library market but also some trade books.”

Fiction writers can also find opportunities. Alyson Heller, Associate Editor, Aladdin Books/Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing, says, “Our work-for-hire projects are mainly with chapter-book and middle-grade works, particularly with our series publishing. We also do some in-house developed original stand-alone titles (also known as IP), and we use work-for-hire writers for those, too.”

Special Skills

While educational publishing can provide steady work, writers must develop specific skills in order to be successful. Classroom nonfiction requires detailed research, often with every fact footnoted. Writers may be required to provide an index, image captions, and extensive back matter, such as a timeline, glossary, additional resources, and more. Some publishers even ask the writers to do photo research.

Writers must also understand reading levels and be able to target them. “The ability to take sometimes difficult concepts and write them at the proper reading level is very important,” Temple says. “The ability to meet deadlines is crucial, as is the ability to communicate well with our staff. Another key skill is the ability to research a topic thoroughly. Also, our deadlines are generally tight, so the ability to do all this with some speed is helpful, too!”

“I’m looking for authors with huge imaginations who write quickly and consistently,” Hedlund says. “My favorite authors to work with understand writing for children and are able to get creative but keep the vocabulary, tone, and content for our young readers.” 

To work with Bender Richardson White, authors need to accept a detailed brief and follow it closely. Bender also offers a reminder: “You are part of a team, along with the designer, editor, picture researcher, which sometimes means being flexible and compromising.”

Compass Publishing produces educational materials for students learning English as a second or foreign language. These books offer additional challenges, such as writing from a limited vocabulary word list. Senior Editor Casey Malarcher says they like to see writers with, “EFL/ESL teaching experience, experience in writing educational materials, and familiarity with current practices and trends in EFL/ESL instruction.”

Because these books are used in classrooms in Asia, the Middle East, and South America, in addition to multi-cultural classrooms in the U.S., Compass looks for certain kinds of writers, Malarcher explains: “Writers who can envision how their materials are actually applied in classroom settings where both teachers and students may need extensive support and guidance, and writers who are sensitive to cultural aspects of both their work and classroom settings where their work may be used.”

Stop by next Wednesday for more advice on getting started in educational publishing– or subscribe to get posts automatically and never miss a post. You can use the Subscribe or Follow by E-Mail buttons to the right, or add http://chriseboch.blogspot.com/ to Feedly or another reader.


Chris Eboch is the author of You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.


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