Tag Archives: writing for children

Twenty Books

 

Sixteen books plus four

Sixteen plus four makes twenty!

I’m half-way through writing my 20th book. YES! Since January, I’ve been blessed with four book contracts. They are all for educational publishers, so these books will be sold directly to schools, not bookstores (sorry!). I love knowing that kids in elementary schools across Canada and around the world will be reading and learning from these books. Some are nonfiction descriptive texts based on earth science topics. One is a social justice title that encourages kids to get involved and make a difference.

I had the great fortune of interviewing two 11-year-old kids, a nonprofit group founder, and a First Nations elder. Interviewing is a little nerve-wracking, challenging to set up, and downright hard to do. But the more I try it, the more I see its value. Speaking one-on-one with an expert is an honour. The information, the facts, and the personal stories people share are often moving, powerful, and inspiring. I can research ’til the cows come home, but including a quotation from an expert is like unearthing a nugget of GOLD.

I also absolutely love the way individual voices come through, adding truth and dimension to the manuscript. Young and old, from here or from afar, the individual voices in this particular project help show the power of people — including kids — in making a difference and changing the world to make it better for all.

And so, yes, I’m half-way through writing my 20th book. It feels GOOD! I always hoped I’d reach that magic number of 20, and here I am. I’d like to line up a trade book deal some time soon — that’s for the kind of book you can buy in a bookstore. In the meantime, the pickings have been mighty fine in the educational sphere.

And that means one happy writer!

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Bank Street Books

Hi, all:

I just found out that Phenomenal Female Entrepreneurs has earned a spot on the Bank Street Books “Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2014” list. I’m so pleased! The Bank Street College of Education, based in New York, New York, has a Children’s Book Committee, which was founded in 1909. This committee “fostered a growing awareness of the emotional needs of children, and of how books might affect children’s feelings of themselves and the world around them.” They began by publishing a pamphlet, but as time went by, they developed lists, reviews, a magazine, and now a booklet. The 2014 list is not yet available on the Web, but I’ll be sure to provide a link as soon as it is. In the meantime, you can read more about the work of Bank Street Books at these links:

Bankstreet College of Education: About the Children’s Book Committee

The Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2013

Other good news: shoots are finally started to sprout in my garden and one clump of snowdrops is in full bloom. After a long, cold winter, it looks like spring is finally making a sunny appearance. Happy spring!

~ Jill

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Embracing Your Discomfort Zone

Embracing Your Discomfort Zone

I’m not a playwright.

I finished writing a play this week. A play? Yeah, I know. I’m not a playwright, or didn’t used to be.

I’m not sure if completing a draft of a play makes me a playwright or not. Of course, it took me years to accept that I was a real author, too. It’s that old insecurity complex that plagues authors, young and old, experienced and inexperienced alike.

I took a playwriting/screenwriting course last spring. On my first day, I told the group:

Writing fiction terrifies me.

I’ve always loved reading it, admiring it, and promoting it, but do I view myself as a fiction writer? No. But in this hands-on workshop we had to write a play. Well, at least the beginnings of a play. After meeting once a week, for six weeks, we either read a portion of our play aloud or, better, had friends come and act out a ten-minute segment. I opted for the latter. I invited some actor friends and their son to come and act out a couple scenes. The play I was working on was suitable for families. It featured three siblings, a mother, a father, and an uncle. It was amazing to see the story come to life on stage. I know that sounds clichéed, but it really was a worthwhile part of the process. It helped me see and hear which parts worked and which parts didn’t. After I knew which lines to rewrite, shorten, or expand upon. It made me think more about the logistics. Does it makes sense to have a set change after just one scene? Which props will have to be mimed? The stones. And which ones can be real? The doll.

Then, a year later, I had some time. I opened up the file and read it over. I looked at my notes, scribbled down some more and did some more research. Then, I pushed myself to devise a plot — something very new to me. The hardest part — which I see more clearly now — was getting started and making a commitment to focus on it and try to finish it. Once I’d done that, however, the process wasn’t as terribly scary as I thought it would be. It was a challenge to work out the plot, but I decided I should get more lines down on paper, and see where that took the story. And so, I wrote another page or so. Then I looked at what I’d written and asked, “Now how can I get from A to B?” It was never obvious. Sometimes I took a break and mulled over the conundrum while doing other things. Then, I wrote some more. I knew it still wasn’t quite right; I had more loose ends to tie up. I continued writing and thinking, and writing some more. In the end, I finished it. Setting a personal goal and exercising determination helped me create characters, build a setting, and unravel the plot. Much of the process was a lot of fun. I felt productive while writing and pleased with the way it was developing. I proved to myself that I could do it. And I discovered that I enjoy writing dialogue; I like making up scenes.

It was fun.

This week is Canadian Children’s Book Week. Last year, during this special week, I had a lot going on in the community. You can read about it in a previous blog posting here. It’s lovely to have a week that honours the wonderful home-grown talent we have. I hope you’ll read some wonderful Canadian children’s books, stop by your library and see the book displays. Check out the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s website: here.

Writing is hard. Writing a book, poem, graphic novel, or play, which is accepted, published, reviewed, shared, and read, is deeply rewarding. I think what this quiet, writing-focused week has shown me as a children’s author is that it is important to continue to challenge oneself artistically in order to develop as a writer. Who knows where this path will lead?

The notion of continually challenging oneself reminds me of The Little Engine That Could: “I think I can, I think I can. I think I can.”

If you are passionate about being a writer and are willing to work hard, you can succeed.

Keep writing.

 

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I’m Back!

I’m Back!

Mmmmm. This is a celebratory apple pie that I baked. That’s A – P – P – L – E. My (almost) six-year-old helper put the letters on top. Thank you, Noah!

First, I’m very sorry for the delay in blogging. I’ve had too much going on. Ai-ya, where do I begin?

Book news

I submitted my latest book manuscript to the publisher in February — ten days early! It was an amazingly intense, but infinitely gratifying, researching and writing process. I was feeling pretty darn pleased with the final draft. I was even more pleased as I began to receive bits of very positive feedback from the publishing house.

I have a title. My book, which profiles ten female entrepreneurs, from different countries, different times, and working in different fields, will be called Phenomenal Female Entrepreneurs. The series’ name is The Women’s Hall of Fame series, and the publisher is Second Story Press in Toronto, Canada. It was challenging to find a title that worked with the press’s established alliterative pattern of Adjective + Female/Women + Descriptor [field]. The obvious choices of “Extraordinary” and “Exceptional” had already been used for previous books in the same series. Though I scoured the dictionary and flipped through the entire “E” section of my humongous Random House Dictionary of the English Language, I couldn’t find many words that had quite the right meaning. We mulled over “Excellent,” “Eminent,” “Enlightened,” and “Exemplary,” but, in the end, credit goes to the publisher herself for crafting the title as it now stands. I like it. I think it has a good balance. I admire the way “Phenomenal” and “Entrepreneurs” are equally long, look good on the page (which I think is really important), and have some heft to them. The managing editor said she likes the ring of the title. It’s true. It does have a ring to it.

And then, it got even crazier . . .

No sooner had I submitted my manuscript — no, wait — before I had even submitted my manuscript, I received an email asking if I was available to work on an editorial project. I wasn’t quite available and had heaps of papers all over my desk as I fine-tuned the final draft of Phenomenal Female Entrepreneurs. But like the intrepid freelancer I am (and most of us are), I gulped, said “yes,” and jumped in. That’s what I’ve been doing since mid-February. The hours have been crazy, the work stimulating and interesting with a great balance of research, thinking, and writing. But best of all, I have to say, is to get a contract like this after taking 15 weeks off to write a book. Yes, day jobs are worth their weight in gold. I love writing books, but editorial work helps make it affordable to do so, and, thank goodness, I really enjoy the editorial work, too.

Message me

Drop me a line if there’s something you’d like me to write about on this blog. Apparently a lot of people are reading it lately and I thank you for visiting. I appreciate your feedback and thank you for your interest in my books!

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Blast from the Past — Eden Mills

Blast from the Past — Eden Mills

Article from The Toronto Star, published on October 16, 1989, about the inaugural Eden Mills Writers’ Festival

In the lead up to the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival this coming weekend, I’ve been sorting through old files and unearthed some interesting bits of nostalgia. The featured image on the left shows an old clip from The Toronto Star. Pictured in the bottom right, listening to novelist Eric McCormack read from, I think, The Paradise Motel, are university students Sylvia Petrik (now Mollison), Ian Mollison, and me. This is 23 years ago at the very first Eden Mills Writers’ Festival. Yes, I can proudly say, “I was there!” And, yes, way back when, I was a huge fan of Canadian literature (still am) and loved going to readings (still do). Eric McCormack was also my favourite English professor at the University of Waterloo, too. I never tired of hearing his Scottish “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen” refrain at 8:30 a.m. classes where he taught us about Beowulf and Milton.

The picture below right is from another Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, sometime in the 1990s. I was goofing around with high-school friends after the afternoon’s festivities had wrapped up. We’d just seen Margaret Atwood up on that rustic and beautiful handmade stage about an hour before. My friends and I took turns playing the author at the podium. So, yeah, that’s me, in role, and being so much the author-wanna-be…long after the events had wrapped up.

Here I am, after hours, pretending to read on the stage, at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival. I’m not sure of the year…September…1997, I think.

So, it’s very sweet, poignant, and just darn amazing, that after all these years here I am on the list of children’s author presenters. I feel so honoured and so excited. This is really going to be a treat!

And, of course, Eden Mills was my home for several years. Lots of memories!

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Thingamajings with Sticky-Outie Legs

Thingamajings with Sticky-Outie Legs

I’ve been thinking about clarity of expression and also ways to achieve an engaging and “modern” narrative voice. Children’s nonfiction demands that the writer distil information in an accessible manner; all the time, keeping interest high. The fun quotient is vital. No eight-year-old is going to slog through a paragraph that is dead boring. The question is: how do you know how much silliness and slang to scoop in? Here’s my take on it:

1. Keep the content front and centre. Don’t let hip-’n’-cool phrases upstage your subject matter.

2. Minimize the use of fly-by-night, ultra-trendy slang that will not stand the test of time. I have not yet found an occasion to use the current slang term “random” in a piece of writing.

3. Be judicious with exclamation points. Don’t use them to make up for dull writing.

4. Pepper your writing with some kid-friendly expressions to keep the tone lively, friendly, and up to date. This might include words, such as jazzy, zippy, awesome, easy-peasy, creepy, ooey-gooey and so on.

5. Add onomatopoeic words to infuse your writing with words that sound as great as they look: buzz, brrrr, snap, meow. The key is balance. Too many will tip this balance and ruin the effect. Ditto for point 4 above.

6. Try some of these fun exclamations—but not too often: Hey! Mmm! Shhh! Whoa! Yay! If you go overboard on these, your writing will sound formulaic or cloying. Ug!

7. Find some friendly connector phrases, such as “check it out,” “listen up,” “think about” to replace more formal, adult-sounding transitions.

Drop me a line to tell me what you think. Do you prefer clear, succinct writing, without the extra embellishments? I’d love to hear from you!

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A Polished Nonfiction Book Proposal

A Polished Nonfiction Book Proposal

A couple of weeks ago I described a book proposal as “nice” and “thick.” I don’t know for sure, but the publishers out there may be screaming: “No! No back-breaking tomes to lug home for out-of-the-office bedtime reading!” Admittedly, I don’t know what they want, and can only try my best to supply what I think publishers and editors want, but I find that after compiling all the key components for a comprehensive book proposal the stack of paper ends up being pretty-darn thick. And the “nice” bit? Well, you can use your creative energy to jazz up the cover and insides with whatever images, cartoons, and graphics suit.

In the same way that all writing is most effective when it’s clear and concise, it’s important to include information that is relevant to your book topic. If it supports and strengthens the concept, by all means include it. But resist the urge to include endless pages that can only be described as fluff. A bit of weight may prove that you are serious about the project (you are, of course), but too much will be cause for disgruntlement. And you want the folks who sign the book contracts to be on side!

Sample specs from Backyard Circus proposal

Specs:

Type up the basic specifications for the book (e.g., working title, suggested illustrator, suggested dimensions, proposed number of pages, suggested retail price, target age group). Lots of this will change once you get a signed contract, and the publisher has created a cost analysis, but it’s helpful to have something on paper. It helps the publisher visualize what you have in mind. Look in bookstores to get a rough idea of prices, page counts (32, 48, 64, etc.), and dimensions of books that are comparable.

Pitch:

Create a well-crafted pitch, marketing rationale, or raison d’être (in paragraph format) by answering questions such as the following: Why should this book be published? Why will people want to read this book? Does it fit any current trends? Do you have any newsclippings or magazine articles that show this is a hot topic? If so, include them in the proposal. You need to persuade a publisher that your project is worth investing in. To do that, you need to think about sales and marketing—the end of the publishing cycle, where  the money is made.

This page copied from The Circus: Lure and Legend (© 1970) provides historical background

Background and Sources:

Provide some background information about the topic. If your topic is straightforward, this can be integrated into the pitch or marketing rationale (see above). If your topic is technical or complicated, a small section featuring background info will help the publisher/editor understand more about the topic so she can better understand your proposed concept. You can collect background information from books, magazines, and websites. You’ll need this yourself for research material, so it will do double-duty. There’s no need to include every bit of research you’ve collected, however. In a proposal you only need enough to convey the gist of your topic and bring neophytes up to speed. Don’t assume that the publisher/editor knows as much about the topic as you do. Including some background information gives them a quick-study guide to understanding the basics before they absorb what you want to do. Listing sources demonstrates that you have effective research skills and again shows other books written on a similar topic. Some may be adult books, of course, and not in direct competition.

Skills:

Outline the skills that readers will acquire by reading this book (e.g., eye-hand coordination, leadership skills, collaborative learning skills). Most kid-book publishers like to produce high-quality books that will stimulate children to develop skills and acquire knowledge.

Contents/Outline:

Supply a detailed one- or two-page table of contents or outline (page 1: title page; spread 2-3: Introduction; spread 4-5: History, etc.). Don’t be wedded to this; it will likely change once an editor gets hold of it.

Sample Manuscript Pages:

Include three or four page spreads from the book. You don’t need to include the full manuscript at this point. This is really important. Spend time on this.

Market research title page

Market Research:

Print out an Amazon or Chapters/Indigo search that shows other books that are related to your topic. This lets publishers know what is currently in the market (i.e., the competition). It also plays up the unique approach you’ve chosen. You can list books that you find at the public library and local bookstore that overlap with your book idea. Again this can show that nothing quite like yours have been done before, which could be a good thing. (It could also be a bad thing, however, if it won’t sell.)

Bio:

Include a one- or two-paragraph author biography. You may want to list other publications and/or awards if applicable. Be sure to note your website or blog if you have one to show that you are using the Web to promote your work.

• • • • •

Compile it all and decide if you are going to cerlox-bind it. Editors prefer loose pages, and don’t like staples. Still I tend to cerlox-bind my comprehensive proposals so that publishers can easily flip back and forth, perusing the various sections. (If you are submitting a cover letter and a full manuscript–without all the other bits I’ve mentioned–do not staple or bind the pages in any way. Instead, simply stretch a big elastic around the whole bundle, leaving the cover letter loose on top.) However you package your proposal, you’ll want it to look professional–neat, tidy, and easy to read.

So, that’s it. Send it off with a cover letter, briefly describing your book idea. Include a self-addressed-stamped envelope, or an International Reply Coupon if you are mailing it to another country. Pop it in the mailbox and try to forget about it for a while.

Good luck!

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8 Steps to Creating a Kids’ Nonfiction Book

8 Steps to Creating a Kids’ Nonfiction Book

I love it when I have two whole weeks to focus on writing, which has been the case since my last post—yay! I’m collaborating with another Kingston, Ontario writer, and we’ve been working (slowly) on a children’s book project for nearly a year, on and off. Together, we are infusing new life into an old manuscript, making it accessible, engaging, and lively for today’s awesome kids. OK, yeah, I know you want to know what the book is, but I can’t say just yet. Mum’s the word! (The above, slightly skewed, pic of my Backyard Circus proposal is an example of a winning proposal, but this isn’t what I’m currently sweating over.) Suffice it to say, having a block of two weeks to focus on this project has been downright glorious.

The early stages of writing a book and securing a contract are super-duper time-consuming. Until the idea really takes hold of me, I can be lured away by other work and responsibilities (uh oh)—and fun stuff like emailing friends and walking my dog. But I’ve come to learn that when I unexpectedly land some treasured downtime from my editorial work, I need to be disciplined and continue working full days. This is a challenge because, at this stage, there are no real deadlines. It’s smart to make up your own deadlines, however, to keep the project on track.

Writing time is precious. It has to be reasonably quiet (i.e., no jackhammers) and can’t have any distractions from family members  (“Mom, can I have a playdate tomorrow?”). In fact, it usually means acting like a hermit, forgetting to have lunch until it’s late, covering my desk in loose papers and stacked of books, and obsessing over digging up the smallest details. But in a collaboration with another writer, I actually get to leave the house. Whoo-hoo! It’s pretty cool to discuss concerns and brainstorm brilliant solutions with someone who shares the same passion for the book and topic. And, I often get to have cookies and tea!

In short, these are the first eight steps that I follow in creating a nonfiction book.

1. Think of a great idea.

2. Create an outline and a table of contents.

3. Make “thumbnail” sketches showing what content will appear on each page.

4. Research.

5. Conduct market research to determine whether or not there is a need for this book. (Will it sell? If not, go back to step 1.)

6. Write some sample pages.

7. Polish the sample pages.

8. Examine publishers’ lists and think about which publishing house might want to publish it.

 Now, clearly, this leaves out a lot of nitty-gritty details–sorry about that! If you want more information about particular steps, I’d love to hear from you. Perhaps I could write about various stages another time (note to self). Once these eight steps are complete, it’s time to put together an eye-catching, interesting, and market-savvy proposal to send out to publishers. You can read more on that in my next blog.

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