Monday, November 28, 2011

Guest Post: Peggy Thomas on Baring All – Anatomy of Nonfiction & Critique-Book Giveaway

By Peggy Thomas
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

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.

Peggy's Office
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.

Carla Killough McClafferty shared tips on photo research, Jim Murphy outlined his research process, Jan Fields talked about revision, and Trudi Trueit offered advice on writing self-help books.

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).

Cynsational Giveaways

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.


Stacy S. Jensen said...

Looks like a book full of much needed tips.
stacysjensen at gmail dot com
Thanks for the giveaway too.

Cathy Mealey said...

Great interview and a fun glimpse into the book! I could benefit from a nonfiction PB critique, so please count me in for the giveaway! Thanks!

Cathy Mealey said...

Forgive me - my cut and paste didn't take! my email is cathy54321 (at) hotmail (dot) com. Thank you!

Whitney said...

Nonfiction writers need love too! Glad for a new book of NF writing tips. I commiserate re: the embarrassing moments of interviewing experts while in the act of being a MOM.
whitneystewart at gmail dot com.

Joanna said...

Love the office pic!, Peggy I am just starting to have a go at a non fiction picture book series so happy for al the help I can get!

jdmarple at gmail dot com

Peggy T said...

I'm glad to hear from so many nonfiction writers. It is such a wonderful field to be in. Hope to get to read one of your manuscripts soon.

Peggy Thomas

Alisha Gabriel said...

What a great post! The embarrassing moments give us some insight into the tone of the book, and I'm sure we'll learn from them, too. Thanks!
alishagabriel at hotmail dot com

Clarbojahn said...

Sounds just like just what I need. Thanks for the give away. Please consider me at

Clarikebowmanjahn at yahoo dot com


Kerry Aradhya said...

This book sounds great...and what perfect timing. I am just starting research for my first attempt at a picture book biography, and I'm sure I can learn a ton from both of you! Thanks :) karadhya at gmail dot com

Jennifer Swanson said...

This book sounds fantastic! I would love a chance to win it.

jenswan1222 at yahoo dot com

Anonymous said...

I've already ordered the book and am so looking forward to receiving it. If I win, I have a critique group full of nonfiction writers to share the extra copy with!
laurie (at) lauriethompson (dot) com

Ella said...

Ooh, what a great giveaway!

ekennen at gmail dot com

Janice Gable Bashman said...

The book sounds great - thanks for the sponsoring the giveaway. janicebashman at yahoo dot com