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Writing nonfiction for children is a site for writers and readers who have an interest in children's books, especially nonfiction. We'll talk about how to write, how to research, and the many great books and writers out there.
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I had the great pleasure of delivering the keynote speech at the National Agriculture in the Classroom conference in Louisville, KY. Being the only writer among hundreds of teachers and program coordinators, I was in a prime position to reap a bushel full of fresh writing ideas that have instant appeal to a specific market as well as a general audience.
I had never heard of an agricultural literary market until my book, Farmer George Plants a Nation, won a few awards from state Farm Bureaus in 2008. That's when I learned about Ag in the Classroom and the enormous network of people in each state who promote the importance of agriculture to children and the wider community.
To help get the word out about how vital agriculture is to every part of our lives these people need great books. That's where you come in. The catch is that these books need to be accurate. No Ol' McDonald in overalls sitting on a stool milking a single cow. They want to see modern carousels with cows milked round the clock -- accurate portrayals of modern farms.
Julia Recko of the American Farm Bureau Federation said there was a need for books on poultry. Not my cup of tea. But if you can accurately create a positive story about the workings of a poultry farm, then you've got an audience waiting. Although the meat industry may be a little difficult to represent - can't have Larry the Lamb narrate his life from pasture to plate -- there are hundreds of other farm products that have fascinating stories behind them. You just have to look. Ask around. Visit a local farm. Think about cranberry bogs, aquaculture... Take a popular food and trace it back to the soil. Find a new slant on salad greens.
Some good representative titles include: Weaving a Rainbow by George Ella Lyon, Who Grew My Soup by Tom Darbyshire, and Extra Cheese Please! by Cris Peterson.
Or go the historical route as I did. Find a true story that highlights an agricultural innovation, the origins of a favorite food, or shows how farming has shaped our culture.
Check out your state's ag in the classroom website and become familiar with the kinds of books they use. Are there subjects they don't have that you could research? Look at the lessons they offer teachers. What kinds of books would go along with those lessons?
When searching for your next nonfiction idea, consider an agricultural story, and you, too, will get to meet the fine people who make up Ag in the Classroom.
When: September 17 – 20, 2015
Where: Rosenberg, Texas
If you are looking for a writing conference that focuses solely on nonfiction, is sure to boost your writing to the next level, and will connect you with dozens of other like-minded writers, then you've found it. Nonfiction 4 New Folks is the creation of author Pat Miller who knows what a writer needs - encouraging mentors, an intimate setting so you don't get lost in the crowd, and tons of useful information.
There is an awesome faculty line-up -- Melissa Stewart, Candace Fleming, Karen Blumenthal, and Nancy Sanders. and I will be there too!
The conference is limited to just 40 attendees so there will be a lot of opportunities to ask questions and get the help you need.
The schedule is jam-packed with opportunity to hone your craft and learn all about writing nonfiction. I’ll be talking about research techniques and how to write for magazines.
Sign up now and get a manuscript critique. Slots are filling up fast!
CLICK HERE to register today!
If you are like me and haven't had company to the house in months, or you cringe at the thought of going out on a Tuesday night, then check out this article by A. K. Whitney, on The Write Life. She talks about freelancers who go feral when they work from home. It rang a few bells for me. At my first school talk this Spring, I had to work extra hard to act professional and not like the stumbling cave dweller that I felt like inside. My favorite line of Whitney's is, " Remember, only you can prevent your friends from feralizing."
What does it say about me that the first thing I do when I creep out of my feral winter cave is dig in the dirt??? But it works. When I garden in the front yard neighbors stop by, and I get to see the baby's new tooth, hear the scoop on someone's carpal tunnel, and learn where their kids are going to college.
How about you? How do you de-feralize?
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A month ago I made a rash decision. To shave my head to raise money for Roswell Park Cancer Institute. "Bald For Bucks" sounded fun at the time (my husband was going to do it too), and I definitely wanted to "pay it forward" for the great care he received and continues to receive at Roswell. It seemed like the least I could do.
Now, I'm two days away from getting buzzed and I'm anxious. Not that I'd back out or anything. I'm ready. So what am I nervous about? Those are the feelings I want to get down on paper before the clippers strip me of these emotions and I'm faced with new ones.
As a nonfiction writer, the greatest primary source you have is yourself. You may be going to do something foolish like I am, or maybe you witnessed sea turtles hatching, or you have great knitting tips for beginners. All of your experiences are viable and valuable research materials -- especially if you document it. Being able to pull out a journal and read -- "Sunday, July 7 -- We climbed the guano-covered steps up to the cave entrance and the Buddha inside. Bats flapped overhead.... It smelled of old wine." -- is like finding gold. It's been three years since I was in that cave. I didn't remember what it smelled like and would not have been able to write about it accurately if I hadn't have written it down.
When you want to write about a personal experience, and you know a head of time, it is just as important to nail down your BEFORE as it is the event itself or what comes after. You can rely on memory, but as I just proved, memory doesn't capture everything. So, that is what I'm doing today. What is my before experience with hair?
I've never been in love with my hair. It's poker straight, and the length rises and falls to the whim of my hairdresser who I love, but (Sorry Tim) has good days and bad. Now that it is graying, I find myself contemplating color, although I swore I never would. A buzz cut should be, and in some respects is a welcome challenge. I already went out and bought two scarves. One is black so I can wear it to perform in a choral concert without the lights glinting off my naked bean like a giant spotlight announcing that the 2016 Hondas are in.
My big concern is that I don't want anyone to think I am mocking them, or diminishing the agony of cancer and chemo and its effects. Will people ask me if I have cancer? What will they say when I tell them no?
In a way this is me getting as ugly as I can -- 54, overweight (although I'm working on it), and bald. Can I, will I, still love myself? Did I before? Hell, I'm still trying to wrangle woolly eyebrows!
The best I can hope for is that this experience will be freeing. At the very least? It gives me something to write about.
Lesson -- Write it down! What you did, what it looked like, what it smelled like, felt like, tasted like, and especially how you felt about it.
**If you want to donate to Bald for Bucks click here.
A few months ago I gave myself the gift of Publishers Weekly. It's my attempt at being more professional, more in touch with the business.
It always comes before noon, and I manage to plow through most of it over lunch. PW has interesting articles on things like translating Polish poetry, and, of course, they have reviews of the newest books.
I usually scan the adult fiction section pausing briefly at the starred reviews. The nonfiction reviews, on the other hand, I read thoroughly circling the ones I'd like to purchase but probably won't, hopeful that I'll be able to interloan them in a few months. In the last issue, PW reviewed 38 nonfiction titles. I circled 3 -- Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga; Stalin's Daughter; and The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack: and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution.
The section that causes lunchtime to run over into writing time (or nap time, if I'm being honest) is the Children's/YA reviews. In the last few weeks that consists of about three pages of picture books, more than a dozen mid-grade and YA titles, and one book of nonfiction.
ONE! What's up with that?
Now, I didn't stop to find the stats on how many fiction and nonfiction books are published each year by the hundreds of publishing companies in America, but I'm pretty sure that out of all those houses, large and small, there was more than one nonfiction title worthy of a PW review. But I could be wrong.
I sent off a query to PW, not expecting a response, but got an email back the very next day. John Sellers, the Children's Reviews Editor said, "While it is true that we often only have one nonfiction title in a given issue, that's not a hard and fast rule -- some weeks we have more, some weeks we have none." I could stop there and make it sound like PW is snubbing NF, but it's not true. Sellers went on to remind me that some NF titles often get featured in "boxed roundups of animal-themed books, picture-book biographies, science/history titles, concept books and so on." I still wondered about mid-grade and YA NF.
"As far as longer, "novel-length" nonfiction, we review a good amount of what we receive," said Sellers. " But we receive far more YA and MG fiction than we do nonfiction books for those ages."
Huh! I would hope that publishers send their nonfiction as well as their fiction for review.
I have a thought. If you have a mid-grade or YA trade book coming out soon (PW doesn't usually review for the institutional market), ask your editor if they'll send review copies to PW. Let's see if we can beef up the stats.
Thanks John, for explaining!
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Today is Thomas Jefferson's birthday, Celebrate with a Nonfiction Minute!
Learn how he became a smuggler and grew America's economy.
This Nonfiction Minute is a preview of my newest book Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation to be released in the fall.
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Check out Melissa Stewart's article about Expository Nonfiction (love the way she describes this name) at:
Blog: Writing Nonfiction for Children (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
JacketFlap tags: book sales, Children's bookstore, marketing children's books, Add a tag
It's a real thrill (but rare) to see my books in an actual, physical bookstore, so I take my kicks where I can get them. I saw an ad for the Children's Bookstore and their online book fairs in SLJ, and clicked on the link. I scrolled down the list of authors, which was short, and I wasn't there. Maybe this was a small operation working with select authors, I thought. I typed in Farmer George, and it popped up along with four of my other titles. Yippee!
If you're books are in their catalog, they welcome a short (250 word) author's note that they will add to the book listing. In their instructions they ask that the note be original, "not the usual marketing blurb or cut and pasted information from your website." They'll check! They recommend a short description about why you wrote the book, or how the book can be used in the classroom, or what expertise you bring to the subject. I asked about being added to the author's roster, but haven't heard back yet. I will also add their link on my website to give them a bit of traffic.
So, for all of you who are always looking for ways to help promote your books, check out the Children's Bookstore. You might be there.
This time of year is always exciting for children's authors. We get to find out which of our favorite books have won awards. For us nonfiction writers, the biggie is ALA's Robert F. Sibert Award for the most distinguished informational book for children. This year the award went to author Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet for The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus(Eerdmans), a beautiful picture book biography.
Being named an honor book is awesome too. This year the five Sibert Honor awards went to:
* Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin/Paulsen)
* Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
*The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Chronicle)
* Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands by Katherine Roy (Roaring Brook/Macaulay Studio)
* Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams)
The YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults went to Maya Van Wagenen's Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (Dutton)
The four finalists included:
*Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw (Roaring Brook)
*The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
*Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business—and Won! by Emily Arnold McCully (Clarion)
*The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook).
One of the Stonewall Honor Books for exceptional merit relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience was also a nonfiction title: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin (Candlewick)
And the elevation of the art and design of nonfiction was evident in the inclusion of several NF titles named Caldecott honor books:
*The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, illustrated by Mary GrandPré, written by Barb Rosenstock (Knopf)
*Viva Frida, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Roaring Brook/Porter)
CONGRATULATIONS to all the winners! If you haven't read them yet, interloan them now. Use them as mentor texts for your own projects, and maybe someday your name will be forever connected to that of Sibert, or Caldecott, or Newbery. Add a Comment
I always start the new year off by cleaning my office. It isn't a nod to feng shui and good karma for the next 12 months. It's to put away the wrapping paper, receipts, shopping bags, and boxes of Christmas decorations that end up in the one room in the house no one needed to sleep in over the holidays. It's reclaiming my space.
And this year it gives me a place to start now that I am in that odd freelance place between contracts. What should I work on next? Which idea has percolated in my brain enough that it's ready to dive into. There are so many options, because like most writers I have several ideas brewing at once. I wish I could work on more than one project at a time, but I'm not a very good multi-tasker, so I have to choose carefully. Is there a project that is time sensitive? Is a pertinent anniversary coming up? That is a good selling point for an editor. Have newer books on the same subject come on the market while I've been percolating? If so, is my idea different enough to compete successfully, or should I shuffle that idea lower in the deck and wait a few years?
How do you decide what your next project is going to be? What are you working on now?
PW announced that the sale of juvenile NF increased 15.6% from 2013 (at least among the outlets that report to BookScan). 48,882,000 in 2014, up from 42,283,000 in 2013. Hooray for us! It doesn't even dampen my enthusiasm that the top 4 books in the category were handbooks for the Minecraft game.
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning—
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.
I discovered this poem on The Black Board and thought I’d share it with you. It spoke to me because my notebook has also remained blank for months – I did not feel the urge to write while my husband had 5 IVs sticking out of his chest, and I got used to him looking like the boy in the movie Powder. It was an anxious time. Unsettling. But I was also more aware of how much I loved, and how much I was loved. Even without eyebrows Francis can shine a pretty bright light. I was happy in the little cocoon we created so Fran could get well. Wrapped in miles of car rides, foil-covered casseroles, our children’s hugs, get well cards, and prayers. I didn't write because I did not want the fear to overtake me, instead I lived in the love.
Okay, reading that back it sounds hippy dippy. But it’s true. And it’s okay not to write. I’m not Anne Lamott or Natalie Goldberg (whom I adore and admire, and I would give all my Christmas presents for just a pinch of their writing magic) who search, question, and find themselves on the page. For me writing isn't therapy. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Maybe I'm still learning. Or maybe I’m just another kind of writer. And that’s okay.
For me, Ha Jin’s poem kicked another leg out from under the stigma that writers put on not writing and being “storyless.” Perhaps he just meant that he didn’t need to craft a fiction because he was living reality? Sounds pretty good to me. And I particularly appreciate his confession that he did not write because he was happy. Way to go!
If you are temporarily stagnant, storyless, not writing, take heart. Be happy, or be sad, or be whatever it is you need to be right now. Above all, take inspiration. I did. I intend to live now, and write later (for me later is now) -- that way everyone will know how happy I was.
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Several years ago when I was writing Bacteria and Viruses for Lerner, I came across a small mention of a doctor who fooled the Nazis with a fake typhus epidemic. I filed that slip of paper away and when I was finished with the book, I looked for more information. I found the doctor's name - Eugene Lazowski, and where the event took place -- Rozwadow, Poland, and that the man had died three years before. Dead end? No.
Lazowski had written a book -- Private War -- I located a copy at a Chicago bookstore that specialized in Polish culture. The book was written in Polish, but I bought it anyway. At least I could look at the pictures. Dead end? No.
Using Babel Fish and other online translating sites I managed to decipher a few key bits, enough to know that I wanted to pursue this story. But I needed a better way to translate it. Luckily for me, Buffalo is filled with people of Polish ancestry. However, professional translators cost a lot, and worried about copyright issues.
I tried a different approach. I located his daughter and gave her a call. Did she know of an English translation? Would she answer a few questions? No. She was guarded and mentioned that she was talking to someone about a movie deal. That felt like a big dead end.
So, I let Eugene sit while I pursued another project that had a contract attached to it. But I never forgot about Rozwadow and the fake epidemic.
Then recently after finishing the revisions on my Thomas Jefferson book, and needing something completely different to focus on, I again Googled Eugene. Maybe with the movie deal an English translation had been written. Through WorldCat, the largest online library catalog, I found that an English translation had appeared. There was a single copy written by the daughter and housed at the University of Chicago. But it was in special collections marked "non-circulating," and I had no pending plans to be in the Windy City any time soon. Dead end? No.
I called the director of special collections and explained my needs. With the stipulation that I use the book at the local library, I could get the book for one month. Hurray! I confused the staff at my little local public library with the interloan request, but they managed to get the book to me within two weeks. Over several days, I sat in the corner and poured over the neatly typed manuscript bound in a flimsy black plastic.
Although each bump in the road delayed me from pursuing the story earlier, I didn't let potential dead ends stop me entirely. I don't know what form this story will take, but I do know I have a lot more information to find, and probably more dead ends to push pass.
I have the pleasure of being the nonfiction editor for the Oak Orchard Review, an online regional literary magazine. Saturday, we hosted a reading and open mic night when local writers, young and old, shared poetry, flash nonfiction, and visual art. The theme was gratitude.
For each issue, I give myself an assignment. This time I wanted to explore the physicality of emotion. Like many writers I rely on sad tears, a confused shoulder shrug, and happy smiles to show how a character is feeling. It's hard to be original.
If your writing feels too cliche when it comes to emotion, give this exercise a try: Choose a highly emotional moment in your life. Replay the scene in your mind. Let the emotions roll over you again. What sensations do you feel? Weave some of those details into a narrative of the same event.
Below is my NF piece on gratitude:
Washington as a Scientist
Ask students what it means to be a scientist. Make a list of the qualifications of a scientist as they understand it. They might say, “Conducting experiments, going to college, being smart…” Write them all done.
Science is a way to acquire knowledge through observation and experimentation. The classic scientific method includes Observation/Research, Hypothesis, Prediction, Experimentation, and Conclusion.
Now ask if George Washington was a scientist. Reread the passages on page 11. Make a list of the ‘sciencey’ things he did.
He made observations and recorded them. He kept a daily diary where he noted the weather, what was happening on his farm, and what occurred in each test plot. Let the students see some of George’s original observations (see below).
Are we sure that he stated a clear hypothesis? — He asked a question - What fertilizer works best?
In a way, he predicted that the best fertilizer would be among the handful of manures and other composted material that he chose to observe.
And he experimented –Washington used ten boxes of similar size, the same number of seeds and a single variable -- the fertilizer. Locate in his diary, Monday, April 14, 1760., to read the full description of the quote I used on page 11 in FG.
What was George’s purpose in doing these experiments? And what did he do with the knowledge he learned? Why?
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It's that time of year again - when I'm up to my nostrils with school visits, preparing for conferences, and trying to work on a new project - when a manuscript comes back from the copy editor. My first response is always an involuntary cringe. I appreciate the copy editor because they can do what I can't - remember what a gerund is and when you capitalize president. But they inevitably make me feel stupid for the same reason. And I've never done well with having a spotlight shined on my ignorance, although I do mention it in school visits so other kids know that even bad spellers and the punctuation-impaired can be a writer.
So, I get the manuscript back, and for those of you who don't know, today's manuscripts are edited using the Track Changes on the word program. I prefer the old way - penciled-in notes in the margins and post-its flapping along the right edge of the page. Mainly because I have yet to learn the proper way to deal with Track Changes. And when I edit, I don't just rewrite a single time, I might start a new sentence, then back track and start again, and again, and the blasted things keeps track of all my back tracking so that my editor and anyone else who looks will know how indecisive I am. I don't like anyone knowing my awkward and pokey writing process. But there it is.
So, I get the manuscript back and the first thing I do is flip through every page to see how many comments I have to deal with . And this time, I didn't have very many. 49 comments spread over 17 pages. You do the math. That's not rhetorical, I'm asking, please do the math, 'cause that's another thing I don't do well. But 49 that's not bad. for me anyway. So, right away, I'm happy.
The second thing I do is get my pencil out and go over each comment. I like the easy ones that I can just say "ok" to, like adding "The U.S." in front of Congress. Or changing a the for his. OK takes care of nearly half of the comments. Great.
Then I read the other comments and put it aside until the next day when I'll have more time to pull out my research and double check things like names of organizations -- Was it the Parisian Society of Agriculture or the Society of Agriculture of Paris? Was Meriwether Lewis TJ's only secretary? If so, then add commas before and after his name.
The hardest part is to not make snarky remarks when the comments are: "South American may be considered part of the New World, but that may not be clear to readers. And AU's (author. ME!) argument is that TJ wanted people to come to the US, so holding up the superiority of a South America tapir doesn't seem logical to me." Now I know you don't know what all this is about, but basically, that's what TJ did. He bragged about a tapir being larger than European animals that this other guy had bragged about. So, I just reported it. Blame TJ, not me.
And on another page I call the moose magnificent. The comment said, "Magnificent seems subjective." I guess a moose has never wandered into the copy editor's cubby. But if one did, I'm pretty sure that, after peeing oneself, even a copy editor would be pretty impressed with a 7-foot-tall ungulate. I think they are magnificent, and i'st my book, so there!
Eventually, I hold my tongue, thank the gods above for copy editors who second guess me, question me, and always make my text better than it was before.
So -- always read through the comments carefully, then answer the easy ones first. Give yourself time to research the questions that need to be backed up with a source note, and hold your tongue when they say something that you think is silly. In the end, you have the final say..... unless your editor vetoes it.
Just in case anyone out there wondered why I haven't written anything since April 1st, it is because my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Double-Hit Lymphoma, which threw us into a new reality -- one where writing took a backseat. Actually writing blew out the window as we raced through 6 rounds of in-hospital chemos, and clung by its fingertips to the rear bumper hoping we'd hit a stop light soon. And we did. For the last couple of weeks, we have been preparing for Fran's bone marrow transplant, which he'll have at the end of the month. Honestly, I still feel like I'm inside a centrifuge where the force of cancer in our lives is pressing me against the walls of sanity, but that is another blog entirely.
HOWEVER - I thought I'd try to scrape the shredded remnants of my writing life off the undercarriage, and see if I could find a better safer place for it to sit among my bulging baggage. Basically, I need to find a better balance between Writing and Life. Throwing writing out the window was my way of staying afloat when I thought I was sinking. And I'm lucky I can do that. Millions of writers depend on the sale of their words to buy groceries and pay medical bills. My husband's teacher's salary does that. But, I'm a writer. And when I stopped writing, part of me stopped functioning.
So-- here is my new game plan. I will write at least one blog a week. Even if it is to tell you how I'm doing. I will attempt to keep it nonfiction focused so that you learn something as well. I will start to do some Natalie-Goldberg-style-free-writing, ten minutes a day, to work the kinks out of my brain. Don't know about Natalie Goldberg? Well, then you are about to learn something. She is a wonderful author and teacher who wrote Writing Down the Bones, and Thunder and Lightning, as well as other books on the writing life.
I've been rereading her books while sitting at Roswell. What I love about her is that she is truly a nonfiction writer who uses all the soul and art of fiction and poetry to make her true stories come alive. Many fiction writers read her, but I think nonfiction writers can learn even more from her candor and guts.
If you would like to help me in this effort, you can bug me if I miss a week, offer suggestions for posts you'd like to see, ask me questions about nonfiction, writing, life, and share my posts with others.
And-- if you have gone through a bone marrow transplant or know someone with double-hit lymphoma and have uplifting news, I would love to hear from you.
Get on the ground floor of the next big thing in nonfiction! THE NONFICTION MINUTE is a website where teachers will find a new short nonfiction article written by one of dozens of award-winning nonfiction authors including Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (winner of the 2014 Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award For Exemplary Advocation of Biodiversity Through the Authorship of Children's Science Literature), Jim Murphy, whose books have earned two Newbery honors, history writer/illustrator Cheryl Harness (and even me).
The NF Minute is the easy and accessible way teachers and students can incorporate nonfiction in the classroom. Passages are only 400 words long, and feature fun facts and true stories that can spark a discussion, illustrate a writing technique, or inspire a reluctant reader to investigate on his own.
If you like what you see, become part of the movement to bring quality NF to students everywhere. Visit the NF Minutes Indiegogo page and donate today.
Jump start your writing career with nonfiction!
Sign up for Nonfiction for New Folks conference in Fredericksburg, TX on October 9-12th. What else are you doing on Columbus day weekend?
I will be there to talk about writing biographies, research, and voice in nonfiction. The enthusiastic Steve Swinburne will show us how to write lively science, and Kristi Holl, will help us break into the educational market. Pat Miller, the brain child of this unique event, will give us the librarian's perspective, while Kelly Loughman, Associate Editor at Holiday House will show us the editor's point of view. And that's just the beginning.
We promise lots of information, lots of fun, and a head start on your new career as a nonfiction writer.
Hope to see you there!
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