ReviMo Day 4 - Shirley Smith Duke

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Revising a Nonfiction Picture Book

by Shirley Smith Duke

Books ordered? Check.

Articles from Internet? Check.

Reading done for all sources? Check.

Background of reading multiple nonfiction picture books? Check.

Now it was time to start writing.

I looked at my subject from a distance. There were fascinating pieces of information and some unsavory actions later in life. I loved so many of them. But I wanted to write a nonfiction picture book for children. Well, I could discuss my subject, warts and all, I decided. I knew the event I wanted to focus on.

Now, most picture books are short—less than 500 words. Nonfiction can be a bit longer, so I thought I’d check. I typed Tanya Lee Stone’s nf pb biography, Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?, into a document. It ran about 800 or so words. Now I had my target goal.

Then I didn’t know where to go. I worked on an interesting introduction, realizing after that I needed a story arc. A plan! Nonfiction can make use of a story arc, so I wrote mine. I filled in notes to support the plan, filling four handwritten pages with tiny scribbles.

Now I was ready to write. I found it hard. Finally, I set a goal and got busy. I filled in the story of my subject’s life, from birth to death. I was forced to leave out fascinating facts, but I kept telling myself it’s a picture book. One can’t include everything.

Wrapping up the final sentence with a flourish, I was happy. And not happy. The picture book ran 3,000 words and told the entire life story. Well, it was interesting, so I bundled it off to my critique group. A number of revisions later, I had a 2,500 streamlined version. I hastily sent it along to a paid critique through my SCBWI retreat and waited.

I wasn’t happy with the story, and I thought about what I needed to do.

Guess what? The editor made the usual, standard comments. I wasn’t surprised. I knew what she’d say already. I knew what was wrong with the story.

I needed to focus on the one event. The extra material was the encyclopedia version. I needed to write the birth to death, but that version was for me. With so many incidents and a complex character, the overwhelming information was confusing. Cynthia Leitich Smith said she tears up her first draft before writing the second. I tore mine up mentally.

Now I’m ready to do the second revision. Really revise. Revision isn’t rearranging words. It’s an overhaul. I plan to narrow my focus and return to the single event and why my character was able to carry out the contribution.

I’ll probably still have a really long author’s note!

Thank you Shirley. So pleased to have a peak at your nonfiction revision process!




 






Shirley Smith Duke writes for children of many ages and focuses mostly on nonfiction. She's a former science teacher and by next month will have written 39 books. She's branched out with her latest book, Teaching STEM and Common Core, co-written with Anastasia Suen. She also wrote a STEM column for LibrarySparks this school year with her co-author. She's also written science poetry recently for Janet Wong's and Sylvia Vardell's forthcoming book, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. The picture book biography she wrote about in the blog is her New Year's resolution--send it out after lots more revision this year. She lives with her husband half the year in the Jemez Mountains and half the time in the Dallas area.
Teaching STEM and Common Core, ABC-Clio, 2014 
Seasons of the Biomes, (series of 8 books), Rourke,2014
"Grow with STEM", LibrarySparks, 2013-2014


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105 comments :

moonduster said...

I think this is a great way to look at revision. for most of us, we tend to write too much into out first drafts.

~Rebecca Fyfe (Becky)

Kim Pfennigwerth said...

I have a story that I have written and revised on and off for 3 years. it is bland, everyone loves the idea but I haven't been able to really make it shine. This morning - I started re-writing it in rhyme to tighten the concept of what the arc is and what the funny moments are. I am so thrilled with this challenge this week!

Jen Swanson said...

Ah, the joys of nonfiction -- where to start? I have that same problem. Sometimes you just can't decide because all of the information is interesting. But I like your plan. Write is all down and then see what fits and what doesn't. Tried that today with my WIP and it helped tons! Thanks for the tip, Shirley!!

Pat Miller said...

Hello, fellow LibrarySparks author! I had the same process with my recent biography, and felt I was betraying my person by not bringing to light his many heartbreaks and achievements. But it was just too long. Better to bring a focused story to publication so readers will know something about him, than to cover it all and have him languish with my other unpublished MS.

Julie Fulton said...

'Revision isn't rearranging words, it's an overhaul' - love it. I am now ging to mentally tear up the PB draft I've been working on and overhaul it. For once I'm looking forward to re-writing. Thanks! It's also been interesting reading about a non-fiction writer's process. I've been considering tackling some musical non-fiction topics. I might just give it a go now.

Sue Heavenrich said...

Hi Shirley - I am learning those same lessons: wanting to put everything into the pot, and then finding it too long, too bland, and not at all what I want to say. Today's revision goal is to sharpen focus on a specific character. Oh yeah, and to find those critique notes.... Thanks for sharing your lessons learned.

deborahhwilliams said...

So nice to see Shirley's smiling face this morning! She and I were writing buddies when I lived in the Jemez Mountains, critiquing at the Hwy. 4 café or at Los Ojos. I'm fascinated with the roadrunner, and it's been such a challenge not to include every interesting detail in my pb! Thanks for the advice, Shirley. Pick and choose, keep it short. Great post, great lady!

disqus_xkUvROpuwp said...

Good morning! Thanks so much for reminding me that it truly is an overhaul. Great post!

Cecilia Clark said...

sometimes too many words and sometimes too few. Revising is an interesting enterprise. Thank you Shirley

Nicole Snitselaar said...

Thank you Shirley !
I have at last understood the difference between fiction and non fiction ;)
When ever I read these words, my mind got blank ! ;)
Well, writing down on a paper means you have to re-write all of it on the computer ! Waouh ! I feel tired just thinking of it !!!

Joanne Sher said...

Oh, that focus thing is SUCH an issue with me! I need this reminder all the time - whether I'm writing fiction or nonfiction. And that there's nothing wrong with overhauling. :) Off to do JUST that :)

Stacey said...

This is helpful. I've been trying to avoid adding too many details for a non-fiction draft, but I think now I will go ahead and get it all out there- write that version for me, as you said, and *then* revise/cut.

Cathy Mealey said...

Hurray for long author's notes and extensive back matter!
Really loved having a NF PB post today. Just what I needed to inspire revisions to one of my drafts. Thank you Shirley!

Kirsten Larson said...

Shirley, this post has been truly inspiring for me. I am in exactly the same boat with my nonfiction PB. I feel tangled up in the weeds right now, and I'm trying to whack my way out. It's so funny, because I find other nonfiction work far easier. But to know someone with your experience faces the same challenges makes me feel better. (P.S. It looks like we share a publisher -- Rourke. I have two books forthcoming in Let's Explore Science, my first.)

Carrie Finison said...

I loved this comment: "Revision isn’t rearranging words. It’s an overhaul." So true! It's hard not to fall in love with your words and want to preserve as many of them as possible. But I've found my most productive revisions hack away much more than that.

Debra Shumaker said...

SO happy to see a NF PB post here. Thanks Shirley and thanks Meg!

Rachel Stones said...

"Revision isn’t rearranging words. It’s an overhaul." I love that.

Marcie F Atkins said...

Well, this makes me feel so much better. I'm really struggling with a NF mss right now. I *knew* in my head it was okay to dump it all out in a terrible draft, then figure out where the story was. But it's always good to hear again! Thanks so much!

Julie Rowan-Zoch said...

Really enjoyed feeling the suspense, the kind a kid loves, because we know what's coming, but still...! Thanks, Shirley! And Meg, of course!

Cheryl Secomb said...

What a great post! I found it very helpful. Thank you for sharing, Shirley!

Lori said...

I do the same thing with my fiction--write SO much because it helps me to know my mc. I can't not do that!! Like you said, you do it just for you.

Danielle Dufayet said...

Thanks for sharing your tips. Structure is everything!

Sophia Mallonée said...

Wonderful post and great tips!

Noel Csermak said...

I enjoyed learning about your methodical approach. I find I often research too much and have an overwhelming amount of information. I'm glad to see that in the end, that may be what gives me a stronger final product. That is, as long as a deadline doesn't get missed!

Melanie Ellsworth said...

Shirley, Thanks for the tip to really hone in on the one important event that defines your subject. It certainly makes it easier to create a story arc, and I think it's a much more enjoyable read when it has that clear focus.

Michelle Lord said...

I've been revising a PB Biography for years--it is time for a complete overhaul!

Wendi said...

Good reminder to focus nonfiction on one single, interesting event rather than try to do too much... applies to fiction too! Thanks!

Ramona said...

This is a great post - writing a non-fiction pb really appeals to me and it good t have some idea as to reasonable word count and the need to focus on one event! Thank you.

Jennifer Kirkeby said...

Such a good post. It is so important for us to know these things, but like you said, focusing on the one important event is what we need to portray. Thank you so much, Shirley!

Sue Poduska said...

Back to the cutting board for me!

Linda Schueler said...

That's a good point: focus on the one event. Often we want to tell everything, and so we get bogged down. Thanks for the post.

Juliana Lee said...

This is sound advice even for non-fiction work. I think it's easier to let it all out at first and then pare it down, rather than trying to add good stuff in later.

Charlotte Dixon said...

Thank you for your wisdom about nonfiction PB. I haven't tried to do one, yet. I'm still getting my feet on the ground, but I am intrigued by trying one :)

Michele Norman said...

This post may have just inspired me to try non-fiction for the first time. How cool is that?

Tamara said...

Thanks for the reminder that having a target number of pages and a pre writing check list is super smart- it creates a hard and dry foundation for everything else.

saputnam said...

Thanks for the great post and terrific tips! I really connected with the line, "Revision isn’t rearranging words. It’s an overhaul." I know that I need to revise the first book in my Chapter Book series and will try applying your tips to it… but I'm having a great deal of trouble with it because what I’m writing about was a big part of my life growing up.

Day 4 – I have revised 2 more manuscripts… both of them are NF.

Lori Mozdzierz said...

Enjoyed the post! Appreciate the share of tips.

janelle said...

Thanks!

Katie Gast said...

Thanks for the post. Great idea about focus.

Ann Magee said...

Love the overhaul idea for revision (Definition is examine or repair thoroughly.) EXACTLY! Thanks, Shirley.

Wendy Greenley said...

Spent the morning doing some revising-realizing one ms may be in for the complete overhaul when I was hoping for an oil change and tune up. Thanks for the validation, Shirley!

Angela Turner said...

Wow this post really resonated with me. I have two historical figures that I am writing about now. It is so hard not to include every interesting tidbit. Now I must go work on narrowing them down to the important event. This may take a while.

Stacy S. Jensen said...

I've spent my morning changing words in and out and in and out again on a less than 100 word story. Storyboarded it twice! Appreciate Shirley sharing her process. Nonfiction seems different in some ways, but it's the same in so many too.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Motivated me to work on a picture book based on a bit of non-fiction. So of course, then I had to go back and check all my facts. (Good thing, too, as I'd mixed up a few facts!)

Catherine said...

Thank you Shirley. I spent the morning editing when I should have been overhauling! Now I know what I need to do tomorrow :)

Kirsti Call said...

This is really good advice. I've not yet done a completely non-fiction PB, but it's something I've been thinking about for a while! Thanks Shirley!

Yvonne Mes said...

Thanks, Shirley. I need to tear my NF PB up mentally as well. I know which life event I should be focusing on, but I want to include it all! Sigh, back to revisions on that one.

shiela f said...

For me, the key point to this post was to write about ONE EVENT in a nf pb. I have had an idea brewing about something I'd like to research and this revelation was very important.

Monica Lauscher said...

Thanks, Shirley. I'm going to tear up a pb manuscript that has been driving me crazy. Who knows what might happen? Maybe something fresh and new and under 800 words!

Tracy Molitors said...

Thank you , Shirley. I have not tried my hand at nonfiction, but reading about your process makes it more interesting to me. Love your realizations about a single event and a story arc!

Robyn Campbell said...

This is the best piece of advice we could have. Mentally tearing up that first draft is essential whatever we write. Thank you Shirley. You slipped the best piece of non-fiction writing advice I've ever heard in this post too. Overwriting. So we know where the story is. Thank you Meg for having such a great lineup over here this week.

Lauren Kerstein said...

Your post really helped me today. I took a manuscript I've revised a zillion times and really made sure I'd focused on one particular event for that one particular character. I revised again and was able to cut over 150 words. I am having some pangs about some of what I cut but I think it was right to let it go. And... I still have all of the old drafts saved in my computer (I've only mentally torn them up). Thank you!

Shannon Abercrombie said...

I rewrote on the first sentence of a pb today at least 30 times. eeekkk...wish I could find the right one!

Lindsay Bonilla said...

"Revision isn't rearranging words. It's an overhaul." I got a lot of feedback from many different sources on a recent story submission. So many great ideas, but many of them conflicting! Now I am trying to figure out what direction to take it in. Today I revised by writing a couple of different ideas for the story -- to see which one I think will work best. I'm still not sure! It's one of those days where I feel like I'd like to pound my head against the table because my brain can't take it anymore! All of them could work and have their own merits, but what is the story that I want to tell!?? What is the most important question I'm trying to answer??? The revision process is TOUGH!! Out of curiosity, when you get such varying feedback, everything from "the story is nearly there with just a few simple changes" to "it still needs x, x, and x;" how do you deal with it?

Julie Beturne said...

It's always nice to be reminded that writing is a process and takes time. I would love to try writing non-fiction one day and now I have a better idea of where to start.

Cindy Williams Schrauben said...

Wow, rip up your first draft? That's harsh. LOL I'm not sure I could do that. :) Thanks for the post, Shirley.

Keila said...

I did my overhaul today! Thanks for the tip about writing non-fiction picture books. Definitely something I want to do.

Joanne Roberts said...

Thank-you, Shirley. This is so, so helpful as I am new to tackling nonfiction. I hope my background in fiction writing will help me find the story in my research. I'm feeling a little lost right now. Thanks for the encouragement and specifics.


Meg, thank-you so much for inviting a non-fiction writer!! ReviMo has been great so far. I love the new ending I wrote today. I can't believe I didn't think of it before? It must be the revision groove. Hooray!

Darshana said...

thanks for the post.

Teresa Robeson said...

I enjoyed seeing the process of how Shirley writes her nonfiction books. Thanks for sharing!

Heather Greene said...

Thanks, Shirley! Great advice!

Kristine P said...

I love it - revision is an overhaul, and one ReviMo has helped me do (versus rearranging)!

Heather Gale said...

Shirley, thank you for sharing your advice - not sure I could really toss out my first draft so I'm with you on that one!

Stephan Stücklin-Wightman said...

Shirley, your NF lessons apply perfectly to my fiction MS. Tracy Barrett (http://www.tracybarrett.com/) referred to it as "research rapture," the compulsion to cram all we know into our text. I had/still have a bad case of it with my current MS - I have nearly 200 photos from the museum that models my setting - but particularly in a PB research rapture leads to overwriting and, I assume, a frustrated illustrator. Thanks for an analogy that helps me strip my MS of its encyclopedic vestiges!

Stephan Stücklin-Wightman said...

Thanks, Shirley, for the encouragement to strip my fiction of its encyclopedic vestiges, the fruit of my "research rapture," as Tracy Barrett calls it. It's particularly difficult when you have about 200 pictures of the locale...
(I wrote a longer comment, but added Tracy's homepage, and the comment hasn't shown up yet, so this is my second try.)

Judy Rubin said...

Shirley, Thanks to your inspirational blog, a non-fiction PB draft became today's revision focus.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Finally. I have succeeded in being able to leave a comment. I too have a long picture book which needs to be stripped and then sculpted back. Thanks for giving me some inspiration today...

Eileen said...

Thanks for sharing.

Dawn Young said...

Thanks for the wonderful advice!

Damon Dean said...

Great post, Shirley! My focus this year is non-fiction, so I treasure your advice. I was able to finish a dummy on a picture book today for Revimo, and ended up feeling like I had re-arranged all the furniture in the house! It is a great process, and now I'm wondering if I need to take out a wall! Thanks for the encouragement.

Shannon Baunach Anderson said...

Non-fiction is tough! My main writing is picture books, but I do have a non-fiction book coming out this year called Maggot Man. It is about forensic entomology and Dr. Neal Haskell. My first attempt was completely biographical, but through a professional critique, I was encouraged to try a completely different angle. Boy did I! It is still about forensic entomology, but is told from the perspective of a maggot. That was a major revision! I admire you for all of your non-fiction work. It isn't easy.

Peggy Archer said...

Thanks for the insight, Shirley! I'm working my way through revisions and hoping to see some light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to ReviMo!

Doris Schwartz said...

Thanks for your words of wisdom. Eliminating words is a huge task because we take such ownership of our choices.

Ronna Mandel said...

I found Shirley's post inspiring because after having written so many books, she still needs to get critiques, tear up her first and revisit her story's focus. I write with several published authors once a month and, though I'm not published yet, I find it reassuring to see that no matter how many books they've written, they treat each one like their first. You clearly do your homework, Shirley and your successes are a tribute to all your hard work. Thank you for sharing.

Beverly Snedecor said...

I am so glad you talked about all the interesting information that can't be included. It's so painful to watch those parts get cut out, even when I'm doing the cutting. Sometimes it seems like the weird facts are the best ones! Thank you so much for sharing!

Beverly Snedecor said...

Maggot Man sounds great... fantastic idea!

teresa m.i. schaefer said...

I loved all the "Checks". I'm thinking that creating a checklist like this might be a useful strategy for writing and revising. Thank you Shirley Smith Duke and, of course, Meg.

Laurie B. said...

I have an idea for a nf picture book and this gives a simple rundown of what to expect. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

pennyklostermann said...

Thanks for the great advice, Shirley! I've yet to write a NF manuscript, but I've written ideas for some during PiBoIdMo! This post will come in handy if I pursue any of those ideas!

Lauri Meyers said...

Must focus! Great advice Shirley. I've got a non-fiction idea noodling around, and this post gave me some ideas.

Sue Frye said...

OMG, Thanks so much for this post! It was just what I needed for my NF:)

Denise M. Bruce said...

Thanks Shirley :) where would we be without our revisions lol Great advice!

Rachel Smoka-Richardson said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences - it's a good reminder that picture books (both fiction and non-fiction) need to be tight and laser-focused.

erin@chickenbabies said...

thanks for sharing!

Laura Renauld said...

Revision certainly is an overhaul! I completely rewrote my idea from a new angle today. And it is different! And better? I think so. Thanks for the tips. I'd love to tackle a NF pic book someday.

MegMillerWrites said...

So welcome! Glad you're getting some ReviMo revision mojo! :)

MegMillerWrites said...

You're so welcome! We've had amazing guest bloggers so far and a few more to come. :D

Sandy P said...

This is truly a difficult challenge - it's hard to find the time and the inspiration for a thorough revision. I'm happy to say that for today, I've done it!

Nina said...

I hadn't thought about a non-fiction pb. It is an interesting thought. Thank you Shirley.
Nina

Pamela Courtney said...

I'm currently revising a historical nonfiction. I TOTALLY needed this post. I currently have about 1300 words. Guess what I need to get busy doing?

Stacey Byer said...

Great advice- thank you!

Mike Karg said...

Focus, eliminate, embellish, and eliminate some more. Thanks for the push -tonight was very productive.

Charlotte Gunnufson said...

Thanks for sharing the nonfiction pb process! My takeaway: leave the intro until you have to story arc.

Dani Duck said...

3000 words, really? That's ridiculous. I mean, are you me or something? Ha ha! Focusing is excellent advice. Thank you!

Jackie Wellington said...

wow! This is really good stuff. I am working on a nonfiction and it is a lot of information to put in 1000 words/ Thanks :D

Hannah Holt said...

I love nonfiction, so I really enjoyed this post. You are so right about shaping a biography around one event. Otherwise it feels scattered with too many words (and yet not enough!). Thanks for sharing!

Julene Kinser said...

It's tough to cut interesting facts and sentences we've struggled over--tough, but sometimes necessary. Thank you for your post, Shirley.

Michelle Lynn Senters said...

Thank you for your contribution to ReviMo. While I am focusing on fiction at the moment, I hope to extend myself in the future. I'm trying to cut, cut, cut tonight but words become beloved. It's a challenge!

kathyberman said...

Thanks for your advice. I am presently having a good time writing a picture book biography. But I also find it so hard to cut when there are so many interesting facts. Hmm PB bio sequels?

Natasha said...

Ah ha, even NF can use a good arc. I will pass this along to critique mavens.
Thank you.

Barbara Kupetz said...

I really enjoyed this interview since my goal is to try non-fiction in the near future. Lots of helpful advice. Can't wait to try. Thank you for your post, Shirley.

Ping Wan said...

Hi Shirley, thanks for the concise advice: focus on the one event.

Lisa Willard said...

Thank you. Shirley, for sharing your process and advice.

Blanche Baxter said...

Thank you Shirley, this is super helpful. I am new to NF PB and am looking to apply this to all of those manuscripts!

Heather Brinkerhoff said...

Thank you for sharing what comes after 'now I was ready to write', and 'and this is my finish.' So helpful to me, in the middle, who isn't clear on how my ' character contribution ' is going. I feel empathy in your post that may help steer me clear of procrastination!