Tuesday, June 5, 2012

HOW TO WRITE NONFICTION BOOKS THAT CAN’T BE BEAT


 Who woulda thunk it?  Nonfiction is on a roll!  And it’s largely because of a big game-changer called the Common Core Standards. What in the world is that?  Well, it’s an educational initiative that has already been adopted by every public school in 45 of these United States and in 3 territories to boot.  In my humble but admittedly prejudiced opinion, the best part is this:  The Common Core requires that by senior year in high school, 70% of the books students read throughout their entire curriculum have to be nonfiction.  Hoo-hah!!  Ladies and gentlemen, it is about time.

And there’s more.  Instead of writing dreary papers that imitate the facts kids have to learn for testing purposes, they are now being encouraged to write some truly interesting and thoughtful nonfiction literature of their own.  Here’s just one small example.  To tempt the Youth of America to dip their toes into nonfiction waters, the New York Times is holding its Third Annual Summer Reading Contest, in which young people aged 13 to 25 are invited to submit blog posts for possible inclusion on the Times’ educational site.  Check out last year’s winning post by Elisabeth Rosenthal and tell me this isn’t a great idea.  Here ‘tis: “Answer for Invasive Species: Put It on a Plate and Eat It”

But what if students like Elisabeth get psyched by reading some truly outstanding nonfiction (insert brazen hint about INK books here).  And what if they get enough of a kick out of writing brief nonfiction pieces that they want to write an entire book of amazing-but-true tales?  Or come to think of it, what if you want to write a nonfiction book your own self? 

I recently helped a couple of fourth grade classes at Bogert Elementary School in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, to do just that.  The challenge was to take certain bland basic material from the school’s curriculum and let the kids work together to write and illustrate an exciting (and accurate) page turner that they would actually love to read themselves.  The kids came through like champs and had a blast. And in the process, they soaked up the material in their curriculum like a sponge.

Of course there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  But maybe I can entice somebody out there to walk down the author path by offering a few small tricks of my own for writing nonfiction books that (I hope) can’t be beat. 

1) PAIR YOUR TOPIC WITH A GREAT HOOK 

Whether you pick a topic that you’d love to know more about, or whether a teacher has assigned your kids to write about dry subjects from the school curriculum, any budding authors out there should try hard to write stories that fascinate.  How? One way is to find a great hook!  I write about history, and here are just a few of the hooks I’ve used ever since time immemorial for readers in different age groups: 
  • Drawing colorful, complex picture mazes in which readers have to wend their way through the accurate but amazing scenery of America’s Wild West, say, or Europe’s Middle Ages in order to reach the next pages in the story.  
  •  Telling true tales from two completely opposite points of view.  
  •  Picking a genuine hero from the past and telling his story via his 13 great escapes from danger.  

2) BECOME A SPY

Everything in a nonfiction book has to be 100% true, and you can never ever put your own words into other peoples’ mouths either.  So to find the facts and to figure out what really happened and what people really said, you have to do tons of research.  That's when you get to become a spy!  Snoop around till you can quote from the original letters, diaries, speeches, and journals of your protagonists!  Bravely interview people who were on the scene during a terrifying event!  Or rustle your way through dusty ancient tomes written by responsible scholars until you uncover hidden clues. 
 
3) USE THE MEAT AND SALT METHOD

“Meat” equals the facts.  Make sure you have them down pat. “Salt” equals a tasty sprinkling of all the humor, interesting tidbits, unusual facts, and clever or creative ideas you can lay your hands on in order to bring your book to life.  I love the salt part.

4) WRITE A PAGE TURNER

Every single sentence you write has to be carefully crafted so that your readers can’t wait to see what happens next. Read what you wrote out loud to find out. Does it sound compelling enough? You may be surprised.

5) ADD PICTURES PLEASE

Everyone loves pictures, even grownups.  It doesn’t matter if you can't draw your own cartoons in a graphic novel.  Try adding a bunch of your best photos from your cell phone or create very some clever, colorful graphs with fancy lettering on a computer instead. Or if you have the chops, make Like Michelangelo. In other words, just add your best pictures to the mix and more people will be likely to read your book. 

And speaking of reading, read and READ and READ the best nonfiction books you can lay hands on.  Then pick your faves and try to figure out what it was about the authors’ writing styles that clicked inside of your brain.  That’s it.

6 comments:

Melissa Stewart said...

These are great tips, Roz. I especially like your term "salt and meat method." I might steal, er, I mean borrow it.

Linda Zajac said...

Wow, I didn't realize the numbers were as high as 70% NF reading overall. That's supreme! Thanks for spelling it out and making my day.

creatingcuriouskids said...

What a wonderful post. I like the "salt" part too. There are so many ways to tell a story, and when I hit on the right one, it's a major rush.

Jim Murphy said...

Great post, Roz. I learned a lot and was inspired. But where are the recipes for these invasive species?

Unknown said...

It's wonderful getting inside a creative mind--even just scratching the surface. Thanks for the tips.
Ellen Butts

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks, everybody! And Jim, I dunno about the invasive lionfish in that award-winning blog, but there's a huge ugly invasive fish species from China called the snakehead that's taking over the waters near DC, so they recently had a contest to see who could catch the biggest one. This sharp-toothed fish is a delicacy in China, so chefs around these parts are coming up with all kinds of creative ways to cook it; you can even Google the recipes!