Posts Tagged writing craft

EPIC GARDENING FAILS (And what they’ve taught me about making art)

Growing Food and Writing Fiction

This spring my wife and I decided to stop talking about growing vegetables and actually grow some vegetables. We made this decision without doing much research about the actual business of growing vegetables, and that was mostly thanks to me. Any time my wife opened up a blog or website about growing techniques or climate zones, I’d launch into a lengthy monologue about how vegetables don’t need coddling and if it were really that hard there wouldn’t be gazillions of weeds in our yard. 

It turns out growing an eggplant is not the same thing as growing a weed. I suppose this explains why our front yard is not overrun with perfectly formed eggplants. 

So I’ve learned a few things about vegetable gardening. And as is often the case, the things I learn in one pursuit inevitably influence the way I think about others. In this case, I’ve noticed a few parallels between my questionable attempts at growing food and my questionable attempts at writing fiction for children. I’m sharing them here because whether you’re writing, teaching, parenting, or growing eggplants, it never hurts to glean a little extra information as you go (which I now humbly acknowledge).

Not everything develops as planned.

Radishes are deceptive little devils. They sprout fast and grow bright, promising leaves. You fawn over them and marvel at how they’ve been so easy to grow and why don’t more people grow radishes? Then you pull them out of the ground after the prescribed 28-day period and realize you’ve been duped. At least that was my experience. We harvested those little liars and I couldn’t believe that after 4 weeks I had nothing to show for all my efforts (and yes, all my bragging), but a few marble-sized nuggets of crunchy vermillion failure. 

The radish project looked promising. It all had the signs of a successful enterprise, but under the surface things weren’t developing the way they were supposed to. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the soil. Maybe I watered them too much. Or too little. I may never know. Just like I may never know why the first hundred thousand words I put into middle grade books didn’t develop into huge publishing contracts. But in both cases – my radishes and my writing – I have an opportunity to examine the finished project, no matter how disappointing, and try to figure out what went wrong. I think with the radishes it was the soil. I’m not sure what the writerly equivalent to that would be (stronger coffee during my drafting sessions?). But I’m going to keep exploring, keep dissecting those underdeveloped projects and trade the frustration of an unrealized goal for the promise of a new, and hopefully better crop next season.

 

Things get bitter when they drag on for too long.

A few people warned us that we’d eventually lose control of our zucchini plants. I shrugged at this, because how could you lose track of a zucchini? They’re bright green and quite large, and those people who lose track of them are probably not as committed to the art of home gardening as I am. But then summer happened – days of busy children and travel and sometimes way too much rain. One day I went out to make sure there wasn’t anything to harvest and found a zucchini the size of my arm snugged up against the wall of the garden. Without giving it much thought (I was still shunning research at this point) I paraded it around the house and then chopped it up for the grill. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it was terrible. The skin was tough, the flesh was mealy and bitter, and the seeds were gigantic and totally inedible. That zucchini had been growing for way too long.

I don’t know about you, but I have a few ongoing personal projects that have also reached “zucchini monstrosity” status. They’re the sort of things that never seem finished, and rather than harvesting what I have or simply moving on, I’ve let these projects remain connected to the vine of my creative brain and sap resources from other, more promising ideas.

After chewing my way through that thoroughly unappetizing zucchini, I resolved to never let anything grow that long again, and so far I’m doing better. I hope I can say the same for my creative pursuits – nothing is meant in to go on forever, and as many creatives have noted throughout history, art is never finished, but only abandoned.

 

Sometimes the most useful part of a project is the seed of something new.

Before I tossed that colossal zucchini in the compost pile, I finally broke down and looked up an online article about harvesting seeds. It turns out that in most cases you can only harvest the seeds of overripe, inedible fruit. So I left some uncooked seeds out to dry, then bagged them in an envelope and now have what I hope will be the beginnings of my zucchini crop next year. 

Something similar happened with the second book I ever wrote. It was quite a dud – full of tropes and predictable plot twists. It was long, too.  Much too wordy for the middle grade market. And that of course means I spent way too much time writing, editing, and rewriting what would ultimately be a book not even my mom would read (although she did ask several times). 

But out of that project came a system of developing characters that I still use now, three books and many short stories later. It was a seed born out of an overripe project that itself would never see the light of day. Most failed endeavors have something like that if you look for it – a seed of something new, pure potential packed into a tiny morsel of nearly overlooked insight. 

I think next year our garden will run a little more smoothly. Maybe the corn won’t fall over and the squash won’t vine its way to the top of our evergreen tree. Or maybe next season will be just as chaotic and I’ll have more lessons to learn. Either way, I’ll do my best to be thankful for the parallels and cultivate the garden of my writing with a bit more efficiency and skill. 

And I suppose reading a few extra articles wouldn’t hurt, either. 

STEM Tuesday–Dinosaurs/Paleontology– Writing Tips & Resources

 

Backmatter Matters

Imagine you wake up in a strange place. Although the place does not feel threatening, just being there is jarring because you don’t know why you are there, or how you got there. You don’t know what to do or how to interact. That’s what reading a nonfiction book might be like, if it weren’t for the mighty powers of peritext.

Peritext? What’s that? All of the elements in a book that are not in the main body of text. In STEM nonfiction books, peritext can be paramount.

Pick up a nonfiction book from this month’s list and search out those elements. There’s the cover (front and back) and maybe some flap or cover copy; these introduce you to the book and give you a preview of the author’s “take” on the topic. There’s a copyright page and, most likely, other standard elements such as a table of contents, glossary, and index; these give you context, a map to guide your journey, and help when needed. But there may be more—much, much more.

Consider how different the book would be without all of that. What would the reader miss? What do each of those elements actually do for the book? 

Before I began writing professionally, I essentially ignored peritext. I rarely read any portion of the backmatter (everything after the main body of text). One day, a writer friend told me she reads every word of the endnotes—I was astounded. Who would do that?

Then I tried it with a book I loved and realized just how much I had been missing. These elements are designed for the inquiring mind! As a reader and writer, it is worth studying the peritext and pondering its value. Peritext invites us into the reading experience and launches us into the next one.

Try this:

1. Ask a friend to select a nonfiction book that you have never seen. Have them binder clip together the pages that contain the main text. (Note: peritext includes illustrations and chapter titles, etc, but let’s focus on the frontmatter and backmatter for now.)

2. Study the peritext (no peeking at the main text). Jot down a list of what’s there.

      • Is there a table contents? An index? What about a timeline? Anything interesting about the endpapers?
      • Ask yourself: Who uses each of these elements? Who creates them? Do any serve multiple purposes?
      • Now, read the material. From the peritext, what impression do you get about the book?
      • What questions are sparked in your mind?
      • If these elements are illustrated, jot down notes about them as well.

3. Skim the glossary or index.

      • Do some entries surprise you?
      • What questions do you now have? Are you now more, or less, eager to read the book? To read other material on the topic?
      • Search for clues to the core of the book. Not the topics covered, but the theme, the big ideas, the conclusions. (Don’t forget the covers.)

4. Finally, read the entire book.

      • Consider how well the elements in the peritext support the main text.
      • If you were the author, illustrator, editor, etc. would you have done things differently?
      • What factors might impact what’s included in the backmatter? (FYI, typically the author creates most of the backmatter and other publishing professionals create most of the frontmatter and covers.)

As an author, this is how I look at books. I want to know what is there, why it is there, and how it is used. To help me inquire, I started a running list of the elements in various books. Just off the top of your head, you might remember books with recipes, timelines, acknowledgments, bibliographies, or an author’s note, but you would be amazed at the variety. And think how much each of those elements can vary, not only in content, but also in presentation. In some books, the backmatter was even more interesting to me than the main text. 

Backmatter isn’t limited to nonfiction; however, it seems to be more common and extensive in nonfiction. Why? What types of fiction include extensive backmatter? What if more fiction included backmatter?

Try this:

1. Read a book that has limited backmatter.

2. List at least 3 elements which could have been included.

3. Create 1 of those elements for the book. (You might have to make something up for the sake of the exercise.)

4. Share it with a friend and ask if the added element is valuable.

If you’re not careful, you will now find yourself picking up books and flipping to the backmatter before you read the frontmatter. You’ll be noticing how cool it is that the glossary of Dining With Dinosaurs only includes words not already defined in the main text. (So smart—those are the only ones a reader should need in the glossary!) You might start wishing every historical text included a visual timeline like Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers (Science Comic Series). And when you begin to write your next piece, you might start thinking about the backmatter before the front matter. This is what reading like a writer will do to you!

 

Heather L. Montgomery can’t resist writing backmatter–the ulimate playground for a nonfiction writer. She almost let it take over her upcoming book, Who Gives a Poop? The Surprising Science Behind Scat (Bloomsbury, September 2020). Aren’t you eager to dive into that? For now, you’ll have to be satisfied with the perimatter in her 15 other STEM titles. www.HeatherLMontgomery.com 


The O.O.L.F Files

Just a few more dino books because you can never have too many…

The First Dinosaur: How Science Solved the Greatest Mystery on Earth, written by Ian Lendler, illustrated by C. M. Butzer. In this 220-pager, Lendler carefully lays out how the idea of dinosaurs came to be. Beginning with a bone discovered before the concept of dinosaurs—or even fossils—existed, Lendler walks readers through a wealth of scientific studies to share a story you want to know. This book is likely to blow young minds (and yours).

Dinosaurs By the Numbers (A Book of Infographics), written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. In classic Jenkins style, this fact-packed book is sure to please dino lovers. Maps, graphs, size-comparisons, all formatted on clean white space do an excellent job of accentuating dinosaur facts and extremes. And, there’s an illustrated table of contents–such tantalizing peritext!

When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex, written by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Diana Sudyka. This picture book tells how a curious girl grew to be an inquisitive scientist who discovered the most complete (and likely the most famous) Tyrannasoarus rex fossil ever found (so far). Perfect for kids who are collectors and those who yearn to make their own discoveries.

STEM Tuesday– Celebrating Women’s History Month– Writing Tips and Resources

Begin at the End

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgTwo-time Pulitzer prize winner Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction, writes “The story doesn’t pivot on the beginning, it pivots on the ending – so write that first.” I’ve discovered that the same trick works when I need to read like a writer.

Narrative, expository, opinion pieces – no matter the approach – informational texts are written to convey something. Be it a concept, a scientific process, personal growth, an abstract theme, a historical truth, whatever, the entire text builds towards it. So, if I want to understand the building blocks an author uses, it makes sense to read the conclusion first to know were the book is going.

Try it.

The books in this month’s list provide a perfect opportunity; they are all about women’s history and offer great comparison opportunities.

Pick up one of the books and read the final chapter – not the author’s note, or any of the back matter, but the chapter intended as the official conclusion. Ask yourself: What do I notice? Who are the characters? What is the tone?

Ask: What is the point of this book? List some questions that reading the conclusion first brings up.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI picked up Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition, by Margo Lee Shetterly. I knew that the book was about multiple women who had an impact on space exploration, so what struck me was how the ending focused on one of the characters, Katherine Johnson. Why? I leafed through the rest of the book and saw that, although mentioned earlier, Katherine’ story doesn’t really begin until page 93. Why? This had me charging back to the beginning of the book to read straight through to figure out just how and why Shetterly built to that particular conclusion.

When thinking about the structure of a text, I try to sketch shapes as representations. In Hidden Figures would I find a triangular structure, pointing to Johnson? A chain of interlocked links? A circle where the conclusion brings us back to the beginning?

This is inquiry.

This is close reading!

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWith this shape idea in mind, I flipped to the end of Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins. The book is written in verse. The title of the last one was “The Wider World” which sounded like a conclusion, but as I read, I realized the entire verse was about one character. Where were the other two girls? How could this be a conclusion for the entire book?

Driven by that question, I read the book. I sketch three pillars; one for each story. Each stands independently, illustrating the life of one girl. But together those pillars support a bigger idea, a universal idea that the last verse just happens to illustrate perfectly. Now that’s skill: conveying a universal truth that a reader laps up before they even realize it!

Speaking of universal truths, Jon Franklin instructs “if those truths seem like clichés . . . so much the better.” That surprised me at first, but then I compare a few of the books and it starts to make sense. Universal truths are eternal truths, messages we have all heard before but still need to hear again and again.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI figured this collection of women’s history books will all hit on the same universal truths and might use very similar approaches. Again, those conclusions had something to teach me. In Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared To Dream, Tanya Lee Stone uses a brand new character and open ended questions to shine a light into the future of women in math and science. In Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific, Mary Cronk Farrell uses reflection and a character who we met on the first page of the book.

When I picked up Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh, I was intrigued to find the book concluded with “Your Turn.” This segment uses direct address and includes specifics on how to apply for a patent. An indirect challenge to the reader to get busy inventing!

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

It wasn’t till I skimmed through the rest of the book, though, that I realized another gem of the conclusion. It took the book’s premise (female inventors) up a notch. It highlighted an inventor who was not only female, but also a young female. By that point I was totally jazzed to dig into the intro to see how Thimmesh set up the book for this romp through chocolate chip cookies, Liquid Paper, and space bumpers, leading us to the universal truth of the power of girls as inventors.

So, I challenge you. Pick up a book and begin at the end. You might be amazed at where I takes you!

Heather L. Montgomery writes books for kids who are wild about animals. How does she conclude her books? With a story of a kid who discovered a new species, an insect who eats his sister and her own close encounter with the skin of a skunk!

Learn more at www.HeatherLMontgomery.com

 

 


O.O.L.F

Some authoritative works on crafting nonfiction:

Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner, by Jon Franklin, which focuses on crafting an effective structure for narrative nonfiction

The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality, by Lee Gutkind, in which the guru of creative nonfiction looks at the genre, immersion techniques, framing devices, essays, and more

Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, by Jack Hart, which provides a balanced look at topics such as structure, character, dialog, reporting and ethics

Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children, by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas, which dissects the research process and provides guidance on submitting to the children’s market