Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sneed Collard on Lists

Our friend Sneed Collard has a new novel out called Double Eagle. It's a mystery/adventure with some juicy Civil War history thrown in. He's one very busy, prolific kind of guy. Back in March 2008, he wrote a blog for us about the kind of nonfiction that has become his trademark. Here he elaborates on his approach to mastering "list" books.

“List” books—those which basically include collections of items—are very popular, and appear in almost all subject matters from history to biography to science. My first list book, Animal Dads (illustrated by Steve Jenkins), did so well that I immediately bent my mind to other subjects that might fit into the list format.

The question here, though, is how does one create these books?As always, the first step is research. Go learn everything you can about a subject. For a book like Teeth (illustrated by Phyllis V. Saroff), for instance, I’ll start with some animal encyclopedias, then grab some comprehensive books on different animals groups, then dive into scientific journals, which often have the most interesting facts about animals. I don’t try to write anything immediately, just let all this information percolate through my brain.

My second step is to make a list. What’s important is that I’m not listing specific animals at this point. Instead, I am asking myself “How many different ways do (fill in subject) function? For teeth, do they grind? Do they munch? How many can an animal have? What do teeth do for an animal besides eating? I write all of these things down in one column. Then, in the column next to it, I begin filling in species or examples that fit the bill. Usually, I end up with several examples that satisfy any one requirement. This is nice since it allows a greater overall variety of subjects.

Once I’ve got my list, then I work on my main text. I try to group common elements in my list together. For Teeth, these groups include teeth types, numbers, display uses, unusual teeth (such as tusks), and so forth. This is probably the most critical stage of the project, because I have to make the writing come alive, using both halves of my brain. The text not only has to flow, it has to have surprises in sentence structure and word choice. For instance…Teeth slice.Teeth stab.Teeth crack.And they grind, mash, and munch.Teeth can be very different.Or all the same.Teeth can be small.Or very large.Tusks are teeth.So are fangs.Antlers and horns are not teeth—but you probably knew that already.And so forth. Really, what I’m creating here is a poem, hopefully with a voice that draws in the reader.

Now doing this can take some work. I’ll bet I went through twenty versions of Animal Dads before I hit just the right style and voice I was looking for. When you’ve got it, though, you’ll know.So far, I’ve published about eight list-type books, but the list approach isn’t just for professional writers. Once Animal Dads came out, schools I visited began presenting me with all kinds of their own list books that students had created. Taking a topic—almost any topic—and writing a list book proves a great way to get kids interested in a subject and in writing. A typical list book has about twenty entries—just about the size of a typical classroom. By giving one aspect of a subject to each student, teachers offer them a bite he or she can handle without being overwhelmed. Then, when the kids put their book together (often creating art at the same time), they can all learn together in a way that is fun and fascinating.

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