Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Winning the Nonfiction War

Early in my career, before Science Experiments You Can Eat was published in 1972, I contracted to write a book on how money works for a series called "Stepping Stone Books."   I had written a few books called “First Books” for Franklin Watts (now an imprint of Hachette) but this assignment was with a new publisher, Parents’  Magazine Press (which apparently no longer exists).   I entitled my book Making Sense of Money, and set about creating it.  I remember that it was a struggle. I had to educate myself in economics (not my strong suit) and actually read (plowed through) Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  I labored long and hard before I finally sent it off to my editor (now long deceased).  She returned the manuscript with a cover letter so scathing that I destroyed it (now, I wish I hadn’t) but I well remember her searing criticism: “Your manuscript shows little thought or care.  Writing for children is a serious business.  You have a lot of nerve thinking you can do this.” The returned script was covered with blue pencil.  (Daggers to the heart!)  My husband was outraged. He thought I should tell her to go do something unmentionable.  “But we need the money,” I said.
So here’s what I did: 

By return mail I wrote:

“Dear Lillian:
Thank you for your comments.  I’m sorry that I disappointed you.  I hope my next attempt comes closer to your expectations.”

I couldn't look at the script for three weeks.  Then I bit the bullet, took myself by the scruff of my neck, and forced myself to rewrite, paying close attention to every comment, conceding to her language whenever possible.  My pain and efforts paid off.  The book was published and I went on to write three more for her.  A number of other authors, more prominent than I, also worked for her in the Stepping Stone series. When I read their books I noticed that we all sounded exactly alike.  Lillian stifled each author’s voice with her heavy-handed blue pencil to create a uniform style in a multi-author series.  Clearly, she knew how to shape us up to fulfill her vision for the books. (Now, when I want an example of bad writing to show students, I use my own first paragraph of one of those books.)

That was my first clash with an editor, but not the last.  Over the years I have fought many battles for various creative aspects for my work; won some and lost some. But I don’t think I’m unique. My personal story is representative of countless editorial skirmishes many other nonfiction authors have also engaged in, initially to gain a place at the table as professionals and then later as we keep pushing the envelope to make our genre a true art form.

In 2009 an editor told me that my submission didn't meet National Education Curriculum Standards and she sent me the link so that I could read them.  My first reaction: steam came out of my ears. My book met seven out of eight standards!  My second reaction:  I can’t do this alone. I’ll bet there’s help out there from other authors.  So I founded iNK Think Tank from the wonderful and extraordinarily talented community that is this blog: a small but mighty band dedicated to bringing the books and wisdom of nonfiction authors into the classroom.

Fast forward to 2013:

The “21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference”   will take place on the weekend of June 14-16 in SUNY, New Paltz.  Bender, Richardson, White  (BRW), a nonfiction book packager in the UK,  is the main corporate sponsor.  But  iNK Think Tank is also a corporate sponsor.   (How ‘bout that!)   The  conference will provide editorial coaching workshops for new authors, networking for established authors, a forum for nonfiction publishers to discuss the changes in  the marketplace, and strategies for teachers for using nonfiction in their classrooms as mandated by the CCSS.  Lionel Bender, founder of BRW, asked me to review an editorial he was preparing for “Publishing Perspectives” a British online magazine. (I’m now editing an editor; how ‘bout that!)  His editorial, published on March 25, is called“Children’s Nonfiction Publishing Comes of Age."  On the Saturday morning of the conference, I will be telling my story of the evolution of our genre, “Winning the Nonfiction War,” as the keynote speaker.  Hopefully, it will pull more recruits into our cause. Understanding the real world and the various disciplines that explain and describe it needs more than an encyclopedia (or even a wikipedia) and textbooks.  It requires many voices and a subtext of humanity.  

The name on my birth certificate is, “Vicki Linda;” it means “beautiful victory.”  Hmmmmm…..

1 comment:

Cheryl Harness said...

I am so tempted to come to the nonfiction beano in June, if only to see & hear you, Ms. Vicki, a genuine general in this here battle to crank nonfiction's star higher over the horizon, brighter in the firmament.