This year’s Los Angeles SCBWI Writers Day is all about discovering that “eureka” moment by learning tricks and techniques to make your manuscripts shine, digging deeper or simply polishing work to perfection, and attending in-depth workshops with industry pros in areas where we all can use insights and practice. Author and illustrator of over seventy books, Mary Ann Fraser’s workshop, Ready, Aim, Write: Creating On-Target Nonfiction, is all about “carving a gripping informational story out of facts. You’ll learn how to form an irresistible hook to tempt agent and editor alike.” You’ll also get hands-on reading AND writing done in this workshop! We just couldn’t wait until March 28th, though, so we’re bringing you a little sneak peek. Read on for a great Q&A with Mary Ann!
SARAH PARKER-LEE: Thanks for joining us, Mary Ann! Your workshop sounds super fascinating! Nonfiction and fiction are often seen as opposite ends of the kid lit world, or that writing for one means you can’t write for the other. Writers can also feel intimidated because they don’t think they’re “experts” on new subject matter that might interest them, even if they’ve written nonfiction before. What do you say to writers looking to bridge these perceived gaps or who feel intimidated?
MARY ANN FRASER: First, thanks for this opportunity to answer a few questions. It’s an especially exciting time to be writing narrative nonfiction, one I’m looking forward to exploring in my upcoming workshop.
A wonderful way to bridge the gap between writing fiction and nonfiction is to adapt a similar approach. The goal then becomes to tell a riveting story based on solid facts. Of course, this means choosing a subject that lends itself to a narrative telling. And if you aren’t an expert on your chosen subject—find people and resources that are. It’s surprising how eager people can be to share their knowledge when asked by someone with a sincere desire to learn more.
SPL: Nonfiction can also feel intimidating because it’s thought of as boring, matter-of-fact, or devoid of a story narrative. Your workshop aims to prove this wrong! Without giving too much of your workshop away, can you give us some examples of how you bring an exciting narrative arc to your nonfiction books?
MAF: Of course, some subjects lend themselves to a narrative approach more than others, but even those that are less obvious can offer opportunities for story-telling. We find them in making connections, examining the “whys,” and in revealing chronologies. Let’s take cell division. There is a story to be found in the process, why it happens, and the history behind its discovery. Each of those aspects of cell division has a beginning, a middle, and an end waiting to be told in a unique and exciting way.
SPL: Sometimes I see a really interesting news story I think would make a great nonfiction book, complete with a cool narrative arc, but I have no idea where to even start. When that happens to you, and you decide to explore the idea, what’s the first thing you do?
MAF: Play. The mistake many of us make is we become wedded to an idea before we’ve explored all of our options. It’s like buying a pair of shoes. The first pair that catches our eye may not come in our size. We have to try on others to find the one that fits the project and our personal style. Then we need to ask if the opening will capture the reader’s curiosity enough to draw them in and keep them turning the pages.
SPL: Hooking an agent, editor, AND readers is important for any book. One way to do that is through a fresh voice, which your workshop will address. What are some common misconceptions about voice in nonfiction?
MAF: The challenge to creating a fresh voice, especially with nonfiction, is to avoid making it gimmicky or forced. One technique I like is to approach a project as if I have a great secret to share with the reader. That sense of urgency and excitement is what drives the voice. If you make the secret surprising, make it of consequence to the reader, and give it heart, who wouldn’t be hooked?
SPL: Kids are often smarter and more eager to soak up facts than we give them credit for, but attention spans can be the enemy when it comes to nonfiction. Images help, of course, but the internet is full of videos and other interactive ways to learn about things. Again, without giving too much of your workshop away, what are some ways you keep young readers hooked on books and turning those pages?
MAF: Well, I have a short attention span, too, so I only choose to write about subjects that can fully engage me for the length of the process, which can sometimes lean into months or even years. Hopefully that passion finds its way onto the page in a way that captivates the reader. Ultimately, though, the author has to answer the question “why should I care?”
MAF: My most recent nonfiction book is Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call (Charlesbridge), which was a Literary Guild Selection. I’m also deep into an exciting project for the Getty which will be out in 2022 and another for Capstone.
Thanks so much for your time, Mary Ann! We can’t wait to learn more in your Writers Day 2020 workshop! To learn more about Mary Ann, check out her webpage, www.maryannfraser.com!
WD 2020 takes place on March 28th at the Skirball Center. To learn more and see if there is still space available to register, check out the webpage.
For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.
Sarah Parker-Lee is a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, an editor/story editor and proofreader, literacy advocate, and spent four years as a Los Angeles SCBWI board member and the managing editor of Kite Tales, where she is still a regular contributor. She’s a #FUTURESCAPES19 alum and writes YA alt. history and sci-fi. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel
Images provided by Mary Ann Fraser