Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Writing a Biography

This week a student wrote a letter to me asking great questions about my writing process. I wanted to save my answers, in case someone else would like the information too, so I thought I'd post it in my blog.

Dear Xxxxxxx,

How nice of you to write to me.  Thomas Jefferson was one of my favorite people, too. I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

You asked:

Why did you write the book Thomas Jefferson? 
In the 1990s I wrote biographies for Xxxxx Publisher.  I had sent a sample chapter to them about another person, but they didn't send me a contract for that book.  However they liked my writing style and asked me to write about another person -- Marian Wright Edelman.  
Was that my first published book?  Not exactly.  That book came out the same year as a picture book that was bought and published by another publisher.
After Marian Wright Edelman, I asked if I could write about a dead person, so they asked me to write about George Washington.  And then I wrote about two other presidents, two musicians, and a pair of inventors -- the Wright brothers.
 How long did it take to write the book?
You have to keep in mind that, during the 1990s and the 2000s I worked full-time as a children's librarian in a Maryland public library system.  Therefore I had to use my allotted vacation time to do my research and writing. (Have fun on your vacation, my co-workers would say.  And I'd reply that actually I was off to work on my second job.)

To answer your question, each book took about 9 months to turn in the first draft of the book to the publisher.

--Several months to do the research -- which almost always included reading lots of books about the subject and taking notes.  (I used note cards, but nowadays I use some note cards and also save internet files with my manuscript so I can quickly access the info.  The fun part was taking field trips to sites where the person I was writing about lived and worked. Since I had to supply the photographs for those 1990 books, I took a lot myself and then had to buy photographs from various sources.
-- Then several months where I simply spent hours and hours sitting at my computer, typing.
(During the 80s I hand wrote my first drafts and then typed them on a typewriter.  By 1989, I was writing my stories on paper and typing them into computer files.  Then, suddenly I skipped the hand writing part and put all drafts into computer files.  )
-- As I was writing, I would find spots in the biographies where I needed more information.  I would simply put a marker there, and email myself to look for that information at my workplace -- the library.  My mind was divided into work and writing. (and home/kids/husband/house/etc)  Which meant that, once I was at work that's all my mind concentrated on.  Therefore email was my communication between my work mind and my home mind.  If I thought I would simply remember; I didn't.  Once I found the info I needed, I'd email it to myself, open the email at home and copy the info and insert it into the place in the manuscript.
--Sometimes I'd have to take a quick field trip if I didn't understand something.  I must have visited the Air And Space Museum at the Smithsonian in DC three or four times before I understood the basics of flight well enough to boil it down into understandable phrases for my readers.  (If I didn't understand it, I couldn't write about it.)
-- Once when I was revising the George Washington manuscript, the editor insisted that I explain what caused the War for Independence -- in just a few paragraphs.  I took a quick trip to Williamsburg, Virginia and spent the weekend there touring and listening to the presentations offered there.  Yes, I did find the information.  (I also used the time to take lots of photographs which were used in the book.)

9 months was just the first step.  Once the book was completely written, I had to go over every word of the manuscript to make sure that all the necessary information was there, in its proper place, spelled correctly, good grammar, etc.  Was it told in an interesting way?  I made changes at this point.  Once I thought it was good enough for a first draft, I sent it off.

After I shipped it off to the editor, I had a few months where I could write other things.
Then the manuscript came back -- with notes, suggestions, and commands to move or remove parts of the manuscript.  It's just like your teacher handing your paper back with suggestions how to write it better.  This part isn't clear.  That part drags on too long-- cut it out.
-- This part is called revision. 
With Enslow, there were several revisions.  
First for the editor.  
Secondly the comments from the professor who vetted the series. 
Thirdly for the copyeditor, who checked the facts.  (I'm sure you noticed that the book has lots of Endnotes.)  The copyeditor checked each one of my sources to make sure that I got the quotes from the book I said it came from.  S/he also checked that things are consistent within the book. (Is this man his uncle or his cousin -- you tell it both ways in different chapters.  OOPS.)  The copyeditor also checks punctuation.  When you are typing quickly, sometimes you hit the wrong punctuation mark.  Easy to correct, but great that s/he points that out so that we can correct it.
-- I have two choices.  I take the editor's advice and rewrite the section.  Or I must write a defense of why it really should stay the way I had written it.  Most times it's best to take the editor's advice. Every so often you can say that what you did was right -- and why it's right.

Then the final proof comes.  At this point only a few changes can be made, because the final proof is ready for the printer.  For one book, someone I mentioned in the book died before we got to the final proof.  I was allowed to insert this and write a paragraph about the person who replaced him. 
So -- how long did it take to write a biography?  From beginning to publication takes about a year and a half, or two  years.
Did anyone else help you write the book?
Although the editor and the copyeditor help with the production of the book, they are not considered the authors. They are just helping me make this book the best that I can do.  They push me to improve and make my writing easier for readers to understand and enjoy.
So - no, nobody "helped" me, if you are referring to a co-writer.

There are only two of my books that I wrote with other writers. The first was the picture book Busy Toes. The other was the companion book, Busy Fingers.  Three of us writers had fun playing around with words and produced these books.  So we mushed our names together into the pen name of C. W. Bowie.  (I'm the W. part)

Did you enjoy writing the book?
Yes, I do enjoy writing my books.  Especially the research and field trip parts.  I LOVE field trips.

Who was your favorite president?  This was one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.   
I think I'd agree with you.   Thomas Jefferson was probably my favorite, too.

I enjoyed the book because it has many interesting facts about Thomas Jefferson and American history. 
That's what I love to put in my books.  I search out all the Fascinating Facts that I can find and try to include as many as I can in every book.  The neat thing about the three president books I wrote is that, as I researched each president, I discovered more Fascinating Facts about the previous president and wished I had included THAT information in the previous book.  Washington, Jefferson, and James Monroe were all connected.  

Thank you for writing to me.  I hope I answered your questions with enough information.

Wendie C. Old

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