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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Overview Nonfiction: Outline Sample Choices Part One

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

This week and next I’m going to share from an Excerpt From Write Your Novel Now Workshop that I gave a few years ago. This particular workshop focused on fiction but I have found that the basic concepts of outlines apply to nonfiction as well. So I’ll be adding a few comments as well. Think of it as a metaphor journey with a roadmap. I’ll indent the comments for nonfiction.

Whether we outline before we begin a project, or as we go, or wait until after the first draft, at some point we need to process the narrative flow. And even though one form may work well for one project, the next may require a whole new way of thinking. So here are five possible basic forms to consider. Not only are there many more possibilities but each of these is adaptable too. That’s the beauty of outlines. They are tools we can specialize and not formulas we must adhere to.

Outlines? Everyone Does

There is a broad spectrum of opinion on whether to outline or not, and so first of all, I want to mention that my personal system is a hybrid, which I’ll explain, but not from my own first choice writing preference. Instead I now choose whether to outline and how to outline according to the story’s needs. Some of which I obviously won’t know until I get the story down. If pressed for a position, I’ll say I’m an “organic write as I go” person, who has discovered how much an outline can steer me, and my clients, in the right direction creatively. And make sure I finish my novel. (Or nonfiction projects)


Regardless of whether we write down a detailed outline or think it through in our minds, we all plan. There are several metaphors for outlining and plotting, and for now I’m going with route destination or map potentials as an approach .

1) Simple: I’m traveling from San Francisco to New York City.
Write a sentence that describes from here to there. Takes the story question and use it as a launch point. No real details at least until after the first draft.

            Nonfiction: This works well for early brainstorming of your topic in general.

2) Detailed: A specific itinerary.
Has itemized details for every stage, every potential situation, with matching expenses, papers, maps, and phone numbers.

            Nonfiction: Works well for an ongoing pattern for an extended subject, especially for articles and essays, with the potential for a book.

3) Planned Stops: A General Aim
While en route there are a few places considered a must visit, but otherwise will make other choices when appropriate, or intrigued.

            Nonfiction: Good preliminary general outline with an open area to insert a variety of examples from different sources or subjects. Also can include an example or information you might only use occasionally.

4) Easy-going: Whichever route grabs interest each day.
As long as I’m headed in the right direction, I’m open to explore.

            Nonfiction: Gives you the freedom to work out of order, especially if you have to wait on some material. Or if you’re stuck in one section, switch to another so you re not losing writing time. Or take a break and do research for fun.

5) Full-Scale Travel Journal: A suitcase full of travel books for each major stop.
Read along the way to decide possibilities according to information on lodging, restaurants, history, landmarks and cultural interest.

            Nonfiction: This is the heavy-duty version for a full book. For a memoir it might involve tracking several threads throughout the narrative. For science or history or techniques it can involve specific steps, extra research, definitions, and precise references.

Next week we’ll look at some examples from finished book projects.

Action Steps:            

1.     Which of these feels the closest to your brainstorming process. What do you think its strength might be for your topic?

2.     Choose which process feels the most opposite to your preliminary outline? Rewrite your outline in that format. What is different?

Share: Was there any detail missing from either outline that you needed to add?

Read deep, marcy


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Overview Nonfiction: Tools: Outline Patterns

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“But the truly creative researcher is the one who asks not only what happened, but what does it mean? Not only how did it happen, but how does it effect other things? Jane Yolen

Do you notice the potential outline in the above quote? Her four questions could easily become a pattern, especially for science related articles or any other discovery subject.

If you are considering writing a series of articles or blogs or a book, then taking a look at setting up a pattern outline could help your focus, your research, and your style.

If you are writing subjects that include photographs or diagrams or instructions then a base pattern can increase the readability and interest.

Examine the best way to highlight the suspense, the unity, and the coherence. Even if your article is only a few sentences like this next sample.

Here’s an example from National Geographic Little Kids, December 2010, by author Lisa Husar. This excerpt is from a five-paragraph article that has matching photos for each statement. She introduces her topic in the title. Wintertime for Ermines.

So that gives immediate curiosity for this age group. What is an ermine? What happens in winter?

An ermine is a small animal that lives where winters are cold and snowy.

Note two words that the young reader can immediately identify with: small and cold. And, depending on where they live, snowy can either be familiar or a new concept.

Its white winter coat helps the ermine hide in the snow.

I expect the young reader is giggling now at the idea of hide and seek.

Ermines often tunnel through snow. They catch smaller animals to eat.

The first sentence connects the reader to playing and forts. The second might be yucky or upsetting or confusing and opens up the possibility of conversation to understand.

The author’s remaining two-sentence paragraphs move towards what happens next, engaging the reader’s curiosity again at the closure.

There are several facts in this short piece but instead of being dull and dry it engages the readers interest. She connects the facts and new vocabulary words to the reader’s ability to follow the details personally. And she answered the unspoken question she raised in the title.

This would be a very useful pattern to follow if she decided to do a whole series on different animals in winter.

Consider which of the questions Jane Yolen raises in the opening quote most applies to your topic and then set it up as your key introduction. Then work a pattern that will keep the tension and interest for your age audience.

Action Steps:

1.     From the brainstorm you did last week pick out your underlined words or concepts and see if they might fit the foundation of a pattern.

2.     Which ones create curiosity?

3.     Which ones build tension?

4.     Rearrange them in different ways to see what kind of flow works best for your purpose.

Share: Did anything new surprise you as a possibility?

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Overview Nonfiction: Tools: Outline Content

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“Because the unifying and compelling force of a plot is missing in nonfiction, one must achieve unity, coherence, and suspense in other ways.” Jane Fitz-Randolph

Outlines and patterns become the backbone to substitute for plot in order to provide a beginning, middle, and end, whether as an article, essay, or chapter.

Basic Essay Development

1. Through creative exercises an idea develops. You shape an outline, find a focus point, a clear purpose.

2. Thesis: topic for whole essay. Think of it as an umbrella top with the following points/paragraphs to be the spokes. We’ll look at different patterns next week.

3. Audience: will determine also your choice of style either for articles above or for different styles of essays such as narration, description, compare and contrast, persuasion, argument, or analysis.

4. Paragraph: For brief essays, such as an in-class student essay, 150-200 words. One to three sentences. Topic sentence-why the writer is stating the main point. Then it is followed by support. If you are writing for a particular magazine they will have a word count limit which will affect the length of your paragraph points.

5. Introductory paragraph. Key points and purpose.

6. Topic sentences-stating each point for the support information and example

Overall Essay Process: Idea-Outline-Draft-Revise-Edit

By now you have your first few article ingredients—your topic idea---the slant or purpose—and your target audience.

Now you develop your thesis and potential examples to support your premise.

Also consider your time frame if it applies. If a biography will it be developed chronologically, by highlights, or one particular aspect as a thread?

Action Steps:

1. Do a basic brainstorm. Set a timer and write without stopping for 10 minutes. Don’t do sentences or punctuation. Just write down everything you can think of that you already know or want to know. Don’t pause to think. If you hit a hole make a dash or an extra space break and move on to your next thought. If possible do this by hand instead of computer.

2. Now go back through and underline any thoughts that can be developed as a supporting topic or example. How many do you have?

3. Do you have a repeating voice or tone?

Share: What is your main focus?

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Overview Nonfiction: Timeless: Self-Development

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“A ‘we’ approach makes the reader feel that the writer is with him, not talking at him.” Jane Fitz-Randolph

Self-development is geared towards the teen readers and older. Although they often can overlap with personality articles this focus is undergirded by empathy and a sense of  “we” are in this together. It’s not coming from an expertise telling attitude, even if as an author you have all the qualifications, but rather as someone who has walked this path and is a listening ear.

Personally I see this type of article as both compassionate and inspirational. The undergirding purpose is to understand situations and identity and then how to navigate through the difficulties and decisions. Be honest to include the potential consequences of wrong choices as well as the hope that can follow.

The range is once again very wide from dealing with emotional situations, like anger management, confrontations, like being bullied, health issues and family tensions, as well as career choices and developing skills.

As the personal essay might focus more on the external struggle towards accomplishment, self-development offers ways to heal or mend or avoid brokenness that could otherwise have life-long effects.

For example, if you related in any way to the biographical topic that represents a musician that falls into both music and multicultural categories in the earlier action list, you might want to share the different types of prejudice that a musician in this field might experience either from her peers or from audiences. Or how this has compared to your own field and the bias that can occur.

Choose a priority factor that enabled you or a colleague to navigate jealousies and /or racial discrimination.

Another vein to explore might be the ways factual information in your field can lead to artistic development.

Here is a link as to the background behind a young artist choosing to design a series of art kites.

And you can see her stunning kites at

Action Steps:

1.     Make a list of the struggles you have experienced either personally or with a close family member.

2.     Choose one that made a significant change in your life, either by an attitude perspective or by a specific course of action.

3.     Write it up as if you are sharing gone-to one with a close personal friend.

Share: What words of hope do you want to pass on from your subject field?

Read deep, marcy

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