Friday, February 12, 2016

Interested in Writing Nonfiction? Lisa Amstutz on Process & the Gardening Guides series by Kathy Halsey

        I first met Ohio writer Lisa Amstutz via SCBWI and the WOW Retreat. We were driving buddies from Columbus to the Georgia mountains, so we bonded. She was my navigator and today she'll navigate us us through how to write nonfiction that sells. Check out her web page and new Gardening Guide series, too! 

How did you get the idea for your newest series, Gardening Guides series: Creative Gardening, IndoorGardening, Enchanted Gardening, and Edible Gardening?

Like many of my books, these were assigned by the publisher (Capstone Press). They know I am particularly interested in science and agriculture-related topics, so it was a good fit. I was excited to write these books because part of my mission as a writer is to help connect kids with nature. What better way to do that than by planting a garden?!

You are quite a prolific writer with 40+ titles to your credit. How did you get started in this aspect of NF and how do you generate new projects?

I first learned about writing for the educational market at an SCBWI workshop, and then took a course on it with Laura Purdie Salas. She now offers the same material in an e-book. Basically, I sent a resume, cover letter, and writing samples to a number of educational market publishers, and eventually, one of them called me. I continue to send out packets now and then, and get in touch with editors when work gets slow to see if there is any way I can be of assistance. I occasionally propose new series as well. 

     On your website it says you live on a hobby farm. Does that feed into your writing process or ideas?

We live on six acres in rural Ohio, and raise a variety of livestock, bees, a garden, and fruit trees. It’s not a commercial operation; just something we enjoy doing as a family. As a writer, I have a tendency to live too much in my head, so feeding chickens or picking green beans for supper helps keep me grounded. The critters have inspired a few stories, too, one of which was published in Ladybug last spring.

Do you have a daily process or writing activity to keep you motivated?

I write every day because it’s my job, and the deadlines definitely keep me motivated. I fit it in around homeschooling and whatever else is going on with our family. Even though much of my writing is work for hire, I try to take at least 15 minutes at the end of the day to work on one of my own stories so I feel like I’m making progress toward those goals.

    Share a few of your favorite writing craft books. 

Three books that have been particularly helpful for me on the craft of writing nonfiction picture books are Anatomy of Nonfiction by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas, Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul, and Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career by Nancy I. Sanders.

For general writing inspiration, I love Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Take Joy by Jane Yolen, and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I reread the latter about once a year.

How you organize your research? Give us a few of your go-to-sites for digging up facts.

For very short books, I just dump it all in a Word file. For longer projects, I use Scrivener to organize my research.  Along with a Google search, I look up the topic on Wikipedia to get a quick overview and find links to more reliable sources. I also look at the references listed in other children’s books. Websites from encyclopedias, museums, government agencies, and universities are usually considered reliable by my publishers. I also look for articles in scientific journals and recent scholarly books. I order these through the local college library if they’re not available through the public library.

     If a writer does not have a science/math background, how would they approach this type of writing?

First of all, there is lots of nonfiction that is not STEM-related if you prefer to stay away from those topics. But I think anyone can write about science and math if you’re willing to research and learn about them, just like anything else. I’ve written books on lots of things I didn’t previously know anything about, including Ancient Egypt and shipwrecks!

     Agent story: is it important to have one when doing work for hire? How did you get your agent?

You do not need an agent to do work for hire, and I don’t think agents are typically involved with this market. It’s a different sort of publishing model.

I really got serious about finding an agent in 2014, and worked on preparing several stories with that goal in mind. Around the same time, my agent, Vicki Selvaggio, was in the process of starting her new career with The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. We had known each other for years through Northern Ohio SCBWI, and I knew I would love working with her. So I submitted a story to her and was ecstatic when she offered to represent me last summer. She is handling my submissions to trade publishers.

     Back to gardening: favorite flower, edible plant and  how does one enchant a garden?

My favorite flowers are crocuses, because I’m so happy to see something colorful in early spring. In the Indoor Gardening book, there are instructions for forcing bulbs indoors to get even earlier blossoms! Favorite edible plant: I love, love, love fresh heirloom tomatoes. They have completely ruined me for any other sort.

How to enchant a garden? Use your imagination! Take time to look at your garden through a child’s eyes…the magic is already there. Build tiny houses for fairies, make a gnome home, or plant bee balm to attract hummingbirds. There are lots more ideas in the book. J

Any other books in the publishing pipeline? What are you working on now? 

I wrote 17 books last year, and 10 of them came out last month. The rest will be out later this year. These include a series of bug books as well as books on nanotechnology, cryobiology, and endangered animals.  I am currently working on six new titles for 2017. You can check out what’s new on my website at, or sign up for my monthly email newsletter for book news, seasonal nature notes, and writing tips.

If you’ve hung in there this far, thanks so much for reading, and thanks to Kathy for inviting me to the GROG – it’s been a pleasure!


  1. Great post, and Lisa, you make me tired reading all your accomplishments.

  2. Congratulations, Lisa, on your gardening books and other books + agent. It was nice learning about you and your writing schedule. I formerly homeschooled and wrote but now teach at a school & write on weekends.

  3. Thank you Kathy and Lisa! Love this!

  4. Great interview, Kathy. And thanks, Lisa, for sharing your "secrets" of success.

  5. 17 books in one year! Yea, Lisa! Thank you and Kathy for these insights.

  6. Thanks for the interview, Kathy. You are one busy lady, Lisa! I really appreciate the information on organizing research. I struggle with that. Using Scrivener is an interesting way of doing it.

  7. Great post! I'm really wondering how Lisa organizes her time when writing so many books. That would be quite interesting to know. Cheers!

  8. Thank you, Lisa, for this terrific informational post. I admire your energy and tips for research.

  9. Lisa, you're such an inspiration! How wonderful to have so many titles and more coming out. You are a super star and I'm so glad Kathy did this interview!

  10. I'm so proud of Lisa! She is not only an amazing writer, but also a wonderful person inside and out. I'm truly blessed to have her in my life and as a client of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.

  11. Wow! You are prolific, Lisa! So fun to hear your story. I love to garden, too, although I would not consider myself as having a green thumb. All the best. . .and good interview, Kathy!

  12. Thanks, Lisa and Kathy. I'm glad to have met and connected with both of you at WOW.
    I'm reminiscing now, about our farmy chats, Lisa. Congratulations on all your writing success.

  13. Thanks to all of you for all your kind comments!

  14. Appreciations for this great short-course, Kathy & Lisa. So sweet, too about the road trip origins of your palship.