Nonfiction writers, today is a REAL treat, prolific science writer Jen Swanson shares craft tips and how a fabulous book like GEOENGINNERING came to be. And if you comment on this post, you'll be entered to win a copy of GEOENGINEERING! Plus I'll review Jen's newest noting the exemplary writing techniques she uses. Finally, Jen's up to even more with the launch of a new blog! Over at From the Mixed-Up File of Middle Grade Authors comes STEM Tuesday beginning November 7 with the topic of zoology. Middle grade books will be highlighted along with resources for teachers. Look here to meet the STEM team of writers.
Book Review via a Writer's Lens
It takes a special skill set for an author to make a complicated topic like geoengineering accessible and interesting for tween/teen readers, but that is Jen Swanson's writing sweet spot. Via Jen's clear, concise yet captivating style, I've learned about and reviewed brain science, Brain Games, nanotechnology, Super Gear, and now geoengineering, the science of human interference to counteract climate change. This is a controversial topic and choosing to use the author's note in front rather than back matter was a smart move. Students will know upfront that Jen is discussing a "hot" topic that is at the forefront of our headlines today. (Think hurricanes such as Maria, Harvey, excessive flooding, and the Central Mexican earthquake, among others.) Yet Swanson delineates the pros and cons of every method she discusses so young readers will easily distinguish the facts and opinions stated. Writers new to expository nonfiction would do well to study Jen Swanson's craft throughout this book. Fun titles, the use of onomatopoeia, short chapters, examples kids can understand make this subject come alive. Teachers will appreciate the plethora of back material: source notes, bibliography, glossary, further information, and an index are all provided. I highly recommend this book for intermediate and middle schools as well as writers who wish to write curriculum-related nonfiction. (Jen speaks more about her craft in our Q & A below.)
Jen and Kathy Chat
What drew you to the topic of geoengineering? Did Twenty-First Century Books ask for a proposal? Did they require a set number of resources/websites? What about photos, infographics? Did you have to provide those?
How this book came about is kind of a funny story. I was at the 21st Century NF conference and went to go get some tea for breakfast. There, I ended up speaking with Domenica DiPiazza, the Editorial Director of Twenty-First Century Books. We got to talking and I told her that I was writing engineering books. She asked if I knew anything about geoengineering. (I said no, because I didn’t). Then she said she was looking for an author to write a book about this very important topic. I quickly googled it and a few weeks later, submitted the proposal. It was a “right time, right place” sort of thing.
Every proposal requires the amount of research it needs. Which seems weird to say, but it’s true. There isn’t a set of “I need 10 resources” sort of thing. For me, you research until you know enough about your topic to write an amazing book about it. As for the photos, Twenty-First Century Books provided them for this book. That is not always the case. Every publisher has different requirements for photos.
I know you’ve done great nonfiction work with National Geographic. Is there a point when publishers began contacting you with proposals once you’ve established yourself?
Once you establish a good working relationship with an editor, you may have chats about book topics they are looking for and/or ideas of your own to discuss with them. Sometimes these develop into actual projects and eventually books.
Your nonfiction is fun and understandable for its intended audience. What writing techniques do you employ to engage readers?
First, I imagine myself as a kid who is really interested in learning about this topic. I ask myself questions, such as: What is really cool about this process/topic/technique? How does it work? Why is it important? Is there something I can do to help? Any connections to the real world that I can make?
I use active words, kid-friendly descriptions and exciting information. For example, if I were going to talk about distance or size, I might say “it’s as big as a football field” or “as small as a baseball” or maybe “sticky like a piece of tape on a hot summers day”. Something like that puts in immediate picture into the readers’ mind of exactly what you are describing. That allows them to then make their own connection to size and shape.
It’s immensely helpful when explaining difficult concepts, like geoengineering. In my geoengineering book, I made it easy to understand because every process scientists are looking at is something kids know: the rock cycle, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, etc. If you break it down into easy to understand concepts, then your readers will get it right away.
At what point in the research/writing process do you involve experts? How do you find them or does the publisher do that?
I usually look for experts right away. I don’t contact them until I am well-conversed in the subject, though. I approach them through email and sometimes do everything that way. Occasionally, I will ask them for phone interviews, but not always. I find them at universities mostly. The majority of my research is found in reading professional papers written by university professors. I just pick the experts from there.
What projects are in the publishing pipeline for you now?
I am excited about the three books I have releasing from National Geographic Kids in 2018. Two are series books: Dr. E’s Super Stellar Solar System is about a planetary geologist who studies rocks on other planets (She has even driven the Mars Rover!). It’s some really exciting space stuff and every chapter opens with a graphic novel spread. The second series book is a relaunch of Nat Geo’s famed Everything series as Absolute Experts: Dolphins which again features a National Geographic Explorer who studies and works with real dolphins. It’s a fantastic peek into the mind of one of the smartest creatures on the planet.
Finally, there is Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact. I am VERY excited about this book. It’s a compare-contrast of how astronauts and aquanauts live, learn, and train for their environments. I spent many hours tracking down experts from both fields to include their actual experiences in this book. I had a blast writing this book!
What does a typical work day look like for you? How do you keep to such a tight schedule?
Well, there is no such thing as a “typical” day for me. I’m very much a by-the-seat-of-your-pants type writer. I work best when I’m under deadlines, which is why I probably have so many. Most of my research takes place on the computer since I do a lot of technical books, I have to read A LOT of professional papers. I also head to the library. There are days when my 12-seat dining room table is covered with books stacked 3-4 high.