Over a year ago, in an effort to become more involved with the children's writing community, I volunteered to become a judge on a writer's website offering critiques, line-editing, and other writing services. That's how I met today's guest, Miranda Paul, the founder of RateYourStory.org. Her forthcoming picture books include One Plastic Bag (Millbrook/Lerner Publishing, 2015) and Water is Water (Neal Porter Books, 2015).
By Miranda Paul
When I speak of “Blurred Lines,” I’m not referring to the Robin Thicke song that has topped Billboard charts despite its controversial message.
I’m talking about that controversial gray area between fiction and nonfiction. You know, that one in between research and invention.
With the rise of more creative nonfiction and historical fiction, especially in #kidlit, there has been a lot of discussion over authors taking “liberties.”
Where exactly is the line? Can the two be mixed?
Here’s my short answer: Just about every good story is a mix of truth and imagination.
My long answer is: The rest of this post.
Whether you write novels, creative nonfiction, historical fiction, sci-fi, picture books for the very young, or even memoirs, there is always research involved. (Or, there should be.)
My first two picture books, due out in early 2015, are both books that blur the lines between traditional nonfiction and poetry and fictional storytelling.
The first, entitled ONE PLASTIC BAG, is about a group of women in West Africa who began a grassroots recycling project. These women are real—and I’ve met and interviewed them all. I’ve gathered photographs from the project’s beginning and been to their village several times. However, in between meeting the women and writing the story, one of them passed away. Others revealed events from their efforts that I felt were too complex or wouldn’t translate well to a young audience. Others remembered things slightly differently from one another. And so on.
For the sake of writing a compelling story that captured the magnitude and essence of what they had accomplished, I pared down their stories to a sequence of events. I made the choice to invent dialogue, with the help of one of the women. We came up with things they might have said to each other back then. In essence, I took a few liberties. If that makes it fiction, that makes it fiction.
However, I have an author’s note at the end that identifies the fact that the story I shaped is inspired by true events. If you’re going to take liberties with writing a story about a historical subject or figure, make sure that you have an author’s note at the end separating fact from fiction, or supporting your fictional choices with reasons.
Candice Fleming did a great job of including an author’s note in her book Papa’s Mechanical Fish. In the back matter, Jonah Winter also 'fesses up to the fact that he’s blurred some lines between fact and fiction in The 39 Apartments of Ludwig Van Beethoven, because there are so many unknowns even after extensive research.
Remember that an author’s note isn’t a place to excuse a lack of research, but it is a chance to be candid with an editor, book reviewers, and ultimately, your reader. Whether you write for kids or adults, make sure that any blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction are clarified up front or at the end of your book.
But creative nonfiction or historical fiction is tricky. Always get an outside opinion before submitting your work. I’m biased, because I run a critique site called Rate Your Story, but I truly feel that getting feedback from a professional before submitting your work, wherever it falls on the fiction/non-fiction spectrum, is one of the best gifts you can give your career.
Many editors and agents today only allow a single submission, and “no means no.” Those aren’t blurred lines! Whatever you can do to make your work ready before you hit SEND will hopefully end in a clear “YES!”
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