Blog Archive

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Interview with Children's Author and Writing Instructor, Nancy Sanders

Let me introduce you to our author today. She is the bestselling and award-winning author of over 80 books. This is someone who I would consider my mentor and writing guru. She is the leader of the writing group where I am a member and a leader. Maybe I'm a bit prejudiced about her writing and teaching skills. However, if you were a regular attendee of our regional writers group, known as CHAIRS, you would probably feel the same. So relax and learn from a prolific writer.

You’ve published a variety of books in your publishing career from fiction to nonfiction. In your book for writers, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career, you write about the importance of getting your foot in the door of publishing by writing nonfiction. Why should a writer try that route?
There are two main reasons every children’s writer should try writing nonfiction.
#1) The odds of getting published. Magazine and book publishers get oodles of fiction manuscripts submitted to them each year. Nonfiction submissions are slim. In this highly competitive children’s market, your odds of getting a nonfiction piece published are much, much greater based on sheer statistics. Then, once you have gotten your foot in the door and are working with an editor, they’ll be much more open to looking at your fiction.

#2) It’s easier for most writers to write successful nonfiction. It can take years to learn how to craft a strong story arc, engaging dialogue, and award-winning characters for successful fiction. In the meantime, write a short nonfiction article about a historic fact you’re including in your novel that you’re writing. (Get double mileage for research you have to do for your fiction novel.) Submit that nonfiction article to a magazine and start building published credits while you’re learning how to write great fiction.

How did you get your start in writing books on African-American history?
After I wrote my first book for Chicago Review Press, my contract said I must submit my next book proposal to them. So I studied their current catalog and saw that they published nonfiction activity books on various cultures. I saw that they didn’t have any books at that time on Mexican-American history, Chinese-American history, African-American history, or Egyptian history. Even though I had never studied any of these topics, I knew there was enough research out there to give me plenty of material to write about.

So I pitched these ideas to my editor and she said that out of the bunch, she’d like to see a proposal on African-American history. I wrote the proposal and landed the contract for A Kid’s Guide to African American History. The information I discovered during the writing process convinced me that I had unearthed amazingly valuable treasures that I wanted to continue to write about so kids could learn what I learned.

How do you go about researching for a nonfiction book?
I visit my local public library, local university libraries, and search on Amazon for books on my topic. Then I choose 1 or 2 children’s books and 1 or 2 adult books to use as my main resources for research. I often purchase these at huge discounts from used bookstores on Amazon. When I write about the same topic for several different books, I keep using the same books but add several more each time. This builds my research library at a rate I can afford.

I use the children’s books on my topic to help me create my chapter outlines, timelines, and grasp the wording for the age level I need to use to write about my subject. I use the adult books for the actual reliable information I need to present, plus I search in their bibliographies and list of photo sources for more research sources I can use.

What tips to you have for doing research?
Develop a rhythm of daily writing for a nonfiction children’s book. Read for an hour and take research notes. Then write new content on your manuscript for an hour using the notes you just took. Then fact check for the next hour for any information you presented that needs three resources to back it up. Then go back and self-edit what you just wrote. Then spend your final hour doing odd tasks that need to be accomplished such as answering editor e-mails, building a website for when your book gets published, or fleshing out your outline to prepare for the next writing day.

Then start the process all over again the next day. Developing and maintaining this daily rhythm will help you move forward in your research and writing new material at a constant rate so that one or the other doesn’t fall behind.

Can you give me one or two examples of something that surprised you in doing research?
When I began to study African American history, it surprised me that I had never learned any of this in school. The great men and women heroes of our nation and the amazing accomplishments and achievements they made, often to contribute significantly to America’s history, had been left out of most textbooks. That’s one of the reasons I feel so passionate about writing books for kids to let them know the names and faces of these people and how they shaped America and continue to shape it today.

It also surprised me that some collections lose their items or don’t know where they’re located. However, most are short-staffed these days, so it’s understandable. I actually helped a couple museums/archives locate items they didn’t realize they had by quoting books that cited specific files or sources in their collections.

Do you do much research in writing your fiction books?
This depends. For my historical fiction, the research is overwhelming sometimes because I have to learn what that particular time period was like in the setting it takes place. For a fiction story that was published in a children’s magazine, I still do a bit of research. For instance, in my story about a little kangaroo and koala bear who become friends, I did research to learn more about kangaroos, koala bears, and also about Australia where the setting takes place. I even learned a bunch of Australian words like “walkabout” and “mum” to incorporate into the dialogue.

How long does it take to write one of your picture books? Is the publishing and editing side easier since you’ve written so many books?
It took me three months to write D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet. I could write it in such a short time because I had already done all the research for most of the topics in that book. If I want to write a fiction picture book just for fun, I can write it in one day.

But if I want to write a fiction picture book that my agent will accept and that will fit well into today’s competitive market, I usually allow myself three months. This gives me time to really develop each of my characters and their unique voices, plot out the story arc so it’s strong and exciting, and choose words and sentences that make my story shine.

I think asking if the publishing and editing side gets easier with the more books I write would be like asking if having the fourth baby was easier than the first. In some ways, yes, it’s easier. I know sort of what to expect along the journey, I have the basic research books and office tools already that I need, and I know what it’s like to work with editors.

But in other ways it’s still very challenging. You never know what’s going to happen at a publishing house during the journey…you might get a new editor who wants massive revisions at the last minute, your book might fall to the wayside for a couple of years and not move forward toward publication, or the entire publishing house might even get sold.

What’s one of the best pieces of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Brainstorm. Use charts like story webs or story ladders to organize your ideas whether it’s for dialogue, character development, crafting a scene, or building the plot. Some writers sit down with a blank computer screen or piece of paper and wonder why they have writer’s block. But if you start by sitting down to brainstorm and read books on your topic and jot down ideas for the various ingredients in your story, it gives you material to work with when you sit down to actually write.

That's enough to get you started. For more info on Nancy and her writing, go to her website at She also teaches writer’s workshops over Skype to writers’ groups across the nation. For more information about scheduling a Virtual Writing Workshop for your writers’ group, please visit:


  1. Wonderful interview from a wonderful author! Thanks for sharing, Nancy. I miss you in our online critique group. Hugs, Ev

    P.S. Thanks for hosting the interview, Chris. Best wishes to you and God bless.

  2. Wonderful interview Chris.
    Nancy, I never get tired of learning from and hearing about your journey.


  3. I got so much out of Nancy's book, "Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career."

    Would recommend it to anyone serious about making a living as a writer.

  4. Great interview,Chris. THanks for doing this. Nancy is such a wonderful writer and teacher. I've benefited so much from the information she shares so generously.

  5. Wonderful interview. I agree that I always learn from Nancy, her ideas are so helpful. I have both writing books and they are a great resource to read over when I feel in a slump.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks everyone for such kind words! And thank you, Chris, for such a great interview. -Nancy