Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Article Writing 101 (Part 1--Ideas & Research)

I've never been much of a nonfiction reader, preferring instead to submerge in a fictional world. But I took a course that introduced me to nonfiction writing, and I realized how much I loved diving in to all sorts of topics--known and unknown to me--and sharing them with readers. Most of my publishing credits have come from writing articles for teens and young children.

How do you write an article? As with all writing, the methods for writing nonfiction will likely vary from writer to writer. But this is the process that's worked for me. Part 1 focuses on prep work--ideas and research:

Step 1--Choose a topic

Nonfiction ideas are everywhere, and once our mind is open, we can quickly wear down pencil lead trying to keep up with them. Do you have a unique hobby or talent? My family loves Geocaching, and I wrote about it in Modern Day Treasure Hunt. Is there a quirky aspect to your hometown? Are there common misconceptions about your day job? Do you wonder about the origins of certain words, places, or monuments? Is there a little-known historical figure you've always been curious about?

As you can see, ideas for nonfiction are endless. I jot down oddball ideas on notebook paper and keep them in a 3" binder. There are enough ideas in there to keep me busy for a lifetime.

Step 2--Narrow your focus

Take a familiar topic and find something new and unfamiliar about it. Or choose a unknown topic and share it with readers.

Countless articles have been written about firefighters, but in my article Putting Out Fires (Scholastic Math--page 8), I narrowed the focus down to how firefighters use math when figuring out hose suction, water pressure, and even recipes in the kitchen.

Step 3--Research

Look for fun facts that take you by surprise. While doing research for my article A Spoonful of Laughter, I learned there was such a thing as a laughter epidemic. Who knew? Facts should be cross-checked by multiple sources.

I check out books from the library, and also search online. When taking notes from books, be sure to jot down the book's title, author, publishing house, publishing date, and the page number where you found each fact. You'll need those later for your bibliography.

For more research tips, check out 8 Tips for Slicing Through the Research Jungle.

In Part 2 I'll discuss organization and structure.

Even though I now write novels, I still like writing nonfiction. Sometimes I'll whip up an article in between novel drafts. It's nice to give my fiction brain a rest, while still writing about fun topics. There's a hungry nonfiction market out there, and if you give it a try, you might find that you also enjoy writing nonfiction.

Have you ever written an article or nonfiction book? If so, how does your idea and research method compare to mine?

Do you have detailed questions about the process? Feel free to ask in the comments, or email me directly at julie (at) juliemusil (dot) com.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Similes, metaphors, analogies, oh my!

Confession time: I have the hardest time remembering what makes a simile, metaphor, or analogy. I'm like a child who has to be reminded over and over again to wash his hands before dinner. See? What was that?

Maybe it's one of my weird character flaws. Like how I punch people in the arm when I have an idea. If you're one of those writers who always remembers the definitions, I'm as jealous as a headgear-wearing girl on prom night. Whoa! Another one :/

I'm hopeful that even though I don't always remember the definitions, it'll be ok as long as I use them correctly. *fingers crossed*

Here's a brief reminder for those of us who need it:


A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by like or as (brave as a lion, crazy like a fox, or this one from my son, "High school is like life--it's what you make of it" )


A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison ("a sea of troubles" or "all the world's a stage" or this one from my son..."that dirt bike's the bomb"). Just for fun, check out In Praise of the Bad Metaphor.


Similarity in some respects between things that are otherwise dissimilar. Some analogies are similes, and some are metaphors. Need examples? Click here or here.

Will I finally remember these definitions? I'm as hopeful as a football player on game night!

Make me green with envy--do you always remember what's what? And what's your favorite analogy? Mine's from Water for Elephants (...smashed his head like a watermelon). What an image, huh?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writing lessons learned from SHINE

I recently finished SHINE, by Lauren Myracle, and wow, what a great book. If you write contemporary YA, this is a must read.

From Goodreads:

When her best guy friend falls victim to a vicious hate crime, sixteen-year-old Cat sets out to discover who in her small town did it. Richly atmospheric, this daring mystery mines the secrets of a tightly knit Southern community, and examines the strength of will it takes to go against everyone you know in the name of justice.

Here are some of the valuable writing lessons I learned from this book:
  • Open with a newspaper article--I mentioned this is my post about HATE LIST, and I felt the same way with SHINE. Opening with a newspaper article was a great way for the author to bring the reader up to speed on a traumatic event that took place before the book began. This article was packed with powerful details about the victim, the hate crime, and the story world.
  • Introduce a coma patient through brief flashbacks--Patrick, the best friend, was in a coma after a horrible beating. But brief flashbacks revealed the close relationship between Cat and Patrick, and also showed how and why their friendship had changed over the years.
  • Create a cast of suspects--this story was a mystery, and the author did an amazing job of introducing several likely perpetrators (or Purple Taters, as one character called them). As each character was introduced, the author threaded in possible motives. Tiny clues were dropped about each person, which kept me guessing until the big reveal.
  • Refer to a life-changing event early, but unveil late--something big and bad had happened between the main character, Cat, and a local boy named Tommy. Cat referred to it from time to time, as breadcrumbs were dropped along the way. But the author deftly strung the reader along, not revealing the big bad thing until later in the story.
  • Create an unlikely love interest--this wasn't your typical love-at-first-sight-can't-live-without-each-other drama. The true love story was about Cat and her good friend, but the "crush" sub plot was tame and unusual, which made me appreciate it even more.
  • Dual motive ending--toward the end, Cat not only continued her search for answers about her best friend's beating, but she also worked to prevent a future crime. I held my breath as the stakes rose from chasing clues to saving a life.
  • Establish your climax setting early--the climax setting, which I won't reveal here, was mentioned early in the story. The main character had good times there, but the location was also fraught with danger. When the climax took place, I already knew what dangers lurked there. This location didn't appear out of nowhere--it had been established early and mentioned a few times throughout the story.
  • Don't shy away from controversial topics--this author bravely wrote about sexuality, drugs, molestation, and hate, but it was obvious she didn't do it for shock value. Each of these topics wove throughout the story in a perfect blend of sadness and hope. It was a natural progression of events, with just the right amount of surprise.
Have you read SHINE yet? If so, what was your opinion? And what writing lessons have you learned lately from a great book?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Make it Happen

My husband and oldest son love riding dirt bikes together. They'll take off on our local trails, ride for hours, and return home sweaty, dirty, and exhausted.

But darn it, our son outgrew his dirt bike. We prepared to sell his bike and use that money for something bigger, but our son also wanted something a bit newer (fuel-injected...go figure). He's willing to pay the difference so he approached us with a plan, received our approval, and now he's on the path to earning money for the bike he wants.

I was truly impressed by our son. He didn't complain about what he couldn't have--he knew what he wanted and is in the process of making it happen. He printed up "business cards" and delivered them to our country neighbors. He's secured jobs feeding horses, chopping wood, and watching a couple's home while they went on vacation. With our guidance, he sold old gaming systems and other unused stuff on Craig's List.

His situation reminded me of determined writers. We can't worry about where we aren't, or what we haven't accomplished yet. We have the power to make it happen if we're resilient, remain open to learning, and continue working hard.

We write the material.
We revise.
We have our work critiqued.
We send it out to agents and editors.
We endure rejections.
We revise again.
We rejoice in steps forward.

Some writers are bravely plunging in to self-publishing, and we're cheering them on. Each accomplishment is savored and appreciated because we made it happen. And our successes are that much sweeter because of our hard work.

When our son finally buys that newer dirt bike, he'll experience the pride of earning the money and making it happen. Not a bad lesson for teens and writers, huh?

Do you savor your accomplishments as much as you should? What steps do you take to reach your own writing goals? Please share!

And thanks to everyone who entered the 1,000-word critique giveaway. The luck winner is...Jenn! Congratulations, Jenn! I'll connect you with the generous ladies at The Bookshelf Muse.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Middle Grade Dances & Valentine's Day

Last Friday night I had the joy of chaperoning a middle grade Valentine's Day dance. OMG, so cute. There were so many details to take in, and I wished I'd brought my spiral notebook. But I was a little busy, and besides, I probably would've looked creepy.

If you write middle grade or YA, these notes might be helpful. We live in a very small town, and belong to a tiny school district, so I'm not sure how these scene details will compare to a big city. But some things in middle school never change!

The Setting
  • Multi-purpose room, overhead fluorescent lights turned off. Strings of red and white lights hung along each wall.
  • Photo op corner--red plastic draping the corner walls, decorated with paper hearts. Spotlight overhead. Mom with a camera ready to shoot pictures of couples and best friends.
  • Food and drink section cordoned off to the side, with moms serving snacks such as candy Kisses, grapes, and cookies. High schoolers filling Dixie cups with water & lemonade.
  • DJ crew set up on stage.
  • Folding chairs set up around the perimeter of the room.
  • Thumping dance music.
The People
  • Sixth grade girls wore cute "party dresses," with either flat shoes or Converse-style sneakers.
  • Some 7th and 8th grade girls wore party dresses & higher heels, but most wore jeans with blousy tops.
  • Some boys wore button-up shirts and dress slacks, but most wore regular school clothes (jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers).
  • DJ team consisted of three mid-20's guys. One spun the tunes, and the other two worked the crowd. They taught dance moves from the stage, and jumped down on the floor and got the kids involved.
  • Kids stood in clusters. Some remained right below the stage, following the DJ's lead in dances. Others danced in their own circles. Some mixed boys with girls, others were all boys or all girls. (Memories, anyone?)
  • Boys with damp hair and sweat running down their faces. Girls with curled hair that grew limp as the night wore on.
  • Some girls taller than boys.
  • Conga lines.
  • At the end of the dance, parents gathered at the double doors, taking it all in.
The Drama
  • A girl crying in the bathroom, with several of her friends circling her & asking what was wrong.
  • Pairs of kids, boys and/or girls, walking across the dance floor, always looking for someone.
  • When the one slow song came on...OMG, the mood in the whole place changed. Most kids scattered to the four corners of the MPR, but a few brave couples paired up and slow danced. Girls' hands on the guys' shoulders, guys' hands on the girls' waists. They swayed back and forth to the music, with a foot of space between them. Instead of looking at each other, they watched their friends through the entire dance.
For the record, one of my sons danced with a girl (one of his best friends). It took every ounce of mommy willpower to NOT whip out my phone and snap pictures. My other son was too terrified to ask someone.

How does this compare to dances at your local schools? What's your most vivid middle school dance memory, good or bad? Please share!

Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Critique Giveaway! (plus a shame-faced apology & a group hug)

A few weeks ago, Angela and Becca from The Bookshelf Muse were kind enough to add me to their esteemed list of Writing Heroes. I was amazed, honored, and thankful. How awesome and generous is that?

Their blog is a mandatory stop when I'm working through revisions. I have plenty of (see Bookshelf Muse) notes in my first draft, and on draft two, I refer to their resources as I add more details to my manuscripts.

The Shame-faced Apology

Angela and Becca generously gave me a 1,000-word critique, and I'd love to give it away to one lucky follower. I'm so sorry I didn't do this sooner! *hangs head* It wasn't until I saw this post by Janice Hardy (amazing blog, btw) that I realized I hadn't blogged about the Writing Heroes nod, and the giveaway.

The Group Hug

We are all SO lucky to be a part of this amazing, supportive, rockin' writing community. I love how we bounce ideas around, share what we've learned, encourage each other, and cheer each other on. So brace yourself...I'm including you in a ginormous virtual group hug.

The Critique Giveaway

If you'd love a 1,000-word critique by the awesome ladies at The Bookshelf Muse, all you need to do is let me know in the comments. What a golden opportunity! The deadline is February 16, at midnight EST.

If you haven't visited the Writing Heroes page yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Each of these bloggers is a huge asset to the writing community.

BIG thanks to Becca and Angela for their kindness, and another BIG thanks to you for stopping by my blog. **group hug**

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dude! Details from a skate park!

Last week I took our three sons to the skate park. It was a gorgeous So Cal day, and while the boys did their thing on the ramps and half-pipes, I sat with my trusty spiral notebook and jotted down setting details. If you write for middle graders or young adults, these scene details may come in handy. Here are some of my observations:

The Setting
  • Standard skate park environment--cement bowl, half-pipe, and ramps of various pitches. Metal staircase poles. A brown wooden bridge with blue and green flags flying at the corners.
  • Chunks of cement chipped out of the bowl's edges.
  • Palm trees planted near the bridge, fronds swaying in the gentle breeze.
  • 20' x 20' shades placed intermittently along the surrounding sidewalk.
  • Traffic noise from the nearby road--trucks and small cars.
The Toys
  • Wooden skateboards, BMX-style bikes, and in-line skates.
  • Most kids wore helmets. Adults did not. Some kids wore their helmets unbuckled, the straps hanging free.
The People
  • Mostly kids, from around six years old to older teens.
  • Two adults on skateboards--one with a shaved head, wearing denim shorts and a white T; the other had thinning longer hair, and he wore an unbuttoned shirt, corduroy pants, and mirrored sunglasses.
  • Most kids rode with one eye on their own path, and another eye on what the other kids were doing (tricks, etc.)
  • Some kids sat over the edge of the bowl, legs dangling, baseball caps on backwards, iPod buds in their ears.
  • Two teen girls were there, but not on a "ride." They ran up and down the half-pipe.
  • One older teen had a tattooed "ring" on his ring finger, about 1/2 inch thick.
  • Plenty of F-bombs dropped by some teens--young and old.
  • Standard uniform was skinny jeans and graphic T's.
  • Cringe-worthy crashes (including my sons).
  • Sounds of crashes differed, based on the toy. Scooters--silent glide and then metal scraping. BMX bikes--squealing tires, then rubber thumping, and then metal scraping. Skateboards--a whoosh, then wood scraping, and then a thunk as it flipped.
Have you ever visited a skate park? If so, did these scene details sound familiar? And do you ever jot down scene details when you're out and about?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Like a dog with a chew toy...

(Not my dog, but he's so cute!)

My little doggie has a favorite ball he plays fetch with--a tennis ball with all the felt stripped off. He has a basket full of clean, bright green balls, but he always returns to this same ball.

The other day I wound up for a big pitch, but when I threw the ball, it didn't fly straight. Not even close. It hooked left 90 degrees, flew down one of our hills, and got lost among thick brush. (I have the worst arm ever)

I tried to find the glorious ball, and even have the burrs in my clothes to prove it. While I crunched through brittle weeds, I asked my dog, "Why in the heck can't you play with another ball? Why does it have to be this ball?"

And then I understood. It's like someone asking us, "Why not pursue something easier than writing? Like baton twirling, yodeling, or brain surgery?" But writing is our passion. And just like my dog stares into the thicket, knowing what he wants, we stare longingly at the next stage of our writing journey.

So high five to you, fellow writers! It's fun to doggedly pursue our obsession together, knowing we'll get it...one way or another. Just like my dog will eventually find that ball, even if it's not until we clear brush from the hill again. But rest assured, he will find it.

Do you ever feel like a dog with a chew toy when it comes to writing? If you have a dog, does he insist on playing with the same nasty toys?

And on a completely unrelated note, which team are you rooting for in the Superbowl? And where will you watch the game?