I learned the key to writing young adult non-fiction was in finding an overall theme to the story, as well as in each and every chapter, all of which I put to good use in writing Lee Marvin: Point Blank. This was a concept radically different from my previous writing and editing of fiction, where the emphasis was on content and comprehension for a much lower reading level. Writing young adult non-fiction biographies for Lucent Books (which also went by Gale, Thomson, Cengage Learning, Greenhaven Press…Whew!) had wholly other challenges. For example, my first young adult non-fiction assignment was Adam Sandler.
Not a favorite subject, that’s for sure, but in doing the research the themes began to come together. This taught me something else: ALWAYS write the introduction last, even though it’s the first thing to be read. One never knows what the overall theme is until the project is completed. For Sandler, as I wrote in the company’s catalog, the theme proved to be as follows: “Adam Sandler has become a superstar doing what he thinks is funny, first as a class clown and nightclub comedian, and then on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ hit films and best selling albums. Playing a goofy but lovable loser, Sandler is actually a writer, actor, producer, and musician who’s loyalty to his close-knit group of coworkers has taken him to the highest level of success.”
The Sandler bio proved successful enough to garner more assignments. Next up was a subject I was was much more enthusiastic about. In fact, I even pitched this one instead of being assigned to it and the editor agreed! Will Ferrell was a much more fun subject, as I also described in the catalog:
“Where most comedians have overcome a tragic upbringing, Will Ferrell has gone from a relatively happy childhood to become one of America’s most popular funny people. In this first ever biography of the sought after film and TV star, discover how Ferrell has parlayed his ability to turn outrageousness and hubris into one of the most successful comedy careers in contemporary show business.”
I actually pitched several ideas to the editor on a regular basis. Some were accepted, some not, but in the mean time I asked about another series by Lucent called History Makers. They had several titles available and so, being the movie fan that I’ve always been, I agreed to write about Lawmen of the Old West which was released the same year as the Will Ferrell bio. Six real life individuals of my choosing (‘Hanging’ Judge Isaac Parker, Wyatt Earp, Frank Canton, Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, and Bill Tilghman) were written about by yours truly within the following theme:
“The western frontier was a time of immense change and extreme behavior, requiring men like Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson and Bill Tilghman to enforce the law. They were not the icons of virtue legend has painted them, nor were they the extreme opposite as portrayed by revisionists.”
From that assignment, I was able to pitch my next project and it was accepted. In the midst of writing it, however, I was informed that the word count had been radically changed as the publisher decided to make the book’s entire design different from their previous titles. Bigger fonts and color photos meant I had to redo all that I had already written to fit this new format. I was informed that other authors had bailed on their projects and I was offered the same option. Undaunted, I redid the work, and created the following theme for the book:
“As a lonely child growing up in a trailer park, Hilary Swank dreamed of becoming a successful actress. Her determination and talent took her from living in a car to eventually earning two Academy Awards by the time she was thirty. The amazing momentum of her career continues for the woman now considered one of the greatest actresses of her generation.”
Granted, the subject’s staying power as a movie industry force may not have lasted, but it was a great challenge to redo the work for the new design and delve into such themes as transgender issues, voting rights, and more, all based on Swank’s career choices.
I was next assigned to write about Joe McCarthy for the company’s seres called Heroes & Villains but in the midst of my research, they cancelled the series. Still undaunted, and still in a political vein, I took on the challenge of writing about Congress’ first female Speaker of the House.
The challenge here was deceptive in that her life was pretty straightforward but detailing the complex inner workings of Congress — with it’s rules and hierarchy — for young adults in a simplified manner, now THAT was a challenge! The result was described this way…
” Describes the life and career of Nancy Pelosi, from her childhood in Baltimore and early political career, to her rise as the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives.” Talk about deceptively simple!
Anyway, I got the Pelosi assignment because of a previous project that I had done in 2007 on another nationally known female political figure. On rare occasion, a subject is updated, which is what I was asked to do for a previous book I had done…..
Although I still had to deal with such events in Hillary Clinton’s life as the White Water scandal and Monica Lewinsky, the timing was such that I was able to avoid having to write about Benghazi, her e-mail server, and the painful presidential bid against Trump last year. In other words, it’s still a worthy read.
Practically at the same time as the Hillary Clinton revision I also wrote this…
Few things are more enjoyable to me than being able to research and write about a talented film personality, and Denzel Washington certainly filled that bill!
I would very much love to do more young adult non-fiction as the lives and impact of certain individuals are fascinating to me.
As you can see, my fascination casts a pretty wide net, from comedy to film to politics and more, so…..
Anybody need a freelance young adult non-fiction writer who also happens to be an award-winning (see number 33), NY Times bestselling author?
– Dwayne Epstein