Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bringing research data to life in nonfiction writing

Writing a nonfiction book requires extensive research. I followed the Conway, Missouri Robotics Club for a year following their national championship. I went to Kickoff Day, robot design/planning sessions, observed and took notes of group discussions - which included arguments as well as thoughtful questions, watched the robot building process and went to the Hub and Regional competitions. At school, I talked with students individually, went to parents homes for interviews, talked with the school superintendent (the principal wouldn't talk to me) and a few community members who supported the CHS Robotics Club. At the end of the research year, I had a ton of notes and pictures of the robot driver team and the competitions. What I did not have, however, was enough data about the required mock corporation that BEST required. Oops!  How did that happen? I began the research year focused on the robot, which was the focus of the Robotics Club sponsor. He had been the supervisor for the robot for a few years and in all fairness, in my first interview of the year, he mentioned the mock corporation and the girl who did the majority of the work on that component. He also said the teacher who usually sponsored that part was no longer available. His excitement focused on the robot, the boys who designed and built it and I did too.  My bad. I wasn't the diligent reporter digging for all facts until late in the year so missed taking pictures and notes about the corporation component during the research year.  As I began writing the book, I realized my lack of data about the mock corporation was a big problem. How could I make up for that? Near the end of the school year, I tried more than once to schedule meetings with "The Women of FRED."  They didn't show, for whatever reason. So I started writing without any of their individual comments other than very brief time at competitions. During my third manuscript revision, where I'd decided to write first person, I was stuck. Racked my brain, dug out phone numbers and set up a series of meetings with the girl that Mr. Gibson identified as his main helper for the mock corporation. She was enthusiastic about the book and readily agreed to meet and talk. Now in college, Ceira and I had lunch for as many sessions as I could work in with her busy school and work schedule. The time was worth every penny. I gained a year's worth of data in a month of approximately hour long lunch sessions. We'd eat and talk, then she would look over my latest chapter draft and tell me which parts were right on and which were not. It wasn't the best organized research plan up front, but we made up for lost time. The only thing I still regret is the loss of photographs because the school took down the web site at the end of the FRED school year. I attempt to make up for that in the Dread the FRED book, by painting word pictures of the mock corporation.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book promotion: a mystery wrapped in an enigma and likely lodged in cyberspace

More than 100,000 students in grades 1-12 are involved in robotics activities each school year - worldwide. How do I reach them as a potential audience for my creative nonfiction book about the fuel?  Dunno, but I'm going to give it my focus for 2014. Enough people that I trust have read Dread the FRED since it's November 23 launch and gave excellent reviews, that I'm encouraged to throw much more energy into promoting the book. I believe in the book, the story about real people who overcame huge obstacles to reach a goal they didn't even dare dream of, that I'm devoting precious time and energy into yet another new area. Promotion. This is a mysterious area, a little scary, but not totally daunting. I'm sure I'll make some wrong turns, but eventually, I will reach my goal.
Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

What's In A Name?

In this case, the name is the title of the creative nonfiction YA book just published. My first working title for the book was The Life and Times of FRED. At the time, I thought the story was all about the robot's creation and the year's competitions. Turned out, building the robot was a major part of the story, but the backstories grew and grew after I interviewed more and more people.

When I learned that a mock corporation was required in order for a school to compete with a robot, that expanded the first backstory and gave the book a gender balance. Then I found out that instead of committees, the CHS Robotics club had a series of vice presidents in charge of (1) the table display, (2) the t-shirt design, (3) the web site, (4) fund-raising, (5) the notebook, (6) the oral presentation of the corporate team. There were many more people involved than the two main robot engineers. My working title became Team FRED. Another backstory developed into a love story. 

The final title comes from the Hub competition when the spirit team started chanting “Dread the Fred, Dread the Fred” as they racked up more and more points in a huge win. 

I posed the series of potential titles to the key students involved. The majority chose Dread the FRED. It works.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Chronicle reporter questions #4, #5

  What other outside sources did you use?
The BEST Robotics web site has competition guidelines online as well as past winners from all over North America; there are online newspaper posts about BEST robotics competitions, university press releases from events, and the CHS youTube video.

 Is there a website or FB page that goes along with the book?
There is not yet a site dedicated to the DREAD THE FRED book, but I have postings of photos and book availability on my facebook page and in my blog

Below is a link to a video clip:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

CHS interview questions # 2, #3

1Ashley DiFonzo, reporter for the Conway, MO Chronicles questions and my answers regarding Dread the FRED book:

 What is your connection/history with Conway schools?
I am an alumna of the Laclede County R-I school system. I graduated eighth grade from Phillipsburg and following the consolidation, graduated from high school at Conway. In order to earn a living, I earned a BA, MA, Ed Specialist and Ed.D., degrees; taught public school, taught college, and served as a university administrator.

 Did you interview all the students in the Robotics Club from that year?

I interviewed as many students in the Robotics Club as would sit down and talk with me. That wasn’t the entire club, but a significant group including Paul Coryell, Phillip Foust, Lloyd Oberbeck, Jr., Shane Sell, Grant Rumfelt, Broghan Fields, Ceira Gisselbeck Fields, and  Shyanne Witt. I also interviewed as many parents, teachers, administrators and community members as I could find to talk with me. In addition to one-on-one and small group interviews; I followed the club the entire next year as they went to Northark College to collect the raw materials for that year’s robot, then as they planned and built the robot and the required corporation component. I watched, listened, videotaped Kickoff Day at Northark College in Harrison, planning sessions at CHS, practice sessions at CHS, attended the Hub competition at Northark College, and the regional competition at the University of Arkansas in Ft. Smith. Sadly, I didn’t have the funds to attend the national competition in Orlando but I watched a live stream of much of the action. Significant information came from over one thousand photos taken by Phillip Foust during the FRED year. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

What was my inspiration for writing Dread the FRED?

Paperback Press CEO
Sharon Kizziah Holmes

Ashley DiFonzo, Conway high school student reporter for the Conway Chronicles posed a series of questions for me, the author of DREAD THE FRED YA nonfiction book. Her first question is the most important.

Q/A with Dr. Joyce Ragland, author of DREAD THE FRED nonfiction book:

1.    What was your inspiration in writing this book?

The short answer is to recognize the accomplishments of those involved in CHS’ Robotics Club. An academic event win at a national competition is huge for any high school and quadruple times so for a rural, poor school! 

book launch
The answer continued: As I interviewed more and more people, my inspiration included a broader goal of telling the back story as well as the immediate story. That is, I learned that the team of male drivers of the robot could not have entered the BEST competitions without the mock corporation and that was mostly done by the girls in the club. Students in the Robotics Club developed required t-shirts, the web site, the notebook, the table display, did fund-raising, and made up the Spirit Team –all important to the story – about thirty students. Moreover, they did the activities after school and on weekends. The book tells more than just building and competing with the robot, it includes the problems of raising the money needed all during the year, some gender differences in Club roles, competition for resources with other activities the community traditionally supports, dominance of robotics events by wealthy private and large public schools, a love story – and more.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Challenges, Successes, Transitions

My three-year term as the RA (Regional Advisor) for the SCBWI-Missouri chapter ends, I'm relieved, elated, and wistful. The appointment opportunity came at a time when I was fighting for dignity during a divorce where my now-ex tried to batter my sense of self, my personhood, and my emotions. He tried, but did not succeed. Being the SCBWI-MO RA gave me the opportunity to focus my energy into something positive. I now have three successful conferences behind me, many new friends, many new acquaintances, and a greater support system than I'd envisioned.

I am relieved to have the difficult parts of the position over, but glad that I succeeded despite obstacles.

I am elated to now have my creative nonfiction YA book, DREAD THE FRED in publication and thank SCBWI for the opportunity to learn from the best authors and editors in publishing.

I am wistful that the RA gig is ending, just as I've kinda sorta figured out the thing.  But my hand-picked Assistant is going to carry the torch to new heights and will probably invent a new torch while she's at it. Carry on Kimberly Ann Piddington, with my blessings and support - if needed.

We laughed, sniffled, got books autographed, learned from the best of the best, ate St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, dined on great Italian (as only St. Louis can do) food and left the conference as friends, colleagues, inspired writers and illustrators.
SCBWI-MO collage by Peggy Archer

Joyce, in final SCBWI-MO conference RA mode