Narrative nonfiction, I’ve learned, may be the midlist of our times. For aspiring novelists, this genre provides the kind of security book marketers long for. What is narrative nonfiction? Think “The Right Stuff” or “In Cold Blood” or (for a contemporary example) “The Perfect Storm.” Peter Rubie’s masterful “The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction,” provides wonderful guidance on this genre.
These book are (mostly) true stories that are told as if they were novels, with the familiar arc of a character’s life being set of balance, a series of challenges, a climax and a resolution. They are built around real events and the facts that matter, and it is the selection and ordering of the facts that provide the drama. There may also be quotes (as available or, especially for historical events, constructed) and even thoughts of some characters, where it can be justified. Respecting the line between being true to the story and just making things up is one of the challenges. No author wants to be the next notorious fraud.
Readers like narrative nonfiction because they believe that they are getting truth and facts. It is a good use of their time to see a real, rather than imagined, bit of an unfamiliar aspect of life. They still crave story, but the boundaries imposed by this genre reduce the risks of time and money.
Publishers and booksellers can more easily predict sales for nonfiction. The categories are clear and have the kind of a track record that only bestselling authors can give them in fiction. And the marketing is much easier since the potential buyers are readily identified. The midlist (perhaps the most important training ground for the next generation of bestselling novelists) has evaporated because common business practices — risk management, quarterly (monthly) planning and accountability — have bent publishing out of shape. Narrative nonfiction is an adaptation to this new environment.
In a way, this is good for writers, too. Narrative nonfiction forces authors to research, construct and observe in a disciplined way that can enhance their fiction writing. This genre provides a market where editors can be more trusting and less apt to meddle with the prose since audiences are more forgiving and there is less pressure to produce a bestseller.
I’ve written both fiction and nonfiction, so this seems like a natural for me. Give me a topic that is rich enough, and I’m confident that I can create a book that fits in this genre. My challenge is finding a topic that has a natural hook for audiences and hasn’t been done before. It would also be good if it didn’t require world travel and lawyers to nail down the facts. And it is essential that I have the bona fides to convince a publisher that I am the right person to write the book. (Some topics I’d love to write about await the sudden conferring of advanced degrees or my having a track record that makes editors throw caution to the wind.)
So the hunt is on. As I work on my extensive projects list (see my last entry), I’m jotting down notes on potential “can’t miss” books in narrative nonfiction. Some of the more compelling prospects, I’ve found, have already been written by someone else. Some of them are bait for lawsuits. A few are starting to speak to me. Eventually, I’ll try this out.