Tag Archives: nonfiction

A Vaudeville for Novelists: Does narrative nonfiction provide a place to start?

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.

The Great Dictator: A secret weapon for words on paper

How do you get 10.000 words on paper in a week?  My answer has been to mix up typing with dictating.  If I just did one or the other (as a friend did), I suspect I’d end up with carpal tunnel or laryngitis.  I’ve been at this now for 10 weeks (100,000 words), so I can say my process works for me.  It may not work for you.

  1. Have something to say every day.  I usually try to work this out at least the day before.  It is always good for a writer to be making notes anyway.  Might as well make sure a few are aimed toward upcoming writing.
  2. Put the outline right in front of you.  For the nonfiction, this is pretty easy.  The structures for essays, articles and books are well known.  If you’ve been at it a long time, the appropriate shape for the outline is second nature.  For the novel I’m doing with Susan, a synopsis was part of the deal.  I didn’t write write a word of the text until we both were happy with what the book would (generally) look like.  I will add that I have reservations about working from an outline with fiction.  I’ve been much happier in recent years “winging it.”  And during this period, I’ve done a number of flash fiction pieces where I started dictating (didn’t type any of them) with only the title in front of me.  But, in each case, it was a title I loved.  BTW, Zombie Chic was just accepted by Bards and Sages.  It will appear in their October issue.
  3. Don’t get hung up with the outline.  It is there to make you productive, not to tie you down.  I never know exactly what I am going to write, even with nonfiction.  With fiction, the characters sometimes take over and make things crazy.  Which is the way I like it.  If they surprise and delight me, they are more apt to do the same for readers.  At least, that’s what I believe.
  4. If it is dictated, look it over as soon as the scene is finished (if your characters don’t dash right into a new scene).  I love my MacSpeech dictate.  I can consistently write, er, speak, five pages an hour.  But these are not perfectly transcribed (even though I have an options window in front of me throughout).  Careful reading right after dictating can save a lot of effort playing Sherlock Holmes with garbled text later.
  5. Do rewriting the old-fashioned way.  Trying to dictate corrections is technically tough.  And I’m suspicious of it anyway.  I think taking on the text with fingers on the keyboard is necessary.  And I’ve never printed out a page without seeing something that got by me on the laptop’s screen.  I still like pencils.

Again, what works for me may not work for you.  But with my 10,000 words on Lucky Numbers drafted and a story placed in the last week, I do have some evidence on my side.  (For those who care, about 7,000 of those words were dictated.  And note one word of this blog was.)

Some odds and ends:

Got a marketing call this week on Innovation Passport, which made it seem more real.  I also did a word count on the ms as a whole.  82,000.  No kidding.  We were shooting for 70,000 and thought that was ambitious.

There was some drama in the drama group.  We heard a reading of the first act of a new play, and all the comments were about the spelling and grammar.   (No kidding.  One attendee, script in hand, counted 70 things that needed correcting.)  We all need to use the tools of language, but it is a waste of a group to just do proofreading.  I made some pointed suggestions (like dump the first scene).  I thought I did so politely.  I hadn’t critiqued this guy before, and I got a lesson when I asked him to read a part in one of my works.  The character is comical with lots going on, including a cheating wife, an alluring neighbor and a battle with a business.  The playwright I’d critiqued can handle humor well, but slumped in his chair and muttered the lines without expression.  Painful.  (Overall, the piece went over well anyway.)

What do you say when a young writer asks for things she “should” read?  Beats me.  I complimented a terrific poem by a woman I’ve known since she was about nine.  I actually was geared up to read it because I’d been captivated by Wilfred Owen all weekend.  (Wonderful stuff I finally got around to reading.)  But what “should” be read?  I’ll need to ask some questions before I can say anything sensible.

With Innovation Passport mostly on its own, I’ll soon be turning my attention to the next nonfiction book, “The Innovation Underground: A Subversive Guide to Grass Roots Innovation.”  I’m excited by this, but dusting off the outline and making sense of it hasn’t been easy.  The experience from Innovation Passport is telling me to remix what I have so it will actually be interesting from page one.  Time to take a deep breath, square my shoulders and pretend I know what I’m doing.