WRITING NONFICTION: From Boring to Exciting

In my previous blog, I talked about writing book-length fiction for adults and how to make your writing stand out from all of the other submissions. In this blog, I want to talk about writing nonfiction.

Nonfiction is a different animal, but it has some of the same requirements as fiction. For example:

You want a strong beginning that carries throughout your story.

You want to be able to tell your story factually and creatively.

You want to be able to verify your facts.

Most important, you must have strong credentials to be able to write on the subject of your choice. If you are going to write a book on the history of the Empire State Building, at the very least you want to have a close blood relative who helped build it, thus giving you a credible reason for your interest in writing about it in the first place, not to mention never-before-seen photos of the building’s construction, rare blueprints or schematic drawings, and interviews of people who were involved or associated with the project.

There are other things that reflect on how your work of nonfiction will be received by a potential publisher.

1. Write about something that really interests you. Emerson said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” He was right. Pick a subject that bores you and you’ll write a boring book (if you manage to finish at all); but if you’re fascinated with your material you’ll not only enjoy writing it, you will write a book that conveys that excitement to the reader.

2. Be quiet and listen. With all that is available on the Internet, a great deal of research can be accomplished without ever leaving your computer. But to write a comprehensive, book-length work of nonfiction, you will want to go beyond the Internet for primary and even secondary sources, as well as tidbits of information that will make your writing fresh. Biography, true crime, narrative, how-to and self-help are different types of nonfiction that can be improved with the inclusion of information received through personal interviews. This requires you to be both sociable and a bit of a recluse. It’s definitely not for the morbidly shy. You have to cold-call a lot of perfect strangers, and in some cases get them to tell you their darkest secrets. Why should a stranger tell you anything, especially since you are going to broadcast it to the world in book form? That is where “be quiet and listen” comes in. You sympathize, and you listen for however long the interview takes. You will be amazed at how often people will seize the opportunity to talk when they think someone is interested. So, when interviewing, don’t just tick off a laundry list of questions; let the person talk, be quiet and listen, and respond to what he or she is saying. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

3. While working on his final novel, THE LAST TYCOON, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notes in all caps: ACTION IS CHARACTER. It is, and it is applicable in both fiction and nonfiction. Human beings are far too complex to explain away with just a few adjectives. Yet this is probably the most common mistake I see as an agent and professional editor in the submissions I receive. Although “show, don’t tell” doesn’t apply in every situation, an experienced writer will use the technique more often than not. Let your reader see and hear how your characters behave, and let your reader (for the most part) draw his or her own conclusions.

4. Be prepared. Fiction writers can get away with a certain amount of spontaneity in their writing; indeed, half the fun (and agony) of fiction writing is finding out where exactly your story or novel is going as you write it. If you’re Faulkner, it’s okay to fill a glass with bourbon and branch water and get slowly potted while you (or your genius or daemon or what you will) channels the deathless prose of Absalom, Absalom! However, nonfiction writers don’t really have that luxury, and biographers certainly don’t. First, you have to do your research. Then you find your structure (is it chronological, thematic, a little of both?). Finally, you put all those quotes and factoids in their proper order. I find it helpful to start with a bare bones outline. Then I start adding to that outline such things as main events. From that I am able to plug in my research. This is an over-simplification because in reality even just these basic steps require months of writing and revising before a final, coherent story forms. The important thing to remember is that you must be prepared: good research leads to a strong structure which leads to a coherent story.
5. Final notes before submitting your manuscript. I am a perfectionist and perform my work tasks under the belief that “first impressions count.” With this in mind, there are a few things you need to complete or at least prepare for before submitting your nonfiction manuscript to an agent or publisher.

– Cover page: This should include your book title, your name, address, e-mail address, telephone number, and any other methods of contacting you, like fax or mobile numbers.

– Table of contents: Most word-processing packages will work this out for you. However, not all of them will update automatically. The last thing you should do before printing out your manuscript is to make sure the table of contents is accurate. It is annoying and time-consuming for an editor to try to find a chapter based on an incorrect table of contents.

– Figures and tables: Your publisher will probably have guidelines for how these are to be produced. The standard way of numbering figures is to use the chapter number as a reference. For example, the first figure in chapter three will be Figure 3.1. The first table in chapter three will be Table 3.1. If the publisher has asked for figures and tables to be provided separately as well as in the body of the text, make sure you do so. And always double-check the numbering. A numbering convention that changes halfway through the manuscript is unsettling and unprofessional. So are duplicate numbers. If you add in an extra figure or table, make sure you re-number all the subsequent ones.

– References and further reading: Many nonfiction books use references or lists of further reading. It is your moral obligation to reference another author or researcher’s work where you have used his or her words or ideas in your own manuscript. There are several different styles for referencing. Harvard and St. Martins are two of the common styles. I use the Chicago Manual of Style, but check if your publisher has a particular format they want you to use. Double-check that any reference used in the text is also present in your bibliography or references list at the end of the manuscript. Your further reading lists should be set out in the same way to give the reader enough information to find the book or article if she wants to take a topic further.

– Index: Indexing can be a nightmare. It is also almost impossible to do at manuscript stage as you will not have the final page numbers. However, you can compile a list of index entries and sub-entries. This will help you later if you are expected to do the index. Some publishers use professional indexers so this option might be available to you. However, professional indexers will rarely know the subject matter as well as you, so they might miss key phrases. It is better, if a lot more work, to compile the index entries yourself and then let the publisher decide how to take that list forward.

– Proofreading: At this point you are too close to the text to give your work an accurate proofreading. Give it to someone you trust for a final proofread or hire a professional book editor to proofread your work. Ask your proofreader to also be on the lookout for paragraphs that make no sense or that are not clear. As you are a subject-matter expert, it is often easy to churn out whole pages that make perfect sense to you but mean absolutely nothing to your reader. There is no point in having beautifully polished prose if it is not accessible.

– Your final read through: Once you have your manuscript back from the proofreader, you are free to incorporate anything the proofreader has suggested or not. As you read through the suggested changes, try to read the text yourself with a fresh eye. There comes a point where you have to stop editing, but if you think you can improve something, you probably can.

– Presentation: it goes without saying that your final manuscript (in paper format) must be double-spaced, neatly printed with sufficient margins and numbered pages. If you are e-mailing your final version, the same rules apply. Avoid widows and orphans on pages. Set the margins wide. Double-space, add page numbers and proper header, and make sure that section and page breaks are logical without leaving blank pages in the middle of your manuscript. Whether you are using snail mail or e-mail, include any other files, like photographs, copies of figures and tables, and your biography for the cover. I like to include a dedication at this stage as well.

Hopefully, I have been able to give you some constructive pointers to use the next time you are writing nonfiction. For my next discussion, I want to bring you up to date on the new exciting things that have been going on in the Barbara Casey Agency.

Thank you for stopping by.