Master the Mechanics of Nonfiction

Man, oh man, how I wish I had a buck for each e-mail I receive that reads: “I’ve wanted to write a book for years. Can you tell me how to do it?”

When you tell people you’re a writer, isn’t it interesting how many of them think that since they know how to use a computer and can construct simple sentences, they also know how to write a book?

I may know how to plop behind the steering wheel and drop the gear shift into drive, but I seriously doubt my everyday abilities will enable me to compete in the Indy 500. Of course, I could compete at Indy if race car driving became a passion—and if I studied the racing business and types of cars. I’d have to practice taking curves at higher speeds and learn my car’s limitations. I’d have to crash a few times and learn the basics of rebuilding my vehicle.

Writing a nonfiction book isn’t that different. I bet even Mario Andretti could do it with a little practice and passion—because just as well-seasoned drivers cross finish lines, nonfiction writers saturated in basics are the ones who will edge out of editors’ inboxes and into contract territory.

1. Master the market

Regardless of the content, your book must have an audience. You need to know who the buyer will be before you choose a format, structure and theme. One of the most tragic pieces of advice I received as a new writer was from a writing instructor who innocently suggested I expand my article idea into a book. For months I stretched simple points and ideas, working that article into new directions and digging deeper into supplemental material. The result? It lost its vigor. I lost interest. And worst of all, I lost months of marketing, networking and writing time. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make the dragster into a lap racer.

But the experience taught me a beneficial lesson: Write only a book you’re sure will fill a space in the marketplace. You’ll find unending advice about the business of knowing how and where to submit your book proposals, but they must be based on a well-researched audience. Do your homework so you recognize the audience realities and marketing possibilities of your book idea. Even race car drivers can’t make any money with their driving skills if they haven’t researched the races.

2. Focus on format

Format is directly related to content and theme; it’s the undercurrent of the overall book. Drivers of dragsters know they sacrifice stability for speed. Writers must choose certain elements of their work over others when pondering the best format for their material.

During her 50 years in this business, nonfiction writer Sue Long-Turner also has been a songwriter, an advertising writer and a novelist. Today she still pens a monthly advice column for The Emporium Gazette (www.rolian.com/gazette), an electronic newsletter for writers. One column discussed her latest book, Wings Born Out of Dust, an account of her relationship with her son, a once well-respected musician who battled alcoholism all his short life.

She writes:

The hardest part for me in writing nonfiction books is the format. How am I going to tell the story? In writing Wings, I struggled and struggled with organizing the material. A well-known writer friend wanted me to choose the chronological route, regular biographical style. That didn’t work for me. Once I hit on the idea of writing the story in short episodes, I was off and sailing. For me, the episodic format was the most effective use of the material.

Format is paramount. If the content is instructional, then a conversational “how-to” approach will be necessary. If the content is scholarly, then sticking to the parameters of those publishers’ guidelines is essential. Every race car driver knows the dangers of violating the vehicle’s limits. Writers must pay extra attention to various formats and their limitations before selecting the structure best suited for their material.

3. Thread your theme

“I chose Michael Crichton. He’s cool, too.” My 14-year-old son strutted as he spoke. I was crushed that he couldn’t do his term paper on John Grisham—not because he’s my favorite author, but because I wrote a biography about him for Lucent Books a few years ago.

“What happened to John?”

“Ahh … some girl already picked him.”

“So, what’s the theme?”

His eyes glazed. “Huh?”

“Theme,” I frowned. “Are you telling me you don’t have a theme?”

Surely his literature teacher would pass along that presenting a theme is a pertinent part of a term paper. And, of course, she did, but he’s still a little fuzzy on its definition.

Like my son, we too must remember that theme serves as a major identifying element of our work. When writing John Grisham, I chose as a theme how the author kept his ordinary man personality amid his growing popularity and recognition. Each chapter presented new information, but each one also always tied back to the theme. For Depression (Lucent Books), I realized the theme needed to be overcoming the stigma surrounding the disease so people could find treatment without fear of ridicule.

Remember that theme serves as a bridge of continuity. Think of the differences between Andretti and Knievel. One is a legend for his longevity and skill, the other is a legend for his daring and tenacity.

4. Support the structure

The supporting material is your pit crew. It’s the support system—those note cards tucked into a pile of magazines and newspapers, or doodlings you made near the telephone while interviewing sources. It’s the layers of e-mail responses you printed from “the experts.” Sometimes knowing what to put in and what to leave out is the hardest part of writing. In fiction, we know we should only include what pertains to the character or plot development. But with nonfiction, how do you decide?

Simple. A pit crew is made of individuals with specific jobs who work for the overall benefit of the driver and car. Your book’s pit crew should re-examine the book’s market, structure/format and theme. Then scrutinize your research. Choose only what is pertinent to your book’s slant about the topic. If your book is about people who collect antique furniture and Mrs. Cream has a one-of-a-kind butter churn, then yes, include how she acquired it and maybe even a memory if it pertains to that object. If, however, she lapses into telling about a brother who never had to churn, then leave that out.

It’s natural to pack as much as possible into our stories, and that’s why a second, third and fourth read-through is so crucial. Sometimes my head spins faster than those race cars after reading anecdotes that don’t belong in a writer’s book.

Remember: If you don’t want your writing to travel in circles like those NASCAR drivers do, consider these basics as you build your nonfiction book, and you’ll end up in the best circle of all—the winner’s circle.

This article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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