“Fact is stranger than fiction.”
How often have you heard those words? But have you ever given any thought to them in the writing context? I know I didn’t for a long time, largely because I come from an academic background in which writing for research purposes always felt too much like “work” and I liked my downtime writing to be “fun” i.e. fiction.
In recent years, however, I’ve become much more interested in nonfiction as a genre in its various shapes and sizes. Outside of academic writing, there are all kinds of really fun forms of nonfiction. And I should also acknowledge that writing for academia and research can be a lot of fun too — I’ve just been doing it for a really long time and was looking to shake things up.
What does nonfiction mean to you?
Memoir? History? Biography and autobiography? Self-help? STEM books for your kids?
That’s the really cool thing about nonfiction. It takes facts and presents them in really accessible and intriguing ways.
Of course not everyone is interested in every topic you could ever think up, but that’s OK. In today’s world of writing and publishing, especially with the rise of self-publishing, you can write your niche book and probably still find a small audience somewhere out there.
And even if you don’t find a readership, isn’t researching and writing half the fun (probably most of the fun, in fact)?
Lots of research!
What’s often confusing for those interested in dipping their toe into nonfiction waters is that it can seem overwhelming: all that research, all that fact-checking, not to mention all the decisions about the best format to present the material. Some nonfiction is very “nuts and bolts” in terms of structure: for example, “how to” books. Other nonfiction can be presented in all kinds of ways: combinations of documents and commentary; writing in a narrative form that reads like a novel (sometimes called creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction); or, combining interviews, pictures, maps, and graphs. Nonfiction can be a veritable treasure trove of opportunities for flexing your writing muscles.
Regardless of what kind of nonfiction project you want to attempt, it’s important to remember that you’re still a writer. With nonfiction, you may also have to be a researcher, planner, interviewer, and wear any number of other hats. But you are still a writer. That means that it’s not enough to have a lot of material or just generally know a lot about your topic. You have to be able to write it in a way that’s accessible to your readers. You need to have an outline or frame for the work and a narrative voice that works for you as the writer, and for the material itself.
Nonfiction uses the same craft as fiction.
Some of the most successful nonfiction authors, particularly those who write creative/narrative nonfiction, biography, and history, often utilize the same craft techniques that fiction writers do, in order to bring historical characters and settings to life and generate interest for the reader. You might also see nonfiction writers presenting their work in first person (from the point of view of a real life person, which is often the case in memoir or autobiography in particular), or close third person so the reader can feel like they’re inside the head of a real person, from Abraham Lincoln to Sonia Sotomayor. Many good nonfiction writers also try to create immersive settings so the reader can truly experience what it was like to live at another time or in another place, just like a fiction writer. You also see nonfiction writers resorting to cliffhangers at the end of chapters so the reader will turn the page!
Then there’s the question of selling nonfiction, if you want to publish with a traditional publisher, as opposed to self-publishing. How do you write a pitch and query for a book that’s about something that really happened, a real person who lived in the past or lives in the present, a self-help book, or a cookbook? There are often different pitch and query approaches to different kinds of nonfiction and they’re not necessarily 100% consistent among all agents or editors, although there are some general rules of thumb. For example, if you’re writing narrative nonfiction or memoir, you usually pitch it like a fiction book (with a query letter and sample pages). If you’re pitching a “how to” book or a more nuts and bolts form of fiction, you generally write a slightly longer query letter including more of your credentials to write the piece, accompanied by a detailed proposal that talks about things like anticipated market, competing titles, more on your qualifications, and probably one or two sample chapters.
Nonfiction is fun, and gives you the opportunity to share new information with your readers (remember, fact is stranger than fiction). But it’s important to remember that whatever you’re writing, you’re always a writer first and it’s your job to make the information as accessible and engaging as you can.
Are you interested in learning more about writing Nonfiction? Join Jacqui for her class: Write Nonfiction with Jacqueline Lipton starting Monday!
She is a wife and mother of three kids and three cats with an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut novel for young adults, Inside the Palisade (written under the pen-name K.C. Maguire) won the Purple Dragonfly Award for Children’s Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2016. She also writes nonfiction for children and adults. You can find her online at: jdlipton.com