Monday, June 2, 2008

On Writing for the Non-Fiction market

By Julie Wright

On Writing for the Non-Fiction market

Genre Toolbox

Non-fiction is a pretty broad topic. There are the self help books, the info-mercials thinly veiled as books, the cook books, the do it yourself books, the books on how to get out of debt, and the other books on how to become millionaires. Then there are the books for the sake of knowledge (history, science, etc).

Regardless of all the tiny facets we could talk about, there are certain all-encompassing things to know in order to write effective non-fiction.

• Story— Before you interrupt to tell me that non-fiction isn’t about story, let me assure you that it is. Think of the parables of Jesus. All these parables were told as a means to help the regular guy understand the teaching behind the story. I do a lot of teaching and have found that people engage themselves into my lessons when I stop boring them to sleep. People perk up and listen as soon as I share personal examples. Never underestimate the power of personal experiences. Examples that tie into the chapter and breathe life into whatever it is you’re teaching are the things that will stick in the reader’s mind the longest.

• Informed— Do you actually know what it is you’re trying to teach? Are you qualified? Are you really qualified? A little research goes a long way and a lot of research makes you an expert. Experts get to write non-fiction. Don’t think you’re going to write a book on how to make a million dollars in a month if you haven’t actually done it. Don’t write a cook book meant to compete with Julia Child if you don’t know who Julia Child is, and if you aren’t sure that mayo isn’t a spice.

• Order!— Order isn’t just something judges yell as they pound gavels to get everyone’s attention. Order is the sense and flow of your book. Make sure that your chapters flow smoothly from one topic to another topic in a way that seems organic and right to the reader. Just like a novel, a non-fiction book has a beginning, and a middle, and an end. What will capture the reader’s interest and make a good beginning? What is a good way to end the book so the reader closes it and feels fulfilled?

• Outline— I am not a great outliner. Organization is for—-well, organized people. However, I found that with writing non-fiction, organization was key. I needed a skeleton before I could begin placing meat on the bones. The structure kept me from tangenting (as I am prone to do) and allowed me the freedom to explore each segment fully. The mystery questions work well for non-fiction outlines: Who, What, Where, Why, and How.
---Who are you writing this book for? Who is your reader, your target audience? Who are you marketing to?
---What type of book are you trying to write? Pick your topic and stick with it.
---Where will people need this book? Where will they be reading? Is it a commuter book for while on the train to work? Is it something they’ll read while running on a treadmill, or something they’ll read while their hands are sticky with dough?
---Why are you qualified to write this book? Why do you want to write it?
---How do you plan on pitching this book to an editor or an agent? And then, how do you plan on marketing this book once it comes to publication?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to write a book that is sharply honed to the needs of the people who will read it.

• Know what else is out there— If you’re an expert on yoga and want to write a book on yoga, you might feel intimidated at the fact that there are a gazillion (not a calculated fact, this is merely an estimation) books on yoga in the bookstore. The beauty of this is that if you give twenty different people the exact same topic to write on, they will write twenty totally different books. Don’t panic. If you have a twist on an old idea, feel free to make it yours.

Non fiction is, in some ways, easier to write because the facts are already there. I wrote a non-fiction book on how to sell on eBay. It was like doing a really long research paper. In some ways I felt like the wizard of Oz. I had the basics--the tin man, but how did I animate him? How did I get a heart into him so others could relate to him? That's when it becomes so much harder to write than fiction.

For this reason, I recommend you pick a topic that you're passionate about.


Heather B. Moore said...

Great advice, Julie. Even for fiction writers--eventually we'll all write non-fiction too.

Rachelle said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm working on trying to get a non-fiction book published right now.

Annie said...

I'm just beginning to research and write a non-fiction book (my first! Ahh!) and I need all of the help and information I can get. Thanks for sharing!

Danyelle Ferguson said...

Totally spot on, Julie. I used every part of this when I wrote Teaching Special Spirits. My readers loved being able to connect with others through stories that were shared in the book. And yes, organization and research were a huge part of what made it all flow and work just right. Excellent post!