For those confused, WordPress has been possessed this week and for some reason published some notes I’d saved in a DRAFT. Sorry for the confusion.
Becoming a non-fiction author has a number of steps. After having written both fiction and non-fiction, I don’t think one is easier than the other. There are unique challenges to both. Yet, I will say that even novelists can benefit from the same tactics employed by good NF authors.
Like fiction, there’s seemingly infinite variety of types of non-fiction. There’s self-help, narrative non-fiction, informational non-fiction, and on and on. Much of being successful in non-fiction (and fiction) is finding your audience, then developing your voice and then marrying your voice to a style that suits you.
Think Like a Journalist
A friend of mine, Author Caitlin Kelly, is the one who pointed this out to me, and she is an amazing and successful journalist and NF author who has a fantastic blog-–a vast treasure for all kinds of writers. She’s gruff, tough, and knows her stuff ;). If you want to ROCK non-fiction? She’s a priceless guide.
I’d been doing this “thinking like a journalist” thing for some time, just wasn’t particularly aware of it (until Caitlin made the observation). Journalists pay close attention to the world around them, collect, analyze and see patterns.
This is why good NF is more than just a glorified term-paper. We collect data, facts, information, opinions, then fashion them together into something uniquely our own that serves our audience. NF is less about listing pages of facts and studies. Leave that to the doctoral theses.
Journalists search for facts then tether those facts to the human story and assign relevance.
Novelists can learn from this tactic, too.
Where do you think so many of the best-selling story ideas come from? Many are birthed from headlines, history books, or human experience…then placed into story form. Fiction authors don’t have to pull ideas from the ether. The world abounds with stories if we pay attention.
Research can help with theme.
I recently helped a new writer plot her trilogy, but the underlying themes (though a fantasy) were essentially the injustice of slavery and sex-trafficking. These are two hot issues that have plagued humanity since the dawn of time. How much richer can a fantasy about slavery be if the author immerses herself in the sociological and psychological issues surrounding the topic TODAY (on planet Earth) then threads those motifs into her world?
Do Our Homework (Even When It’s Hard)
In my new NF book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World, I easily read almost 8,000 pages of other people’s research. Some of it was fun to read (I LOVE anything by Seth Godin and Neil Postman). Others? Real brain-benders. The Gutenberg Galaxy—The Making of Typographic Man was a the toughest 293 pages on my life, but Marshall McLuhan’s work was pivotal to the message I longed to convey.
The message is the medium and society cannot help but be influenced by technology.
I read exhausting works about neuroscience, the changes in the biological structure of the human brain over the centuries (due to technology shifts) and then, how this in turn, influenced society and economics. Why? Because I wanted to support why I don’t believe in relying on spam, ads and traditional marketing. I needed evidence that empirically demonstrated my contention that modern humans have literally learned to “un-see” such things (then offer solutions as to what humans would see).
Sure there are non-fiction books out there that thread together a bunch of fluff, glitter and opinions. But if we want to be a mark above? We must know our stuff.
This applies to novelists as well.
I once tossed a romantic suspense across the room because the author had the protagonist “putting the safety on a revolver” (which is an interesting trick since revolvers don’t have and never have had a safety). If there are guns in your book and you’re being specific? Understand how that gun works. Go to a shooting range. Ask questions like a journalist would.
Yes, I am notorious in movies for counting rounds.
Wow, a Magic Glock. He shot 35 rounds and never had to reload. Where can I get one of THOSE?
For Non-Fiction AND Fiction, The Devil is in the Details
I’ve read many samples of thrillers with military characters, but the characters were saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things that anyone trained to be a SEAL, a Green Beret, a military contractor or even a mercenary simply would never do. I’ve read about victims shot by a high-powered rifle with a small bullet-wound to show for it.
Um, said victim would likely be a red mist.
There’s a difference in gunshot wounds from a full-metal-jacket round as opposed to a hollow-point round, and, if we have this stuff in our books? Better nail the facts. Our reading audience (likely military people, law enforcement, or people who know/like guns) are reading and they can spot when we fail to do our research.
Years ago, I had a writer with a futuristic thriller/spy novel. He tried to “make up” a futuristic weapon, yet there was no making him understand that the caliber of his made-up weapon made it a ROCKET LAUNCHER. A little research and he’d have known that caliber is the diameter of the bullet. Want to write futuristic stuff and create futuristic weapons? Subscribe to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics and READ.
Tear out articles and file them away to refer to later. Bookmark useful web pages. Learn to use OneNote.
Have spree killers, hustlers, serial killers, thrill-killers, arsonists, manipulators, narcissists, sociopaths or sex-addicts in your book? The DSM-5 is your new best friend (and can be helpful for family reunions, too :D).
This professional reference can add dimension (and validity) to our characters. Research teaches us their behaviors, patterns and progression. For instance, someone who’s raped and killed women will only escalate. He will not deescalate back to being a Peeping Tom. He also won’t suddenly switch from murdering prostitutes to robbing banks. Different M.O. Different psychological profile.
Whether you write non-fiction or fiction, research is key. Read, subscribe to periodicals, read blogs and don’t be afraid to ask experts. Many are happy to help writers get the facts straight. The FBI has a page just for writers. There are also some fabulous reference tools out there. Look to cool guides like Deadly Doses–A Writer’s Guide to Poisons (and the rest of the series—AWESOME stuff!).
What have been some of your best resources? Have you had trouble finding where to go to find the information you need? Do you get frustrated with incorrect details? Is there a white panel van parked in front of your house, too?
I love hearing from you!
Since it was such a HUGE success and attendees loved it, I am rerunning the Your First Five Pages class SATURDAY EDITION. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off. Yes, editors REALLY can tell everything they need to know about your book in five pages or less. Here’s a peek into what we see and how to fix it. Not only will this information repair your first pages, it can help you understand deeper flaws in the rest of your manuscript.
My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.
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