Wildcard: Non-Fiction Writing for Fiction Writers

Wildcard: Non-Fiction Writing for Fiction Writers

Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music.

Ask the Author: Bruce Brady via aarongansky.com: Do you feel 3 or 4 POVs in a middle grade novel are too many?

Aaron: Great question, Bruce, especially since we just finished talking about POV last week. I don’t think that three or four POVs is too much for a middle grade novel. I wouldn’t want to go too much beyond that, but I think you’re in the realm of reasonability here. What I’d do is study a few of your favorite middle grade novels to see how they’re doing it. Look at the publishing houses that are publishing MG books with multiple points of view. They’re more likely to take something in their wheelhouse.

Al: I agree with Aaron. Check out what other writers in the genre/age group or doing. I think you would want one pov from the male character (if there is one) and one from the female character. This will give the young readers someone to relate to. Boys are more likely to read stories featuring boys and girls will be drawn to a girl in significant role. That’s a broad statement but it’s probably a good observation.


WILDCARD: Non-Fiction Writing for the Fiction Writer

This week, in honor of Pop’s new book Unspoken releasing, we thought we’d talk a bit about nonfiction writing for the fiction writer. Whether you like it or not, you’ll be writing nonfiction someday. It may be as simple as a blog post, or as prestigious as an article (or a book) for Writer’s Digest. Let’s talk a bit with Pops (who has written 11 nonfiction books and co-wrote 2 others) about the differences between the two types of writing and how we, as fiction writers, can maximize our efforts when writing nonfiction.

Aaron: Why is it important that fiction writers know how to write nonfiction?

Al: Many of have an erroneous image of what it means to be a writer. I used to think that an author sat around all day drinking coffee, number 2 pencil in hand or sat behind a spiffy typewriter (computer), a fire blazes in the fireplace, the writer wears a smoking jacket, and an Irish Setter is curled up within petting reach. Turns out it’s a lot of work and producing the work is only part of the work for a contemporary writer.

Today, publishers want writers who can do public speaking, have a large blog following, can write backcover copy, and more.

Also, the experience of writing articles, blog posts, even nonfiction books, can make the fiction writer much better at his/her art. Many famous writers of the past wrote essays, nonfiction books, articles, and the like. (Think George Orwell).

Aaron: Pops, first of all, what would you say is the primary difference between nonfiction and fiction?

Al: Several things.

  1. Fiction is primarily entertainment. It allows readers to live vicariously through fictional characters. It can be educational, but that’s seldom the goal.
  2. Nonfiction is educational or persuade. Its primary purpose is present information in a professional, even entertaining way, so the reader knows more. Great nonfiction can bring out emotions as strong as fiction. The 1985 book Day One by Peter Wyden was incredibly moving. I read that book 30 years ago and I still can’t shake some images.
    The thing with nonfiction is this: With fiction, the reader knows it’s not real; with nonfiction they know that it is real and that can be a powerful thing.
  3. It both cases, the writer leaves images, ideas, and his/her fingerprints on the reader’s brain.
  4. The writing is different. Writing nonfiction, I believe, uses a different part of the brain.

Aaron: What about books that are written like novels but are nonfiction at the foundation (Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Stone’s The Origin-about Charles Darwin-and maybe others).

Al: Nonfiction written like a novel is a form of what used to be called, New Journalism. It was an effort to involve the reader more and make readers feel as if they are living the experience. The best nonfiction writers use the skills of a fiction writer: rich description, orderly thinking, plot development, etc.

Aaron: Now aren’t some novels created from nonfiction sources? Something like Thomas Wolfe’s The Right Stuff has been called a nonfiction novel (how’s that for paradox?)

Al: Yes there are. These authors take historical events and relate them in story form. That includes detailed scenics and dialogue. Some nonfiction “narrators” take the third person freedom of relating internal dialogue.

  • This, of course, creates a bit of a problem. If the nonfiction puts words in the mouth of say, Harry S. Truman, that is directly drawn from historical record, then the writer is doing more than using fiction technique but is introducing fiction.
  • Jack Cavanaugh went through the trouble of informing the reader of his historical novels about what was assumed or what scenes are based on imagination and not fact. He did this in an afterword.
  • Thomas Wolfe interviews test pilots and the like for The Right Stuff. Wolfe was primarily a nonfiction writer but in this book he took the New Journalism approach. The book reads like a novel because it largely is; but it’s also categorized as non fiction.

Aaron: Why is nonfiction important to the fiction writer?

Al: Well, we’ve mentioned that contemporary writers are expected to help promote their works, and that can often be done by writing some nonfiction for the general press or in blogs. Name identification is important.

Mark Twain was a journalist before he was a novelist. He found his voice making newspaper articles fun to read. He also became what we would call today a “platform speaker.” Giving humorous speeches and writing humorous material was how he sold his books. His bestselling book Innocents Abroad (1869) is a travel book. It sold more copies than any of his other books including his novels, but we remember his for his fiction.

Aaron: What types of fiction techniques can we put to use in our nonfiction?

Al: Here are a few areas where the fiction writer can excel in nonfiction:

  1. Scene setting: This from Day One that I mentioned earlier: “The night was dark, the weather threatening. Standing tensely at the end of the runway, Dr. Norman F. Ramsey, a physicist from Columbia University, had watched the B-29 roar at him and lumber into the air as it edged toward the blackness of the Pacific.”
  2. Setting the milieu. From my book Unspoken: The Tennessee summer of 1925 was stifling. Still, hundreds of people of Dayton, Tennessee and nearby regions came dressed in suits and dresses to stand along the racks where a Southern Railways train waited. Men, several in Navy uniforms, carried a bronze coffin to the back  of the last car and helped load a passenger well-known to the entire country.”
  3. Give new life to subjects (characters). From my 30 Events that Shaped the Church, “For much of his life, Martin Luther was a miserable man. Guilt and fear overshadowed him. No matter how long he confessed–and at times he could confess for up to six hours–he never found peace for his soul.”
  4. Make the reader care about the players. Back Day One. Wyden describe what life was like in Hiroshima after the bomb dropped. He did by describing real people, some of them children. He made it real, not just a historical event.
  5. Unless you’re writing an academic book for an academic publisher, then you can engage your storytelling skills.

Aaron: How do you plan your books and articles, your blog posts, etc.? Do you outline?

Al: The best outline in the world for short nonfiction (Monroe’s Motivational Sequence). Five steps and can be used for much more than speeches. I’ve used this for blog posts, articles, video script, advertising copy, and chapters in nonfiction books. It’s amazingly versatile. The blog post that appeared today on www.novelrocket.com was done in this form.

  1. Attention step. Vivid description, an anecdote, anything that pulls the audience/reader in.
  2. Need step. Describe what the reader needs to know, or feels, or worries about, etc.
  3. Satisfaction step. Here’s what can be done about it.
  4. Visualization step. This is what it looks like when action takes place.
  5. Action step. An appeal to respond.

This can be tweaked anyway you like. Customize it. Let’s pretend I’m running for school board…(a thirty second speech, brief promotional copy, etc)

Aaron: What was it about the subject matter for Unspoken that drew you in?

I got hooked on the Scopes Trial while writing a chapter in 30 Events. The more I learned while doing research, the more I realized that the trial had become more myth than reality.

Also, some of the characters were misrepresented over the years, especially in the play and later movie Inherit the Wind. William Jennings Bryan has been mistreated by history so I wanted to discover what really went on and what WJB really believed.

Aaron: Having discussed the difference, do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction?

Al: I love both. Usually I prefer whatever I’m NOT  working on. But then again, I never claimed to be mentally balanced.

Aaron: What was your favorite part of writing Unspoken, and what do you hope your readers will take away from it?

Al: We writers like to say that reading is vicariously living through characters. Writing is even more so. I’ve learned a lot about how our country was changing in the mid-1920s. Research is fun, but tiring, but I love that too.

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