Writing Non-Fiction #2
Everyone has a book inside them, the cliché goes – and wits will say that in most cases it should stay there. Take a look at the week’s top ten book listings in your Sunday newspaper, or online. Quite a few are by people who are not primarily writers; they made their name as chefs, game show hosts, sports stars or politicians. So before you plan your non-fiction book the first question is: who are you?
If you are a well-known personality, there is a good chance you will be able to get a book deal regardless of your writing skills. An outspoken former Tory minister may decide the time is ripe to publish her memoirs, if only to get the jump on any scoundrel who fancies writing the ‘unauthorised biography’. Even if she’s too busy or can’t write for toffee there are ghost writers and professional editors out there who can put her story on the page and her name on the spine. Prince Harry’s ghost writer was reputedly paid a million dollars to write Spare.
It may be that our celebrity has only one story to tell, and this is it. It has taken a lifetime to amass the anecdotes and experiences to fill that volume. For retired sports stars, actors and musicians well past their glory days it may be time to tell that one story while they are still remembered, perhaps treating the one-off advance as part of the pension plan.
If you are not famous, but believe you have led an interesting life, stop and pause before writing your autobiography or the biography of a relative. We all live interesting lives – what is so special about this one? Few people know who you are, and your name means nothing. To be successful, the selling point of your book is not you, but your experience as a midwife in New Guinea or a veteran of the Falklands War. You’ll need to make hard choices in order to focus your story so as not to disappoint the reader who finds you were only a midwife for a year, or the Falklands occupies just chapter six of your book. One avenue is to give the book a particular spin of humour, pathos or sheer horror that makes it stand out from the humdrum.
The experiences you describe need to be substantial. For example, in your coming-of-age narrative, a highpoint for you was that when you were ten years old the US President visited your school. He was only there for half an hour, you can’t remember his speech and he never actually spoke to you so the anecdote shrinks to unimportance unless the experience fundamentally changed your life. The half dozen occasions on which I mixed with Princess Anne, Prince Edward, Prince Andrew and the future King Charles III would barely fill two pages of my autobiography and the reader’s reaction would justifiably be ‘so what?’. Even celebrity memoirs can descend into lists of other celebs met at parties, the narratives tailing away without a punchline.
You most probably hold a particular interest or have a particular skill, and this is where the genesis of many books comes from. If your passion is narrow-gauge railways or cross-stitch or breeding border collies that could be the spur for writing. My life as an archaeologist and museum director and my passion for military history has been the launch pad for all my non-fiction. You may be an acknowledged expert in your field, which is the springboard for the celebrity chefs, the survival experts and fitness gurus. Not only does your experience provide the bedrock for your writing, this also makes it more likely you will write a book that is genuinely good, and one that people will want to read.
Martin Edwards followed a career in law and enjoyed success with his Rachel Savernake and Lake District mystery series. He became both the Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association and the President of the Detection Club. His encyclopaedic knowledge of crime novels formed the basis for award-winning factual books including The Life of Crime.
He says, ‘I believe writers should aim to make their non-fiction as engaging to read as fiction, so narrative techniques matter. Even when I’m writing about factual stuff, I see it as a form of storytelling, and whether writing about the history of crime fiction or even legal topics (which of course need to be discussed clearly and precisely) I always draw heavily on my experience of writing novels, trying to convey the relevant information without sending readers to sleep.’
We’ll touch on the points Martin raises about narrative style in a later blog.
If you have experience or qualifications in the field you are writing about, make these clear somewhere. The best place is inside the jacket or in a section entitled ‘about the author’. Include a photograph of yourself, and it will attract interest if it is a relevant photograph – leading that dig in Turkey, wearing battledress, or pulling a cake from the oven. Try not to be pompous, but don’t hide your light under a bushel either.
Unless you are writing an autobiography, avoid the temptation to start the book with a long preamble about your childhood in Glasgow and how eventually you became interested in the beetles of Costa Rica. It might be enough to put off a potential buyer browsing the shelves, who then buys the next book along because it starts talking about beetles on page 1.
Just perhaps you are in the lucky position of making a free choice. Perhaps you suddenly have time on your hands, your life takes a different direction, and you want the challenge of writing a book. You have a blank page in front of you, so your choice is the hardest, and yet you are also free from the expectation of others. A world of possibilities awaits the budding non-fiction author. Research, explore, discover and then start to write.
Featured images: A Life of Contrasts, the autobiography of Diana Mosley (Mitford); The Campaigns of Napoleon by historian David Chandler; Nigella Express by celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. All available online.