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On Writing Nonfiction

I thought that I’d share this essay that I wrote for the February 2015 issue of the newsletter of the Horror Writers Association. I hope that it illuminates or stimulates!

On Writing Nonfiction

by Leslie S. Klinger, HWA Treasurer

In working on the Rocky Wood Memorial Scholarship Fund [a new program providing grants to writers of nonfiction in the horror genre], I’ve been thinking about the life of the nonfiction writer. It’s quite different from that of fiction writers, and while it has its frustrations, there are singular joys as well.

First, you come up with an idea. Unlike fiction, the idea can be pretty “half-baked.” It may be just a topic or book that interests you; it may be a spinoff from another project. Let’s suppose that you just read “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood, a story that H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and others have hailed widely. After thinking about it, you decide that it would be interesting to write about Blackwood, his life, his influences, his experiences with nature, and what led him to writing supernatural literature.

The first step is always scouting the field. That is, you need to figure out whether (as lawyers say) your idea has been “pre-empted.” Who else has written about Blackwood? Or supernatural tales set in natural environments? Or Victorian supernatural literature? This is important for two reasons: First, you want to write something original and not waste your time covering a well-covered subject. Second, you hope that your work will actually be saleable. If someone just wrote the same book five years ago, you’re probably out of luck—unless, after scouting out that other book, you conclude that you disagree strongly with that writer and can do the subject better.

Next, you find a publisher. Yes, I know—you haven’t written a single word or done any real research! But that’s the key difference for nonfiction writers. The next crucial step in bringing your project to fruition is to write a proposal for the work and sell that proposal to a suitable publisher. The prospective publisher will want to know essentially the same things that you did: What is the intended scope of your work? Who will want to read it? What is your “competition”—who’s done this before? Why will your book be better or different? How long will it be? What will it contain—pictures, maps, charts, startling new revelations? What’s your realistic timetable for delivering the manuscript? And perhaps most crucially, why should the publisher engage you to write this wonderful and highly important work? This is where you polish up your academic or writing credentials, pointing to your numerous previous successes and unique abilities to produce this work. (It would be nice if you could add that your mother was close friends with Blackwood’s agent or some other special qualification.)

Congratulations! You successfully pitched a reputable publisher! If you have an agent (and in my experience, agents aren’t necessarily the ones who will be selling your proposal—in many cases, I’ve done that myself), this is when your agent should assist you in negotiating your contract. If you don’t already have an agent, this is probably the time to get one. Maybe you’ll even get part of an advance at this stage, before you’ve written a word (typically, one-third of the total advance—the balance payable half on delivery of the manuscript and half on publication).

Okay, with contract in hand, you need to get to work on the project. If you’re like me, you’ve already put your hands on a number of books and resources that you’ll need for the next part: Research. You’re going to read a million books and articles on Blackwood, natural horror, supernatural literature of the Victorian period, Indian legends, etc., etc. Start keeping a meticulous bibliography of what you’re reading. And it’s probably good to point out here the big drawback of nonfiction writing: We don’t get to make stuff up. I mean, we can spin theories and imagine what was in a writer’s head, but largely we’re expected to tell the truth, amass the facts, assemble the documents, and prove our cases. I hope that this sounds exciting—if not, you’re in the wrong field! So, you’re going to take a zillion notes, and you’re going to need to organize them.

For a large nonfiction project, I suspect that you’ll find an outline critical to success. I usually take the easy way: If I’m annotating a book, the book itself is the outline. Nonetheless, I still plan out that I’m going to need (a) an introduction to the book, (b) appendices on subjects peripheral to the book (e.g., film adaptations), and (c) a bibliography. For a nonfiction treatise on a subject (for example, the history of Halloween), your outline may be chronological or geographical but you need to organize the materials you’re going to develop ahead of time. Think of the outline as the framing of your house—you’ve built the foundation already (the proposal), now you need to decide on how many rooms and where they go. Then you’ll start working on walls, doors, fixtures, and so on.

Great, you’ve now accumulated 10,000 pages of research material, and you’ve read every word. Now you need to turn that into clear, intelligible prose that conveys your case. Cut the poetry, Watson (unless you’re Joseph Campbell). And start to weed out the material that isn’t necessary. I usually say that nonfiction writers have it easy. Fiction writers do a lot of research and then throw away 90% of it, knowing that it will bore their readers. We get to use 100% of our research, and everyone knows that the research is the best part of writing! Sorry to tell you, though, that it ain’t so: You still need to prune and cut your own research. You’re going to find many seductive bits of material (who knew that Blackwood was a member of the Order of the Golden Squirrel?) that just don’t fit your outline. If you really love what you found, you can consider tossing it into an appendix or a footnote, but at some point, you’re going to need to be ruthless and just toss it. Unless you’re writing an encyclopedia, your work can’t be an encyclopedia—stick to the point!

All right, you’re finished (several years after you started, no doubt, but hopefully just when you promised). Now you turn your work over to an EDITOR (I hope you picked a publisher who will actually edit your work—if not, you may want to hire an editor at this stage). The editor’s job is manifold: (a) To argue with you about your reasoning and conclusions, (b) to suggest points you overlooked or failed to make clear, (c) to double-check your research (and if you’re lucky in your editor, perhaps even to supplement your research), and (d) to suggest areas that need rewriting. This is not “fact-checking”—that probably comes later, at least if the publisher is serious. Hopefully, someone engaged by your publisher is going to verify your names, dates, and place names. If the publisher doesn’t provide this service, then again, you may want to hire someone to do this. Errors are a fact of life for nonfiction writers (fiction writers never make mistakes—they have an “artistic license” to make up things), but it’s preferable to keep them to a comfortable minimum.

The book is done! Galleys arrive, you find a few more errors that no one else spotted (thank goodness!), and the book comes out. Do you get wealthy? Not from writing the book! Probably no movie or TV deals will come your way either. Do you get famous? Maybe, especially if you picked a sensational topic. Here’s the good news: You may actually find respectable folks who will review your book and offer you publicity, principally in the form of radio and maybe even TV. Take that, fiction writers! Do people buy your book? A few. Hopefully, that’s not why you wrote it: You wrote it because you were passionate about the subject of your book. And if it’s good, it will be because you managed to convey that passion in your writing.

So, ladies and gentlemen, start your research engines!

2 Comments

  1. Effie on October 16, 2015 at 11:21 pm

    This was a great piece to illuminate and stimulate as you hopefully suggested it woulc be.
    Thank you for taking the time to offer this information to those of us who have a book inside
    just waiting to be released on paper and then hopefully, upon completion, to be released in the bookstores when it’s gone through its refinement. process.

    I am a Sherlock Holmes buff but Dracula, not so much. I will listen to Coast to Coast later and’
    catch the conversation between you and George Noory. It should be very interesting. I am looking
    forward to it. Thank you again.

    Effie

  2. Greg Smith on October 17, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    A “few”?….How do I pay the bills?

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