This is the first in a series of articles on writing non-fiction. In it Rachel Fehily discusses how to improve the tone and style of your non-fiction. Over the next few weeks she will be helping non-fiction writers improve their work by offering tips on different aspects of non-fiction writing, including research, the act of writing, presentation, exercises for writing and looking for a publisher. Rachel Fehily is a barrister and a mediator. Her book “Break Up, Don’t Crack Up: A practical guide to dealing with the end of your marriage or relationship in Ireland” is due for publication in January 2012. Her website ishttp://www.familylawmediator.ie/
Novels can be plucked out of the air and the imagination. The only rule is that there are no rules. Anything goes. You can make it up, invent new words and ignore grammer. Think of the portmanteau words of James Joyce, magical realism of Márquez and hysterical realism of Zadie Smith.
Are you feeling inferior as a non-fiction writer? Do you think you’ve given up on your dream of becoming a great artist? Don’t fret. You can still be artistic, creative and passionate but like all great artists you will have to channel it with discipline.
Your book is not a chocolate and cream covered fantasy. It’s a solid meal full of events, facts or information – but it’s not going to be boring. Never forget that you have a duty to your reader to entertain as well as inform.
Who are you?
Many new writers feel that making their mark in the non-fiction world is an impossible challenge. Who are you? Are you important or interesting enough? Do you feel confident? Have a look at the non-fiction lists. They’re filled with books written by very high profile people. It’s daunting.
They say that everyone has a novel in them but only the very famous can write a cook book or a memoir.
If you’re a pop star, a rock star, a TV chef with an impenetrable French accent (sorry Raymond!) – you’re there. Publishers want your book because it’s easy to market the spin off movie, TV series, incredibly bad behaviour or enormous breasts (sorry Jordan!). Former presidents and Prime Ministers have a sitting market for their inside stories which guarantees them generous compensation for their service to the ordinary people.
How can a humble non-entity get started in this incredibly competitive market? If you intend to succeed as a non-fiction writer you must feel and communicate your passion. If your subject is complex you must act as an interpreter for your reader. You job is to make your subject comprehensible in an inspiring, descriptive and entertaining manner.
And as an expert in your chose field, you are just as important as all of those people the media appear to love. Here on writing.ie there are lots of tips for creating your own author profile that will help you sell your book.
The key is that the best non-fiction books are written with feeling and passion, written by authors who are genuinely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their subject. Lynn Truss was hugely fed up with bad grammar and wrote a little book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves. In it she mixed humour and instruction to teach readers the value of good punctuation. It became an American bestseller – despite the fact that its New Yorker review pointed out lots of punctuation errors in the book!
The depth and honesty of Ann Frank’s thoughts and feelings made her Diary of a Young Girl a must read for every child and transformed her from a victim of the holocaust to a hero and icon of the twentieth century.
Alexander Waugh’s intimate family memoir Fathers and Sons is laugh-until-you-cry-hilarious and excruciatingly honest. Based on the recollections of Auberon and documents of Evelyn, Alexander examines his fraught family relationships from Victorian times to the present. On every page you can feel his love, energy and passion for the fascinating story of the Waugh family.
“Misery lit” or if you like “Inspirational overcoming personal trauma lit” is a hugely successful genre because the writer’s emotions are paramount. You can feel Frank McCourt experiencing the dirt and poverty of his poverty ridden Limerick childhood in the excellent Angela’s Ashes.
Awful stories of trauma and horrible experiences of child abuse like Don’t Ever Tell by Kathy O’Beirne, have become huge bestsellers. A huge number of people like to read these books and hopefully they force change by shedding a light on the dark and neglected underside of society.
Can you communicate with passion? Think of your friend who is always being invited to dinner parties. Her confident voice commands attention while she’s telling the funny story about her bad plumbing for the tenth time. It’s her passion that carries the story.
From Ignorance to Enlightenment
It doesn’t matter if your book is about computers, economics or statistics. You must make what could be an incomprehensible subject accessible. If you want your book to reach a wide audience and have great sales then you need to ensure every reader is capable of understanding the content.
As students lots of us didn’t enjoy studying marketing, business studies or economics in school or College. The text books were turgid and reading them was a chore. Recently great books such as Freakonomicsby Daniel Levitt and the wonderful books by Malcom Gladwell have been published. Suddenly lots of ignorant people have become experts on all kinds of things that I’d never understood before. David McWilliam’s The Pope’s Children was an enormous success and opened the eyes of readers to economics.
If your subject is perceived as being complex, you role is to act as an interpreter for your reader. A good teacher communicates his or her subject well. Remember your history teacher who was in love with Michael Collins? The English teacher who was besotted with Yeats? They made their subject live and inspired you to learn.
As a non-fiction writer you must do the same.