Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Nonfiction Story

So, here we are, rethinking nonfiction. The rethinking piece means something different to each of us, I suspect. My professional roots are that of an editor of children’s library market nonfiction—a hat I wore proudly for more than a dozen years. Just this week, as I taught a group of undergraduates, I heard myself saying that “I loved, loved, loved my job as an editor.” Really? One guy asked. I mean, when people say that, they’re usually being sarcastic, he continued. No, I assured them, I adored being an editor. In fact, I often miss it. My entire job revolved around thinking about nonfiction for kids. So now, a decade into a full-time writing life, I find myself indeed rethinking nonfiction. Mulling over interesting ways to tell true stories. Stories that will grab young readers and inspire them to—dare I say it?—learn.

A lot of the rethinking that goes on for me has to do with building on my library market roots. And in some ways, overcoming them. Library market nonfiction, at least in the traditional sense from a decade and longer ago, simply takes a different approach than the trade. The difference, as I see it (and feel free to expand or disagree in the comments area) is that the nonfiction library market takes a fairly straightforward approach to topics, and maintains a close correlation to curriculum needs. This makes good pedagogical and business sense, as the educational market caters mainly to schools and libraries, with the trade crossover occurring in the minority.

The trade approach is the flip-side to this—and yes, I’m aware that I’m simplifying things for blog-brevity’s sake. The trade is interested in capturing much more of the bookstore market and counts on a built-in crossover to the schools and libraries for those titles that do have curriculum tie-ins. But the key to success in the trade nonfiction market is anything but straightforward. Something for which I am simultaneously grateful for and with which I continually struggle.

Let me explain. Having the freedom to approach a topic from my desired angle was not something I could do often in the library market, so when I branched out and began to think along trade lines it was liberating. However, having been so firmly rooted in the “straightforward,” I tend to have to break out of that mindset in my second (and third and fourth…) drafts of nonfiction manuscripts. I always start with the basics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it has stood me in good stead. The creative challenge then becomes seeing things from different perspectives and thinking in story.

In part, I credit Marc Aronson for helping me with this. He is my editor on a forthcoming book called Almost Astronauts. One day we met to talk about the book in its early stages. I happened to be coming from a morning of fiction writing. I made a comment something along the lines of “I have to switch gears now. I’ve been working on a novel.” He immediately said, “Oh no, stay right where you are. That’s the mindset you need to approach this story.” This story. A simple thing, semantics. And of course, not simple in the least. I had not yet allowed the word “story” to blend with the term “nonfiction.” And once I did, my pen began to fly. What’s your nonfiction story?


Anna M. Lewis said...

Whoa! Great story!

In presenting artists to elementary students, I try hard to catch their attention, educate them, and leave them with some appreciation for the artist. I guess, I entertain them, bring the artist to their level, and give them an art morsel!

I love my Andy Warhol presentations. There are some great connections to kids. And when I get hugs afterward, I know I got 'em!

Since I'm working on some NF books, I have to remember the steps of my presentations. Hmmm...

MHN said...

A little late to respond to your great article. I'm fairly new at writing non-fiction and I struggle with it because in my mind when I research my non-fiction topic what I want most is for it to be a story because that's how I like to read it. Do you have any book recommendations for story non-fiction. I need to read, read, read.