Highlight of the month for me: My novel, Climbing the Stairs, received a lovely review in Kirkus, a starred review in the April 15th issue of Booklist and is a May Booksense Notable pick. All the reviews pointed to the intricate details that make the story vivid. Which got me thinking about the importance of detail in any work – whether fiction or nonfiction.
The most important thing about detail, in my opinion, is deciding what and how much to include. This is especially hard in nonfiction, because there’s no fictional storyline to act as a “guide” to tell you what to throw out and what to keep in. And, of course, if you’re anything like I am, even if you’re about to write a nonfiction picture book that’s well under 1000 words, you probably read 100 reference books on that topic. At least.
SO how do I choose what to include and what not to when I write nonfiction? First, I sort the information I’ve gathered into little heaps (or group the references in some way – putting the books in different piles, for example).
Then, I list what got me excited about the topic. A few lines on why I like that area of nonfiction enough to want to write a book about it. That sometimes helps me understand the new angle that I see or what I want the book to do that’s different from others on the same topic that are already out there.
And that also helps me to see what I want to be just “background” material, versus what I want to focus on and emphasize. Usually all this is pretty clear when I conceive the project, but by the time I finish my research, it can get pretty muddled. Or, on rare occasions, the focus shifts and I have an even better idea that cropped up when I was doing research which I decide to focus on. Whatever the case may be, it helps me to clearly state my focus and my goal and what I love best about the topic on paper. If there are many things I love about the topic, I write them all down and then pick what I love best.
That means, of course, there will be a huge chunk of material I won’t be able to use. But leaving out the right stuff is just as important as what you leave in!
Once I have the first draft together (and it’s usually 5 times longer than the length I have in my mind as a target), I use my focus/goal paragraph to pick out the details I need to keep in. And I keep asking myself, what’s the main question this book is trying to answer? Anything l that’s not directly part of the answer I start to take out.
Then, I stare hard and once again take a look with the main theme in mind. The theme is the part that needs the greatest detail. Everything else is superfluous. I prune and prune and prune.( Which, by the way, is extremely hard for me to do. I hate pruning our potted plants – my husband does that because I just don’t like to chop the poor things.)
Pruning my writing is equally hard. There are so many interesting facts I have to toss out. But one thing that helps me is to remember that a good book has a focal point, just as a good painting does. The composition of a painting helps to train the eye to the part the artist wants us to see, and a well composed book uses facts to augment a central idea, theme, or argument.
Another tool I sometimes use is my “wheel of ideas”. In the center of a blank sheet of paper, I write the word or set of words that’s most important to me – what best describes what the book is about. Then, radiating out from the center, I write adjectives or themes that relate to the book – and link them to one another, or sometimes make a chain that radiates outward. It’s usually a pretty tangled web, but it helps me pick out the thread or threads I want to use to embroider with in detail.
Here’s a quote I use when I teach nonfiction writing. “The fool collects facts; the wise man selects them.” Powell, president of AAS, 1888. That about sums it up.
Now, for my question of the month – how do you pick what details you’re going to include in a nonfiction work?