(O.K., how cool and in the know do I sound?)
I was a mentor to a young woman who is working on a non-fiction picture book. She has a great idea, but is struggling with the form. (Or at least I think she is!) As I sat there giving her advice, I realized that the advice I was giving her was advice that I am giving myself as I dive deeper into a huge nonfiction project that has me at times excited beyond belief and at other times terrified beyond beyond. In fact, the advice I was giving her, as well as some tips I wanted to give in my speech (I ran out of time), are kernels of wisdom I have gleaned from others over the years. Although I have written this post to writers, I am hoping that teachers and librarians can use it with their students, not only to help them with their writing, but also to help them read and analyze books. Why did the author choose this format? Why is it a picture book? Middle grade? YA? Why did she structure the book in the way she did? For example, why did she start in the middle of the story and work backwards? What is the climax of the story? Did that happen in the middle of the story or is it just in the middle of the book? Why are there sidebars? Photos or illustrations? And of course, what sources did she use? How did she get her stuff?
Herewith, advice to writers who are feeling caught in the jungle of a new or confusing project, hoping that it will help writers and readers, too:
*Isaac Bashevis Singer asked himself a series of questions before he began to write any book. Although Singer was a preeminent fiction writer (if you haven't read him, please do), I think his questions are essential for narrative nonfiction as well. Here are his questions: Is this a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Do I have to write this story? Am I the only person to write it?
I think if you answer yes to the first two, you should write the book. If you can also answer yes to the third one, you should write the book and feel blessed the whole time you are doing it.
*When I was first starting the project I'm working on now, I panicked because I was worried that the way I wanted to structure the book wasn't going to work. I was not finding the information I needed to structure it that way. When my editor asked me how it was going and I told her, she said, "Don't let the form dictate the content, let the content dictate the form." Further, she encouraged me to read wide, and keep open about the structure and even the content. So that is just what I am doing, and I although I still don't know how the book is going to be structured, I am trying to stay loose and relaxed about it. (If you know me, stop laughing, please.)
*Recently I read a fantastic interview with John McPhee in the Paris Review and he added to that advice: "Structure is not a template. It's not a cookie cutter. It's something that arises organically from the material once you have it." If you want to read some more John McPhee brilliance, go here. And better yet, buy or borrow the hard copy because I'm not sure it's all on line. He talks, in this article, about what to do if you are reporting something and the best thing happens at the very beginning of your reporting. This could happen, and has happened to me, in researching history as well. You can't change the order of how things really happened, but you can structure your book or article in the way you want to so that the exciting thing happens where you want it to.
*When you find yourself trying to make stuff up in non-fiction, it means that your story isn't deep enough. You don't deepen it by adding a fictional voice, you deepen it by doing more research. I told my "mentee" that for a picture book of 1,000 words or so, she might have fifty pages of typed notes from her research. Strong young woman, she, she just kept nodding. There were no tears (thank goodness).
*I leave you with this; it's a window into my world right now and is just another way of looking at this process. For my new project I read a memoir by an early 20th century policeman. He wrote: "I've always gone to a sudden death prepared to regard it as a possible murder. But I don't go with the conviction that I've got to make it a murder, and there's a wide distinction. The years have shown me that no officer has the right to accept the first evidence as conclusive."
I have to go now, and see where this project is going to take me next. Let's hope it's not down a dark alley.