Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wrestling Nonfiction: the Prickly Crisis

This time of year I am on the road a lot. I speak at conferences and visit libraries and schools. (Check here for a awesome nationwide environmental project/art contest for classrooms K-3 to celebrate my new book TROUT ARE MADE OF TREES. The prize is I come to your school for free.)
Sometimes, I'd rather speak than write. Why? Well, sometimes writing can be doggone difficult.
About four-fifiths of the way through writing long nonfiction books, I have a crisis. I agonize. It's ugly and uncomfortable. Living with me in this state is probably like having a cholla cactus for a wife.
This is the time when I have delved so deeply into the subject that my outline for the book no longer serves. When I begin a project, I organize chapters in a fairly typical fashion. For example. If I were writing a book about seals, the chapters might look like this:
  • Introduction to Seals
  • Biology of seals
  • Seal type A
  • Seal type B
  • Seal type C
  • Conservation issues facing seals
  • Hope for the future
  • Resources
Yes, this organization works just fine for books 5,000-20,000 words. Many a terrific book has worked in this form. But what if it is not the best possible organization for the subject at hand?
From the first chapter to the last, the book needs a pathway. That pathway is dictated by the subject itself. Unfortunately, a writer rarely know this pathway ahead of time. (Unless he or she is an expert on the subject from the beginning.)
By the time I have studied seals and interviewed experts, the book might look more like the following. (Although I confess I have not studied seals. I am just imagining here.)
  • Seeing through a seal's eyes
  • The seal scientist
  • Why flippers make sense
  • Seals that dive
  • Seals that skim
  • Seals that do it all
  • New technologies thanks to seals
  • Resources
I find that if I work too hard on the "hook" for the beginning of book early on, it becomes too cemented in my mind. It is then harder to abandon it. And chances are, I will need to abandon it during the organizational crisis that inevitably comes.
During the crisis, I wrestle. I experiment. I rearrange the text, making huge structural changes. (Hallelujah for word processors.) I may try five or more major ways to organize the book. An awful uncertainly looms.
This is where I am today. An hour ago, I lay down for a nap but as usual did not nap at all. My book was swimming in my mind. Now here I am at the computer. I had to get up. A new possibility for organizing the book came to mind. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't. But it holds the possibility of solving my prickly crisis. I have to find that flow, the best possible pathway for my book. Or else, it will never feel complete—even if I turn it in.
One of the things students need to know, and teachers need to remember, is that the writing process can be messy. And that is okay. As author Lola Schaefer says, the writing process is recursive. It loops back. You sometimes have to return to the beginning and go through steps again. It is in doing that work that you reach the highest quality in nonfiction writing.


steve jenkins said...

Thanks for this, April. It makes me feel better. Writing is hard, and unlike many things one does consistently, it doesn't seem to get any easier.

I know the crisis well. I usually have at least two while I'm working on a book. Then there's the mini-crisis that arises when one comes across some really great piece of information — one too good not to use — that can't be worked into the existing structure of the book.

Meanwhile, I'm still experimenting with different organizational schemes: typed notes with handwritten annotation, putting rough text or even just an outline into book format so I can turn the pages, and, most recently, writing on post-its and moving them around on a big board. Post-its do impose a certain economy of text.

I've reluctantly decided that — for me at any rate — all the angst and doubt is an essential part of the process.

Unknown said...

Trout Are Made of Trees sounds like a wonderful book with a theme that is important to convey, and not only to children. By their actions, most “grownups” appear to take nature for granted.

I‘m also a sticky note fan. I lay out all 32 pages of a picture book and scribble away. Very easy to rearrange or start over.

Anonymous said...





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