Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Letting Content Dictate Form

I had the pleasure of attending and the privilege of speaking at the Rutger's One-on-One Plus Children's Literature Conference this past Saturday. It's a wonderful conference, and I always learn a lot. For example, there was a great panel on social media, given by Deborah Sloan, Alvina Ling, and Katie Davis. If you want to read tweets about the conference, follow #rcclbuzz.
(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.


Melissa Stewart said...

Great, insightful post, Deb. For some great examples of books in which art, design, and text fromatting are all perfect in synergy with the content, look at Lucy Long Ago and Team Moon both by Catherine Thimmesh. These books do a great job of bringing together complex and wide-ranging info into interesting and informative packages.

Your post exemplifies one of the characteristics of what I call the Ner Nonfiction. Auhtors need to think about the visuals presenation and design from the beginning of the project and strive to be innovative in the presentation of the material. It's a great time for nonficiton.

Deborah Heiligman said...

My friend Martha Hewson caught a typo in my post. Fixed it. Phew. Sorry everyone. I need an editor in everything I do!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Good post! A related issue (for me, anyway) is voice, and I think the answer may be the same: let the content dictate.

Jan Greenberg said...

Deborah,"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?" These questions posed by John McPhee and quoted by you resonate with me, especially today as I am struggling with several new ideas.In addition, the best picture books for children are perfect marriages between image and text, whether they be fiction or nonfiction.

rebeccahirsch said...

Very helpful post, Deborah.

"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."

No wonder my picture book manuscript is stuck in the mud. I checked and I have only 15 pages of research notes. Argh!

Susan Kuklin said...

Love this post, Deborah!

Yes indeed-e! Content dictates. Don't you find that the book you end up writing is vastly different from the one you thought you were writing? That often happens to me. Yes, content rocks!

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Deborah - sharp observations, as usual.

My mentee at RUCCL made a big impression on me, but (as I will discuss in more detail in an upcoming post on my blog, already in queue!) in the opposite way you're discussing here.

She wrote a nonfiction pic book manuscript about a person I presumed would not be particularly compelling. And the first draft she showed me (the one she'd submitted when applying to the conference) was a fairly straightforward chronological narrative that confirmed my concern.

But then she showed me a revised version she'd done since then - having realized her initial approach wasn't working - and I was blown away. Same writer, same subject, but when framed through a smaller lens (now a storyography rather than a biography), it shone.

I was excited to see a concept transform from unlikely to irresistible, and this mentor had nothing to do with it. :)