Weird titles aside, the books in The Complete Idiot's Guide series that I've read contain a wealth of neatly packaged knowledge. And so with this one: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Nonfiction by Christina Boufis, who directs the writing program at the San Francisco Art Institute and teaches nonfiction writing at Stanford University.
At 304 pages, including Appendices and Index, this volume has to cover a lot of territory. And it does, at least in an introductory way that guides beginners toward what they need to research further. We're instructed as to the various forms of nonfiction, provoking a response in the reader, understanding narrative arc, showing or telling and when to do both, breaking into nonfiction markets, and sustaining a writing life. Lengthy interviews with several celebrated nonfiction writers (Susan Orlean, Mary Roach, etc.) make the advice more meaningful for someone starting out.
If you read with awareness and wariness (which I always recommend), you'll notice that the section called "Avoiding Cliches" finds itself in a chapter named "How to Make Your Sentences Sing." Can anyone think of a more original chapter title that still gets the idea across?
(Not blaming the author here, as I know that publishers and editors often have their own ideas about book titles and chapter names, and they tend to like the familiar. I wrote a book that ended up with the subtitle, "Teen Volunteers Tell How They Made a Difference" though I flailed against it. That phrase is an exhausted cliche, as is this one: "How to Blah-blah the World, One Blah-blah at a Time.")
In the chapter "Self-Publishing Your Work," a section suggests, "You might offer to do readings at your local bookstores." Actually, even if your work were traditionally published, it's hard these days to get chain bookstores to let you do a reading (and how many indies are left in most cities?).
If you do bookstore readings, you ought not to expect more than a handful of attendees, and then you shouldn't count on selling many books. (I recommend the Jan/Feb issue of the excellent magazine Poets & Writers. Ron Tanner's detailed article on his DIY book tour is sobering.)
Boufis offers tips on writing when you don't feel like it:
1. Writing is hard. Whether you're feeling uninspired or ill or distracted, there are days when you will tell yourself that doing anything other than writing would be preferable. Just remember that writers write regularly, if not every day, then often. Some committed writers are indeed awesome in their dedication, even if not all of us would choose to be quite that single-minded.
2. Find a schedule that works for you and stick with it. Just remember how good you usually feel after you've written for the day. Even 15 minutes a day will add up and help you establish the habit.
3. Set writing goals. These can be practical, such as "back up computer" and "research 5 new markets." Others will be less under your control, such as "get an essay published in the coming year." Best to concretize these goals by plotting out monthly, achievable tasks.
4. Stay connected to other writers. Join a writing group or writers' organization, attend author readings, attend conferences. You'll feel less alone and you may get valuable tips. (I happened to notice that the author of this book, Christina Boufis, and I both belong to the American Society of Journalists & Authors, whose website offers a lot of helpful info to new writers who aren't yet eligible to join.)
Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry