Posted in Nonfiction Writing, Writing, Writing craft, Writing Nonfiction

5 Tips for Writing Nonfiction Leads

Thirty years ago, I began my career as a nonfiction writer. The first time I pitched the story to the weekend features editor of a local newspaper, I realized that although I’d done a ton of academic writing at that point, had written lots of unpublished essays and had a passion for writing that went back to my pre-teen years, I didn’t know that much about the fine points of magazine writing.

My background was in health science, so what did I know about writing magazine articles?

What I had was a passion for writing, a knowledge base in the content area I had proposed, a willingness to learn, lots of research experience. The first thing I had to learn was how to write a solid lead. Three decades later and that knowledge has had a chance to be practised over and over, and now I’m sharing my five favourite approaches to a lead―a bit of help for nonfiction authors, magazine writers, bloggers and copywriters.

As I reviewed these tips for leads, it also occurred to me that fiction writers might find inspiration here for opening paragraphs for short stories or even book chapters. I’m a great believer in cross-genre learning.

Here’s today’s episode of WRITE. FIX. REPEAT. with the five approaches to leads.

Posted in Co-authors, Writing Nonfiction

Collaborative writing: Advice for when a writing partner makes sense

I can hardly believe that it’s been eight years since I first wrote about my adventures in writing with a partner. As I said at the time, “I don’t play well with others.” And that has not changed. That being said, I have, indeed, collaborated on four books in my distant past, and I’m doing it once more. Recently someone asked us (my writing partner and me) how our system works. So, how does writing with a partner work? I don’t know how it is for others, but here’s what I know about it from my own experience.

First a bit of backstory.

I have always considered writing to be a solitary activity. In fact, that’s the way I like it. Perhaps it’s even clearer to say that it’s one of the things that I like most about writing. Through all of those years when I was a university professor, I observed with growing horror, the number of academics, whose very livelihood depended on their ability to publish (or perish – it’s true), who were singularly unable to pen anything on their own. In fact, it occurred to me on more than one occasion when I sat on peer review committees, reviewing others’ work, that we had already promoted someone else based on the exact same publications since both names appeared on all of them. And sometimes there was a lengthy list of authors. What this really means is that many of them wrote not a single word. They may have contributed something to the data collection, but there was certainly no writing involved. Remember publish or perish? There is nothing there that says “write or perish.” There’s a difference. Then I came along.

At this point in my writing life – post-academic career – I am proud to say that every single article and book that formed part of my upward academic ladder has only one author – me. That is, except for those four books I mentioned (which my peers at the university probably largely ignored anyway) that I wrote with one other author. That author happens to be my husband. Which is probably why that person asked us about our writing process. In fact, I believe he might have added, somewhat incredulously, “And you’re still married?” Well, yes, and very happily, I might add.

Back in 2011 when I first wrote about our collaborations, I said this: “…There are good reasons to collaborate and publish a co-authored book – such as when the knowledge and skills of more than just you are needed…” And this reason still holds true. But now I have another reason.

I’m currently collaborating on a book with my same co-writer (my husband) because there was a book he wanted to write, and he spent 45 years working as a physician while I wrote to my heart’s content. This means that his expertise in medicine coupled with my “expertise” as a writer would be the combination needed for him to write the book he has always wanted to do. Am I ghosting it for him? Not really, but I have decided that there is no need for my name to be on this cover. It’s his book.

Because it’s his book and not our book, I have had to take a slightly different approach to the process. I have been his mentor and editor, but I have to try to ensure that the ideas that are finally on the page are his, not mine. That might be easy for some people who have not written in this area before, but once upon a time, I earned some of my income as a medical writer (I have a graduate degree in a medical-communication-related discipline). So, we had come up with a process.

Like puzzle pieces, each co-author’s contribution has to fit the other co-author’s contribution to the process and content.

We began with a very detailed book proposal. I’ve been selling non-fiction based solely on proposal ever since I’ve been writing (my fiction is another story all together). This means that before we even started, we had worked through what would be in the book, how it would be organized, what approach we would take and what he wanted the style and voice to sound like. This was my blueprint.

Then, as we moved into the writing process, I fleshed out the chapters, he reviewed each one as we went along, then I took that review back and reworked each chapter. We moved through the whole book this way, with me conducting mini-interviews with him along the way to capture his experiences in specific areas, and so that it would have his voice. Once this first draft was completed, we started the whole process again. After the third iteration, we were ready for external copy-edit. And that’s where the book is now.

What would my advice be for collaborative writing? Here it is.

  1. Choose your writing partner carefully. It needs to be someone you respect and are compatible with.
  2. Ensure that you are prepared to take criticism as you move through the process.
  3. Don’t be afraid of giving constructive criticism.
  4. Be prepared to disagree.
  5. Be prepared to compromise.
  6. Be prepared to commit to clearing up each disagreement as you work. Don’t let those disagreements pile up.
  7. Write from a collaborative outline.
  8. Find a rhythm of writing/reviewing/editing that you can both agree on up front.
  9. Use this process to learn something about your own writing habits.
  10. Have a drink together on a regular basis to chew over aspects of the book that you can’t always figure out while sitting in an office in front of a computer.

I am currently being accused by my co-writer of pushing hard at this stage as we approach the end of the process so that I can return to my novel. I can’t argue with that!

The book is being copy-edited as we speak and has a September pub date.  We’ll be having a glass of our favourite champagne on that day!

Posted in Writing books, Writing craft

Finding my point of view

“What’s your point of view?’

Whenever you hear that question directed toward you, what do you think? For anyone who isn’t a writer, it’s simple. The question is asking if you have an opinion, a perspective, a personal take on something. When a writer is faced with that question, it takes on a whole new meaning – and it’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I consider my next major writing project.

For many years as a non-fiction writer, it was fairly straightforward: my writer’s point of view was my bias. When I wrote my first-ever-published book way back in the dark ages, it was about the ethics and politics of organ transplantation.

My point of view, or my bias, was clear from the outset. The book began with a section called “A Parable.” My story-within-a-story was about a Transplant Surgeon who presents himself to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter tells the Transplant Surgeon that an unusual situation has developed: God would like a few one-on-one personal words with him before a decision about granting him access to heaven is made. God has a few questions for the Transplant Surgeon.

life without end
My First Book

“Who decides if a person needs an organ?” God says.

“Well, I do,” says the Transplant Surgeon.

“Who decides which person gets the organ when there are not enough to go around?”

“Well, I do.”

“Who decides if someone’s life should be saved with this organ?”

“Well, I do.”

“Who decides when technology has been stretched to its limit?” This is God’s final question.

The Transplant Surgeon is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally God says, “I am afraid that I am going to have to find another place for you other than Heaven…I just can’t afford the competition.”

…and with that, the author’s point of view is clear and sets the stage for the pages that follow.

It is true that a non-fiction author can try to be objective (that’s the purview of the journalist, I think, although objectivity in reporting these days is a bit difficult to find), but usually there is a purpose to the writing and that purpose as articulated from the outset sets up the bias. If I want to write a story about what happened on September 11, 2001, I have to decide on a “slant.” Will I tell a survivor’s story? A firefighter’s story? A victim’s story? My selection of that viewpoint will dictate the kind of research that I’ll have to do and eventually the bias that the story will hold. But, the story is still circumscribed by the facts – even if I choose which ones I’ll use. The same is not true for fiction.

Fiction writers have a lot more leeway. I don’t have to be reined in by facts when I write fiction. I can choose the ones I want to incorporate and even change ones that need changing to fit the story. There’s something a bit freeing about that, don’t you think? The problem when beginning to tell a story, however, is that a writer has to make a decision about point of view. The decision has to be deliberate, and then the voice has to be consistently used throughout the story if it is to hold any plausibility for the reader.

We all learned about the difference between first and third-person story telling when we were in fourth grade or thereabout. But there are other considerations. Here’s my current dilemma.

I have an idea for my next historical novel. The inspiration came from a picture of an object that I think would be interesting to follow through an historical journey. I could take on the role of narrator myself with an omniscient viewpoint and tell the story through generations. Or I could make it a first-person account; however, since I plan for it to cover several centuries, the first person will have to change from one character to another since people inevitably have to die. Or will it? What about first-person, inanimate-object perspective? Inanimate objects can endure through the ages and we’ve often said, “If only [it] could speak.” Well, why can’t it speak and be that narrator for us?

Obviously, this is not a new idea. Others have done it before. What I’m not entirely sure about, though, is if it works. Can a reader suspend his or her disbelief long enough to really believe that this object is telling a story? Does the inanimate narrator have to break through that fourth wall and speak directly to the reader? If so, is there anything wrong with that?

As you can see, the selection of point of view is an important one. It’s almost as if I can’t even complete the research until I know how my head is viewing the material. If I’m going to be a character (a person) in the story, I’ll have to think about the material in one way. On the other hand, if I’m going to be that object (if anyone asks, I might tell you what the object is), I’ll be thinking about the material I uncover quite differently. It’s time I decided.