Serious Non-Fiction Development: Part 2 of a Semester’s Reflections

*Please read Serious Non-Fiction Development: Part 1 of a Semester’s Reflections for an explanation of this series. This week’s post is a response to a reading from an insightful book on successfully publishing serious non-fiction. Below is the question prompt followed by my response.

In your blog post for this week, I want you to follow up on your initial idea(s) expressed in your first blog post. Has anything Rabiner said thus far served to push or pull your thinking in a new direction? Does she give you a clearer sense of what serious nonfiction writing entails and how your idea(s) might be refined to fit better with the genre? If it helps, you could imagine you’re sitting in her office and sharing your early thoughts with her: How would she react to your ideas? What advice do you think she’d give you to help you move the idea(s) forward?

After getting over how cool it was that Rabiner had a hand in The Physics of Star Trek (I didn’t even know that existed!), it became apparent that she was more than qualified for this book. It felt like I was reading something I shouldn’t have access to. She gave many insightful examples and suggestions in the prologue and introduction, so I’m eagerly awaiting the next assigned reading. Several things stood out to me this week regarding my topic and the process of serious non-fiction writing and publishing.

  • I had never given much thought as to which category my book topic would fall under, so I was slightly appalled to learn that it’s rare for a book to be placed in multiple sections (darn mega-bookstores). It makes sense, of course, in the grand scheme of things. It just sucks for the writer in realizing you really must choose your target audience ever so carefully. I suppose that should be the premise anyway, but being forced into an even smaller category has its challenges. For my topic on the endangered lives of wolves in North America, it would seem simple enough to place. However, upon reviewing an extensive subject/genre list for non-fiction on Barnes&, it appears I could place it into any of the following: Current Affairs & Politics, because the environment is, unfortunately, intrinsically intertwined with politics; Education, because I intend to educate people on the current state of the wolf population and the struggles they face; History, because the first section of the book will include a history of the wolves in North America; Nature, because, well, that’s self-explanatory. The obvious answer would be nature, but due to the nature (pun very intentional) of my book, I would rather it be in Current Affairs & Politics because this is ultimately an issue that needs to be addressed.
  • In light of that discovery, I can better visualize the direction I want my book to go in. I still want to cover the same topics outlined in my previous post—a brief history of the wolves in North America and the effect of settlers from the mid-1600s up to the environmental awaking in the twentieth century; recovery and rehabilitation efforts by environmentalists from the 1960s to the present; the benefit of wolves to our ecosystem and what will happen if things do not change or worsen; suggestions to sustain and grow the wolf population and specific ways people can help—but now I want to do so with a constant emphasis on politics while tying it into current affairs. People, the readers, need to see why this topic is relevant. I don’t want it to be lumped with all the nature books where we admire the environment from afar with little regard to how we impact it daily. I also don’t want it categorized as strictly history because a lot of the content will be current events. And while it should be educational, this is more than a teaching tool. Writing with the Current Affairs & Politics category in mind should help me keep my four sections streamlined, each one coming back to the main issue at hand and how we might resolve it as a nation. My intended formula is showing a problem exists, showing how that problem came to be, and, finally, showing ways to reverse the detrimental trend.
  • Finally, on a different note from my previous bullets, I’m happy Rabiner emphasized the importance of having a solidly constructed pitch before submitting materials to a publisher. It’s no longer (was it ever?) an industry—at least before you are established and recognized as a “published” author—where you simply toss out an idea and develop it on the go. To have your serious non-fiction submission taken seriously (puns on a roll today), you have to craft not only a detailed and well-thought out pitch, you also need to have a solid idea of every chapter of the book. What will cover? What genre does it fall under? What is the structure of each chapter? What’s each chapter’s individual goal? Will it come together as a cohesive book? Is it necessary? How is it different? Bottom line, you have to understand exactly what you intend to accomplish. The publishers and editors are only there to fine-tune your work, not to aid you in creating the raw material.

I have a long way to go with this project, but if every week gives me as much insight, I should have a solid proposal in no time. Until next week!

Rabiner, Susan, and Alfred Fortunato. Thinking like your editor: how to write great serious nonfiction—and get it published. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Print.


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