Tag Archives: novel

Does Nonfiction Count As “Art?”

Standard

There are two three types of readers. First, there are the nonfiction readers, those who read weight-loss books and autobiographies of famous people, who insist they’re too busy to read books simply for entertainment. They want to learn something. Then there are fiction readers, the ones who get a glazed look at the very thought of reading a self-help book. They want to escape life for awhile, and spending their precious time reading nonfiction is akin to jumping off a cliff blindfolded. Then, of course, there are those who read both, depending on their mood.

There are three types of writers, too: nonfiction, fiction, and crossover authors. I didn’t think there was much of a distinction between these groups until I published my first book, a nonfiction book for women called How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces.

A couple months after the release, I attended a local writer’s conference. It was an author’s dream at first. It seemed to address any topic you could think of: plot, characters, marketing, and even query letters. Except for one thing. There was barely anything for nonfiction writers. I think there was a class on writing for journalism, but that was it. And the writing contest? Not a single category for nonfiction.

A little stumped by this, I read the bios behind the founders of the conference. Many of the “top dogs” were crossover authors–they’d written both nonfiction and fiction books. But it almost felt like their nonfiction was swept under the rug, as if they were ashamed of it or it wasn’t applicable. No one even acknowledged the fact that nonfiction actually outsells fiction in the national market.

Then, as I talked to guests at the conference, I got some interesting opinions. Here are some of their comments:

“Nonfiction isn’t a true art, not like writing a novel.”

“You can’t be free in your writing style.”

“There’s no beginning, middle, and end. I wouldn’t even know where to start writing a nonfiction book.”

“It has no voice, and it’s so bland. I can’t pay attention.”

And that, my friends, made me confused. Nonfiction, too restrictive? Not a true art? Very interesting.

Let me ask you something. Ever read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom? It’s a true story, a first-person account of a woman who loses everything by hiding fugitives during WW2. The description was so detailed and vivid that I literally wept, and I felt my life change by the end. Not a true art, indeed.

What about the memoir, Tuesdays With Morrie? It was beautifully written and thought-provoking in a fascinating way. The way the story was woven together made it feel like fiction, but it was all the more powerful knowing that it really happened. 

Good writing makes you stop and think. It makes you see the world differently. In many ways, nonfiction is even LESS restrictive than fiction. How many books have you read that followed the age-old, predictable “reluctant hero takes a journey to discover who s/he is, with a goofy sidekick and a wise sage, and defeats the bad guy” plot? You don’t have to follow anything in nonfiction. Nonfiction is much more than self-help books and textbooks. There’s a reason for the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Good writing is entertaining, regardless of the genre.

Read the two excerpts below, and tell me which one has more “voice”:

“My kids love the kissing monster game. They sit on my lap and I say in my most intimidating voice, ‘What does the kissing monster eat?’ They tentatively say, ‘Kisses!’ and I attack them with kisses. Even my toddler loves it. I think my children feel more loved when Mommy is silly than when we have a clean house. Good thing, because ours is nothing like a clean house.”

“‘I chose,’ Hespira said again, and Horreon believed her. So Hespira took leave of her mother and returned with him to the caves of the Sacred Mountain, and the vines of Hespira’s mother grew over Meridite’s temple. When Hespira left the mountain to visit her mother, as she did from time to time, the vines were dormant, but otherwise they grew and grew until the mortar was all picked to dust and the temple fell in on itself and nothing was left but a pile of stones covered in green leaves and red flowers.”

The first one is from my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, and the second is from The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Which one is “real art?” They both are. (Well, just humor me, okay? And yes, I did like Turner’s book.) They’re both entertaining, with unexpected twists and events and funny dialogue. Except that one is true, and one isn’t. That’s fine. Two different genres, two authors, and one goal–to engage the reader.

Have you ever read an incredible story with dynamic twists and unique characters, only to find out that it really happened? That it’s not just a product of a writer’s mind, manipulated by their hand and tweaked to fit a formula, but something that a flesh-and-blood person lived through? How would it be to not have contrived dialogue, with perfect timing, each character speaking in turn, but to have real, living people doing unpredictable things? Reading a person’s voice and personality woven into their story instead of a narrator’s distant retelling?

In my opinion, the best authors are those who can do both. They see the beauty in nonfiction AND fiction, and the line between the two can get pretty blurred. The best nonfiction reads like fiction, and the best fiction feels real, true, and fresh, as if it could have really happened. THAT is the point of writing, and that is the concept I wished I could have seen at that writing conference. Nonfiction isn’t outside of the art–it’s an extension of it. It’s the bridge between real life and imagination.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below.

Advertisements

5 Rules for Writers Groups–Break With Care

Standard

Writers are a funny bunch. If you’ve been to a writing conference, you know it’s true. We’re wise beyond our years, with varying degrees of artistic ability, wrapped in emotional pain and plenty of passion. We’re just really, really cool people–people who need each other.

Before my first book was published, I had no idea what the social norms were between writers. Three critique groups, dozens of interviews and signings and conferences and a million mistakes later, I’ve come to realize that yes, there are some rules that authors (and aspiring authors) should follow when it comes to critique groups and writing networks. Here are the big five:

Rule #1: Remember that writing isn’t a competition. 

Unlike in other professions, an author’s career isn’t threatened by other writers. In fact, s/he does better with a supportive writing network than without one.

It’s an interesting phenomenon–the longer you’re with a critique group, the more likely you are to get published. And once someone in your group hits success, the more likely others in your group are to achieve publication, too. My critique groups have been fantastic so far, and I feel myself being stretched further and higher every single month. 

Rule #2: Give as much as you take.

I’ve met writers who finish their manuscripts, scramble to find readers under the pretense of wanting a critique group, milk ’em for all the advice and help they can get, and then disappear again. I know life gets busy, and sometimes writing takes a backseat. But if you don’t contribute as much as you take, you’ll have very grumpy friends . It’s just like any other profession–carry your weight.

If another writer spent valuable hours reading your work and giving advice, they’re probably hoping you’ll do the same for them. If you just don’t have the time, offer to help in some other way, like reviewing their work on your blog, or at least reposting/retweeting their promotional efforts. Remember, what goes around comes around–especially in the writing world. 

Rule #3: Positive always comes first. 

Whether you’re critiquing someone’s work or giving an overall review, always focus on the positive first. Sometimes that can be hard (really, REALLY hard), especially if the writer is just starting out or if it’s not in your preferred genre, but trust me. You can find something of worth in anyone’s work. It could be a character you like or a clever city name or a funny line of dialogue. Collect those little bits of potential and start with those first.

Even the thickest-skinned author appreciates a little positive thrown in with the constructive criticism. It takes guts for them to hand over their “baby” to you, trusting that you’ll help them make it better. The least you can do is show that you respect them enough to start with the things you liked. 

I reviewed a book on Amazon today and gave it three stars, lower than any of my reviews so far. But half the review was about what the author did well. I wanted people to know that she had a lot of potential, and there was a lot I really liked about her book. And then I was honest about what needed to be worked on. When my first negative review comes for my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, I’m hoping the reviewer does it that way, rather than making it sound like my book has no redeeming qualities at all!

Rule #4: Don’t be a know-it-all.

You know who I’m talking about–that writer who knows more than his or her friends, whose lofty status as “author” or “writer” has taken over their brain’s common sense. Their advice is law, their opinion is gold, and you’re lucky to even be in the same critique group as them. Ugh. Who wants to help someone who is above your help?

The point of a support/critique group is to help your writing improve, not tear everyone else’s writing down and reject any suggestions that come your way. It should be about the person first, and their work second. Just be sensitive. Common curteousy, folks.

And that leads us into number five.

Rule #5: Be open to feedback.

In my very first writing group, there was a writer who seemed to think constructive feedback was negative and insulting. He never took anyone’s advice, and the fact that it was being offered at all seemed to threaten his pride. I stopped reading his work after awhile, because it was completely pointless. All he wanted was compliments. Not surprisingly, as far as I know, he hasn’t gotten published.

Let me just say this: if you can’t handle feedback, you’re in the wrong profession. Critique group friends are WAY nicer than editors are. Just saying.

We’re lucky to live in a time when we can connect with thousands of other writers on Facebook, writing blogs, Twitter, and in writing conferences, in addition to critique groups. They are absolutely priceless, if you follow these five rules. If not, you may find yourself out of the loop and out of support.

Thanks for reading. Can you think of a rule I missed?

What Makes an Author? Thoughts on Self vs. Traditional Publishing

Standard

My kids watched a cartoon after lunch today. I half-listened as I cleaned the kitchen, perking up as the young character showed his teacher a story. The teacher said, “Good job! You just wrote your own book. That makes you an author!”

Well, no, I argued internally. It hasn’t been published, so he’s not technically an author yet. After all, if every person who wrote a book called themselves authors–whether the book was Uncle Fred’s yet-to-be-proven World War II story or the next great American novel–then the title “Author” would lose its value, don’t you think? There are millions of people who say they’ll write a book but never do–so shouldn’t those of us who actually do be entitled to the term Author? 

I’ve thought about it all day. I know, I must be bored (hey, it’s cleaning day, all right?). But here’s why–where do you draw the line between two people and say, “You’re an author, but you aren’t.” It’s like saying, “You play football, but you aren’t a football player.” Some of the best cooks I know don’t consider themselves chefs because they don’t have their own cooking shows. Some of my favorite teachers didn’t have degrees, but taught me powerful lessons. So what is an author? 

Fifty years ago–heck, even twenty years ago–authors were writers who’d had their work published traditionally, in a hardbound book that people could purchase at bookstores. Now, it’s not that simple. Mine was published traditionally, sure, but what if it had been exclusively an ebook? What if I’d self-published, and my book wasn’t available at brick-and-mortar bookstores? What if my book had come out in sections in a magazine, but nowhere else? Now it gets complicated. The old definition of an author breaks down at that point. We’ve got Amazon, handheld reading devices, and thousands of books available for free online. So what is an author?

It makes me sad when some high-and-mighty authors who’ve chosen the traditional route frown on self-publishing authors, as if their method is the only legitimate one. I love being able to go to the bookstore and see my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, on the shelves–it’s a great feeling, and I’ll never get tired of it (or the funny looks I get from the staff when I pull out my camera like a proud momma). But does that make me more an author than someone else who chose a different publishing path? In an age of worldwide media at the click of a button, where 300,000 books are released a day, does it really matter HOW it entered the universe? Personally, I don’t think so. I think it’s an exciting time for writers and authors alike. There are more books enticing readers to their pages–er, um, screens–than ever before.

Honestly, this musing has confused me more than anything, but I do feel strongly about one thing. An author is someone who loves to write, lives to entertain others, and will never be able to stop–because the art of storytelling is one of the most fulfilling services a person can leave behind. Free or not, print or not, and best-selling or not. Period.

Best of luck to my author friends. For more information about my book and fun content, click here.