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Setting the Stage for Nonfiction Success

Finding the Spark

Educational publishing produces massive numbers of nonfiction books.

Trade publishing, despite its heavy focus on acquiring fiction, also publishes biographies and narrative nonfiction and even nonfiction picture books in abundance.

And magazine publishing has moved more and more toward being a nonfiction driven platform.

Despite all of this, many writers never really consider writing nonfiction. And those who do give it a try will sometimes water down the nonfiction by introducing fictional elements (like a talking raindrop to tell us about the water cycle or a grumpy cloud with the same information) because they fear that children aren’t really interested in nonfiction unless it’s sweetened with fictional bits. The reality is that nonfiction is a deep market, popular with readers, and well worth considering, especially if your eye is on publication sooner rather than later.

Always Be Interesting

So what do you need for successful nonfiction?

Basically four things:

  • an interesting topic trimmed down to a unique slant
  • careful research
  • intelligent organization
  • a spark

Let’s talk about each of these things in turn and how you might use them to step out onto the nonfiction stage to success.

We’ll begin with topic and slant. Topic is broad but slant is narrow. For instance, a broad topic might be butterflies (which is not only a huge topic but a huge topic that has been done so many times that the very word can give editors hives), but a narrow slant could be butterflies whose caterpillar stage eats insects instead of leaves––a surprising subset with the spark of being new, unique, and surprising. (So surprising that the article I did about it sold to Cricket magazine.)

Another huge topic might be cars, but a slant might be driverless cars (and really, you might need to narrow that yet again to get a really interesting targeted focus like Driverless Cars and the Law or The History of Driverless Cars). Now maybe you could look for a true story within your main topic of “cars.” Readers love true stories, and nonfiction that focuses on a specific true story is called Narrative Nonfiction. Under the broad topic of cars, my narrative nonfiction topic might be “when President Johnson intentionally drove his car into a lake.”

You know you’ve found a good focus when it’s

  1. something that surprises you,
  2. something you want to know more about, and
  3. something you feel the urge to share with others

For example, when I read about President Johnson and his amphibious car playing pranks on guests, I immediately wanted to tell people about it because it had the spark of being a very funny story. And that made me know I’d found an interesting slant for a nonfiction piece. The same with the story about carnivorous caterpillars. I had no idea they existed, but I wanted to know more about them. And if I want to know more, readers would as well.

Research Your Way to Surprises

Of course, you can’t find surprise information without good research. Good research comes from a mix of print sources and online sources. Many times we’re warned away from online sources, and there is a good reason for that. Print sources have already been though a vetting process. Someone checked the information for accuracy, before they agreed to publish it. Many times online sources have not been through that vetting process. But the reality is that print sources can include inaccurate information (especially in older scientific texts, for instance) and many sources on the Internet actually have been vetted or are digitalized copies of primary source materials. For instance, when researching Matthew Henson and the race for the North Pole for an article I eventually sold to Highlights, I was able to read journals and letters from members of the team that had been scanned and put online. That was primary source materials that I would not have had access to normally as they reside far too away from my home.

So good research means analyzing the resources you use:

  • Have they been vetted?
  • Where do they come from?
  • Who stands behind them?
  • Does the source of the information have an agenda?

As an example, when researching driverless cars, the companies attempting to develop the cars have shared considerable information. But those same companies have a vested interest in driverless cars being perceived in a specific way. So they are a suspect source and must be approached with more than a few grains of salt.

Also, we must recognize that abundant information appears online with no source mentioned at all, so that information cannot be used to create nonfiction for publication. This is one reason why Wikipedia is not a reputable source. At any given moment, anything you find on there may have been tampered with by anyone at all. So Wikipedia entries can be interesting and even lead to interesting perspectives, you cannot actually use it as a source because it’s free-wheeling nature leaves it wide-open to error.

With Research in Hand, Now Organize

Organization is the spot where many new nonfiction writers run into a hard roadblock. Once you’ve done a considerable amount of research, it can be tempting to show off everything, and that usually means dumping it into a hodge-podge. Many writers have a semi-organizational structure to their nonfiction, but then they’ll poke in the extra bits they find interesting, even when those bits don’t exactly fit. And that kind of distraction from a clean organization can result in rejections. Organization is actually vital to publishable nonfiction. Young readers need the roadmap of a good organization to help them consume (and remember) the information.

With narrative nonfiction, the organization is often chronological. After all, you’re often telling a story so you do tend to tell it in the order it happened. So if I write about LBJ and his Amphicar prank, I’ll probably start with him inviting guests to go for a ride in his rather odd looking convertible and then proceed with what happened after that. Then once the punchline of the story happens (where the president drives the car into the lake only to have it begin chugging across the lake like a rather slow moving boat), I’ll be able to logically give a bit more information about the Amphicar without interrupting the flow of the story. The organization is easy to follow. This is one reason why nonfiction that tells a story is often a good starting point. To do this, you research a person or subject until an interesting story pops up. As I was researching amphibious vehicles, LBJ’s story popped up and was a clear, interesting story to tell for publication.

If your nonfiction is strictly informational with no clear story element, then organization requires more thought. For instance, if I decided to do a piece on unusual animal tongues, I might choose a compare/contrast organization for younger readers, where I invite them to imagine life with the two-foot tongue of a giant anteater or having a tongue full of spiny bristles like a flamingo or having a tongue that can smell like a snake. Or I might focus on tongues that have unique abilities and work from unusual but familiar (like the house cat) to unusual and surprising (like the giraffe’s prehensile tongue.) While researching tongues, I might learn other fascinating things about giraffes or anteaters or flamingos, but I’ll set aside all facts unrelated to tongues so that I can stay focused on my slant. A clear organization will help me to stay on task.

Magazine informational nonfiction often uses the rule of three for organization by breaking the focused topic into three parts. So if I decide to write about Mantis Shrimp (for instance),  I might divide the article into three parts with one focusing on the beautiful look of the mantis shrimp, one focusing on the amazing abilities of the mantis shrimp, and the third focusing on how the mantis shrimp is inspiring advances in human body armor. Or maybe I’ll take the mantis shrimp and slip him into an informational article on tiny terrors, tiny creatures who are far more ferocious than we’d imagine. In that case, I can break up the organization by giving each creature its one slice of the article. Or I could talk about why some tiny creatures need to be such huge consumers and let that guide me into logical organizational decisions.

At every point though, I need to be able to stop and defend every sentence and fact of my article. I need to be able to say why it’s in there. Why it’s in that spot. And why I know it’s accurate.

Did It Spark?

The last thing your article needs may be the most important. It’s the spark.

It’s the thing that made you fascinated by the idea. And it’s the thing that will keep your reader interested.

In LBJ’s Amphicar story, the spark is that it’s funny and surprising. It’s a great prank, and it was played by a president. Children often think of presidents as people who don’t do silly or funny things. We don’t think of them as pranksters. So humor is always a great spark, as is surprise.

But neither humor nor surprise should be forced on the piece. Trying to jolly the reader into caring about your piece usually doesn’t work. Genuine humor and genuine surprise that grows out of you being amused and surprised first is nearly always much more successful.

This is why it is rarely a good idea to write your nonfiction about the first common topic that comes to mind. Many new writers begin by thinking about things they liked as kids. I liked bugs when I was very young, so I should write about bugs. Maybe, but only if I can find a surprising or genuinely amusing slant (which is why my article on carnivorous caterpillars is one of my very few bug nonfiction pieces.) Finding that unique slant that sparks your absolute fascination and delight takes work on reading and researching but it leads to sales.

Many times articles fall short because a writer finds a general topic that they found interesting (a cultural event for instance or a holiday or a person) but they stopped before that interest turned into fascination and delight. They carry the interest into the article, but it’s not enough to make the piece stand out among other articles in competition. This is something I’ve done myself, and sometimes it’s not until I begin the writing that I realize the spark isn’t there. It’s mildly interesting but it’s not fascinating and it’s not delightful.

Often the solution is to dig deeper into research. Sometimes, somewhere deep within it, lies that spark of fascination and delight. Keep digging until you find it. Or keep reading news and visiting new places and having new experiences until you hit the spark. Once you do you’ll have the perfect piece to get your nonfiction writing going and your publications building.

It’s all in the spark.



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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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