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Creative Nonfiction - Opportunities Abound
by Kerri Lane
Fiction writers are spoiled for choice. It's true. Crime Fiction, Romance Fiction, Science Fiction, Women's Fiction, Children's Fiction, Mystery, Fantasy, historical - the list goes on and on. And these writers don't have to find themselves stuck in a rut. In fact while most fiction writers will find their preference for one genre draws them, it's not unheard of for those writers to cross over into other genres as well. A children's writer can also write historical novels, or romances or mysteries. And they often do.
But they can't write non-fiction. Can they...?
OPPORTUNITIES IN WRITING NON-FICTION
First let's explore non-fiction. What opportunities lie in this area? Articles for magazines and newspapers, reports, bulletins, newsletters, press releases, product launch material, safety manuals, production manuals, instruction manuals, booklets, and myriad other 'how-to' material from labels and speeches, right up to novel length books. From this list it might be safe to say that non-fiction writers are also spoiled for choice - and surrounded by opportunity. What most authors don't realise is that it is easier to get non-fiction published than it is to get fiction published.
Non-fiction also outsells fiction by almost two to one. Take a look around your local bookstore. Check out how much space is devoted to fiction and compare that to non-fiction. And that's just a bookstore. Health food stores, banks, insurance offices, councils, doctor's surgeries, clinics are just some others that abound with leaflets and information that have to be created by someone! And with the exception of banks, insurance companies and councils - it is all non-fiction!
WHO WANTS NON-FICTION?
So, who wants non-fiction? Everybody! Just about every author has been asked by needy friends to help them with letters, speeches and yes, even eulogies. And that's just the start.
Many people are in business, but relatively few of them have the gift of making words work to their best advantage. Yet their continued success in that business or in certain aspects of it will depend at some stage on written documents, advertising or promotional material. And we've all seen horrid or hilarious attempts by those who are talented in other fields, but perhaps not in writing. E.g For Sale: Collie Dog, gold body, one black leg. Good yard dog. Of course it would be - it can't go far with only one leg!
But no matter how badly the advertiser above needed the services of a capable wordsmith, many fiction writers still generally shy away from writing non-fiction. One of the reasons I'm often given by those who are a bit wary of non-fiction is that they fear they don't have a broad enough education: they don't, for example, know the technical aspects of tax advantages, or how to pluck a chook - or whatever the required topic may be. Well, I'd argue that the same can be said for fiction writers. I've never murdered anyone in real life - nor have I been to the moon, but I've still written about these things in my fiction. And I must have done a credible job because the editors were convinced!
SOMETIMES, THE CLIENT DOES THE WORK...
Research is research whether it's for fiction or non-fiction. And in fact it gets better: If you're working with a client, most times that client will provide all that technical information for you! All you have to do is make it entertaining and easy to read. This is where all those fiction writing skills come to the fore.
Having said all that, you don't have to be a fiction writer to write non-fiction. You do, however, have to be creative. The trick to successful non-fiction writing lies in the words I used three sentences ago... entertaining and easy to read. Today's world is very different to those of our predecessors. Life is fast and not only do we have less time, but we have to fit more into that time and we need to learn more. And we want to learn more; it's the age of information.
THE CASE OF POOR GEORGE
Take this scenario. Every day George spends thirty minutes on a train. Two journeys: fifteen minutes to work, fifteen minutes home. He desperately wants to get out of his rut but he has no time to investigate his options - other than that thirty minutes per day. He has heard about successes on the stock exchange and wants to learn more. But how can he do it? He buys a book. Its title? How to Make a Killing on the Stock Exchange In Twenty Four Hours. George is excited. He is ready. He needs his information in short digestible chunks; he needs examples that will 'show' him what to do, he needs it in easy language. Alas, he doesn't get it...
In fact, poor George was left in his rut - literally. The killing took longer than 24 hours and it didn't happen on the stock exchange. Ten days after reading the introduction George was found dead in his train seat. Boredom and frustration had taken their toll... Most people wouldn't have hung in as long as George. People today don't have the time. They want their instructions to be succinct, uncluttered and entertaining - easy reading.
THE BOTTOM LINE FOR AUTHORS
For authors, the bottom line is that anyone who can write fiction well can also write entertaining non-fiction. Sure, it takes a slight shift in thinking, and yes we do have to engage the left brain a little more than we do in straight fiction, but as authors one thing never changes... first and foremost we are entertainers. Our aim is the engage readers and keep them enthralled; keep them turning the pages. In this regard, there should be no difference in our attitude to writing fiction or non-fiction. And yes, we may have to approach non-fiction a little differently, but it is excellent training for planning and tight writing. And not only are opportunities everywhere, but George could have been saved...
(c) Kerri Lane, May 2001
Kerri Lane is an author, ghostwriter and writing tutor. She has 25 titles of her own and a further 20 ghosted titles. She regularly provides articles and promo material for some of Australia's biggest companies. You can contact Kerri by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in Writing For Success, Issue 1, May-June 2001.