Thursday, January 21, 2016


Once the domain of celebrities, more and more writers of lesser fame are turning to the category of memoirs and autobiographies in the hopes of getting published. This non-fiction category has skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years and editors report that the competition is fierce, especially at regional presses. I am of the opinion that memoir is one of the most challenging to write well.

Writers should know the difference in the two forms. While both are written in the 1st person, autobiographies cover a whole life from birth to death, and memoirs focus on a period surrounding a life-changing experience in the writer’s life. Memoirs can also provide focus on a subject other than the writer: for example, the book by Queen Victoria’s personal physician.

If you write in the 3rd person, your category becomes “fiction based on fact.” The personal experience or personal essay category refers, not to books, but to short stories.

Both categories need a strong, unifying theme and throughlines (just like good fiction) to prevent rambling, shallow stories that are dissatisfying to your readers. Themes can be as simple as "love conquers all" or "honesty is the best policy," but be sure you have one and that it is well articulated in your manuscript, query letter, and proposal. A clear universality or thread, which transcends your life, makes readers relate to your story. It is not enough to simply recount the events in your life as you might for family members, however interesting they are.

Experts at a writers’ mini-conference advised writers that, to get accepted for commercial publication, memoirs and autobiographies must contain outstanding writing and voice. They also insisted that writers must be able to demonstrate much practice, membership in critique groups, participation in courses, and previous publication credits. Placing in a contest or two also encourages editors to want to read your proposal.

Although memoir and autobiography are nonfiction, submission requirements follow those of fiction. Query letters to agents/editors must have a one-page, character-based synopsis attached, just like a fiction query. Nowadays, when a publisher or agent invite you to provide more material, proposals for memoirs or autobiographies should have half the manuscript enclosed, not just two or three chapters, to prove the writer can sustain the theme and throughlines, pace, and interest.  

Make sure you know which publishers and editors want what and don’t send your query incorrectly. That’s a sure-fire recipe for rejection. Most publishers’ websites will tell how to submit the query about your memoirs or autobiography correctly, thus giving your work a fair chance. Good luck!

© Julie H. Ferguson 2015 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

LET'S TALK NONFICTION! Front and back matter for your book

The art of writing nonfiction books, not articles, needs close attention to your book's front and back matter.

First off, I recommend you choose a few published books in your category and sub-category to study how they are setup at the beginning and end. Yes, there are rules to follow about what sections are needed and in what order. For example, the sequence of typical front matter is a full title page, copyright page (publishers do this for you), another title page, table of contents (TOC), list of illustrations, foreword, preface, acknowledgements, and dedication. An introduction before chapter one is not part of the front matter but actually part of the body of the book. I mention it here as intros are often misunderstood and misused, leaving acquisition editors shaking their heads!

Authors must include everything in their manuscripts and book proposals from the TOC onwards. You can choose not to have a foreword or a dedication, acknowledgements or even a preface, but I would suggest a foreword because it helps sales and a preface because it assists readers.

Confusion commonly arises around the use and contents of the foreword, the preface, and the introduction, so I have focused on them here:

Foreword: This is an endorsement of your book written by a well-known expert, the most recognizable authority on your subject you can think of. Typically it is about 500 words. You must invite this individual and get their agreement to write the foreword well before you send them the finished manuscript. In the invitation let him/her know the timeframe for the arrival of your ms. When you email the ms or mail a hard copy, remind him/her of the word count and your deadline. (You do not pay a fee for the foreword.)

Preface: This is easier to write after the book is finished — it's mostly about you. Many readers skip it. Most importantly, the preface highlights the benefits that you've decided to offer readers of your book - what will they know and/or be able to do when they turn the final page.
The preface can contain a brief description of the book's angle, philosophy, your criteria for inclusion/exclusion of material, its organization and how to read it. Many authors explain their motivation for the book's creation here and perhaps details about how they did the research.
I always include a paragraph about my credentials as I'm not a well-respected professor, which hopefully reassures readers that I know what I'm talking about. The preface is also the place to discuss tricky terminology or point the reader to a glossary in the back matter. If you have a limited number of acknowledgements - say four or five people - end with this. If you have many more use a separate Acknowledgements section.
The preface is the only place you use the first person in a nonfiction book that's not about you.
It helps when you're writing it to imagine conversing with a reader who is interested in your book's topic; tell them about it, about your passion for the project, and why you were ideal to write it. Make it a little personal too - every reader likes to get to know the author.

Introduction: This precedes the first chapter, is not part of the front matter, and is optional. It is for and about the reader.
If you opt for an intro, it's the place to hook your reader by captivating them with an offer they can't refuse; then reel them in. The intro is usually written by the author, but not necessarily, and offers a compelling overview including the purpose of the whole book and some background if appropriate to the topic. Remember that many readers skip the preface and start here.

Nonfiction back matter is much easier to handle and has fewer pitfalls. Your NF ms can include appendices, endotes, glossary, bibliography, afterword, and index (but don't prepare the index now — just mention it in your ms and proposal). And this reminds me to urge you to keep very accurate records as you write your manuscript — if you don't, you won't be able to recreate your research, cite your quotes, etc. Be diligent and the back matter will come easily.

NB: The best reference book on this topic is the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., (left). Front matter starts at section 1.16; back matter starts at section 1.57.

© Julie H. Ferguson 2015

Images: Upper and lower – © Photos  by Pharos. All rights reserved

CATEGORIZING YOUR BOOK: The Where-to-Shelve Dilemma

Aspiring authors must “categorize” their books accurately. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you need to know where a bookseller will shelve your book after publication. If you're seeking a traditional publisher, do not fall into the trap of leaving an editor or agent to figure it out or, worse yet, of mis-categorizing your work. They need the information up-front in your query letter and, later, in your proposal. If you're self-publishing, it's just as vital for your marketing and promotion.
The process to discover the correct category takes research and some patience to complete successfully and may result in improving the focus of your manuscript to make it fit better. 

Fiction has three main categories (genre, mainstream, and literary) which are divided into myriad sub-categories (romance, thrillers, sci-fi, horror, etc.) If you present mainstream fiction with a romance in it to romance editors, rejection will surely follow, as will misery. Editors/agents also shy away from “cross-over” novels that fit into two or more categories, as they are hard to market as a first book.

Non-fiction categories are almost limitless, but a visit to a large bookstore will show you the main ones. They include business, self-help, history, biographies, and Canadiana, etc. These too have sub-categories, which you will need to explore, e.g. Cookbook, vegetarian; History, military. If your book does not fit a clear shelving category, it risks being put somewhere that your readers will not think to look. Further, if your book could be shelved in several places, consider that you might be writing for too large a market, and narrow your focus.

Other useful tips include discussing the shelving of your proposed book with a trusted retailer, a librarian, and your writing group. These informed, but impartial, individuals will bring an objective eye to the matter.

Categorizing your book not only helps you to sharpen its slant, but also to promote it. Categorization enables you to send your inquiries to publishers and editors that specialize in your type of book, and to mention the category in the first sentence of your query letter. As well as guiding you while writing, categorization also significantly improves your chances of acceptance by a publisher or successful sales as an indie author.

© Julie H. Ferguson 2015

Image: Books in carts, © Jorge Royan, Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, January 07, 2016


Can you state what your book is about in one zinger sentence? If not, you may not have a clear purpose or theme for your project and you run the risk of writing a book without a point to it. Worse yet, it won't stand out in its sub-category.

Completing the following sentence is not as easy as it sounds: “My book is about....” Unpublished authors take several tries to boil down their theme to a phrase and usually seek assistance from other writers. Once you have achieved this task, type up the sentence in bold letters, and stick it on top of your computer screen. It will act as an ongoing guide and a baseline against which you can measure everything you include in your book. Ask yourself: Does this section contribute to the topic or not? What does this paragraph add to my overriding purpose?

     Books’ mission statements develop from this single sentence and are used in many ways, such as:
  • Discovering your book’s angle on the subject;
  • Writing query letters to agents or editors;
  • Speaking to agents/editors at writers’ conferences;
  • Preparing your book proposal and overview;
  • Writing catalogue blurbs;
  • Writing promotional material for media releases, flyers, etc; and,
  • Giving media interviews.
       Your book’s mission statement should run about 150 words and must
generate excitement, clearly describe the subject and scope of the book, demonstrate its uniqueness, show its benefits and the features that deliver them (sidebars, templates, illustrations, etc.), identify the audience and, lastly, reveal the author’s credentials. “All that in 150 words,” I hear you wailing! Yes! It takes a lot of work and much rewriting but it is worth the effort. Many aspiring authors say it clarifies their thoughts and helps them create a more marketable product.

Reflecting on and answering the following questions will help you develop your mission statement:
  1. What main problem will your NF book solve for its readers? (One only, in one sentence.)
  2. Describe your typical reader in 2-3 words. (eg. Canadian writers, fainthearted kayakers)
  3. What is the subject of your book? (One simple phrase)
  4. What makes your book unique?
  5. What makes your book better or different than others on the same subject?
  6. Why is it a good time to have a book like yours available?
  7. List the benefits of your NF book to its readers.
  8. List the features that deliver the benefits.
  9. Describe yourself in two to three words. (eg. author and speaker)
Good luck and, if need be, get some help from your writers’ group or individuals who know your work-in-progress.

Read Book Magic: Turning Writers into Published Authors, 3rd ed. for more guidance and examples. Click here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


TriCities next writers’ workshop …
 with Debra Purdy Kong, mystery author

Balancing Lies and Truth in Fiction
is for YOU if you have ever considered setting a murder victim in the lobby of a real hotel or using a public event for a violent scene in your book.

When is the truth too much? When is it not enough? What are the risks you run as an author? How do you identify and manage the potential issues?

Learn how to weigh the benefits against the drawbacks of incorporating well-known settings, people, and events in your fiction. Discover how to successfully blend real-life places, characters, and incidents into compelling scenes for your novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction.

NB: I also highly recommend 
this workshop for writers of nonfiction because of similar legal aspects that authors must consider.

Registration is now open; space is limited and capped at 30. The workshop is open to all, so please pass the word to your writer colleagues. 

When, where, how: 
  • Saturday October 17, 2015, 9:30-12:00pm 
  • Kyle Centre, behind old city hall on St. John’s Street, Port Moody. $45.00/1 session
  • Register in person, online at by clicking “Online Registration, and entering #59218, or call 604.469.4556 and quote “Creative Writing Workshop” #59218

Debra Purdy Kong is an award-winning short story writer and the author of two mystery series set in BC. Her acclaimed Casey Holland novels are published by Touchwood Editions and her newest Ethan Dunstan series by Imajin. Debra instructs writers in the craft of writing fiction and also shares the facilitation of the Port Moody writers’ groups. Visit for more details.