Sunday, November 06, 2016

Creative Nonfiction: A Tricky Business (Part Two)


This is part two of our professional editor's posts about CNF. It explains the dilemmas authors face writing in this genre that straddle facts and fiction, sometimes uncomfortably. Have a read!

by Joyce Gram, writer and editor

Last week in Part One, I introduced you to creative nonfiction, that apparent oxymoron so beautifully explored by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Creative nonfiction poses particular challenges; Miller and Paolo call it “a tricky business.” On the one hand, the writer is striving to turn real life into art. On the other hand, she must deal with the issues that come attached with that “real life.” Can you, for example, when writing from your own memory, place a character in an imaginative place because you don’t exactly remember the scene? Can you, in order to set up the scene properly, simply create the characters you need? Can you, because you don’t remember the dialogue verbatim, put words in a character’s mouth? In short, how much of your imagination can you use?

Tell It Slant spends many pages on these basic questions of creative nonfiction. Central to the issues is that, whatever you are writing about, it is “the self that inhabits the prose of creative nonfiction.” This “I” picks and chooses among the facts, re-creates the essential scenes, makes crucial decisions about what to include and what to exclude, decides on the opening line that will set up the voice of the piece. Say the authors, “The ‘I’ gives the essay its personality, both literally and figuratively.”

But, as you create this persona for your piece, you are establishing a relationship between yourself and your reader, a relationship that goes to the heart of creative nonfiction: “In creative nonfiction—more so, perhaps, than in any other genre—readers assume a real person behind the artifice, an author who speaks directly to the reader.” For this relationship to work, the writer must establish a level of trust—a “pact with the reader.” Your reader will assume, because you are presenting your work as a piece of nonfiction, that this is a “true story,” rooted in the real world. In return for this assumption—this faith in you as a writer—you must “pledge ... both to be as honest as possible with the reader and to make this conversation worthwhile.”
.............. 
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. See especially chapter 8, “The Particular Challenges of Creative Nonfiction.”

Julie speaking: Once an author has answered the myriad questions that present themselves during the research stage, the writing has to draw on the techniques of fiction. Your story certainly deserves the best of the craft, including tension and pace, characterization, plot, theme, dialogue, and more. 



© Joyce Gram 2009
Gram Editing Services
email@joycegram.com 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Creative Nonfiction? An Oxymoron?


This week's post, as well as next week's, are again from our professional editor, Joyce Gram. Creative nonfiction or CNF is difficult to define, but is wonderful for readers. Neither scholarly nor detached like so many nonfiction books, CNF is storytelling the truth. The technique raises many questions and dilemmas for authors, and takes all their skills to do it successfully.

PART ONE
By Joyce Gram, writer and editor

In Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, co-author Brenda Miller imagines being cornered at a party and asked the deceptively simple question, “So, you’re a writer. What do you write?” All the possible replies flash through her head: Essays—but that sounds too much like academic papers and articles. Nonfiction—but her inquirer might think celebrity biographies, cookbooks or historical treatises on World War II. Autobiography, memoir—but isn’t she too young to write her memoirs? She knows that if she answers with the correct phrase, creative nonfiction, she will be in for a long night. She longs to tell her confused companion that she loves writing creative nonfiction precisely because of the ambiguity of this apparent oxymoron, ambiguity that allows her “to straddle a kind of ‘borderland’ where I can discover new aspects of myself and the world, forge surprising metaphors, and create artistic order out of life’s chaos.” Instead, she directs her friend’s attention to the punch bowl and thereby to the myriad things of this world and thinks “maybe that is the correct answer after all.”

The book’s title is from a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson, which Miller and co-author Suzanne Paola interpret to mean that truth takes on many guises. The authors felt that the poem aptly described the task of the creative nonfiction writer: “to tell the truth, yes, but to become more than a mere transcriber of life’s factual experiences.” Every chapter opens with an artful example—just a few paragraphs—of the subject of the chapter: early memory, family, the physical world, spiritual autobiography, gathering history, writing the arts; and even the particular challenges of creative nonfiction and the basics of good writing. Just reading these examples is a revelation in itself: everything is interesting—or can be—even the exercise assigned to a group of novice nonfiction writers, to pull out a piece of their own prose and count the number of words in each sentence. “Ohmigod!” said one woman. “All of my sentences are eleven words long!”

Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

© Joyce Gram
Gram Editing Services
www.gramediting.com
email@joycegram.com


Julie speaking: An excellent example of CNF is Unbroken: A World War Two Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. It's a biography of Louis Zamperini — I couldn't put it down but survived the short nights!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Losing Interest in Your Book


I go through a phase I heartily detest when I'm writing a book. After I've finished the first draft, I start losing interest about one third into the revision process. My self-talk gets negative, "This book is boring. My writing is awful. Why should I bother any more?" It happens with every book I write.

Now, I recognize this phase for what it is. But it thoroughly scares writers the first time it occurs. I assure you—it's common and normal. It too will pass!

I've learned to view this mental slump as a signal of exhaustion with the book. My answer is to take a complete a break from the manuscript, indeed from all writing if I can. I have to stop not only tinkering with my manuscript, but also stop thinking about it. It takes me a good two weeks to achieve this.

I try to plan a vacation for the time I expect my motivation to plummet and I leave my laptop behind. If I can't go away, I fill my time at home—decorate a room or play a lot of golf. This solution works for me every time and I return to the book full of ideas, high motivation, and energy. Try it!

© Julie H. Ferguson 2016 

www.beaconlit.com
www.facebook.com/BeaconLiteraryServices 
@BLSJHFerguson

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Writer Meets Editor or Agent


This week the Surrey International Writers' Conference gets underway. If you're attending, this post is for you!

Conferences are rites of passage for most aspiring authors. We attend these events to learn from the greats, maybe even talk to them; we inhale the craft at workshops; we get mega-motivated; and we pitch our W-I-P to acquisition editors and agents, one-on-one. 

Before you do book these appointments, be sure your manuscript is highly polished because many writers make the mistake of meeting editors and agents several years too early and leave disappointed. Your writers' group should be able to help you determine when your manuscript is ready for publication and you're well prepared for this step. 

With a dry mouth and a knot in your stomach, you make your way to your first meeting with an editor of one of Canada’s premier publishers . This is why you’re here, of course, but it doesn’t make it any easier. So here are a few tips to bolster your courage and to ensure a successful conversation:


  1. Pick the most suitable editors/agents for your work – do some research ahead of time. Be able to enthusiastically describe your book in one sentence. My book is about…. Practice saying it out loud…lots.
  2. Have a sample of your work for the editor to read that is correctly formatted – anything less and you create an unprofessional impression. (More than 50% of manuscripts handed over at conferences are single-spaced!) Make sure it is the very best writing you can deliver. Have abusiness card to leave behind you.
  3. Know what you need to learn from this encounter beforehand. Write a list so you don’t forget to ask your questions.
  4. And, don't hog the conversation — nerves tend to make people babble and then you never hear the pearls of wisdom from the person you chose to meet. You only have fifteen minutes…and it goes by fast!
  5. Make notes immediately after the meeting or you'll forget the details and how you agreed to proceed.
Take three deep breaths and go for it….



© Julie H. Ferguson 2016


Sunday, October 09, 2016

What Does an Acquisition Editor Do?


I wish I'd written this post about acquisition editors, but my writer friend and colleague, Joyce Gram did. I couldn't say it better myself.
 
Writers have to forearm themselves: You need to know what range of tasks acquisition editors do before writing the perfect query letter for fiction and nonfiction books. You also must understand the questions acquisition editors have to answer at publishers' editorial board meetings. Knowing all this enables you to convey the info they require to pitch your book to the board. It's the same for nonfiction, but your proposal has to go a step further and provide more detail for acquisition editors.  
Both the query and the proposal, if you cover the bases, also reassures the editor that you're a professional too.

In a previous post, I did my best to convince you of the value of hiring a freelance editor to take a dispassionate look at your manuscript to show you what’s possible and help you gain perspective on your work. I argued that taking this step might make the difference between having your manuscript looked at by a publisher or tossed into the slush pile. Here, I’m going to tell you what an acquisitions editor does—and if this doesn’t convince you, then perhaps nothing will. 
Publishing houses acquire books
 in two main ways:
1) By choosing manuscripts received from agents or authors that have excellent commercial promise
2) By seeking out authors to write specific projects that the publishing house has determined will sell.

Both jobs fall to the acquisitions editor. She is the first to see a manuscript, and if she doesn’t like it—really like it—it will go no further. But she must do more than just like it. She must convince her superiors—the publisher as well as the marketing and publicity departments—to really like it as well. She must pitch it down to the last detail: the superior quality of the writing; the manuscript’s uniqueness and slant; its suitability for the publisher’s booklist; its favourable comparison to other titles in the market; the cost to produce; timing of publication; price; expected profit; longevity. She must also assess the author: How well known is s/he? How many titles has he published? What are his sales? How much marketing experience does she have? Is she cooperative or a pain in the ass? Does he “show” well at media events and book signings, or does he look like he’d rather be hiding in the weeds?

The acquisitions editor’s job is riding on all of this. If the titles and authors she promotes do not end up making money for the publishing house, she’s gone. So, this is not really about you, the writer; it’s about her! If you want to impress her, do everything you can to produce the best you can; and, please, check the publisher’s submissions guidelines and be prepared to wait some time while the acquisitions editor pitches your book to the publishing house.
These books are a must for unpublished authors:

  • Elizabeth Lyon, The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking In. New York: Penguin, 1997.
  • __________, Nonfiction Proposals Anybody Can Write. New York: TarcherPerigee, 2002.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

How Freelance Writers Can Add Value that Editors Can't Resist

(Courtesy: Netshark.com)

In the last decade, freelancers have become content providers in a fast-paced, visual, and connected world. When demand for articles dropped when print periodicals shrank in the economic slump of 2008-9 and now when competition is high, writers need to offer editors more than just an 800 word article to get published. Whether you are breaking into freelancing or you have been writing for years, you have no choice but to embrace today's reality.
Many periodicals provide their readers with both print and web versions. Some want more than just text to drive traffic to and fro between their magazine and website. To find out what added incentives a freelancer can offer editors, check their websites. You’ll be surprised how many publications use content other than articles and other mechanisms to entice and retain their readers. And it is their writers who provide it.
Once you know the array of value-added offerings magazines use regularly, you can develop the right mix. Here are some of the most common offerings freelancers must consider:
  • A variety of article lengths (feature (2000+), department (700-1200), and shorts (300-400)
  • A print version and an online version (think smartphone screens as well as tablets)
  • A choice of sidebars 
  • Images are essential for online articles and they should be yours if at all possible
  • Activity on social media sites to promote the periodical and your article(s). (Twitter and Instagram are the most effective, especially for travel writers)
  • Short video clips (with audio) for the website
  • A guest blog post
  • An author blog interview
  • A podcast that augments your text with IVs and sound effects (least important offering, IMO).
If you quail at the thought of using Twitter and/or Instagram or creating video clips, choose to pitch to magazines that don’t use them (though most employ Twitter with images).  Alternatively, learn how and start competing with writers who already offer these attractive options. Start adding value that editors can’t resist!

© Julie H. Ferguson 2016

Monday, September 26, 2016

THE BIG PICTURE FOR WRITERS: Structural Editing



Professional editors also provide structural editing, also known as substantive or developmental editing, to authors. For me, this is one of the most useful tasks an editor can do, especially for long form works.  Over a year or two, an author can forget what they've written leading to undue repetition, omissions, inconsistencies regarding characters, and unnecessary scenes. Then there is "scaffolding,"  something we all do, but that's for another post. Today Joyce Gram, professional editor and writer, writes about structural editing from her point of view: 


Those of you who have faithfully followed my articles here will have noticed that I have focused on the minutia of editing—punctuation, verb style, word usage—detail that I said in my inaugural piece makes writing flow, smoothes the reader's way, spares the reader the irritation of interruption and confusion. But minutia, defined by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as "a precise, trivial, or minor detail," is only one part of editing (though it is often the part that makes for the best debate; in fact, the debate can get downright dirty!). Another part is "substantive" or "structural" editing, what I like to call the "Big Picture." 

When an editor looks at structure, she asks herself, Does the structure of the manuscript work as whole, given the nature of the publication? A personal essay or opinion piece for a local newspaper will be structured differently than a short story, website, or how-to book. A letter to the editor cries out for a logical sequence that the reader can grasp in seconds without effort. A novel calls for a compelling sequence that will captivate and hold the reader for many hours. Structural rules are not carved in stone, but readers and publishers have expectations. Whatever your piece, its organization must be easy to follow, without gaps, missing steps, or unclear transitions. Readers look for prose that is clear, concise, and a pleasure to read. Few will backtrack to figure out your argument or make sense of what your characters are doing. What matters most is a structure that, combined with all the other elements of good writing, draws your reader right to the last sentence.



Recommended resource on substantive editing: Editors' Association of Canada Professional Editorials standards:


© Joyce Gram

email@joycegram.com
www.gramediting.com