Turn Life into Income with Creative Nonfiction: Part 2

Beth Fowler headshotPublishers of memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, travelogues and themed anthologies buy creative nonfiction. So do newspaper and magazine editors. Browse bookstores, including quirky independent stores and university bookstores, to find markets that publish creative nonfiction.

Periodical editors suggest (plead) with authors to “be familiar with our publication before submitting your work.” One creative nonfiction author subscribes to a different literary magazine each year to get a feel for what magazines publish. The flavor of stories in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series is different from stories in “Rosebud.”

Editors who consider creative nonfiction manuscripts want a strong theme or narrative that serves as a unifying thread through the story. Writers must be disciplined and ruthlessly trim passages that don’t support the theme.

If you think you have a memoir in you, read others’. Larry Brown’s On Fire, J.R. Moehringer’s Tender Bar, and Louis Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance are examples of the genre.

Carol Crawford, coordinator for the Blue Mountain (North Carolina) Writers’ Conference says, “Write small.” Narrow down the focus of the story to draw readers in. The biggest mistake most beginning nonfiction writers make is giving too much information. To help writers zero in on a theme, Crawford asks writers to sum up their stories in six words.

Crawford offers more advice for creative nonfiction writers. “Journal for catharsis. Craft for story.” Write naked with your back to the world. Forget about readers and editors and publishers on your first draft. Let ‘er rip. Open the gates of emotions. Stick your feet into the sneakers you wore as an 11-year old and let that character’s voice guide your pencil.

Use prompts to get you going. You’ll be amazed at where your creative mind will run once you unleash it. Here are prompts we used in a Creative Nonfiction workshop at John C. Campbell Folk School. (www.folkschool.org) “If only someone had told me about…,” and “Write about being nice to someone you detest,” and “Write about the time the ___________ caught on fire.”

After writing hot and heavy, go back and make design decisions. Erdrich’s design decision in The Blue Jay’s Dance was combining three babies into one character. She states this up front in a contract, so to speak, with the reader.

Creative nonfiction reveals the author and another person or other people clearly, as well as establishing a time and place readers can visualize. Most publishers don’t want lyrical description for the sake of lyrical description. Nor do they want pieces that are emotion only. Something’s gotta happen. Someone’s gotta change. Creative nonfiction, like other well-crafted manuscripts, has a beginning, middle and end. In Your Life as Story, Tristine Rainer suggests writing about a problem, your struggle to resolve it, and the resultant transformation or realization. The main character’s change can be inner as well as outer.

In Cold Blood first appeared in “The New Yorker” in four parts. Papers sold out. Then the nonfiction novel became one of the most talked about books of its time. Dubbed an instant classic, In Cold Blood earned its author millions of dollars and celebrity status.

“Sometimes when I think how good my book can be,” Capote said, “I can hardly breathe.”

Breathe. Write. Edit. Shape your experiences into salable manuscripts.

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