The Architecture of Nonfiction

September 2, 2015 § 3 Comments


Sometimes it does feel like bricklaying.

Sometimes it does feel like bricklaying.

When journalists become narrative-non-fiction writers, when essayists delve into memoir, the transition can be a challenge. How do we move from short and punchy (or mid-length and devastating) to a book-length work that holds the reader’s attention and leaves them satisfied?

At Nieman Storyboard, Bloomsbury Press Publisher and Editorial Director Peter Ginna discusses some key tools and techniques for successful book-length creative nonfiction. He points out why thematic and episodic structures often fail, how to figure out how much background to include (hint: “If you find yourself writing what the British call a “potted history” of World War II, your protagonist’s adolescence, or the development of the personal computer, there’s a good chance you are burdening the story with an excess of background”), and why sourcing matters.

As memoirists and essayists, we’ve heard this before, but Ginna’s phrasing bears repeating:

The most critical difference between a book and a magazine or newspaper article is that the publisher has to convince someone to part with 25 dollars or more for this story and this story alone, and perhaps more important, to invest several hours of his or her life in reading it. That’s a pretty high threshold. To get across it, you need a topic that is more than merely interesting and a narrative that’s more than well-wrought. You need a story that has a significance beyond itself, and you need to convey that significance to the reader.

[Ginna’s emphasis, and we emphatically concur.]

Check out the whole article at Nieman Storyboard.

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