Taking No Shortcuts: 3 Top Challenges Nonfiction Writers Face
By Rachel Thompson
Write something you’d never show your mother or father ~ Lorrie Moore, author.
As a nonfiction essayist, I basically write short stories that are not stories in the classical sense; they’re more my views on the experiences I’ve had or observed in others. I’ve been writing all types of pieces since I was a child, but now I mostly write short stories, journals, or articles (though I am working on an literary erotica anthology and a new work of fiction). Writing nonfiction comes easy to me.
There are three basic challenges I face in this genre:
- Most people love fiction (me, too!)
- Criticism for sharing intimate moments
- Marketing issues
Fiction: Most readers are looking for an escape. Why do you think Romance is the number one selling genre? It’s like Disney all grown up, with sex and stuff.
As a nonfiction writer, I still get to write about that stuff (if I choose), but getting people to look at my books can be a real challenge, when what they’re really after is the next Fifty Shades of Whatever.
On the other hand, there have never been as many blogs as there are now – that says something very intriguing to me about what people want to read. We DO want real stories; we DO want real characters; we DO relate to universal truths.
Which leads me to my next point…
Criticism: When I wrote my first book A Walk In The Snark, I wanted to show the arc of comedy to tragedy. I never planned the book to be all humor–just more my take on different life situations; but then it just so happened during the writing of it an ex-lover tragically killed himself. I used my writing as a way to express the shock and grief I felt over his death. Always a survivor, the word took on a decidedly different meaning after that.
I expect people to not like my work, because these are my experiences, opinions, and books, right? Not to take away from the many people who loved it (and reached out to me privately as survivors themselves); to have touched them in a way that made them both laugh and cry is extraordinarily meaningful to me.
And yet…some people felt I exploited his death for sympathy, to sell more books, to make more money. And they are certainly entitled to think that. And that’s okay. But I think, for any nonfiction writer, we have to know that people will object to our content, particularly if their values are different. A nonfiction writer, or any writer really, needs to know that people will have opinions about our truth.
This is when it’s most important to remember your vision. This is your work. Own it. Never write thinking, ‘What will someone say?’ Nothing can kill inspiration quicker.
(Interestingly, my current book, Broken Pieces, is not humor at all. It’s about the arc, if you will, many women (including me) experience as we grow: fear, desire, love, loss, grief, and then, trust and deeper love.)
Marketing: You’d think that marketing nonfiction books would be easier than fiction, but I find it difficult at times (and I’m a marketer, too!). In fiction, you have characters and a story line people latch onto. In nonfiction, I basically become the main character by default; ergo, everything I say and do creates a persona that people assume is real. For example, I mention Prada shoes in my book as a literary device for something women desire, which people instead, took quite literally.
Again, that’s okay. I’m not here to defend myself to anyone. My point is that finding my brand, understanding what naturally drives and interests me, is what I endeavor to convey to people. And sometimes I fail, clearly. But when you’re marketing your books about personal experiences, it can be hard to be objective.
That’s why I recommend every writer have critique partners, a great editor, proofreader, graphic artist, and formatter (unless you know how to do that), and of course, betareaders.
Allow people to help you through these challenges. In the end, we’re all better off for it.
Engage in the difficult work – I’m not saying take shortcuts because letting others help you takes courage and last time I checked, asking for feedback is never, ever easy.
In good work, there are no shortcuts.