Tweet chat 30th July 2021 Writing non-fiction

Participants: Gerald Hornsby, Elizabeth Holland, Maria Johnson, Anita Belli, Kathleen Marple-Kalb, Cheryl Whiting, Marian Thorpe, Rik Lonsdale, Chris Towndrow, Marianne Scott, Marian Thorpe, Maria Johnson, Cendrine Marrouat, Odessa Rose, Susan Specht Oran (briefly), Deborah Klée

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Please introduce yourself by telling us whether you have, or plan to, write a non-fiction book, and if not, what is a topic you would be most knowledgeable to write about.

Anita: Hello everyone. I am Anita from Essex, UK. I have written non-fic books about writing to accompany my workshops and online courses. Published my 4th this week

Deborah: Hi Anita. Your non-fiction books about the author in the classroom sound fascinating.

Anita: Thanks, Deborah. It is aimed at other writers who might want to work as a practitioner in schools. Covers a lot of my own experiences. My crusade is to transform writing from a chore to a joy for KS2 children

Odessa: Hello. I’m Odessa. I’ve never written a nonfiction book, but I’d like to one day. The topic I would be most knowledgeable to write about would be autism. Our oldest son has it and I’d like to help people the way other people help us.

Marian: Hi, Marian here. In past employment I’ve written chapters in textbooks and scientific papers and curriculum. In my current life I occasionally consider a memoir of 45 years of birding across the world.

DeborahWow! That would be an interesting book. I bet you have lots of stories to tell.

Marian: I do. But I never seem to find the time.

Marianne (to Marian): Yes, that sounds interesting. I like birds too but not hiking out into the wilds to find them. Watching from my window while eating breakfast is about my style. Would love to read about a naturist.

Marian: Seven continents….a lot of hiking, boats, Land Rovers, ox cart once….

Elizabeth: Hi all, I’m Elizabeth from Kent. My current WIP is heavily based on real life events that I’ve turned into fiction. Perhaps in years to come I might delve into a non-fiction self-help book. I’ve got to help myself first though before I can spread my wisdom.

Deborah: Hi Elizabeth. I think your book of mental health stories could form the basis of a book with questions and exercises for training purposes, school, etc.

Elizabeth: Thank you, Deborah! That’s a great idea. I think somewhere down the line there’s definitely scope to expand the book.

Rik: Well, I’m Rik, and I’m here, but the thought of writing non-fiction just doesn’t appeal, certainly not in book form. Having said that I routinely plan writing group exercises and schedules and stuff like that. If I wanted to, I could collate them I suppose.

Anita (to Rik): I would like to see some of those.

Deborah (to Rik): Hi Rik If you had to write a non-fiction book about anything what would interest you most? Gardening? Other?

Rik: Ha! Gardening for the Idle! I could do that. Note, this idea is now copyright.

Marianne (to Rik) I like a nice garden but not doing it. Mine is a mess. A book of tips would be great for lazy folk like me.

Gerald: Good afternoon, Deborah! Yes, I have written five non-fiction books – all writing craft related. I think the key thing is that they all deal with problems that I have encountered on my writing journey.

Marianne: I’m Marianne Scott a Canadian fiction writer. Just saw your tweet re writing about historical fiction. Yes – I guess I could research and do that. Lots of interesting history in Canada. About 50% of my reading is non-fiction. But, I’m a die-hard fiction writer. While I’d like to try my hand at non-fiction, I really don’t think I’m interesting or knowledgeable enough to write about the real world.

Deborah: I expect you know more than enough to write about how to write historical fiction.

Chris: Hi all, Chris from rainy Richmond. Years ago, I wrote a short book about planning your wedding. I’d been a wedding videographer for 10 years. I was going to write one about video marketing about 5 years ago but lost the motivation.

Deborah: It’s interesting the things we find out about each other here! I expect there’s a good story – maybe a romcom about planning weddings in there too.

Chris: I’ve certainly seen a few things – the book was largely around lessons learned from watching issues crop up at weddings! For fiction, though, I already have a handful of romcom scripts which could be novelised, so I’m not after any new ideas!

Marianne: How about memoir? Have any of you written memoir? I lead a typical suburban life. Who wants to read about grocery shopping and housecleaning? LOL. I fit writing somewhere between those activities.

Deborah: I have lots of funny and bizarre stories to tell about my life but would not want to bore anyone with a memoir. Anita teaches memoir writing skills.

Anita: … and quite by coincidence, I have written a book about it!…

Maria: Hi, I’m Maria, an author based in NW England writing historical fiction and fantasy. It’s not likely I’d ever write a non-fiction book but possibly I could see myself writing something about the craft of writing itself, as I sometimes blog about this already.

Kathleen: Hi, I’m Kathleen. I write fiction, because I’m a journalist by profession. I love to read other people’s non-fiction, but have NO desire to write it. (Though I could probably churn out a book about Gilded Age clothes from writing historical mysteries!)

Deborah: Hi Kathleen. It could always be a short book for people who sign up to your newsletter as it fits with the Diva Shane series.

Kathleen: That’s a great idea!

Cheryl: This is Cheryl, currently writing my first ever nonfiction book on subject of professionalism one I have written on and researched in healthcare, now presenting this in the context of business. Why non-fiction? because there really is no beginning to my creativity!

Deborah: Hi Cheryl. So pleased you could join us. You join in all of the fiction chat so I thought it was time to chat about your area of non-fiction.

Cheryl: I join in because I learn so much it’s not always about the words on paper, it’s about the journey, the approach, the motivation, the common goals, marketing etc and most of all the support.

Cendric: Hello everyone! My name is Cendrine and I’m the author of many non-fiction books (poetry, photography, social media, humor). I only wrote one fiction book in my career. But I created several literary genres, one of them is based on flash fiction and the haiku. 

Deborah: I admire people who can write flash fiction. I am too wordy.

Cendric: I can’t write descriptions for the life of me. That’s why I prefer short, punchy styles. The haiku is my favorite form of writing. I wrote a play following that concept of brevity and unsaid. 

Rik (to Cendric): All needless words omitted.

Cendric: That’s what the Show, Not Tell concept is all about. I actually advise writers to learn to write haiku if they want to be impactful. 

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What makes a non-fiction book attractive to readers and results in good sales? Examples of titles with explanations – including your own are welcome.

Cheryl: Currently reading How to live forever or die trying. Very thought provoking. It raises important issues about immortality, sciences quest for this (v frightening) and how society would change if we all lived longer and impact it on relationships, economics and environment.

Elizabeth: When choosing a non-fiction book I want something that’s going to educate me but in a nice way. I don’t want to feel as though I’m back at school! I’ve read lots of self-help books and I want the title to be simple and down to earth.

Gerald: In my latest (published yesterday), I say “I’m going to show how, not tell you what.” In other words, this is how I deal with this problem. I don’t lecture.

Rik: Applying show not tell to non-fiction too. Very good Gerald.

Elizabeth: This is exactly what I want from a non-fiction book. I almost want to teach myself by reading. I don’t want to just sit there and be lectured.

Gerald: I read something a couple of weeks ago that said the best instructional books are those that show the author’s process, and doesn’t instruct the reader.

Anita: Must be relevant to your audience and provide a solution to a question they have. Must bring something fresh and original to the topic; should teach or show you something you didn’t already know; should be transformative in some way

Rik: All sensible stuff, Anita. Do you define your audience before putting pen to paper?

Anita: Yes, Rik, I do. An audience and a single purpose tend to work well

Cheryl: To me non-fiction should change your perspectives in some way develops you and leads you to take positive action, however small those steps may be.

Maria: For writers, I think writing craft books are incredibly popular. It can be great to get tips on the process! In general biographies are often successful especially with celebrities, as readers are interested in the person ‘behind the mask’ and learning more of their story.

Marian: Appeal to a group or niche interest. I read a lot of nature writing, and also a lot of history for research and pleasure.

Gerald: I only write non-fiction books for other authors. My best seller gains around 40% of my sales overall on its own – “Scrivener – Pure and Simple”. The thing everyone says about Scrivener is that it is insanely complicated (at first), so this appeals – solving a problem.

Deborah: I think you are right Gerald – it is about finding a problem or question people want answers to and then making it readable and accessible.

Rik: My latest non-fiction purchase arrived today. Writing with Power by Peter Elbow. 40 years old!

Deborah: I am currently devouring Kate Harrison’s Pitch Power. Really helpful.

Cendrine: A book that people find relatable. It depends on the readership, so the answer can be quite broad.

Marianne: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary” by Andrew Westoll, was especially interesting. It was about primates who had been experimented on who developed neuroses and were sent to live out their lives in a sanctuary in Quebec. A very good read.

Also, wanted to recommend Michelle Obama’s book, ‘Becoming Michelle. I loved the voice. It was like having Michelle sit with you, telling you about how she came to be US First Lady. Lovely book.

How does writing non-fiction differ to writing fiction? Do you need different skills? Different approach? Mindset?

Odessa: I think nonfiction writers have to know how to tell an interesting story without making it sound like fiction. Some nonfiction writers use techniques for writing fiction which makes the book sound made up than true. Narrative nonfiction has a fictional ring to it.

Kathleen: I think it’s definitely a different skillset (I’m a working journalist in my day job.) Non-fiction holds you to a factual standard…and imposes a duty to the real events and people involved. Different skills and responsibilities in fiction.

Cheryl: I like to think that non-fiction is about offering your perspective on things. Subject matter is not always pulled together. Non-fiction offers the opportunity to provide a more holistic exploration, that raises consciousness and critical thought

Anita: The things which stay the same are planning, editing, proofing etc. The main difference is in the author voice and writing style. It is a more pragmatic and less poetic writing experience, with more fact-checking and less description!

Marian: Depends on the type of non-fiction. How-to is very different than memoir or biography. In the latter two you’re still telling a story.

Cendric: But can’t you tell stories in how-to books too? 

Marian: I suppose you can – but I’m used to writing manuals for professionals, and they don’t want story, they want step by step instructions.

Cendric: I see what you are saying! In this case, it makes sense. 

Marian: Non-fiction is such a huge range of types of books. I’m thinking manuals, I guess, rather than other sorts of ‘how-to’ books.

Deborah: I think that it works well when the author gives examples using stories from their own experience. I do this in my blogs.

Cheryl: I am interviewing people to get those real examples -and bring points to life and illuminate the way

Deborah: Great. I think that really works.

Rik: I guess you can’t ‘invent’ your way out of a plot hole. if it’s non-fiction.

Cendric: I honestly don’t see a difference at all. It’s all about the emotions and conversations you wish to trigger. 

Rik (to Cendric): This, in itself, is thought provoking 

Elizabeth: I find non-fiction can allow your imagination to have a little mini-break. When I’m writing non-fiction for my blogs, I find it flows a lot easier as it’s based on knowledge that’s already in my head. I don’t have to put myself in the characters’ heads.

Deborah: You are right – writing a blog does balance well with creative writing.

Elizabeth: If I feel like writing but my creativity isn’t there then I try to write non-fiction for my blogs. I also find it helps my creativity wake up.

Marianne: I think if you write non-fiction and it involves other people (ie. people who have not treated you well) and you write about them in negative terms, you may open yourself to litigation. Yikes! Imagine being embroiled in a law suit.

Gerald: I think it needs a different type of creativity. Writing genre fiction, I want people to relax and enjoy the story journey. Writing non-fiction, I want them to be engaged more. But early on, I want to hit them with a statement which says “I need to learn about this”.

Deborah: Is it harder to keep readers engaged in non-fiction?

Gerald: For ‘instructional’ books, I think so, but that’s not the point. It’s kind of why I buy fiction on Kindle, but non-fiction in print. Reading fiction is a serial, one page after another, process. Reading non-fiction is a read, re-read, skip, read, make notes process.

Rik: I agree with this, Gerald.

Elizabeth (to Gerald’s comment): I’m intrigued by this because I was just reading Cheryl’s Tweet about what she’s reading and I loved the sound of it and would love to read a paper/article on it but can’t imagine it holding my attention for a book.

Cheryl (to Elizabeth): It’s by Bryan Appleyard – it is actually quite funny and very fluent.

Cheryl: My strategies are: trying hard not to sound authoritative, and adopting a style of journeying along with the reader. I’m taking the stance that none of us are perfect and all work in progress. I want the reader to see themselves within the book with relatable examples

Gerald: Definitely. I’m doing two workshops at a summer writing school in a week and they’re all about “this is what I found works for me, and it might for you, too”. Yes, ‘relatable’ is a great ethos to bake in to the work.

Cheryl: I think it’s possible to build engagement from the off with non-fiction. I get lots of comments about abridged sections of my work and gain lots of ideas and insight from conversations, as it’s a subject people can directly relate to so already some spark of interest

Deborah: I expect it’s a two-way process too as those discussions and interactions feed your work.

Cheryl: As an academic I used to appraise books so I could get a free copy. Loved the books where the chapter was summarised, first or at the end, I would read this first – way of skipping irrelevant stuff and finding what you really wanted to know.

Deborah: Me too. I was the editor of a journal and was sent academic/ training books to review. It helped when the chapter started with what it was about and ended with a summary or questions.

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What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing non-fiction alongside fiction in terms of marketing?

Maria: Perhaps the market is a bit less picky with non-fiction books than fiction? Not sure though.

Anita: Non-Fiction is easier to target. If you get it right, you should have a ready-made audience and a means of reaching them. It is less subjective than fiction from a readers POV

Gerald: Definitely. Easier to target non-fiction, in my opinion. Buyers of my non-fiction are only authors. Buyers of my fiction are both authors and non-authors.

Chris: The book I wrote – and the one I didn’t – were designed as marketing tools to help attract business. It’s easier to hit a professional audience, as things like LinkedIn groups are good targets. For weddings, it’s also easy to target “Engaged” status on Facebook!

Deborah: Do you get any cross-over from sales of non-fiction to fiction?

Chris: The book is no longer available since I quit the business. A good marketing channel for me was pitching my fiction to my business contacts. Some already knew that I was a decent Panto writer, so were happy to take a punt on comedic prose too.

Gerald: I tend to market my non-fiction in online author groups mainly. I answer questions, and ‘casually’ mention that I’ve written a book on the subject. Having said that, I almost never market the Scrivener book. Its sales are all totally organic now. 

Deborah: The same questions I asked Chris: Do you get cross over from non-fiction sales to fiction?

Gerald: That’s hard to qualify and quantify. I’m sure there is. But for me, I think each uses the other to give me legitimacy. I write four novels a year, so the @EfficientNovels process must work. And because I write about writing, I *must* know how to write

Cendric: I think it’s a matter of strategy and audience, once again. Each book depends on the audience you have in mind…

Marianne: I think non-fiction is often easier to sell because the stories are so very impactful. Have any of you read “House in the Sky” by Amanda Linhoute, or ‘Red Notice” by Bill Browder. Wow! to think that people go through such an ordeal.

What are the opportunities available to non-fiction writers to engage with readers and further promote their work? Non-fiction writers do you have plans beyond publication to reach a wider audience: in person, on line, podcast etc?

Kathleen: I’m curious to know if non-fiction writers have been discouraged by all the talk of “platform” you hear in traditional publishing circles. Some alleged experts tell you not even to bother querying a non-fiction piece if you don’t have thousands of followers in your area. Surely not!

Marianne: I think there are lots of TV interview opportunities for non-fiction books. Many are featured on a Canadian talk show “The Agenda”. That’s where I get lots of recommendations for my non-fiction reading. And, televised interviews give the author a very wide audience.

Maria: From looking on the outside, I imagine there’s quite a lot of crossovers – advertising e.g. on social media, working with bookshops and libraries, perhaps having a base like website/blog/newsletter etc

Deborah: I wonder whether it also creates problems as there might be different readers. If a non-fiction reader signs up to a mailing list, they may not want information on fiction.

Maria: Good point! Sometimes I wonder about this too with me being a writer/reader of both historical fiction and fantasy. E.g. if I have a newsletter subscriber interested in my historical fiction, is it annoying that I plug fantasy books? I just try to balance it

Deborah: I don’t think it would be annoying. Your followers know that you are a good writer and if the genre is not for them, they may know someone who would enjoy it as a gift or recommendation.

Anita: You can keep your lists separate in Mailchimp and have different offers for different groups. This is what I plan to do.

Maria: Interesting! There might well be this option for Mailerlite too but I hadn’t consisted it. Might look into it.

Gerald: The problem is that all the great marketing tools, like blogging, vlogging, podcasts and YouTube video, take time away from the core effort – writing. You can think “oh, I’ll just do this quickly” but you don’t want it to reflect badly on you-you want it to be good.

Odessa: I didn’t want to blog, but I found I had to and then I found that I like it and want to. I do a lot of vlogging about writing, which can be time consuming but only because I love doing it so much.

Anita: Good question, Deborah! ‘Kickstart Your Writing’ was used directly with a group I was working with face to face in a London Library and another group in Essex. Podcasts and webinars could be next.…

Deborah: I love how non-fiction can bring you closer to readers as they want to learn from you in person. Readers of non-fiction sometimes want the author to be mysterious and don’t always want to know them.

Cheryl: My plans = database of fans, social media, radio, guest speaker and lecturing, to be a core text on related academic courses, articles within magazines, website blogs, networking events, conferences and business exhibitions

Deborah: It sounds as though you are going to be very busy. Writing the book is the easy part.

Cheryl: That is very true. I used to think writing was the hard part. Marketing is so much harder. But it is fun.

What are your favourite non-fiction books and why?

Gerald: Apparently, I’m atypical for a man. I dislike autobiographies. I think the only ones I’ve ever read are two cyclist ones and two author ones. The rest are part of an all-consuming desire to learn more about writing. So, my shelves are full of writing and marketing books.

Cheryl: I have never read a biography; I can’t bring myself to believe they are true and not works of fiction!

Rik: Hard one to answer. Probably Meera Sodha’s Made in India (a recent gift). But tomorrow it will be something else.

Susan: I’m reading “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” and really enjoying it. So informative.

Anita: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Apart from that, writing craft books

Marianne: I like espionage and spies. “Red Notice” by Bill Browder was a favourite. I write about a fictional family, The Drakers, who need to take down an American rouge agent who is killing retired CIA agents. I guess you could call my non-fiction reading research.