Let’s talk nonfiction

Folder containing papersI’ve written quite a bit about storytelling during the NaNo, and while I’ve acknowledged that some people might also be writing some sort of nonfiction, I’ve only said a few things about it along the way, kind of as afterthoughts to the novel or novella writing. In a way, this is understandable, because this entire exercise has always been called National Novel Writing Month. It’s been about fiction from the beginning.

But there are no NaNo Police coming around to make sure that you stick to the strict letter of the law. The whole purpose of this thing is to have fun while disciplining yourself to write every day and see if you can reach an ambitious goal while doing it. So can you write nonfiction too? Of course you can! You can adjust the “rules” of the NaNo to whatever suits you best.

TYPES OF NONFICTION

You can even tailor the nonfiction idea to make it work best with your interests and ideas. Some people get all scholarly when they do this, while others write nonfiction that is just shy of fiction itself.

Books

Fictional Nonfiction

This might seem like a contradiction in terms, but it isn’t. Still, this type of writing is a bit narrow, because it just skirts the line between fiction and nonfiction. This is a type of writing that is based on fiction, yet doesn’t involve telling a story, strictly speaking.

Two ideas spring to mind right away when I try to envision this sort of writing. One is the “handbook” based within a fictional world. Think of the various plans for the Starship Enterprise that have been created, as in the Star Trek Blueprints, by Joseph Schaubelt Franz. And don’t forget the Star Fleet Technical Manual, also written by Franz, that is a manual created for the space travel organization that permeates all the Star Trek television and film series.

Are those documents fiction or nonfiction? They don’t really tell stories, not in the same way the Star Trek series and films (and books) do. Yet they are nonfiction documents based on fiction.

Another example of “fictional nonfiction” would be the encyclopedia entries I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year. I’ve written some fanfiction for my favorite anime series, Fullmetal Alchemist, and I’ve always thought it would be kind of fun to create an encyclopedia for Amestris, the country in that fictional world in which most of the anime takes place. So last year, when I couldn’t really think of an actual story to do a novella about, I finally decided to start the thing.

A half unrolled scrollWhen you do a handbook or scroll or even an encyclopedia based inside a fictional world, you still have to follow the rules (of physics, alchemy, magic, or whatever else) that have been established for that world. And you probably shouldn’t contradict the established history of that world either, unless you can do it plausibly and have a very good reason to do so. But within those constraints, you pretty much have no other limits. When you’re finished describing the workings of the tricorder in Star Trek, you can move on to the history of the development of the food replicator for the starship fleet. When you’ve written a long, involved encyclopedia on the history and development of the practice of alchemy in Amestris, you can move on to a brief biography of a minor character in the anime, just for a break. You will never run out of topics, and if you need a respite from an involved article on a complex topic, you can surely find something shorter to do next.

Real nonfiction

But of course, what is usually thought of when one mentions nonfiction is something based in the facts of the real world. You might “tell a story” in the sense that you write about the Amarna Period of ancient Egyptian history and how things turned out for Akhenaten, the “heretic Pharaoh.” Biography and history are generally viewed as nonfiction, even though they are stories of what happened in the world in real life.

But there are non-story types of nonfiction as well. You might spend the whole month of November delving into John Milton’s poem, Comus, analyzing it in terms, say, of Jungian archetypes and psychology. (I actually did that once, myself, though not for an entire month, and the academic paper did not come out to fifty thousand words, that I recall.) You might write a handbook on how to build a tiny house, since that sort of construction and pared-down living is all the rage these days. Or you might go the science route, and write about the big theories put forward to describe the universe (relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, that sort of thing) and how well you think they do at the job.

I mentioned my research into how to write a soap opera, a few posts ago. I think, after all my explorations, that I could even write a handbook on the structures necessary to setting up the characters, plots, and writing schedule for a soap opera. I bet I could do it for thirty days and in fifty thousand words. I bet it would probably take longer, in fact.

So obviously, when it comes to nonfiction, the sky really is the limit. In fact, only your imagination is the limit. It may come as a surprise to hear that your imagination is crucial to writing nonfiction, but it really is.

SET YOURSELF UP

Be interested

Of course, as with any story, you do need to write about something you’re actually interested in. You’re really not going to keep yourself going at mid-month, when the words are dragging out of you very slowly and you’re stuck in a real slog, if you’re writing about anteaters and you really couldn’t care less about anteaters. Don’t just flip through the pages of a dictionary and put your finger down on some noun or other (Boils! Steel! Machines! Glitter! Boots!) and plan to write about that thing for thirty days. (Though that might be an interesting exercise for a week or so, when I think of it.) Pick something you either know something about already and have an interest in, or pick something that you’re interested in and don’t know much about at all but would like to find out.

Filmstrip with a cat photo in each frameI suspect that I could easily write copious amounts of verbiage about cats for an entire month. But I’m very, very sure that I could not write about anteaters for that long. I’d probably quit after a day, or two at the most. Just not my thing.

We talked early on about not just writing about something you’re interested in but also narrowing down the topic to something you can actually manage. Once you’ve picked something and have narrowed things down, then you need to organize both your research and the actual writing.

Research and organize

These two things sort of go hand in hand. You may be a recognized expert on, say, tiaras, so that you could write reams and reams about those sparkly little crowns, without consulting any notes, writing just off the top, as it were, of your head. (Sorry.) Or you might need to do a bit of brushing up on some details. Or you might need to start researching your topic entirely from scratch.

As I said earlier, if you pick a topic that you’re really going to need to research, it’s best if you do most of that research in the month or two before the NaNo even starts. You can get some help by asking questions in NaNo discussion forums, and of course Google and Wikipedia can be your best friends if you need to find out new facts while you’re writing. But it you’ve got masses of information to find and then sift through, it can take a lot of time.

To help you “sift through” the available information, either when you’re researching ahead of time or if you’re trying to do it in the fly during November, you might consider starting with a really basic outline into which you can fit the information you uncover. As you get more information, it might itself begin to push your outline in different directions from what you originally intended, but just having something basic to slot things into can help as you get researching. And if you’ve got that basic organization of information just sitting there, it can make the actual writing easier too.

Organization chartThink of that command given by (I think) the Red Queen in one of the Alice books: “Begin at the beginning. Proceed until you come to the end. Then stop.” So what is at the beginning, with respect to your chosen nonfiction topic? The first question might be, “What is this thing, in its most basic form?” What is a tiara, really? Or you might ask, “What was the general historical setting out of which this event I’m writing about grew?” If you’re writing about Pearl Harbor, for example, the Japanese attack won’t be understandable unless you at least let your readers first know that there was a war on and who was involved in it. And why the U.S. was not. For me, a few paragraphs about the feline family in general will set the stage for mentioning how the smaller branches of the family were domesticated, perhaps initially by the ancient Egyptians, leading to our domesticated breeds of today. What stands at the beginning?

Your next very general category could be, “Why write about this?” What makes your topic interesting or important? Why should you write about it, and why should anybody want to read what you’ve written? You could move from this to “How does it work?” What comes first, and how does your topic move along through time or through its gradually developing purpose?

When you’ve got the background and purpose of your topic established (and remember that you can keep adding information to any stage while you’re still just doing some research), then you might have a very broad category dealing with something like, “What types are there? Are there some good versions and some bad or faulty versions?” (If you’re researching objects, that is.) Or if you’re doing something about history, are there wildly varying interpretations of what happened? (History is written by the winners! But what sort of view would the “losers” have of this event? Would they consider it a negative thing? A positive thing?)

Then you can move on to the future, in whatever way might be appropriate for your particular topic. Having decided that String Theory really provides the most plausible explanation for the universe, what sorts of applications of this new understanding do you think will occur? (New products? Time travel??) Will cats continue to be the most popular domestic companions? Will tiaras become daily, mundane attire?

You could also organize your topic according to levels of importance, adding your newly discovered facts to categories like, “Fluff that’s interesting,” “Things that may become important,” “Things everyone really needs to know about this,” and “Things that are urgent.” Or you could write a “cats for kids” category, a “cats for biologists” category and a “cats for cat-lovers” category. There are all sorts of ways to organize things.

As long as you can arrange your materials in easily accessible ways so that you can pick up the information and start writing about it, enough to manage 1,667 words in a day, you can pick the research method and organization that works best for you. In the same way that the NaNo doesn’t have to be restricted to writing stories only, the research and writing of a nonfiction topic can be tailored to your own way of working and writing.

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Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing fun

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