Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Creative Non-Fiction

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Name some books that have been huge bestsellers over the years -- In Cold Blood; All the President's Men; The Hot Zone; The Perfect Storm; Black Hawk Down; Longitude -- and you'll find they have one thing in common: They read like novels, but they are true stories. They fall into a category now called "narrative nonfiction" -- the novel of true events.

These books seize upon an untold or barely told incident and pry it apart. They search for a way to understand in the microcosm ...

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Overview

Name some books that have been huge bestsellers over the years -- In Cold Blood; All the President's Men; The Hot Zone; The Perfect Storm; Black Hawk Down; Longitude -- and you'll find they have one thing in common: They read like novels, but they are true stories. They fall into a category now called "narrative nonfiction" -- the novel of true events.

These books seize upon an untold or barely told incident and pry it apart. They search for a way to understand in the microcosm of the story more about the macrocosm of our world -- who we are and why we do the things we do, while at the same time giving us a riveting story.

In Telling the Story author and literary agent Peter Rubie, a former BBC Radio and Fleet Street journalist, provides guidance and practical advice on how best to meld careful journalistic research with narrative writing techniques. Filled with insights and interviews with authors, agents, and editors such as Mark Bowden, Jon Krakauer, Jonathan Galassi (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Peter Gethers (Random House), George Gibson (Walker & Co.), and Jack Hart (The Oregoinian), this is the essential guide to writing this hot new genre.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060535285
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/2003
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

First Chapter

Telling the Story
How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction

Chapter One

Narrative Nonfiction:
The New Genre

I got this idea of doing a really serious big work -- it would be precisely like a novel, with a single difference: Every word of it would be true from beginning to end.

Truman Capote, on In Cold Blood

While I was preparing to write this book I found myself traveling for a month, for various business and personal reasons. My wife and I live in New York City, and we set off from there to visit Seattle and British Columbia, in Canada, before returning to the East Coast to tour New England, eventually returning home via New York State. We left a day later for England, the country of my childhood.

I hate to shop. My wife -- a Southerner -- loves the hunt of it. So, while my wife went trolling for bargains, as usual when on my own in a strange place I found myself haunting bookstores. Some were independents and some were part of chain stores (and, by the way, great places to have a cup of tea and rest up with a book while awaiting the return of the Southern huntress triumphant with her spoils).

I decided on a whim to search for books by and about narrative nonfiction. It was an instructive experience: as a genre, "narrative nonfiction" doesn't exist in most bookstores in the United States, Canada, and England. Yet we all know what we mean by it: factual writing that reads like a good novel.

A Gathering of Genres

"Narrative nonfiction" -- what I would call "the novel of true events" -- is really an umbrella term for a collection of genres that are found in the bookstore. It can be broadly divided into a number of subgenres -- adventure, biography, history, military, memoir, travel, and true crime -- though they shade into one another at times (travel and adventure, for example, or history, biography, and military). This list cannot be considered definitive, however, because narrative nonfiction is a style of writing, not limited to a given kind of subgenre. Richard Preston's bestselling The Hot Zone, for example, shades into adventure because of the dramatic, novelistic style that Preston uses to write the book, and it has a first-person slant on occasion that tilts it toward memoir. Yet it is neither of these things. The Hot Zone is clearly a popular science book. At its heart, it's an account of what happens when one of the world's most virulent viruses, the Ebola virus, breaks out in a laboratory near Washington, D.C., and how it is contained.

Regardless of genre definition, what all these books share is the commonality of being well-written, literate stories with characters, scenes, and a narrative arc, as well as being digests of connected facts.

In May 2000, Robert Vare, senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, moderated a panel discussion at Harvard about narrative nonfiction. He said:

I think [narrative nonfiction] ... is essentially a hybrid form, a marriage of the art of storytelling and the art of journalism -- an attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, real places, and real events. It's a sophisticated form of nonfiction writing, possibly the highest form, that harnesses the power of facts to the techniques of fiction constructing a central narrative, setting scenes, depicting multidimensional characters and, most important, telling the story in a compelling voice that the reader will want to hear.

Nabokov ... had the most illuminating remarks about narrative. He wrote, "The term 'narrative' is often confused with the term 'plot,' but they're not the same thing. If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that's not narrative; that's plot. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart, that's narrative."

... narrative nonfiction bridges those connections between events that have taken place, and imbues them with meaning and emotion.

In interviews in fall 2002, Random House executive editor Peter Gethers commented that for him, "narrative nonfiction is not a genre, it's a style. It simply means that nonfiction is told in a compelling way with an emphasis on story." Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher and editor in chief Jonathan Galassi agreed: "Readers buy books for many reasons, but I don't think the author's approach to his or her material is primary among them, though it may have a powerful effect on a reader's enjoyment of the book."

Little did Walker publisher George Gibson know what he was starting one day in 1994 when he called up a magazine writer named Dava Sobel to talk about turning one of her magazine articles into a book. It was to be more than a history of the invention of the chronometer; it would also be the story of the man who did it. Longitude, published in 1995, slowly but steadily took off in the United States and spent 18 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But when Gibson tried selling the rights to the book in the U.K., it was turned down by publishers over a dozen times before Fourth Estate added it to their list. It went to the bestseller list in England as well. The success of Longitude was, in its own way, as important a milestone in the creation of narrative nonfiction as a hot genre as Capote's In Cold Blood.

The British edition of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time came out in August 1996. Since then, on both sides of the Atlantic, the book has started a gold rush for similar books among publishers. We have seen the rediscovery of books such as Ernest Shackleton's 1914 classic South, a tale of remarkable survival and endurance at the South Pole ...

Telling the Story
How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction
. Copyright © by Peter Rubie. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2004

    Brilliant Writing Guide

    All new and established writers should have a copy of Telling the Story. Not only does it explain the often confusing world of publishing, but also includes some damn good advice on how to write narrative nonfiction, from getting the idea down onto the page straight through to wording the proposal. For all serious writers, run to the bookstore and get a copy of this book. It will help you tremendously.

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