Does the term storyteller give nonfiction writers the wrong message? Novice writers, particularly those writing nonfiction, see their responsibility as researching to gather information about events and then telling their reader the story of what happened. Their role is to organize and report, in a history, a biography or a memoir, the facts as they have found. The result often has a “This happened...then, that happened…then, the next thing happened,” quality to it. The author has discovered the facts and told the reader what they are. She has told the story, but it reads more like a list. Think of the difference between a historical monograph and a narrative history. The monograph – the standard form for academic history – is a focused methodical exposition of the facts involved in one limited aspect of history. It can often make the most interesting material dry and dull to read. Narrative history, however, utilizes the tools of the literary artist to bring an event or story to life. Is it any wonder that historians like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert Caro have found a large popular audience for their narrative histories while monographs have remained deep in the recesses of the research library? History would be better served if historians heeded Rudyard Kipling’s advice, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
You have just been through unique or dramatic events, overcome apparently overwhelming obstacles, or traveled to exotic places. These are all experiences which might be the stuff of a compelling memoir. Or, maybe friends tell you that you’ve had such an interesting life that others will be fascinated to read about it. All you need to do is get an account of your life into a book and you’ll have a best seller. Before you start your first draft it might be a good idea to think about a recent comment made by British novelist Hilary Mantel, winner of consecutive Booker Prizes for her novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies set in Henry VIII’s England. Mantel, who in addition to her novels has also written a memoir, was asked for the NY Times Book Review, By the Book feature, “What Makes a Good Memoir?” She said: “Memoir is not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it’s where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint. But she has to make it as true as she can. Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready.”
Every author wants her book to be a page turner. How can you make sure yours is? The short answer is write great scenes. Think about why readers read. They are looking for a powerful emotional experience. A romance reader gets the vicarious opportunity to fall in love. The mystery reader shares the detective’s sense of urgency; if he doesn’t succeed, someone will die. The sci-fi reader is literally out of this world. And it’s not only fiction readers who are drawn in by the emotional pull of the world you create for them. Readers look to biographies, memoirs, narrative and family histories to provide the same kind of drama a novel delivers. Here are five things to do to create scenes that will make sure you deliver on your promise to the reader that she will have an emotional experience.
Mark Coker, founder of the Smashwords indie e-book self-publishing platform, speaking at the RT Booklovers Convention in Kansas City earlier this month, offered some valuable advice for authors who want to increase e-book sales. Coker summarized his remarks, which are based on an analysis of indie e-book sales data, on the Smashwords website in a post titled New Smashwords Survey Helps Authors Sell More e-Books. Coker advises authors to “…imagine dozens of levers and dials attached to your book that you can twist, turn and tweak. When you get everything just right, your book's sales will increase … through word-of-mouth. … I refer to these tweakable things as Viral Catalysts. A Viral Catalyst is anything that makes your book more available, accessible, discoverable, desirable or enjoyable to readers.” He examines six of these potential viral catalysts. We’ll summarize what he had to say...
The time-honored way of writing a book is to…write it. That is, to plan what you want to communicate, to put your materials in order, and then write it out. Most writers use Microsoft Word, or Pages, for Mac. Then they turn to an editor and a designer to get their book done and published. Is there a way around this? Can you skip the effort and cost of making a professional book? That is where templates come in. Do templates help? Do they make this process easier? Is the outcome better? We will explore the pros and cons of the three types of template-based publishing that we’ve seen.
Genealogists and family historians might well agree to paraphrase political pundit James Carville, “It’s the sources.” Finding the right sources is the key to unlocking ancestor stories. It’s day three today at the National Genealogical Society Conference in Las Vegas. We’ve been on the lookout for tips on new sources. Ed Zapletal and Rick Cree of Family Chronicle Books showed us two newly released additions to their Tracing Ancestors series: Tracing Your Colonial Ancestors and Tracing Your Female Ancestors... Gary Clark of PhotoTree.com released the third book in his Kwik Guide Series, Real Photo Postcards at the conference.
There’s excitement in the air this week in Las Vegas. No, not the sound of jackpots on the slots and cheers from the craps tables. The National Genealogical Society’s annual conference opened today. Over a thousand family history enthusiasts are diligently seeking just one more ancestor. It seems like a large share of them also want to create a family history book. They have kept us busy this morning with a barrage of questions. Most of the conversations seem to begin, “I want to publish a family history. Can I …?” I think the reason people begin this way is that they have never been through the process of bring a book to life before. It seems overwhelming to them. I can understand that. We try to demystify the process and help these would be authors get from where they are to the beautiful heirloom book they dream of. Here’s how:
A family history book begins with research. You search for much information about your ancestors as you can. After scouring all of the available sources you accumulate quite a wealth of such information. You have facts from the vital records, letters, journal or diaries your ancestors left behind along with colorful anecdotes and family lore. You want to put all that information together in a book that engages your audience.
Before you begin banging away at the keyboard, take a little advice from playwright David Mamet. He said, “The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.”
So how do you find the drama in the mountain of information you have gathered? Here are five places to look:
Look for the conflict in your ancestors lives. Conflict is the heart of drama. What were your ancestors’ goals? What motivated them to strive for those goals? What obstacles did they have to overcome to achieve them? Or, if they were unable to overcome the obstacles, what adjustments did they make in their goals?
My grandfather, originally from upstate New York, was like a series of waves of young men who headed west during the late 19th century. He found his way to Alaska in 1898 in search of a fortune in Yukon gold. Plenty of drama there. But, grandfather didn’t find gold. After a year he headed east on his way home, but stopped in South Dakota where he me my grandmother. Now we’ve added romance.
Relate you ancestors to a larger story. Looking at the time and place where the events in your ancestors lives took place lets you see how what was happening to them was part of a larger story. The time and place can create a dramatic setting for events.
When grandfather met grandmother in 1899, life of the plains was anything was anything but sanguine. The revolt of farmer, who believed they had been exploited by railroads and bankers, had swept across the plains in the mid-90s resulting in the nomination of William Jennings Bryan for president on the Democratic ticket. When the Great Commoner lost to William McKinley in 1896 a lot of people on the plains decided it was time to look for greener pastures in the growing cities or farther west.
Look for turning points. In every person’s life there are points at which the direction things are moving shift and head in a whole new direction. Sometimes that means moving to a new place. The immigrant story where an ancestor decided to leave the old country and come to America is a classic. But deciding to enter a new business or become part of a social or political movement can be equally dramatic. Find these turning points in your ancestors’ stories and build upon the drama inherent in them.
My grandfather and grandmother got married, but they didn’t stay in South Dakota. They headed west, once again following my grandfather’s dream of striking it rich. This time the goal wasn’t as exciting as finding gold, although it did put them on the edge of California’s gold, country where they bought a hog ranch in Roseville, California, not far from the state capitol in Sacramento.
Find the values and themes that run through your ancestors’ stories. In nearly every family’s history there are recurrent themes and values evident in multiple generations. Some of them might include: searching for a better life, confidence that self-reliance will lead to success, dedication to their community and helping others, the importance of religious faith, a belief that education is essential, the entrepreneurial spirit, trust that hard work will be rewarded, confidence that love will help overcome our setbacks, certainty that family is the most important thing. Discovering and emphasizing these themes and values gives meaning to the life stories of your ancestors.
My grandfather never struck it rich. The hog ranch failed when hog cholera swept California’s central valley. He and my grandmother moved to San Francisco and grandfather opened a print shop, pursuing the trade he had learned before he left New York. He did well for a while, but like a lot of small businesses his was wiped out during the Great Depression.
The themes running through his life seemed to be optimism that he would eventually strike it rich, but when he failed he would be resilient and self-reliant enough to reinvent himself. His was a quintessentially western story. Was it dramatic? I have always been struck by the similarities in grandfather’s story to those described by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner regarding his own family in the novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Discover the lessons your ancestors’ lives have to teach. One of the questions students often asked when I was teaching history was, “So what?” If I couldn’t provide a good answer, I wasn’t doing my job well. The same thing is true with family history. You need to answer the “So what?” question regarding the lives of your ancestors. What meaning did their experiences have.? Ultimately what any reader is looking for is an insight that will be useful to her. Make sure you make those lessons evident.
In listening to my parents talk about my grandfather I learned two important lessons. First, willingness to take risks can lead to great rewards, but failure can put you and those close to you in difficult circumstances. Second, preparation and hard work is a better formula for success.
By seeking the dramatic elements of the stories of your ancestors you can create the kind of engaging family history book that will appeal to an audience well beyond genealogists.
Selling people a dream is easy if it’s their dream. A lot of people dream of being an author, seeing their words printed in a book which flies off bookstore shelves and almost overwhelms Amazon’s buy button. When the Author House website promised: “You set your book publishing goals. We’ll help you reach them,” or the Tafford Publishing website said, “Our publishing experts and production team are on hand with whatever your book needs,” the best seller took on the quality of Gatsby’s green light for the would-be authors, a dream clearly visible and sure to be realized. 160,000 of them flocked to Author Solutions, the parent company of Author House, Tafford, iUniverse, XLibris, Palibrio, and other imprints, which proclaimed itself “The leading indie publishing company in the world.” Last July, Penguin Publishing, one of the Big Six publishing houses, no doubt with an eye on Author Solutions’ $100 million annual revenue, purchased the Bloomington, Indiana-based company. Author Solutions is the biggest fish in the rising tide of self-publishing. Last week the New York law firm Giskan, Solotaroff, Anderson & Steward filed a complaint against Author Solutions suggesting that it is a shark.
When you are researching a person’s life story for a biography or family history the process often involves creating a timeline. As you discover additional information about your subject you fill it into the appropriate place in the list of things you already know. Eventually you reach a point where your timeline is complete; you have listed the sequence of all of the significant events in your subject’s life, or at least all you believe you will be able to discover. You now have the raw material with which to tell your subject’s story. A lot of people writing life stories, particularly first time writers, lock into the timeline they have created to produce a draft that essentially says, “This happened, then that happened, then the next thing happened.” The resulting draft is a list of events chronicling the subject’s life without much analysis or interpretation. The incidents are recounted with a somewhat plodding quality. The account reports the details of its subject’s life, but doesn’t engage the reader. It shouldn’t be that way. You as an author need to step back from the chronology you have created to find its meaning.
What will your genealogical legacy be? You have devoted countless hours to researching your ancestors. You have created pedigree charts and family group sheets for a tree that spans three centuries and you have plenty of documentation for all of them. There’s no doubt you have done good work to get to where you are. The question is, how will you pass all you have done and all that you now know on to the other members of your family, particularly the next generations? GotGenealogy.com’s Golden Rules of Genealogy offer a good guide on what to do. Rule #9 advises, “…leave your research the way you’d have liked to have found it.” The future genealogists in your family will thank you for it. But don’t stop there. Rule #10 says, “Genealogy isn’t about just doing research. Genealogy is about telling the stories and ensuring that your ancestor’s legacies live on for generations to come. Without the stories, the research won’t do anyone much good. The legacy of your ancestors rests in your capable hands.”
We spoke to maybe 250 authors book at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books over the weekend. They were at varying stages of completing a book. We asked the question of almost all of them. For some it triggered a spirited discussion of their intended audience, the distribution channels through which to reach them, publicizing the book and marketing. These authors had well thought out strategies for getting their book into the hands of potential readers. It was exciting to talk about how we could help these people to achieve their goals for their books. Unfortunately, a majority of the authors we asked about their plans for their books looked at us with somewhat surprised expressions. Some said, “I haven’t really thought about it yet. I just want to get my book finished.” Others said, “I want it to go viral.” (Really! One author said exactly that.) or some variation on that theme. Most just said, “I don’t know.” We spent a lot of time talking to these people about the business side of writing. Some of the most important ideas we suggested were:
The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which bills itself as the largest book festival in the country, will draw 150,000 people to the University of Southern California campus this weekend. Speakers will include literary superstars Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem, but there will be plenty more including Lemony Snicket, Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Olympic Gold Medalist Brian Boitano, Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, and Hollywood celebrities Molly Ringwald, Carol Burnett and John Cusack. There will be screenings by the USC Film School and Southern California’s food trucks. On another level the festival is a lot like another event less than a week away the National Football League Draft. The draft is an event at which every NFL team is trying to put together a roster of players that will take it one step closer to the Super Bowl Championship. Most of the folks at the LA Times Festival will be like the millions of football fans who will be entertained by the unfolding action. But there will be a significant number of authors who are just finished with a book or who will be finished soon. They are a lot like the NFL coaches and general managers who are trying to put together a winning team. The difference is that the authors will be trying to put together a team that will help make their book a success. Some will be looking for literary agents to place their book with a traditional publisher. Others plan to self-publish and need editors and book designers to help them create a professional looking product. Most of them will be looking for help with publicity and marketing for their book. As they search for talent for their team, there are some things these authors could learn from the denizens of the NFL draft rooms.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today,” says Robert McKee, USC professor of screenwriting who developed the widely acclaimed Story Seminar. Research is bearing out the truth of his assertion. Annie Murphy Paul in a New York Times article Your Brain on Fiction reported on scientific studies using the latest techniques in brain imaging. Paul says, “Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life…The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” Journalists have recognized the importance of narrative, as an increasing number of reporters have embraced the tools of creative nonfiction, particularly in long form pieces. So have business leaders and politicians. The monograph, however, has remained the dominant form in the academic world. It was well researched, solidly factual, objective, fully documented, and usually dull reading. That may be changing. Dr. Ricardo Azziz, President of Georgia Regents University in Augusta, in a recent Huffington Post article, The Critical Art of Storytelling, explains why.
Two major reports on the reading and book buying habits of Americans were issued last week. The Association of American Publishers issued its monthly StatShot and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project published its findings on The Rise of e-Reading. What’s in the numbers for writers?