February 28, 2011

Adieu, and a Few Recommendations for Studying Nonfiction Works

February sure went by quicklyeven knowing that it’s the shortest month of the year. So for now, today’s my last day of blogging. I hope you’ve found some of my entries useful. Please feel free to leave a comment about any topics you’d like to see in the future, from me or others in the Author-Editor Clinic circle.

I’d like to leave you with the names of a few titles that have helped and inspired me along the path to my current work as a developmental and line editor.  

I’m going to focus on nonfiction work here, in large part because nonfiction books were important to me early on in my editing career; yet today I mostly edit fiction, and my peers and I don’t seem to discuss the art of working with nonfiction manuscripts (especially creative ones) nearly as much as that of editing fiction. Yet, I think that a great nonfiction work, especially one that makes use of creative tools, can spin just as compelling a yarn as a fiction work, and be as fun to edit.

Most of my own “editing” books are either books on writing, or published works for general readers, which I use as guides to superb storytelling. I look to examples of good writing because I believe a good editor of my type is really a combination of expert reader, analyst, and writer.  

I started my editorial career as a journalist specializing in writing long feature stories (which I now realize was probably good background for editing novellas, a current project) and learned a lot about the craft of writing (and thus editing) this shorter-than-book form by reading The New Yorker’s longer nonfiction (as well as fiction) pieces. They’re generally great examples of tight writing and terrific storytelling.

John Hersey’s Hiroshima is a classic example; it was published in the magazine in 1946 and later made into a slim book, which nonetheless left a great impression on me when I read it as a young writer/editor. I thought about what exactly made it work, realizing it was the excellent character development. I also love Sarah Vowell’s books of essays, like The Partly Cloudy Patriot, as terrific examples of entertaining short form nonfiction. They rely on well-crafted characters too. 

One of my favorite books on the nonfiction writing craft has always been Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism. Originally published in 1973 and out of print today (though one can sometimes find an old battered copy at a used bookstore), this volume espouses what was a “new” idea back then: a writer incorporating literary devicessuch as scene-by-scene construction and lots of dialogueusually only found in fictional works, into nonfiction writing.

It also includes 24 texts (by writers such as Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Wolfe himself) that exemplify what Wolfe thought were the best of this genre. Today, reading a few of the texts within this volume always reignites the passion I have for well-written and entertaining nonfiction, and helps me understand what makes it so good: beyond impeccable research, it's those literary elements.

Many of these “creative nonfiction” types of works, in book-length form, are on my shelf, including Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee, Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, and The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander. I often have looked to them when I’ve edited creative nonfiction manuscripts, especially memoirs or travelogues, that seem to beg for more sparkle and storytelling techniques within their pages.

There are many other exceptional examples. Modern Library has a list of its top 100 nonfiction books here: www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-nonfiction/. Pick one out sometime and think about why you think it was chosen as one of the best. What makes it work? Does it incorporate elements of a fiction work? Would you edit it any differently?  

Thanks for reading. Happy editing, and have a great March!

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