Friday, February 09, 2007

Editors, and editing nonfiction

Just a heads-up. If you are thinking of writing a work of nonfiction*, plan it first. Write only the first chapter. Hire an editor to make that chapter and proposal sparkle, and start shopping for an agent. If you get a publishing contract, then you can finish the book. This is the safest way to approach your project, unless you already have a guaranteed audience.

Unless you are planning to self-publish or go POD, you will set yourself up for a lot of heartache and expense if you write the thing and hire an editor, only to find out that no agent will represent it, and no publisher will publish it.

There are some great books on writing nonfiction proposals. Google it, or here are a few:

Write the Perfect Book Proposal, by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman
Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, by Elizabeth Lyon

Also, the Gotham Writers' Workshop offers excellent, respected online courses for aspiring nonfiction authors and freelance feature writers.

* This advice doesn't apply to memoirs.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

English is not just a first-person language.

Tom Spanbauer teaches a workshop in Portland -- it's great, it's helpful, insert all due praise here -- BUT whenever I talk to any of his students, they're all writing novels in first person and one of them even said to me that third person is not welcome around Tom's table. Now that's interesting.

Why? I wondered. Well, supposedly the working assumption is that English is a first-person language. Tom Spanbauer writes brilliantly in first person, but still, why teach writers to believe they can only write in first person? The dogma around Tom's table favors the hot, close, me-to-you language that fits perfectly in the small privacy of a reader's attention. Anything else, they say, is distancing -- a narrator is a faceless entity that tells us what to believe about the novel's characters.

The dogma isn't unfounded. There's also something to be said about "I" in our culture. We're concerned with identity, with how we represent and present and signify ourselves to everybody else, and part of how we do that is with language.

However, third person gives us access to many points of view without having to use the obvious conceit of multiple "I's" for different story lines. It doesn't forfeit the power of an anonymous narrator, allowing the author to play with all kinds of voices. For example, a novel is a great place to explore the zone of contact between "internally persuasive" language, i.e., the voice in our heads, and the "authoritative discourse" of media, politics, ethics, whatever types of speaking are part of our culture's power structures. (Jose Saramago's Seeing is a good example.)

The novel can be so much more than language gymnastics. Poetry, when conscripted into long-form prose, is more interesting as a tool than as an end unto itself. We write novels because we have a story to tell about how humans live in the world, and much as it's possible to believe otherwise, the world is not always about "I."

Or, you can just write in first person AND third person. Dana Spiotta rocks.