by Jennifer Kelly
About five years ago, I was ready for a career change. I taught college writing classes, preparing students for both writing in college and for writing in the workplace, but, after more than a decade, though, I was ready to concentrate on my own writing career. That was when I decided to write my forthcoming book, my first attempt at nonfiction. After earning two degrees in English and years of teaching writing, I thought I had the right qualifications for that kind of project: I had conducted research, I had written many pages as both an instructor and a student, and I was a fan of the subject I had chosen. Surely, this would be easy, right?
Boy was I wrong!
Fiction vs. Nonfiction
At this point, outside of my academics, my writing had been focused on fiction. I had written a novel in middle school and had a long list of potential projects, but I needed something I could jumpstart this career with. The project that appeared to have the most potential was a book on America’s first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton. When I started in 2013, the 100th anniversary of his accomplishment was right around the corner – 2019 – so I had time to research and write, but I knew I could not take the whole six years to get it all done.
Now, nearly five years later, the book is on schedule for a spring 2019 release from the University Press of Kentucky. With the manuscript done, I enter the final phase of the process where I contemplate revisions, marketing, and my future plans for both sides of my career, fiction and nonfiction. Here is what I learned about writing nonfiction after a lifetime of academic and fiction writing:
- Academic background helps, but is not necessary – Though much of my academic writing technically was nonfiction, I did not have as much experience with the storytelling side of the genre. I was able to use my previous experience to conduct the research and to plan out the writing process for this type of book. However, you need not be an academic to learn and grow those skills. These can be picked up in other ways, such as writing for other publications in your field and researching the techniques of writing nonfiction.
- You can be creative, just not in the same way – While all of the information I presented came from sources like newspaper articles and books, I still had leeway in how I wrote about the events in Sir Barton’s career. Nonfiction does not have to mean dry; while I must be objective, the language I use or the way I craft the timeline allows me to tell the story of this life in a way that is as engrossing as fiction can be.
- Plan, plan, and plan – I know writers who use outlines in crafting their stories and others who might write in chunks they later weave together. For nonfiction, like the research papers you wrote as a student, you need a plan. Start with something simple and then layer in more information as necessary, but a plan is a must, especially if research is a big component of your project. Plan your research, your writing, and your search for an agent and a publisher.
- Document your research and use tools to make citations easier – The two tasks that took the most time were not the actual writing, but the research and its accompanying documentation. Not only did I plan time to research, but I also kept tabs on the search terms, the libraries and other organizations I had searched, and the people I contacted. I also needed to be meticulous in keeping track of my sources; often, a paragraph might use five more sources and I needed to make sure that each one had its proper attribution. This can get unwieldy and complicated, especially as I had to create citations for each source.
One tool that can simplify that task is the citation generator that many word processors come with now. You can select your preferred citation style and then use the generator to create each citation; if you need to switch styles mid-project, your word processor can help you with that too. This tool can save so much time and grief! Even if you are using a limited number of sources, keep track of what you use to save you a step at the end.
- Write a book proposal and query agents BEFORE you finish writing – I went to a writers’ workshop where I discovered that I need not finish the book before I started looking for an agent and a publisher. For that, I needed a book proposal and a list of possible agents. I crafted my book proposal and query letter and then searched for potential agents. By the time I finished my third draft, I had a publisher and a deadline in place.
Research your field. What companies publish books in your area of interest? What agents look for projects like yours? What should your book proposal include? Start querying while you are writing and you might find the right agent and publisher before you have typed that last word.
There you have it: a bit of what I learned writing my forthcoming book. If you want to hear more, I am happy to share my perspective on this process. My journey into writing Sir Barton’s story might have felt quixotic at times; nevertheless I found that I had the right stuff to finish it as time went on. Good luck on your writing journey!
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Jennifer Kelly’s first book Sir Barton: Conqueror of the Classics (tentative title) will be out in spring 2019 from the University Press of Kentucky. See more from Jennifer on the companion blog The Sir Barton Project (www.thesirbartonproject.com) and follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jenniferkellywrites/
Interested in writing a guest post for my blog? Contact me!