Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Nonfiction Is Non-Boring"

That was the title under which I proposed a book on writing vivid nonfiction.

The book, published by Scholastic with the longer, less cheeky, more literal title Quick Nonfiction Writing Activities That Really Work!, is newly available.

Though it will be marketed to teachers of grades 4-6 for classroom use, I wrote it for all writers. And though it specifies nonfiction, most of the activities also pertain to fiction.

The book consolidates every tip I've thrown in my mental backpack over the last decade and features often funny writing exercises on each page. Some have answers, most don't.

It also includes spot art—some quite surreal—drawn by yours truly. (Note: I am not saying that is a selling point.) Its back cover calls me a "nonfiction expert and humorist." (Note: I admit I like that but swear I did not write that.) And, as always, it is loaded with name-dropping of my friends.

Here is a close approximation of the introduction to the book:
In a batch of thank you letters I received after one of my school visits, a comment from a girl named Shannon stood out: “My teacher told us you wrote nonfiction and I thought ‘Oh, great!’ But I was wrong!”

I’ve written books or articles about the creators of Superman, the invention of the telephone, foxes, ghosts, the planets, the Liberty Bell, Kwanzaa, Greece, the history of junk food, the origins of everyday pets, the reasons we laugh, myths about pirates, Rosa Parks, Juan Ponce de León, the Great Chicago Fire, and more. As a whole, those topics don’t have much in common, but most of the material I wrote about them does.

In each case, I strove to make my nonfiction come alive. All writers owe it to their readers to do this. If writers are bored when writing, how will readers feel when reading their work?

Shannon wasn’t the only young person I’ve met who felt that only made-up stories can hold her interest. Therefore, I was thrilled I helped her realize that nonfiction means non-boring. And I did it without saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.” For starters, that’s a cliché, and clichés, of course, spoil good writing like mold on cream cheese. But more to the point, truth can also be more exciting, scarier, funnier, or sadder than fiction.

This book is designed to demonstrate that by giving students tools to create strong nonfiction. Loaded with reproducibles both fun and functional, it breaks down nonfiction to its many components, letting students strengthen their skills one sentence at a time. While the approach includes some grammar, it is largely concerned with content, style, and structure. Sprinkled throughout are “Quick Tips” for adding a little extra life or lyricism to writing.

Just because a true story is compelling does not mean it is easy to put into print or memorable once it’s in print. One of my professors used to say it’s not enough to have a good story. You need a good story, well told. Sometimes, a good writer can take even a story that at first seems unremarkable and type gold from it.

Whether your students are writing descriptive, expository, narrative, or persuasive nonfiction, they are usually assuming several roles at once without even realizing it: storyteller, detective, reporter, historian, teacher, maybe even rebel. Tell them that and they may feel empowered. They may see that with a mix like that at work inside them, it is hard to imagine not writing something intriguing. The difference between non-exciting nonfiction and exciting nonfiction is a well-equipped writer.

1 comment:

Brian Floca said...

Nice! Congratulations!