It’s true – NovelMatters is a blog about fiction. Some of us also write and publish non-fiction, and I’m pleased to announce my new nonfiction release, The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith.
I’m giving away 2 copies of this book—we'll choose at random two recipients from those who comment today.
There are three reasons why I think this book may interest you:
1) Philip Yancey said of the concept of The Phases of Faith that it “is more profound than you can imagine.”
2) This concept has helped me more than any other concept I have learned in my decades of life as a Christian.
3) The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith contains some examples of using fictional techniques in nonfiction.
Why should the readers of NovelMatters learn about creative nonfiction?
1) You may consider yourself a fiction writer, but your daily writing tasks probably involve a high percentage of nonfiction writing. Examples: blog entries, newsletter articles, daily journaling and even Tweeting use nonfiction.
2) If you are a writer working on your craft, you probably read nonfiction about writing. And you know nothing puts a reader to sleep faster than dull writing.
3) You, like every other reader in the world, prefer lively, memorable writing to straight exposition.
Here’s a passage from my new non-fiction book, The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith:
A woman sits outside in the gathering dusk, her back to her tent-home, her eyes straining toward a footpath worn in the soil: a footpath that begins at her doorstep but ends in the unknown.
At first, days ago, she had counted the passing time by minutes and hours. But as sunset followed sunrise again and again, she has begun to count in days the time that they have been gone. Soon she will mark a week of simmering desperation, of both heartsickness and hope.
Her husband (her only husband, though she was often not his “only”) and her son (her only son, born long past her menopause, a miracle baby now grown into a young man) have disappeared into the shifting dust beyond her sight, beyond any human sight.
She has lived decades, more than a century. Now at the twilight of her life she recognizes some things about the God she and her family have served, this mysterious and terrifying One who created the world, but who has also reclined at her dinner table, eating the food she has prepared.
This God only wants the best. And she knows her son Isaac is the best, and the husband who has both loved her and betrayed her through almost one hundred years of marriage has taken that beloved son away, to offer him as a burnt sacrifice in a place that no one has named.
And so this woman sits and waits, an outpost on the frontiers of faith.
At the time I wrote this passage I had not collected a list of fictional techniques that make nonfiction more readable and more memorable. But I recognize now that many of the fictional techniques I employ in novel writing can also strengthen nonfiction.
Here are some fiction techniques (a few of which you may find in the passage above):
1) Banish all passive verbs – the bane of all writing.
2) Use analogies, metaphors, similes and other techniques. For instance, I drew what people have described as a "powerful" and "moving" parallel in The Mormon Mirage between my loss of faith in Mormonism and my discovery that the treasured seagull-rescue story of Mormonism was also without historical foundation.
3) Make the writing personal to the reader, not necessarily to you: Give him or her a reason to feel threatened or intrigued by what you say.
4) Use scintillating chapter heads, subheadings, or other clues to what you will eventually tell the reader.
5) Use hooks of any kind with abandon on the first draft. You can always go back and take them out if they are “too much.”
6) You must have a definite beginning, middle and end in order to satisfy the reader’s need for order, yet in earlier stages leave some things unsaid to keep him or her reading on – because suspense is satisfying, too, when finally relieved.
7) Only tell when it is impossible to show without some telling. Then find a fresh way to tell. That may involve using lists, variations in genre, or arresting descriptions.
8) Use dialogue or dialogue-like techniques—this makes the reader feel like he or she is eavesdropping.
9) If your nonfiction piece has a chronology to it, consider beginning it with what we call in fiction a “precipitating event,” then fill the reader in during the exposition portion.
10) Jackhammer in sensory details with strong verbs. Only use adjectives if they’re essential, and make every non-essential adverb evacuate the premises of your story.
11) If a certain fictional technique doesn’t “work” in your nonfiction writing, you are not married to it because you wrote it. Nor must you feel that you are its mother. Push it out into the world to make its own way, perhaps fading away or finding a home in the writings of hacks. Your recognition of this principle means you are not a hack.