Telling the Truth
by Laura Yeager
Are you a fiction writer struggling to publish your fiction, and no one is buying?
That was my situation five years ago. In 2004, I considered myself a dyed-in-the-wool fiction writer, but I’d sold only five stories in 20 years. (Granted, I landed my first published short story at The Paris Review in 1992, but I considered that beginner’s luck.) I had studied the art of storytelling in three of the best schools in the country, including The Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa, and I’d earned three degrees in the art of penning tales. I was even working as a fiction writing teacher at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
But in 2005, something extraordinary happened. My husband and I became parents. We adopted a baby boy from Guatemala. Having a child put a whole new spin on my life, and after we brought Tommy home, I decided to try something different. I decided to try writing nonfiction.
To make a long story short (no pun intended), this new activity suited me, and I began to successfully write and sell nonfiction.
If you’re in a rut with your fiction, I recommend that you change your mental template and write nonfiction. Why?
Writing and selling nonfiction can build your confidence.
This task can also build up your portfolio.
You might be able to make more money writing nonfiction. (At least, this was my experience.)
Writing nonfiction can also open doors for you. (In fact, Jonathan Franzen said he got into The New Yorker via the nonfiction route before publishing fiction there.)
How did I make the switch from fiction to nonfiction? The process, outlined below, was relatively painless:
1. First, I read and studied about writing nonfiction. The resource that taught me the most about writing all kinds of nonfiction from memoirs to restaurant reviews was, of all things, a freshman composition textbook that I used to teach composition at local colleges part-time. The text isThe St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, by Axelrod & Cooper. As well as teaching me how to write autobiographical nonfiction and basic evaluations, the text also outlined process narrations, journalistic profile pieces and causal analyses. All that teaching rubbed off on me, the teacher. They say if you want to learn something, you should teach it. I highly recommend this textbook to teach you the basics of molding your nonfiction.
2. Next, I took one class in Freelance Article Writing at Gotham. Because I taught writing at this school, I could take classes there for free. It was in this forum that I picked up more information on finding a good angle for any topic and the fine art of interviewing. I also took advantage of the workshop format and workshopped two magazine articles during this class.
3. At this point, I dove right in. I began, by trial and error, to construct nonfiction. My first article was for a magazine. It was about gift giving and the occasions it’s necessary to give gifts. The article was terrible. Parts of it made no sense. But I kept trying. My next article, “Bad Dates Can Be Good For You,” was a humorous dating essay. This piece was considerably better in terms of organization and logic. (But I’ve never been able to place this at any magazine, and I’ve tried to over a dozen times.)
4. And then, something fortuitous occurred. Again, as mentioned above, I adopted a baby from a foreign country. What happened was, in essence, I had a blockbuster story to tell. You see, my adoption process was complicated by the fact that I had severe bipolar illness. There I was, a “crazy” lady, trying to bring home a child. In a nutshell, the story, full of suspense and irony, wrote and sold itself. The story found me. Imperfectparent.com bought “My Journey Through Bipolar Motherhood” for $25.00. I was vindicated.
5. Imperfectparent.com is a relatively small parenting online magazine. If one is starting out as a nonfiction writer, I recommend that you send your stuff to smaller venues first. Theoretically, it’s an easier proposition.
6. The next thing that happened was truly a lucky break. I made a connection with a well-known editor. Ron Kovach, the editor of The Writer Magazine, contacted Gotham Writers’ Workshop to see if Gotham teachers wanted to write articles for The Writer. I jumped on this opportunity, writing and selling two articles, a causal analysis about how learning to write is learning to wait and a descriptive how-to on subplots, earning a whooping $800.00 in the process. It was then that I considered myself a nonfiction writer.
Overall, the process of breaking into nonfiction writing took about three years, but it was well worth it. Since 2005, I’ve published articles at print publications such as The Writer Magazine, The Toastmaster Magazine, The Adjunct Advocate, bp (Bipolar Magazine), The Akron Family Magazine and Abilities Magazine. Online, I’ve published at imperfectparent.com, orato.com, commonties.com, thesavvygal.com, nycvoices.org, youandmemagazine.com, write.org, martinilounge.com, delladonna.com and now author.org. Also, during this time, I took up speechwriting, writing speeches for instantweddingtoasts.com and occasionalwords.com. Finally, I’m currently a women’s health blogger at empowher.com.
Of course, I never could have done this so “quickly” if I hadn’t have had such a strong background in fiction writing.
So if you’re raking up degrees in fiction writing, writing your buns off and having little to show for it, why not try writing nonfiction?
It couldn’t hurt.