Sunday, January 14, 2007

How to write non-fiction

Apathy Jack writes:

There seems to have been a trend in the last few years for non-fiction – or at least a specific type; people recounting their crazy and wacky lives, or offering a quirky look at some aspect of history or of the world (I still haven’t gotten around to buying that history of the colour mauve...). Maybe it’s not a trend, maybe I just never noticed it before. Either way, I’ve been reading a bit of it recently, and, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution to point out the faults of others so they can stop annoying me, I present the rules on writing non-fiction, should any of you be thinking of doing so.

Rule number one

Make sure what you’re writing about is actually interesting. This may sound fairly self explanatory, but I’ve read more than one book where this simply hasn’t been the case. The best example I’ve read recently would be You Can Get Arrested For That, by Richard Smith. The premise is sound: Smith found a list of those stupid and redundant laws they have in some American states – you know the ones; can’t dress your goldfish in pinstripe after Shrove Tuesday and such forth – so decides to travel from his native England to break as many of them as he can muster.

Sounds like hilarity would ensue, right? That’s certainly what I was assuming when I shelled out hard earned hamburger tokens on a copy. Disappointingly, the book is little more than a catalogue of unrealised potential. Smith is openly impressed with himself for having thought of such a zany and wacky idea, but he fails to deliver. Specifically: he doesn’t break that many of the laws on his list. For example, his first project is riding a bicycle into a swimming pool. After a fairly uninteresting chapter detailing his attempts to locate a motel with a swimming pool, he fails to find one, and moves onto the next chapter. There are some unintentionally pathos-filled moments when Smith discovers that a couple of the “laws” on his list are urban legends, but he “breaks” them anyway in a sad attempt to get his win-loss ratio above fifty percent.

Compare and contrast the works of Danny Wallace – of which I’ve read Join Me, where he starts a cult out of sheer boredom, and Yes Man, where he decides that for six months he will answer all questions and requests with “Yes”. Wallace is one of these people who commits himself to an idea, and sees travelling to Denmark to recruit for a cult of personality based around an amorphous idea he had while drunk as a workmanlike part of doing the job properly. Not only is he bereft of Smith’s all-pervading sense of self-congratulation, but he also gets himself into more “scrapes and japes” if you will (and normally I won’t) than Smith manages to in his unremarkable road-trip.

Another example is Mick Foley. His first book, Have a Nice Day was rightfully a Times bestseller. Foley is not a brilliant writer by any means, but in an easy, conversational style he recounts his life – an interesting one to be sure – and discusses the wrestling industry in a way that is not only accessible but perhaps even interesting to people who are not fans.

His second memoir, Foley Is Good, detailed his life in the year or so since publishing his first book, was filled with wrestling in-jokes that were mostly stale by the time it hit the shelves, and contained rambling digressions on whatever Foley was thinking of that day. (I’m one of the bigger Foley fans you’ll find and even I had trouble sitting through the entire chapter dedicated to blow-by-blow descriptions of his favourite theme-park roller-coasters.) In the extra chapter added to the paperback edition, Foley admits that on rereading it, even he thinks it was, in large part, pretty pointless and self-indulgent.

Hell, so long as what you’re writing about is interesting enough, you don’t even need to be that good a writer. I give you Born On A Blue Day, the autobiography of Daniel Tammet, who was born with high-level autism and synethesia, and developed savant-syndrome after a childhood epileptic seizure. Tammet admits that he has never really liked working with words, and the book often reads with the staccato style of speech common among those with autism. Tammet also admits that he finds it difficult to tell when people are not interested in the things he’s talking about, and the sheer amount of the book that he devotes to talking about Maths is testament to that. No one would argue that Tammet’s writing is more than functional, getting the point across in a straightforward and barebones sort of way; however, his story is a truly fascinating look into the mind of someone with Asberger’s Syndrome.

Rule Number Two

I said above that so long as your story is interesting, you don’t need to be Dostoyevsky, but before you rush out to chronicle the funny and fascinating things you think you’ve done and routinely bore your friends with, as a personal favour to me make sure you can actually write.

Of course, being a good writer can disguise the fact that you’re writing about rubbish. Look at Smashed, by Koren Zailckas. Zailckas drank a bit too much as a teenager, but not enough that it impacted on her academic or social life. She kept this up into university, but managed to get a good job and retain the majority of her friends. In her early twenties, she realised the drinking wasn’t making her happy, so quit without too much of a struggle. Zailckas is a poetic wordsmith, and the book is so well written that it takes you a while to realise that what she is writing about is, in essence, a slightly less harrowing version of what almost every one of my friends went through at similar ages.

Take by contrast Said And Done – the autobiography of Roger McGough. McGough has published fifty books of poetry, and had minor pop stardom in the seventies with ‘Lily the Pink’ – and of course I had never heard of him until I came across some of his stuff by accident last year. His life has been far more remarkable than he seems to think it has been – he makes a strong point that hanging out with Beatles and being a part of the emerging beat poetry scene was really not as magical an experience as music documentaries would have us believe. He recounts young poets admonishing that it must have been easy for him to tap into the spirit of creativity that was present in that milieu, and points out that most of Liverpudlian beatniks of the time were sitting around forlornly wishing they could tap into the spirit of creativity that was clearly extant in America with Ginsberg and Kerouac. However, despite downplaying many of his memories, he takes the more anecdote-worthy moments of his life and recounts them with humour and the sort wordplay that has made him a well known (except by me as it turns out) poet. He has taken a life story that he would probably claim was far less interesting than that of Zailckas and turned it into one of the most lyrical books I’ve read recently.

Now, keep in mind that when I say “write well”, I don’t just mean your ability with words. Pay attention to structure, and what will make the book a consistently pleasant read. I turn your attention to The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Ostensibly a book about the Oxford Dictionary, Simon Winchester figured out that he’d need to sex the story up some, so focussed on the strange case of WC Minor, an eccentric contributor thereto. Even then he realised there wasn’t a whole book, so went off on many fascinating tangents about anything even faintly related to what he was talking about. The result is a very readable history not only of the Dictionary, but of the time period, the social mores, and many truly interesting figures therein.

For your contrast, I give you Rats. Robert Sullivan decided to spend a year in one alley looking at the behaviour of the rats therein, and write about his experiences doing so. Like Winchester, he throws in digressions to fill the book. Unlike Winchester, he doesn’t do it particularly well. One moment he’s sitting down in the alleyway, then there’s suddenly a several paragraph long history of arboreal migration, that I eventually deduced was to explain the history of the particular type of tree that grew in one corner of the alley. While there are many interesting facts in the book, the narrative is messy, and the digressions come to look less like interesting contextualisation and more like filler as Sullivan realises that sitting in an alleyway for a year just isn’t that interesting an experience.

There you go: two rules. That wasn’t hard, was it?

As they say: Everyone has one book in them, and usually that’s where it should stay, but if you follow my two simple rules, you too can write about real things without boring or irritating the reading public.

Off you go.


Mrs Smith said...

Similar rules could be applied to blogging. I love books on quirky aspects of history.' History of mauve sounds just my thing. I have My Sky'd (how does one make My Sky into a verb?) Lost Inventions and The Worst Jobs In History from the History Channel, which I am looking forward to watching.

Duncan Bayne said...

Anyone interested in non-fiction writing would be well advised to pick up a copy of The Art of Non-Fiction by Ayn Rand.