I’m a contract writer/editor/proofreader. It’s the day job that pays the bills (I’m not a famous screenwriter … yet), and at the moment the day job is editing a nonfiction book targeted toward teachers.
The thing is, writing in the nonfiction/business realm is really not all that different from any form of creative writing. The first two rules are basically the same:
- Honor thy character
- Honor thy story & structure
1. Honor thy character: Show me a movie with a weak, boring protagonist, and I’ll show you a movie that didn’t sell. Similarly, show me a book that doesn’t know it’s target audience, and I’ll show you a book that doesn’t sell. In a movie, character is king. Rossio, in his essay The One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake, identifies this as one of the most important battles when protecting your screenplay’s vision, and the same thing is true of nonfiction. Know who your audience is. Know what it is they’re relating to. Know who they’re supposed to care about and why, and make sure the entire book is set up to drive them toward that interest.
The book I’m editing is clear who its target audience is – teachers. And it’s clear who the beneficiaries of the information are – teachers and students alike. As a result, this book, in its first edition has sold quite well for a self-published title, even though it has a number of problems in the next area of concern:
2. Honor thy story & structure: How many times have we heard this story: a film has a great premise, and it sounds good from the outset, but word of mouth spreads about how bad the film is, and the result is a financial disaster. The reason, more often than not, is that the film doesn’t know where it’s going, why, or how. I’ve already talked about structure quite a bit in this blog, and how important I’m realizing it is to the overall success of screenplay. And it goes without saying that the same thing is true of nonfiction.
The biggest problem book I’m editing is that it doesn’t really know where it’s going. The premise is outstanding: it’s original, clear, and identifiable as an ironic problem in the education industry (forgive me for being so general – I’m trying to maintain some discretion with the client). But after a fabulous set-up, the second act is a weak rehash of things we already know, and we’re left with the experience of a formulaic, unsatisfying lack of original information, where so much potential formerly was.
The solution is simple: identify where the book is headed, why, and how it’s going to get there. What exactly are we trying to accomplish? What’s the best way to communicate that? After establishing that, the rest will fall into place, and with a little work we should have a powerful and effective asset to build the future of education in this country.