This just in from NPR.org: Samuel G. Freedman is the author of six books, the most recent being Letters to a Young Journalist and Who She Was. He gives a course on narrative nonfiction at Columbia that’s a kind of bootcamp of self-editing: “Mixed metaphors, overwriting, and cliches are beaten out of every student. At the end of each critique, Freedman tallies everyone's cliches. That effort goes into creating the CPP: Cliche-per-Person index.” The course then teaches students how to write a book proposal. NPR.org gives Freedman’s 10 tips for writing non-fiction, which are applicable in many cases to fiction writers.
Ten Thoughts for Writing Narrative Nonfiction
by Samuel Freedman
~ Read avidly and analytically. Don't just read the currently popular narrative writers such as Erik Larson or Susan Orlean; read the authors who created the tradition: Stephen Crane, John Hersey, Gay Talese, J. Anthony Lukas. Read plenty of fiction along with nonfiction. And whatever you read, as you read, consider the book a text in how to research and write book. What worked? What didn't? How was this organism assembled? How does it function?
~ Understand that reporting enables writing. Even the most stylish prose, absent research of the first order, is ultimately an empty vessel. The writer who has done the indefatigable and intellectually curious reporting can write an accomplished book without being a lyric poet, because he or she has a powerful, important story to tell.
~ Pay attention not only to the external dramas of your characters but the internal ones — the drama that takes place between the ears, the drama of motivation. There is not richer, more compelling material.
~ Never be afraid to sound ignorant or foolish. The only stupid question is the one you don't ask.
~ Take the time to outline before you write, whether you're writing a short feature story or a full-length book. For fiction, an advance plan is a death knell, a curb on the imagination. (I agree—kg) For nonfiction, it is a blueprint, a musical score, the structure that liberates you to enjoy the writing process because you are always aware of the overarching structure.
~ Forget about the market. Write only the book you burn to write. Choose a topic you love, because you'll be married to it for years. If you can develop a gripping enough proposal about a vital enough topic, if you can paint memorable characters, then you can get an agent and editor to put aside the conventional commercial wisdom.
~ Every work of narrative needs to have these elements: character, event, place, and theme.
~ A book needs to operate on both a temporal and an eternal axis. The temporal axis is what makes your subject newsworthy, for lack of a more artful term, right now. The eternal axis is what will make it enduringly relevant.
~ Think back to high school chemistry class and the chart of the Periodic Table of the Elements. That chart told you that every thing in the material world can ultimately be reduced to only those elements. As an author, your territory is the Periodic Table of Human Nature. It's all the basic elements of human experience: love, hate, yearning, ambition, disappointment, ecstasy, etc.
~ Never put too much faith in any list.