Ed Sikov On All You Need To Know About Writing Nonfiction That Sells
On February 27th, biographer, film critic, professor, and memoirist, Ed Sikov, leads a 5 week beginner-friendly non-fiction class, Charming with the Truth: Harness the Tools of Fiction to Craft Compelling Autobiographical Essays. To help you understand what you'll get out of this class, Mark Vanderpool, our Director of Education here at LitReactor, fired off some questions to Ed.
Mark Vanderpool: Where are some of the best markets or points of entry for a relatively unknown writer to begin getting paid for brief, personal non-fiction writing?
Ed Sikov: It's tough to get published anywhere these days - in print, that is. And getting paid to write has always been a matter of having something to sell at the right time to the right person or publishing outlet. It's hard and will always be so. That said, I've always suggested to students that they start out by finding niche outlets that target specific ethnic, racial, sexual, religious, or other community-based markets. If their stories have anything to do with their backgrounds or gender identities or cultures or whatnot, these niche publishing outlets are great places to start sending stuff.
MV: How important would you say it is for the contemporary non-fiction writer to build a platform in a topical area of expertise (as you did with film studies and celebrity biography) prior to finding a larger audience and/or compensation for more personal work?
ES: It's not important at all! Hell, my memoirs have only referred in passing - if at all - to my field of study and my biographies. They're not about my education or career; they're about my life as I've lived it, not my work as I've worked it. You don't have to know a damn thing other than what you've experienced in your life to write an autobiographical essay.
MV: What's the best route for the writer with a lot to share, but not so much concentrated topical expertise? i.e., How do you advise the generalist?
ES: There is no such thing as a generalist when it comes to memoirs. We all lead individual, unique lives. Nobody on the planet is exactly like you; nobody is exactly like me. How does one live a "general" life? Sure, lots of us got beaten up when we were kids; lots of us beat up some other kid. But only I got beaten up in a specific way by a specific boy in a specific place for a specific reason, and if I tell the story well, lots of people will relate to it. My tale will hit home with a wide audience, but it won't be a "generalist's" story. It will be mine and mine alone. The blood was mine; the tears were mine.
MV: Do you see any built-in conflicts between writing for self-expression/ personal satisfaction and writing with an audience in mind? How would you advise the person who's experienced in life but new to professional writing when it comes to finding the right balance between expressive satisfaction and audience satisfaction?
ES: Yes, there's a huge difference. It's like singing in the shower versus singing on Broadway. You can sing your heart out in the shower and nobody cares; but if you want to sing on Broadway, man, you better have the chops and you better make the audience happy or you'll get booed off the stage. What I'd advise the life-experienced new writer is this: give it a shot! We're not going to Broadway right away - we're doing community theater first. That's point one.
Point two is: That's what this class is all about: learning to take your experiences and hone them into reader-pleasing stories. If all you want to do is please yourself, then write a diary and be done with it. If you want anybody to read what you write, learn how to make what you write more entertaining. I can help you do that.
MV: What would you say are some of the common characteristics or most important qualities of the best non-fiction writing?
- Making the reader see, smell, taste, and feel the scenes.
- Letting the reader feel that s/he is being let in on a secret that the writer has entrusted him or her with.
- Breaking the reader's heart if necessary. Making the reader feel crappy if necessary; making him or her laugh or cry or get turned on or want to throw up. In short, getting a reaction.
- Getting the reader to say, "Yeah, I know that feeling - that's exactly how I felt when I...."
- Introducing the reader to an entirely new world and yet doing so in a way that makes the reader feel at home there right away.
MV: Who is your ideal student for Charming with the Truth? What does that aspiring author enter with and what would he or she come away with that's different by end of course?
ES: I have a number of ideal students in mind - I can't name one in particular. The only qualities I'm looking for are honesty, courage, a certain degree of risk-taking, and a profound good will. In the classroom I used to demand that my students take a shower every day, but this is an online class so I don't care what they smell like.
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