Monday, November 6, 2017

Exploring Genres: Nonfiction



In this cross-post between Christian Writers Downunder and Australasian Christian Writers, I’ve been tasked with writing about the different types of nonfiction. This genre covers a lot of ground, from biographies of famous people to new ways with tofu, from annual reports and training manuals to news articles and blogs. First, let’s get some definitions under our collective belts.


What is Nonfiction?

In the broadest sense, nonfiction is anything based on factual information. This differs from fiction built around true events or characters. Tracy Chevalier imagined a backstory for the girl in Vermeer’s iconic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. We understand that she took some literary licence in doing that, but it doesn’t matter. We’re happy to get swept up in the story. In contrast, readers expect that nonfiction is true, or at least a well-argued and reasoned version of the truth.



Reportage vs Creative Nonfiction

I also want to make a distinction between straight reportage and creative nonfiction. In reportage, you present the information as objectively as possible. For example, journalists report the news using the 'who, what, when, where, why and how' questions.

An intoxicated Lithuanian clown was injured this morning when his skateboard collided with a penguin on the Gold Coast Highway. The penguin remains in a fishy condition at Sea World.

Other types of nonfiction that might come under the reportage umbrella include dissertations, scientific papers, and annual reports. These documents can include opinion, interpretation and analysis, as long as such commentary is logical and consistent with the available evidence.

In creative nonfiction, you still deal with facts, but you use literary devices to convey them in an engaging way (e.g. scenes, dialogue, imagery). For example, a straight news article might report that missiles were fired over Tel Aviv, while a piece of creative nonfiction might show events through the eyes of someone holidaying in Israel at that time. (See Anna Elkins’ travel essay Of Danger and Beauty for an example).

If you would like to find out more about writing creative nonfiction, I highly recommend Lee Gutkind’s book You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. If you would like a quicker introduction, I have a four-part series on creative nonfiction on my website. Just go to my writing tips blog and see Posts 33 to 36.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll highlight some of the main types of creative nonfiction.




Biographies, Autobiographies and Memoirs

Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs all tell about the life of someone, but they differ in terms of the author and focus.

A biography is written by someone other than the subject. For example, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxis.

In contrast, autobiographies and memoirs are written by the subject. It’s your story told in first-person. While there is some overlap between the two, memoirs tend to cover a particular theme or a shorter period in the person’s life rather than trying to include the whole saga. Jo-Anne Berthelsen’s memoir Soul Friend tells the story of her special relationship with her spiritual mentor, Joy. Other aspects of Jo-Anne’s life are only mentioned insofar as they relate to that main theme. Memoirs also typically involve more reflection, as authors look back on events and discuss what it means to them now or what they might have done differently.

For some tips on writing life stories, please see Posts 8 to 11 on my blog.


‘How-To’ Books

As the name suggests, these types of books give readers practical instructions for accomplishing certain tasks. Whether it’s upcycling or unicycling, preparing a sermon or peppering a salmon, there’s bound to be a book or article to show what you need to know.

Christine Dillon’s book Telling the Gospel Through Story is a good example. Christine draws on her experiences in cross-cultural mission work to show readers how they can use stories to talk to people about their faith

There are also a myriad of writing craft books that show you how to show, and tell you how to tell. Some favourites of mine are Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Story Genius by Lisa Cron. (Click here to see my post on how to use Cron’s techniques to deepen character in fiction).




Self-Help Books

Self-help books are like ‘how-to’ guides for your life. Some of these books help you deal with challenging situations (e.g. abuse, addiction, depression, parenting, singleness), while others help you to lead a more fulfilling life.

A number of Christian living books fall within this category. In her book Beyond Betrayal: How God is Healing Women (and Couples) From Infidelity, Lisa Taylor shares her own story, but also discusses research, strategies and resources to help people who’ve been through similar experiences. 

Other examples include Bill Hybel’s Simplify: Ten Practices to Declutter Your Soul and Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life.


Expository Books

I’m using this term in a very broad sense to refer to books that describe or explain information surrounding a particular topic. It could be a book about brain surgery, global warming, literature, theology, politics, cricket, history, psychology, or the companions of Dr Who. The main aim is to inform the reader about the topic. For example, Mark Worthing combines literature and history in his book Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God: A History of Fantasy Literature and the Christian Tradition.






Most theological books would come under the expository banner (e.g. God’s Priority: World-Mending and Generational Testing by Anne Hamilton). Devotional books or Bible studies could also fall within this category, though the more applied devotionals may fit better in the self-help category.





Poetry and Song

Whoa! What are poetry and song doing in a post about nonfiction? Long before books and television were readily available to the masses, true stories were passed from village to village by poets and balladeers. These methods are of course still used today. In the latest Poetica Christi anthology, Wonderment, I have a poem called Apollo 8 in which I tell the story of the astronauts who read from the book of Genesis in a Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit in 1968. You can hear part of the original broadcast here. Even if you don’t know a lot of poetry, I’m sure you can think of dozens of songs based on true stories (e.g. Hurricane by Bob Dylan, I Was Only 19 by Red Gum and The Outlaw by Larry Norman).


Wrap Up

As I mentioned earlier, there are dozens of sub-genres within nonfiction and I’ve only scratched the surface. There is also a lot of overlap across categories. For example, Ruth Bonetti combines family memoir with the political undercurrents of the times in her award-winning book Burn my Letters: Tyranny to Refuge.







Even if you mainly write fiction, you could make the odd foray into the nonfiction world. Perhaps you could write a magazine article about the nineteenth century fashions worn by your heroine or the science behind the gene therapy in your young adult thriller. Anthologies also provide opportunities for short nonfiction pieces (e.g. The Gecko Renewal and Other Stories of Life edited by Tabor College lecturers James Cooper and Mark Worthing).





What are your favourite nonfiction books and why? I’d love to hear your examples.



Nola Passmore is a writer and editor who has had more than 150 short pieces published, including fiction, poetry, devotions, magazine articles, academic papers and true stories.  She and her husband Tim own their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  She is currently writing an ever-changing novel and will have the draft finished by Christmas ... really!



28 comments:

  1. What a great overview, Nola! And so glad you included "poetry" though I think it straddles the genres in a unique way. Thanks for the plug for "God's Priority"!

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    1. Hi Annie - Yes I was a bit cheeky putting poetry in there, but it's a neglected form these days. As you say, it straddles genres in a unique way. There's also a lot of memoir poetry out there and it's quicker to read than a whole book! And I glad to give your book a plug. The research and insight you've put into your series astounds me. Thanks for commenting :)

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  2. Such a great summary and explanation of the whole non-fiction umbrella, Nola--thank you! And thanks too for including my book 'Soul Friend'--I'm honoured.

    Re my favourite non-fiction books, that's such a hard one for me to answer, but I love the more contemplative Henri Nouwen style of book and also insightful, self-discovery style books such as 'The Gift of Being Yourself' by David Benner. I'll leave it at that--I could probably go on forever!

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    1. Hi Jo - I don't know that I've explained the 'whole' nonfiction umbrella. So many sub-genres come under that category, but hopefully I've covered some of the main ones. I really enjoyed 'Soul Friend' and it's a great example of memoir.

      Thanks for sharing your favourite nonfiction authors too. I haven't read those ones, but must add them to my list. Thanks for commenting :)

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  3. Excellent post Nola. Pretty comprehensive and loved seeing all the books in each category. My latest most favourite non fiction book is "Imagine Heaven" by John Burke which I read twice in a few months and plan to read again, perhaps because in the last few years I've become more aware of Eternity and LIFE after life. Josiah's Fire by Tahni Cullen was another book that grabbed me this year and I've read that twice too! Recently I read 'The Way of Blessing'(yep! twice again! :)) by Roy Goodwin and I loved it. Presently reading 'Seeing through Heaven's eyes' by Leif Hetland as my breakfast-time reading and loving it, 'Jesus Always' by Sarah Young as part of my Quiet time, "The Screwtape letters (for about the 3rd time but in many years) by C.S. Lewis and "Travelling Light" by Max Lucado in the non fiction department and a few others. Won't mention more, although I could go on for eternity! :) Thank you for enlightening us and for inspiring us to keep writing!

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    1. Wow Anusha, you're certainly a nonfiction fan. The only one of those titles I've started reading is 'The Screwtape Letters', but I haven't managed to finish it yet. I'll have to get back to it and will also need to check out the others on your list.

      I tend to read more biographies and memoirs. Some of my favourites are 'The Hiding Place' by Corrie ten Boom and 'God's Smuggler' by Brother Andrew.

      I've loved reading your devotions too and can't wait for your new book to come out. Thanks for commenting.

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    1. Thanks Hazel. I really enjoyed your book 'Heaven Tempers the Wind' too. It was a fascinating part of history I hadn't heard about before. You've certainly led an interesting life that few of us can imagine. Thanks for commenting.

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  5. Thankyou Nola for this informative piece :)
    The diversity of options with our nonfiction writing is inspiring. You have highlighted this to us today.
    Thankyou again.

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    1. Thanks Shane. There certainly are a lot of talented Christian nonfiction writers out there. I wish I could have highlighted more, but the post was already taking on Ben-Hur proportions. Thanks for commenting.

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  6. Nola, excellent post! Thanks for providing a helpful overview of the different categories of nonfiction. :)

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    1. Thanks Narelle. Appreciate your comment. I left a longer reply over on the ACW site :)

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  7. Thanks for an informative, comprehensive and entertaining blog, Nola. I hope both clown and penguin are recovering well. Thrilled to see so many great titles that I've enjoyed featured, including poetry and recent CALEB non-fiction winner Burn Amy Letters. David Malcolm Bennett is another writer of biographies based on meticulous research. I agree with Annie as I'm sure you do, that poetry covers a number on genres. My poems in Wonderment are non-ficution, others have been fictional.

    No sure I have a favourite non-fiction though I often read how-tos & like books history,, science, theology and geography and and also creative memoirs and biographies. Love poetry.

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    1. Whoops should have proof read. That is nonfiction not non-ficution, though that does sound interesting. I won't be pedantic and list the other four or more typos (sigh)

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    2. In my comment. Time for new glasses (actually overdue).

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    3. Thanks Jenny. I have it on good authority that no clowns or penguins were actually harmed in the writing of this post :) So many more good nonfiction writers I could have mentioned, like David Malcolm Bennett and Hazel Barker.

      Thanks for noting your favourite nonfiction categories. I read a lot of writing craft books, but also like biographies and memoirs. My guilty pleasure is books about movies and TV, but then it's all research for stories. At least that's what I tell myself :) Thanks for commenting.

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  8. I thought i commented but it appears to have disappeared. Must have pressed the wrong button! Thanks for this overview and the Stories of Life shout out for The Gecko Renewal. We're all excited about the launch next week :D

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    1. Hey Sue, I saw your comment on the ACW site, and I replied to that one, so maybe that's what you're thinking of? The launch should be a lot of fun. Make sure you photobomb Facebook with lots of pics. I'm sorry I ran out of time to get something in, but will start early for next year. Thanks for commenting :)

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  9. This is a fantastic blog post, Nola. I love every one of those non-fiction genres you've mentioned. For a fiction lover, I seem to read and review just as much non-fiction. And if it comes to my own leanings, well, creative non-fiction would be my comfort spot. I've been thinking this a lot because my older son has almost finished his post graduate in a very facts heavy/reportage field, media and journalism. I've proofread his assignments and don't think I'd have it in me 😂

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    1. Thanks Paula. And I know what you mean about reportage vs creative nonfiction. Reportage certainly has it's place and is necessary in some fields, but I was well and truly tired of it by the time I left academia. I've always been a creative person and I felt I was slowly dying having to write in such a rigid style.

      Creative nonfiction has become a lot more popular. I really loved your moon piece in the GOL anthology. It's great the way you can jump from fiction to creative nonfiction. I think both groups can learn a lot from each other. Thanks for your comments :)

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  10. Oh dear, sounds like I write expository which sounds very dull. I prefer to call it Christian living.

    My favorites non-fiction authors are Mark Buchanan and John Ortberg. Both are great are using stories as illustrations. Hoping the skill rubs off on me!

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    1. Oh dear - I think I've given a few people the idea that expository books are dull, which I certainly didn't mean to. If creative writing techniques are used, they can be riveting and a lot of fun to read.

      I've really enjoyed what I've read of yours, Susan. Yours are probably a crossover between expository and self-help because they also have an applied focus. And I think 'Christian living' is a great category. I'd probably see that as a sub-category of self-help books. Looking forward to seeing your books hitting the shelves. Thanks for commenting :)

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  11. Wonderful post, Nola. Love the peppering of humour and great range of information. (I could practically hear your voice in my head as I read it.) Pleased to hear all penguins and clowns have been accounted.

    As for favourite non-fiction, I have a big list, including A Friend Like Henry; Persuaded by the Evidence; The Hidden Room and more, even many of the authors mentioned in your post. Thanks for an informative and entertaining post.

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    1. Thanks Adele.I thought you might like the sneaky reference to writing articles on the science behind the gene therapy in your young adult novel. I haven't read the books you mentioned. So many great suggestions in the comments to this post. Will have to find out more about them and add them to my ginormous 'to-read' pile. Thanks for commenting :)

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  12. Love this article - thank you for all the resources. I already have a couple of them and look forward to reading others. Thank you, Nola!

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    1. Thanks Margaret. So many great nonfiction books to read and lots of great suggestions from others in the comments. I don't think we'll ever run out of things to read. Thanks for commenting :)

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  13. Thanks for a comprehensive overview, Nola – and of course I appreciate a mention!

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    1. My pleasure Ruth. You've achieved a lot with your book. It's a great example.

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