Fall is here, and like a lot of other people I know, I’m going back to school. Only for four days, but still: I’m a tiny bit nervous and a whole lot excited. I even went back-to-school shopping for my first ever laptop (shiny!) and a new pair of jeans (comfort stretch).
The class I’m taking, “Editing for Writers,” taught by Stephen Roxburgh, doesn’t even start until this weekend, and yet I already have homework. I’ve been mulling all day: how to describe, in one paragraph, what the “core story” of my novel is—not a plot summary, mind you, but something much more challenging.
What is my story about?
It’s the same question I ask myself every time I embark on a new picture book biography—not what happened, but what is the story about?
(It’s not surprising that this question would come up whether considering a novel or a work of narrative nonfiction. After all, both genres are forms of storytelling.)
When working on a biography, what happened is unwieldy and amorphous. Its legions of characters and mountains of detail threaten to swallow the poor researcher whole and spit out the husk—dry and utterly spent. (OK, OK, a little melodramatic. But when buried up to one’s eyeballs in books and articles, when said eyeballs are spinning from a day peering into the screen of the microfilm machine, it’s hard not to feel a little put upon.)
One of the greatest challenges of writing narrative nonfiction, I’ve found, is that it’s not always clear at the beginning what shape the story will take, and I think it’s crucial to approach the material with an open mind. It takes a certain amount of mucking about and slogging through research material before the hint of a storyline emerges (since, after all, you can’t simply make stuff up). Certain themes seem to resonate with what you’ve been reading. It becomes easier to take step back and see how a character’s actions illustrate those themes, and then the beginnings of a story come into focus—a story about something.
I’m heading to class with the first draft of a novel, but I fully expect to apply what I learn to future narrative nonfiction projects, as well. I’ll report back next month what I learned.
Happy Back to School!