Welcome to Step One of the Five Step Guide to Writing Non-fiction
You want to write a book. Great. About what?
Topic is the rocket booster of a non-fiction project. Get it right, and you fly merrily into orbit. Get it wrong and you’ll either fall flat or blow up, scattering fragments of your ego across a zone the size of Arizona.
Choosing a topic, like writing, is a process. Nobody can do it for you* but there are strategies that help.
Above all, remember the Tripartite Rule of Topic Choice:
Write about something you: A) know a little bit about, B) want to learn more about and C) isn’t you
To illustrate points A & B, I’ll explain the origin of Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers.
I’m sprawled in the cool, beige leather interior of my brother’s rental car, watching April-leafed chestnut trees pass as we drive through Southeast Portland. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other since his wedding last September. His new wife is in the passenger seat. Maybe the radio is playing.
“Hey, have you thought about writing a book?”
“You should write something about Oregon,” my brother says. “You’re from here.”
More mumbling (objections): I haven’t lived here for years. I don’t know that much about it. What would I write about anyway?
“Like, local food or something.”
Portland is the epicenter of hip Oregon. More kitsch eateries, craft breweries and ooh-la-la coffee shops than you can throw a pine cone at, so, okay. Let’s think.
Brother likes restaurants and beer. I, the writer, am coeliac and vegetarian which, in my view, eliminates way too many essentials. I’m not going to write about something I can’t fully participate in.
Clever brother circumvents my resistance: “What about wine?”
I love wine. “Don’t know much about it but hey, I can learn on the job.”
It helps to have a smart sibling, or similar interlocutor, to bat ideas around, but you can apply the principles of this example solo. My brother identified something I knew something about: Oregon. Knowledge doesn’t have to be based on intense study, or some arcane specialist skill. I was born in Oregon and lived there for 18-some years. Voila. Accidental expertise.
Make a list of your accidental expertises and what makes you an expert. Aim for, say, six. Here’s my sample list:
Running (runner for over 20 years)
Nancy Drew mysteries (read dozens of them, dozens of times)
Living abroad (lived in Mexico, Spain, England, etc)
Writing (my job)
NB: See how broad these topics are? Unless you’re a rich masochist who plans to live to 120 don’t even think about it.
Next, brother and I broke it down to stuff we like: specialty food and drink. Still too broad.
Fortunately (for the purposes of this exercise) I’m a dietary fusspot. I can’t or won’t eat most things on a standard restaurant menu and my inability to digest gluten makes craft beer a no go. Which brought us to wine.
Wine fits part A of the Tripartite Rule. I like wine, drink it, read labels, have opinions, am familiar with the major wine growing regions of the world, and appreciate wine’s historic and cultural value.
Wine also fits part B, because there is a hell of a lot I don’t know about wine, and would love to find out.
Most importantly, wine passes C. It ain’t me; I’m not it.
The success of the Tripartite Rule depends on slavish obedience to part C. There should be, to borrow a line from Salinger, only very conditional passes allowed to write memoir. Yes, your life is fascinating, but the combination of self-awareness, discipline, distance and talent needed to turn emotional raw material into a polished product is as rare as dodo’s eggs. Be present in your topic through expertise and affinity (parts A and B) but don’t make it about you.
Once you have a provisional topic that fits the Tripartite Rule, refine it by considering the following practicalities.
1) What kind of book do you want to write?
2) What research will you have to do? (e.g. What’s the gap between what you know and what you want to write?)
3) How much time do you want to devote to it?
4) What are your constraints?
5) What else is on the market?
Initially, we thought about a travel guide to Oregon wine country. Nothing wrong with that, apart from the fact (3) I was only in Oregon for seven weeks, (2) I’m allergic to spending hours compiling boring information, and (5) there are several excellent Oregon wine guides on the market. I am also not a technical wine expert, so (4) writing a specialist book about viticulture or oenology was out.
After defining what you can’t/won’t/can’t afford to do, look at what you can do. This part of the decision making process is about you as a writer and a person.
Two key questions are: What is your writing experience? and What type of book you most enjoy A) writing and B) reading?
The answers will define and shape your book.
I like writing profiles and am a good interviewer. I like textual research. I am fine with emails or face-to-face conversations but hate phone calls. I have a passion for reportage based life-writing (George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Joan Didion). Etc.
These likes and dislikes led to a plan: Visit a selection of Oregon wineries and interview the owners/winemakers.
That left brother and I with one crucial question: What is our book about? A book has to have an angle. A collection of profiles about Oregon wineries is just that: a collection of profiles. To justify a book we needed a unifying theme. Much conversation (and perhaps a little wine) later, we hit on “pioneering”. The beauty of it, for us, was that it serves so many purposes: we could talk about pioneering techniques, pioneering vintages, pioneering attitudes and so on. We didn’t know exactly how the theme would play out in the book until much later, but having that word in mind gave me the structure I needed to start.
This final step — the angle — is the hardest part of choosing a topic. You’re probably sick of the damn topic already (oh, just wait till you start writing!) Grit your teeth and think it through anyway. You need this. It’s your green light on the dock, the thing that keeps your project moving in the right direction.
Choosing a topic is tough but don’t get overwhelmed. If you’re going nuts trying to wrestle a raw idea into a workable topic, step back. Talk it over with a friend or two. Read stuff that is relevant to either to your putative topic and format. Go for a run, or whack the crap out of a punching bag. Get drunk (coffee works too, if you’re teetotal). Play around. Something will come or you’ll discover this isn’t the topic for you. Either way, be calm. We live in a world of infinite infinities — and one of them is yours to write about.
*Unless you’re a celebrity with a publisher waving an autobiography advance in your face; or a seasoned writer with a helpful editor. If you are, feel free to drop me a line. Be sure to include your agent’s mobile number.