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How to Write a Nonfiction Bestseller in 10 Easy Steps

November 23, 2013, 11:14 AM

I was in a creative nonfiction program some years ago, and as part of the program, students would visit with culture magazine editors in New York. An editor explained to one group of aspiring writers that three nonfiction topics were trending at that moment: “the Civil War, Jews, and cats.”

No one could say if the editor was kidding, or if he meant this rather silly, arbitrary list seriously.

If you don’t like these topics here are 10 other tips for writing a nonfiction blockbuster (just so you can know for sure:  this is humor).

1. Write a Diet Book Named after a Random Location. Pick a place in the U.S.— throw a dart at a map—and name the diet after that location. The “Topeka Plan,” let’s say. Craft a diet regimen that does anything, anything at all, except recommend that the reader exercise more, lay off the booze, and eat less.

2. Write Weather Porn. Describe a horrendously destructive storm of times past, a tidal wave, tornado, tsunami, or earthquake. Mostly, you will find irony galore, and small acts of dignity, perseverance, and human grace amid the fearsome ruins of this disaster, although at least a few of your subjects that we’ve grown fond of will not survive the disaster. You’ll find that this storm happened at a “critical juncture” in a country’s history, and “fundamentally” changed it. You’ll lament the missed opportunities to warn of the pending disaster. You’ll end optimistically with an epilogue that revisits the site of the calamity and asks somberly, could the same thing happen today, and then you’ll note that progress in storm preparation has indeed been made.

3. Spend One Year Doing a Strange New Thing, or Taking a Journey to a Strange New Place. Chances are, your journey won’t merely be literal.  No, I suspect that you will discover that it has been a Metaphor of Life’s Journey, after all! Use the phrase, “Adventures In…” in your subtitle. Nonfiction editors love “adventures in” otherwise non-adventuresome themes.

4. Be a Drunk, Sober Up, and Write about Being Drunk Instead of Drinking. You can substitute drinking for any self-destructive physical act, or form of substance abuse. The more luridly devastating to your own life, the better. Remember, the woeful, hidden agenda for these books is that they reassure the less debilitated or less advanced alcoholic that at least they’re not as bad as you were.

Start in media res, with hitting bottom. This should be the first 10 pages. Flash back to your seemingly functional birth family but subtly suggest that they were the cause of your unease and anxiety. Have destructive relationships. Black out. Try to get sober. Backslide. Hit bottom. Repeat. Go to therapist. Hate that Awful Therapist, who doesn’t understand Addiction. Go to New Therapist. Find yourself at a Rehab Center where, this time, they really mean it, and tell you that you are a “few days away from death.” Make new friends and share war stories. Wonder how you will get by without them, on the outside. One of them later suffers a relapse. This makes you want to drink/snort/shoot up/binge/starve/smoke/pill pop again. But you don’t. Conclude with your sobriety, gingerly cradled, and a humble triumph over adversity.  

5. Write The “Secret History” of Any Old Thing, or explain How Any Old Thing “Changed the World.” Your potential reader will have never heard of this event or thing before, but your book will explain that the event or thing in fact transformed the world. This will be stated in your subtitle. It’s a “secret,” you see. It’s the “hidden” history of great events, albeit events that are unknown.

6. Write a Business Book on How the Reader Can Apply Principles from One of the World’s Great Religious or Spiritual Traditions to Advance His Agenda of Being a Greedy Jerk.  Start with a chapter that brutally traduces a great spiritual and religious tradition down to bite-sized axioms, by which, for example, Zen Buddhism can be about “every man for himself.” The more exotic the tradition, the better. Include a chapter with made-up stories. Include bulletized lists.

7. Pick an object or commodity—salt, sugar, cigars, cheese, or emeralds-- and talk about how this commodity secretly transformed human experience. See recommendation #5. Your cover photo will be a shot of the solitary grain of salt, or one cigar.

8. Bash “Feminism” for Having “Destroyed” [INSERT THING HERE]. Everything was great. Then, feminism happened. Few feminists are named in the book, and fewer still are interviewed, read, or understood.  Feminism ruined all the fun of acquaintance and date rape, caused men to watch porn, caused men to be irresponsible husbands, made moms feel bad about procreation, encouraged Iran’s nuclear armaments program and the genocide in Rwanda, and forced women to take careers where they don’t have any free time and life stinks. Although feminists have a rather mild political and cultural influence today, they nonetheless have a mysterious Feminist Jedi Mind Trick that forces other women to obey them and to feel emotionally devastated by their opinions, and to forget that they have minds of their own. Conclusion: why did feminism have to happen?

9. Why My Political Opponents Are Dumb, Fat Bastards and How We Can Learn to Work Together Again Respectfully for the Good of all Americans, Just Like They Want Us To. Typical Washington talking-head fare. This book writes itself.

10. The editor was right. One word: CATS



How to Write a Nonfiction B...

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