I met Dave Fessenden at a writer’s conference several years ago. For the past few years, he’s been an editor with one of my favorite publishers, Christian Literature Crusade. Now, Dave is doing new things, including writing more. His new novel comes out later this year, but today I’m asking Dave about the writing of non-fiction, specifically relating to his book Writing the Christian Nonfiction Book: Concept to Contract.
Nick: Dave, you’ve involved in publishing for how long?
Dave: I had been in writing and editing for about ten years when I landed my first job in Christian publishing in 1991. Since then, I’ve been an editor for several Christian publishers, published five books and contributed to several more, as well as editing dozens and dozens.
Nick: I’m assuming your book Writing the Christian Nonfiction Book: Concept to Contract came out of your experience as an editor. Tell us more about what prompted you to write this book.
Dave: I published my first book, Father to Nobody’s Children, in 1995, but I started working on it long before I had any experience in book editing. I had run across the fascinating story of Thomas Barardo, who worked with homeless children in the 19th century, and I wanted to write a biography of him, but I had no idea where to start. After a lot of trial and error, I finally completed my manuscript, but I began to think that there had to be a better way to do this, and in later books, I discovered ways of streamlining the writing process. Authors began asking me for advice on bringing an idea to completion, and I started writing a column for a Christian writers newsletter, presenting some of the methods that worked for me. Those columns were the raw material for this book.
Nick: What were some of the most common failings you saw in non-fiction book proposals?
Dave: A book needs to be centered on a clear, concise idea, and a proposal ought to reflect that. One mark of a failing proposal is that it’s all over the place — no central theme to tie it together. Concept to Contract is very idea-oriented: I show how you start with a concept which you hone and focus, bringing it to the point where you can land a publishing contract. (You can probably guess where I got the title from!) Another weakness I see in a lot of proposals is that the author doesn’t tell us enough about herself or himself. Why should I read a book on this topic by you, specifically? What motivated you to write about fear, or love, or patience, or passion? What I’m looking for is the spiritual struggle, the unique experiences that made you the perfect person to write this book? One woman gave me a book on discipling children — but I had to drag out of her the fact that she had used these parenting methods not only on her own children, but over 30 foster children over two decades! Why didn’t she put it in her proposal?
Nick: Most beginning non-fiction writers I know are frustrated by two things: Platform and Branding. Can you address each one briefly? What can an author do who has no platform? And what can author do who wants to avoid branding and write on various topics?
Dave: Many authors are completely unaware that they already have platforms, or at least potential platforms. It relates to what I said about what makes a person uniquely qualified to write on a particular topic. Who has asked you for advice on the topic of your book? Who has told you, “You ought to write a book about that”? Those people — and people like them — make up your platform. Your next step is to see how you can develop and increase your contact with people like that. Branding is actually just looking at platform from a different angle. Instead of asking how you can be in touch with the people who would be interested in the topic of your book, you are trying to be known as the “expert” on that topic, so that interested people will look to you. You don’t want to avoid branding, but you do want to expand your image so that you are known as the “expert” on more than one topic. I’ve written a book on Sunday school teaching and a book on Christian writing. I haven’t had anyone say, “He can’t be an expert on Christian writing; he’s a teacher!” But I have begun to be known as something of a “Christian how-to” author. Now I’m branching out into fiction — a whole new brand for me!
Nick: We notice that in the ABA (general) market that well-written memoirs and personal stories can do well. That seems less likely in our CBA market. Why do you think that is?
Dave: Oh, that’s obvious — the most successful memoirs and personal stories are by or about famous people, and/or intense subject matter — and as you say, they are (usually) well-written. The memoirs that flounder in the CBA are often about not-so-famous people (or even complete unknowns), about not-so-interesting events, and/or are not-so-well-written. Christian authors also tend to do a high percentage of biographies on historical figures (possibly because they are, as a boss of mine once put it, “safely dead” — they will not embarrass us with a scandal in the future). But today’s believers show little concern for, and are ignorant of, history. I once mentioned D.L. Moody to a young leader in my church, and he replied, “Who’s that?”
Nick: Since so many beginning non-fiction writers want to write their personal story, what advice can you give them?
Dave: Go ahead and write it — get it out of your system. It’ll be good practice for you! If it’s book-length, I doubt it will have much of a readership, but if you do an article-length testimony, especially about a particular event in which the Lord did something new in your life, those pieces have great potential in the magazine/ezine/website market. Also, if you have had a great experience with God and want to write a book, consider taking the principles you’ve learned from that experience and writing about the principles. The you can liberally sprinkle your book with personal stories to illustrate those principles. If you include other peoples’ stories as well, and ground it thoroughly in Scripture, it may be a great book. When people tell me, “I just want to tell my story and let the reader learn from it,” I respond, “Oh, I see; you want the reader to do all the hard work!”
Nick: John Van Diest told me a few years ago that he thinks the best Christian books have yet to be written. Do you agree?
Dave: There are so many Christian books being published and self-published today that some of them are bound to be good! Yes, I would agree; but unfortunately, some of the worst Christian books are yet to be written, too. Get my book and maybe you can avoid that (wink, wink).
Nick: Can you recommend a favorite non-fiction book you’ve read lately?
Dave: Who Is This Man? by John Ortberg is a powerful presentation of Jesus, and made me fall in love with Him all over again. My friend Elaine Miller wrote a lighthearted book on marriage, We All Married Idiots, which painlessly teaches some serious truth. And in the secular realm, I am enjoying a book about logic by Stuart Chase, Guides to Straight Thinking, published in the 1950s. You said one; that’s three, isn’t it?
Nick: You have a novel coming out later this year. Can you give us a preview? What’s it about?
Dave: The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy places the son of Dr. Watson and the smarter brother of Sherlock Holmes in 1920s Philadelphia, where they investigate the death of a speakeasy owner and his card-playing buddies. (I am an avid Sherlock Homes fan, and I’m fascinated by the history of the jazz era, so I guess this story was inevitable.) Thomas Watson, a young newspaper reporter, is saddled with the care of crochety old Mycroft Holmes following the death of Sherlock and Dr. Watson. This intended as the first in a series, where Thomas uncovers a mystery, brings it home, and Mycroft solves it — but won’t tell Thomas the solution, because “The young man should be able to figure it out himself.”
Nick: Any other advice for beginning or intermediate non-fiction authors?
Dave: The best way to develop your writing skill is to write. If organizing your material hampers the flow, then forget about orgranizing; no doubt you’ll write yourself into a corner soon enough, and you can start the organizing process then!