View Full Version : What's narrative non-fiction

02-13-2005, 07:06 AM
Aside from having my first agent give me a page of glowing comments, he passed on the first two chaps and proposal. He said that it would have been more interesting if the text came from the POV of the actual paleontologist that dug up the dino site. Now wait just a minute...I told him up front tha I was the one recording this story from facts and past events much like a reporter would do. That info was in the initial query. He said by my writing it, it gave it an "article" feel to it. Would I have to be at the Little Big Horn to record the events? Wouldn't my thorough research be enough?

His positive comments, "You've done an extraordinary job putting this proposal together--absolutely no question about it. I thought the writing was fine and the story truly amazing."

His rejection is very nebulous. And if I allow myself to dig real deep into his gut motive, I see this, "I really don't think you have the PLATFORM to write this book. It should be coming from a PHD."

Does narrative non-fiction mean it comes from the actual person/source?
Totally confused.


02-13-2005, 09:24 AM
Don't worry about what ONE agent says. Now, if 10 agents say the same thing, you might want to think it over. But one person's opinion is simply that: one person's opinion.

The way I understand it: narrative non-fiction means it's written in a prose/story format, instead of the cut-and-dry "journalistic" format. I think. For example, "Under the Tuscan Sun" is a narrative non-fiction.

02-13-2005, 11:23 AM
Thanks Maestro. You are right, he did say it was subjective. The thing is, my story is written in jounalistic style with some narrative accounts that appear later in the text. I have more agents that want the script so I'll pop them off in the next day or so.


Tish Davidson
02-15-2005, 11:25 AM
Take a look at a book called The Big Year : A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0743245458/qid=1108452164/sr=2-1/ref=pd_ka_b_2_1/104-4720217-1331968) -- by Mark Obmascik. It follows 3 avid birders trying to set a record for most species seen in a year. it gives the impression that the author is actually traveling with these 3 guys, then at the end, he explains that he put the story together from research and interviews. But you wouldn't know that from the writing style. It may be that the agent would like some similar elements incorporated into the way you tell your story.

02-15-2005, 11:53 AM
Thanks Tish. It looks like my 300 pages of research documents and 120 pages of non-fiction text are not going to stand much of a chance. I wasn't a paleontologist on the dig 12 years ago, nor can I pretend that I was. I only accumulated more discovery info on the project than anyone else, but a few agents expressed the oppion that it should have been narrative and perhaps written in the POV of the lead paleontologist. Crapola. The scientists didn't want a damn thing to do with the script and I was only alowed to quote them via permission from a huge agency, which the scientists agreed to. The reaction from my first agent was, "truly amazing story--absolute dynamite proposal, with fine writing skills." Alas, nobody wants journalistic style with a prehistoric discovery? Crushed, I am, beyond belief. Did read that review on that book you mentioned--wonderful "I was there" narrative, and I'm sure he had full cooporation from the adventurers to quote and fill in the blanks. I can wing it, but I can't lie. I'm doomed.


02-15-2005, 03:31 PM
Don't give up Triceratops! I know how frustrating it is to be turned down, but there are other agents out there, and I feel sure that one of them is meant for you. The story is too valuable to be lost; don't let it get away.


02-15-2005, 04:30 PM
I take great solace in your words, Chacounne. It does give comfort. I've been told virtually by everyone that it is the second most valuable find since La Brea Tar Pits. I just hope my platform is enough to convince them of that.

Thanks so much

Lauri B
02-15-2005, 05:16 PM
Simon Winchester wasn't at the explosion of Krakatoa, and he certainly wasn't around when the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled, but he did exactly what you sound like you're trying to do: turned factual historical events into terrific narrative nonfiction with his books Krakatoa and The Madman and the Dictionary (I think that's the title). Winchester isn't a PhD, either--just an excellent researcher and a compelling writer. I don't think you're doomed at all, you just need to find a different agent or pitch the publisher directly. Or maybe I'm missing something since I came on this thread a bit late?

02-16-2005, 09:11 AM
Thanks, Nomad. Very thoughtful comparison there. This was the first agent. I have three more that are very intrigued. However, my panic attack resulted in the positive rage that current non-fiction narrative style is getting in the business. I've passed the test with flying colors on my writing, amazing story, and great proposal, but the thing that was called into question was the writing style. I'm reporting this story from recent historical documents with some heavy narravtive accounts in the third chapter, but for the most part it is jounalistic/reporter type writing. If the style or viewpoint of the story is going to be called into question, I'm wondering if the whole project is worthless. That's my main concern. I see that you are now monitoring the Ask the Editor thread. Now that's wonderful! Gosh, I hope we don't chase you outa here completely. What valuable insights await us!

02-16-2005, 09:35 AM
I've been told virtually by everyone that it is the second most valuable find since La Brea Tar Pits.

I used to live in LA, and took everyone who came to visit to the La Brea Tar Pits. My favorite moment was pointing to the "mouse toe bones" in the fossil display case and shouting, "Can you believe THAT!"

Hang in there, Tri. The fact you received such a glowing response means your project has merit. IT WILL GET PUBLISHED. And maybe once a big publisher gets behind it, the lead paleontologist will ditch the agency and regale you with multi-volumes worth of quotes.

If it's not giving too much away, what/where is this find? Can the general public check it out?


02-16-2005, 09:57 AM
Hi Rose. Wow, been to Rancho La Brea when I lived there too. Many a fond memories as a child. Thanks for the confidence--I hope so too.

The Water District came out to Hemet California with the intention of digging a reservoir named Diamond Valley Lake--the largest earth excavation in U.S history. What the didn't count on was trenching up literally thousands of huge fossils belonging to 15 megafauna (species); mastodons, dire wolves, mammoths, giant ground sloths, camels, horses, giant short-faced bear, northern american lion, saber-tooth, giant long-horned bison...it goes on and on.
Bango! Front page news all over the place. This dig went on from 1993 to 1998. Nobody, I mean nobody documented this find in book form. I found out about it in 2001 and have been facinated ever since. Started the book four months ago. Virtually no photos, no reports, and only a few eye witnesses exist. So I had to really dig to get what I've got.

Fossils are on display at the San Beranardino County Museum. A huge multi-million dollar museum is currently under construction to house all the fossils.
This project has been a nightmare since day one. Just hope it becomes a dream.

Kida Adelyne
02-17-2005, 04:03 AM
Tell me when you do find a publsher and it's published. I want to read it.

02-19-2005, 04:58 AM
tri - have you heard from any of the other agents yet? I'm thinking good thoughts for your project. If that helps.


02-19-2005, 08:43 AM
Thanks Nita. Haven't heard anything yet--it should be a week or two since those were big partials I sent in. Out of the blue, a publisher refered me to another regional California publisher, so I sent a big partial to him. It's called Heyday books--got a real good feeling about that one because it was an inside referal. I'll keep you posted.


Lantern Jack
02-21-2005, 02:19 AM
...I would like to cite Mr. Otis Haschenmeyer's essay, "The Shopkeeper." Mr. Haschenmeyer wrote a rather intricate narrative creative non-fiction work which details (from first person, mind you) the perspective of a sharp-shooter greasing his first target, with the life of Mr. Haschenmeyer himself (also in first pov), a "shopkeeper," an military type who expertly acquires that which other military types require. Mr. Haschenmeyer, last I checked, is working on\has completed and not sold, a book length-version of this work. The published short version can be found in the free non-fiction section at www.missourireview.com (http://www.missourireview.com). Hope this helps.


02-27-2005, 11:16 PM
As a reader, I love a lot of Heyday books. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

And this is also just, you know, random: You're probably already working on something else, but I think it would be fantastic if you invented some brainy, lonely or brash or both, 11-year-old protaganist and wrote a fictionalized version of this story for kids.


02-28-2005, 12:27 AM
Thanks Pink--I know that you are from California, and yes, these books would interest me also. You have a good suggestion there and don't think I haven't thought about it. I have something on a fiction side akin to Clan of the Cave Bear, but I've got to watch myself so I don't step on Jean's toes with a story about the Ice Age. My little guy grows up with a baby (giant sloth) as a gift, and soon this creature reaches it's full growth during the boy's growing years. He actually rides the damn thing and becomes a prince of the landscape--kinda a barbarian on slothback, if you will. Ha!


02-28-2005, 12:37 AM
Ah, that's way better than what I was thinking. I was thinking of a modern-day kid at the dig. A giant sloth buddy! Fun! (Sloth is the animal with which I most closely identify.)


03-01-2005, 04:55 AM
Does narrative non-fiction mean it comes from the actual person/source?


I have had this question asked several times from my students. If the editor said you wrote in a narrative nonfiction method, it means you were telling the story rather than showing it. I'll do my best here to give you a brief explanation.

I'm sure you already know this is a technique for telling a story, whether fiction or nonfiction.

There are two methods used in creative nonfiction: Dramatic (Show) or Summary (Tell).

The dramatic method is more of a close-up scene, allowing the reader to feel as if the writer is reporting on the spot, or "live" as in news stories. On the scene reader actually sees the events unfold.

The summary method (narrative) is more of a catch-up scene, where the reader is being told what already has happened.

Most people would rather see something happen rather than be told how it happened. Rather than tell (narrative) what happened, show what happens by writing the past events so they seem like the present.

This turned out to be a longer explanation than I figured, but I hope it helps.
Keep sending out your manuscript, though, this is just one opinion. You may find another editor/agent that appreciates your style the way it stands. :)

Let us know when you get it published.


03-01-2005, 05:38 AM
Thanks, Joanne,

That does indeed clarify what I was trying to figure out. Now I know where I stand. I'm writing in summary because this was a past tense event (12 years ago) and all I had to go on was newspaper and article reports. Now, for an event like Krakatoa, or Pompei (sp) I could easily have written those as a personal narrative account since there is no one alive to really doubt my testimony about the personalized events that happened. I have what you might call non-cooporation on the part of the people who were actually there and dug this site up, so I cannot inject their personal views, feelings, reactions, and vast dialogs that went on over a period of six years. Oh I could really fake it and give it a story-like flavor, pad here, fluff there, lie about this, exagerate that, but I just can't, knowing that I could really get my pants sued off if it ever came out in print that way. I have, been given permission to tell the story through the material I have received. But it's no
Born Free, written by Joy Adamson, I can tell you. At best, I've included all there quotes and some feelings about this discovery (from the prime players) and filled in the rest as a reporter (me) would do.

The subject matter of this discovery is so valuable and note-worthy to science that I just had to take a stab at it. I've only been told by two agents that I'm not the one who should be telling the story. Duh. Everyone else has heaped praise on it, including my own mayor. Another problem, the only degree in paleontology I have is a tempreture--98.6 But I've studied it for 20 years, worked at USGS, and been on several digs, and I so know what I'm talking about. So, at the worst case, I have a platform and viewpoint problem here.

I'll keep you posted. Have four huge partials out there now. Expect something back within a few days.

Thanks much for the explanation. It did open my eyes. When I wrote and pubished non-fiction books 15 years ago, "narrative" was not such a buzz word that it is today. I think it has been totally popularized by the industry, no doubt because of some very fine examples of the writing style that have come to light.


03-01-2005, 05:49 AM

I'm glad to help. If anyone knows how the industry has changed over the years, believe me, I do.

Keep at it. This sounds like a really interesting story. If nothing else, maybe you can find a local publisher to look at it as a geographical regional history-type book. I did that once. The Taylor Chair Company: Seven Generations. Far from the type of story you've written, but it's worth a suggestion.

Again, good luck with this.


03-01-2005, 11:39 AM
For a book like that, you might do better to skip agents and submit proposals directly to publishers. I have some suggestions.

1. University presses in southern California.

2. Nearby science museums that publish their own lines of books.

3. Any local equivalent of Chronicle Books, put out by the San Francisco Chronicle. Does the L.A. Times have something similar?

4. Wilderness Press, in Berkeley. A small publisher; I used to work there. My information isn't up to date, but they started with hiking guides to the Sierra Nevada and eventually expanded the line to include a broader range (hmm, pun) of outdoor books for readers in the western states. If their distribution network remains as it was, the book would be placed in the right kinds of retail outlets for what you've got there.

03-01-2005, 01:06 PM
Thanks ref, very informative. The only one I did have of your list was about 20 university presses that are nationwide who do publish exactly the type of material that's in my book. I'm holding them in reserve until I hear from three agents and one very special regional California publisher, HeyDey books out of Berkley. It seems that I got a referal from another small regional outfit to contact HeyDey with permission to "name drop." I'm hoping that's the one--it's the perfect target market.


Tish Davidson
03-01-2005, 09:27 PM
Have you tried placing a few articles based on the information in local and regional newspapers? It might increase your credibility and it should not be a problem with rights. Often parts of books appear first as newspaper stories.

03-01-2005, 11:43 PM
Thanks Tish for chiming in.

This discovery made front page news in quite a few papers from 1993-1998, and it was actually those sources (which were saved) that I used to put everything together in a kind of chronological sense. But I think that it would be considered "old news" in a way were I to approach the local papers and try and re-tell the story. However, a new multi-million dollar museum is under construction in our very own city, to house this enormous find, and should be completed sometime in 2006. Now, if I time it just right, I'll make it to the ribbon cutting ceremony with published book in hand, and thrill the mayor and coucilpersons who know that I'm on this project. Already, the reservoir that covered this site has drawn millions of recreational tourists, because it is now one of California's hottest attractions. The museum is right on the property.

Smithsonian and National Geographic are excelllent avenues to have a 20,000 word article done on this. However, they are two of the most "highbrow" pubs that would require "solid" credentials in the field of paleontology were they even to accept this from me. A small California regional is the only way for me to go with this, or a university press. I'm still waiting....


03-02-2005, 02:52 AM
When we were out shopping for agents for our book, "The Making of a Bestseller," I had all sorts of negative reactions including my all time favorite:

This is a great proposal and has the potential to be a very marketable book but you're not the one who is qualified to write it.

Seriously I got that back in an email after the agent had requested the proposal.

Guess what? The book has been published and hits the bookstores in a couple of weeks. So don't you give up.


03-02-2005, 03:18 AM
Ah, Dee..absolutely astounding! Glad to hear you're hitting the shelves. Yeah, that remark is rather nebulous--glad you hung in there.

Just got bounced from my second, agent, Pomada agency, who has the longest drawn-out form rejection I've ever seen, on blue construction paper and giant signiture swirls.

Their loss