Let’s Talk About… Writing Non-fiction

Today I thought I’d share six things you may not know about writing a non-fiction book. Here we go:

1… You don’t have to write the entire book before you sell it.

Novels (or 99 per cent of them anyway) are not sold until they are absolutely finished, but this is not the case with non-fiction. For non-fiction books, all you need to sell your book is a good proposal and sample chapter – that’s it! Strangely, I have discovered that this is pretty hard for some people to believe. I’ve been asked for advice in the past by people who are working on non-fiction projects, and when I tell them that they just need a proposal and chapter, they reply, “Great, thanks. I think I’ll just finish the book first though, before I try to sell it.”

I’m not sure why this is such a hard fact to believe, but hand-on-heart, I can say that in all my years as a non-fiction writer, I have never completed the entire book before it is sold! There’s a very good reason why you shouldn’t write the book first, and that is the publisher will likely have requirements you’ll have to fulfil, in order for them to publish. For instance, for the Thelma Todd book, my initial intention was to just write about her death, but the publisher offered the contract based on the promise that it would be a complete biography instead. If I had written the book before my agent approached the publisher, they’d have either  turned it down because it wasn’t what they were looking for, or they would have demanded a complete, structural revision. Either way, it would not have been good news. (By the way – I think the publisher was right about Thelma – she did require a full biography!).

Writing a proposal instead of a full book can save a lot of time and heartbreak, too. For instance, several years ago I wanted to write a biography about film star Clara Bow. I wrote a proposal and chapter, but unfortunately publishers felt that she was no longer relevant, and did not want to commission the book. I was disappointed with their decision, but extremely happy that I had not wasted a lot of time and money on something that did not ultimately sell.

Of course writing a proposal and sample chapter is a big undertaking in itself, and a fair amount of work, too. But that’s another blog for another time.

2… You may have to supply the photographs

Before you start celebrating an offer on your non-fiction book, make sure you ask the publisher what their photographic requirements are. While some books are commissioned on the understanding that the publisher will provide the photos, others will require the author to do that side of the work themselves. This can get stressful and costly.

The subject of organising photographs could literally fill a book and is far too complicated to get into here. But for the purposes of this blog, just know that it if you are required to supply the photographs, you’ll have to organise those at the same time as writing your manuscript. When your manuscript is due, your photos will be, too!

3… You’re in charge of photo placements.

On the subject of photos, if your book is illustrated, it’s up to you to tell the publisher, approximately where in the book the photos should be placed. After all, you know your subject more than the designer does, and so they’ll rely on your advice, to make sure all photos are placed where they should be! For instance, I might know what Marilyn looked like during the making of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but I can’t expect the designer to. So therefore, I must give them an indication in the text, so that they can do their job.

Oh, and you’ll also be required to provide captions for the photographs, too! This is a fairly straightforward job, but definitely one you should be prepared for.

4… You’re not in charge of the cover!

This is the same for non-fiction and fiction books. A publishing house has a team of people dedicated to the design of a book cover, and this involves not only the designer, but also the sales, marketing and editing peeps too.  Believe me, they know what they’re talking about, so it’s extremely important to take a step back from this process, and let them do their job. Of course you will be sent early covers for your thoughts and input, and the publisher may (or may not) take your feelings on-board. However, the final decision always rests with the publisher – and this will be written into your contract, too.

For me, seeing what the publisher comes up with, is one of the most exciting parts of the writing process. I feel like it’s a fabulous gift, and I’ve never had a cover I disliked.

5… You don’t have to start at the beginning.

When writing a novel, it’s always a good idea to start at the beginning and follow the story all the way to the end. However, for non-fiction, you can build the book up like a jigsaw puzzle! When I’m writing a biography, the first thing I do is write the chapters I have the most information for. So when I wrote Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, I started with Marilyn’s time in England, because I had already gathered a huge amount of that information. It’s the same with other books too – I put together all of the parts I can write now, and then go back to the beginning, build up my research, fill in the gaps and make sure everything flows as it should.

6… Sources!

When my Victorian Scandals book was reviewed in The Times, the reviewer had an issue with the lack of sources. However, there was a reason for that – as I explained in my last blog, I felt that the book was a piece of entertainment, rather than a textbook to be studied. However, for biographies it is important to state where the information came from, and so I always have a list of sources at the back.

Actually, this is something else – along with photos and the actual writing – that you’ll need to factor in when you have your deadline. When I wrote Private and Undisclosed, I made the mistake of leaving the sources until I’d completed the book. This created a huge amount of stress and work. Since then I’ve made sure that for every quote or specific piece of information I use, I’ll also make a note in a separate file, of where it originally came from. Beware though – even the most stringent process is not 100 per cent effective. After I wrote the Thelma book, my editor found some quotes that were not listed in the Sources section, and I had to spend hours looking through my files, desperately trying to find out where they came from!


So that’s six things that you may not have known about writing non-fiction. I hope they are useful and I’ll be back with more writing advice, soon!

Until next time,

Michelle x

One thought on “Let’s Talk About… Writing Non-fiction

  1. VERY interesting! Thanks for all that! Sounds like a huge undertaking and always impressed how you pull it all together. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *