Why write a (nother) non-fiction book?

By Caitlin Kelly

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...
New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

From American business author/blogger Seth Godin:

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least
a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate…

A more heavily-researched approach to writing [is] exhausting, but the work is its own reward…

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).

I read Godin’s blog every day. His advice here is spot-on.

I’ve written, and published commercially with two major NYC houses, two well-reviewed works of non-fiction.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Journalism” was just published in China, which is pretty cool, and a first for me. Now I’m seeking someone to read it and compare it to my original to see if they censored my section about appalling labor conditions in Shenzhen, China where they make parts for Apple and others at Foxconn.

After two books published by major commercial houses, I’ve lost my innocence about how bare-knuckled a business publishing is, that’s for sure. I have no illusions — which many  yet-to-be-published writers naively and deeply cherish — like the publisher will: 1) be my new BFF; 2) that they will pick up the costs of designing and maintaining my website; 3) send me on a book tour.

The only way I got my own book from China was having it sent by a photographer there my husband knows, who did us a personal favor and Fed-Exed two copies; my publisher still hasn’t sent me any.

But I still really love the process of writing books, if not the selling of books. Trying to tell any truly complex story in an article is like trying to shoe-horn an elephant into a matchbox — articles are too short, too shallow and pay poorly.

You can’t dive deeply or widely enough, even in a 5,000-word+ story, (which very few people assign now).

You need to write a book.

This week I finally sent in the proposal for my third non-fiction book to my agent. I’m nervous as hell. I hope she likes it. I hope she doesn’t require more work on it as I’ve already spent about a year creating it (in addition to all my other paid work.); it’s about 10,000 words.

The real challenge will be finding a publisher to pay me enough to actually make writing it worth my time financially. Let’s say — hah! — I got a $100,000 advance, a sum extremely difficult to attain.

If I did, and if we could negotiate it into three payments, (also difficult now) — on signing the contract, on my delivery of the manuscript and publication — I’d get about $28,000 to start out with, (after the agent’s 15 percent cut, always taken off the top.)

From that, I also have to fund all travel costs and research; (I’ve already started looking for researchers.)

Many non-fiction writers have full-time jobs and/or teach as well. Few writers can actually support themselves, and their families, only by writing books.

So….why write another?

Surely the world is full of books already?

Not this one!

Cross your fingers, please.

When a writer writes you back…

English: Ray Bradbury autograph.
Image via Wikipedia

Have you ever written to an author whose work leaves you a little gobsmacked?

I did — first when I was 12 and at summer camp for eight weeks in the wilds of northern Ontario. I was deeply into American science fiction author Ray Bradbury, loving his The Illustrated Man and other collected stories. I needed to tell him how great he was! So I wrote him a letter, care of his New York City publisher, Ballantine.

Imagine my shock and delight when, within a week or two, I received a pale blue personalized card (which I still treasure!) from Los Angeles, hand-signed by one of the nation’s greatest writers, author of Fahrenheit 451, among many other classics. I had begged him to “please keep writing!” and he assured me that he would.

The card had his return home address. He was real!

It is hard to over-state the effect this speedy and generous gesture had on a young girl who lived to read and, even then, was winning prizes for her writing. That someone so famous and well-respected would even bother to read mail, let alone answer it personally…

So, at 20, I did it again, writing this time to John Cheever, another national legend (much more popular in the 1980s), praising his odd but moving novel, Falconer. I loved it. (The New York Times called it “one of the most important novels of our time.”) My enthusiasm, then, was hardly unique to me, some random young woman in Toronto.

He, too, wrote back promptly on personal stationery — he lived in Ossining, New York, a suburb about 30 miles north of Manhattan.

Traveling alone through Europe, reading his collected short stories, I kept encountering a phrase I did not understand: “to shoot one’s cuffs.”

So I wrote him back to ask what it meant. (Let me explain I was: a) on the road b) alone c) in Portugal where no one spoke English d) Google had not been invented!)

He answered again.

The world is a small and odd place for writers. His daughter, Susan Cheever, another writer, praised my first book — and I met his son, Ben, another author, last fall at a local library event while promoting my second book.

I now live a 15-minute drive south of Ossining.

Last week, a 12-year-old girl living in a midwestern city wrote me a letter — first introduced by her father (both of them total strangers to me) — asking if she might interview me by email for a class project on bullying; she’d found my USA Today essay on it.

Of course, I said, replying immediately. I gave her a long, detailed and personal answer to her thoughtful questions.

Classmates now see her “as rock star”, her Dad told me, for having gotten a twice-published author to help her out.

I was 12 when I first reached out — and felt the firm hand of a fellow writer, far, far away from me in age, accomplishment and geography meet me in return.

How could I not?

Have you ever written to someone whose creative work you admire?

What happened?

Marrying A Younger Man? Life May Be Sweeter — But Shorter, Study Finds

WUHAN, CHINA - MARCH 6:  People talk behind we...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Cougars beware!

A study of Danish couples finds that marrying a man seven to nine years younger ups your odds of dying younger. From The Guardian:

The findings, drawn from the medical records of two million Danish couples, suggest that the best a woman can do is marry a man of about the same age.

Health records have shown previously that men live longer if they have a younger wife, an effect researchers expected to see mirrored in women who married younger men.

But a study by Sven Drefahl at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rosktock, Germany, shows that the greater the age gap between a woman and her husband, the shorter her life expectancy, regardless of whether he is older or younger.

According to Drefahl’s report in the journal Demography, a man who is between seven and nine years older than his wife has an 11% lower mortality rate than a man whose wife is the same age as him. However, a woman who is between seven and nine years older than her husband has a 20% greater mortality rate than if she were with a man the same age.

My sweetie is four months younger. Whew.

Call Your Mom — It'll Calm You Down As Much As A Hug, New Study Says

Mom and Girls
Image by 'Playingwithbrushes' via Flickr

For those of who who actually get along with your Mom, a new study finds talking to her — the sound of her voice — can be as soothing as a hug, reports The Guardian:

U.S. scientists believe hearing mother down the line produces the same stress-busting effect on her daughter as physical contact such as a hug or a loving arm round the shoulder.

In a study that will send phone companies into their own comfort zone, researchers found mothers’ calls released similar levels of the social bonding hormone oxytocin in girls as when they were in close proximity. Writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the scientists report how they deliberately raised the stress levels of 61 girls aged seven to 12. The children had to make an impromptu speech and solve maths problems in front of strangers. This sent their hearts racing and levels of stress hormone cortisol higher.

The girls were then divided into three groups, one comforted by physical contact with their mothers, another by phone calls from their mothers and a third by watching a film deemed emotionally neutral, the March of the Penguins.

Oxytocin rose to similar levels in the first two groups and did not increase in the third, saliva and urine tests revealed. As this hormone’s presence grew, cortisol faded.

Leslie Seltzer, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the research, said: “The children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone.

“It was understood that oxytocin release in the context of social bonding usually required physical contact. But it’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they’re not standing there.”

I like this because a real hug from my Mom is a very rare thing.

I only see her every two years, not nearly often enough, because we live a six hour flight away from one another, are on tight budgets and both live in apartments too small to offer a comfortable place to sleep for a week, adding even more cost to each visit.

On my worst days, though, I know I can find comfort with a quick call to her. Many men and women grow up taking this for granted. But it’s something I especially appreciate after a huge brain tumor was removed from her left frontal lobe in August 2002. It had, the neurosurgeon told me, transformed her personality for a long time, possibly decades, as it grew, affecting her temper and levels of aggression because of its location.

I like having a nice Mom now.

Do you call yours for comfort? (If not, who?)

Buy It, Show It Off, Attract 200,000 Views: Welcome to 'Haul' Videos

NEW YORK - JULY 09:  A shopper carries an Aber...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Here’s a sad little commentary on what young women care about, memorialized (where else?) in today’s Times Styles section:

The majority of haul videos are made by women in their teens and early 20s, and their favorite stores are the ones you might expect for that age: Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Forever 21. In the two dozen videos I watched, there was hardly any mention of upscale brands, except perhaps a perfume bought at a discounter, and indeed girls are called out by followers if they seem to brag.

Alice Marwick, a doctoral candidate in culture and media studies at New York University, has been looking at haul videos as part of a research project, and she admits that watching a teenager show off six new T-shirts can be mind-numbing. “But most of the videos have 200,000 views,” she said. “And the girls all comment on them. That’s a fascinating idea of consumption.”

Among the most popular channels are allthatglitters21, by Elle Fowler, and juicystar07, by her younger sister, Blair. One of their joint videos had more than 500,000 views.

Gotta love it all. The blond chick with the glittery pale blue eyeshadow in her sterile white suburban bedroom with the — bien sur! — requisite taste-signifier, a giclee print of Paris over her bed. The camera zooming in. Her Chiclet teeth. Her preternatural comfort with the camera. Her utter conviction that boasting about all the crap she’s just bought is really interesting.

Am I alone in finding this really depressing?