Tag Archives: Teaching

The Allure Of Non-Fiction

I get the sense that most writers start out wanting to tell stories. I also think it’s what people assume we mean when we say “I am a writer.”

It’s certainly where I got my start. For many years I’ve defined myself as a science fiction and mystery writer. I’ve been writing stories since before I can remember, and still am. Most of the ideas I get for books are fiction.

The weird thing is, most of the projects I have actually finished, and the ones that have been more financially successful, are non-fiction.

One of my favorite authors, Isaac Asimov, wrote 500+ books. But for all that he’s known as a science fiction writer, there are seven Foundation Books, four Robot Novels, three Empire Books, and maybe several dozen short story collections. Most of what the man wrote was non-fiction, essays on science, treatises on the Bible and Shakespeare, even books on Calculus.

So why should you think about writing non-fiction?

  1. It’s easier to define your target audience and market: A Google search for Fractal eBooks and a more targeted search on Amazon suggested this was an under-served market. Sure, it’s never been a big market. But for people who are looking for books on this topic, I’m easy to find. There are thousands upon thousands of mystery books out there, from all sorts of authors. I think mine’s pretty good, but to get it noticed I need more than just good SEO. When you’re looking for a good mystery to read, you rarely type “mystery” into the search field, and go with the first thing you find. You ask your friends, you read reviews, and you try to find authors you like. With non-fiction if someone searches for “fractal programming”, they find my book. They know what they’re looking for, and all they have to do is determine if my book covers the topic they’re interested in.
  2. Organizing a book around a topic is easier: Okay, maybe not for narrative non-fiction. And a good non-fiction book chooses a focus rather than an information dump. But it’s still pretty easy to define what are the main topics I’m going to talk about, and break it down from there. For fiction there are all sorts of considerations of plot and characterization and tone. Non-fiction requires organized thinking, and a progression of ideas that build on each other, but this process often mirrors the learning/research process.
  3. Writing isn’t the only thing you’re doing: Good fiction often involves research as well, but with a non-fiction book, much more of your time is spent researching, compiling, organizing and exploring a topic. Writing can come almost naturally once you’ve put in the leg work. And more importantly, there are ways to be productive even when you don’t feel like writing. It’s easier to keep the project humming along in some capacity. Fiction writing can often stall if you don’t feel like putting in your 500 words.
  4. You get to teach people something: I honestly love fractals (if you hadn’t noticed by now), and I think it’s a topic that should be taught in more school math classes. I think fractals can get people excited about math, prepare them for some programming ideas, and show them a different way to think about the world. I write about fractals because I want to share that love with others. The same is true for any of the other non-fiction projects I’ve considered.
  5. People will notice your other work: Writing more books means more people notice the books you’ve already written. If they decide they like you as an author, they might try other things you’ve written, including your fiction. True, I don’t always look the the guys who write computer science textbooks for good science fiction, but if I’ve connected with them in other ways that give me a sense of their style, I might take the leap. And non-fiction is an area of self-publishing that seems less served in general than fiction. You’ll already be differentiating yourself from the pack.

Have you made any forays into non-fiction writing? What has been your experience?

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One Step At A Time

I’ve been trying to create programs with the idea of teaching others. This is a very different kind of programming from what I’m used to. Usually I receive a set of requirements, and build a full program form their, refining with new requirements and bug fixes along the way.

Writing demo programs is different. Though you’re still working toward a final product, you need to stop along the way at various increments, add a little bit with each new program until you reach that full program. Put too much in one program and people become lost. Put too little and they’ll skip over it.

This is really tricky and I’m just starting to get the hang of it. It means stopping a lot earlier than I normally would, ending with one concept, then creating a new project from where I left off to add another new concept.

I think this applies to writing as well.

We’re all creating worlds in our fiction whether it’s literally in the case of Sci Fi or Fantasy, or establishing the rules of a tight knit group of friends in the modern day. Whichever the case we don’t want to do a knowledge dump up front, but instead bring people in bit by bit. Maybe Tolkien can get away with 50 pages “Concerning Hobbits”, but most of our readers won’t be so tolerant.

We need to make sure the rules we’ve just established have really sunk in before our characters make decisions based on them. If we’re on a ship, we should have a good sense of the important areas, at least in the immediate vicinity. We should know approximately what point in the future or the past we are traveling in, and we should have a general sense for the technology, all without simply listing it up front.

This is trick, whether it’s programming or writing, but your readers and fellow programmers will thank you for taking it slow, for building brick by brick.

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Filed under Trube On Tech, Writing