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A Sturdy Skeleton: Building Nonfiction with Jason Heller

by Andrea Dupree

More than most people I know, Jason Heller’s immersed in a writing life. A nonfiction writer, a novelist, a short story writer–somehow he manages to remain productive in all genres.  Recently nominated for a Hugo, science fiction’s most prestigious annual award, Heller similarly defies categorization in terms of subject matter: he wrote the wildly entertaining and speculative novel Taft 2012, he edits science fiction on Clarkesworld, and he writes on politics, culture, and music for outlets like Westword, the Onion AV Club, and elsewhere. We asked him to design a course for nonfiction writers who had a book idea and just needed to make it happen, and he’s doing that for Lit Fest 2013 next month (check it out here). A few weeks out from that workshop, we chatted about nonfiction books, platforms (not the shoes), and his many-armed ability to keep dozens of beanbags in the air.

Heller's one of those guys who manages to produce an unreasonable amount of great writing, but because he'll help you do the same, you still like him.

Heller’s one of those guys who manages to produce an unreasonable amount of great writing, but because he’ll help you do the same, you still like him.

Q.  What’s the main thing someone should work out before starting about when they’re considering writing a nonfiction book?

Jason: Use the book proposal as a writing tool. Most nonfiction books are sold on proposal, and the basic, industry-standard template for such proposals is readily available online. Most agents and editors expect nonfiction book proposals to be formatted this way—and it does not require the full book to be written already. Unlike novels, which most editors won’t look at unless a full draft is done, nonfiction books are more attractive if they’re unfinished—provided, of course, the writer not only has a strong proposal, but demonstrates the ability to follow through, usually through whatever platform they’ve established. But on a more basic level, the nonfiction book proposal is a great way to organize your project, set goals, and feel like you’re making real progress. Some of the components of that proposal include a summary, a pitch, and a tentative table of contents. By thinking of your project in this way from the get-go, you’re giving it a sturdy skeleton. From there, it’s much easier to flesh out. And if you wind up needing to amputate a hand or foot here or there, well, that’s just part of the process.

Q.  I keep hearing people saying that they’ll develop a platform through things like Twitter and Facebook. Is that all it takes? Do we have to?

 Jason: No, that is not all it takes. But do you have to? Yes. Blogs and platforms and all that jazz seem to have gotten a bad rap in certain literary circles, and that’s a shame. Those things are neither good nor bad—they’re tools, completely neutral. You use them as you see fit. But when it comes to stimulating interest in your book-length nonfiction project, having some kind of online platform is essential. Editors don’t only need to know you can write; they need to know you can build an audience. They don’t expect you to be famous already, but they do want to know you have initiative and self-motivation. This is especially helpful in nonfiction, since you’re trying to sell a book on proposal, rather than the finished product. Editors (and agents) need to know that you are an active, involved writer and online presence. The mistake is when writers see platform-building as a distraction. It’s no different than what writers have been doing forever via journals and conferences and workshops. It’s just online, that’s all. And it’s all based in writing. Anything that prompts you to express yourself more—in any way, on any forum, through any topic—is a good thing.

Q. Any nonfiction books we should all be reading?  What makes it a must-read?

Jason: I’m a huge fan of personal stories told through external subjects, rather than straight-up memoir. In fact, it’s something I encourage those in my classes to explore—that is, how to find a more universal topic of interest that intersects your own life, which can help you focus your own intimate narrative as well as the attention of the reader (and hopefully an editor!). Now more than ever there’s a lot of writing about science, travel, politics, pop culture, etc., that actually winds up just as much about the author as the ostensible main subject. For instance, Philip Hoare’s 2010 book The Whale may seem, at first glance, to be about whales. And that would be a keen deduction. However, it’s just as much about Hoare’s own relationship to whales, and the ocean as a whole, as anything else. Similarly, Will Hermes’ 2011 book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire may seem on the surface to be about the New York music scene in the ’70s. And it is. But against the backdrop, Hermes uses some poignantly illustrative anecdotes that enriches his story to an exponential degree. And on the flip side, I find these kinds of hybrid nonfiction books to be far more compelling than straight, confessional memoir.

Taft 2012, Heller's wildly entertaining novel from last year, was called "a stellar debut" by Publisher's Weekly.

Taft 2012, Heller’s wildly entertaining novel from last year, was called “a stellar debut” by Publisher’s Weekly.

Q.  What are you working on these days?

Jason: Hoo boy. Too many things. I’m finishing up a novel that, for lack of a more digestible descriptor, is a gonzo-science-fiction-political-satire that’s roughly along the lines of Robert Anton Wilson or early Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a follow-up (of sorts) to Taft 2012—although my new book, De-Prezzed, is set in the future and stars our current former presidents, although you will barely recognize them (or the America they live in). That’ll be out later this year. But I’m also halfway through a YA sci-fi novel set in a dystopian America where sleep has been outlawed. Nonfiction-wise, I just wrote a chapter for an upcoming book called The Time Traveler’s Almanac, which will be published by Tor Books next year, and I’ve been talking with some people about a book-length history of ’90s indie rock. Whew. On top of that, I still keep up my daily pop-culture writing for The Onion A.V. Club, as well as other such publications.


Nonfiction writers or would-be nonfictioneers, join Jason for a two-weekend kickstart, and while you’re at it, pop in on his workshop on blogging for fun, platform, and craft, as well as his course on fanning the flames of literary passion: bottling lightning.

2 comments on “A Sturdy Skeleton: Building Nonfiction with Jason Heller

  1. view it
    August 1, 2013

    An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who was conducting a little research on this. And he actually bought me lunch simply because I found it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this subject here on your web page.

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This entry was posted on May 13, 2013 by in Cool Events, Delusions, LitFest, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Writing.

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