Thursday, February 28, 2008

WRITING STUFF: Non-Fiction for the Fiction Writer

Every now and then I find myself researching details for a short story - you know, how tall the Empire State Building really is, what color the suit was that Jackie Kennedy wore in Dallas or if Hyperion and Sunset Boulevard ever meet - when I come across something I really want to write about.

Sometimes it's an opinion I have, a strong one, and I want to tell the world how I feel and exactly why my feelings on the subject are the right ones. Sometimes it's a discovery, either in the natural world or about human nature - and I want to share it as badly as any Nobel Prize winner or Times reporter.

What are these weird urges? What do I do with them?

Well, I can use them in fiction, but that's the easy answer as I can use anything and everything in fiction. It's one of the reasons I love writing fiction.

I can also write something entirely different. But it takes a tremendous push to get me to stick my toe in the icy waters of non-fiction. Non-fiction has so many forms, outlets, venues, and rules!

But Non Fiction PAYS A LOT OF MONEY! (When compared to Short Fiction, which is what I usually write.) Once, I wrote a 4,000 word story, one of my favorites, and it took me two months and a lot of rewrites, editing and work. I got paid about $100 for it. During that same time, I wrote an article on how to choose the right cookware for your kitchen, and included two photographs. I got about $1500 for that one.

So here are my methods for Painless Non Fiction:

(I'm not including journalism or news reportage here as that's way beyond my experience, and probably not anywhere near painless!)

Know What You Have and then Decide Where it Goes

1. Is it your opinion?

If it's your opinion, think about it for a while. Then try writing a coherent document based on what you think. Do you feel passionately about politics? Religion? Animals? Okay, tell us what you feel or think and why. Why is this idea - the central idea of your piece - so important? What can you do to make a difference? How can others help? Are there consequences to the reader if they do not see your point? Make it concise, with every word contributing to the persuasion of your position.

And if it's your opinion on a controversial subject, do you want to post it on your blog where a potential employer/your mom/a federal agent will see it? Know the line between bravery and foolishness. Bravery is good and you should have the courage of your convictions when you write for publication. Okay, do you want to publish it in the local paper? That's what the Op-Ed page is all about. Essays and opinion pieces can be the best form of writing and the most absorbing form of reading. They can inspire thought and action. Think Thomas Paine.

Or think Your Blog, if it is just musings and advice like what you get here - this type of opinion is primarily for entertainment, and there's no money coming in, let me assure you!

2. Is it an article?

If it's an article, make sure you have done all your homework. You may think you know everything there is to know about model railroads, beekeeping, how to create a quilt in a day, or how to appreciate modern art. But make sure you research more than just your experience - get a well-balanced article by exploring other experiences too. You may need photos or drawings to make your article more clear or approachable.

Articles are everywhere - increase your chance of publication success by carefully reading the guidelines for every magazine or journal to which you submit. Do they want clips of previously-published pieces? Do they take electronic submission? Do you need to submit a proposal for the article first? Check them out - read the periodical to which you submit. Is what you have what they publish? What are their rates? Do they pay by the line, word, inch or whole piece?

3. Is what you have an original or academic piece of research?

Okay, this is where university and professional journals get their articles. Take the time investigate the procedures involved in publishing original research. Do you have your research well-documented? Is it ready for public consumption? Do you need peer-review processes?

Chances are, if you have original academic research you already know how to get it published in the proper places.

This is just a quick overview of making the transitions between Fiction and Non Fiction - there's no rule that says you have to write one or the other - many successful writers support themselves with magazine articles while slogging away at their Great Novel.

So, if you haven't tried writing a non-fiction piece, why not part those waters with your big toe - or computer keyboard? Take a chance on a Letter to the Editor of your local paper, or a how-to for your local gardening club journal. Or go for the big time and see the vast markets for professionally-written articles and fillers in magazines, papers and journals of all types.

Good luck!


Bruce Emerton, my neighbor who also has a beautiful Cliff May mid-century modern house. His tenants, Justin & Michele, are a lovely young couple busily doing the restoration on the house, and I was lucky enough to see them all yesterday. Bruce had to go to court over the landscaping in the front yard, but the judge dismissed the case when he saw the photos of the house - it really is a lovely xeriscape garden, like mine. The local Code Compliance person doesn't know squat about our type of garden, and cited him. She didn't know the difference between a banana tree and a bird of paradise flower, for example. Oh, and she thought the dormant red fountain grass was "weeds." That's Pomona for you - and our city is even named for the goddess of fruits and plants!

Bruce's house

Lunch at Tropical Mexico - it's my favorite local joint for excellent Mexican food. It's a hole in the wall in an industrial area, and it has been in business for years. They have the very best soups, which come with a tray of chopped onions, limes, cilantro and chilis. It's one of the great things about Pomona.

When Futures Collide and Bunny Gunner. When Futures Collide is my favorite furniture store in Pomona. It's a fabulous collection of mid-century stuff, from iconic to the just plain weird. The proprietor, Michael, can tell you stories about this city from the early days when he and his brothers were growing up and went to high school with my husband.

Photograph of Second Street Pomona by Sally Egan

Bunny Gunner is the framers next door, where proprietor Susie and artist Juan Thorpe both reside and work. Susie is a master framer who has done practically every piece of art in my house. Both places are on Second Street, where the Mall used to be. The fountains featuring Betty Davenport Ford, Peter Voulkos and Millards Sheets are still outside, working and looking beautiful. A truly Beautiful Thing.

Photographs of Peter Voulkos and Millard Sheets fountains by Sally Egan

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I know, I know, I haven't been around for awhile – that's because when you're not working, you don't have any time. It's the writer's paradox – the less time you have available in a structured setting, the more writing you can squeeze in. But a completely unstructured setting, one filled with friends, family, volunteer ideas, shopping, chores, pets, online games and email correspondence leaves very little time to actually write.

Okay, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I'm also looking forward to working again, albeit part time, in a couple of months. It will be good for me in so many ways.

But in the meantime, I discovered something pretty nifty – two somethings, actually. I discovered a couple of stories I put away to "cool" and which I had completely forgotten about. Re-reading them now is like a shot of excitement. They're not bad, not bad at all, pretty much ready to submit, in fact. Wow, it's like a cosmic reprieve for my deplorable lack of discipline.

Maybe that partially-written novel on the thumb drive can get a little attention, too. Don't waste those second chances.


I will be spending a few days with my brother in Yuma, AZ next month, volunteering at the SOUTHWEST ARIZONA STAND DOWN, an annual event aimed at assisting veterans, particularly those who are homeless and in need, but also all veterans. It will be three days of food, entertainment, medical assistance, legal assistance, job opportunities, supplies, counseling, shoes, clothing, haircuts, hot showers, a place to sleep, child & pet care, you name it – all free to veterans. This year there will be a new feature, the Women Veterans Resource Center, where I will be volunteering.

I am so proud of my brother, Bill Thornton, a disabled Viet Nam vet, who is a prime force behind this annual event. He has arranged an amazing array of sponsors and donors, as well as speakers, entertainment and organization. But I am devastated by the need. It hurts me to think of people who offered their all to our country going without basic needs. And now we are seeing women vets in dire need, too, many of them survivors of sexual trauma and with children. If you think the government provides for them, you are mistaken. The lack of government support for veterans is a national shame.

Here is a link to more information – please take a look. And support this worthwhile effort if you can. At least remember to thank a vet for their service. They did it for you.


Sue Ann Jaffarian with her new Odelia Grey mystery novel. Catch her at the Yorba Linda Public Library in Orange County on Saturday, March 1st at 1pm. Also appearing will be award-winning mystery writers Naomi Hirahara and Aileen Baron. I'll be there to cheer them on!

Here's a pic of Sue Ann (right) and our mutual friend Susan (left) who is having a birthday the same day as the library program, so I think there will be a bit of a party afters!

Mischa Adams and her granddaughter, Maggie. Mischa is writing the hilarious Two Old Bats at the Will Reading while toddler Maggie is already adept at sign language and is starting to speak, too. Hooray for articulate women!

Steve Zurian and his scary first lines. Steve, who has been threatening to collaborate with me on a thriller for years, started without me and has sent me the opening for a slam-bang mystery set in scenic Santa Barbara. Well, as scenic as the body of an old archaeologist in a man-made cave can be. I'm not sure I can write up to his standard (I know I can't match his inimitable style!) but it's there on the burner for me, waiting for my discipline to kick in and remind me how much I love being immersed in the story, particularly when I'm writing it.
Be careful out there, folks. And keep writing.