Tuesday, May 16, 2023

What's the Question?

 By Christine Liu-Perkins

My favorite book on writing nonfiction is Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great

Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published
 by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. One key concept they discuss in Chapter 2 is the importance of having a question that drives the book: "Every work of serious nonfiction begins with a question the author has about the topic and ends with an answer the author wants to provide." (p. 77) That question determines how interested editors and readers will be in the book.
I find that asking an overall question also focuses my writing. Knowing what question I'm trying to answer helps me decide how to structure the book and helps in making those many decisions about what to keep and what to leave out. For At Home in Her Tomb, my question was, What do the tombs and their artifacts tell us about life in ancient China?
Sometimes authors reveal in interviews, Author's Notes, or blogposts what question(s) inspired them to create their books. Here are a few examples:

  • In Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West, Candace Fleming explored: "Who was Buffalo Bill? Was he a hero or was he a charlatan? Was he an honest man or a liar? Was he a real frontiersman or was he a showman?"



  • In her Author's Note for The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, Jen Bryant said she wanted to know, "Who was this man Roget? . . . And what compelled him to undertake this immensely difficult task?"



  • At the end of her prologue for Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend, Karen Blumenthal wrote of the two outlaws, "They are romanticized, celebrated, and remembered as the stuff of legend. But why?"

To identify the question driving your own project, Rabiner and Fortunato recommend recalling what originally captured your interest in the subject "and why you find it compelling enough to write a book to answer it . . ." (p. 78).
What's the question driving your work-in-progress? Defining that question will help you research, write, and market your book.
Happy questioning!

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