Authors reveal the secrets of writing and publishing nonfiction

The mood was relaxed and conversational from the onset of 826 Valencia’s most recent Adult Writers’ Seminar. The audience waited, notebooks out and pens in hand, for the panelists to embark on a three-hour exploration of how to not only write a piece of literary nonfiction worth reading, but how to get it published. Moderated by writer and 826 Valencia volunteer tutor Eric Simmons, our panel of authors T.J. Stiles, Greil Marcus, Frances Dinkelspiel, and literary agent Amy Rennert jumped right into the meaty questions: How does one arrive at a interesting subject? When do you stop researching and start writing? What exactly are you supposed to include in the ever-confusing yet crucial proposal for agents?

All panelists agreed on the need to immerse yourself in the world you choose to explore. However, the authors pointed out that, in their experience, this exploration often meant finding themselves in unexpected places. Marcus spoke of writing based on “hunches and guesses, stumbles and falls,” often finding himself working with ideas completely different from the ones that had prompted his research. Stiles agreed, extolling the need to explore everything, “even dead ends.” Dinkelspiel added that she often went through a number of book ideas until she found one that fit.

The panelists differed in opinion over how much one should share early drafts before sending work to an agent or editor. Rennert maintained that it was a huge mistake to neglect sending early drafts to writing peers first. Marcus and Stiles felt that others didn’t necessarily understand their bigger vision until later on in the writing process. Dinkelspiel, who belongs to a writers’ group, recommended finding a circle of trustworthy people who understand how you think. No matter the method, all agreed on the importance of listening to criticism.

As the evening drew to a close, the panelists discussed, in-depth, the crucial steps of getting a book published: how to contact editors and agents, how to promote one’s work in an age where publishers have less funding to do so, and the often unglamorous question of how to survive without a steady income while writing. The methods for answering all of these questions were as individual as the panelists, but all of their responses provided illuminating ways to go about making a life as a writer.

We would like to thank our wonderful panelists and moderator for donating their time and expertise. We would also like to extend a warm thanks to the audience for not only joining us in a wonderfully fulfilling evening, but also for supporting 826 Valencia’s free student programming.

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