Agent Jon Sternfeld On: 5 Elements of Interesting Narrative Nonfiction (and Memoirs)

From: Guide to Literary Agents Jon Sternfeld is an agent with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency representing literary fiction (including well-researched dramas and historical thrillers) and narrative nonfiction that deals with historical, social, or cultural issues. He is open to all writers with an original voice and he has a particular interest in fiction that has a large, ambitious canvas (exploring a time, place, or culture).

Jon’s co-agent, Irene Goodman, offers manuscript critiques on eBay every month, starting on the first day of each month, with all proceeds going to charity. Click on the link for more details on these critiques and charity auctions.

Narrative nonfiction is a difficult and crowded market. Here are some thoughts about distinguishing your work from the pack.

1. Arcs: Like a strong novel, make sure the story and the main character have Narrative Arcs—that is each needs to go somewhere. Finding the arc is key or else the story is a jumble of disjointed vignettes that lead nowhere. Evolution of character and movement of the story make a true story as engaging to read as a novel.

2. Inverse Rule for Nonfiction: The less well known the subject/story, the more blow people out of the water amazing the story needs to be. This holds for memoirs the most—unless your name is a brand, your life story needs to be fresh, original, and surprising to have any chance in the memoir market.

3. Familiar Strange, Strange Familiar: As my creative writing professors once said, the key to tackling a subject is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Surprise readers with what they thought they knew; show them the commonalities between their world and the (seemingly) strange world of your book.

4. Big and Small: My favorite nonfiction authors (Mary Roach, David Grann, Alain de Botton) intuitively understand this concept. The approach to their stories is “big” in the sense that there’s universality and larger implications (historical, social, scientific) in their work; the approach is also “small” in the sense that they get into the nitty-gritty details of their world: the fascinating hows and thought-provoking whys.

5. Voice: Remember that you, as writer, are a character in the book: If not in actuality (as in Erik Larson books and other historical narratives) then in voice. Nonfiction books these days are very ‘voice driven’ I hear this all the time from editors: THE VOICE NEEDS TO GRAB ME. Some books require an invisible hand, but unless your subject demands your objectivity/invisibility, put yourself into the story—either as a character, or at least as a perspective/voice. Your voice needs to come through.

Questions to ask yourself to see if a true story can work as a full narrative nonfiction book: Is there a hero, or at least an identifiable protagonist—someone we care about and relate to? Does this character have an arc? Does he/she evolve at all? Are there enough conflict(s)—plural—to keep the reader engaged throughout? Does it go and end up somewhere new and hopefully, unexpected? Is there a universality to the subject—as in, will people care? If it’s a story about an adoption gone wrong, do you get us to care about the problem, identify with the people, and see the larger issues at stake?

Final note on narrative nonfiction: Consider studying fiction narratives for what works in story and how that might be useful in nonfiction—all writers can be teaching tools so remember to look everywhere for lessons.