Thursday, March 13, 2014

Nonfiction Writing According to Bestselling Author Matthew Frederick

The Missouri Writers' Guild is pleased to welcome Matthew Frederick as a speaker during the Fifty Shades of Writing Conference in St. Louis, April 11-13.

Matthew Frederick is an architect, urban designer, and bestselling author. He scouts nonfiction book projects for Fairbank Literary Representation and coaches authors on developing their nonfiction concepts. 

Mr. Frederick was an architecture columnist before authoring the bestselling 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (MIT Press, 2007). Since then, he has developed the 101 Things I Learned book series for which he serves as editor, co-author, and illustrator. The series now has over 500,000 books in print, including titles in Business, Culinary, Fashion, Film, Law and Engineering School (Grand Central/ Hachette), and has been translated into fifteen languages. 

At the 2014 Missouri Writers’ Guild Fifty Shades of Writing’ Conference, Mr. Frederick will provide one-on-one Pitch-Practice at the Friday pre-conference and will lead two other sessions. On Saturday, his breakout session, “The Four Ps of Nonfiction—Platform, Prose, Proposal and Purpose,” will provide an overview of the unique needs of nonfiction and equip students with tools to tackle the genre. And on Sunday, his 3-hour Master Class, “What’s the Bigor LittleIdea?” will help attendees discover, broaden, narrow, heighten, and deepen their nonfiction concepts. Attendees should bring a project to the session a title/subtitle, a one-sentence “tagline,” and if possible, a 200-word synopsis.

Brian:  Mr. Frederick, thank you so much for joining us at our ‘Fifty Shades of Writing’ conference. Can you tell us a little about how you became an expert in a variety of disciplines? 

Matthew:  Architecture school taught me a lot about problem solving and conceptual thinking, and I think this has translated well to other disciplines. I don’t think you can create a coherent piece of architecture or writing without a willingness to patiently investigate and try out a lot of things that aren’t going to work. And a successful book, like successful work of architecture, has to have a strong concept that unifies the various details. Without a clear concept, whether one is writing a quiet literary memoir or a D-I-Y on cleaning your cat, one’s writing will feel randomized and the reader will lose interest. 

Brian:  How did you go from being an architect to a bestselling nonfiction writer? Was your book accepted immediately? Or did it have to go through many adaptations and revisions before coming up with your final idea? 

Matthew:  In 2005, my architecture practice was struggling. My partner, who is a literary agent, saw a handout I had prepared for an architecture design class I had taught. It was called something like “24 Lessons from Architecture 101.” She saw a book in it, which I already had thought about. I made up a dummy, and then another, and we put together a proposal for 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

We first proposed the book to some trade presses, but realized pretty quickly it would be a better fit at a university press. This was initially disappointing, because it felt like we were limiting the book’s success. But MIT Press, the first university press we went to, knows how to sell books like this in high numbers. When the book was eventually published, it was surprisingly close to what I had envisioned.

Brian: Are the other titles of your 101 Things I Learned book series the same type of books, i.e., does each have a different audience, vision, and content? 

Matthew: Each book—Fashion, Film, Culinary, and so on—has the same format: 101 short, illustrated lessons. Each is aimed at the beginning college student in that field of study, although all the titles are purchased very often by general readers or gift buyers because the books are attractive and fun to read.

In doing each book, I work with an expert in the field. Our first job is to identify the difficulties faced by the beginning college student. What doesn’t the curriculum make clear? What is the emotional or intellectual burden placed on the student? 

Architecture students, for example, are asked to design large buildings or college campuses without being taught how to do it. As they “learn by doing,” they are critiqued on all they are doing wrong, which is pretty much everything! 

Each thing the student learns seems to be undone or mitigated or qualified by the next thing. Very little stands still. It’s enormously frustrating. This is why I came up with the format of “lesson chunks.” I wanted to offer clear lessons that would hold fairly still while context and confusion swirl around the student. 

With the other books, we aim to identify the source of the student’s confusion or pain. Law school, for example, is similar to architecture in that there’s a ton to learn, everything intersects with everything else, very little stands still, everything is contextual. But engineering is kind of the opposite. There’s very little context; almost everything is specific and abstract—vectors, forces, math, physics, and so on. So we wrote many of the lessons in the Engineering book backward from how they are taught in engineering school: we introduce the context first. 

A lesson on harmonic resonance, for example, begins, “Soldiers should not march across a bridge.” From there we “back” into the engineering lesson: all objects tend to vibrate when subject to impact. Had we not done that, we’d have been repeating what an ordinary, boring textbook already does. 

Brian:  You have said that nonfiction books are rarely published as initially conceived. What, in your opinion, is the biggest preventable mistake nonfiction writers make?

Matthew: The biggest mistake nonfiction writers make, whether they’re writing a memoir, how-to guide, cookbook, travelogue, or anything else, is not approaching their project conceptually. 

Writers typically start a writing project from somewhere inside it… we’re motivated by a compelling personal experience or an internal desire to argue a position or share our knowledge. But somewhere in the writing process, a writer has to step outside his or her book, look at it objectively, and shape it as a unified whole. 

This is hard to do. It requires us to consider that what the book needs to be might be very different from what we thought it would be. It means recognizing that a lot of our pet ideas don’t belong in the book, because they don’t contribute to its wholeness.  

Brian:  You’ll be helping attendees with Pitch Practice. How can your emphasis on concept help one pitch a book to an editor or agent? 

Matthew:  Probably everyone who has tried to pitch a book has found themselves getting bogged down in details—intricacies of plot and character, he-said-she-said, logistical points of argument, and so on. Our listeners can get bored pretty quickly, particularly if they’ve been listening to the same thing all day. 

Let me give some examples of how to get past this. Someone proposed a golf instruction book to me. Like most golf instruction, it was all over the place: hold your head still…keep your arm straight…no, that’s too straight… take the club back… that’s too fast… shift your weight… not that much… hold on, your thumb is in the wrong place… and so on. The writer’s working title, “Better Golf, NOW!” demonstrated the project’s lack of focus. It offered nothing specific, and the caps lock and exclamation point didn’t hide that reality. 

But the writer did have a core idea buried in there: he felt at heart, there are only four ways to screw up your golf swing, and therefore four ways to fix it. With that, I could imagine a concept for the entire book: a cover divided graphically in four sections, an introduction laying out the four problems and corresponding fixes, a four-section organization of the interior content, and so on. Everything that didn’t fit that concept could be left out. And the title? How about: Four Ways to Suck at Golf and Four Ways to Get Better. Aren’t you more likely to notice that on a bookstore shelf? 

You can use similar, if more subtle, techniques with works of a more literary nature. I coached a woman writing a memoir about her experiences raising a son after her husband was killed in battle. It was difficult and traumatic for both of them. OK, there might be a story there, but what’s the concept? How could she project to an editor or agent that she had an overall grasp on her story, that she could see it as a conceptual whole, that she wasn’t tied up in a tale of woe? 

What if she pitched the story like this: “One morning twenty years ago, four men ruined my life: two in uniform who came to my front door, one who never came home again, and the man-to-be I was holding in my arms.” Here, the writer is showing a capacity to understand her own story from the outside, which is where others will see it from. She’s showing she can grasp it as a whole. She’s created a container for her listener to keep track of the details. And if she forgets some of them, it won’t really matter because the concept came across clearly. 

Brian:  When presenting your “The Four Ps of Nonfiction” workshops and discussing Platform, Prose, Proposal, and Purpose, if there is only one important aspect writers should take away from this presentation, what would you say that would be?

Matthew:  I’ll go with “Purpose.” Figuring out one’s true purpose in writing a book is a slippery, difficult thing. You can work on a book for years before coming to terms with why you are doing it. And when you do figure it out, you and your book are likely to undergo fundamental change. I might argue that a writer has to undergo this realignment while writing… it is what brings the writing alive.

Brian:  Is there a particular bit of advice you’d like to offer to nonfiction writers—something they could take to the bank?

Matthew:  A book isn’t what a writer has to say. It’s not the one-directional outpouring of one’s knowledge or feelings onto the page. It’s the intersection of what a writer has say with what the reader needs or wants to hear. A good writer works from both perspectives to determine what belongs on the page and how his or her message is best presented. 

Brian:  Mr. Frederick, thank you so much for your time. We are delighted to have you share your knowledge and experience with us at our Fifty Shades of Writing conference. 

Click here to register for the conference. Regular rates last through March 31.

If you’ve already registered, don’t forget to book your hotel room by March 17 to receive the discounted rate. In addition, all conference attendees and guild members are eligible to enter the conference contests. Postmark deadline is March 15, so hurry and get those entries in.

Interview by Brian Katcher, author of Playing with Matches, winner of the 2010-2011 North Carolina. Young Adult Book Award; and Almost Perfect, winner of the 2011 Stonewall Young Adult Book Award. His newest book, Everyone Dies in the End: A Romantic Comedy will be out March 2014. Visit him on the web at

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