Rebecca Giggs on the art and science of Writing Creative Nonfiction

We asked award-winning author and tutor Rebecca Giggs to tell us about winning awards, how projects begin and her new online course.

FWA: It must be thrilling to have your debut book Fathoms  recognised with awards locally and recently the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. What sort of impact do awards like these have?

RG: Awards bring heat-and-light to the publicity of book-selling, and they can aid in connecting readers with specific titles (as with the Carnegie Medal, which is geared towards placing winning books in American libraries).

Sources may be more willing to open up to you because of an award; so you might find it becomes less arduous to prove your bona fides to interviewees and institutional gatekeepers. And then, outside of abstract notions of merit or esteem, prize-money of course buys writing time. Used well, that time can act as a kind of windbreak behind which a still-green project, in its earliest phase, can be encouraged to find its own shape. So in the lee of the prizes, Fathoms created this bit of shelter in which I could begin exploring ideas for a second book. That being said — for all the good that awards confer, they also exert pressure.

I know authors who have struggled with feeling undeserving. There are those for whom a specific accolade might mean being called into a spokesperson role, and being asked to offer comments on behalf of a genre, a cause, a facet of their identity, or some other aspect of the culture at large. For some this comes naturally, or the support of their community buoys them through it. For those who had always imagined the work would speak for itself — and that the writing could remain this usefully unintegrated thing, an artwork of fruitful equivocation and internal debate — the public sphere can prove a more anxious setting.

Ultimately what matters to me is that each work (a book, an essay, a pitch) changes the conditions of my writing practice. If I have an intrinsic measure of a work’s success, it’s that. Did the writing or the research challenge and extend my skillset? Did this work open a door to a new or better relationship with an editor, a publication or a publisher? Awards have brought my debut book Fathoms to a wider audience and for that I am deeply grateful. But in order to keep going as a writer I have discovered that I need to locate my sense of reward in the process of the work itself, rather than in these golden (and unpredictable) moments of recognition.

FWA: Writing Creative Nonfiction Stage 1 will take participants through the process of planning and beginning a manuscript. How did you begin the project that turned into Fathoms?

RG: I began with the scenes, writing only description and going off the notes I took in-situ. So, for Fathoms this meant; describing a dying whale on a beach in Perth, a whale-watching trip with an eco-tourism company in Eden (NSW), and going out to meet Japanese whalers as they returned to port from their seasonal hunt. I find that this is the gentlest way to start, because what you’re really doing in the early stage of scene-writing is amplifying the natural biases of your attention.

In the course of drafting you might begin to notice that your subconscious has latched onto some set of particulars: say, the soundscape, or the way something tasted, or maybe it’s a phrase that someone said that stood out to you. The next step is to interrogate why those details lingered — what was their significance, where do they lead, and what does this teach you about your own proclivities and sympathies?

You can begin to develop this sort of ‘second-self’ through the drafting: a self that is capable of watching on as you-yourself watch the world and process experiences. And then you might consider the scene from a different angle. For example, what did the stranded whale look like when you were standing a long way off down the beach; or, when you think about the children who came down to see it, how were they behaving, and does that clue you into how they viewed the whale? What would a conservationist think of this scene, and would a scientist see it differently?

It’s this process of revisiting the scene again and again that unfolds into exposition: the research part of any nonfiction manuscript. At first, the scenes direct the research. You discover you need additional information to understand what is happening, or to explain it to the reader, and so you have to go to experts, or to archives, or to other research sources. It has been my experience that the big questions driving the chapters usually arrive around midway through this process, and then you can begin to give the book structure, linking scenes with the most weighty ideas you mean to explore. This is when outlining becomes paramount. For myself, I never start with a comprehensive outline — by the time I’ve got to that important task, I usually have some scene-writing and some reporting behind me already.

FWA: Writing Creative Nonfiction Stage 2 focusses on The Book Proposal. Why is that so important?

RG: Most narrative nonfiction books are sold to publishers on the basis of a book proposal rather than as a manuscript. A document of between 10,000 and 20,000 words (20-to-40 pages), the nonfiction-book proposal is a genre unto itself with specific conventions to learn.

The tone should hover somewhere between intriguing dinner-party conversation and structured, achievable roadmap. In Writing Creative Nonfiction Stage 2 you’ll learn to articulate the journey you plan to take through your topic; to identify novelty and/or ‘noisiness’ (associated with newsworthiness) in your ideas; to communicate your own stake in the material; and to place your book-project within a specific lineage of kindred publications.

We’ll read some examples of proposals for books published both in Australia and overseas, and we’ll workshop several important sections of participants’ proposal-drafts. Most importantly, writing a book proposal will help you conceive of why your book matters, and who it matters to. For this reason drafting the book-proposal — even if you don’t develop the document to a state where it’s ready to circulate among agents and editors — is still a very valuable undertaking. More than any other task in the trajectory of book-writing the proposal will help bring your reader into focus.

Having conjured up this figure, the reader, we will then strive to answer a series of weighty questions about the book on their behalf: for example, ‘Why should I read this book?’ ‘How will my opinions be changed, by reading this book?’ ‘What action does this book make possible, in the world or in the reader, that could not have been pursued before?’ Most writers will begin the proposal on the basis of a manuscript that is part underway, or at the very least significantly researched, as the proposal typically includes at least one sample chapter and a rundown of the book’s structure. But you needn’t have a fully drafted manuscript. Indeed, writing a first draft of your proposal may help you to define parameters for your book, and to contemplate what is needed to get it to completion.

FWA: What are the key learnings you hope participants will take away from Writing Creative Nonfiction?

RG: I hope that people leave the course feeling more able to muster their direct experiences and memories, the content of their notebooks, and what they have discovered in the course of their research, into compelling nonfiction writing. This course will give you tools for developing your voice: the quality of narrative nonfiction that best conveys to the reader that a real person, unique in time and place, made this text. We’ll also look at the management of time and tension in a nonfiction book, two aspects of writing craft that we share in common with our fellow novelists and short-story writers. And the course will create opportunities to reflect on your writing process as well — to look at how you plan, how you write, and how you re-write on the basis of research and feedback. Though Stage 2 is specific to nonfiction book-proposals, Stage 1 will be relevant to those working on a manuscript and to people intending to develop a long personal essay or a suite of articles. 

Writing Creative Nonfiction Stage 1 with Rebecca Giggs
23 March – 8 June 2021

The Book Proposal: Writing Creative Nonfiction Stage 2 with Rebecca Giggs
26 June – 29 July 2021