Friday, February 8, 2013

First Page Friday--Our First Non-Fiction

I am happy today to bring you our first ever non-fiction critique.  I am grateful to Ms. Shreditor for all the time and effort she goes to in helping aspiring authors, when she has a full load at her day job.  And thank you to all our authors for their courage in submitting.

If you would like your first page critiqued, send it double-spaced, 12 pt. font, with First Page Friday in the subject line to

See you next week!

The Entry
Fight, Flight, or Hide The Guide to Surviving a Mass Shooting
by John Forsythe

At the moment some mentally disturbed person starts shooting into the crowd around you, you will immediately become one of three things: a victim, a guardian, or a hero.

The victims are those who will do nothing to save others, but who might be able to do something to save themselves. There are those who fit obviously into this category, the best example being little children. Since you don’t know for sure, the victims section is required reading for anyone who goes out into public! It is the least you can do, by definition, to make it as hard as possible for a mass shooter to increase the body count.

The guardians are those who take action to save others as well as themselves. Guardians find methods of escape and help others to get out of danger. They call authorities, tend to wounded, and do all they can to minimize the chaos and the death toll. The best examples of a guardian are those school teachers who have risked all they had to save their students, or people who have used their own bodies as shields to save loved ones. Guardians are amazing people and deserve every respect.

The heroes are those who are prepared either by nature or by training to put an end to a mass shooting by direct action. You may believe that I am speaking now to those with concealed carry permits, to the people who happen to have a gun in their belt when a shooting starts. Though those people could be heroes, we shorten the conversation by assuming that they are the only heroes amongst us. They are not, so if you are not in favor of carrying or owning guns, keep reading.

The hero category is the rarest, but always the most revered by the very nature of their acts and by the possible outcome of their heroics.

I am the first to admit that not everyone can be a guardian or a hero, nor is there shame for many in being a victim. It is the intent of this book to give you the philosophy and some of the strategies you will need to be the best of whatever you end up being. If you are a victim, and at the first shot fired you will know if you are, then I want you to be the best victim you can be—as strange as that sounds. If you have what it takes to be a guardian or hero, then I want you to add strategy and tactics to your bag of tricks.

Ms. Shreditor's Comments

If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first nonfiction submission we’ve received. The rules of nonfiction storytelling aren’t entirely different from those of fiction storytelling; in both genres, your ultimate goal is to put forth a compelling, engaging story that will resonate with readers.

The biggest challenge when it comes to nonfiction publishing is finding an audience. When you sit down to write nonfiction, you want to ask yourself the following questions: Are you writing about a topic or figure of interest to a wide audience? Are you approaching the right readers? Have you approached your subject from the best angle? If it’s a self-help or how-to book, does it fulfill an actual reader need? Do you possess enough expertise to be considered an authority on your subject?

This piece addresses a timely topic, particularly given the recent tragedies in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut. Many successful books in both the fiction and nonfiction markets pull their material from the headlines, so I think that the subject here is a meaty one.

However, I’m not sure there’s a large enough audience of readers preparing themselves to behave a certain way during a mass shooting. Most readers don’t want to confront such an awful possibility, and a book isn't likely to change how a person will react in the heat of the moment. The readers more likely to consult a book for help are survivors of an actual mass shooting. This is what I meant when I asked whether a nonfiction piece has approached the right readers. Always approach an audience known to exist instead of reaching for one that might not.

The other problem here is that the nomenclature (victims, guardians, and heroes) inadvertently casts judgment on people based on how they react in life-threatening situations. When stacked up against evocative words like “heroes” and “guardians,” the word “victim” becomes somewhat demeaning, which I know isn’t the intent here.

The prose tells us that there is no shame in being a victim, but this feels almost like a concession. There’s an implication that “if you [don’t] have what it takes to be a guardian or hero,” you’re somehow lacking. Successful self-help and instructional books generally adopt the “unconditional positive regard” concept employed by therapists. I think that this piece is striving to do the same, but something gets lost in the labels.

Perhaps the real story here isn’t whether or not someone behaves as a victim, guardian, or hero; perhaps it’s simply what people can do to protect themselves in the event of a mass shooting. (However, I’m not sure there’s an entire book of material there.) Perhaps, as I suggested earlier, it might be more fruitful to write a book for survivors of actual mass shootings—a more concrete audience than the hypothetical victims of a would-be shooting.

There is a book here, and the writing itself is generally strong. I’m happy to have gotten a piece like this for my first nonfiction critique, because it’s given me a platform to discuss some of these key issues. Think hard about whether enough people are reaching out for the advice you’re giving. If you’re approaching the wrong audience, consider recalibrating your book so that it’s approaching the right one.


Debra Allen Erfert said...

This is a prickly subject. I had written a whole discourse that I've since deleted. Getting an argument from me about the content probably wasn't the reason the author submitted his work.

I agree with Ms. Shreditor. Finding the right audience and then tailoring the content is what's important. I don't write non-fiction, or at least I haven't yet. It can be explosive (no pun intended) depending on the subject. How-to books rarely create hard feelings or inflame angry emotions. And being an expert on the subject is a must. When querying the book, (I'm sorry, you don't query non-fiction, and I forgot what it's called) that will play a huge part of finding a publisher.

Good luck with your work, John.

Jon Spell said...

I'm curious to see where this goes from here. Is it going to be like an essay, or more of a self-help book?

I could see where you could do analyses of mass-shootings - what happened, how could it have been minimized, what could the average person do? You might even propose some ideas for legislation. (I'm not trying to write your book for you, just wondering what the finished product might look like.)

I think I'm more suited for the guardian role than hero, but at least I have sufficient mass to absorb a few rounds. /black humor

* Also, +1 point for Ms. Shreditor for the subtle use of "recalibrating" in her review. =) said...

As always, a very interesting and thought provoking review.

I appreciate the feedback!

John Forsythe