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Writing Books/Novel or narrative nonfiction


Iím perplexed about a request from a member of my local writersí club who asked me to help her with an editing project that seems overwhelming to me, although it would not be overwhelming to someone with more expertise that I. I hope you can help with some initial guidelines.

She is an excellent storyteller and has completed a 170,000 word book based on a true story. 170,000 words is way too long; half that is an acceptable length. The true story is about the trial and execution of a black man in Mississippi convicted of raping a white woman in the 1940s. The lawyer who defended him, the authorís father, was disbarred for being associated with the Communist Party.

Based on your experience, do you think her book could be more marketable as a novel based on a true story, or should she write what is commonly called narrative nonfiction? Iíve read parts of her manuscript and she packs in a lot of emotion and detail. She knows the manuscript needs lots of editing for form and syntax. How do we know which editor to hire?

Our plan is to query a dozen agents, then prepare a book proposal if an agent requests it. Must she have a completely finished and polished manuscript before querying?

Thanks a million.

Sorry about the delay, but I have been travelling between India, Dubai, France and Morocco.

From what you say the novel would work as narrative nonfiction best. However, I would talk with a literary agent before making that decision. What sounds very positive is that she is a storyteller.

Hiring an editor should be done after contacting and getting a positive response from an agent and a decision on fiction or nonfiction. You are correct that it is too long, but up to 120,000 words would be a good start.

Above all, it sounds like a fascinating project and so I suggest you don't get put off by one or two rejections from agents. That is normal and finding an agent who specialises in this kind of novel is essential.

I wish you the best of luck!



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Sandy McCutcheon


Author of 22 plays, 12 bestselling thrillers, a memoir and children's fiction.I can work with people on the process of writing, what to expect and ask for from an editor. How to work with the publisher`s marketing and publicity people. And how to survive book launches and publicity tours!


Published author of 22 plays, 12 bestselling thrillers, a young adult and three non-fiction titles. Visit his Moroccan blog at for a look at his blogging work.

St Andrews, Helsinki University and other institutions. Adult Educator of the Year Award, Australia

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