Writing fiction is a strange and mysterious concept for most media professionals, who are steeped in the style and rules of non-fiction writing.
As a journalist, you think writing fiction will be easy. You are freed from worrying about all those messy facts. What could be easier than making up a story?
Instead, fiction is a daunting mix of annoying obstacles and daunting challenges. The story is percolating. The ideas are there. But the words don’t flow. Structure, plot, characters–fiction writing is a morass of the unknown for a journalist.
But non-fiction writers have advantages in the fiction game. Real world skills can be translated into the realm of make believe. Old habits can be broken; new ones created.
Here are a few tips for non-fiction writers on how to turn those obstacles into opportunities:
::Figure Out a Style: In journalism or non-fiction, the style and voice of a book is usually fair obvious. It’s about telling the story in a factual way. But a great work of fiction create its own style and voice, a consistent tone and vocabulary that brings the reader into the fictional world. Finding that style. It’s worth taking a moment to step back and consider what kind of book you are writing. What is the genre? Who are the authors I admire in that genre? Don’t copy, but learn from those authors. Take special note of the pacing and dialog. Focus on the elements that fit your vision.
::Use Reality: Non-fictions writers are experts at reporting what they see. That works for fiction, too. Look for people, places and events that you know. Let the details of real life create the nuance of your fictional world. Those details are the key. Remember the old adage, “show, don’t tell.” Don’t stretch your imagination; mine your memory and the interactions and settings of everyday life.
::Think in Scenes: Many fiction newbies become trapped in the timeline of the story, letting it roll out in a set chronology. But stories are collections of moments, scenes that tell the story in dramatic fashion. Rather than recapping the daily lives of the characters, think of scenes that really illustrate the story. Focus on those moments. These scenes have beginnings, middles and ends, just like the larger story. You can always bring in other elements through flashbacks or dialogue. But the action in the scene moves the story forward.
::Don’t Forget the Drama: In the non-fiction world, a writer is simply reporting the facts. Fiction requires the writer to take on more responsibility. Scenes need to be created that revolve around some sort of conflict, threat or dilemma–either moral, physical or imagined. It doesn’t matter what kind of conflict or if it’s supposed to be a funny scene or a romantic scene. Every chapter needs an element that makes it compelling, rather than simply “moving the story along.”
::Create a Great Lead: Every journalist understands the concept of a great lead. But it’s even more important in fiction. Those first 50 pages are everything. Every writer should take an extraordinary amount of time and energy to create a gripping first 50 pages. Think of the opening scene of a movie, except in this case everybody can walk out after 15 minutes. You need to grab them.
::Leave Stuff Out: This can be a tough one. Media professionals are trained to tell the story along a tight timeline, offering information as it appears. But in fiction it’s essential to not tell the reader everything. Tease them. Leave gaps that will create questions to be answered later in the book. Drop hints as foreshadowing. In non-fiction it’s the writer’s responsibility to be true and honest; in fiction the writer’s responsibility is to engage readers, to play with their emotions and fears.
::Don’t Organize, Just Write: Every writer has their own methods. Journalists and professional commercials writers tend to like organization. Outlines. Note cards. A clear, logical path to follow. If that works for you, great. But fiction is not about arranging facts. At a certain point it’s about letting it flow, releasing the imagination to go free range. Don’t worry about where it will fit in the story or if it makes sense in the scene or if it’s appropriate for the character. Just write.
At a certain point as a writer, you can’t get hung up on the vagaries of fiction and all the rules and traditions of fiction. You just need to write. There is no substitute. It takes hard work and hours staring at a computer screen, which is something every non-fiction writer understands.
Kevin Brass is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world of celebrity journalism. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Ozy.com. This article is excerpted from his presentation, “Going Fiction,” for the San Diego Press Club.