Fiction or Fact: Which
is The Challenge?
an author of nonfiction books and novels, I am often asked, “What
is more difficult to write fiction or nonfiction?” The answer
I gave is “Nonfiction is more of a challenge because it is
difficult to sustain interest in a topic for the many months it
takes to complete it, and you have to spend a considerable amount
of time doing research and obtaining interviews for the book. With
fiction, I am usually so excited about the story and the characters
that I sail right through it.”
are a number of other differences, and strong similarities, as well.
One of the remarkable benefits of
writing, from the author’s standpoint, is that you learn things
about yourself as you write, not just about the subject or genre
you are working in. With nonfiction, you uncover what you really
think about what’s going in the world around you, or what
has happened in history. You crystallize opinions or beliefs that
may heretofore been vague or hazy, collecting dust in the back of
fiction starts with good characters, characters that seem real to
the audience. Part of what makes them seem so real is that their
emotions and their responses to challenges or crises seem real,
and well-rounded. As the person expressing these emotions on behalf
of the characters, the author gets to vicariously experience what
the characters are experiencing. You get to feel what they feel.
Before the characters’ lives can move the reading audience
to tears, or laughter, these emotions pass through the author’s
heart. What would it feel like to know you are about to die? To
win the lottery? To meet a dream girl? Authors of fiction must be
willing to reach deep within themselves, and sort of like opening
a door to a dark cellar, let emotions emerge that they may never
have fully experienced before. It can be amazing, the stuff you
find down there in the basement.
The Outline Versus
Writers give very different answers
to the question, “Do you start with a detailed outline?”
With nonfiction, I have found it invaluable to spend the time planning
the chapters of the book in advance, and going so far as to come
up with the questions I will ask in interviews for each chapter.
It also helps to write the beginning of the book, so you develop
the tone of it early on. With the detailed outline in place, the
blueprint to work from, you save a great deal of research time.
You don’t have the problem of gathering a lot of material
that you end up not using. The blueprint tells you what research
material is most appropriate, and keeps you focused on the core
topic of the book (the one the publisher is paying you for!).
is a little bit different. Edgar Allan Poe advised that in the mystery
form you should have at least the beginning and ending well thought
out before you plunge into the actual writing of the tale. I think
that is great advice for today’s authors as well. It gives
you enough direction that you can direct all the events in the book
toward the satisfying, exciting conclusion. But you aren’t
in a straitjacket with no room to accommodate those wonderful bursts
of inspiration that come along the way.
bestselling fiction authors report that the process is even more
mysterious; they don’t have any idea where the story will
lead them until they forge ahead. My own opinion on this is that
because these authors have “trained” their minds so
well to construct plots, it is as though they have unseen construction
crews hammering away 24/7 in their subconscious, and the well-developed
plots then just appear, all ready to entertain the audience. Their
chief worry is that they will be interrupted before then can lay
it all out on paper; the muse will flit off with half of their story,
and drop it off in some other bestselling author’s subconscious—imagine
how disappointing that would be if it is an author whose work they
think is trash.
the marvelous thing about the human mind: most of us only develop
it to a fraction of its full potential. The good news is that there
is always room for growth, and with every book you write, you learn
a little more about your craft.
Eaten By “The Creature from the Blank Pages”
I would not be comfortable sitting
down to write a novel and waiting for the plot or characters or
conflict to just “appear.” If you have spent time getting
to know your characters well, you can more or less leave the driving
to them; let their dramatic need, in other words the goal they are
seeking during the story, provide the road map for that day’s
journey. One technique I’ve found valuable is, right before
you quit for the day, jot down some potential plot development ideas
for the next day. They could be very sketchy ideas, like “Tom
and Justine have a fight.” You might even imagine some of
the dialogue that might occur during the fight, or how the fight
is resolved. When you come back cold the next day, by reflecting
on these notes, you can jump start your creativity. Or, as you have
slept on it overnight, an even better plot development might occur
beginning fiction writers I know fear the blank page more than anything
when they begin each day’s work. They sit there at the word
processor, straining to squeeze the first few tentative words out.
It gets awfully quiet in the room; they start to imagine they can
hear the flowers outside their home office opening up in the lovely
morning sun. Not a pleasant experience. With nonfiction, you generally
don’t face the ‘terror of the blank page.’ You
have all this collected research flying around your head like planes
trying to land, and the difficulty is organizing all the ideas into
prose that flows. It becomes ‘terror of the incoherent page.’
Or its equally frightening twin, ‘terror of the boring page.’
Sometimes it can become so frustrating and confusing that you have
to put all your notes away and take a walk or do a household chore,
then come back and hope the order has been restored to your mind.
Or just go ahead and complete the journey to insanity.
Talent Is Really
Just A Toolbox
The really interesting thing about
writing both fiction and nonfiction is that the tools or skills
you develop in one help you in the other. Writing nonfiction teaches
you to be thorough in your research and accurate with the facts
you put on the page. These skills help you make the scenes you create
in fiction all the more real, more colorful, involving all the senses.
The goal of fiction writing is to make the reader so riveted by
the story that he or she can’t put the book down. This skill,
when applied to nonfiction, can take a dry textbook-type manuscript
and turn it into something that readers stay up late at night truly
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