Another Column at MyShelf.Com

Behind The Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column
By Brian Hill & Dee Power

Fiction or Fact: Which is The Challenge?
By Brian Hill        

     As 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.”

     There are a number of other differences, and strong similarities, as well.

Thinking Versus Feeling
     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 your mind.

     Good 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 The Straitjacket
     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!).

      Fiction 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.

      Some 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.

       That’s 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.

Don’t Get 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 to you.

     Many 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 enjoying.

2004 Past Columns

Fact or Fiction

© MyShelf.Com. All Rights Reserved.