Route from journalism to fiction takes sharp turns

August 2016 - by Carolyn Dale

Like many journalists, I've yearned for a time to write fiction, to do the creative work of short stories and novels. Reporting, editing, and nonfiction must be good preparation, I figured, and while that's mainly true, the familiar forms take some challenging swerves.

My historical novel is currently cut into little pieces and piled in a blue bag labeled "Chuckanut Writers Conference." Cutting up a manuscript is an actual technique promoted at this year's gathering. I remember it from my newspaper days, and Erik Larson, author of several nonfiction best-sellers, says this old newsroom approach is a great way to re-organize a book into a more compelling order of events.

So, here I am with 550 pages now reduced to snippets. It's fun to shuffle them and see what fate produces. One of my goals is to trim the draft, and sure enough, I see something new: If I kill off a character early, I can cut 30 pages.

My hand pauses over the scraps headed to annihilation as I relish this power. Never, in my journalism days, did I kill anyone. Larson recommended scattering the pieces on the dining room table, and I've done just that. It's where I play Clue with the kids, and it feels like I've just killed Colonel Mustard with the scissors. How frightfully easy it was, too – "novel land" really is pretend.

At this year's conference, the publishing savants weren't talking about the four-minute book pitch or the one-minute elevator spiel. Instead, it was all about the dramatic arc of the story. And this also is familiar, for the journalist Jon Franklin did a masterful job of applying classic dramatic form to news features years ago. How nice to see it again.

A third carry-over I noticed from journalism is that the business side is incredibly gloomy. Only a handful of large book publishers remain in this country, and they all want blockbusters. Even if a publisher picks up your book, we were warned, you will have to do virtually all of your own marketing.

Even worse, industry experts throw out statistics showing that far more American adults say they are writing a book than report having read one for pleasure in the past year. This is quite different than in journalism, even with the recent mass extinction of media jobs. I never got the feeling that hundreds of thousands of American adults wanted to be writing newspaper articles, rather than reading them.

Some glamour attaches to writing novels and memoirs; maybe it's the socio-economic status tied to doing work for which the writer may never be paid. How can so many people afford the time and labor to produce a book? Another industry statistic reported is that standard publishers bring out 50,000 titles a year, while self-publishing writers bring out 200,000 – four times that number.

Many, many people seem to be able to finance bringing out their own books, a reversal of the older economic model in which a writer might earn money from those years of work. But, it rings true: I know more people who've launched small presses to publish fiction and poetry than have had their work picked up by a standard publishing house.

In spite of the likely lack of fame and fortune, I enjoy my time in novel land, and clearly some reasons draw millions of us to this creative work. To me, it seems essential after my years with journalism's objectivity, which required the writer to remain detached from sources, to refrain from taking sides, and to view crises from afar.

Possibly, the need to hear one's own voice—to see it in tangible form, to take stances on matters of importance—is what drives some former journalists toward fiction, essays, or memoirs.

In fiction publishing, I'm learning, the writer's voice and identity, the characters' points of view, and the story's ability to dig deep in the human heart, are all key. This is refreshingly honest, after my past of lurking invisibly behind the story, though I think that journalism today has largely abandoned the goal of writing from no one's point of view.

But this particular value was so ingrained that while I've been writing my historical novel, I've shied away from mentioning that it draws on family history. At the recent conference, I asked a veteran of book publishing whether it matters that some of my ancestors appear in the story. "Yes, it matters a lot," she said, looking at me as though wondering what planet of writers I came from.

"Is a good way, or a bad way?" I asked.

"It's good, very good."

Accepting this, I realize I've fully arrived in novel land. So, I'm ready to take in other maxims that reverse the wisdom of journalism. Now, as fiction writer, I should "Tell, don't show," and "Never explain things."

Journalism tries to convey scenes through specific description and to show what sources feel and think through direct quotations, or dialogue. And, if each event isn't resting in its own little nest of fact or background, readers risk not being able to follow a new development. So, a journalist has to show and to explain—simply and clearly—as the story goes along.

But, as a panel of successful fiction and nonfiction writers all agreed, a fiction reader doesn't need an explanation of a process, such as how to milk a cow. The reader just needs to believe the character knows how to do it. Write for the intelligent reader who's going to go elsewhere for instruction on milking a cow, they said.

Beware, though: all the details of milking have to be absolutely accurate, or the reader will dismiss the story. The entire charade of believing in this imaginary world will collapse, if any detail does not ring true. Therefore, the writer probably does have to milk the cow, to get the details right, but he or she must never, ever, explain this.

OK, got it. Good explanation.

I've noticed at conferences, and in scads of writerly advice, that authors and publishers become rapturous when describing fiction that works. They use musical metaphors and talk about heart and soul and breathlessness and life-changing insights. But, I haven't found specific standards for quality, and this is quite different from journalism. With fiction, as with other art forms, it seems you like it or you don't; it speaks to you deeply, or it doesn't. The reasons we give for this phenomenon get all dressed up in literary language.

What I think we're doing in novel land is creating an imaginary place, full of imaginary friends and enemies, who do stuff we dream up (sometimes literally). It feels very good to be there, and the hours fly by unnoticed.

Creative work admits us into that place of timelessness and immersion that is vital to human health and wellbeing. I believe that, and it's a good reason why everyone wants to write a book. If the result speaks deeply to someone, somewhere, it will be worth the effort, and I hope that everyone who feels that desire finds a way to write.

Several days after killing the character and thirty pages, I packed the novel snippets back into the blue bag and put it away. Working with a simple list of scenes that could be re-ordered was sufficient for generating new ideas. And as the other voices—of hope, disillusionment, advice, rapture, and statistics—from the conference gradually faded, I began to hear my own, again when I returned to the keyboard. It's good to be back in novel land.

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