Stranger than Fiction

Yes, I’m borrowing this title from a movie, and probably a slew of other things, but I just love the way it sounds! Is there really anything stranger than a writer creating characters, relationships and entire worlds in their heads? I mean, if anyone else were to do that they’d be sent straight to the loony bin, which really, is probably where most of us writers belong. I digress.

Lately, I’ve been toeing the line of non-fiction and fiction, balancing my “paid” writing with my “recreational” writing. I work full-time as a journalist. As most fellow journalists will know, this is one of the purest forms of non-fiction because you rely so heavily on quotes and research. Everything is credited. I can’t write a story without talking to a source, or at least researching a few sources (to make sure they’re all saying the same thing, of course). If someone speaks grammatically incorrect, I quote it regardless. If someone says something good, but not quite as great as I wish, I quote it anyway. Sometimes, I’ll poke and prod, and, dare I say it, lead them into saying the right thing, but a girl’s gotta get something to work with!

On the other side of the page, there’s fiction. For a journalist who’s been trained in formality and structure, it was a rough transition. My automatic response was to make things…stilted, unbiased, I suppose. Say it with me, BORING! But now I’m in month two of heavy, monumental, book edits, and that’s because I’m erasing any hint of “journalist girl.” And you know what’s great? This has only made my non-fiction writing better.

I’ve been injecting life into the people I profile, adding light to the countless events I cover and rounding out features with details that (I hope) evoke a reaction from the reader’s senses.

It should have been expected, given my hobbies as a child, but I so entirely love writing fiction, and this passion has easily surpassed my desire to write non-fiction. It’s freeing, and it allows for so much creativity, I almost wonder how I got by writing so uncreatively as a journalist for as long as I did. Who knows, maybe I just enjoy fiction so much because I can make my characters say exactly what I want them to, without pulling it out of them, or dancing around a question for 20 minutes.

Yes, the lines blur between the two worlds often. A lot of fiction depends heavily on research (I’ve been researching movie production and position descriptions for almost a year now), and a good magazine-style story absolutely needs that creativity and personality to get a reader through 2,000 words. Maybe a writer who straddles the line between the two while writing both is the one who’s really better off. Like I said, I’ve seen improvements on both sides because I’m constantly doing both.

But once you get past that wall in your head, and quiet the voice that’s always asking, Is this realistic?, for me at least, fiction is much easier to write than non. It’s more of a flow than a puzzle. Of course you have to piece together a novel, but unlike an article, where you’re placing in quotes from experts and subjects, in a novel, you’re letting the characters drive the story. They dictate the world around them, so there’s less stopping—less, Hmm do I have a quote that would fit here? A study? An example?

My advice, based solely on my own short experience, is combine your talents. For those writing fiction for the first time, let that most annoying rule of thumb we learn in J school guide you: show, don’t tell. Treat your characters much like you would an interview subject: let them tell the story. Sure, you may need to ask a question or two, but just let them keep talking. As journalists, we learn that the pause is our best friend. People will have a need to fill that pause, and you’ll get your best material. Your characters are no different. They really do talk to you, for you.