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Nonfiction and Fiction Writing – Worlds Apart

Nonfiction and Fiction Writing – Worlds Apart

    One of my role models is Cory Doctorow.  Cory’s the co-editor of Boing Boing and the author of Little Brother, a teen sci fi adventure set in San Francisco in the near future.

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    I love Cory because like me, he has about ten jobs, and I admire him because he’s made a successful transition from nonfiction to fiction writing.  You heard it here – this year I’m hoping to publish my YA (young adult) novel, Doubtful Sound.  The book is in editing right now, and here are some things I’ve learned about how writing fiction for teens is different from writing career advice for the over twenty set:

    Good fiction writing does not happen on command: When I’m on deadline for a Wall Street Journal piece, I just sit down and write.  It doesn’t matter if I’m not in the mood, I produce anyway, and I’m fortunate in that the quality does not suffer.   For my fiction to be any good, however, I have to feel inspired, and such a feeling is often difficult to pin down.  If I had to earn a living every week based on how many decent fiction paragraphs I could churn out, I would probably starve.

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    Good fiction writing is an art form: To write my journalism articles, and even my nonfiction books, I follow a strict process that begins with research, continues with interviewing and draft writing, and finishes with one – maybe two – edits.  When my editors provide feedback, it’s usually in the form of nips and tucks.  Novel writing, on the the other hand, involves mixing a pallet of characters, settings, and plot lines.  Sometimes you get lucky and you come across something brilliant, and sometimes it all goes horribly wrong.  And the editing is often done by chainsaw.

    An objective style will kill you: My nonfiction editors balk when I insert too much of myself in my material, even when it’s an opinion piece.  My job is to be a non-partisan distributor of information, and I am to do that job as parsimoniously as possible.  As a fiction writer, though, I am expected to possess an artistic style that is unlike anyone else on the planet, and to feel comfortable expressing that style fully.  A removed, unrelatable author and/or narrator is the kiss of death.  This takes some getting used to, and I’m still working at it.

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    Immersion helps: I write nonfiction pieces on so many different careers and aspects of the business world that if I were to go onsite and experience each and every one for myself, I would never get anything done.  I rely instead on the accounts and experiences of others to make my material true to life.  As a writer of YA fiction, I can’t get away with this.  In order to accurately portray the lives of teens in the early 2000s, I need to be among them.  For this reason, I workshopped my novel at a private school in Chicago among 60 eighth graders.  What I lost in time, I more than made up for in authenticity.

    Maybe it’s different for everyone who writes both nonfiction and fiction, but for me, the latter is much, much, more difficult.  Fiction writing is more creative, but you shouldn’t be fooled.  The effort and strategy that go into every strong novel are immense and sometimes overwhelming.  I am humbled to think that someday my book can stand alongside the novels of authors who make it look easy.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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