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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.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.
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.
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.
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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