One of my colleagues in the Long Island Writers Group mentioned in one of our group emails that she is interested in taking a fiction class in order to make her non-fiction work “more creative.” Another colleague discouraged her from doing so, saying, “Fiction and non-fiction are really different animals.” Another colleague suggested that she go for it, that anything that gets the creative juices flowing is worth it.
I actually fall somewhere in the middle. My take is this: Unless you specifically are interested in fiction writing, you are better off spending your money on a creative non-fiction class, rather than a fiction class. It just makes more sense to take a class that is focusing on your craft — unless you just want to take the fiction class for fun or as an aside.
However, as for journalism and fiction being completely “different animals.” I’m not so sure. Of course, they’re not exactly the same, but as as someone who is making the jump from journalism to fiction, I see a few parallels:
- Just the facts. Journalism is all about getting your facts straight. Journalists tirelessly go over quotes, confirm facts until we are sure that we are presenting a true portrait. Similarly, fact is what generates fiction, facts are what make fiction believable. There’s no doubt about it. Having a firm grasp on whatever subject it is your writing about (neuropsychology, tennis, parenting), even in a “make-believe world,” is what will make your fiction sing. Of course, the difference is that if you mistakenly misrepresent something in your fiction — the eyeball scan comes to mind in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons — there won’t be any angry emails from editors or angry letters to the editor. In fact, most people won’t even notice.
- Attention to detail. In fiction, whether or not you’re writing about something real (clock-making) or unreal (time travel), you must have the ability to create descriptive passages that accurately present the nuances of your subject — describing the parts to create a whole — in a truthful, relatable way. I know, for sure, I developed that skill as a journalist. As a fiction writer, I find myself asking the same questions as I did as a journalist. For instance, when I was the lighting editor at HFD (way back when) and covering a trade show, I had to accurately present new product introductions: What is the color? the texture? the shape? the material? the price? the importance of this new product of line? why does anybody care? why should they care? As I write Baby Grand, I think about those same things — even the Who, What, Where, Why and How of hard news — in order to be sure I’m presenting a complete and an authentic picture. (I always promised myself that I’d be sure to use the word “finial” if I ever wrote a novel.)
- Portraying believable characters. I’ve written tons of human-interest magazine articles about specific individuals, and it’s all about re-creating the man or woman you have in front of you in such a way that your readers will be able to see that person too as if he or she were standing in front of them. As a novelist, I do that too. The only difference is that the person I’m describing is not real. But the skill set I’m employing is the same.
- Construction. Okay, I’m not saying that my journalism pieces featured a plot in the way a book does, but there is something to be said about the piecing together of a novel that I’ve found is not very different from how I’ve stitched together my feature articles or even my work on Good Girls Don’t Get Fat. Trying to figure out what goes first, next, etc. Writing, any kind, is a puzzle with a particular rhythm.
- Deadlines. Okay, so deadlines are everywhere, not just in writing. But my work as a journalist has helped me figure out how to manage my time in such a way that deadlines are met. And I’m hoping that serves me well as my Baby Grand deadline gets nearer.