Friday, March 21, 2008

Just the Facts, or Not so Much


I've thought about the differences between fiction and non fiction a lot this past week. And since so many of us started our writing careers doing non fiction stuff -- Genene and Karen with text writing to go with their design work, Wavy, Lisa and Eli with school papers, maybe trade journal-type stuff, Lori with her magazine work, and Paty, Piper, Wavy and I with our journalism experience, (am I leaving anyone out?)it seemed a relevant subject to post about.

Some things are always the same, whether fact or fiction. Like using ACTIVE VERBS & STRONG, DESCRIPTIVE NOUNS. Even "dry" non fiction reading material can be jazzed up with a thoughtful choice of nouns and verbs.

But what about LET'S STICK TO THE FACTS, MA'AM? Fact checking is important to both fiction and non fiction. Of course we have greater leeway with our fictional stories -- we get to come up with fictional towns, fantasy worlds and islands (thinking of you here, Alice) pretend names and quirks for our characters, and fake situations -- but still, we need to make sure our facts, such as historic dates, or information about specific occupations is dead on.

Although PASSIVE LANGUAGE is heavily frowned upon in novel-writing -- and one of my personal pet peeves -- it seems it's hardly noticed in journalism and other non fiction areas. Why is this? Two reasons, I believe. Lazy or hurried writing by journalists. To quote Richard Gere's column-writing character in 'Runaway Bride': "Journalism is literature in a hurry". With daily deadlines always looming, reporters have very limited time for proof-reading and story tweaking. Reporters hope the editors will catch the flub ups, but they are as harried as the the writers. The other reason I believe passive language isn't such a big deal in the journalism world is, as with mystery writing, journalists don't always have a subject to pin the sentence to. Like writing mysteries, the facts are not always revealed in the beginning. For mystery, passive language is, of course, used to prolong the suspense. In a breaking news story, the facts are never all available in the beginning. Sometimes there is only a crime to write about, but no suspect. Where the heck is the subject to attach the sentence action to?

This and THAT. That is sort of a no-no, raise-the-red-flag word in fiction writing. As novelists, we use it, then we go back and take out every one (that) we can. In writing non fiction, I find myself not using the work that in the first place, then going back and adding several thats back in. In journalism, the story must always be simple to understand, or you lose your readers. That is a little word that often clears that up.

FORMULA WRITING. In fiction we can break all the rules. But there are still rules: Turning points, black moments, resolution; goal, motivation, conflict: Don't use too much flashback, too many dream sequences (unless you're writing Alice in Wonderland) or ramble on with go-nowhere scenes. In hard news writing -- murder, mayhem and car wrecks, say -- there is an even stricter formula: Open with a nut graff, which translates to give them the pared down story in the first paragraph. Also, the first quote should be an eye-cather. The last quote should be interesting. End with a conclusive paragraph. The reason behind this rather dull-to-write formula is simple. People are in a hurry. They skim the news and often don't get any further into a story than the first paragraph or two. (How depressing is that for the writer? And we thought rejections were bad!) The formulaic style of writing doesn't leave a ton of leeway for creativity, but that's the challenge, I suppose. Now with feature writing, my favorite, there is more opportunities to lope into a story, instead of entering at a breakneck gallop -- as long as the writer doesn't dawdle long -- and the author can embellish, use a clever turn of prose here and there, and make the piece fun (hopefully)to read.

So, what do you think? Does non fiction writing help or hinder your fiction work? How? Please feel free to use some examples.


Alice Sharpe said...

Danita, I just wanted to respond to your blog before Easter housekeeping and shopping chores take me away from the computer.

I loved your blog. I swear, as many times as I have read and been told examples of passive voice, discerning it remains a problem for me. Why can't I get this? How hard can it be?

Anyway, in response to your question, I am not a good non-fiction writer and have never done it well. I feel much more comfortable in fiction.

That said, I do believe in the power of a carefully chosen word. One of my biggest goals during rewrite is to make sure the words I entrust with my meaning are worthy. better to thrust an arm in the air than raise your hand. Better to jab the guy in the gut than tap his tummy though that said, I rather like the tap the tummy image and I just changed my mind. Poking and jabbing are two different acts with two different outcomes. Maybe.

I digress.

I hope other people are better with examples -- I'll check in later. And, yes, like you, I weed out all the "thats" and then parcel them out again a judicious eye.

Happy Easter!

Paty Jager said...

Hmm.. does non-fiction writing help or hinder my fiction writing?

I think it helped. Like you stated, in newspeper stories you have to stay concise and not ramble on. I think having written for a newspaper has made my fiction writing tighter, less ambling.

But at the same time, I have had to work hard at adding the emotion to my stories. News stories should be unbiased (yeah right) so keeping the writer's emotion out of the story was something I was good at, however, I don't have a problem getting the person's (I'm interviewing) emotions into the story.

As for passive voice, yes, it is the norm in some writing and the plague in others. And the nemisis of most romance writers!

Good blog!

Genene said...

Interesting topic, Danita!

And let me digress right away here to say happy Easter to all who celebrate it. Someone sent me an e-mail titled "Dreaming of a white Easter." Whoda thunk our weather would be so interesting?

Back to fiction and nonfiction -- I think the process of writing nonfiction for a newsletter helped in writing fiction.

Many times I interviewed people to write about a subject close to their hearts. To capture their passion on paper, I tried to become that person as I wrote. Sometimes I ghost wrote columns for the head of an agency, and had to sound like that person in print. Good practice for writing point of view for fiction characters.

I also had a half dozen people looking over what I had written -- including the person I had intereviewed -- all with varying opinions of the personal or political message they wanted to convey. Again, good practice for fiction writing when I listened to critiques and got rejection letters.

Nonfiction writing was also good practice in switching from one style of writing to another, such as switching from writing a story to writing a synopsis.

With all that said, I still had to learn to write fiction. More correctly, I'm still learning to write fiction. For me, writing articles in a newsletter is much different than writing a fictional story. Doing both has helped me in both areas, but fiction and nonfiction each have a separate process also -- at least in my little corner of the world!

Karen Duvall said...

Great blog, Danita. I have to say that any kind of writing helps with fiction writing. I think it's just getting those dang words down in an interesting way that's important. So however you can make that happen is a bonus.

I used to be the production editor for a bank card marketing firm in Colorado. Now that was an interesting job. I wrote dozens of articles for credit cardholders and card-accepting merchants, and designed the publications as I wrote them. Fun work. But the main thing it taught me was brevity. Brevity can be a good thing, but I find I edit the hell out of my own stuff. It's super lean by the time I'm done, and that's not always the best way to go for a novel. Which is why I always have to go back and add stuff in. This is what writing nonfiction has done for me. 8^)

Danita Cahill said...

Alice, you're amazing. You say you don't give much thought to the black moment, yet you instinctively put one in each of your books. You say you don't understand passive language, yet you instinctively don't use it.

Wish I had those natural talents too and didn't have to think about doing it, or not doing it -- depending -- so much. If that just made any sense...

Good luck with the Easter prep.

Danita Cahill said...

Good point on the unbiased thing too, Paty. I forgot to mention that. Of course, in our fiction, we can be as biased as we want, about whatever we want. Although, ususally, a little is plenty as far as that goes, or it starts to sound like the writer is a harpy on a soapbox. Don't you agree?

Danita Cahill said...

That's the greatest thing about writing, Genene, in any form or genre -- capturing the passion on paper. I like how you put that. I enjoy writing non fiction about anyone who's passionate about anything good, don't you?

And yes, having various editors look over my news stories and features daily helped thicken my skin. I still needs to grow a few more layers, but I'll get there.

I, too am still learning to write fiction. Non fiction stuff is way easier for me, due to the amount I've written and the years of on-the-job training.

I just thought of something else non fiction writing helps with. Paty said it keeps the writing tight, but it also makes it easy to write shorter -- short stories, or novellas, for example. Which is often harder than writing a full-length novel because of the restrictions.

Danita Cahill said...

There, Karen. You just said it about writing for length. I should have read through all the comments before answering.

I wrote a weekly elementary school newsletter for a year. All the news had to fit on one page, no matter what. For six years I wrote a weekly garden column, and for a year or so, an editorial column for a weekly paper. Those also were limited to space constrictions.

Alice Sharpe said...

Danita -- Instinct, blind luck, hm--- I fear you give me too much credit.

Meanwhile, the newspaper articles you sent me got here today. Thank you. The one on the murder was much appreciated and the one you wrote for the newspaper is so adorable and charming I can't stand it. It made me want vegetable beef soup and I don't even like it! Dalton is a lucky little guy to have a mom like you.

I'm telling you this on the blog because our email doesn't always communicate... good job!

Barbara said...

Hey, Danita! You forgot about me. I, too, have done a fair amount of non-fiction writing. I self-published a self-help book on postpartum depression and a workbook for family and friends of alcoholics. I wrote a church newsletter for a year and filler columns part of another year. I had a few magazine articles published, and placed 44th in a Writer's Digest article contest in the 1970s.

But as Karen Duvall said in yesterday's comments, "Let's face it, writing a good story isn't simple at all." I'm certainly learning that. In the midst of learning about character arcs, story arcs, POV, and various other essentials of story writing, I'm not finding my non-fiction experience terribly helpful. At this point, at least, the two types of writing seem far apart.

However, I never would have attempted writing novels if I hadn't had some success in writing non-fiction, and I guess that is what keeps me persisting in the attempt even though the going is slow.

Danita Cahill said...

Thanks so much, Alice. Writing compliments from you always make me bask.

Glad you got some use out of that murder article. I figured it was old news to you, but figured just in case...I think that saga will go on for a while.

Danita Cahill said...

Barbara, I am so sorry. Didn't mean to leave you out. I actually didn't know about all the previous writing you've done. How cool. Thanks for sharing your accomplishments with us.

I'm in the same boat with you -- fiction is a different beast, and since we're not so sure-footed with writing it yet, it's harder. But (I hope) it should get easier as we keep doing it. Don't give up!