The last few months have been amazing for me. I’m getting control of my life, gaining confidence…living my dream.

I’m writing fiction.

As I’ve said, I love writing non-fiction, researching something I’m interested in, interviewing people for articles, crafting what I learn into a tight piece that hopefully both informs and entertains. I’m not a journalist. I’d classify my articles and columns as “creative non-fiction.” As I attend writing workshops, read blogs by editors, agents and writers and more importantly write, I’m seeing that there are a lot of things that I’ve done as a non-fiction writer that transfer to fiction writing, such as cutting, editing, looking for flow and knowing your audience.

There are obvious differences. For the magazine articles, newspaper columns, press releases and advertising work that I did, I couldn’t just make things up. I couldn’t write whatever I wanted to say. It had to be true, real. Writing fiction is exactly the opposite. The story is my own. The reader picks up a novel to forget about their own world and escape to someone else’s. They may want it to be believable, but they know the story isn’t true. As a writer this gives you incredible freedom and creates challenges of its own.

The format is entirely different…and yet similar. When I write an article, I have an opening hook, a topic statement and a statement defining the main points of my article. Then there are the main points, and each of them has an opening hook and a transition to the next main point. I follow that by summarizing my main points, restating my topic and finally a closing hook. Hopefully this isn’t something the reader is blatantly aware of. It’s just an organized piece of work that flows well. Some people think that having a format or formula for your work is stifling, but for me knowing where I’m going and how I’m going to get there gives me the freedom to be creative without getting lost.

I was stumbling with format as I began to write my novel. In fact (or more accurately, in fiction) flailing. I tried writing an outline as I do for my non-fiction and that didn’t quite work. I finally allowed the character’s to tell their story and what I found was that if I let it happen, there was a natural flow to the story. Possibly from years of writing with a format, possibly from a lifetime of reading, but the story naturally has an opening hook and closing hook for each paragraph and chapter and details that emerge as the “main points” (plot) of the story. Of course I have to go back and rewrite and craft. But as I write, the years of experience that I have writing “creative non-fiction” are relevant to the fiction I’m writing now.

There are new challenges. Main points and plots aren’t interchangeable. The old advertising advice, “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them,” which works so well in non-fiction writing, doesn’t transfer equally to writing fiction. Just because you can write an informative and entertaining magazine article doesn’t mean you can create a story that can keep a reader’s attention for 60,000 words. (And by you I mean me.)

So as I begin to believe I can do this—write fiction—I wonder how many writers have started by writing fiction and moved in the other direction to non-fiction? Is it as challenging to work in reverse (well, reverse of the way I’m doing it anyway). When you move from plots to main points, from fiction to fact what are the challenges…is it easier? Writers, editors, readers, what are your thoughts on going from fiction to fact?

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I know a lot of people who would like to be published writers. Most of them are intelligent, articulate people who actually have something worthwhile to say, and although they can say it in conversation, they’re often intimidated by an empty piece of paper or blank page on a computer screen. They’ll tell me, “I’m just not a good writer!” or “I don’t know how to get it down on paper.”

It always surprises me when I hear this because for most non-fiction writing the answer is pretty basic: write as if you were talking to your reader. Although that’s a somewhat simplified statement, the truth is it works. Know your audience, and write as if you were speaking to them.

When it comes to fiction however, the rules change. Although you have to find your writing voice, you also have to let your character’s individual voices come through. It’s no longer just you and the reader sitting down and having a simple conversation. All of those people in your head have something to say.

It’s an amazing feeling when you hear that character’s voice speaking and though it’s in your head, it’s not your voice. You and your characters may have a different vocabulary, speaking pattern and thought process. They may say things that you would never consider saying.

Personally, I rarely swear. I’m a big girl and can handle it when other people do, but it’s just not my style. In fact, my favorite parenting rule is “Say something dirty? Clean something dirty.” I figured I would either have very polite boys or a really clean house!

But in my stories there are characters who do swear, and if I try to control what they say, they won’t be real. When my pen hits the paper these days, I am no longer having a conversation with my reader. I’m hoping that my character’s are compelling enough to draw them into another world.

So what about you? Are there voices in your head besides your own? What do they have to say?

Although I would consider my non-fiction writing ‘creative’ non-fiction, I’d have to say that I made sure that I only wrote factual articles. Not that there was a lot of controversy in the magazine and newspaper articles I wrote.

During the five years I wrote cooking columns there were occasional letters or phone calls from purist cooks who didn’t like my use of a bread machine for my pizza dough, or that felt my tamales were not authentic because I replaced the lard with vegetable oil…and they were right, but I didn’t claim purity or authenticity, just what I believed to be good food.

Whether I was writing a cooking column, parenting article or a piece on public speaking, I did my research, used expert sources and only wrote “the facts.”

So here I am making up stories…and the plot is fiction. The characters exist only in the world in my head. But I find myself verifying “facts,” as if the story were real (as I said, in my head it is). Does that street really exist? Did the South Bay Surfing Santa surf during those years? Would it have been high tide—low tide—at that time? Is there a parking meter there?

My husband, Paul, reads every page as I write. “Hey,” he says as he looks over my latest pages. “I thought she lived on Pier Avenue!”

“Well…she did,” I answer. “But then I was down there this morning, and she can’t possibly live there. There aren’t any homes or apartments.”

“Who cares?” he asks “It’s fiction.”

The truth is he’s right, and the story works better if she lives on Pier Ave. I can just make up my own street, maybe Pier Way or Harbor Lane, and put an apartment there for her. IT’S JUST REALLY HARD TO CHANGE THE FACTS!

So anyway, she lives on Pier Ave.!

What about you? How far do you take fact in your fiction?

By the middle of a non-fiction article, it doesn’t matter if I’m feeling less enamored with a source. Say Dr. Horatio Blowhard provides me with brilliant information to end all colic, but he’s harsh and behaves badly during our phone interview. I don’t need to love him or even understand him in order to write my article.

But, with fiction it’s different.

My stories begin with characters not plots. I’m usually going about my business, driving kids from Point A to Point B or unloading the dishwasher when one or two people pop into my head and start talking. If I like these people, they will more than likely become H&H for my next story.

I begin with such enthusiasm, learning all the wonderful things there are to learn about someone early in a relationship. There are a lot of smiles and deep sighs. After all, she’s beautiful and funny; he’s sexy and romantic. And then, the rose-colored glasses get crushed under the weight of something ridiculously stupid. The heroine cries too much. The hero’s kind of a dick. Crap!

So I push back in my chair and stare at the screen and all 20k words I’ve managed to write before I realized these two people suck.

“Fine,” I say. “We’re breaking up.”

And at first they don’t seem to care.

But after a few hours—days in some cases—they start to see what I see (or I start to see what they see), and we meet for coffee and a conversation about how we can make things work. After all, I don’t want to give up 20K words without fighting for them first.

How do I fight to keep the love (for my characters) alive?

  • I daydream about them, especially using music. Like any relationship, the more you keep that special someone on your mind, the more your affection grows. The key is keeping in mind their positive characteristics. If you dwell on the negative, then this tip will backfire fast.
  • I find pictures of real people who look like H&H. In a college PR class, I learned that having a good headshot is important for success in business, because people connect with a face. I know as writers our imaginations are a bit more active than most people’s, but even the most vivid imagination can benefit from a picture ripped from a magazine, a picture that brings you eye to eye with the one(s) you love.
  • I talk to my characters and even interview them. As I go about my non-writing day, we have conversations in my mind. I ask them questions, and—at the risk of sounding like I’m bonkers—they give me answers.

In the end, it all boils down to respect. The more time I spend with my characters, the more I understand their motivations and behaviors, and while understanding them might not make me like what they’re doing on any given page, I do still love them. And that love carries us through to the final page.

A Formula for Fiction

March 22, 2011

Is there such a thing? I thought so. I read. I study what I read. I see the structure of the story. I note the climbs and plummets in each rollercoaster plot. And then I write, using what I’ve read as a roadmap.

Should be easy enough. I’ve been writing non-fiction with various formulas for over a decade. How-to. Persuasive. Opinion. The topics change. The words shuffle. But the bones are the same. Maybe that didn’t make me the most creative non-fiction writer, but I was productive.

Maybe that’s what’s so frustrating now.

I want a fail-proof formula for fiction. I want to sit down, following a path, write a book and see it published.

:Head shake: Obviously that’s not happening.

Oh I’m sitting. And I’m trying to follow a path, but somehow I always end up in the waist-high briars and I can’t seem to get back on track. Don’t get me wrong, I do finish my books. But that’s when the real struggle begins. Because without a formula, I don’t know where to submit.

When a manuscript with an alpha hero comes in at 55K words, “category” comes to mind—maybe even Harlequin Desire. Seems reasonable. But what about the swearing and the almost erotic quality to my sex scenes?

:Face palm: I’ve gone off the path again.

So I replace all the F-words with tamer expressions, and I rewrite the sex scenes to include less of a blush factor, and then I save this edited version while keeping the original intact. And still I’m not certain I’ve made the right decision.

:Sigh: I miss the days when an editor said, “Give me 1,200K words on cloth vs. disposable. Two expert sources. Two anecdotal sources. Evenly balanced.” Then I researched. I interviewed. I wrote. And there was no question where the article would go upon completion.

While I miss the straightforward process of writing non-fiction, I don’t miss the subject matter. I would rather make things up than regurgitate reality. And while I’m making things up—on the path or off the path—I tend to be crazy happy. It’s the publishing part that frustrates me—the “where do I belong?” and the “where does this fit?”

Have you found a formula for fiction that works for you? Do you write the book and then find the publisher? Or do you write with a certain publisher and line in mind?

What Makes the Cut?

March 21, 2011

When writing magazine articles, I’d often have a week or two or even three to come up with a 1500- to 2,000-word article. In 2000 words, you have to become skillful at getting to the point, kind of like updating your status on Twitter. Less is more. Not only did I have more time to write fewer words, but I spent much of that time cutting words. In fact, I often spent more time cutting than writing. So in writing a 50,000- to 90,000-word novel, things change a little bit.

First of all, if I write 2,000 words every week or so, the first draft of my book won’t be finished for at least a year–maybe two. My goal is to write at least a thousand words a day. And, if I go with the “less is more” strategy, my full-length book will become a short story, instead of a novel…many of my ideas have become short stories, and that’s not where I want my writing to go right now. After more than 20 years of trying to get the most impact from the fewest words, I’m trying to switch gears.

I catch myself re-reading pages, and cutting words or sentences, and realizing, that I wrote a thousand words a day that week, and then managed to cut out 3,000 words from the last two weeks work. Yikes! Maybe I should work on movie scripts instead. I could take a full-length novel and make it a 90-minute movie with no problem. Very often I like the edited version better, but then I’m worried about making the scene too short, not getting enough into the chapter.

As I said in a previous rant, I’m not writing with a real outline. What I’m hoping will happen as I get further along is that when I finish my first draft, I’ll be able to go back through and actually fill in information and imagery. Not just fluff to pump up the word count, but real substance to give the story shape. My draft would become something of an outline for the final product. (Hey, that kind of solves my outlining issues!)

So what makes the cut when you’re writing? Do you find that you want to slash words, thoughts, paragraphs…even whole scenes? Or if you moved to script writing, would your work be a made-for-television mini-series? I’d love to hear what makes the cut?

When you’re writing for magazines, deadlines are your friend. They keep you on track because you know you can’t procrastinate past a certain date.  With fiction, there are no deadlines, not at first, anyway.  There’s no editor waiting for this manuscript so I can take as long as I want to write this book. I can do it in three months or three years. That’s great, right? No stress!
Not true.
No deadline is more stressful than having one. No deadline means that I have to find a way to put the fiction work in front of the work that does have a deadline (LOL). No deadline means that six months from now, when I’ve only written three chapters, I can toss the story out the window in frustration.

The obvious answer is to self-impose deadlines, but that works just as well as my deadline to drop fifty pounds by last Christmas. A good option is to enter a partial in a contest that requires a full if you win. The downside there is if you win and you can’t finish on time, you’ve burned a bridge and that might not be worth the gamble.

For people who don’t work as writers by day, writing a novel at night is an outlet. It’s fun and that alone is motivation to sit down in front of the computer for an hour before bed. But for those of us who sit in front of the computer turning out articles all day long, it’s a completely different story. That, right there, is the reason we started this blog. It is different for people who work as non-fiction writers for a living and learning to work without a hard deadline is one of those differences that can be hard to overcome.

Do you have any suggestions for self-imposed deadlines? I’d love to hear them.

I sold my first non-fiction book based on a one page query and a list of potential chapters that I wrote over lunch in the break room of the bagel company where I worked at the time. The book was called TV Toys and the Shows That Inspired Them and Krause Publications (a major hobby publisher) offered me a nifty advance that would be paid out in three payments that would act as a salary as I wrote.

Back then, I had a clunky computer that was a stone and a tablet compared to the one I have today. Unsure if I’d be able to even handle writing a whole book on the poor thing, I asked if I could have more of the advance up front so I could buy a new computer. They agreed and a few weeks later I was typing away on a cool PC (which, in retrospect was still pretty low tech compared even to my iPhone.)

I sold two other books this way, including the Official Buffy the Vampire Slayer Pop Quiz which got me not only a nice advance but a copy of every Buffy script written so I could use it to pull trivia. I read TV scripts for fun so this was quite a score.

Years later, I decided to try my hand at fiction. I’d been writing fiction since I was a kid and I amused my friends with tons of Fan Fiction based on my favorite TV shows but I hadn’t tried authoring a fiction novel. With the goal of getting published in mind, I started submitting queries to publishers and found out a crazy thing, they all wanted to see a finished manuscript before they made a decision.

What? You expect me to labor over a manuscript, pour my heart and soul into it for months on end and then, maybe, you’ll look at it? What’s up with that?

Three publishing companies had paid me to write books based only on my query. Why, suddenly, did I have to write the full book before I could make a sale?

Alas, this is the lot of the newbie fiction author.  So you write and write and you rewrite and even then there’s no guarantee that anyone will ever buy the book, so why do we do it? I guess, because in a way, we can’t not do it. And, I suppose, that most newbie fiction writers haven’t had the non-fiction, upfront payment experience, so they’re not jaded.

For me, this “no money upfront” concept has been hard to get around. Since I write non-fiction for a living, every moment I write fiction feels like a waste. What if the book never sells? Just think of all the paid non-fiction I could have written in its place!

And before you say, writing isn’t about the money, I’ll take money out of the equation. It wasn’t just that publishers gave me an advance, but it’s the fact that they gave me a guarantee. My work would be published and read by somebody. That’s all I’m looking for on my novel, the promise that somebody who doesn’t know me or owe me will read it when I’m done.