When Non-Fiction Writers Write Fiction

I come across this quite a lot in my work, when people perhaps more used to writing technical documents (that was me)  historical pamphlets, text books or newspaper reports, turn their hand to fiction. This is both liberating and confining at the same time and the difference between those who seem to adjust to it easily and those who struggle, seems to be how much the writer actually reads fiction. How much they already know or can learn to grasp the concepts of narrative device for fictional story telling. Because they are different.

When someone tells me they usually write non-fiction books I can usually guess the kind of mistakes they’ll make and for the most part my instincts are right. Writing a historical text or let’s say science text requires an empirical kind of language, a generic reporting of information in the most succinct way. That in itself requires a skill you have to refine and develop. There has to be a logical reasoned flow of arguments, so the structure is key, one salient point leading to the next. Arguments need to be supported and referenced so nothing can be said without substantiation and when a personal viewpoint is presented it needs to be made clear it is the writer’s postulation but it can’t be ’emotive’. It can’t be I have a feeling or a hunch and written from the heart. Or certainly in science papers it can’t. There is a formula that comes the more you write that way. It has to be objective 🙂

So how is this so different to fiction? Well in the writing of science papers some might say there is plenty of fiction in it! But the whole style is so different. For a start fiction is all made up and therefore you want to emote! Emote! Emote! It’s now all about subjectivity and getting right into the head of characters. So those used to non-fiction often TELL. They report on the happenings in a scene like a character standing back from it. So sometimes we still hear that objective voice and it can sound flat. The writer needs to learn how to climb inside the scene and invade the character.

There is also the danger of exposition dumps; so if you write science fiction and are a scientist you are likely to overload with science, because you know it, you therefore want to show it off, right? WRONG. This is something I had to think about when I wrote the short story Mirror Image which touches on the medical horror. I’d love to develop it into a novel at some point. Because it relies on a scientific principle, I had to use some of that for the readers to understand but it had to be in everyday easy to understand language and not as an information dump. So it needs to seep into the work, it needs to exist between the lines so it’s woven subtly into the fabric of the story. And you can use characters to reveal the pertinent information, on a need-to-know basis. Knowing it as well as you do, the same can be said for example of history or finance if you’re writing a historical novel or a conspiracy thriller, does come through but there is an art to how much and how the information is imparted: not like those non-fiction texts!

Narrative device and how you structure fiction is all about the craft of the story telling itself and so it has to be done in a compelling and engaging way. It has to be filmic and visual for the reader like shooting a movie. So in fact it has to be very different to non-fictional texts. So often I see books written in the same generic flat voice and so often there is no understanding of how the fiction writers do it. I have to say, think about what you learned in writing non-fiction and then leave most of that behind.  So even structure can be played with, and often in fiction does not need quite the same linearity you see in an essay for example — that said it does need to flow, one point motivating another so there are similarities as well. And what you can take from non-fiction is brevity. Now that might seem odd but here’s what you do. You now have license to be wordy, so now you can use description and thoughts and it will capture the voice of a character and not this stilted generic voice. Once the writer has grasped what fiction allows him or her to do it’s liberating. Slough off the constraints of non-fiction writing. But once you have set yourself free to do that, then rein it in so the more the writer develops the skill, the more those skills in brevity allow the writing to be pared down. It can’t lose voice or device, it still needs to be compelling, but now some of those frills can be lost. So the same skills in editing your work will apply: so for example while you can use more description in fiction, it still has to be just the right word in the right place.

What fiction does is open new worlds to us, but in a way that allows us to be there and to truly becomes a part of it. Fiction brings new ideas and ways to see to its readers. So the power lies in reaching people outside the readership of the non-fiction books where often we preach to the converted anyway. How likely might you be to pick up a book on the Holocaust for example, unless already interested but you may well read fictional books that tackle that like The Book Thief; or assisted suicide, like Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You. It’s a great way to raise awareness but here lies a fundamental difference: not in a preachy way. Never in a really I write non-fiction but I am using this novel to impart information way. Got it?

Done well and the fiction has great power. I think it can hold more power and get to more people which is why it’s so important to have something to say in your fiction. Change the world, a word at a time.

And remember the readership of the science fiction writer, is not the same readership as the science writer who picks up text books, so if there is a take-home message to this, it’s always bear in mind who you are writing for. Stephen King calls it your ‘imaginary reader’ (in his case his wife) and says you have to bear that in mind whenever you write.

That is all!

It's an art

It’s an art


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