Hello, writers. Maya Angelou died this week, a great loss to the literary world and, of course, the Democratic Party. If you haven't read her I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and the sequels, do.
About writing, she said this:
I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in... before she realizes she's reading.(Mission accomplished.)
About getting along with others, she said this:
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
The first quote is a reminder of the importance of simplicity in writing. Good writing never jars the reader out of the tale by reminding him or her that the author exists. (Terry Pratchett gets a pass on this as on most things.) Someone or other once said that the writing should be a clear pane of glass through which the reader sees the story.
Here, as always, I'm talking about fiction and narrative non-fiction. From time to time people posting on WO have mentioned that they know a lot about writing non-fiction-- academic papers, blogs, journalism, technical writing-- but that that doesn't seem to transfer well to writing fiction.
I've been thinking about this, and what the difference is between the two. Here's what I've come up with so far:
Ways fiction writing and non-fiction writing are the same
Most of the rules and conventions of non-fiction writing transfer to fiction. Sentences are constructed the same way. The rules of punctuation are the same. About the only differences in the conventions are that in fiction and narrative non-fiction non-standard grammar is permitted in the name of voice.
Ways they are different
- Fiction has to be believable. A lot of the stuff we talk about on WO has to do with making fiction believable.
- You may have to offer evidence to back up your assertions in non-fiction, but it's evidence you can find. (Citations, footnotes, graphs, statistics.) In fiction, the evidence has to created, detail by detail.
- In fiction what you write has to be relatable to the reader's own experiences and knowledge of the world. If a person behaves unbelievably cruelly in a news story or a history book, the reader thinks, “How awful that anyone would do that.” But if a character behaves unbelievably cruelly in a novel, the reader says, “Ridiculous. No one would do that.” Unless you've made it believable.
- Fiction is like directing a choir instead of singing solo. There are so many things that have to be managed-- character development, language, subplots, and so on. That's why hundreds of revisions may be necessary. Each revision weaves in something new.
- In the fiction editing process, the writer makes the final decisions. If an editor advises changing something, you would be wise to listen, but you don't have to change it if you disagree. It will not be changed for you. (Working authors tend to make most of the requested changes.)
- No one can tell you how to do it right. There are rules but, as people have pointed out here many times, they are made to be broken by those who have learned them well. (In academic writing, by contrast, the rules are not made to be broken.)
I guess the above all more or less amounts to two points: There's less guidance in fiction writing, and there are many, many techniques that have to be employed to help the readers in their suspension of disbelief.
What are some of the differences you've found between the two?
Find a passage of non-fiction online. Any kind of nonfiction, but choose a selection under 150 words in length. (It doesn't have to be a complete work. A paragraph or two is fine.) You can choose a news story, a troubleshooter page from Firefox, anything.
Rewrite it as a scene from a novel. Be as untrue to the original as you need to be. Use any of the techniques we've discussed on Write On! in the past-- dialogue, describing the scene while moving through it, tension building, character development, engaging at least three senses, etc-- or any other techniques that you choose.
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