Sunday, August 3, 2008

On starting out writing nonfiction

Speaking (as we just were) of my early days as a writer, here's a piece I wrote in 1997. It appeared in the Ottawa Science Fiction Society Statement (for which I did a column called "Random Musings, more installments of which are here).

I started out as a nonfiction writer, and a lot of people have asked me if that was a good way to prepare for a career in writing fiction. The answer is yes, it was great for me — but that had a lot to do with the particular kind of nonfiction work I was doing.

I've had a lot of discussions with a fellow writer who, like me, started out writing nonfiction. The difference: I started out writing nonfiction for magazines; she started out reporting for newspapers. We both agree that my nonfiction career better prepared me for fiction writing than hers did. The reasons:
  • Magazine articles have a traditional "beginning, middle, and end" structure: the magazine writer has to find both a narrative hook and a conclusion, whereas the newspaper writer has to adhere to the standard inverted-pyramid structure, in which the "hook" is simply a bald statement of the most-important facts, and there is no conclusion — the article is structured so that it can be chopped off at any paragraph break by the editor, depending on available room in the newspaper. The upshot: I'm a much better plotter, and much more innovative in my choice of narrative forms, than she is.

  • Feature magazine articles are written much more slowly. A reporter might do several stories a day; a magazine writer might do only a couple of stories a month. The differences are obvious: the magazine writer learns to spend much more time on each piece, working with and revising the text. I'm now content to spend a week or more on a short story, if need be; my associate has a hard time going back to the same short story on a second day.

  • Both feature magazine articles and news stories are often assigned to a given word length (say, 2,000 words) — but the newspaper writer, who is working much more quickly, will find 2,000 words and stop. I often would have 5,000- or even 10,000-word first drafts of 2,000 word articles: there's a much greater filtration process, deciding what is really necessary to the story and what can be dispensed with. The result is that I write much tighter fiction (more plot events; more ideas per page) than does my associate.

  • Magazine features often consist in whole or in part of profiles of other people; a magazine writer learns to capture the voice and personality of distinct individuals on the printed page, whereas a reporter is usually constrained against doing that. Magazine writers try to capture who somebody is, reporters capture just what they said. I ended up learning a lot more about characterization than my associate did.

  • This one is a subtle difference, but it's based on the fact that although beginning magazine writing and beginning small-town reporting probably pay about the same (which is next to nothing), established magazine writers make a hell of a lot more money than any but a top person at a major big-city daily. I ended up writing for Canada's top magazines, often making a dollar a word for my nonfiction articles; because of this, I tend to shy away from any but the major short-fiction markets. My associate, who never made the equivalent of more than a dime a word for her reporting, still pursues things that I consider non-markets (payment in copies of the magazine, instead of cash), or fraction-of-a-penny-a-word markets.

    That's all well and good, except that because she'd "sold" dozens of stories to such markets, she thought she was a much better, more polished short-story writer than she really was . . . and when she did go after the major markets (and tried to switch to novel writing, as well as trying to acquire an agent), she found her stories being bounced, often with just form rejections. So, while a staff reporter doesn't really think too much about markets, a freelance article-writer does constantly rank the attractiveness of markets, and perhaps ends up with a better "reality-check" sense about his or her progress in fiction writing.

  • A related point: when someone is paying you a dollar a word (or even a goodly fraction of that amount), you do feel you've got to give real value to the editor for that money. I have never uttered the words "well, it's good enough, I guess" in relation to a piece of writing; my associate admits that that's the first sentiment that occurs to her upon completing a draft of a piece.
If I had to summarize it all with a gross generalization, the magazine path taught me quality over quantity; the newspaper path taught her quantity over quality.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At August 07, 2008 2:11 PM , OpenID ianrandalstrock said...

Hmm, some really interesting points there. I never thought about my background in newspapering in relation to my fiction career, but having read this, I can see where it might have served my fiction ill. Specifically, when I sit down to write fiction, it comes out very short, and (I hope) punchy. Great training for writing short-shorts, not so much for novels.

On the other hand, more like you, I try to pack a bunch of ideas into a tiny space, and also, I'm always looking for the top markets.

I guess I could sit and navel-gaze at these wonderful insights for quite a while, or perhaps I should just go write something else {g}.


P.S. - Hope you're enjoying WorldCon.


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