I came to fiction writing late. Life happens while you’re busy doing other things. For me, writing started with journalism, and when I practiced that profession, I was pretty narrow in scope—the law and people associated with the law. My professional commitment to real facts, accuracy, and objectivity, I discovered, slowed my transition into fiction writing. But having survived the passage—mostly—I now find my journalism training helpful in writing fiction. Go figure! Although, journalism training can be both an asset and a curse to the fiction writer (it can be hard to shift from finding to inventing facts), I want to explore how the concepts of journalism might well be an asset to you and help you through those frustrating times of fiction writing.
Journalism applies the inverted pyramid structure. You start with an attention-grabbing lead that presents the gist of the story. No surprise endings allowed. You follow that by writing about the most important facts first, interweaving quotes from people who know about what you’re writing about, and work your way down through a decreasing list of lesser important facts. It’s the organization that makes the journalistic style a good way to introduce young people to writing because it requires them think about it. To write a hard news story, the journalist must assemble, assess, and prioritize, and ultimately select that peck of facts from the bushel available, all while working against a deadline . . . tick, tick, tick.
The glowingly obvious distinction between the journalist and the novelist is that the former deals with real facts, the latter with manufactured ones, or ones adapted and modified from reality. In the end, the journalist and novelist tell story, just in different ways.
Consider journalistic writing as a form of outlining. It requires you to be organized and present the facts in a combination of descending importance and logical chronological order. That requires decisions about what goes first and why and what comes next and why and so on. Every novelist makes similar decisions. However, the journalist’s challenge is to make the story interesting without embellishment or fictionalization because of his or her professional fealty to objectivity and accuracy. The novelist invents it all and injects emotionality. For the most part, the journalist must exclude that, or assure that if emotion arises it comes from or is generated by the facts and not his or her spin on them.
As a journalist, you learn quickly to marshal the facts, assign them relative importance, and work to present them with descriptive clarity. You’re job is to inform, not preach, or pontificate. Truth is important as it relates to accuracy. And accuracy is important because it serves to build the reputation for reliability of the journalist. Side by side, journalism and fiction writing are not brother or sister, but kissing cousins.
In journalism school, we were sometimes assigned to watch the Sunday morning interview shows and write the news story. With several guests, guided by a moderator, an abundance of quotes and positions were covered from which to select those for a news story. Lots of judgment calls had to be made, and the challenge was to write a piece with continuity and that flowed, and have it polished and ready to hand in on Monday morning.
If you think writing in the journalistic form is easy, you might be surprised. It’s the organization that becomes the challenge and how to interweave the facts and authoritative quotes without the end result reading like a police report from Joe Friday of “Dragnet.”
Feature writing allows the journalist to interject a higher level of creativity and emotionality into the mix, and thus the stories have a better chance to come alive through their narration and dialogue (quotes). The writer gets to dig a little deeper into the human factors behind a story. (In the day, that style was covered by courses on magazine writing.)
More recently, a new label has been applied to these hybrid writers who interject the style of the novel into the journalist feature—literary journalist. In the right hands, the story can be as dynamic and intriguing as anything by a fiction writer. It’s not a matter of creating the tension and conflict, but finding it and effectively and creatively presenting it. As an assignment, go to www.jonfranklin.com and click on “Stories” then click on “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster.” The feature, written in 1978, a bit before electronic technology flooded into the surgical suite, is about a surgeon and his patient with a brain tumor. It’s factual, riveting, and won Mr. Franklin a Pulitzer Prize.
One of my favorite novelists is Tony Hillerman, who unfortunately died in 2008. He started life as a journalist but had a desire to write fiction. Encouraged by his wife Anne, he did and soon found great success as a novelist. In the process he became the 22nd richest person in Arizona. One of his great successes was his series about Navajo police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I read those novels before I learned of Mr. Hillerman’s journalism background, after which I realized that it was the tint of journalism that enlivened and added color to Hillerman’s factually edgy style. He wrote a dozen and half Leaphorn and Chee books. Did I mention he was also a prolific writer?
No, I am not suggesting you drop everything and enroll in journalism school, although a few courses or night classes on news and feature writing wouldn’t hurt. Why? Organization. The organizational demands that journalists face—especially when writing on deadline—can expose you to thinking faster and deeper. To a novelist, that can be very helpful, and just might have something to do with prolificacy, which is part of being self-disciplined, which you cannot acquire by reading about it. You learn it by doing it.
There is stopgap exercise, however, that requires considerably less time and financial investment than night school classes. Write news stories about what you are working on, stuck on, thinking about, or recently abandoned out of frustration. Play journalist. Interview yourself. Ask probing questions. Answer them—honestly. Then write the story. You will step away from yourself and see what you are doing with new eyes, i.e., a different perspective.
The very first question: What is your novel (or short story) about? You’ll be amazed by how much you have not sufficiently thought through that. I’m guilty of that! Explore the plot, the characters, their distinctions and motivations. Another probing question should be: What do you want the reader to take away from reading your work? Another: What challenges have you run into and what have done to resolve them? You can see where this line of questioning is going—into the world of more deeply thinking about who, what, when, where, why and how of your efforts.
There are no revolutionary interview questions, just the basic stuff, but the stuff we often do not address, or miss or avoid, perhaps out of fear, likely out of procrastination. We get so busy writing, or being frustrated with our efforts, that we don’t think enough about exactly what we’re up to or are trying to achieve. Having to write your own story changes that dynamic.
Consider it like enrolling in your own writing class. You can—for the fun of it—allow yourself only to write the hard news version of your self-interview or expand the inquiry into a feature piece. It’s not only the quality and depth of the questions and answers, but the process of writing your story that will help you to better organize your efforts, hone your focus, and, more likely, discover ways to make whatever you’re doing better.
I’d start with a hard news piece because you’ll find it the most challenging. You can’t wax eloquent but must make it interesting. The process of preparing for the interview (questions) and conducing it (answers) can be cathartic, but writing the story will be what gets you into thinking in a new way. It will force you to think about your writing on several levels, the two most important of which are (1) having to explain yourself to someone and (2) writing clearly about your answers and explanations. Of course, when we write we think about what we’re writing, but we don’t usually step behind the scenes and think about the why’s and how’s of it all. It’s important to look at the man behind the curtain. After all, he’s you.