Writing fiction after all that non-fiction is really really hard

August 1, 2013 in Novel, On Writing

once upon a time

I have recently developed a very real fear that I may never be able to write fiction again.

They say writers need to write, and over the past year all I’ve been doing is reading and writing non-fiction, almost exclusively. At work every day I write news, and in my spare time I write on this blog, which essentially comprises film, restaurant and book reviews these days, or my sports blog, which is, well, all about sports.

My reading habits have also veered towards non-fiction. Browsing through my book reviews this year I see (chronologically from the start of the year):

– Fifty Shades Freed by EL James (fiction) — the final book in the Fifty Shades Trilogy and probably the worst book I have ever read, fiction or otherwise. I think it barely counts as a book, let alone fiction.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction) — the legendary writing book, part memoir and part writers’ guide.

Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill (fiction) — a collection of short stories about Japan.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (non-fiction) — another seminal writers’ book about staying out of the rejection pile.

Inferno by Dan Brown (fiction) — no introduction necessary, though again, some would argue whether Brown’s writing classifies as fiction given that it is dominated by Wikipedia-like entries about history, architecture and artworks. And the quality of the fiction writing is, let’s just say, somewhat lacking.

Dream Team by Jack McCallum (non-fiction) — a riveting account of the one and only 1992 Dream Team.

The War for Late Night by Bill Carter (non-fiction) — the fascinating account into the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno late night television feud of 2010.

Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (non-fiction) — Phil Jackson’s account of how he won his 11 NBA championship rings as a coach and 2 as a player.

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (non-fiction) — the writing bible.

The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith (non-fiction) — the controversial book about Michael Jordan and the tumultuous 1990-91 season of the NBA champions Chicago Bulls.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (fiction) — the classic novel about a man whose youth and beauty was preserved by a magical painting.

Justice by Michael J Sandel (non-fiction) — an engrossing philosophy book about morality and the right thing to do.

By my count that’s 8 non-fiction books and 4 fiction books. But one of the fiction books is Fifty Shades and another is Dan Brown, so they don’t really count. And of the other two, one is a short story collection and the other is a classic novel written in the 19th century (which can be helpful but not that helpful).

It’s not that you can’t be creative with non-fiction writing, it’s just that the parameters are defined and confined by the facts you have to convey. With fiction writing it has to all come from your imagination, and that’s where I feel as though my brain has been reprogrammed and all that creativity I once had (however little it may have been) has been sucked out of me completely.

If I had to sit down and write a short story or screenplay right now I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, just the thought of the possibility of getting back to working on my novels or screenplay makes me nervous, and scared — which probably explains why I have set myself the long-term target of completing all my backlogged blog posts before commencing any “proper” fiction writing. It’s pathetic, I know, but at least I am clearing out my backlog.

To lubricate my ride back into fiction, I am going to try and re-enter the land of fiction. Classics are good, but right now I’m thinking something less challenging, like commercial fiction. I’ve started reading Gillian Flynn’s acclaimed Gone Girl. I’m only about a fifth of the way through but it’s already shaping up to be one heck of a cracking read. It’s one of those books that grips onto you with characters that ring so true you feel like you know them. Apparently Ben Affleck has signed on for the film version, to be directed by David Fincher, so his head keeps popping up in my mind. (And Rosamund Pike has reportedly been cast as the other lead).

I still have some other non-fiction books I must get through, including parenting books on baby sleep (it’s gotta be done) and a couple of book reviews for publication. But my focus for the rest of the year will hopefully be on fiction. I have lined up The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Anna Funder’s All That I Am, and I intend to get through them all before December 31. I don’t know how, since having a job with two kids under two means I pretty much only have time to read while travelling to and from work and just before bed — but I’m still going to try to reach my New Year’s Resolution goal of 20 books for the year.

And before you start being a dick, give me a break; that’s very good for me already.

Irritating Authorial Hiccups

August 22, 2011 in On Writing

I’ve been reading a fantastic book called Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb to review for a trade publication.  It’s a collection of insightful and wonderfully written ‘profiles’ (some are closer to reviews of biographies) of a wide array of celebrated entertainers, artists, writers and public figures over few hundred years.

Gottlieb is the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, the president and editor in chief of Alfred A Knopf and the editor of The New Yorker (!).  You don’t get a resume more impressive than that.

My review of this book for this blog will be coming in a couple of weeks, but I feel like I’ve already learned a great deal — not just about the people profiled in the book, but also in terms of writing and editing skills.

I was reading the profile of Elia Kazan (one of the best known directors of the 50s and 60s) and in it Gottlieb criticises a particular book that is peppered with ‘irritating authorial hiccups’.

Examples:

  • It must be said
  • Be that as it may
  • It is not too much to say
  • If you will
  • Frankly
  • Of course (which Gottlieb calls ‘the lazy writer’s crutch’)

Reading that list made me sweat because I’m certain I use those terms all the time, especially the last two.  And in a way (is that an irritating authorial hiccup too?), I suppose he is right in that they are not really necessary and can come across as lazy and too ‘loose’, especially in what is supposed to be a well-crafted piece of writing.

On the other hand (what about this one?), I think whether such terms are appropriate may depend on the type of writing it is and the audience it is intended for.  For instance, I like this blog to be conversational, informal, kind of chatty — and I think some of these ‘hiccups’ may help achieve that purpose.  Then again (this one too?), I could be way off the mark and it might be that this type of voice is achievable without these lazy crutches.

The bigger question is whether the terms (when repeated regularly throughout a piece of writing) are irritating only for experienced writers/editors, or do they annoy the casual reader as well?

It really helps to read writings out loud

April 18, 2011 in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study

The other day I finally got to workshop a chapter of my novel in my creative writing class.  I was a bit nervous (as I always am when getting other people to read my writing), but this was a little different.

This was a genuine first draft, and it wasn’t the type of writing the class was seeing.  The style was chatty, colloquial, and very light on description.  There was a lot of telling, not a whole lot of showing.  It was my attempt at something new in order to try and establish the voice, the most important part and what I’ve been struggling with.

If I learned one thing that night, it’s that reading your writings out loud really helps.  As I said, this was a first draft, but I did have a read over it to correct typos and spelling/grammatical errors.  But I read it over in my head, and to me, it all sounded fine.  I thought it was good enough.

When I read it out loud in class, however, it was a different story.  The story itself was not problematic but there was something about the rhythm to the narrative and the voice that were just a little…off.  There were moments when it sagged, when it didn’t sound right.  It was a flaw my lecturer picked up and said it was particularly important in comedic pieces (which this was) to have the right beats.  I hit some and missed some in this draft.

There were various other tips and recommendations from my classmates (including, of course, trying to ‘dramatise’ the ‘telling’ a bit more), but this was one thing that stood out the most.  Reading my writings out loud helped me to capitalise on the problem immediately.

From now on, that’s what I’m going to do with every draft and redraft.  Read it out loud and see how it sounds!

Things I Learned in Writing Class this Semester (Part III)

November 30, 2010 in Blogging, Novel, On Writing, Study

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

Here is hopefully the final part of “Things I Learned in Writing Class this Semester”.  Parts I and II can be found here and here.

Read, read and read

Without a doubt, I’ve read more this year than any other year of my life.  I’m still not a prodigious reader like those who can read a book a day, or 3 books a week.  I just can’t focus for that long in a single block, and there’s always too many other things I want to do. 

But what I have discovered is that the old adage is definitely true — to be a writer you have to be a reader.  The more you read the better you write.  This semester I’ve read a lot of non-fiction.  For one writer I interviewed, I read about 50 of his articles (some 5000-6000 words) in the space of a week or so.  This is in addition to all the weekly readings we had to do for class and my leisure readings on the side.

One slight problem I had was that if I kept reading the same person, I would tend to start emulating that writer’s style and voice — but after a while I realised that this was because I hadn’t really found my own yet.  Once I started feeling more comfortable with my own writing, that no longer became an issue.

The bigger problem was that I started to become a different type of reader — one that was always looking out for the writer’s style, trying to identify what is good and what is bad in the writing, so as to improve my own.  This was particularly the case when I was reading for my editing class.  It’s good to be analytical but doing too much of it drains you and takes away the fun from the story.

I guess it’s a matter of separating your leisure reading from your professional one, but it takes more discipline than I’ve developed thus far.

Write, write and write

You can read all you want, but improvements don’t manifest until you start writing.

I’ve written more in the last two years than I could have ever imagined — first of course on blogs and websites, and also the first draft of my novel, and then for the writing course itself and for publication.

I haven’t found writing for fun, for assessment and for publication too different to be honest.  I try and approach it all with the same level of professionalism and enthusiasm.  It’s been fascinating reading over my stuff over the years and seeing how I’ve progressed and changed as a writer.  A lot of it is still crap but occasionally I can see a glimmer of hope, a spark, a moment of clarity — and that keeps me going through the times I struggle (which is often).

But yeah, it’s a matter of writing, writing and writing some more.  The only way you’re going to improve.  In my mind (usually when I wake up in the middle of the night), I can come up with some awesome stuff, or so I think, but when I try and replicate it the next morning on the page, it’s never nearly as good.  Maybe if I keep writing I’ll be able to do it some day.

Time flies when you’re having fun

It’s been one of the shortest years I can remember — since March, the everything has just flown by.  Interestingly, as a lawyer, I used to read and write all day as well, but it bored me to death, stressed me out and made the days feel like they would drag on forever.  Now writing creatively, it’s the complete opposite — I’m always engaged, I find it cathartic, and the days would always end too quickly.

What I’m trying to say is that time flies when you are having fun and you’re doing the things you want to do in life.  I don’t know where this road will lead me, and frankly, it scares me sometimes, but right now I’m just trying to enjoy every moment while it lasts.

Next year will be different and bring with it a new set of challenges.  Can’t wait.

Things I Learned in Writing Class This Semester (Part I)

November 22, 2010 in On Writing, Study

Source: www.successforcollege.com

My blistering year of writing and learning has finally come to a close.  Now it’s time to reflect.

Contrary to what a lot of people say, writing courses can be helpful for budding writers.  It’s not necessarily just learning the technical skills (which are of course important) — there are also many aspects of the business you can be exposed to.  This term, I did quite a bit of non-fiction and journalistic writing, as well as editing, subjects I originally thought would be quite dry — but it’s turned out to be the complete opposite.  As Cosmo Kramer once said, “I’m loving every minute of it!”

Here are some things I learned this semester (in no particular order):

Get a good editor

If my classes have taught me anything this semester, it’s that getting a good editor is one of the most important things a writer should put at the top of their list.  Even the most brilliant writer can use a good editor because editing is a different skill.  It’s not just picking up the typos and the spelling and grammar errors — everything from word use, dialogue, characters, structure, tone, style, voice — everything you can think of, can benefit from having an editor cast their eye over it.

I used to think if I spent enough time on something by myself, locked away in a room somewhere, I’ll eventually get it perfect.  Now I realize how silly that was.

Writing is all about structuring

I’ve never had much of a problem coming up with ideas and racking up the words, but what I found out the hard way this semester was how important structure is to writing.  Sometimes, just moving a few words or sentences around will completely change the shape and tone of a paragraph, or even the entire piece.

I used to think as long as you get whatever you want to write out of your system then everything else will take care of itself, but that cannot be further away from the truth.  Now, especially for non-fiction pieces, I spend most of my time figuring out how I will structure the writing before I write a single word, and then hours and hours restructuring it after I’ve written everything.

My main problem is that I waste too much time procrastinating over the structure before I start writing.  Sometimes you just need to get it all out and then trim it back and mould it into shape.  But then again, if I don’t structure it enough beforehand, I don’t know where to start when staring down at 6,000 words and knowing that I have to cut it down to 2,000!  It’s a dilemma.

Writing a good first draft is important

People say the first draft is almost always shit, but it doesn’t really matter because you’ll fix it up anyway.  The key objective is just to write it out so you have something tangible to work with.  I’ve discovered this semester that this is not necessarily always the case.  Writing a good first draft, while not imperative, is highly beneficial.

Once the first draft has been written, I find it very difficult to decide what to cut out, what to add, what to replace.  Clearly, the better the draft, the more difficult it is, but even crappy first drafts can get a little tricky.  It’s not easy coming up with a different way to say or structure things when it’s already laid out right there in front of you, especially if there’s nothing visibly or obviously defective about it.

So I say put in a bit more effort into that first draft, think it through more.  In my opinion it’s worth it.

More to come!