In my interview with Chris Evans on WRUV (University of Vermont radio) yesterday, the subject of the differences in writing fiction and nonfiction was touched on. I’d like to expand on it a bit here.
During NaNoWriMo, I began writing a novel, a genre that I had not worked in since my bachelor’s paper—a mystery set at the Quadrangle Club, the faculty club at the University of Chicago, where I was an undergraduate. Since writing is one of the chief ways that I earn a living, one might think that I would apply a similar process and approach to writing for NaNoWriMo as I do to writing in general. In fact, most of my writing is nonfiction, and as a result, some aspects are quite different.
Similarities include the concept of audience. In nearly all the projects I do that I originate, I am aiming for a broad audience—usually middle school and up. A lot of my nonfiction writing is either informative in a general way or explicitly instructional—though marketed as trade books rather than textbooks. People who are at the very beginning of learning about a subject and have had the motivation to find the article or buy the book, be they 13 or 73, are in something of a similar situation and need more or less similar insights and knowledge to learn about whatever-it-is.
With this novel, I am aiming at a similarly broad audience. But whereas with nonfiction, engaging the audience means telling them what they need to know about the subject, engaging an audience in a work of fiction is a very different process.
Another similarity—though a limited one, in this case—is the need (at least, I feel that it is a need) to be able to maintain a sense of the way that material is coming across to the reader (i.e, what they know and don’t know at any given point), what inferences they may be making, what needs to be defined, and the order in which the revelation should occur for maximum effect. In both fiction and nonfiction (as opposed to, say, a photograph or painting), the audience encounters the material in a specific order over time—an order over which (unless they jump ahead on the page) I have some control.
But when we get to particulars of creating the sequence, writing fiction parts company from most of the nonfiction that I write.
My characteristic set-up for writing non-fiction is categorical. Whatever I’m writing about, I figure out either the or a means of dividing it into logical and coherent segments that readers may be seeking or that will help them take in the information in a comprehensible sequence. When I say “the or a,” I’m referring to the fact that some topics and some genres may set the categories pretty tightly. For example, my last published work was a reference work, Barron’s American Slang Dictionary and Thesaurus. Dictionaries have some pretty standard elements that you expect to find in each entry, including entry word, pronunciation, part of speech, definition, etc.
So do how-to articles. An article on “Making Salt Crystals” will not meet reader expectations unless it includes a list of ingredients and a sequence of steps in the proper order to achieve the advertised results. Of course, if I’m writing about an unfamiliar subject, I start by learning enough about it that I can write about it with some authority and have a sense of a good way to present the information to the reader.
All gone with fiction.
Writing my first novel, I’ve been working from a rough sequence of events—what Mieke Bal in Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative refers to as the fabula—and rearranging them into the order in which the reader will meet them, a story in Bal’s terminology, which is quite different from the chronology. Where should the story start? How and when are past events revealed? Who is conveying them? These questions are much more open than they are in the kind of nonfiction I write. The process has proved to be quite different than organizing an article or a dictionary. And the order of presentation is quite a bit more malleable.
By the time NaNoWriMo began, my story didn’t begin where I had been planning for it to begin. I had spent three and a half years planning, writing notes in journals and on scraps of paper, researching, etc., before I started writing the first novel of my quintology (it started as a single volume fairy tale—but that’s a topic for another article), and up until the day I began what will be the first chapter of the first novel, I had thought that the first novel was going to be set mainly in another world. In my first draft of the first chapter of the first book in December, 2008, the first two sentences read:
There was quite a lot of speculation when Master Bartholomew took up residence in the turkey coop. Granted, it was his turkey coop.
Both Bartholomew and his turkey coop, by the way, are on the planet Irrelya, rather than Earth and this particular incident is not likely to be come into the story until Book 3, although it happened before Book 1 begins.
By the time the first draft of the “real” chapter one of the first book was written in May, 2009, the location had changed to Earth and the book opened in the midst of an argument between teenage twins, a boy and a girl. It now begins:
“We have to make an exception,” the girl exclaimed.
“No,” said the boy, quietly but resolutely.
Changes this drastic are simply not possible in the non-fiction I characteristically write.
But . . . other topics and subgenres of nonfiction are more open-ended. Look at what I did with the chronology in organizing the last bit of this blog:
1. By the time NaNoWriMo began – Nov. 2009
2. I had spent three and a half years planning . . . before I started writing – Fall, 2005 to May, 2009
3. (it started as a single volume fairy tale) – Fall, 2005
4. the day I began what will be the first chapter of the first novel (May 24, 2009)
5. I had thought – Fall, 2005 – May, 2009
6. In my first draft of the first chapter of the first book – December, 2008
7. By the time the first draft of the “real” chapter one of the first book was written – May 24, 2009
8. It now begins – Today