What Reviewing Nonfiction Taught Me About Writing Fiction
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Fiction was my first love and I was loyal to it for many years. Crime and horror made up the largest percentage of my literary diet. Then, once I started college, nonfiction crept into my life. I had never been a fan of reading historical accounts or long biographies, but then I discovered a world of amazing stories that had actually happened, and that captured my attention.
Fast-forward fifteen years or so and I'm regularly reviewing nonfiction for a few venues. I love it. As a journalist, I'm interested in stories that illuminate, expose, and educate. I love narratives that expand my view of the world and show me realities I've ignored. Lately it has also shown me or reminded me of things that can improve my fiction writing. Here are some of them.
People are almost always at the core of your story
We get creative. We go crazy with worldbuilding. We invent technology. We divert into info dumps. All of that is okay as long as we remember the heart of most stories is made up of characters we want our readers to connect with (plus you can edit all that other crap later). I think too many authors get caught up in their plot and forget that there are individuals inhabiting said plot. Excessive typos/grammar mistakes and flat characters are the easiest ways to get me to give up on a book, so I try to evade both. Most of the nonfiction I've been reading has reminded me that without people there is no story.
Dialogue drives the action forward
Dialogue in nonfiction is very tricky. Some books use it incredibly well. Some books don't have it and make me wish they did. The point is this: dialogue matters. Boring dialogue bogs the narrative down. Superb nonfiction is great at moving the story forward with or without it, and that has made me appreciate how much dialogue in fiction matters all over again.
Research is key
Research is crucial to nonfiction and everyone knows that, but we tend not to think about fiction in the same terms. We already know that "write what you know" is debatable advice, and we are always looking for ways to incorporate new ideas into our work. Research is the place we can get material for that. Locations, diseases, weapons, psychology—the list of things you can research to enrich your narrative is practically endless. I think smart readers can tell when a writer is improvising about a subject and when they actually know what they're talking about. And I'm not talking about those assholes who are always debating authors about minuscule gun details. Research helps you learn things, and the things we know have a tendency to work their way into our fiction. The more we know, the richer our fiction is.
Simple statements can be devastating
Another mistake a lot of writers make is to get too descriptive, or dwell too much on thoughts and feelings when writing about horrible things. Nonfiction doesn't do that, Reading both, I've learned that a simple statement with almost no padding can be more devastating than a whole paragraph. The straightforward simplicity with which great nonfiction writers write about violence and death is something fiction writers can learn a lot from. Long descriptions dilute things, but short sentences punctuate. Practice the latter.
Details can aid memory
Superb nonfiction has the ability to put you in a place and time. This is something fiction can do just as well, if not better. However, writers should always be working on improving their skills, and reading great nonfiction has helped me with that. The make and model of a car, what people are wearing, cultural context, and even tiny details about architecture or the weather can help nail a scene to a readers brain.
Killers are never demons
I find demons cool, but serial killers are infinitely more interesting because they are real. Reading a lot of true crime has helped shape the way I think about crime and killers. One of the things it's done is remind me that I've never seen a demon, but I've seen creepy neighbors and met some folks who I think shouldn't own a gun. Any one of them could become a murderer. That scares me more than aliens or killer clowns. You know, as long as we're not talking about a John Wayne Gacy.
Clarity is great
Oh, how I love to overwrite! I have words. The best words. Poetic words. Long descriptions. More words. And I want to use them all. And you know what? I'm not alone. Writers sometimes forget to tell a story and become obsessed with adding words to their manuscript. Reading good nonfiction ensures you remember clarity is key and usually comes holding brevity's hand. Research and details are important, but they must never overrun the story.
What are your feelings on nonfiction? How has it shaped your fiction writing?
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