31 March 2007

On the Process of Fiction and Nonfiction

Now that I've finished reading through both versions of The Broken Sword and scribbling pages and pages of notes in my aggravatingly neat handwriting (I used to get grief for this in high school), the time has come to get to work on crafting an article analyzing this astonishing novel and the differences between the two editions. I'll keep you update on when the article will appear.

I write nonfiction differently than I do fiction. This may sound obvious at first, since the two place entirely different demands on both writer and the reader. But nonfiction does require a "plot" of sorts. It needs a pathway which the reader can follow to make the information easier to absorb and enjoy. And suspense has a role in nonfiction as well. Have you ever had to peer-read a paper in school where the author started a paragraph with the phrase: In this paper I will prove/show that... Don't you detest that? This drove me utterly crackers in college when I had to do peer reviews for seminars. Not only is the phrase mummy-dust dry and a certain signal that the rest of the paper will be turgid and plastic, but it ruins the suspense. Good nonfiction indicates what it is going to attempt to do, lures the reader with clues, but it should never state outright what exactly it plans to "prove." Lawyers do that. Writers shouldn't—why should a reader hang around if he or she knows exactly where the work is going? (And besides, the reader is sovereign; he or she decides what the author has "proved.")

Of course, a reader pressed for time and doing collegiate work can skip to the last chapter or the epilogue/conclusion/summation and discover the final argument. That's fine: when I used to teach speed reading and study skills, I showed my students how to "preview" a nonfiction work for more efficient skimming and note-taking. However, for the rest of the reading population of the world hearing up front the whole point of a work tends to kill interest.

So similar skills go into writing fiction and nonfiction, most of it structural. Still, I write them in different ways. I plan my fiction carefully through notes and outlining. I've discovered from practice that I first have to know where my story is going or I will never finish it. I need a detailed outline—often ten thousand or more words for a novel—to keep me focused, although I allow deviations if surprises appear. I also need the outline to help me solve story problems before I start to put it all down in writing. However, once I start to write, I write in strict order, unfolding the story chapter after chapter the same way that a reader will read it. (Unless the reader is one of those awful cheats who skips to the last page to see how it comes out. Why does anyone do this?) I have to experience the unspooling of the story the way a reader would; I need to watch my characters grow and expand, see the surprises of the plot through their eyes and react with them. I can start the highly analytical editing process in the second draft.

For nonfiction, I take the opposite approach. This sounds strange to people, but aside from the notes I take during research, I don't outline my nonfiction. I sit down in front of my word processing program and start spitting out the freshest ideas I've developed based on my notes. Then I randomly leap around the document adding new ideas and paragraphs and topics all over the place in a stream-of-consciousness placing of the info in my head and scribbled in my notebooks onto the page. I keep this up until a structure starts to appear. Then the job gets easy: click the pieces into place, create connective tissue, and see if reads correctly and the ideas flow toward logical conclusions. Most importantly: does the piece feel "alive," and not merely a recitation of facts and similar phrases repeated needlessly? Does it have emotion? Nonfiction must have emotion, the same as fiction, and this is one the great mistakes I think many new writers to nonfiction make... it comes from the damaged memories they have of writing essays in high school using the "five paragraph" method. I would outlaw this model if it wasn't that I believe in freedom of speech. It has killed more potential nonfiction authors than any amount of cigarettes and whiskey ever has.

I love writing both fiction and nonfiction; the ecstasy of feeling ideas spill from my and head and through the keys of my computer when the daemon is strongest is one of the most intoxicating sensations in life. And I'm glad that I get two very different sensations from fiction and nonfiction. I'm pleased to have made friends with both forms.