Why nonfiction writers should read novels

I’ve been stuffing down novels like candy lately, reading them one after another, not happy unless my head is immersed in an alternate world. Recently, my fiction addiction led to a breakthrough on my current nonfiction work in progress.

I was out of town on a book-selling expedition. After a long day of driving, I had checked into a motel in Roseburg, Oregon and was sinking into a warm bath when it hit me. I had to change the ending for my book. Words and scenes tumbled through my mind. Forget the bath. I had to write this down. I got out, wrapped a towel around me and hurried to my laptop, still wet as I started typing as fast as I could.

Outside, night fell. The parking lot filled with cars as people checked in. The murmur of a television filtered through the walls. Unaware of it all, I let the words flow for the next three hours. I had found the key to my book.

What happened? Two things: I got away from the usual distractions of home, and all that fiction I’d been reading seeped into my bones and showed me how to write my creative nonfiction project.

Non-writers chuckle when I talk about writing creative nonfiction. They assume that means I make stuff up. Not true. Creative nonfiction, also known as narrative nonfiction, uses the techniques of fiction to tell true stories. Those techniques include the use of scenes and settings, characters, dialogue, suspense, and rising and falling action that leads to a climax.

The book I’m working on had a lot of these elements in it, but it lacked the through story that would pull readers from beginning to end. It was all bits and pieces, and I interrupted the narrative too often with my research gems. “Info dump,” my fiction-writing friends call it. It was all good stuff, but I needed to make it more of a story, and suddenly I knew how, thanks to all those novels I’d been reading. I could see my people as characters and could see where I could increase tension, add suspense, turn telling into showing, and lure the reader on by making him wonder what happened next.

The writing world is full of books, magazines and websites telling you how to write. But I think we can learn the most from sitting down and reading good books. So go ahead, dive into a good novel. Enjoy the story, then go back and study what they did to make you keep turning the pages. It will make you a better writer.

Then, go write.

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Tell us a story–even in nonfiction

Back in the olden days when I was in journalism school, reporters were taught to write straightforward factual stories with no personal comments or artsy asides. Just give the facts, backed up by quotes from interviewees and printed matter. Well, the times have changed. Even the most hard-news articles require a little fictional flavor these days. If you’re writing about the budget mess in Washington, we want all the details, of course, but they’ll slide down easier if you add a touch of humanity. Did the president look unshaven and haggard? Did the Speaker of the House sound hoarse because he’s been talking so much and getting so little sleep? Do you tell us about how they waited right up to the point of disaster before agreeing on a compromise that will keep the government from going into default?

Narrative. That seems to be the buzzword these days. Give us a character and a story. At last year’s Future of Freelancing conference, held at Stanford University, one of the panelists urged writers to see their articles as stories. Their queries should lay out the scenes their stories will include. Think of it as a little movie. Get the editor’s attention, then tell how you will structure the story. As with fiction, show the editor why the readers will care about what you’re writing. Why will they be interested and what will they take away from it?

My MFA is in creative nonfiction, a genre which specifically calls upon the techniques of fiction to tell stories. We use characters, dialogue, setting, suspense and all the other facets of fiction, except that we’re not making it up. Visit the Creative Nonfiction website for lots of great information on this genre.

It used to be that creative nonfiction and journalism were completely different things. Now narrative nonfiction techniques are appearing in feature articles everywhere, not just literary magazines. In an article on travel writing in the May/June 2011 Writer’s Digest, L. Peat O’Neil writes, “Try to experience your time on the road not just as a reporter, but as a traveler–because the days of conventional travel writing in a distant passive voice are long gone. Today’s writer participates in the narrative, sharing stories with readers in much the way a newly returned traveler tells friends about the journey.” O’Neil suggests that travel writers focus on telling a good story, putting details about locations, prices, etc., in sidebars.

When you’re reading articles and books, look for the narrative elements in nonfiction. Look for a personal narrator, settings, dialogue, a story arc, etc.  See how the writers tell their stories, then try to do likewise.