Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Difference Between Writing Nonfiction and Fiction

About three months ago, I decided to start a new book project. The chosen topic: sex. I needed to get away from writing about running, especially considering I rarely run these days.

Why sex? Well, back in my undergrad days, I was planning to be an experimental psychologist (the folks that do research.) Specifically, I was focusing on social psychology. Even more specifically, I was focusing on sexual behavior as a function of social influences. You know, how does your environment affect your horniness, adventurousness, etc.

Long story short- I got a job teaching high school, then spent about two years traveling the country. I've slowly fallen into a writing "career" during the last five or six years. It started with prolific blogging (~1000 posts averaging 1,000 words/ post), and morphed into two running-related books.

I wanted to start a new project, and writing this blog helped me connect to my roots. The first plan was to write a nonfiction book using the tone and voice of Squirrel Wipe, which was basically tackling the sport of ultrarunning with sophomoric humor.

I wrote a mission statement. Or "thesis statement" for you language arts-types.

I made an outline of topics I wanted to cover.

I wrote an introduction.

I wrote the first 5,000 words.

And it sucked.

The Nonfiction Writing Experience

For me, writing nonfiction has always been pretty easy. Doing experimental write-ups, historiography (I regretfully majored in history, too), and blogging all honed my skillz. My nonfiction methodology is simple- leverage my experiences to figure out what information the audience wants to know, then deliver it in an amusing way.

The process itself was straightforward. I thought about a given topic, then wrote it down. In the case of blog posts, I'd immediately publish. In the case of books, I'd do some rewriting usually to make the material funnier.

This process resulted in a huge volume of work. The lack of editing meant I never second-guessed the material, which created a degree of edginess. My various blogs became my diaries.

The methodology worked well as long as I was sufficiently inspired... which occurred in roughly two month cycles. A persistent case of writer's block led me to the extreme decision to... God forbid, write fiction.

The Fiction Writing Experience

I'll admit, writing fiction scared me. It seemed so much more intimidating. My friend Pete had dabbled in fiction (he wrote this excellent book available as an ebook... if you like crime-based fiction, check it out) and tried convincing me to take the plunge. 

I resisted.

I did do some cursory research, which led me to one of the most widely-regarded book for fiction writers- Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird." I did some other research on the Interwebz, too. It led me to a conclusion-

Writing fiction wasn't necessarily the process of making up stories; it was the process of documenting the stories that play out in your head.

All of a sudden, fiction got a lot less intimidating. I spend A LOT of time daydreaming. About ten percent of that daydream time is spent on actual real-life problems and issues. About forty percent is spent on weird random shit, like wondering how a supercharger differs from a turbo charger or where the weaved top of apple pie crusts originated. That last 50% is spent in an entirely fictional world.

It's hard to describe my own personal Land of Make Believe... mostly because of its plasticity. It's ever-changing. Some facets have been around since early childhood. Some elements were added yesterday. The best way to describe it would be to use a comic book universe analogy:

Lot of characters, lots of settings. Sometimes it's pretty normal, sometimes it gets bizarre. The characters from different settings can interact, but rarely do. 

I am deeply fascinated by human behavior. I like to observe people... try to figure out what makes them tick. My Land of Make Believe serves as a bit of a "sandbox" where I can apply what I learn.  Sometimes people would ask how I could run 100 miles without getting bored. The simple answer- I spent A LOT of time in my Land of Make Believe. 

I digress. Back to writing fiction.

I came to realize all I had to do to write fiction was describe what was happening to the people that populate my Land of Make Believe. It's basically a technique Lamott discusses in her book. The tricky part is actually observing what's happening. Actions happen far faster than I can type, and I don't have the luxury of having trained as a writer. The actual mechanical process is pretty slow.

The solution was a faceless intermediary that closely observes everything all the characters do. For the sake of this discussion we'll pretend he's Karl Childers, Billy Bob Thornton's character from Slingblade. Karl has a deeper understanding of their thoughts, beliefs, motivations, aspirations... whatever. To fully capitalize n Karl's knowledge, the events must have already occurred. As such, the entire story has already been determined. Only I don't know how it ends... yet.

The actual story being written is a function of the imaginary conversations with Karl. I observe the characters. Karl observes the characters. We discuss what we saw. I write.

The problem occurs when we get it wrong, which we realize after something has already been written. For example, most of the story revolves around a woman named Julia. She has a good friend Andrea. As the story progresses, the nature of Andrea's character has changed. Karl and I got it wrong in the beginning. That kind of shit happens a lot.

The fluid nature of the interpretation will require at least one or two rewrites. Normally I despise editing, but am actually looking forward to it this time. The more I learn about the characters, the better I can describe them in the early pages. 

My Land of Make Believe also throws some interesting curve balls. Early in the story, Julia has a brief encounter with a neighbor. Both Karl and I assumed this character didn't really play a role aside from being a convenient literary device to describe a particular facet of Julia's personality. 

Then they ran into each other and decided to chat. The ensuing events came as a complete surprise. Neither Karl nor I would have ever predicted what happened. I was bizarre to be writing while thinking "I cannot believe this is happening!" It was quite exhilarating AND it fundamentally changed Julia, the formerly minor character, and the nature of the relationship to those around them. Of course, that will require some rewrites, too.

What About the Audience?

When I wrote The Barefoot Running Book and Squirrel Wipe, I was acutely aware of my audience. I had interacted with them extensively. I had written hundreds of blog posts and closely studied traffic data. I knew what they wanted to read, what voice I should use to communicate the information, and how to deliver it to them. Writing them became a matter of melding that information with writing I enjoyed doing. The end result was a mutually-beneficial product. I knew each book would sell a minimum number of copies simply based on this information.

Fiction... that's an entirely different animal. I have no idea what my potential audience wants. I know I would like to read the book... but that's about it. It could only sell five copies. Critics could hate it. Worse, critics could ignore it. An easy way around this problem would be to take the same approach I did with the nonfiction books and start a blog of short stories. Experiment with different ideas and story lines; introduce different types of characters. I could then study the traffic patterns and solicit opinions from readers. I could begin to build a profile of the target audience. 

There's a problem with this approach, though. 

Karl doesn't like it.

Trying to please an unknown audience invariably interferes with the process. It pollutes the characters. The audience would want the characters to behave in a certain way. The good people should be good. The bad people should be bad. But that's not how real life works. Neither does my World of Make Believe. Bad things happen to seemingly good people. And vice versa. To fully allow this process to happen, I have to ignore the audience. 

So... Where Am I Right Now?

As of today, I have about 40,000 words written of the first draft. Based on where the story is right now, I would anticipate another 10-20,000 words will be needed to finish. The first draft will require a significant rewrite, which will probably add another 10-20,000 words. 

As far as the specific story, I still don't know exactly how it will end. In the beginning, I thought I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going to go... but I was wrong. Really, really wrong. Two characters dramatically altered the entire story. The events are building up to something... I just don't know what that something is. 

Oh, and for those of you that are wondering why I'm writing about this on the Sexpressionists blog- the idea started as a book about human sexuality, ergo there IS a lot of sex in the story. It's basically erotica. ;-)


This entire process has been a blast. I never expected fiction to be so much fun. I like writing nonfiction because it's a lot like teaching- it's a process of sharing information in an entertaining way. Fiction is different... it's more like drawing or painting (a hobby I haven't dabbled in since college.) It's a chance to let a few of the people from my Land of Make Believe see the light of day.

I'm curious- for those of you that write fiction, how would you describe your process? Share in the comments section!


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