My agent, Liv Blumer, asked me what’s involved when journalists change genres, such as beginning to write fiction or a memoir. Specifically, she asked if “journalism training makes it hard to make up a story, and … to write luxuriously, i.e., with descriptions that add texture to a book.”

Yes, it does, and it usually first happens when news reporters become columnists. They’ve spent their entire career up until then keeping themselves out of their writing. Merely mentioning themselves or expressing an opinion or using the first-person pronoun “I” feels like a betrayal of professional values. The secret is to create a new persona, not Janey the ace reporter, but Jane the personal columnist. Jane has permission to use those apparently “unobjective” techniques.

Their second problem is language. The wording of newspapers is deliberately flat, an attempt to sound objective by not using colorful terms. Journalists copied this technique from scientists in the nineteenth century, and escape it only in sports writing or light features. If a columnist sounds like a scientist, readers will not read the column. Even newspaper economists don’t sound like economists.

The last problem is form. Journalists learn to write in the Inverted Pyramid, stacking information in declining order of importance and interest. Readers pass out from boredom after three paragraphs, if the writer is lucky enough to get them to read that far. Most new columnists realize they have to escape the Infernal Pyramid, so they fall back on their high school English training and write essays. But columns are not essays, which generally get to the point at the bottom. Effective columns tell readers early what they’re about, and develop that.

Liv’s question was about shifting to fiction or memoir, not columns. The principles are the same. You give yourself permission to have opinions in public and to talk about yourself. You abandon the voice of the newspaper and create your own that fits how you think and feel, and want to sound. And you leave behind journalistic forms and learn new ones, usually by studying the genres you want to write in. In other words, converting journalists have to abandon the techniques that create the illusion of objectivity.

All of this is discussed in some form in my forthcoming book, Writing Your Way (Writer’s Digest, March 13, 2012).

[Care to share your experiences in changing genres?]

Published in: on January 31, 2012 at 10:21 pm  Comments (31)  


I’ve just finished Louis de Bernières, Birds without Wings (New York: Knopf, 2004), a terrifying novel about Turkey in World War I. He describes a potter named Iskander, as he begins a new piece: “He frequently did not know what he was going to make until he had started to make it. This was a kind of courtesy to his material, which seemed often to have preconceived ideas about what it wanted to become. Sometimes it would wobble about, or collapse, if he tried to make a bowl out of clay that wanted to be a pot, or vice versa, and it was best just to mould it in the fingers for a short while, get the feel of it and then watch it grow into something. ‘Take your time,’ he would say to himself, ‘if the cat’s in a hurry, she has peculiar kittens,’” (p. 286).

This passage reminds me of a startling discovery I made some years ago, when I first began to write fiction. I was trained as a devoted planner, one who figured out the whole piece before writing a word, then produced an outline, and followed it closely.

Then I heard the playwright August Wilson describe his composing method, which went something like this: write a sentence, write another sentence, keep writing sentences until you perceive two voices. Then assign the sentences to two voices, and keep writing and assigning sentences until you notice a third voice. Six months later, he had a three-act play.

“Weird,” thought I. But then I recognized that I pictured disconnected scenes in my head. So I started writing them down, and they eventually resolved into a narrative and then a plot and a novel. I’m now halfway through my fourth novel written without planning.

What does this have to do with Iskander the Potter?

If you have narrative materials in your head, let the writing staff in your brain write what they want to say, rather than forcing yourself on them. Just relax and type, and let it flow.

It works like this. Two characters are talking, and suddenly they’re digressing into things you hadn’t planned or imagined. I’m writing about two boys, 8 and 7, camping in the woods. They get into an argument about equipment they did or did not bring, which leads to deciding what you need to carry versus what you make on the spot. Their parents get lost in a park near their house, and slide sideways into discovering they’re terrified by the park, despite the fact that they bought their house to live near it. Later the boys find a .30-calibre machine gun in the woods.

None of this was planned. I just got the “feel of it and then watched it grow into something.”

Iskander the Potter finds it works “best just to mould it in the fingers for a short while.” The writing equivalent is an extreme form of drafting. Just type sentences, and watch what comes out. Don’t ask why the characters are saying and doing things, just let them act. As the text accumulates, the plot emerges.

Now I know this sounds like nonsense to you writers who are planners, and for you, it is. But if you’re a plunger, one who types to discover what you want to say, it might work for you. You might find that your story has “preconceived ideas about what it wanted to become.”

[Let me know if you have experiences similar to mine.]

[I will be speaking at the F+W Writer’s Digest Conference at the Sheraton New York Hotel on January 21, 10:00-10:50, on how to escape your writing teachers.]

Published in: on January 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm  Comments (2)  

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