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Fiction and nonfiction, upon a friend's question - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Fiction and nonfiction, upon a friend's question [Jul. 12th, 2009|03:12 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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In a locked post, one of my friends was talking about feeling sure she knew how to write nonfiction but also feeling sure she didn't know how to write fiction, and wondering what the differences are.

For me, they overlap significantly. I'm not prepared to say that they're identical, because writing 750 words on Hilbert spaces for an encyclopedia and writing 750 words of short-short story are not at all similar for me. But, for example, telling a story about my cousin and telling a story about one of my characters are not all that dissimilar. I think most people tell stories about their family and friends naturally, without necessarily identifying what they're doing or how they're doing it, so it's harder to apply it to fictional characters because it feels like your ordinary conversational stories are just saying what really happened, and with fiction, that's not an option.

But think about the times when you've told a story and it's fallen completely flat. You thought it was hilarious, and the person you were telling it to didn't find it funny at all. (See also: cool, sad, interesting, etc. This doesn't just apply to humor.) There are lots of reasons for that, but one of the big ones I've run into is "you had to know so-and-so." Sometimes you can fix this in advance by starting the story with something like, "My aunt has always really liked tap dancing," or, "My friend and her father-in-law never really got along," and then your listener has the background they need for the story to make sense. Other times, you end up deciding, with regret, that you're not going to be able to condense years or decades of friendship or hundreds of books or movies or work tidbits worth of common reference into a short enough span to be able to convey the humor, so you save the story for an audience that does know the people or the common reference points.

Many people do this automatically. I think most of us do. Sometimes it fails, but often we can learn from those failures to tell different stories to a given person, or tell the same stories differently.

One of the great things with fiction, of course, is if you write a story and give it to someone to read and they say, "I don't get why the protagonist did this," or, "I don't get why it was cool that the protagonist did this," you can sometimes fix that. You can rewrite the story in a way that you can't replay a conversation. Until it's published, you're not stuck with forgetting to put in the part about how far it is to Mankato or what your roommate said the first time you forgot your keys.

So what you're doing is trying to pick out the right details. And you do that in almost any type of writing. With my encyclopedia article on Hilbert spaces, for example, if I spent most of the 750 words talking about what it means for something to be countably infinite, I will have picked the wrong detail for my purpose, or if I use the space to list examples over and over again without explaining why they are examples and something else is not an example. If you're writing up a work procedure for a training manual and you talk a lot about how your specific boss likes reports for a completely different procedure organized differently, that's the wrong detail.

How do you know if something is the right detail in fiction? You reread it and see how it goes. You give it to someone else to read, and they say, "Um...what was I supposed to get from the fourteen pages about her hats? Because I really didn't get what that was doing in there when the hats didn't turn out to be important to the plot or the character or...anything really." You read a lot of fiction and pay attention to which details the authors you like have included and what they're doing in a paragraph, in a scene, in a chapter, in a story.

I wonder if people tend to organize their thinking for approaching a large fiction project similarly to the way they organize their thinking for approaching a large nonfiction project. I know I do, but this is one of the times I don't really want to generalize from one example. I know that there are people who outline very formally and others who outline informally and still others who don't like to outline at all. I'm in the middle group for both fiction and nonfiction, but I'm wondering if others see it the same way. Also I like to do a bunch of research, think about where I might be going, outline informally, do a bunch more research, and then fix all the ways I was wrong before about where I thought I might be going. I like fixing the ways I was wrong before. It's so soothing! Hey, I was wrong, and the sky did not fall in! I was wrong, and now I am not-wrong, hurrah! Or at least less wrong! Hurrah!

If anybody else wants to talk about anything they've found useful across the fiction/nonfiction boundary, my friend might find it helpful, and I might find it interesting. Please feel free.

If you haven't written a lot of fiction, you probably can't write good fiction right off the bat. This is not anything bad about you. It's just that it's a skill, like anything else is a skill; unless you're a Mary Sue, you don't expect to be able to pick up your first wind instrument ever and sound like Louis Armstrong on the first day. So if you've mostly written nonfiction and you're making your first venture into fiction, when the little voice says, "I can't write fiction, I don't know how," you can answer it cheerfully, "No, that's true, I don't. But I can learn." You hit a lot of wrong notes when you're learning a new instrument, and if you're trying something like the oboe, you break things a lot and your tone is painful to all listeners for awhile, and that's okay. Practice really does help. You don't have to start out knowing everything you need to know. It's like the rest of life that way.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: rezendi
2009-07-12 08:16 pm (UTC)
For me, one of the biggest differences is that fiction has to be plausible and feel real.
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[User Picture]From: rezendi
2009-07-12 08:23 pm (UTC)
Expanding on that:

There's a bit in an early Stephen Brust novel - I think Brokedown Palace - where the protagonist is reflecting on a compatriot's art, and how certain whenever it jars, it does so in a "I wonder why they did that?" or "I wonder what's going on there?" way, rather than "Huh, that just doesn't make sense" collapse-of-suspension-of-disbelief.

With prose that presents as nonfiction, the reader's default mode is always the former - "The Europeans who tried to colonize Greenland didn't eat fish? Holy cow, that's really weird, but hey, I guess it happened, that's really interesting, huh" - and if it is in fact nonfiction (as opposed to, say, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES) you very rarely have to deal with the latter reaction at all. This gives you a lot of leeway that you don't have with prose that presents as fiction.

Nonfiction, rather than setting up unlikely events, can simply baldly list a series of improbable facts, which are often a whole lot of fun to read, especially in conjunction. (See the early bit in Michael Ondaatje's RUNNING IN THE FAMILY, f'rinstance, where he discusses his father's scholastic career.) You can only do that with fiction if you're both a) writing in an appropriate mode b) very careful.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-07-12 08:53 pm (UTC)
Yes. In nonfiction you can give your sources. In fiction that won't help.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2009-07-12 09:00 pm (UTC)
I think I can see where you're coming from, though it doesn't map over my experience. Due to sheer habit, fiction for me comes from the inside, then rewriting has to come from the outside as I (still trying to learn) pick and choose the details that best bridge from my head to reader's head, just as you say.

But non fic (for me) always has to come from the outside. I think that's one reason why I've always had such trouble with it. For one thing, coming from the outside usually requires a ladder of logic, and when logic was being handed out, I was over in the anxiety line, getting an extra helping because I was worried I wouldn't worry enough.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-07-12 09:10 pm (UTC)
Heh, oh dear, the anxiety line. Yes.

I don't really read your fiction as particularly didactic, either. Is this external perception mapping well to your internal sense of it? Specifically, are you going into nonfiction with something to say for a specific purpose and into fiction with a story to tell? (I know people who do both with both, or a variety of combinations there, and I don't think any of them are bad unless handled badly. Just to be clear.)
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2009-07-12 10:59 pm (UTC)
I would say it's basically the same skillset, with fiction being more advanced. Someone who writes really good fiction will have no problem with nonfiction. Going the other way requires more flexing of the creative muscles, more vulnerability. Good nonfic writers usually do well, but it takes some effort.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-07-13 12:48 am (UTC)
I'm very interested to find that you're saying this one comment thread down from Sherwood, who in my opinion writes really good fiction, saying that she has great trouble writing nonfiction.

It makes me wonder if the two of you are approaching fiction differently, or if it's just the nonfiction end of the equation that's not coming out the same.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2009-07-12 11:01 pm (UTC)
One aspect of this connects to a recent topic at Making Light—if you're moving from a kind of writing you're competent at to a new kind of writing, you may well need to give yourself "permission to suck" for a while. A sucky draft of the new sort of thing is not the same sort of Bad Thing that a really sucky draft of something you're supposed to be competent at would be. Though, in fact, you need to suck occasionally at anything, even the things you're competent at, though the frequency varies.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-07-13 01:18 am (UTC)
Yes. I read that and didn't have anything to say to it but yes, since I went through five years of physics training without "permission to suck," either explicitly or as a recognized/felt implicit thing.

I think our social circles are very good ones for trying new things as an adult, but there are certain things where the general enthusiasm for Learning New Stuff runs headlong into assumptions about what smart people know and/or can do. And that's a problem that's a lot easier to get through externally than internally--we can remind ourselves that not everybody has the same background or experience of something, so not to make assumptions about how it's going for them. But the personal feeling that you're the "only one" who doesn't know how to do something has got to be harder to fight.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2009-07-13 02:28 am (UTC)
"when the little voice says, "I can't write fiction, I don't know how," you can answer it cheerfully, "No, that's true, I don't. But I can learn." "

I'm not sure I agree on this. At least, I totally agree that you can learn to do it *better*; I'm just not sure you can learn to do it at all. Writing, for me, seems to separate into two major parts; having a story to tell, and telling that story. So many writers seem to have been the ones who told stories to siblings or friends from earliest childhood, and it's easy to see how those people can then pick up the skills to make a story real in print instead of by voice, and to an audience who's not already predisposed to follow along.

It's less easy for me to see how one of the kids from the audience, the one who all along was saying "How do you think of those stories? I can never think of anything like that," gets from - not sucky, but nowhere on the page at all - to good. I thnk humans are predisposed to think in terms of story, but only some of us are storytellers.
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2009-07-13 02:39 am (UTC)
I agree. Most nonfiction requires you to synthesize information from sources. Fiction and some types of nonfiction actually require you to have something interesting or of importance to say. Not everyone has that. You either have it or you don't.
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[User Picture]From: one_undone
2009-07-13 03:21 am (UTC)
I never thought of writing this way. I tell stories all the time, but have trouble figuring out how to write them. Though what you say is quite logical, I've never had it presented in just this manner before. I think it will help me a lot. Thank you. :)
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[User Picture]From: arachnejericho
2009-07-13 06:58 am (UTC)
I think narrative non-fiction cleaves far closer to fiction than not. Even though in fiction you can definitely fix "wrong" details by changing "facts", I generally feel that non-fiction stories are also fixable in similar ways---though not by changing facts; by changing focus instead.

I meandered on about this topic a little bit on my own blog.

Although even narrative non-fiction can't give you all the same jumps that fiction does. The act of making things up is by itself is harder, maybe as hard as, writing them up; I tend to think of them as two halves of the whole, with both being necessary.

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-07-13 12:14 pm (UTC)
Yay meandering on! I will go read.

I tend to think of making things up as easy, but when I look at it hard, making things up is something I have trained myself to do a lot of, automatically, so it's easy in the way that typing is easy rather than easy in the way that breathing with no allergies is easy.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-07-13 12:13 pm (UTC)
Knowing what halfway through feels like is important. And I think when you're starting out, if you get the halfway through feeling at the wrong spot--if you feel like you're halfway through at 4K words and then only write 500 more and you're done--that's probably a sign that you should check the pacing over.

Anyway. Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: fiddle_dragon
2009-07-13 03:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

I think it's not that I can't...so much as I do think I can - and I do have a story to tell, but something in me says, "Oh no, hon, that's fiction, you've been taught to write non-fiction." So I wanted to know how to break that barrier down. I think I messed that up the other day ;).

I think a lot of the advice given here and in my post the other day really helped a lot, and I have a number of things to think about. I also have a very good place to start to help bridge that gap from what I already know how to do into what I'm not quite so familiar with.

And no - I'm not even close to asking to be great, or even good - or even published. *grin*. I'd just like to get the story out of my head.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-07-13 07:38 pm (UTC)
Being taught something and learning it are not the same, tell your brain.
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[User Picture]From: cloudscudding
2009-07-13 05:59 pm (UTC)
I was very amused recently to read about an editor (or an agent? not sure.) whose first name was, in fact, Mary Sue.

I am now tempted to name my first girl child that, on the principle that naturally it means that she will be beautiful and strong and smart and able to do anything.

(On the other hand, it might result in the "girls named Chastity" problem.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-07-13 07:39 pm (UTC)
Or even if it wasn't the "girls named Chastity" problem, it's really not always easy to go around being perceived as beautiful and strong and smart and able to do anything. Not always the warmest and fuzziest thing. Particularly when it's in a dramatic Mary Sue fashion.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2009-07-28 06:02 pm (UTC)

Looking at the same place from a different aisle

Mixing non-fiction into fiction is something I've been especially struggling with since starting my historical trilogy last year. For years and from different sources I had the "Show Don't Tell!" maxim pounded into my head, and for the most part that's a good rule. There are few things more story-killing than infodumping. But more and more I found myself encountering places where showing just couldn't be done or wasn't practical.

The obvious answer to this was for me to read historical authors I loved and to see how they did it. And the ways they did it were very similar to the way you describe giving backstory--also in little chunks at a time, the trick being to fill in the narrative without making it hit a wall. The hardest part for me has been realizing that I usually can't condense the story version of a years-long friendship into a few paragraphs or less, but if I can at least get the spirit across then that will be all the book needs.

And then I secretly hope the reader will be interested enough in the subject to go out and learn more on his or her own. :)
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