Why writing a novel is not like writing for your day job – and how to transition

Nail-Your-Novel_2_cities_presentationcuYesterday I was teaching an editing masterclass at The Guardian. During the lunch break I got chatting to a desk editor from its sister title The Observer, who remarked that he’d always been curious about writing a novel, but wondered where his journalism instincts would be a hindrance and where an advantage. (He was also remaking several news pages to squeeze in the latest royal birth, so was possibly hankering for a life where he’d be in charge of the surprises.)

Two worlds

When I’m not working with fiction, I do sub-editing shifts on a magazine, so I have a foot in both worlds. And many of us have day jobs where we might write reports, presentations, legally required notes or other documents. Although all of this helps us get used to creating text, it doesn’t help us use it in the way a novelist does.
Here are two major differences.

Difference 1 – the reader’s journey
Journalists – and anyone who writes reports or presentations – learn this guiding principle: ‘Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them you said it.’

Fiction observes this three-step principle to an extent. Themes and concerns are evident early on and the end seems to arise out of the beginning. So far, so good. But the way fiction fulfils its mission is not the same at all.
Reports and articles take the reader on a straightforward journey. Draw a diagram of the reader’s progress through an article or presentation, and it will be a straight line. Statement, development, conclusion (though see Hugh’s comment below for a few exceptions…).

In fiction, the journey is anything but straightforward. We do not want the reader to guess where we’re going to end up. We want to surprise, reilluminate, perhaps startle. We might want to create complex emotions. The main character may start with a particular goal, then decide they want something else, then change their mind again, then decide none of it was important.

Draw a diagram of the reader’s journey through a novel, and there will be ups, downs, reversals. It may circle back to the place it started or even go backwards and off the scale. The conclusion might be boldly stated, in terms of a problem solved. Or it may be a resonant moment that leaves the reader assembling the final pieces.
A satisfying novel that takes the reader on a journey will not be a straight line. (If it is, it’s known as a linear plot – and will seem plodding and predictable.)

Difference 2 – the relationship with the reader

In an article or report we present facts, issues and ideas. In a novel we work on the reader at deeper levels. We can be subtle and manipulative. We might plant clues, then misdirect so that the reader doesn’t see them. We might make the reader love a character and then do something vile to them.

In a report or article, we might attempt to be balanced, concise and authoritative. In a novel, we might narrate as characters who are biased, unreliable or on the very bad side. Nya-ha-harrgh.

Two habits to unlearn if you write novels

Avoid condensing the process of change. In novels, change is gradual.

Journalism – and other types of report – tend to be super-condensed. When I’ve critiqued first novels by journalists they have a distinctive problem – when characters change it is sudden. For instance, an errant boyfriend is given a talking-to by a wise friend and in the next scene he’s changed his ways.

This sharp contrast will work well in an article or a report. It makes the point that change has happened. But in a novel, the change is part of the reader’s journey, so it is more gradual, spread out over the book. We might also have periods where the character resists, which is why it is a challenge. Thinking back to our graph of the reader’s journey, this is the meandering line.

Stop using scenes and dialogue to convey only a focussed message

Reports and articles are written with a ‘message’ in mind. Quotes from sources and interviewees are used to back the message up. But dialogue in a novel is much more organic and rich.

rebThe ‘reporting’ way to use dialogue is to cut to the chase and summarise – showing only what is necessary to back up the journalist’s assertion.

Mrs de Winter said she was delighted to be at her new home Manderley, but found the housekeeper Mrs Danvers a little frightening. ‘She gives me the screaming creeps,’ said Mrs de Winter.

For novels, we prefer the reader to draw that conclusion for themselves, by giving them an experience. We include details that would be irrelevant clutter to the journalist or report writer. I just opened Rebecca, looking for the scene where Mrs de Winter becomes aware that Mrs Danvers is an intimidating presence. It isn’t one line, or even one paragraph. It’s a scene that builds over several pages, with clues in the characters’ expressions, body language, tone of voice, choice of words and the narrator’s thoughts, the atmosphere of menace and unease.

Of course, you may want to direct the reader strongly – after all, some narrators are highly judgemental. But I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that stop the characters coming alive because they present the action in a digest.
(Indeed, you might think this topic is looking familiar – it’s that old chestnut, show, not tell. Outside of novels or narrative non-fiction, the norm is to tell, not show.)

So if you’re transitioning to novels from other forms of writing, here are my 5 tips for success:

  1. – make the journey purposeful, but tangled
  2. – try being unreliable, biased and manipulative
  3. – be lengthy
  4. – build the truth gradually, and seek it in the details that seem irrelevant
  5. – read novels – and notice how the prose does its work

ebookcovernyn3There’s more on plot twists, structure, show not tell and endings in this little thingy.

And meanwhile … congratulations, my hard-working Observer friend, on your new front page.


Have you had to unlearn any writing habits in order to write fiction? Are there any more you’d add to my list?

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  1. #1 by DRMarvello on May 3, 2015 - 2:36 pm

    I came to novel writing from a technical writing background, and it seemed like I had to learn how to write all over again. My non-fiction background gave me good experience with the mechanics of writing, but crafting a story has many more dimensions, as you pointed out in your article.

    I believe that being an avid reader, particularly of books in my genre, helped me immensely. Being routinely steeped in story gave me a good feel for what worked and didn’t in my own writing, even when I didn’t necessarily understand *why* it worked or didn’t. The why came later, after I had digested enough books and blog posts on writing fiction to see how theory applied to practice (and vice-versa). More than anyone else, I credit you, Victoria Mixon, and Randy Ingermanson with helping me make the transition to fiction writing.

    The only thing I’d add to your list is something you mentioned in your article: “We might want to create complex emotions.” I still struggle with writing for emotional impact, but just about every book on fiction writing says that engaging reader emotions is the key to creating a satisfying story. My non-fiction background did almost nothing to help me prepare for that aspect of fiction writing.

    • #2 by mrdisvan on May 3, 2015 - 5:52 pm

      You think you’ve got problems expressing emotion, Daniel? Be glad you’re not British 🙂

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 3, 2015 - 6:01 pm

      Hi Daniel! What a radical transition, and I imagine you had to work hard to unravel your habits. I like your point about reading, and noticing what writers do. I think one of the ways we learn is by a long process of imitation, and we keep the tricks that work best for us.
      And thanks for the credit – especially with such illustrious folk.

  2. #5 by acflory on May 3, 2015 - 10:10 pm

    “Avoid condensing the process of change. In novels, change is gradual.”

    As a reformed technical writer, this has been the hardest thing for me to learn. My first drafts are invariably precise and summarized accounts of who felt what, when and why. Only later can I come back and ‘show’ the process rather than the end result. 😦

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 4, 2015 - 8:01 am

      Hi Andrea! Another technical writer! It’s so interesting to find out people’s writing histories.

  3. #7 by belledelettres on May 4, 2015 - 7:37 am

    I’ve just had feedback on my novel: they said I did too much showing and not enough tellling! So much to learn.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 4, 2015 - 8:03 am

      Belle, that’s an unusual way round! But yes, it’s a question of emphasis. If the reader needs to know how something felt, show it. If they don’t, tell it.

  4. #9 by belledelettres on May 4, 2015 - 8:33 am

    Ah, that’s a helpful distinction! Thanks.

    • #10 by mrdisvan on May 4, 2015 - 4:11 pm

      Your editor may be mixing up showing with turning everything into a scene, Belle. But it’s not surprising that people have got confused when it turns out even that famous Chekhov about the moon on broken glass is a figment of internettery: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/30/moon-glint/

    • #11 by Sherrie Miranda on May 5, 2015 - 2:36 am

      Also, I would say it depends on how important the details are too the story. I was told “Don’t take three paragraphs to describe a sunset when one sentence will too.
      I never really had this problem tho, as I wrote lots of articles and studied screenwriting. I actually had to go back and add description before I turned my ms in to the editor.
      Thanks Roz, I am sharing this all over the net! Very concise, esp. with the bullet points at the end.

      • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 5, 2015 - 8:38 am

        Thanks, Sherrie – especially for your example of the different demands of screenwriting. I think there’s no other medium where the writer is so completely in charge of the reader’s emotional journey. Screenwriting is, to an extent, instructions for other people to enact. But the prose of a book is the entire experience.
        And thanks for the reblog etc!

  5. #13 by Sherrie Miranda on May 5, 2015 - 2:29 am

    Reblogged this on sherriemiranda1 and commented:
    Although non fiction is lowly becoming more creative. (i.e. Creative nonfiction actually has stories – tho they are true), Roz Morris has some really great advice on how to write differently for fiction. 😉 ❤

  6. #14 by Sherrie Miranda on May 5, 2015 - 2:37 am

    Crap, I meant slowly! Whenever I don’t proofread, no matter how short, I regret it!

  7. #16 by Hugh on May 5, 2015 - 12:02 pm

    And yet… Many years working in journalism for factual TV taught me that some of the rules of fictional narrative (for example, “make the journey purposeful, but tangled”, “build the truth gradually”) are also rules that we had to learn – or attempt to learn – in order to keep viewers watching. Only up to a point, of course. Also, of course, TV itself has its own rules; for instance, clarity is vital, because the audience can’t turn back thirty pages to check on an important fact. (And the “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you’ve told ’em” rule in factual TV – AKA “signposting” – is most vital of all.)

    But I wonder if the really key distinction here may to some extent be length: most, but not all, journalism is short and so deploying much complexity in it isn’t possible. Novels (and hour or half-hour long factual TV programmes, or TV series) have room for a certain amount of complexity, and in all those examples audiences or readers derive satisfaction from complexity, and demand it.

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 5, 2015 - 7:56 pm

      Hello Hugh!
      Excellent points, especially about length, and I realise that I’m doing some forms of journalism a disservice. I wondered this as I wrote the article, because there are more narrative forms of journalism that are discursive and look for the tangled path, celebrating the complexity. I decided that these were halfway to being a more literary style anyway, and that if I started discussing those I’d never write anything helpful! Perhaps I have fallen into my own trap, and been too determined on clarity and a strong message. Thanks for the graceful nudge 🙂

  8. #18 by Hugh on May 6, 2015 - 9:00 pm

    Hi Roz! No, you said it right – I’m just picking nits. Seriously, I think that your message above is on the button. I’ve been acquainted with enough journos who became novelists to know that the advice it contains is necessary.

  9. #19 by Deborah on May 6, 2015 - 11:30 pm

    I’m an academic by profession and barrister by training. Emotions and opinion are no-no’s in the academy and law. What is the evidence and can you prove that hypothesis?

    How to get around my deeply rooted phobia of the forbidden “I think” “I wonder” etc? I made my protagonist a theorizing, abstract thinker whose emotions were traumatized out of her at an early age. There was no other way I could write her. My day jobs and fiction writing in collision with my novel as collateral damage.

    Maybe I need a support group to get over my professional credentials?

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