After taking a break for five years to pursue my career in journalism, I finally found my way back to creative writing. Although I hoped my writing would have naturally improved, I didn’t expect to be told by an editor pal that my writing style had changed. It turns out that while I was immersing myself in the world of nonfiction, I was picking up tools that have benefited my fiction writing.
#1: Knowing What Questions to Ask
When I first start a story or series, I have a lot of questions: What story am I trying to tell? What makes it special and sets it apart from other stories in this genre? Who are the key characters? What is going to happen next? Thinking critically and coming up with the right questions that get to the heart of a subject are a plotter’s best friend.
This is especially true with worldbuilding. Although there are many setting and world building sheets available (plus an article by Sara Lubratt on 6 Worldbuilding Questions You Haven’t Heard) that are extremely helpful, being able to add your own spin or follow ups to these questions can change the direction of a story or lead you somewhere completely new.
I might not have all the answers right away, but if I’m asking these questions, my readers will be too.
#2: Building Realistic Characters
Almost every day I meet someone who has the potential to inspire a character. It can be as simple as a necklace the subject was wearing or even a hairstyle choice, but seeing different faces and aesthetics can be helpful to curate a character’s appearance. Maybe a businessman has the perfect look for a knight or a king, or a teacher’s eyes and voice are the vision of a perfect protagonist.
Over the course of any interview, I would also get more insight into a subject’s personality and mannerisms, which gives me a realistic taste of what characters would look like when they are asked to talk about something difficult, or something important. Are they defensive or open? Is there a light in their eyes when they talk about their passion? Even how they sit, if they talk with their hands or if they fidget with their watch or earrings are all minor ticks that breathe life into a character.
#3: Structuring the Narrative
Whether you’re writing a 500 word article or a 35,000 word novel, having a coherent transition from beginning, middle and end are writing basics. In a given week, I will write around six articles, which are essentially mini stories. I have to hook the reader in with my first sentence or paragraph, give them context, introduce them to the important players, bring in the conflict and resolution and wrap it up. It’s been easy to apply a similar structure to my current WIP; at the end of the day, journalism is just storytelling.
#4: Edits are Second Nature
At this point, I have worked with enough editors and gone through enough drafts of articles to know that editors are my best friends. It’s still scary to put a piece of your work out there, but I know that the rewrites, added questions or changes are all meant to elevate the story. Although it means there’s always more work to be done, it’s exciting to get back edits knowing that it’s going to be that much better because you had someone help clean up your copy and streamline your thoughts.
Sure, that process is going to be much longer when it’s a novel, but shifting your attitude about editing and editors will make the process far less daunting.
#5: Goal Setting and Meeting Deadlines
Deadlines — even self-imposed ones — keep me focused and driven. I work most efficiently when time is ticking down, and bringing that mentality into fiction writing has helped keep me in check. Even if it’s not quite NANOWRIMO level, setting small, recurrent deadlines for word count or chapters are helpful if you’re getting lost in your head.
You don’t have to work in journalism to experience the benefits. Trying out nonfiction writing or blogging are challenging experiments that push writers out of their comfort zone and can help build new skills that you can take back to your current WIP.