A Non-Fiction Writer Switches to Fiction

Nice pants!

Apparently I’m a pantser. Who knew? I certainly didn’t when I decided in a rash moment of hubris to switch from travel writing to fiction. Whenever I’d answered authorly interview questions from those kind enough to feature me on their blogs and we’d got to the plotting or pantsing bit, I was easily able to sidestep the issue. When you write what really happens, it’s no different to ending an eventful working day in the pub, each incident becomes a funny story and eventually there’s a bookful.

This would be different though. This would be ‘proper writing’. But how do you start when you don’t yet know if you are a plotter or a pantser? Obviously you start with several hours learning your way around Scrivener. Oh look, you can put notes on a cork board! And you can develop your characters in individual files. Let’s do a corkboard for the whole thing…plan out where the plot points are, space out the beats and the cliffhangers correctly…

That took weeks of getting nowhere. I had no plot. I had a situation and three characters. I had an opening paragraph and an ending; both these images had been stuck in my mind for as long as the book had been a twinkle in my eye. But there was nothing else to plan. Even the few characters I knew about refused to tell me where they grew up and what they liked to eat.

Then two things happened. Firstly, I read an article here at IU — I am truly sorry that I don’t recall whose it was — that mentioned the turning on of taps (or faucets if you are reading this in American). It told me not to look at a tap and moan that no water was coming out. If I turned it on, the stuff would flow. Hmm, pondered I, I bet that works for real writers but…

The second thing was that the charming Kerry Donovan invited me to his blog for a Friday Fortnight interview. He asked for an excerpt from my WIP and I only had one paragraph written. I decided to see if I could add one more…and tried turning the tap on. Once I had another paragraph and another, ie enough to call an excerpt, I realised the theory actually worked. In the time I’d spent adding enough to my opening chapter to send to Kerry, another two characters had popped into my head and started talking to each other.

Of course, if that little taster hadn’t garnered some enthusiastic comments, the whole enterprise would have stopped there and then. However, somewhat encouraged, I made a plan to stop tinkering around with Scrivener and actually write the blooming thing. I had a six-week window of opportunity before my summer job began so I declared my own little NaNoWriMo season (it was March and part of April so, NaApNoWriMo-andabit) and worked out that if I wrote for six days out of seven I could do between two and three thousand words a day and have a bookful by the time I was done.

The only thing I knew for certain at this stage was that any attempt to read through what I had already written before there was a whole book would be doomed to failure. I’m too easily distracted by spending half an hour pondering a comma placement for that sort of torture. So, just as they advise the real NaNoWriMo writers (and I applaud you all, my effort had to be a secret), I would give myself permission to turn off the inner editor and just chuck words on a page any old how.

I knew this might lead to some pretty rough stuff which would need fierce editing afterwards but maybe, once the book existed, that would be the easy part. My aim was, well, A Whole Thing.

Somewhat unbelievably, there is now a book. It is with some trusted pals who I am choosing to call alpha readers, because a beta read would imply something a lot less scruffy round the edges. Over the next few pieces for IU, I plan to lay out the tricks I used to make it happen and the bonkers things that went on in the brain of a not-a-fiction writer.

Author: Carolyn Steele

Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her latest book grew from the blog Trucking in English, and you can learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

10 thoughts on “A Non-Fiction Writer Switches to Fiction”

  1. If there’s one person who knows and can understand what it is like going from writing non-fiction to fictional [I’m into writing romance] it would be me. Writing items for a community newspaper for several years I became quite adept at writing them. Transiting to writing romance I had to learn a whole new set of “rules.” I had to learn about such things as POV [point of view], dialogue, tags, show vs tell, etc. With two books under my belt [about to have my first re-edited], and three WIP [works in progress] I’m now learning that additional “rules” applied to each of the manuscripts I’m writing, MG/YA Urban Fantasy novella, adult Contemporary romance novel, and I’m also stepping out of my usual comfort zone to write an erotic novella. So in the four years I’m seriously into writing romance I’ve learned a lot, and I’m finally feeling comfortable in writing in this genre. Any one who’s seriously considering transitioning from writing non-fiction to writing fiction needs to know it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time; so one needs to have patience. I’m to read that you’ve made the transition; so welcomed to “the club.”

    1. You are so right! These are all things that, as a seasoned writer, I knew nothing about…until I joined IU. Without posts on pretty much everything you listed, it would never have happened. Got to love these guys. 🙂

  2. I often write like that, but I have lately been trying to insert a bit of planning at various stages, rather than going back and trying to give it structure after it’s all written. One thing I do differently; when I start the days’ writing, I first read over the last day’s work, to put me back in the mood and plot of the preceding section and to give my creativity a running start.

  3. What an interesting post. Having had to spend a lot of my working life planning (and then implementing those plans), I find that trying to plan what I write is very difficult. Perhaps that’s because almost all my output has been non-fiction. With stories already there to be told, there;s not much need to plan, unless you’re working to a deadline, which I don’t often do. I know the story because it is memoir; I was there and involved, even when the story focuses on someone else. I also have copious contemporary notes to work from, even though the events being written about might have been thirty five years ago.

    But maybe fiction is different. I have had one foray into that field, with a fast paced international thriller which was quite fun to write. But then the boundaries between fiction and memoir can come very close at times, so there wasn’t much need to ‘invent’ anything. My mind isn’t very inventive for things like that and I have infinite admiration for those who can do it.

    I read writers like Melissa Bowersock, Rosanne Dingli or Yvonne Hertzberger, to name but a few, and marvel how their brains can create such stories, let alone blend them in with supportable fact, culture and art. Where do their ideas come from? How do they imagine their characters and the situations they put them in, and still make them feel like real people? It takes far greater skill than I possess to do that.

    Perhaps I’ll just stick to memoir, to which end I have begun another one about the rainforest in the days when the Ebola virus was first identified. There are dramatic stories in that and, as those who have read my previous African memoirs will know, fact can often be stranger than fiction and just as exciting to read.

    1. Fact being stranger than fiction was, oddly enough, the reason I made the switch. The third of a trilogy of memoirs just wouldn’t come, mainly because most of it was too bizarre for anyone to swallow. People suggested making it, as it seems you have, a barely-made-up fictional account, but with no experience of plotting a story I couldn’t make it behave that way either. So I gave up and played with a new idea. Perhaps I will hold your not-quite-made-up thriller as an example and try going back to the book that wouldn’t write itself. Link please. 🙂

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