The truth is, writing fiction is hard. No, correction, writing good fiction is hard. This is borne out by the fact that the majority of new books in any given year are non-fiction. The last statistics I remember seeing were that three out of every four new books published in the U.S. were non-fiction. And if you removed elementary children books from the mix, the proportion would be even higher.
At first that seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? I mean, when I look at a thick history of World War II, or a 500 page comparative theology book, or a multi-volume biography of someone like the Duke of Wellington, I am (reluctantly) impressed, and I think to myself that I could never do that.
Well, that may or may not be true. But let’s look at this logically for a moment.
What is required to produce a work such as one of my three examples?
1. The non-fiction author must do a lot of research and fact-gathering in order to lay the foundation for the book.
Does a fiction author have to do research? If he’s any good, you betcha. Why? Because an author has to know the milieu/universe where his story is going to be laid, whether it’s historical, current, future, or fantasy in nature. (See the posts about world-building.)
2. The non-fiction author has to organize the researched material to support the thesis of the book.
Does a fiction author have to organize her material? Yep. She has to make sure that her story is consistent and has continuity. Otherwise, people won’t enjoy it.
3. The non-fiction author has to present the information well to make his case, and to tell the story he wants to tell. (And yes, many non-fiction authors do tell stories.)
Does a fiction author have to tell . . . Of course a fiction author has to tell a story! That’s what writing fiction is all about, isn’t it?
So if the general skill set and methods appear to be so similar between the non-fiction author and the fiction author, what’s the difference between the two disciplines? Getting back to the initial theme of this post, what makes writing fiction hard? Or harder than writing non-fiction?
I would submit that it lies in the goal of the writer.
The non-fiction writer writes to impart information. That’s pretty much it. Oh, maybe she wants you to adopt a philosophical/political position based on her presentation, but it still comes down to imparting information.
The fiction writer writes to tell a story. That’s the difference. But more than that, the fiction writer writes to entertain, to enthrall, to enlist, to elicit, even to addict. That requires something unique, something not ordinarily present in non-fiction: the creative voice.
I’m sure there are people who will argue with me, but to me, the level of creativity required to write good fiction takes us out of the realm of craftsmanship and into the realm of art. No matter how good our writing skills are, no matter how polished our authorial technique may be, if there is no creative voice in the story, it’s a flop. And not everyone has the creative voice.
That’s not to say that skills and craftsmanship are not important. They are. After all, we really should know what the rules are before we can understand when it’s appropriate to bend or break them. But there must be more than that in good fiction. And it is the learning to apply the creative voice to the results of the research and the organizing of the material and the presentation of the material/case/story that makes fiction hard.
I’ve read a ridiculously large number of books in my life. I can tell you with some assurance that I have never finished a non-fiction book, then turned back to page 1 and started over again. I can, on the other hand, point to a number of fiction books where I have done exactly that. I can even point you to one novel that I read cover to cover eight times in the first eight days I owned it. Those authors’ creative voices entertained me, enticed me, drew me into their stories so profoundly that I didn’t want to let go.
That is the Fictorian Art. And that is what we as Fictorians aspire to-are driven to, in most cases.
Welcome to the Fictorian world.
First published on Fictorians.com 11/19/2011.
I rarely reread a book though there are a few. I always want another just as good or better. I rarely re-watch movies either which is why I don’t own a whole lot of them.
But what I want to know is which book you read eight times in eight days. Even my daughter who has read Way of Kings five times has never done that. Give us a title, please. 🙂
The book in question is Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonsinger”. I bought it the first week it came out in 1977, and as I said, read it 8 times in 8 days. I admit it’s not a great work, and it’s certainly not even her best work. But it grabbed me. I don’t consider it to be one of the great influences on my writing, per se, but I do believe that it was one of the catalysts that very shortly thereafter caused me to start writing.
I re-read constantly. I have about 3000 fiction books right now, mostly novels, mostly in hard copy, that are the ones I liked well enough to keep to re-read. To me, sitting down with a favorite book and a cup of Earl Grey is like having a conversation with an old friend. I know what he’s going to say, but I still enjoy hearing him say it. And as I learn more about the art and craft of fiction, I see things differently each time I read a book. The second or third time through, I may figure out why an author did something that confused me the first time I read it.
And as it turns out, I just did the “finished the last page, turned back to page 1 and started over” thing yesterday, with L. E. Modesitt’s newest novel, “Scholar.”
Great post, David. It is hard to produce good quality creative voice, but when someone does – well, I reread, rewatch too. I don’t even know how many times I have reread all of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books or Marion Zimmer Bradley’ s Darkover books. I know I reread Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” about every few years.
I hope that one day I master this craft and have people who want to reread my writing. Then, I will feel like a successful Fictorian!