Transitioning from Writing Nonfiction to Fiction

Previously on The Writing Studio…

Some time ago I shared my decision about publication of my memoir. Since then, I’ve done lots of reading and research on orphanages in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Not much writing, other than taking notes.

My fingers itch to begin writing this novel. Yet, I’m stymied because I’ve written only nonfiction for several years. I’m proud of what I’ve written and published but I fear the quality of my work will falter with a new genre.

So I’ve also taken some time to read about the transition between nonfiction and fiction. Perhaps others of you have dabbled on both sides of the divide, and perhaps others are toying with the possibilities. Today I want to share with you what I’ve learned about writing fiction so far.

I tell myself writing fiction shouldn’t be hard.

And yet it is. Just because I write nonfiction, and I believe I do it well, doesn’t necessarily lead to my writing great fiction.

I sit down at the computer and, despite my research and understanding the story, I draw an absolute blank. How do I make my protagonist come alive? How do I set the scenes of the early 1900s? What does a four-year old boy think of being taken to a huge building called an orphanage? What do I put into my document? Please, somebody tell me!

Enter a time for reading about the nonfiction genre and a transition into fiction. What should I be aware of in writing my fictionalized story about my dad’s life as an orphan?

Here are some tips I’ve discovered.

1. Get to know your character by getting into his/her head–and working from there.

To catch your reader’s interest start in your protagonist’s point of view. Write through the eyes of your character, show his internal reactions. Readers want to establish an “up close and personal” relationship with your protagonist so make it easy for them to engage with the story and the character. Basically, make sure your readers are sucked into your story.

Show your character’s perceptions, reactions, thoughts, opinions and feelings about what’s happening in the scene. Don’t head-hop other characters’ feelings in the same scene. If another character’s viewpoint is essential to the story, then get in that character’s head and create a scene for that character.

2. Show, Don’t Tell.

How many times have we heard this advice? Too many to count! As the author, you shouldn’t step in and tell about the story, characters or something that happened. And don’t describe through your characters tell one another about critical events happening offstage.

The best way to bring your characters alive is to describe them realistically. Show their physical reactions, emotions, sensations, and facial expressions.

Using the five senses–see, smell, taste, hear, feel–describe your character’s responses and reactions. You don’t want to show only what your character sees, but what he feels, smells, and more.

3. Build in conflict and tension.

Without conflict and tension, even in the lightest of stories, readers quickly lose interest. No conflict, no story. Too little conflict and tension equates to boring. Build in conflict and change in each scene. Make sure every page holds tension, even if it’s only an undercurrent. Readers will keep turning pages with something sparking their interest.

4. Write snappy dialogue.

Give your character’s dialogue some attitude and tension. You don’t want your dialogue sounding as if the author is lecturing. A character’s words and speech pattern should reflect the character’s personality and background.

In dialogue, it’s perfectly okay to use partial sentences and even some imperfect English. Try to use partial sentences, short one- or two-word replies and questions, abruptly change topic, and allow your characters to fall silent.

It is good practice to read the dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural and authentic. Also role-playing can be helpful in determining the realistic sound of your dialogue.

5. Handling Time.

Most people wanting to write fiction would likely not be concerned with handling time within a story. However, time is essential to connecting with your reader. A writer must put events in logically presented sequential order. Unless, of course, your character experiences a flash back. When writing a flashback, you must make sure that you pick up the current story thread as soon as our character returns to real time.

6. Don’t Get Caught Up in Explaining Things.

When writing a nonfiction book or essay, it is normal to explain the facts surrounding your topic. But in a fiction story, it is not necessary to continue along in narrative explaining everything. If your fictional facts are drawn with clarity, the reader will understand the writer’s intentions. Good fiction writers allow their readers to walk into a scene and size up the details. Writers also expect that readers will discover their own truths.

Conclusion.

If you are considering a move from nonfiction to fiction, there are some good resources in the marketplace to read and study:

Most importantly, read all you can on writing fiction as well as reading good fiction. Both will help build your confidence and skills.

Do you have any tips to add about the transition from nonfiction writing to fiction writing? Please share in the comment section below.

Book Recommendations: Write Within Yourself and Fearless Writing by William Kenower

Book Recommendations

Two books written by William Kenower have made a lasting impression on my writing life. Today I want to share those books with you. The books are titled Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion and Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence.

Write Within Yourself

When William Kenower wrote Write Within Yourself, he didn’t intend for it as a book on writing. His purpose was to write a companion for the author, the writer seeking direction in a most important arena–“what it takes to write the book you most want to write.”

Kenower is a man committed to many things, one of which is finding that direction to take you where you want to go. In the case of a writer wanting to write that book, the writer needs to understand “what it takes to lead the life you most want to live.”

Collected within the covers of this book are essays and stories from the author’s life which help remind the reader he/she has always known where he/she wants to go. But knowing is not all there is to getting there.

“If my life has taught me anything, it is that there is neither such a thing as too far from myself nor such a thing as too close. The door to our heart remains ever open to our attention, and once within it, we can travel as deeply as we wish, that well-being the only channel through which life is ever known.”

— Write Within Yourself by William Kenower, p. 10

This is a book a writer will want to keep handy for ready reference. Kenower’s life lessons and stories should ring true with almost every writer.

Fearless Writing

Kenower’s subtitle for Fearless Writing is How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence. What author wouldn’t want to know more about boldness and confidence? The subtitle is what drew me to this book. Well, that and knowing William Kenower wrote it.

Recently, I was privileged to not only hear Kenower talk about writing fearlessly but also had the opportunity to attend a half-day workshop the next morning. Like his writing style, Kenower is an authentic personality with a great sense of humor sprinkled throughout presentations.

Don’t be fooled by those characteristics, however. His primary goal in life is to help other writers learn from his writing life’s journey.

Whether you are a beginning writer or a veteran with years of experience, there is much to be gained from reading Fearless Writing. Kenower defines fearlessness as “that elusive blend of self-acceptance, confidence, and curiosity. It is the defining quality he believes sets apart those who find fulfillment and success.

On the back cover, I love this quote from David Laskin, author of The Children’s Blizzard and The Family:

“William Kenower is as charismatic on the page as he is in person, and in Fearless Writing he has distilled his wisdom down to its electrifying essence. This is a book that any writer will cherish and learn from.”

My favorite quote from the book is:

“You will find your confidence and begin to write fearlessly the moment you stop caring about what anyone else thinks.”

— Fearless Writing by William Kenower, p. 10

These words have made a difference in how I face the page or computer screen each day. I believe this book will have a great impact on any writer who reads it.


About William Kenower:

William Kenower is the editor in chief of Author magazine, a sought-after speaker and teacher, and the author of the books recommended above. He’s been published in the New York Times and Edible Seattle, and was a featured blogger on the Huffington Post. His video interviews with hundreds of writers from Nora Ephron to Amy Tan to William Gibson, are widely considered the best of their kind on the Internet. He also hosts the online radio program Author2Author, where every week he and a different guest discuss the books we write and the lives we lead.

Kenower’s books are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound. You may connect with him via his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.