Story in fiction and nonfiction

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is that nonfiction should be written so that it tells a story.

But… story is a fiction thing!

Actually “story” can be a fiction thing, but it is also a way of organizing information. In a story you have a beginning, middle, and end. In non-fiction you have an introduction, the thinky stuff in the middle, and a conclusion. The parts are similar and are used for similar purposes.

Whether you are doing fiction or non-fiction you are using words and ideas to move a person from a beginning point to an end point.

In both cases your beginning is a starting point, you need to catch the reader’s attention, acclimate him or her to the way you’re going to talk to her/him and instill enough faith in the reader that the reader will actually stick with you through the stuff in the middle to get to that endpoint.

In a fiction story that end point is a conclusion with a payoff (that pay off may be emotional, just having been entertained by a good story, or a range of other things). In non-fiction that conclusion might be a payoff (say being satisfied that you now know something), but often it is a CALL TO ACTION! In non-fiction you often want your reader to do something (buy a car, stop smoking, vote for XYZ, or…)

The stuff in the middle, the stuff that gets you from the beginning to the end, includes a lot of necessary information. The kind of information might change depending on what sort of story you’re telling, but fiction and non-fiction can share a lot here.

A how story (how to build a deck, how the Allies won in World War 2, how a couple of short, fat guys from a rural backwater saved the world by chucking a ring into a volcano…) is showing and teaching how something  happens. In this sort of story you are following logical steps from a pile of (literal or fictional) parts to a completed act or product.

A why story (Why you should vote for my candidate, why we should apply Feminist theory to the war on terror, why Jimmy the vampire chose to go vegan) explains the reasons for a thing happening. You might not follow a straight line from beginning to end on this one. You still have a starting point, but you don’t have to start with a stack of unassembled pieces. You can begin close to the end and catch the reader up to where you are. And then, with the built up momentum, move the reader to doing or believing something you want done or believed.

Fiction stories have a protagonist, that would be the ‘hero’, the person the writer is expecting the reader to follow and root for. In fiction the protagonist could be male or female, or for that matter a dog, a duck, a chicken or an anthropomorphized hunk of plastic.

Non-fiction writing generally also has a protagonist. This time we probably don’t have a hunk of talking plastic as the ‘good guy’, but we could have any of those others I just mentioned. In fact, the protagonist might be the reader. How will XYZ (if your name is Bob you can call him Bob. If your name is Juanita call her Juanita. Or whatever…) assemble that shelving unit? It isn’t going to happen by itself.

Story is a way of conveying information. It is a way of helping the reader follow what you’re saying from point A to point B. It is a way to present things so that the reader will find value in what you’re saying/writing and, hopefully, be motivated to do or feel what you, the writer, intended.

Like everything else in the craft of writing, story is something you have to learn how to use. One of the best ways to do that is to read. You will need to read in your genre to see what has gone before, but you may also benefit from reading outside of your genre as well. A good mystery story or medical drama could teach you something about how to write your trouble shooting text. A classic story of desire and obsession might tell you what you need to know to sell pizzas. On the other hand biographies and world history do drive fiction (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings… If you look for it it’s there).

We as humans love story. So, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, if you want to succeed with your readers tell them a story!

And, I’ll see you next post.

Team Oxford Comma?

I know… It would sound weird to my younger self too, but the deeper I go into writing and editing I’m gaining an appreciation for the Oxford comma.

Once, as a youngster, I learned that that comma before an ‘and’ in lists really wasn’t necessary. It was optional and something the old guys did, so I didn’t use it. That approach works just fine if you only worry about eggs, bread and milk…

But, what if you get into lists that are longer? What if you want to put things that are actually interesting into your list?

If you want to talk about red flowers, jewels that shine like the moon, the smell of mature pecan trees, and the fine sand of a South Georgia beach, then that Oxford comma actually becomes more appropriate and important.

The Oxford comma, along with commas that went to less prestigious universities (and yes even that one that just got its GED…), are used to help parse sentences and add clarity. They help break things up in such a way that you can figure out what the %^&^&%^&%#$#@$#@%$#@$@$!!!! the author is saying. No, you probably don’t need it in simple sentences and lists with single word items, but if you want to add clauses to a sentence, or use conjunctions, or use parentheticals without the parentheses, then you probably want to ‘open up a pack of comas’.

The point of the thing is clarity in your writing, and big complicated sentences call for commas. And, that means big complicated lists need that Oxford comma. It really does make things clearer; except when it doesn’t…

Sometimes, when you’re making those big complicated lists, you want to create a list of things that already have commas in them. That is when you dig out another old and misunderstood friend of mine, the semicolon.

If you are making a list of items like: military uniforms, in a range of colors and camouflage patterns; fireworks, including bottle rockets and smoke bombs; lunch bags, preferably with cartoon characters printed on them; and all the other things you need for the new school year, you really need something to help break up and simplify that list. This time even the Oxford comma can’t save you (it is well educated, but it’s not a miracle worker…). This time you need to add another punctuation mark to help organize your list.

I know. I know. There are things a lot more fun than punctuation out there, and punctuation has all these fiddly little rules… But, when you’re a writer the point is to write in ways that help your reader get the point; to write in ways that help him or her to understand what the #%#%$#^#$^#^#!!! you’re saying.

And dear reader, that’s why we do it. That is why we spend so much time sweating the details of punctuation in our writing.

And that’s why I’m finding myself on team Oxford comma. Just like any of us, I would really like to be understood.

Thanks for reading today. Keep those sentences straight. And, I’ll see you next post!

The importance of time

One of the things that drives my wife crazy about my writing is time. Not that I spend time doing it (she gets that part…”). Sometimes it’s not even really about how much time I spend writing. Instead she gets frustrated with how regimented and monitored that time can be. I can honestly tell you how many pages I can typically write in an hour. I know how many pages I can transcribe in an hour. I can estimate how many hours it will take me to write a given thing and when it will be most efficient for me to put those hours in. I’ve spent a few years doing this and I’ve figured this stuff out. And sometimes my idea of what I need to do just doesn’t work for my wife…

The thing is, my wife has things that she wants to do too (and other people and things in the lives of us writers usually have the same kind of needs). And sometimes the amount of time, and the actual moment in time when things need to happen, conflicts with what we as writers want and need to do. And this really does lead to problems.

While there are those that will try to pass off a ‘system’ for writing as ‘the right system’ for everyone; I for one don’t really buy into any of it. In my estimation you have to learn the best way and time for you to write by your own experience and adjust for your own situation. A professional writer with no kids and a full time mom with three kids don’t have the same situation (and they may have wildly different writing styles, subject matter, and/or genres as well…). And don’t even get me started about my friend the funeral director (who is basically on call 24/7).

I won’t try to give you ‘the’ system dear reader; however, I will pass on a couple of things I have learned.

You have to actually put time into it…

Not a whole lot to say on this one. You have to actually devote time to writing if you want to write. If you don’t there will always be something in the way. You have to choose to write and make time to do so.

You have to learn about you…

You need to know a lot to figure out what kind of time you need to write, and how to use that time. Some of that knowledge can be found in books, blogs (like mine…), and other sources. But, some of that knowledge can only come from you, and you can only obtain it by experimentation. You can only obtain that kind of knowledge by actually trying different writing times and keeping track of how you spend your writing time. It really is a ‘learn for yourself’ situation, and in some ways it has to be. No two writers are alike, and neither are their situations.

You have to be reasonable with others in your life…

As much as we may want to climb into our hole in the ground, office, booth at our favorite restaurant, or whatever, and just write the world away; husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, etc. all do need some of our attention and time. None of us live in a vacuum and there are people to see, bills to pay, and things to do. Even (especially…) if we don’t want to, we need to be aware that we will spend time outside of our writing.

Some of that time can be handled and dealt with through planning (get out your calendar and plan a time to pay that light bill…).

Some of that time happens unexpectedly, and you really do need to put down your writing and deal with something else (if my wife is crying I might just want to find out why… If my desk is on fire who cares if I’m almost done with chapter four?).

Some of that time… Well sometimes you have to make a decision. Do you really want to go to that concert, play that golf game, or go see those in-laws? (It could happen…) If you do, then you have to figure out how to make that happen and still have time to write. Or you choose not to do one or the other, and suffer the consequences…

You have to communicate (and sometimes teach)…

I know this one isn’t always fun, but for the 100% of us in real life; sooner or later you need to talk to someone about writing and the time you need to write (note: I don’t mean “explain to” but actually have a conversation with). Often the person you’re needing to talk to is someone important in your life. These conversations can be challenging, some people have little experience in the writing world. Sometimes the people you’re talking with work differently than you do. Sometimes the people you’re talking to really haven’t thought about what you’re trying to do. In any case you need to communicate with them to help them understand, and to understand their side at least a little bit as well.

Communicating about writing isn’t always easy, but doing it is easier than not doing it. Communicating effectively can save a lot of ‘hurt feelers’ in the long run.

Time is an important part of writing dear reader. You need to learn about it: how to use it and how to communicate about it. If you don’t, then you’re headed for problems (if you do anything at all…)

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next week…

Chaos… Panic… Scented pine cones??? It must be the holidays!

Outlines: It is written! But not really…

Outlines are one of those tools that people like to push on writers, students, and others who work with ideas and symbols. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. There seems to be two main factors that will significantly predict the successful use of outlines: the project and the person or persons doing the writing.

I have to admit sometimes for some projects outlines have helped me. But, that’s depended on the project in question and how I have used the outline. For a really ‘good’ outline (the kind my high school teachers liked) the best procedure seems to be: take something already written; read it; and then write the outline based on what you read. That’s what we did in my AP computer class and occasionally in English… Writing things first and then doing the outline.

It really does work, if your purpose is for someone to grade you based on your outline. If you’re actually going to use your outline as a writing tool, then you’re probably going to want to do things the other way around (unless you’re doing a rewrite…). And, you’re probably going to want to understand what an outline really is.

But we already know what an outline is…

You might. People who read this blog are usually pretty smart. If you have some good ideas on using outlines then how about leaving a comment?  Of course you might also want to know a little more about outlines and how to use them. And that’s why we’re here today…

The simple, simple definition is that an outline is a frame or skeleton around which you write what you’re planning to write. A better definition states that an outline is a theoretical framework or structure around which you write what you’re planning to write. I stress that it is a theoretical structure because many a time the outline you create in the beginning has changed, or needs to be changed, by the time you’re done.

When you are creating an outline for something you intend to write (or rewrite) you are thinking about what you intend to write, and creating the framework for it as you think it will go. It can help you get started and stay on course. It can help you to make sure not to forget anything. It can also lead you astray.

As you are doing the actual writing you may learn things about what you are writing. If you’re writing fiction you learn about your characters. Occasionally you realize your hero (or villain, or sidekick, or…) would do thing in a different way than you had planned in the outline. If you’re writing nonfiction you occasionally realize that you need to add something else, or to change the order of things in the text. When you find yourself in a place where you need to change things (usually between page 50 and 2xx…) you have two choices: plug along by our original outline even though you know it’s wrong, or you can rethink your outline.

Some might argue that you should throw out the outline entirely. Often those folks are the same ones that didn’t want to do an outline in the first place. I encourage you to modify the outline (or build a new one), but don’t just throw it out and ‘wing it’. The point of an outline (like a business plan or budget) is to get you to think about what you’re doing. If you revise the outline, and look at what the change will impact elsewhere in the outline, you have a real chance to stay on course and create a superior product. If you plug along with an obviously flawed plan you will end up with an obviously flawed product (if you finish at all…). If you toss the outline without replacing who knows where you’ll end up (‘pantser’ games is another post).

The key is to stay flexible

There isn’t anyone who is going to grade you on how you stuck to your initial outline (unless this is a class project maybe). The point is to create a good product. Often that means changing your outline along the way. You’re still thinking about what you’re doing, but you’re also reacting to your increased knowledge and understanding. If something needs to be changed change it.

Often people that dislike outlines, and those who blame a writing failure on the outline, are those who consider the outline a carved in stone, law of the land, fact. In practice if you understand that the outline is only a tool, a guideline and thought experiment, it can be really helpful.

So, yes, I do recommend outlines. And, I recommend revising them as needed.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Planning tools are here to help you, use them! See you next post.