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.

1000 is just a number (but it’s a useful number)

Just a short one this week dear reader; lots going on. But, even when there is a lot going on, if you’re going to be a writer it’s kind of important to write…

There is an idea floating around out there that if you want to write a book you should write 1000 words a day. Some people swear by this rule, and some people hate it. Myself, I see a 1000 words a day goal (or any other X number of words per day goal) as a tool. I also look at it from the standpoint that if you average somewhere at or above your goal you are probably doing OK (so don’t kill yourself because you only got 994 words yesterday; you might get inspired and hit 1250 tomorrow…).

There’s lots of other stuff you need to do as a writer. There are lots of things to learn. You need to edit. You need to revise. You need to submit copy. You need to market copy. You really should do some research… But, while you’re out doing all of that you still need to actually write. That’s what a 1000 words per day goal does for you; it helps you actually write, to get into the habit of putting words on the page (or screen).

There is still a whole lot of stuff to do before and after, but if you’re a writer ya gotta write (it’s not just in the job description it’s in the job title…).

The X word per day goal is a way to help you get one part of the process done. It won’t save you on its own. But, it can help, especially if you have trouble getting to the actual writing part. In fact, once you learn to use and keep an X words per day goal it can help you to feel like you’re actually accomplishing something. If you meet your goal, or if you “don’t need one” because you’re already writing, why not stretch a little bit and do more?

Honestly after doing (and winning) NANWRIMO three years in a row 1000 words a day feels pretty easy. Knowing that I can do that much, knowing that I can work that part, makes it easier for me to move on and do some of the other things, the harder things, that I struggle with. Starting with a words per day goal and demonstrating I can do it is one of the things that has helped me move on to other parts and to set (and achieve) goals to do that harder stuff each and every day.

When we make specific goals, ones that we can state simply and actually achieve, we are starting down the road to make weak things strong; we are on our way to becoming better authors.

So, if you need a 1000 word per day goal, set one (if you’re doing NANOWRIMO set one somewhere north of 1600 words per day…). If you need to market better set a goal related to marketing. Thousand word goals (and any other goals you have) are tools to help you achieve and get stuff done. And, you have the power to set the goals you need!

That’s it for this one dear reader. Now get out there and do, and I’ll see you next post (at the moment we’re looking at doing a little software/app thing…)

Understand your purpose…

One of the big things that we are often told as writers is “know your audience” and it’s true when you’re writing you need to know who you’re speaking to. Another thing we need to think about is why we’re writing. For that matter it’s a good idea to keep track of why we’re doing anything we’re doing as writers.

Case and point…

The post you’re reading right now (the one I’m writing at the moment…) should have been done already. It should have been in my computer and ready to be reviewed and then posted before lunch today. But then life happened…

Shortly after I got into my office today I had the side thought “Hey, let’s try one more time to see if we can get that computer to boot from the optical drive”…

Well, it did! And then I spent the rest of the morning messing with installing the OS, and getting it into the right position on my desk so that I could connect the network cable, and downloading software (actually that last one is still going on…).

Yes, I’m still installing software as I’m writing this… So, how am I doing that and writing this?

Simple… I’m writing this on my other computer (you know the one that was already set up and running that I should have been working on…).

I should have been done with this post hours ago, but I let myself get sidetracked by other things that I ‘should’ (read that as ‘other things that I want to do’…).

Now don’t get me wrong. Getting the other computer working is a good thing. It helps me get more stuff done and will be better for some of the video work I need to do. But, futzing around with it when I should be writing kind of put me behind schedule and means my whole day is off.

The schedule problem is fixable (I found a couple of work arounds during lunch), but what if it had been something worse? What if I missed the old income tax deadline because I was futzing? What if I was working on an educational piece and skewed more into entertainment territory. What if I was intending to write something entertaining and skewed off into arcane detail that might be educational but nobody really cares about?

When you forget your purpose, why you’re doing what you’re doing, it can easily land you in trouble.

Micro and macro levels…

And while we’re at it you have to remember your purpose on a couple of levels. In the case of my pc I knew exactly why I was doing some of that futzing. I wanted the %#@$##$# program to work the way I’m used to! Unfortunately I was losing sight of the bigger purpose of being a writer/publisher who provides interesting and informative content to my readers.

In the heat of the moment working on my other PC I got wrapped up in the minutia of what I was doing and forgot to think about why I was doing it. If I had remembered that I might have moved on to other programs instead of fighting with the one that was being troublesome. Or better yet I might have quit mucking around and got some writing done!

It honestly works both ways. You have to keep your eye on the big picture, on why you’re doing what you’re doing. And you also have to keep your eye on the details of what you’re doing at the moment.

Ever gotten an email, text, whatever that made reference to an attachment or link and then found that there was no attachment or link to use? Yeah, that person should have paid more attention to the details…

Forgetting the ‘minor’ details for the ‘greater’ purpose can be just as bad as getting lost in the minutia. We really have to remember what our purposes are and keep an eye on both levels if we really want to get anywhere.

This isn’t just a ‘writing thing’

It really isn’t dear reader. Keeping an eye on our purpose is a life thing not just a writing thing.

As business persons we need to keep in mind that writing is a business and keep our purposes for the writing project, or whatever we’re doing, in mind.

As human beings need to keep an eye on why we’re doing any of this. If our real goals center around our family and being there for them, then why are we stuck in the office so much? If our real goal is to tell the story we’ve always wanted to tell, then why are we wasting our time downloading grocery apps?

I love writing.

I encourage others to be writers too.

But we really need to keep our focus on why we’re doing what we’re doing. We need to remember our objectives and purposes and make sure that what we are doing is supporting them.

That’s it for this one dear reader. See you next week.