Friday, September 21, 2012
When Journalists Write Novels
Ever since my mystery novel The McHenryInheritance came out in late July, I’ve been cataloguing the responses I get when people hear about it. As a recovering journalist, who still knows a lot of people in the newspaper business, I’ve heard a recurring comment from that particular group.
“I think every journalist is actually a frustrated novelist,” wrote one. “I’ve still got a few manuscripts in a desk drawer.” He went on to say, essentially, good for you that you published your book.
Another ink-stained wretch I’ve known for a long time said, when I ran into him, “Yeah, I’ve tried writing a novel a couple of times, but it didn’t work out.” Others voiced a similar refrain, essentially that they had tried to write fiction, gotten a ways into a book, and realized it wasn’t working so set it aside. Pretty much permanently.
Twain and Hemingway Did It
Up until the last half-century or so, it was not at all unusual for journalists to switch to fiction writing with success. Mark Twain was a newspaperman first, and someone who believed that newspapers were an essential element of a civilized society. (Or an uncivilized one: See his hilarious short story “Journalism in Tennessee.”)
Ernest Hemingway worked for a couple of newspapers in the early 1920s before his novels began to sell. He often said that journalism was good discipline for a young writer, and that he had learned a great deal from it. I have my doubts.
Increasingly, though, fiction writers tend to come out of creative writing schools, not newspapers. There are exceptions, like Carl Hiaasen, but they mostly prove the rule. There simply isn’t much crossover any more.
Actually, news writing and fiction don’t have much in common. Writing a news story is a matter of collecting facts and arranging and presenting them lucidly and coherently. The stories are short enough that the reporter doesn’t have to worry about pacing and structure in anything like the way the fiction writer does.
In fiction, the author has to imagine the story, then structure and restructure it until it flows seamlessly. He or she has to develop characters and work in dialogue that brings out their humanity and individuality. Reporters don’t have to do anything like that.
The Freedom of Genre
A few times during my misspent youth, I tried writing serious fiction. It always ended the same way. I got to a point where I felt I had a strong enough idea to write a book, sat down and wrote a passable first chapter, then a much weaker second chapter, then began a third chapter that remained unfinished because I was utterly at sea.
Although I had been a fan of mystery novels since the age of 12, it didn’t occur to me back then to try writing one. I didn’t think I could come up with a clever enough plot, or conceal the clues well enough to fool a reader of any intelligence.
Imagine, then, my surprise, when somewhat late in the game, I actually tried writing a mystery and finished it, when I’d never been able to get far with a serious novel. I found that the imposed structure of the mystery forced me to outline an entire book, rather than have a good idea that fizzled out after a couple of chapters. The confinement of the genre proved to be the liberation I needed to become the author of a book, rather than an imaginer of books that never got written. Who knew?