I’ve been writing in one form or another my entire working life and there’s very little that I haven’t tried. First, it was marketing materials and grants. Then I transitioned into technical and corporate writing. I’ve written for blogs and online magazines, written evergreen content for websites, articles for newspapers and academic journals, textbooks, and game reviews. I’ve worked for “the man,” and I’ve freelanced. Now I’ve added fiction to the list. While I’ve at least achieved a place in my life where I have no trouble claiming the title of “writer,” I have also reached a point where some days it’s difficult to tell where one job ends and the other begins. Or, for that matter, who I’m supposed to be today.
Despite that, I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. Fiction and non-fiction complement each other and success in one helps push success in the other. Sure, there are downsides to writing both fiction and non-fiction, to writing everything under the sun, but I’ve found that they balance out over time. This post isn’t really a how-to, or a “What to know before you make writing your entire life,” type of post. It’s just a series of musings and my thoughts on how living in both worlds is helpful, harmful, crazy, and just plain fun.
- Writing all the time can be exhausting. When you write for a living and then… write for a living, you never stop writing. And I mean never. If ‘m not working on projects for clients, I’m working on novels or writing these blog entries. If not that, then I’m coming up with pithy, fun stuff to feed the constantly-starved-for-content social media beast. I’m not like the person who writes for their day job and then goes home to do other things. (Even my hobbies have become writing-oriented now that I write board game reviews.) And I’m not like the novelist who writes at night after coming home from a day job spent doing unrelated things. I write all the time and sometimes the unrelenting need to cough up words gets exhausting.
- At the same time, there is a skill boost from doing all that writing that would take years to achieve otherwise. If practice makes perfect, then, dang, I’m getting ever closer to perfect. I notice improvement in my writing that I’m not sure I’d see as quickly if I weren’t writing all the time. If this were a role playing game, I’d be leveling up faster than my opponents. World domination can’t be far behind.
- Non-fiction teaches tightness and brevity, but doesn’t always reward creativity. Non-fiction is great at teaching you how to tighten your prose and get straight to the point. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reward flowing prose and creative turns of phrase. In fiction you need to write tight to keep your story from drifting off course and getting bogged down with unnecessary details, but you also can’t be boring. It’s good for fiction writers to work a bit in non-fiction, I think, because it teaches you how to trim. Just don’t forget to practice actual storytelling.
- Non-fiction taught me mad research skills. In all of my non-fiction work, I’ve had to research. And I’m old enough to go back to the days when your only choices were the library, microfiche, and really odd places like museums and obscure archives. There was no Google. Since I started my career pre-internet, I’ve learned how to conduct face-to-face interviews, dig deeply into primary source material, find obscure facts, and track down just about any bit of information I could need. The internet has made some of that easier, but I also apply my skills to generate deeper online searches. All of this comes in handy for fiction because while much of it is made up, some of it is based in fact. Authenticity and accuracy matters. Nothing brings a story to a halt faster than an incorrect fact or out of place period detail.
- Freelancing cured me of any preciousness regarding criticism and rejection. When you write for a living and it is your job, you get over criticism and rejection in a hurry. All you think about is, “How can I make this better so the client/boss will be happy and pay me?” and, “Well, that job’s a no-go so let’s get on with finding the next job.” Clients criticize your work over and over again, and why shouldn’t they? They’re paying money and they want a top product. You get used to hearing, “That’s terrible. Try again.” I think this is why I took all of my novel rejections in stride. It no longer bothers me when someone says, “No,” or, “I don’t like that.” I’ve heard it so much now that it’s simply a problem to be solved or something to ignore, depending on the situation.
- Non-fiction taught me to respect deadlines and, if you don’t have a deadline, assign one. Bosses and clients care very much that you deliver the work when agreed. You must hit your deadlines when writing is your primary job, otherwise you find yourself jobless. Fiction is less deadline dependent, especially in the beginning when you’re working on that first novel. However, there’s nothing like a deadline to motivate you to finish something. I’ve found that if I don’t have one, giving myself a deadline is a guaranteed way to make me more productive, especially with fiction.
- Freelancing taught me how to quickly generate ideas. Aspiring fiction writers often complain that they can’t find ideas. This is one thing that non-fiction can cure. When your job is dependent upon coming up with an idea and then selling it to someone, you get remarkably good at finding ideas in a hurry. It’s a skill that translates to fiction because once you’re used to seeing ideas all around you, you’ll never be without an idea again.
- Non-fiction taught me how to edit. In non-fiction, you often have enforced word limits and style guides to which you must adhere. Meeting these requirements teaches you how to edit your work so that it’s brief, concise, and easy to read. On the negative side, sometimes when you apply this to fiction, you end up editing too much and making things seem stilted. There’s a balance in editing fiction between trimming the work and making it shine and taking all of the soul out of it.
- Rapidly switching back and forth can give you whiplash. Some days I don’t know what I’m doing. One minute, I’m working on a manual and the next I’m in a fantasy world. I’ve learned that I have to enforce a little break between projects. Work on non-fiction for a while, get up, walk the dog, then come back and work on the novels. Switching back and forth without a chance to unclog the brain leads to technical manuals filled with fairies. Interesting to be sure, but not a good combination, generally.
- But at the same time, it’s useful in that you always have another project to work on. The great thing about working in both worlds is that I’m never stuck. When one project reaches a point where I don’t know know where to go or I’m waiting on more information, there’s always something else to do. I can’t say that I’m ever bored.
- Listening to people teaches you how to write better dialogue. I’ve done a ton of interviews for articles and features over the years and it’s given me a good ear for dialogue. I’ve listened to so many people talk, with so many different accents, vocabularies, and inflections that I think it makes my fictional dialogue sharper and more realistic.
- It’s coarse but true: You get over the art and learn how to make money. Yes, fiction is an art form. However, non-fiction has taught me that you can’t get so wrapped up in “art” that you forget that you need to make money. Now, I realize that not everyone gets into fiction with the intent of making a living. However, the ugly truth for me is that I would like to make enough money to at least enhance my income. That being the case, I’ve learned to apply some of my non-fiction lessons to fiction, chief among them that sometimes it’s about words on the page and not about “art.”
- Freelancing taught me marketing. Fiction is teaching me how to have fun with it. I learned how to market my work back in the days when I had to knock on doors to generate sales. (Working in software marketing for a while helped, too.) I’m fortunate in that now much of my freelance work comes through word of mouth. However, those early lessons gave me a foundation to build upon when it came time to market my fiction. The difference is, I get to have a lot more fun with marketing fiction. I can do giveaways, guest blog posts, Q&A’s and other fun things instead of having to be serious and stuffy all the time.
There’s something to be said for straddling both sides of the writing world. Sometimes it’s confusing, but more often, one side helps the other. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, I strongly encourage you to try the other. You might be surprised how much you learn and how helpful it can be. Or, it might make you nuts.
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