Lessons from Journalism

What journalism taught me about writing fiction

While I was attending a course at Ryerson’s School of Journalism in Toronto, the instructor said, if you want to be a journalist you must learn to write effectively. That’s interesting but what does it mean? The answer spilled out in her lesson and then finished with the first in-class assignment – to write an obituary, effectively. An obit? Really? I was beginning to wonder if I was in the right class. But the lesson was a revelation.

When you think about it, an obit has all the basic elements of report writing in journalism. Using the well-known inverted pyramid format, the beginning of an obit starts with the most important piece of information – who died. Then, as you read through, the next piece of information is less important, and so on, until you get to the end (the tip of the inverted pyramid) and all the information has been given.

Now think about Agatha Christie’s book Murder on the Orient Express. After we are introduced to the main characters, the luxurious train comes to a grinding halt just after midnight due to an avalanche impeding the train’s progress. The next day, a passenger is found dead in his compartment and Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who is on his way to London, is asked to solve the case. So we know from the beginning (the top of the inverted pyramid) the most important information – a murder. As the story continues, we are introduced to more and more clues, through Poirot’s investigation, until we reach the end (the tip of the inverted pyramid) and the mystery is solved.

OK, now let’s get back to class. So what can journalism teach an aspiring fiction author? Well, there are similarities and differences between the two.

One of the main differences is that fiction is written in a way that allows readers to experience the protagonist’s life. Journalism reports a story while focussing on answering the 5Ws and 1H (Who, What, Where, Why, When and How).

So here’s what I have taken from the journalist’s toolbox to help hone my writing craft.

Research is important

Media journalists do not (should not) invent things. Everything they write is backed up by facts, whether in documentation or interviews. Writing fiction, historical fiction in my case, relies on getting the facts right and then used to help tell the story. I touched on this in a previous blog about the challenges of writing historical fiction.

Details matter. They can help the reader get immersed in the story or, if getting the facts wrong, can make the reader stop reading and get out.

There’s rhythm in conversation

When a journalist interviews someone, there’s an awareness of the rhythm in speech and conversation. Listening not only to what is said but how it is said adds to the realism of what is reported. In fiction writing, dialogue does just that through its natural sounds and expository dialogue.

Source: VisualHunt.com

Source: VisualHunt.com

I remember when I wrote an article during a period as a Communications Manager in a large aerospace company, whereby I interviewed the very first employee of the company, still living at the time, 78 years old. The interview approach was casual; a natural and trusting conversation about his time with the company. He drew me into his world of aviation with the ebbs and flows of his memories. It taught me how dialogue can be used to help make a story real.

 

Use words wisely

A typical media story can range from 350 to 750 words and maybe 1,500 words for a major news event or feature story. Making good use of words becomes important to tell the whole story. In fiction writing, equally important is to make every word, sentence and paragraph carry its weight. You’ll notice in a printed news report very few adverbs are used. The same principle should be applied in writing fiction. I managed in my story, The Final Crossing, to have used only 84 adverbs in an 82,000-word story. Replacing adverbs with action words and “showing” not “telling” goes a long way to paint a picture that excites, challenges and ultimately satisfies the reader.

Meet your deadlines

A journalist is constantly under pressure to meet their editor’s deadline. Even if there’s considerable re-writing involved or fact checking, corroborating with witnesses, etc., the deadline does not change. Novelists can learn the importance of meeting dead line whether they are self-imposed in committing to write a chapter a day or asked to revise/re-write by their agent or publisher. In realty, life happens and you may need to ask for an extension. But learning how to pace yourself and adhering to the disciplines you have developed will help you meet those deadlines.

Imagination creates the story

Journalists don’t use imagination to write their stories since news reports are based on facts. On the other hand a novelist relies heavily on imagination, intellectual endurance, and emotional obligation.

Source: Clever Visuals on Unsplash.com

Source: Clever Visuals on Unsplash.com

Some may argue that imagination is a gift. Perhaps it is. But it can also be harnessed by reading widely, writing/re-writing extensively, and tapping into your own life experiences. In time, thoughts run rampant; characters are created and refined; dialogue comes naturally; twists and turns keep your readers engaged; and, finally your story is created.

Journalists turned novelists

Author and journalist Marjorie Simmins recently interviewed Canadian author Lawrence Hill about his recent memoir (posted on Jane Friedman blog posts). Hill is also a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph and has written ten books, including The Illegal, The Book of Negroes (TV series that premiered on CBC in Canada in 2015), and Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada.

When asked how journalism helped to write this memoir, Hill replied, “First of all, I learned as a journalist how to interview people. So I didn’t feel shy conducting interviews and that was helpful because I had to ask all sorts of intimate questions … Being a journalist helped me understand how to organize the story …”

Here are some other journalists turned authors who went on to write some of the most memorable and impactful stories of our time.

Charles Dickens began his career as a parliamentary shorthand reporter.

George Orwell was reporting for the Observer while writing Animal Farm and gathering his thoughts for his book, 1984.

Bram Stoker and H.G. Wells were both keen journalists.

Rebecca West worked as a journalist for the feminist weekly Freewoman and the Clarion, in support of the suffragette cause.

Maya Angelou was a journalist in Africa in the early 1960s before writing her first collection of poems.

E.B. White started off as a writer for The New Yorker before he became the author of the well-known Charlotte’s Webb. He was also a grammar pundit who composed the original The Elements of Style. Today, the revised Strunk and White publication (authors William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White) is a staple for writers of all disciplines, including novelists.

Margaret Mitchell started her career as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine. Who can forget her most famous character Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind?

L.M. Montgomery worked as a journalist in Halifax before she wrote Anne of Green Gables.

Mark Twain was a journalist before becoming a novelist.

Finally, at age 17, Ernest Hemingway was hired by The Kansas City Star. Later, after returning home from WWI in 1919, a family friend offered him a job in Toronto and he eventually became a freelancer and staff writer for the Toronto Star Weekly.

But of course not every successful author began behind a desk and typewriter of a news media outlet. Some were lawyers turned novelist (Erle Stanley Gardner, John Grisham, Meg Gardiner) while others were ordinary people with extraordinary talents in storytelling.

As part of my writing toolbox, the key and basic writing principles I learned in journalism can only help me become a better novelist.

Until next time!

Vince

Beta Readers Are Worth Their Weight In Gold

What (or who) is a Beta Reader?

A beta reader is someone who has agreed to read an unpublished manuscript and give their feedback. Isn’t that what a critique partner/group does, you ask? Not exactly. A critique partner/group has specific requirements when they read and evaluate a manuscript. Then you ask, isn’t it the role of an editor, to give feedback? Again, not exactly. An editor, among other things, will give advice how to fix weaknesses in the manuscript.

A beta reader is someone known to the writer, whether it be a friend, someone introduced through a friend, a family member or someone in the writing community, perhaps an author. A beta reader is trusted to give their objective, unbiased thoughts on the manuscript. There’s no room here for trepidation on the reader’s part nor to be thin skinned on the writer’s part. Friendships and family relationships aside, the goal here to let the writer know what is good in the writing and what is not good. The writer must listen to what is being relayed and not become hurt or offended by the remarks.

A beta reader is not just someone who’s an avid reader. Writers like beta readers who have a sharp mind, pay attention to detail, perhaps even closely familiar with the genre. Most writers prefer beta readers that include both writers and non-writers. Even though there are pitfalls in using either or both, the variety of feedback can only help the writer improve the story. Using them at different times has its benefits. For example, a fellow writer, as a beta reader, can be most helpful in the early draft stages of writing and for ongoing feedback. On the other hand, a non-writer beta reader can be most helpful when the manuscript has been completed as a means of testing the target audience.

Ultimately, the writer must decide what to do with the feedback. If it’s from the non-writer beta reader, the suggestions may not be actionable since the reader may not have knowledge of the writing craft. A fellow-writer’s feedback may be equally not actionable because the feedback may reflect how the fellow writer would write the story.

It can be a challenge to find good beta readers. There’s a significant commitment on their part. Timeliness, for example. A writer can’t wait six months for a reader to read the manuscript, collect the feedback and share it with the writer. Also, remember that the reader does not charge anything for taking on the task.

A writer truly appreciates the commitment and work that goes into being a beta reader. With this appreciation many writers volunteer to be a beta reader as a means of giving back. Whether you volunteered or accepted the invitation to provide feedback, remember the feedback or constructive criticism is often seen as having negative connotations and overshadow the comments of strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. Keep this in mind, as a beat reader, your feedback should always include encouraging comments because writers build on their strengths and adds to a beta reader’s value.

I have been fortunate to find good beta readers both in the early stages of my manuscript for The Final Crossing, as well as upon its completion. My beta readers have been a huge part of my writing process, helping me with those “blind spots”.  I always welcome anyone who wants to be a beta reader because, to me, they are worth their weight in gold.

Until next time!

Vince

Interested in being a beta reader? Drop me a line.

Leave me a comment. I’m always interested in what others have to say.

 

Subjectivity and Rejection; one leads to the other.

Too Much Subjectivity Clouds Judgement

Rejection is a necessary step to success. Yet inherent in most rejections of a story is the degree to which subjectivity plays a role in deciding what gets represented and what gets rejected.

The list below is a sampling of some authors and their works that all have one thing in common: a persistence to never give up on their dream. They also have something else in common. Every one of them was initially rejected by literary agents and publishers alike. After seeing the list, it makes one wonder if the same errors in judgement still pervade the publishing industry today.

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
  • Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
  • A Time to Kill by John Grisham.
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  • Carrie by Stephen King.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rejections provide the authors with the impetus to persevere. They don’t normally provide valuable insight or feedback that would help the writer improve their craft. Here’s one of my favourite rejections that I received from an agent: “Not for me.” That’s it! Three words. Needless to say, this agent would not be for me either. The lack of professionalism suggests how she would represent a client. Aside from the “Not for me” rejection, most agents that turn down queries, respond by telling the writer something like this (another one of my rejections).

“Thank you for sending me your query. I’m sorry not to request the full manuscript or offer to represent you, but this doesn’t seem like a good fit for my list. Publishing is very subjective, and other agents may well feel differently. I wish you all success finding it a home.”

Speaking with other debut authors and from my own experience, the common thread in rejections is that the publishing industry is indeed very subjective. Often agents will say that what is not a fit for one agent may be a fit for another. Subjectivity can certainly hinder a writer’s chances in representation and ultimate publication of their work. The long list of initially rejected works attests to that.

Objectivity refers to something which exists, or is true, independent of anyone’s opinion. Subjectivity refers to an individual’s experience or opinion of something. Whether that something is objective or not is irrelevant.

For example, if a book falls on your head, we can say that gravity had a role in it. We can say this “objectively” because it can be objectively calculated and will have the same value. However, the pain you experience is “subjective”. You may have a sensitive head and feel extreme pain, or you may be wearing a hard hat and feel no pain, or you may be intoxicated and get an entirely different feeling. The results show that subjectivity caused by perception, emotions, or imagination led you to feel what you did when the book fell on your head.

A query letter or sample chapters will do the same thing: evoke a stimulus for an emotional response. The agent will then judge the submission based on their perception, emotions, or imagination. The stimulus, based on subjectivity, has its roots in an agent’s life experiences, education, biases, etc. Furthermore, what an agent is looking for in publication of a story, is also rooted in the same subjectivity.

For example, if you’re a woman, raised and worked on a farm, and experienced the challenges of getting up early, doing chores, then going to school, doing more chores after school, and finally doing your homework, you will have quite a different outlook on life than a woman who has lived in a big city all her life. Needless to say, the same holds true for men. The point is that experiences shape our thoughts and subjectivity-infused thoughts affects our decisions.

Let me further highlight this by using women’s fiction as an example. During the past few years women’s fiction genre has grown. Whether spawned by the “Me Too” movement or as a natural progression from the “chick lit” genre that was popular a decade ago, is not the focus here. In fact, with writers taking greater risks and reaching a larger audience, women’s fictions is having a larger appeal. The only fear is if the market becomes saturated with the genre or it’s a “flavour of the month”. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Women’s fiction is here to stay and rightly so.

And so, books about girls/women have been in the spotlight for some time. Female-driven thrillers are flying off the bookshelves and being adapted into blockbusters and stories centered on women are still in demand. Just look at the list of books published in the past few years in the women’s fiction category.

  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.
  • Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes.
  • The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen.
  • The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow.

… and there have been many more.

So, what’s causing this great influx of women’s fiction; market demands or an agent’s wish list?

To try to understand what may be influencing this, again using women’s fiction as an example, I did my own research and analysis of agents looking for new writers published in two different issues of Writer’s Digest and a guide from the Historical Novel Society that identified agents who sell historical fiction. Some may question that this is not a representative sampling of the hundreds of agents out there, yet the observations may leave food for thought.  Here’s what caught my eye.

  • Total number of agents looking for new writers: 93
  • Number of female agents: 73 (78.5%)
  • Number of male agents: 20 (21.5%)
  • Number of female agents specifically looking for women’s fiction: 36 (39%)
  • Number of male agents looking for women’s fiction: 1 (1%)

So, does the agent’s wish list affect the decision? Does the subjectivity factor play a part where an agent’s life experience evokes a stimulus for an emotional response and rejects a manuscript in favour of gravitating towards a story about a strong female protagonist?

When asked about their decision-making process in accepting or rejecting a story based on a query, one agent said, “The writing has to speak to me in some way for me to take it on, so if the writing isn’t quite there, I won’t likely offer rep, even if it has a great premise.” Another agent said, “It is more about my personal connection to the story and writing.”

Is subjectivity not creeping into making a decision? An agent confirms this saying, “I’m not passing on a project because it’s bad. It just didn’t sing to me, as it were.”

Publishers look at it a little differently. CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, Brad Martin said, “I’m not interested in a book that is going to generate less than $100,000 in revenue unless the editor or publisher has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author.” Yikes! What are my chances now in publishing my book? No doubt it’s about money. A publisher, like any other commercial venture, is in business to make money. Incidentally the merger of publishing houses during the past few years has drastically transformed the publishing industry. Publishers have come and gone. Those that have survived are now closed to work not represented by an agent, and only the dwindling number of small presses still accept submissions directly from a new author.

And then there’s the decision whether to self-publish or attempt traditional publishing. Essayist, journalist, and literary critic Anjali Enjeti writes in “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After 10 Years” (The Atlantic): “After 16 years of writing books and 10 years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day. […]” On the subject of self-publishing Enjeti says: “… can be a popular and accessible option for writers who wish to bypass the traditional route altogether. But while there are some wild success stories in self-publishing […] I’ve yet to meet an author who felt their self-published literary novel or memoir generated enough sales to make up for the amount of time and money spent marketing them.”

So that makes literary agents the gate keepers of the publishing world. The good agents work hard to get their clients the best publishing deals with the best publishers that they can. The bad agents … well, you can image how they operate.

What do writers think about agents as gatekeepers? Here’s one thought stemming from a Writer’s Digest article, “How to Find a Literary Agent: Finding Agents Appropriate for Your Writing”.

“Literary Agents gatekeepers of the publishing world? Seriously? I’ve known Literary Agents to take two years, TWO YEARS, to respond to a query. Some have no knowledge of good grammar, let alone people skills. Sorry. Your chance of landing a decent deal using a Literary Agent is slim to none. This industry needs an overhaul and it can start with Literary Agents. With the industry the way it has morphed over the past decade or two, writers are far better off going it alone. Not a soul cares more about your writing than you. There are far better ways to get your work into the laps of your readers.”

But gatekeepers aren’t necessarily risk takers. It seems agents want the sure thing, the book that will get published. They don’t expect perfection in a manuscript submission, but it has to be close enough that publication is almost a certainty. How many agents take a risk and represent someone that may be just a little outside their comfort zone?

Perhaps the system is indeed broken when it comes to how stories are chosen to be represented and published. Perhaps an overhaul is needed but who will take on the challenge and how will it be accomplished?

Until next time!

Vince

If you’re interested in seeing a more comprehensive list of books initially rejected and the story behind the rejections, click here.

What does it take to get published?

It’s An Uphill Battle

In a writing workshop, the instructor wrote on the board the three things a writer needs to get published: a good book; a good agent; and, luck.

A Good Book

Let’s assume you have a good book. The plot is interesting and unique, the main character is compelling, and the writing is great. You’re now ready to look for an agent to represent you and find a publisher. Oh, and by the way, you have an author platform; website, Twitter, Facebook with a bunch of followers cheering you on.

A Good Agent

You research and focus on agents that could best suit your needs and theirs. The querying process is what gets the agent interested in your work. You meet the submission guidelines where you may be asked to send a query letter, synopsis, sample pages or any combination of each. But after reading the query letter or by the time agents gets to read actual sample pages, they have already decided to go to the next step or reject it. 99% of the time an agent will stop reading a partial before reaching page 10 or the query letter just didn’t cut it for them.

This is frustrating for a writer. Everyone, including the agent, knows that it’s impossible to judge the quality and merit of a book by reading only a few pages. As a result, thousands of books don’t get represented or published.

Agents receive thousands of queries a year and they don’t have time to read all of them because their first priority is to service their existing clients. The “slush pile” of queries, sample chapters and even full manuscript submissions don’t get attention until the end of the day. We all know what it’s like after a long day’s work. Do you really want to do more work?

 But that’s what a reader does. Should the agent really do the same? After all, their judgment of a story will have greater significance to the publication of a highly successful book than merely deciding what to read next.

If your first 10 pages introduces us to a compelling character, the prose has some great writing, and dialogue is authentic, then why does it still get rejected? Agents will tell you that there wasn’t enough to want them to keep going. Yet, how many of us have picked up a book, read the first 10, 50 pages or the entire book and asked ourselves, “How did this ever get published?” And think about the books that were initially rejected and later, by luck, divine intervention or whatever the case, it landed on the best seller list – The Da Vinci Code, Gone With the Wind, Carrie, to name a few.

Luck

A bit of luck goes a long way in obtaining representation. We’ve all heard the stories before.

  • “I met her [the agent] on the train to a writer’s festival …”
  • “I was reading a section of my novel at a Goldsmiths literary evening for grad students and [Agent X] – who is now my agent – was in the audience.”
  • “One of my teachers […] passed my novel on to her agent […] who in turn passed the manuscript within […]”
  • “I found my agent […] through another agent named […]. My friend knows someone who went to school with [this agent], and because of her, the book ended up in his hands. He referred me to […].

And then there’s a different kind of luck. Author Delia Owens, now 70 years-old, had never written a novel before. Actress and producer Reese Witherspoon helped rocket Owen’s book, “Where the Crawdads Sing” after Witherspoon selected it for her Hello Sunshine book club pick.

Being at the right place at the right time can work wonders. But for most of us aspiring authors we leave luck to land wherever it chooses and continue to persevere and never give up on our dreams. We’ll continue to query, as best we can, to literary agents and publishers regardless if the system is broken or not. We’ll continue to receive rejection after rejection, regardless of the subjectivity that influenced the decision. Most importantly, we’ll continue to write, no matter what lies around the corner because our passion is in writing not querying.

 

Until next time!

Vince

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

History Is A Mere Backdrop To A Story

You have a story idea and you like history. Now you have to put the two together.

Writing historical fiction has its challenges. The story may be about a period in time that some readers know very little about or they may know more than the writer. Regardless, the historical facts of the story need to be researched and then used to help tell the story.

Photo by Adam Bichler on Unsplash

A writer considers the facts and then utilizes all five senses and weaves them into a story to make both facts and senses real. And don’t forget, a fiction writer takes “creative liberties” with their story. Does that mean the facts are distorted or changed? No. There are limits to how a writer wants to relay the facts to readers.

A writer might consider historical accounts and, based on other lesser-known facts, use them to conceptualize an event or situation. The purpose is to make the story readable, believable, or spark thought-provoking alternatives to traditionally known facts.

For example, in the novel A Gentleman in Moscow, author Amor Towles mixes both fact and fiction. Towles spent more than 20 years in the investment business before becoming an author. He tells the story of a Russian aristocrat living under house arrest in a luxury hotel for more than 30 years.

Towles admits he is not an historian and his book is not a book of history. “I generally like to mix glimpses of history with flights of fancy until the reader isn’t exactly sure of what’s real and what isn’t,” says Towles. He sees the task of a novelist differently. He describes it as using “the backdrop of history to tell a story.”

When I was researching for my story, The Final Crossing which is set in the Ancient World (Egypt and Mesopotamia), I was intrigued by the history of biblical events or phenomena. In my research I discovered that manna, the so-called “bread from heaven”, was a unique substance that grew on desert shrubs. After they fell to the ground, they were collected, ground and pounded into cakes and then baked. Bible passages tell the story of the Israelites eating manna, sent by their god, during their trek across the desert. In my story the protagonist learns about this mann es-sama from Bedouins living in the desert. I try to show that even what many believed to be a miracle from above can be explained in Nature.

It’s important to remember that a writer is not writing a history book, yet care must be taken so that all those interesting pieces of information, unearthed in research, do not end up as “info-dump” in the story but rather become an integral part of the story that keeps the momentum moving. They can be sprinkled into the story, invoking a picture for the reader of the scene or story as a whole.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s another way to look at it, in a simplistic sort of way. A painter prepares his canvas and may choose to paint the backdrop first. Strokes of colours, accents in shades – all to help bring the painting to life. Then the painter adds what he or she wants to depict – the focus of the painting. We look at the finished work, perhaps of a man, his face wrinkled like old leather, his eyes staring in determination. In the background, grey clouds overlook a farmer’s corn field ready for harvest. The painting is about the man. The backdrop tells us something about the man and his world.

It’s the same with historical fiction. The history is a backdrop to what the story is about – the protagonist and his quest. The backdrop helps create an accurate representation of the protagonist – his world and the events that propel him towards his goal.

So, is history a mere backdrop to a story? It’s more than just a backdrop. It’s the canvas, carefully prepared to help bring characters and settings to life.

How do you see history in historical fiction novels? I’d like to hear from you.

Until next time.

Vince

© 2020 Vince Santoro