Applying Journalistic Methods to Fiction Writing
Newspaper ink is toxic. Or addictive. Or both.
My parents were newspaper distributors for all of my growing up years. Some of my earliest memories involve munching donuts and reading the Sunday paper while on the route, delivering newspapers to homes and racks and dealers in Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt, and Carbondale, Colo. My first official job when I got my driver's license was a motor route, delivering those same papers, 7-days-a-week at 4:30 in the morning.
When I was too young to drive and too young to stay home alone in the wee hours, I went with one parent or the other. I fell asleep on those bundles of papers so many times I'm sure the ink transferred into my bloodstream. I've never left the newspaper business. From the motor route to the production department to news writing and copyediting, I can't seem to eradicate the thrill of the local, small town news story from my system.
As a journalist (I so hesitate to use the word, since I have no formal training, just experience) ... the following "rules" come in handy.
1. The five Ws.
This is the classic. All news stories should answer, preferably in the first paragraph or two, the five Ws: who, when, where, what, and why. As a "pantser," this rule in particular is my friend. If I can answer those 5 Ws, I can come up with a synopsis, the panster's nemesis!
2. When in doubt, leave it out.
I learned this the hard way. When you're writing, whether it's a news article or a scene from a romance novel, if it doesn't "feel" right, if you have a "check" in your heart about it, LEAVE IT OUT. Why? Maybe there's an inaccuracy somewhere... a fact, a name, a spelling, or even a motive, character trait, or plotting element that's awry. In other words, listen to that inner voice!
3. Check, check again, and double check.
I've been blessed to have some wonderful editors in my writing career; people who spot discrepancies, inconsistencies, redundancies and inaccuracies with an eagle's eye, and who are more than willing to ask for clarification when something doesn't fit. Ever done a jigsaw puzzle with a preschooler? Mashing the pieces together might seem good, but they don't actually FIT.
Gradually, I'm learning to look for those fine-tuning elements, those clarifications ... BEFORE I turn in an article.
The same is true for fiction writing. We have to be willing to go back and look again. In this day and age, whether it be due to budget constraints or the rapid turnaround from manuscript to e-book, errors in the published word abound. By being willing to subject your writing to external scrutiny, you can narrow the gap between embarrassing typos and clean, clear writing.
What's the number one lesson I've picked up from journalism that I can apply to fiction?
Every story is worth telling, and every story deserves its own voice.
For myself, that's the greatest challenge a writer faces: writing in such a way that the story, whatever the story might entail, has voice and value (and excellence), whether your reader is perusing the local paper while his wife shops at Ross, or she's settling in for a fictional escape/adventure with the latest release from her favorite author.
WRITERS: Have you ever been inspired by a news story?
READERS: Have you ever been jerked out of a story because of a factual discrepancy?