Wednesday, August 8, 2012

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.

JOURNALISM Pictures, Images and Photos
Painfully true.
I've often wondered if all that newspaper info was a detriment or a help. The further I go in writing fiction, the more I realize those basic journalistic methods are helpful, not hurtful, as I pursue excellence in fiction.

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?  


  1. One memory I enjoy is the sound of the newspaper delivery car pausing out front on those early summer mornings. I'd be awake but in bed and hear the car come down the road and stop. Although I'm an early bird, it was still comforting to think 'i'm in bed while that poor person has to be up driving around...' so I love your description from the other side of that story.

    I imagine journalism helps most with brevity - the bane of fiction writers--learning how to cut out the words that are unnecessary even though we love them.

    Thanks for sharing Niki. I think our readers will find this very interesting, though I want to see you with a Clark Kent hat and that little badge that says PRESS on it.

  2. Nice. Those are great guidelines for fiction writers. Although, I can't say I've ever personally had a story idea inspired by the news.

  3. Very true, Deb, about the brevity! One of the other things that helped me is having to "write to fit" the editor's requests, for length or style or focus of the story. It also helped me not be so attached to my words...

  4. Maybe I get inspired by news items because I like suspense and so much of what's in the news lends itself to that, all the unsolved mysteries and crazy people. I have a whole file of potential story ideas from various news articles.

  5. Watching the news always sparks ideas for stories. In that way, I'm inspired by the news, but my stories are nothing like the original because I play the 'what if' game and change it drastically.

    At 11, I had an after-school paper route when I lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was a walking route and took about 2 hrs. I did it to the best of my ability because it was a job, but it would have been more enjoyable if there weren't 3 dogs on the route. Two of them were in the backyards and I never saw them, but one was chained in the front. The summer before, I'd been minding my own business and biking down a back alley and a dog had chased me. I tried to outrun him and he'd bitten me in the heel. I was terrified of dogs.

    The dog on my paper route barked at everyone who passed on the sidewalk. The rule back then was to leave the paper lying on the doorstep unless the people had given instructions to tuck between the doors. Dogs were a fact of life and basically, we were told to ignore them. So I gave this particular dog a wide berth when I had to go into his yard to deliver the paper. But he would lunge and try to break the chain from the 6 feet separating us. It was a very traumatic experience.

  6. I've pulled more than one idea out of the news, and was just advised it's one of the best sources of comedy as well.
    But I get pulled out of the story easily too. I think my local television news outlets have some serious problems knowing where to place their modifiers. And those can be really funny sometimes. (It's one of the best reasons to watch the news.)Examples fail me. I need to start writing them down.

  7. I am often intrigued by news stories. Great tips.

    My brother used to be a substitute delivery person for our paper route. Amazing to think we used to get papers from a kid on a bike. Now we may be the only people on our block to get a print edition.

  8. Anita, I SO feel your pain! I had a motor route, so dogs weren't such an issue, but our next door neighbors had a huge German shepherd who used to chase me all the time. I hated that dog, and the Dobermans who lived down the road and had to be shooed back to their yard with rocks on the way home from the bus stop!

  9. Barb, ha ha!!! I agree, there is a wealth of comedic material in the news... look at what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have done with that!

  10. Susie, so true! I think the print editions are becoming strictly limited to local papers. Even the print subs for the big papers come via mail nowadays.

  11. I love it, Niki!

    1) you have your own voice and it's a good one;
    2) I agree with the five "Ws" - they are as key to fiction as they are to journalism;
    3) I do believe that being exposed to all of that ink did indeed cause a transformation in your blood.

    You, dear, have ink in your veins - and I love when you share it with us. ;-)

  12. Aw, thank you, Suzie!

    Yep, those Ws are important to fiction. In fact, I think this revelation about the similarities may help me become more of a plotter and less of a pantster!


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