For most of my working life, I wrote nonfiction. I started out as a free-lance writer and, later, wrote articles, newsletters and speeches as a communications specialist for a large corporation. Now that I write fiction, I find it a completely different experience.
I’ll say up front that fiction writing is more fun. On the other hand, at least until the recent past, nonfiction has been more profitable. As a freelancer, I would be given an assignment, usually after submitting an idea to the editor. I would be told how much I’d be paid, how long the article should be, and when it was due. When I worked as a writer and editor for a corporation, I was rewarded for my efforts with a salary.
A work of fiction is, at least for all but a few lucky authors, a leap of faith. From the start, a novelist has to believe that, after months or years of work, she’ll be able to get her work published. Even then, there is no guarantee she’ll ever realize a profit or even minimum wage for the hours she’s put in. The worst that can (and often does) happen is for a novelist to have her work fail to find its way into print, instead ending up in a drawer, never finding an audience. In recent years, however, would-be authors do have another option. They can self publish through a service like CreateSpace and have their book available on Amazon. This arrangement does effectively preclude sale in bookstores or to libraries. It also presents the enormous challenge of publicizing the book and attracting readers.
About the process of writing itself: One huge difference between non-fiction and fiction involves research. Nonfiction always begins with fact gathering. Take, for example, an article my husband and I wrote a number of years ago for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. The article was about water: How does Los Angeles get its water? Where does it come from? Is it safe to drink?
I did a lot of the research. As a free-lancer, I had more time to spend on it, while my husband was working full-time. At the start, all I knew about the city’s water was that most everyone seemed to prefer bottled water. They complained that tap water tasted bad. Some questioned whether the water was safe to drink. I started by interviewing people in the agency that delivers water to most of the city and other water experts in the area. We went to Lake Havasu, a major reservoir in Arizona, that delivers water to L.A. We visited the Owens Valley, another source of our water. We took a look at the California aqueduct. I learned that our water is perfectly safe to drink and continue to drink it to this day. The assignment gave me the chance to find out things I never would have learned, and I enjoyed our out-of-town trips. But the actual writing was a grind. It took the better part of a month to boil down all that information to manageable size and organize it into a coherent and readable form.
When I write fiction, the process is completely different. I don’t start out with research. I write down the basic elements of my story; usually it’s an idea I’ve been kicking around in my head for a while. I invent a main character who will solve the crime, a murder victim, the circumstances of murder, the murderer, the motive, and the timing of the crime. I also set up my support characters: suspects, witnesses, and people close to the main character who may or may not play a role in the mystery.
This part is challenging and fun, like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Some authors start with a complete outline of the book. I don’t find that helpful. Instead, I simply sit down and start writing. So far my books (I’m on my third) begin in an airport. I can’t say why that is; perhaps I think of the story as a journey I’m about to take. As I go along, research comes into play when I need to look up facts about a topic or place I’m unfamiliar with. For example, when would the coroner’s office need to have a body officially identified? (I was surprised to learn that this usually isn’t necessary.) Then: how would the coroner’s office go about showing the deceased to a relative, friend or workmate? In real life, it’s not like the body viewing on TV. To find out about such things, I go onto my browser and look up the topic. I also call on people who know the subject I’m struggling with. For example, my brother-in-law is a criminal defense attorney; I have a friend who is a private detective; and my husband has had a long career in journalism and on paparazzi, which play an important role in my second book, The Bequest, due out next summer.
There are, of course, points where the action gets stuck and I can’t think of a way to move the story forward. That’s tough to get through, but I’ve always managed. Once the book is complete, I go back to the beginning and start rewriting. I love this part. I get to put in more character development, plot twists, and other details. I usually will go through the book yet another time, just for good measure. Each time I put new material in, take out extraneous passages, and polish my writing.
Finally, the book is done, and here comes the hardest part. Sending it out into the world of agents and publishers who will determine its fate. This is not fun. I can’t count the number of times I received the manuscript for The Swap back on my doorstep after mailing it out. The most discouraging was when it was returned within a few days, well before anyone in the publishing world would have had time to look at it.
It took years before The Swap found its home at Light Message Publishing. At one point, after many rejections, I gave up and put the manuscript away. I found myself unable to start a new book when I knew I’d have to face the nightmare of marketing it when it was done. Then, a while ago, I got The Swap out again to reread it. I thought passage of time would have given me enough distance to see the flaws in my mystery, the reason it was rejected.
That wasn’t the case. The book was terrific—fast moving and suspenseful. There was a twist at the end that surprised even me. I’d forgotten I’d put it in. Once more I began looking for a way to get The Swap into print and out to readers. This time I succeeded.