Writing Fiction Ate My Nonfiction Brain

(So I only waited nine months to write my first post of the year — long story for another time.)

I was writing an article for KCET.org recently when I realized that my brain doesn’t work quite the way it used to. This should have been a return to familiar ground, since the article was about the ways California’s indigenous peoples affected their environment before Europeans invaded, which is the topic of my first book (and thanks to my friend and former conservation colleague, Chris Clarke, for asking me to write the article).

ButGIF of frustrated writer in the middle of it I realized I was having trouble getting the ideas in the most sensible order. I was taking a compare-and-contrast approach, which should be simple. And yet my brain kept bouncing from one idea to another and then back, the differences and the similarities running into each other like bumper cars driven by three-year-olds. It was a godawful mess in the beginning of the process, and even in the middle, though I did get it straightened out in the end.

This never used to happen to me. And then it hit me, maybe writing fiction uses my brain in a whole different way.

When I’m working on a novel, I want that state of cacophony. As I’m writing a scene, I want the characters and their actions to bounce off each other, conflicting, forming new possibilities. I can’t just focus on one character and then move on to the next. I have to know what all the characters want, all at once. I also have to know where they are, what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking. At any given moment, I have to be ready to draw from all of the fiction writer’s tools: action, dialogue, description, internal monologue, idea.

Of course, this can’t just come out as a random spew. Fiction is still linear, so actions have to follow each other in a logical order. Descriptions of setting need to be structured and selective. Dialogue has to have an order to it as well, even when it’s non-directive. But to get that magical thing that happens with fiction — to make it immersive — I have to have that cacophony going in my brain first. Maybe writing fiction is like making a stew (or a gumbo or a salad) while writing nonfiction is like creating an intricate five-layer cake. (Or something.)

Sometimes, if I’ve done enough work in advance on a scene, it feels like it’s writing itself. But most often it’s like I’m picking bits out of the air as my mind skips around among the possibilities. I might go from “What does Character X say next?” to “What does Character X do five chapters later?” and then back again by way of “Exactly what shade of green is the meadow where she’s standing?” or “Wait, is there really a street lamp here in 18th-century Bath?” So I spend a lot of time musing, writing a sentence or two, more musing. It may not be the quickest way to write (I’ve never won one of those word count writing challenges) but it all feels productive.

I actually had to train my brain to write this way. When I first tried writing fiction seriously, way back as a sophomore in college, I would get frustrated not automatically knowing what the next sentence should be. (This was so long ago that I don’t think “pre-writing” was even a thing yet.) I should know what comes next just as easily as I know which idea comes next when writing a term paper or an article, right?

GIF of crumpled paper hitting trash canEven when I was writing “narrative nonfiction,” the narrative was drawn from my own experience. I’d narrate what happened, with a big focus on where it happened, and then link that to whatever idea I was exploring. It wasn’t completely linear — sometimes those links were metaphorical — but it required me to keep my thoughts in order much more as I wrote. When I dabbled in fiction during these years, the requirements of building a whole fictional world from scratch were daunting. My linear, nonfiction brain just wasn’t up to the task. I’d begin a story, but everything felt flat, the characters seemed like cartoons, nothing moved.

Ironically (or perhaps understandably), it wasn’t attempts at “serious fiction” that helped me retrain my brain; it was writing completely frivolous fanfiction based on a video game. (You can check out the results here.) This was low-stakes and fun to write, plus there was the crutch of using the setting and the scenarios developed by Bethesda Softworks, allowing me to focus on characters and dialogue and action — all the things that had proved so difficult for me when creating something completely new. (Even the first novel in my current series isn’t completely invented, but a mashup of Jane Austen and a famous Alfred Noyes poem. You’ve heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This might be called Sense and Sensibility and Cross-Dressing Highwaymen. But few works of fiction are completely new, especially in this post-post-modern age.)

Photo of writing journals

Photo credit: Abizern on Flickr.

The main thing I learned in writing that fantasy fanfiction was the patience to let my brain work itself into a productively cacophonous state. And now, four years and 400,000 words later, maybe that’s the only way my brain works anymore (or maybe I’m just getting old!). But since I just crossed the 50,000-word mark in the second of my Highwayman novels, maybe I shouldn’t be too worried.

Your thoughts?

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