Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How Journalism Can Make You a Better Novelist – Driving for Answers

'A Lesson From the Newsroom’ Series: Part 2 (Read the introduction here and Part 1 here)
There really is power to the ones
who know how to properly wield
the mighty question.

I am a strong believer in the question mark. Period.

Growing up, I was always known for my curiosity. For a while, my grandfather had nicknamed me “Why” because of my tendency to question everything. 

It would seem that a job in the journalism field was perfect for me then. I am never satisfied with a simple answer. A good journalist doesn’t take something at face-value. They always dig deeper.

“I was fortunate that I was at a newspaper for eight years, where I wrote at least five or six stories every week. You get used to interviewing lots of different people about a lot of different things. And they aren’t things you know about until you do the story.” – Chuck Klosterman

While it’s an enthralling thing to be on a story like a hound dog on a scent trail, journalists are limited to writing the facts.

That’s my favorite thing about being a fiction novelist; having the ability to ask, “what if?”

Fiction novelists can create from nothing and keep going.
That is, if they can create a solid foundation that is the world of their story.

As an author, you know your world better than anyone else because you created it. Deciding the best way to present that world is a weighty responsibility.

Jim Spratt says, “Putting the right plant in the right place will determine how a plant handles hurricanes, how it’ll disperse the wind. If you put a plant that has a superficial root structure in an exposed area, then you’re not setting it up to sustain a hurricane.”

Journalists know that there may not always be a “why” for a story they’re working on. They may report a senseless act, but by relying on the facts alone, they are able to anchor the article and give a sense of order to the world.

In writing fiction, the same holds true to a degree. You need to know your world well enough to describe it properly to your readers. While your world may be a planet half way across the galaxy, or an imaginary realm, there still have to be laws that govern, something to tie it down in your reader’s mind.

Even if you’re writing a story that is based in the hometown you grew up in, it is still you’re character’s world. Even if your world is really real somewhere, it’s foreign to your readers. Your characters still exist in a place that doesn’t exist.

Successful novelists have to be willing to dig deep. 

“The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it.” – Jules Renard

Don’t ever forget the power of asking questions. Questions are a tool of discovering something you didn’t know before.

Questions are a journalist’s weapon of choice. Who, what, when, where? Why? How did that happen? And on and on. It’s thing that separate journalists from the general public. They ask when society would call for you to politely remain silent.

And so, questions can be just as powerful a tool in the hands of a novelist. After you’ve decided on certain rules of your world, try going one step farther. Ask, “what if?” Then keep asking questions. Twist the questions. If you don’t get the answer you want the first time, rephrase the question and drive for answers again.

Challenge yourself and your story. It’s good to test your ideas by asking questions, because your readers will.

Try to think of everything, as impossible a task as that may seem. The one time you let a plot hole slip by without knowing the answer, one single reader, somewhere, is going to pick up on that unanswered question and feel that the story is somehow false because of it.

Write everything down.

"And when I'm writing, I write a lot anyway. I might write pages and pages of conversation between characters that don't necessarily end up in the book or in the story I'm working on, because they're simply my way of getting to konw the characters." - Norton Juster

To be a proper story teller, you’ve got to write a lot to get to know the characters and the world that you’ve created. It’s just the way things are; fish swim, the sun rises, reporters report, writers write. 

When you’ve finished, if you’ve done it right, there’ll be hundreds and hundreds of pages sitting around. But that’s okay. That’s normal.

Just because you’ve written it or created it, doesn’t mean it goes into the story.

“We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.” – Samuel Goldwyn

You want your readers to ask questions. But, you want them to ask the “what-if” type questions. You want to intrigue them and give their imaginations something to chew on. Something that’ll keep them engaged.

The job of a reporter is to search out the story. Find the facts.

The job of an author is much the same. Except they have to find the facts not from an outside source, but from within themselves and from within the world of their own creation.

So, does your story stand up to questioning?


  1. Such a smart kid! I'm in awe every time I read these posts. You present ideas that most writers are familiar with, in a fresh way. And you do it with style.

    I like this blog. Questions are very important, as is the quantity of your writing. Just writing, even if it doesn't actually make it into the book, is so important. Just keep writing. Haha

    Great work, Amanda. I'm sorry I fell off the commenting grid for a little while but I'm still reading and loving every post. (:

    1. Thank you so much Katie! I am thrilled that you are enjoying these posts!

      Every time I hear someone say (or say so myself) 'just keep writing' I think of Dory from Finding Nemo :D

  2. I love having the ability to explore the What if, Why, and who when I'm writing. I can see how working as a journalist would be a huge asset to an author.

    I hope you don't mind, but I tagged you in the Next Big Thing Blog Challenge. I had a great time answering the questions about my manuscript.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Jess! And a super big thanks for tagging me in the Next Big Thing Blog Challenge! I look forward to participating!


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