Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Writing Life: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

Dear talented writer or English major,

Let’s say you want to write picture books and you’re ready to pick your poison. Whoops, that sounds kinda negative… Anyway, you aim to make the leap. What genre will work best for you—fiction or nonfiction?

If the ability to pay for your room and board is important to you (yes, of course it is) and you still want to be a writer anyway, let’s be honest. In this often dicey field of endeavor, your best business model would be to choose fiction. Statistically speaking, fiction for kids usually sells better. A lot better. And at least in my experience, nonfiction takes about five times longer to write and illustrate than fiction. Besides, with fiction there are no constraints on your imagination. From flying pigs wearing bowler hats to space aliens to putting clever words in your characters’ mouths, anything goes and it’s all great fun. And nonfiction is hard. Every word and every picture has to be correct down to the minutest detail lest you get busted. I mean, the research alone can take months. Nolo contendere, right?

So why am I about to give a big plug in favor of writing nonfiction? Because it has the best perks! In my little mind, at least, the perks simply can’t be beat. What are they, and how can we use them? Let me count the ways.

You get to travel the world

To find research for my own books, for example, I’ve traveled to South America to trek though rainforests dripping with orchids, photographed a hundred kinds of hummingbirds, and climbed live volcanoes. I’ve looked African elephants and baboons and hippos and giraffes and lions in the eye, walked right up to the amazing iguanas and gigantic rare birds in the Galapagos Islands, and traveled all through the goldfields of California. And that’s just scratching the surface.

You get to be a private eye

You snoop you! You can virtually pry open the roofs of your choice and peer down into the homes of the greatest heroes and villains and other extraordinary characters of all time. You can take a look into their private lives and figure out what made them tick. You can read their love letters! Scout out their diaries! Check out the ways they spent their money! By the time you’re done, you feel as though you personally know these people. And it’s all in the name of good literature.

You get to uncover great stories that nobody else has found

They say there’s nothing new in the world, but you’d be surprised what new material turns up when you dig a little deeper into any given story, even if someone else already written about your subject. Trust me. You will be blown away by the kinds of things you find out there. You couldn’t make this stuff up if your life depended on it.

You have a great excuse to meet the most interesting people around

And I don’t just mean the people in your stories either. I mean rough-and-ready experts who study one place or person or thing for an entire lifetime. I mean the colorful folks you meet on your travels who act as guides or mentors or friends or someone you’d love to interview.

You have a great excuse to get into some places not just anyone can enter.

Hey, you’re writing a book about these places or the rare and unusual things they may contain. Go for it. Back rooms? Dangerous locales? Hidden archives? Sites and collections that are off limits to the general public? Offices of the rich and famous? You name it and if you play your cards right there’s probably a legitimate way in.

You get to learn something new every day

You will never be bored for a single minute, and while you’re learning all these brand new things, you can feel pretty good about putting these interesting gems into a book that kids can hold in their hands and enjoy….and learn from along with you.

And yes, you still get to be creative

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. The things from real life worth writing about really are the best stories of all time. If you wrote a fictional tale about most of the kind of things that actually did happen in the real world of history or of science or of sports or you name it, nobody would believe you. You just have to figure out the best and most riveting (and therefore the most creative) way to tell these true stories so that you can bring them to life.

Have at it, and good luck!


Vicki Cobb said...

Let's not forget that you get a tax write off for all those trips to all those intereting places and people. Thanks for this post, Roz

Loreen Leedy said...

Hey, why recruit more competition for us? Just kidding, an excellent list of the joys of writing about reality.