I’m a journalist by day and a creative writer by night. This double life started in my sophomore year of college, when I enrolled in two classes: Introduction to Fiction and News Writing. Every week, I would spend my mornings and afternoons typing up news articles using the inverted pyramid. Evenings were dedicated to creative writing: producing stories about imaginary characters based on class prompts. I loved the challenge of telling stories using two very different styles.
Since then, I’ve split my time between writing for various media publications and sending fiction shorts to literary magazines. I call myself a storyteller, but the truth is, storytelling comes in many different forms.
Being a reporter is rewarding: Besides the byline, you’re informing the public of what’s going on in the community and writing about real people, real stories. But being a reporter can also be difficult: You have to stick with facts, and you have to tell them in the most compelling way. Surprisingly, one of the best things about being a journalist has been learning skills that have also helped me be a better creative writer.
Research is Essential
Before I begin a story assignment, I take about 20 minutes to do background research on related issues and prepare for interviews. Who are the key players – members of the town council? The school board? What impact does the issue have on future policy decisions? I also read recently written articles to make sure my angle hasn’t been covered yet. This helps me understand the issue better, so that when I pick up the phone and start making calls, folks on the other line know I’ve done my homework.
As tedious and boring as it may seem, research is important for every writing project – even novels. Delve into the background of your characters. Look up the meanings of different names. If your novel takes place in, say, Boston, then find out what the most popular hangouts are and what the city is best known for (thank goodness for the internet). If your main character is a sports fanatic, then you’ll need to know where Fenway Park is and who’s on the Red Sox team. All of these details will affect your characters and their daily lives as they are unfolded in the story.
Good Writing Starts With a Punchy Lede
Your third grade language arts teacher was onto something when she told you, “Hook the reader from the very beginning.” I used to start every news article with a cold hard fact: “On Saturday, the town council voted unanimously on Bill X, which will affect such-and-such.” Bor-ring! It wasn’t until I started writing weekly feature articles for the local newspaper that I learned how to write a good beginning. Short sentences are better than long-winded ones. Appeal to the reader’s senses and universal experiences. Word play can be effective as long as it’s not too, well, punny.
Fiction is no different. Good stories start out with a “punchy lede” that the reader can somehow identify with. Sometimes, I open up a story with a character anecdote, or start right in the middle of an action scene. Dialogue easily catches a reader’s eye. A punchy lede provides just enough information to lock your readers in and keep them intrigued.
Here is the opening of my short story, “The Colors of Sound,” which was published in the spring 2012 issue of The Collegiate Scholar.
“People tend to think that when you’re blind, you also can’t hear. Or talk, even. Sometimes when I catch those whispers over my shoulder I feel inclined to tell the whisperers that I’m Helen Keller’s twelve-year-old twin. I know there’s really no point but it’s kind of interesting to sense their astonishment through the silence once they find out I’m just like them. Almost, at least.”
Deadlines and Timeliness Matter
Journalists thrive on deadlines. The rush keeps them going. They receive an assignment at noon, hunt down the story and find a way to have copy in their editors’ hands before the paper goes to press the next morning. The story itself needs to be timely as well. I mean, news isn’t news if it does not report what’s happening right now.
You may wonder what deadlines have anything to do with creative writing. After all, your story is fiction – not breaking news. Ask any NaNoer what the most important part about the writing challenge is, and he or she will say, “Speed. Time. Getting the words down.” As an avid NaNoer, I agree. Without creating a timeline for myself, I would have never reached 50,000 words on Nov. 31, 2008. I resolved to write 1,700 words every day, and sometimes wrote whole chapters in one sitting. All that mattered was reaching that 50k mark by deadline.
While quantity over quality may not be everyone’s motto, time is still a crucial factor that can make or break your literary success. When you plan to send a short story to a literary magazine, you have to meet a submission deadline. If you resolve to self-publish a novel by Christmas, you’ve set a target date. Procrastination isn’t an option, unless you want to push everything else – the editing, the cover design, the promo events – back a month or two or three. Without pacing yourself and checking your progress as time passes by, that novel may never get done.
While some days are harder than others, I love being a storyteller. On face value, journalism and creative writing may seem like polar opposites that require different talents: Journalists get to the point and strive to be objective, while creative writers are anything but. Still, they use similar skill sets for their respective crafts – they both use words to transport their readers elsewhere. They both need to know how to persuade you and grab your attention. Above all, they’re both good communicators. Perhaps they aren’t so different after all.
Wendy Lu is the entertainment editor for Blue & White magazine, a former book publishing intern and a NaNoWriMo 2008 winner. She writes a little bit of everything and blogs about creativity and happiness at wendyluwrites.blogspot.com. Her work has appeared in The Daily Tar Heel, The Collegiate Scholar and Chapel Hill Magazine’s The WEEKLY.