I spent most of my working lifetime teaching students at London University, and, after immigrating to Southern California, at USC, UCLA and California State University, Long Beach. During that time, under pressure to publish, I wrote seven nonfiction books. Some were works of literary criticism, others included a biography, a genre study of autobiography, and even a social-political-economic book tracing the effects of Bush’s war on terror on American culture and society.
Once I retired from full-time university teaching, I felt free to please myself and turned to fiction. Although I had spent all those years teaching students how to read and interpret fiction, I was astonished to find how little my experience of writing nonfiction works of criticism was of use when I came to write Money Matters, my debut suspense novel.
This involved developing an entirely new stance to my readers. I had to adopt a different tone of voice. I was forced to use of words and phrases that I taught my students to avoid. I had to cultivate a flexibility that was the opposite of a tightly structured and argued work of literary criticism.
So here are five things I taught my students to do, and then did the opposite when it came to writing fiction.
Rule 1) Determine in advance what argument you are going to follow
To counter my students’ tendency to stuff everything they found in their research into their work, I always insisted on their offering between a sentence and a paragraph describing their argument.
However, when I tried preparing an outline for my novel, it began to come apart as soon as I started writing the first lines. The outline began with a phone call asking Jenny, my protagonist, to investigate a woman’s disappearance. In the final text, that phone call appears on the ninth page. Considering that this triggers the rest of the action, why did it take nine pages to get to it? Because first I had to get the reader interested in Jenny. She pays her sister Tricia rent to stay in her upscale apartment. Why doesn’t she have her own apartment? That requires a back story of her eviction by a bigoted landlady. Then I had to show the adversarial relationship between the two sisters, and how this originated in their childhood. I needed to contrast Tricia’s money-obsessed outlook with Jenny’s ambivalent attitude to money. Only then could I describe the phone call.
This process repeated itself, often leading to major changes in the outline.
Rule 2) Read up on existing literature and other relevant material addressing your line of argument
I always encouraged my students, before they began writing, to read up on the genre the writer was using and any earlier works that might have influenced him or her.
But when I started writing Money Matters, I found that reading other instances of the amateur detective-cum-suspense novel only restricted my freedom to write whatever I wanted. Besides, I didn’t want to write a conventional detective novel. So I found myself, without setting out to do so, adding elements from more genres – coming-of-age, social and political issues, even romance, while at the same time giving each genre a twist. I calculated this should unsettle readers, unsure what to expect next, which is precisely the effect I wanted. Freedom from what is already written leaves a novelist creative liberty.
Rule 3) Do research first. Then order the research findings into a coherent argument
I encouraged students to go through three phases. First, do as much research as you need to. Next, use those findings to construct a coherent argument. Finally, insert relevant references from the research into the appropriate sections of your argument.
When I wrote my novel I found myself adopting the reverse procedure. Maintaining flow in one’s writing is very important. So whenever I reached a point I needed to research I would write the scene, then research the facts, then rewrite the scene.
For instance, when I wrote about Miguel, the major character of my subplot, being interrogated by ICE, after writing my imagined version I researched the technicalities of fast-track deportation and discovered what this required (like waiving your rights to a hearing before an immigration judge). Then I wrote this new information into the narrative without losing the drama of the confrontation.
Rule 4) Substantiate every element of a critical essay with quotation, notes and a bibliography
I taught students to cite the source of every assertion they made. Any quotation or reference to someone else’s opinion had to be attributed to its textual origin. Everyone in academia is worried (rightly) about the potential for plagiarism. It’s a rule– that to assert something as your opinion that had already been asserted by someone else was to be avoided at all costs.
Of course a novelist is not obliged to cite sources. Rarely do novels have footnotes. Where they do they are for a special effect (such as to root a name or event in history). Even when a novel is given an actual historical or factual context characters can get facts wrong, just as we can do in real life. For instance, Jenny, the narrator of Money Matters, only catches snatches of news on her car radio; so her understanding of the political situation during the mid-term election of 2010 is restricted.
Some critics have claimed that there are a limited number of plots available to a fiction writer. So some degree of similarity between narratives is unavoidable. What fiction writers cannot do is lift text verbatim or barely altered and pass it off as their own.
Rule 5) Write your piece in an appropriately impersonal voice and vocabulary with as much objectivity as you can manage
Students quickly learn to avoid the use of the first person. Students are encouraged to maintain an impersonal stance, as if they were above the fray. Phrases like “It is generally agreed” or “It is impossible to deny” feature all too often. In addition students are encouraged to avoid colloquialisms and abbreviated phrases (such as, “TV” or “isn’t”).
A novel on the other hand demands the personal approach, the conversational tone, the subjective perspective that my students were taught to avoid. For Money Matters I opted for a female narrator who spoke in the first person. Once I discovered her voice the narrative flowed naturally. Just listen to the opening: “Dammit! What’s your problem, I curse at myself in the mirror, applying my morning lipstick.” The personal voice has economically established a number of Jenny’s characteristics. As for distance, that is the last thing you want to establish between your protagonist and your reader – not identification, but closeness. Yes, and swearing when called for. And uncompleted sentences.
At the same time we all need to remember that nonfiction and fiction have one thing in common – they both need to create compelling narratives, however different in kind. Only by making something into a story can we capture the attention of readers. As Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”