Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fictional vs. Nonfictional Voice

My good friend, Bob Resta, recently commented to me as follows:

"Your non-fiction is more relaxed than your fiction. Your fiction is highly thought out, carefully constructed, and meticulously chiseled out of a big hunk of rock. Your non-fiction is more like your feet are up at the end of the day, you're sipping a beer, and saying to the reader 'Hey - isn't this an interesting observation.' One is not necessarily better than the other, just different."

Bob was right. For nonfiction, I set up an outline, write a draft, revise it once, maybe twice, and there it is. Easy. For fiction, my characters pay no attention to any outline I give them, and I end up doing just what Bob said, chiseling away at that rock, first on a macro scale, then in finer and finer detail.

At first thought, that seems opposite to what I'd expect. Shouldn't a relaxed voice be well-suited to telling a story, and a more thoughtful voice be more appropriate to organizing a bunch of facts, theories, or legends for a reader? Not necessarily. In nonfiction, no one's there to mess around with your outline. Even a nonfictional person in the narrative is going to have trouble rebelling against a fact-based outline.

Fiction writers come in two basic groups: Outliners and Seat-of-The-Pantsers. Grabbing a beer, kicking back, and seeing what happens might work for those novelists who outline their stories, then watch, smiling, as their characters march nicely from Point A to The End. But "Seat-of-the-Pantsers" like me are probably condemned to a lifetime of hacking layer after layer off that godawful rock called a first draft that their characters drop on them.

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