Fiction vs non-fiction

Communications for Volunteers cover

Well, I have some exciting news – my first non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers: Low-Cost Strategies for Community Groups is out on Monday! It’s an introductory-level communications handbook for grassroots volunteer groups, which I was inspired to write through my own volunteering experience (I realised that many volunteer groups don’t have a good understanding of how best to market themselves or communicate with their members, and there aren’t many resources out there to help them).

This book was turned around relatively quickly – nine months from concept to publication – and it’s also my first foray into indie publishing, which has been a massive learning curve. At the same time, I’ve also been trying to edit and rewrite The Iron Line, which has taken a lot longer and been a lot more difficult than I anticipated, and it’s got me thinking a lot about the differences between fiction and non-fiction.

Many authors prefer to focus on either fiction or non-fiction, but I’ve been lucky in that, over the years, I’ve learned to write in many different styles. I’ve written fiction for almost as long as I can remember (and I’m still learning so much about the craft), but I’ve also worked as a journalist,  published various academic articles (and written a PhD thesis), and worked as an editor and writing trainer for the government, which is a whole different style again.

For me, non-fiction is a whole lot easier than fiction. I’m now pretty comfortable with straight-up general non-fiction, which is what my communications book is, but I still feel I’m on an incredibly steep learning curve with fiction. In general non-fiction, you still have to worry about structure, tone, voice and many other ‘craft’ aspects, but I find them a lot more straightforward to master than in fiction, where you also have to deal with characterisation, plot, subtext, dialogue, emotion and a whole raft of other things. It’s the difference between learning to juggle with two balls and then having to juggle ten – while they’re on fire.

The one writing style I still have a lot of trouble with is creative non-fiction. I’m a huge fan of longform journalism and personal essays, but I feel like a complete novice when I try to write them myself. I recently had a piece rejected by a literary journal (after getting quite a long way through the process) because in the end it was based too heavily on reportage, without enough ‘literary’-style analysis. I guess the moral of the story is that you never, ever stop learning, and just because you’re good at one style or genre doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a master of them all. I have to remind myself of this sometimes when I get a bit despondent about how The Iron Line is progressing – like at the moment, when I’m feeling like every word I write is garbage – and remember that this is a process of growth that takes years, if not your whole life. I think part of the reason I’m finding The Iron Line so challenging is that, now that I know I can finish a book (which was the main goal of Greythorne), I’m pushing myself in other ways. This will hopefully make for a better novel, but it’s pretty painful when you’re in the middle of it. In any case, for now I’m just enjoying the feeling of once again seeing my words between covers. That never gets old.

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