Canadian author and pythonista.

Differences Between Writing Fiction and Nonfiction

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I’m about halfway into writing my first novel. Though I have plenty of writing experience, this is my first real attempt at fiction. I’ve been surprised at the difficulty! Some of my skills transfer over; I still know the basic structure of the English language and I put commas in the right places more often than not, for example. But many other things are much different.

The hardest change I’ve had to make is the order I present information. In a nonfiction book, I try to present everything in a logical order with as much clarity as possible. Each step should lead to the next step in a way that is comfortable and non-intimidating to the reader.

In contrast, I need to be much more precise in timing the release of information to the reader in a fiction book. Ideally, when a plot twist is coming, I want it revealed it to the reader just a few paragraphs before they would have figured it out on their own. If I do it too soon, without giving enough background information, they will find your twist to be fantastical and unbelievable. On the other hand, if they figure out the secret too early, they will be bored with continued hints.

Another major difference is the source of information. In non-fiction, everything I present comes from research. For my programming books, I spend a lot of time reading official documentation, stack overflow responses, and source code to verify or enhance my own understanding. This ensures that each statement I make is providing a known, constructive fact to the reader.

Research is certainly required for fiction as well, but it’s different. I only need to understand the topic well enough to make something up. Further, the majority of the story comes from a different source entirely: my imagination. This means more staring off into space waiting for inspiration, and less clicking through websites. The downside is that clicking through websites feels more productive than staring off into space!

When writing fiction, writer’s block manifests as not knowing what’s going to happen next in my story. With nonfiction, writers block is just as common, but it’s because I don’t know what order to present the information, not due to a lack of information.

A fiction book should be descriptive and immersive. I tend to meander a bit to help set the scene, although it’s important that each sentence also contribute to the story in some way. In tech books, brevity is king. The information should be presented as clearly and concisely as possible, without leaving anything out. I suspect this is less true in narrative non-fiction (such as historical or biographical work) than in an educational context.

I’ve been amazed at how long it takes to write a fiction book. I thought I’d be done during my couple months off this summer, but it goes so much slower. I can write at most a thousand words before my brain shuts down for the day, and 500-700 is much more standard. In my technical writing, I can alternate between coding examples and writing exposition all day long. I once pounded out 10,000 words in just a few hours!

I’m not sure if this productivity disparity is inherent in the work, or if it’s a symptom of my inexperience with fiction. I’ve heard it gets easier with practice, and I know my favourite authors can put out a lot more (and higher quality) text than I do! I could argue that it’s because they are writing full time, while I have a day job. However, even if I had the hours available, there’s no way I could write fiction for 8 hours straight. It’s too exhausting!

I enjoy writing fiction, but not as much as I expected. Part of my joy in technical writing comes from thoroughly learning the topic well enough to explain it. In fiction, my pleasure comes from imagining how an engaged reader will respond to each sentence or scene in the story.

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