My first book was a nonfiction how-to on business writing, written after many years of teaching both kids and adults. For a while after it came out, I wrote a blog about writing for work or school, which I recently unearthed, wondering if what I said then had any application to fiction writing. Here’s the first post from that long-ago series:
Someone recently said to me that he’d rather gouge out his eyes with an ice cream scoop than have to write on the job. I think a guy who can express himself that creatively has absolutely nothing to fear from writing, but I admit that writing on the job (or in school) is tough, because it’s not usually fun. Still, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare – or inspire you to come up with some kind of fancy, food-related torture, either. Most people have trouble because they think business writing is about words. Actually, it’s about organization of ideas.
If you think about it, you probably already know, in general, what you need to say. What you don’t know is how to say it in a clear, easy to digest way. In my experience, people come with more than they realize to the writing table. They just don’t know what they know. They have an idea of what they want to say, but they haven’t looked at it with a critical eye, asking themselves that most crucial of questions: What is my bottom line?
Most readers (and by that I mean all of us), walk away from something they’ve read with about one idea in their head – the bottom line. The better the writer has structured his or her information, the more the details all relate to that one big point. But if the writer never sat down and focused on that one big idea, then he or she has left a page full of so many little things that the reader has to wander through, picking up thoughts at random. Some he’ll pocket, most he won’t. Then what happens? He comes away not really knowing what he’s gotten, and he’s not that likely to feel satisfied. And writing is all about satisfying a reader. So rule number one: Figure out your bottom line.
I reread that, and thought of the interesting differences between fiction and nonfiction. In fiction, there is, of course, a bottom line, but it’s more subtle and holistic than in other kinds of writing. You’re offering an experience, much more than just information. Still, in a story, something is going to happen to your character, so on a plot-level, that’s the bottom line. Does Sherlock Holmes solve the crime? Does Ann of Green Gables find a stable home? And on a deeper level, there are thematic bottom lines. I remember thinking about the structure of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and deciding that the thematic bottom line there was about how, as people search for meaning in life, they react to the threat of emptiness. There are two major story lines in Anna Karenina, one about Anna herself, and the other about her brother’s friend Levin. Anna tries to find meaning in a doomed affair, while Levin spends long passages considering the best philosophical approach to life. By the end of the book, Levin has found love and a balance between philosophy and living, while Anna realizes she’s destroyed her chance at happiness, and jumps in front of a train. Faced with the threat of emptiness, Levin seeks out meaning and thrives, Anna finds only more emptiness, and dies. I realize that’s a broad way of looking at a book’s bottom line, but it helps me, at least, to see the parallels between various types of writing. Beneath it all, beneath fiction and nonfiction alike, we’re telling stories, and good stories tend to leave you with something to keep.