Fiction versus non-fiction: which is easier?

I’m working on the sequel to my novel To Create a World and I have to admit it’s really hard to get started each time. But once I do start, it’s so rewarding!

My non-fiction book The Weight-Loss Paradox was kinda the opposite. It was really easy to start. So easy, I started again 18 times before I was happy with my approach. That’s 17 instances of intense frustration until I finally found the right angle.

Non-fiction is like having a single amazing idea that you know so well you could write it out a hundred different ways and still be drawing on the same central theme. But I can’t be satisfied until that idea is expressed purely and clearly enough, in a way that will engage the reader.

That’s why it took so many tries to finally write The Weight-Loss Paradox. It was only 14,000 words, but those words had to be right on the mark. They had to be inspired in line with the idea behind them.

Fiction is completely different. Fiction is worked out in the process of writing it. At the beginning I have only a vague idea of what’s going to happen, and many of my ideas are rejected along the way or reformed into something almost unrecognisable.

In that sense, fiction is like growing a text. It’s like fashioning a little bonsai or Pen Jing tree. You have to shape it, water it, feed it, and keep it alive. But the work happens while it grows and that lends the work an aspect of discovery no matter how well you think you’ve plotted it at the beginning.

To Create a World had seven drafts, but each of those drafts was about refining and improving a structure or a theme that I didn’t know the book would necessarily contain. It’s like pruning back something that you only partially understand.

If fiction is like growing a text, non-fiction is like having one machined or fabricated. With non-fiction the central idea behind the text is not only clear, it’s like a blueprint. The final result must reflect the blueprint as far as possible. There may be issues that arise and innovations that emerge, but if it deviates too far from the blueprint it simply won’t work.

That’s why, when it comes to the question of difficulty, it’s hard to measure either by effort or duration.

My novel took 15 months and came out at 70,000 words.

My weight-loss book took 3 months and came out at 14,000 words.

So that means my weight-loss book was one-fifth the time and effort of my novel, right?

Well not really, because it took me a year to work out the idea behind my weight-loss book and apply it in my own life. In other words, the ‘research’ behind non-fiction can take as long or longer than the writing of the novel.

I plan to write another non-fiction book about the temperaments, and again that’s an idea I’ve been turning over and refining for a few years. When I finally come to write it, it too might only take a couple of months, but the research and thinking behind it are as long as a novel, if not longer.

Perhaps the best way to look at it is that my non-fiction books have a logical or theoretical coherence that allows the research to be done well before the book is actually written. Meanwhile my fiction has an emotional and narrative coherence that means the research/planning must be done while the book is being written so that it is adaptive to whatever changes or challenges arise along the way.

Want to read the books I’ve written? Click on the covers below to find out more!

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