I’ve been a journalist for a long time. I worked at newspapers, magazines and TV news stations. Now I write mystery novels about a fictional journalist, New York City newspaper reporter Gil Malloy.
My old friends from the newsroom say to me: “Wow, you’ve got it easy these days. All you have to do at your job is make stuff up.”
Well, yes and no.
Here are some things I’ve learned along the way about switching from journalism to novelist.
This guest post is by R.G. Belsky. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His new suspense thriller is SHOOTING FOR THE STARS (Atria). It is the latest in a series of books featuring Gil Malloy, a hard-driving newspaper reporter with a penchant for breaking big stories on the front page of the New York Daily News. The first book in the Gil Malloy series – THE KENNEDY CONNECTION – was published in 2014 and an ebook novella titled THE MIDNIGHT HOUR came out in February 2015. Belsky himself is a former managing editor at the Daily News and writes about the media from an extensive background in newspapers, magazines and TV/digital news. He was also metropolitan editor of the New York Post; news editor at Star magazine; and, most recently, managing editor for news at NBCNews.com.
1. FACTS ARE YOUR FRIEND
The most important thing a journalist does is make sure the facts are right. That’s a priority even over being first with the story. An inaccurate story is worse than no story. So I’ve spent most of my life checking and re-checking the facts of what I do. And I’m still doing that as a novelist, maybe more than ever. Because you don’t write fiction in a vacuum. It has to be based on some kind of facts, and those facts better be right. There’s an old newspaper adage that says the three most important things in any news story are: “accuracy, accuracy and accuracy.” I’ve followed that rule all my life, and I still do in my novels.
2. MIXING FACTS AND FICTION CAN BE TRICKY
Reporting the news is actually pretty straight-forward, if you think about it. Because it’s all about the facts. In a novel, some is fact and the rest is fiction. In my books, for instance, reporter Gil Malloy works at the New York Daily News, which is a real newspaper. But the characters and the stories are fictional. Sure, I make a lot up, but I have to be sure the basic facts about the Daily News – location, subways to get there, etc. – are right. The same with other locations. I can write a restaurant scene at Sardi’s as long as I put it at the right address. On the other hand, I can also make up a fictional newspaper or a fictional restaurant. But there are rules even then. If I make up a restaurant and put it at an address like 723 East 33rd Street, someone will be quick to point out that I’m eating in the middle of the East River.
3. YES, YOU GET TO MAKE STUFF UP
This is a pretty cool thing to be able to do. Don’t like your old boss? Write a boss character that has unpleasant things happen to him. Dumped by your girlfriend? Write her as a woman who is madly in love with your character. You get the idea, total freedom. My first Gil Malloy book, THE KENNEDY CONNECTION, was about him looking for answers to the JFK assassination. No way I could really have done that as a journalist. But, as a novelist, I created a fictional secret son of Lee Harvey Oswald with all sorts of blockbuster new evidence about Dallas. In SHOOTING FOR THE STARS, I do the same thing to reveal scandalous Hollywood secrets. I gotta tell you – after years of being a journalist who had to stick exactly to the facts – that is fun!
4. A JOURNALIST NEVER FACES A BLANK PAGE
One of the great things about the news is it never stops. There are new stories out there every day. It’s not always that easy for a novelist. There are times when you stare at a blank page with no idea what to say or how to say it. My trick – based on years as a journalist – is to set a deadline for myself. I pretend I’m back at a newspaper and I have to turn in 10 pages to the editor in the next hour. It actually works. At least for me. But then I’ve been chasing deadlines all my life.
5. DON’T RESEARCH TOO MUCH
Yes, I know this kind of runs counter to what I said about facts at the beginning. But you can become overly bogged down with facts in your fiction. Never forget you’re trying to write an exciting, entertaining story – which sometimes means giving a wink-and-a-nod to the facts and letting your imagination loose. Raymond Chandler used to talk about people complaining that his Philip Marlowe character wasn’t an accurate portrayal of what a private detective does. Chandler’s response was that, of course, real PIs don’t get hit over the head and shot at every day, but if he wrote about what they actually did – going over divorce papers at a desk, etc. – no would ever read his books.
6. TRUTH SOMETIMES IS STRANGER THAN FICTION
One of the things I’ve noticed at times is that some of the stories I worked on as a journalist are even wilder and more sensational and more compelling than anything I could ever dream up as a novelist. Take O.J. Simpson. Beloved football superstar, movie actor and TV ad pitchman becomes most hated person in America. Plus, the White Bronco chase, the Trial of the Century, the crazy cast of characters with Johnny Cochran, Kato Kaelin and all the rest. Then there’s the most famous headline I was ever involved with at the New York Post: Headless Body in Topless Bar. Hey, you can’t make that kind of stuff up.
7. JOURNALISM IS TODAY, NOVELS ARE FOREVER
One thing – good and bad – about being a journalist is the immediacy of the job. You can break the biggest story in the world, and your editor will still say to you at the end of the day: “So what do you got for tomorrow?” On the plus side, no matter how badly you screw up a story, there’s going to be another chance the next day for you to do your job better. Books don’t go away. They sit in bookstores for months and years sometimes, and in libraries even longer. So if you make a mistake in your book…well you’re just going to have to live with it for a long, long time.
8. JOURNALISM IS WORK , WRITING NOVELS IS FUN
Okay, maybe I overstated that a bit. Writing novels can be hard work too. But every day when I sit down in front of the computer to write my book, I know that I can do whatever I want. There are no rules in writing fiction except for the rules that you set for yourself. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] You don’t get that kind of freedom in a newsroom. People ask me what I like doing best – being a journalist or a novelist. My answer is both. I’ve had the two greatest jobs I can imagine. Covering the news for real and then creating a fictional journalist who does the same things I did – and a lot more – in my novels.
Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.