There's fact, and then there's fiction, right? There's work that's a product of careful research, and then there's work that's a product of the imagination. Nonfiction looks outward for verification. Fiction looks inward for truth.
It's a simple dichotomy. Too simple. The more I read, the more I write, the less sure I am about this distinction.
Take, for example, a nonfiction book like Dutch, the Ronald Reagan biography, in which the author invented characters and inserted them into the historical narrative. Or consider Geraldine Brooks' extraordinary novel Year of Wonders, which is so thoroughly fact-based that to call it fiction is to deny its authenticity.
This seemingly porous membrane between nonfiction and fiction makes for interesting reading and spirited coffeehouse discussion. But does it mean anything to you as a writer? You bet it does. It speaks to the possibilities of crossing genres—of nonfiction writers taking a stab at fiction, and vice versa. Genre crossing can spur a fresh way of looking at material. It can widen creative horizons, present new challenges and expand your publishing opportunities.
Why should a nonfiction writer consider turning to fiction? When might a fiction writer consider crossing the line into nonfiction? Before you jump in with all the reasons you can't cross genres—we are, after all, often prisoners of our own strengths—think for a moment about why you can.
WHY CROSS OVER?
Consider the practical, I've-got-to-pay-the-bills reason first. When you write in only one genre, you limit your publishing venues. Most literary magazines aren't interested in nonfiction. Most mainstream magazines devote scant, if any, space to fiction. In the book world, there are far more opportunities for nonfiction writers—biography, history, travel, science, how-to and inspirational, to name a few—than for novelists or short-story writers.
Nonfiction writers need only submit a proposal and sample chapter to vie for a contract, while fiction writers must create the entire work on spec. On the other hand, fiction is generally where the glamour is. So why not try to have it both ways?
Crossing genres means enhancing the chances that you can actually make a living at your craft. After all, if it's writing you love—the thrill of finding and crafting a story, the art of putting words together to create images and tap into emotions—then it's writing you love, not necessarily "magazine feature writing" or "short-story writing."
Then there's the creative reason for genre crossing: It'll help you become a better, more powerful writer. Practicing in an alternate genre can challenge you to recognize and use your literary strengths in new ways, to learn from the work of colleagues in the other genre and, ultimately, to hone your skills in telling a story well.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to consider crossing over is when the material itself tells you to. I don't mean this in some mystical, my-characters-speak-to-me, muse-on-the-shoulder way. If you're a fiction writer, you may come across a true story that's so good, so powerful, so appealing that you'd be nuts to turn it into fiction. The material just screams nonfiction. Or if you're a nonfiction writer researching a true story, it may be impossible to tell it as nonfiction. There may be privacy issues that prevent you from using sensitive material. Or there may be contradictions that can't be resolved and stand in the way of a strong narrative. You may find yourself contemplating a series of what-ifs that tempt you to play loose with the facts to make a better story. That's when you know it's time to think about writing fiction.
WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW
If you've written seriously in only one genre for your entire writing life, it can seem presumptuous to think about crossing over. After years of presenting yourself with challenges, you may be just starting to feel as if you've got a handle on your genre. What the other folks do, those writers in the genres you're not practicing, may seem mysterious and far outside your grasp.
It isn't so. It's not just that "good writing is good writing." Fiction and nonfiction writers create different literary products using the same tools. Language is the most basic and important of these. It's the writer's Swiss Army knife, the tool that can be used to create lyric poetry, advertising copy, novels and news stories. Language crafts the scaffolding of a story through perfect words, felicitous phrases, graceful sentences, seamless transitions and powerful paragraphs. If you can do this in one genre, you can do it in another.
Fiction and nonfiction writers share a highly developed sense of story. They know—through reading, through writing, through living, by intuition—what makes a good story. One story may be a product of the imagination, another the product of reporting, but the skill in identifying the story is the same.
Writers in both genres also pay close attention to the people who populate their stories. Fiction and nonfiction writers understand the importance of characters to the narrative and use similar methods to make these people come alive on the page. Description, judicious inclusion of backstory, an understanding of motivation—all feed into the construction of character. The skill's the same, whether the outcome is fiction or non. If you know how to construct a character, you know how to construct a character.
The same goes for conversation. Nonfiction writers are alert to the good quote. They know it when they hear it, and they know just when to use it in a story. For fiction writers, the skill is used in the construction of dialogue. In either case, it's the attuned ear of the writer listening for the words that best reveal character, advance the story and keep the reader immersed.
WHAT FICTION WRITERS KNOW
Fiction writers know how to construct scenes. They know how to weave description, narration and exposition into prose that makes a moment come alive. They know how to place the reader in the moment with sensory details and cinematic sweep. Screen-writers construct entire stories this way, moving from scene to scene to advance plot, reveal character, create tension and reach resolution. This skill is easily imported into writing nonfiction.
Fiction writers also know about pacing. They know when a story ought to move quickly, when to spin out a long scene or zip by and summarize. Pacing creates dramatic tension. It pulls the reader through the work. If fiction writers bring this skill to writing nonfiction, true stories can be more compelling. Conversely, if nonfiction writers pay more attention to cadence in their stories they'll better capture the readers' attention.
Fiction writers know how to construct endings. They understand that a reader needs to leave a story feeling satisfied. It's not that a lesson must be learned or that all loose ends must be tied. But stories have to end purposely. This is a wonderful skill for fiction writers to take into nonfiction, since so much nonfiction ends abruptly.
WHAT NONFICTION WRITERS KNOW
What can nonfiction writers bring to fiction, and what can they teach their novelist friends? The first strength is the nonfiction writer's "nose for news"—a powerful combination of curiosity, attention to what's capturing the public's imagination, a notion of what might soon be important and a sense of obligation to write about it. It's the talent for looking outward for material—of immersing yourself in life and discovering issues, themes and people worth writing about. Nonfiction writers can use this same skill in approaching fiction, which is what journalist-turned-novelist Tom Wolfe did when he became a fictional chronicler of American foibles rather than a factual recorder of them.
The nonfiction writer's second great strength is as a researcher. When you look outward for material, you must continue looking outward to get the story. This means knowing whom to talk to, what questions to ask and where to find the information you need to flesh out the story. The nonfiction writer can use these research skills in the service of fiction—gathering factual background and detail (on a criminal case or the life of a geisha, for example) to construct an imaginative yet authentic story. And consider how a fiction writer can deepen and lend verisimilitude to his own work by learning research skills.
AND NOW, THE CAVEATS
Genre crossing doesn't mean dishonesty or misrepresentation. It doesn't mean fudging the facts, fabricating events or putting words in people's mouths and calling it nonfiction. If you want to be creative in this way—if the facts just don't come together to construct the narrative you want or you're so tempted by the what-ifs that you can't resist—go for it. Just be honest about what you're doing. You're writing fiction. If you're telling a true story and using real people, events and conversations, and you think you can call it fiction by changing people's names, you're fooling no one but yourself—that's nonfiction.
It's vital to stay honest with yourself and your readers (not to mention your editors). As long as you do that, experimenting across genres can be both creatively and financially rewarding.