5 Things Being a Journalist Taught Me About Writing Fiction

Former journalist and current thriller writer Michael Martinez shares five things that journalism taught him about writing fiction—including paying attention to details, researching, and economy of words.
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There’s a world of difference between long fiction and daily journalism, but writers of both share a surprisingly common toolbox.

I spent 15 years in daily journalism—and another five in marketing—before a blinding wave of hubris led me to try my hand at writing novels. At least, that’s what I remember thinking as I was submitting my first book to agents. I hadn’t really studied fiction in college; I didn’t have an MFA. Most of my career was spent writing 500–1,000 word articles that were typically composed in less than an hour.

Obviously, since I’m here, things worked out pretty well with the whole novel thing. And while writing for The AP didn’t train me to write intricate plots or to write beautiful prose—I would argue my craft is still rather unadorned—my journalism experience informed my fiction far more than I thought it would. For example:

1. Research matters.

Despite what certain folks might claim, the vast majority of mainstream media journalists do not, in fact, make things up. Everything I wrote had to be backed up, whether it was documentation or interview notes. Getting the details right matters. The same can be said for fiction, especially with the historical fantasy that I’ve written. Readers know when you’re trying to glide past necessary detail, and they’ll absolutely call you out when you’re wrong. Taking a moment to get the little things right helps immerse the reader in the story, and getting those things wrong tosses the reader right out.

2. Pay attention to detail.

When I was interning in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to interview my local congressman—then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, actually. I remember that he had to leave his office for a moment in the middle of the interview, and I took that opportunity to grab details from his office. The pictures and awards on the walls told the story of what was important to him. The papers and proposals on his desk told me what he was working on at the moment—and became follow-up questions when he returned. In fiction, those details make the story richer. When I wrote my debut, The Daedalus Incident, I walked the deck of a replicate frigate in San Diego just so I could get the details of my own fictional frigate down pat.

3. Conversation has cadence.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people, way too many to count, from all walks of life. I’ve done one-on-ones and group interviews, and I’ve sat in on conversations among other people as well. Over time, I’ve learned the rhythm of speech and conversation, which informs the dialogue I write in my fiction. It’s led me to more efficient expository dialogue and given shorter conversations more realism. People speak very differently from how they write, and paying attention to that difference has made my fiction better. I’m also one of those writers who reads dialogue aloud to ensure it sounds natural—a neat trick I’d encourage other writers to explore.

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4. Spend words wisely.

In your typical wire-service article, you have anywhere from 350 to 750 words to play with for a standard, run-of-the-mill story, and maybe 1,500 for a major news event or feature story. While that necessarily leads to straightforward prose, it also makes for very efficient stories. Every sentence, clause and word has to carry its weight. That doesn’t mean skimp on the details, and certainly there’s room for craft in there, but my experience has made it easier to catch myself from getting too caught up in the moment, and it’s made revising far more useful.

5. Hit your deadlines.

This one should be a given for any writer under contract, but we all know writers who never quite seem to make their deadlines. That isn’t to say I hit my fiction deadlines with 100% accuracy; I’ve had to ask for extensions a couple times, because life happens. But knowing how to pace yourself and sticking to the discipline necessary to hit those deadlines is critical to a journalist, and it’s a great thing for novelists too.

Of course, all of this has been great for me, but there are things here you can apply to your own work as well. You can do your research and make sure you’re grabbing those important details. You likely have more of an ear for dialogue than you realize, and you can always take the time to listen more. Economy of language is a must for any writer, as are those all-important deadlines.

It’s not hard to put into practice. That old journalism standard—who, what, when, where and why—encompasses a lot of what I’ve just discussed. If you get stuck on something or you want to test out your ideas, those five words can really help you flesh out your ideas and stay on track.

And really … do try to hit your deadlines.

This guest post is by Michael J. Martinez. Martinez is a former reporter for ABCNEWS.com and The Associated Press and the author of five novels and several short stories.

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His most recent novel, the spy-fi thriller MJ-12: Inception, is out in mass-market paperback today, and the sequel, MJ-12: Shadows, is due out September 2017.

Follow him on Twitter @mikemartinez72.

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