How Being a Journalist Can Help You Write a Novel

Whenever I pitched my book to an agent, I was always quick to point out I’d been a reporter for almost two decades. They’d have to take me somewhat seriously because everyone knows journalists can write. Right? If only that were true.
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Whenever I pitched Terms of Use to an agent, publisher or book reviewer, I was always quick to point out I’d been a reporter for almost two decades. They’d have to take me somewhat seriously because everyone knows journalists can write. Right? If only that were true.

This guest post is by Scott Allan Morrison. Morrison is the author of Terms of Use and was a journalist for almost twenty years, covering politics, business, and technology in Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Morrison arrived in Silicon Valley as a reporter for the Financial Times during the darkest days of the dot-com crash. He later wrote about the Web 2.0 boom for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal. Over the course of a decade, Morrison covered most of the world's top tech companies and chronicled many of Silicon Valley's greatest stories, including the rise of Internet insecurity and the explosion of social media. Before setting his sights on journalism, he spent four years teaching English and traveling in Southeast Asia. He speaks fluent Spanish and very rusty Mandarin. He lives in Northern California with his wife and his hockey sticks.

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Oh sure, I could whip up a 400-word news story with my eyes closed and one hand on my flask (just kidding). But as I waded into my novel, I came to appreciate how poorly prepared I was to tackle long-form fiction. The imagination, intellectual stamina, and emotional commitment required to write a novel was nothing like newspaper journalism.

The biggest challenge was getting my head around the enormity of my project. To get to 100,000 words (about the length of my novel), I’d need to string together 250 news stories, all flowing seamlessly from one to the next in a way that excited, challenged and ultimately satisfied the reader. How the hell was I going to do that? It was telling that, save for the people closest to me, I did not reveal to anyone what I set out to do.

I decided the only way forward was to break my task down into smaller goals -- not chapters, but goals. I’d start writing to see what I could come up with. If in a few months my wife (who loves thrillers) decided it was worthwhile, I’d keep going. When I was accepted for the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley annual workshop, it was another sign to stick with it. Every step of the way, I received just enough positive feedback to keep moving forward. It was not until I signed with an agent that I knew I would finish.

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My many years I spent in newsrooms did pay off in some respects. I am a strong grammarian (most good writers are), which gave me a huge advantage over the many Walter Mittys who want to write a book but don’t have a clue how to piece together a sentence. Perhaps more importantly, years of reporting helped me develop a strong sense of story. That may sound simple enough, but I’ve run across quite a few writers (journalists and aspiring novelists) who tend to get lost in their ideas and jumbled narratives.

I leaned heavily on my reporting skills and news sense as I plotted key storylines in Terms of Use. I was fortunate that I could call on dozens of Silicon Valley insiders to keep me from going off the rails. Collectively, these coders, network architects, security ninjas, cryptography experts, tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and IT consultants helped me come up with many of the realistic scenarios that make Terms of Use so unnerving. I also interviewed a doctor and several law enforcement agents. After many months and scores of interviews, I’d written the first draft of a pretty good plot-driven story. Then I got stuck.

As much as I liked my first draft, I knew it wasn’t close to being good enough. My characters were only vaguely sketched out and the story was full of narrative gaps. My reporting skills were no longer enough, and the notion that I could just make stuff up still seemed somewhat foreign to me. Maybe that was because I didn’t quite understand how to harness my imagination. I didn’t know how to summon ideas on demand.

I knew I had an unwieldy idea generator in my head. This black box occasionally came to life at 3am, spitting out random ideas that I’d remember only if I was half awake. This is how Terms of Use was conceived. But my idea machine worked on a random schedule; many days, weeks, even months, could go by before it cranked out anything of value.

A funny thing happened to me over the next several months. I didn’t realize it at first, but I slowly found myself living in my characters’ world. I’d often heard actors talk about this phenomenon, but it seemed like gibberish at the time. And the more waking hours I spent refining my characters, toying with dialogue and chewing on problems, the more my thoughts began to intrude on – and interrupt -- my slumber. Soon I was waking up almost every night at 3am, ideas bursting from my head. I knew then I was over the creative hump.

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I still had to free myself in one other respect. In all my years as a business journalist, I rarely had the opportunity to flex my writing muscles, at least not in the way fiction writers do when they describe a scene, create convincing characters, convey emotion, illustrate action and pull readers to the edge of their seats. I struggled with this challenge – mightily – at first, often erring on the side of melodramatic. Fortunately, I found a fantastic writing group and they were able to set me straight with their valuable feedback and suggestions. It was like having an editor again, and despite all my earlier bluster about knowing how to write, I certainly needed one – or in this case, seven.

I imagine my story is not all that different from that of any other writer. We all have our strengths, and undoubtedly a few weaknesses. Journalism helped me develop a sense of story, strong interview skills and a familiarity with words. It turns out I also had more a bit more creativity, perseverance and emotional stamina than I realized. It just took me a little while to figure that out.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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