A Journalist Turns to Fiction
Emily Croy Barker
I’ve been a writer and editor for more than 20 years, and for the majority of that time, the writing I did was all journalism—mostly long features for business magazines like The American Lawyer and Inc. When I started writing The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic almost eight years ago, it was strictly for my own enjoyment. I’d dreamed up a couple of characters that I couldn’t get out of my mind, a woman trapped by enchantment and the magician who becomes her ally and teacher. Once I’d figured out a little bit more about who they were and how their stories were linked, I decided that I’d better start writing this down.
Writing fiction instead of nonfiction felt a little bit as though, after I’d mastered one dance—the foxtrot, say—the music changed and I was suddenly trying to dance swing. Some previously learned lessons helped me with this new dance. I already knew how to keep typing, resisting the temptation to turn off the computer and flee, even when I became convinced that what I was writing was crap and that no one would ever want to read it. And I knew that sometimes, when you really get stuck, it’s fine to go off and take a bike ride or watch a movie and come back the next day to try again. I had written long articles about people doing deals or starting companies or arguing in jury rooms; I had learned to look for “color” and the famous Telling Detail; to listen to how people talked; and to pay attention to what they said and what they didn’t say.
That all turned out to be quite useful in fiction-writing. But the actual process of stitching together sentences to make a fictional narrative was daunting at first. Beginning writers are always told, “Show, don’t tell,” which is very good advice. On the other hand, you can’t show everything. I had to learn where I could condense and where I could leave something out altogether. It took me a while—probably one reason why my first draft ended up being 1,300 pages long—and I know there’s still more to learn.
One change from journalism that I loved was being able to make things up. No more coaxing anecdotes out of reluctant or forgetful sources, no more worrying about holes in the story. And yet this new freedom was also a little scary. Suddenly the entire burden was on me to create a credible world. I could no longer rely on details scrounged from reality. What if I got things wrong?
Thankfully, I was writing fantasy about an alternate world, so most description came straight from my imagination. The main thing I had to be concerned with was consistency. If I were to write a police procedural, say, where I had to think about what kind of car a certain character would drive or which make of gun she would carry or whether it really makes sense for a transgender Russian emigré to be running a vegetarian restaurant in a small city in North Carolina, frankly I would be a nervous wreck.
Good journalism and good fiction are both about telling stories and as such, they are hugely satisfying. I have to say that fiction is a bit more fun. Maybe it’s because, when I was sweating over crafting the perfect lede for a magazine article or explaining some complicated twist in a deal or litigation, I was always keenly aware that I was writing for someone else, the readers of American Lawyer or Inc. Will they like this? Will they get this? With fiction, though, I’m writing for a smaller audience: myself. Because if what I’m writing doesn’t move me or excite me or pull me along—if it doesn’t come alive for me—I’m absolutely sure it won’t do that for anyone else, either.
Thanks to Emily for the guest blog and thanks to everyone reading!