What I write about when I’m not writing fiction

My good news is that I’m getting back to revising my novel. Thank you, good friends, who have enquired about its progress over the last 12 months. My bad news is that the progress has been very slow, and was much delayed for about 9 months. In fact I put the novel back in its drawer again for a while. I just couldn’t work on it at the same time as on the book I have just finished with my two co-authors: The New Age of Ageing.

145 writing keyboard

Writing fiction and non-fiction

I have tried and failed on several occasions to keep two large writing projects on the go at the same time – one non-fiction and the other a novel or short story. It just doesn’t seem to work. I am wondering why. In part it is because they require conflicting skills.

The New Age of Ageing, and non-fiction writing generally, requires methodical and thorough research, solid arguments, a sequence of writing that reflects the ideas under discussion. Some skills needed are the same as for fiction, such as hooking interest early, clarity and presenting factual information that relates to people’s lives. What I don’t need is to go shooting off after a new narrative idea, or to leave the reader in suspense at the end of a chapter. No, every assumption and connection needs to be considered, verified, scrutinised. Flights of fancy must be followed by reasoned hypothesis.

Structural problems of the two genres are very different. For the novel I have a plot in 23 chapters. I have been challenged by the novel’s structure, deciding on advice to change to alternating chapters having originally written it in alternating pairs. The change resulted in an improved novel but hours of confusion as I had to re-label everything on my computer and on the hard copies. You need to be well organised about peripheral things when writing a novel. Well I do, being a planner rather than a pantser. Zadie Smith referred to micro managers and macro planners in an influential lecture at Columbia University in March 2008. I am happy to quote her descriptions, because I admire her work and recently wrote a post challenging a comment she made about writing and therapy.

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle.

I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

Structure for the book on ageing posed different challenges. Each chapter required a great deal of revision, recasting, editing, removal, filling gaps. It often seemed that I had all the right ideas but in the wrong order. I also had two co-authors to whom reference needed to be made for everything as they are also responsible for the content. Their feedback notes were invaluable, our talk was even better.

I can get very passionate about ageing and the issues and challenges that are not getting enough attention. I loved writing our manifesto for the book, getting clearer and clearer what it was we wanted to say. I loved the process of taking our combined ideas and moving them to a place I could not have gone on my own. So my involvement in writing that book was social as well as requiring some good research and communication skills.

243 New Age cover

Writing my novel is more isolating. To write the novel or the book on ageing I sit for hours in my writing room, looking out occasionally at Dartmoor and its changing weather patterns. Sitting. Tapping. Rearranging papers. An observer would not see the difference. But in the end, the novel has been a very isolated and individual activity.

So they require different skills, but that does not quite explain why I can’t do write fiction and non-fiction at the same time.

Working one project

About 9 months ago I decided to put the novel back in the drawer (yes again). After all we had a contract for our book on ageing and a deadline for completion. And I had two co-writers to answer to. And to be honest I had got to a sticky point in the revisions.

I had found that my fiction writing is not good enough at showing or even telling the reader about the emotional state of the protagonists. I tend to assume it’s obvious. In my best moments I think that is honouring the intelligence of the readers, allowing them to do some work. But when my intelligent readers said that I needed to work on this I can only agree. It has taken me some rumination, reading novels and some guidance from my on-line course to help me see what I must do. That’s what I am working on now.


94 Blog on tablet

I can’t concentrate on fiction and non-fiction writing at the same time. However, one genre of writing has proved itself compatible with both fiction and non-fiction – blogging. The Book Word blog has been building slowly but steadily throughout this time, and I have posted every five or six days. In the posts I explore writing issues, review books, continue the series on older women in fiction and am able to look at all things connected with books and writing that take my fancy.

Perhaps I can combine blogging with both fiction and non-fiction because blogging requires some creativity, some research, some care over the communication of the content. And I am my own publisher for the blog. It’s not a commercial undertaking, so if a post bombs there is no consequence except to my pride. The deadlines are close, but I can (and do) alter them to suit my life.

It’s back to the novel

So … I am taking the chapters and looking at the emotional arcs of the characters and hoping that all the reading and writing and thinking I have done will help me see afresh how to communicate the emotional life of my characters.

And I am doing all the other things put on hold while we finished The New Age of Ageing. That’s another post in preparation! What I do when I’m not writing. Watch this space.

Related posts

This was the 6th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

And here’s a post with some excellent ideas: 10 things to do while your MS is resting from Victoria Griffin Fiction blog in July last year.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, to be published by Policy Press in September 2016.

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Filed under Books, Libraries, My novel, Publishing our book, Writing

13 Responses to What I write about when I’m not writing fiction

  1. Congratulations. The cover of your new book is appealing, not only because it’s my favourite colour! I have to admit that I struggle to go between the different genres as well. There are things I have put aside for other times, and those other times haven’t presented themselves yet. One day, hopefully. Thanks for sharing your journey.

    • Caroline

      Glad you like the cover Norah. It is not easy to get it right, so that it doesn’t give the wrong idea, allows people to understand something about the book. It is of course a professional design.

      I didn’t say anything about all those bits of writing waiting for a different frame of mind. But they exist too, as for you it seems.

      Thanks for the comment- as always.

  2. Glad you managed to get back to your novel, Caroline, and thanks for an interesting post. It’s timely for me as I’m preparing to talk to the British Psychological Society conference along with other local writers on the interface between psychology and literature, I find I’m wanting to emphasise the difference and difficulties in moving from one to the other.
    I’ve never written an academic book, and am highly unlikely ever to do so, but I have written and published papers. I found it quite hard to go from being quite good at one type of writing to accepting I was at novice at another, especially as this other was supposed to be more fun. I wonder if it’s similar for you, or even more so, if you’re successfully publishing book-length non-fiction.
    I agree with you about both structure and evoking emotion as challenges in fiction. The latter is pretty fundamental to fiction’s success in my opinion but maybe we can only learn how to do it with practice, and will still get it wrong for some readers. And while structure can’t be easy in a non-fiction book at least you’re trying to tell a logical story that will convince readers of a particular case. In fiction, or at least in literary fiction, we’re telling an emotional story and emotion doesn’t progress in a logical way, so we have to discover the structure that’s right for that particular story through trial and error. For that reason, I couldn’t be a plotter as, while I have a vague idea of what happens before I start, I don’t really know where it’s going to take me.
    As for moving between the two, since publishing my novel I’ve written much more non-fiction, although the less taxing guest blog posts and articles. As you can with your blog, I can do this alongside writing fiction, but I sometimes have to remind myself that the latter is actually what interests me most. I usually have several projects on the go, including a couple of novels at different stages, which gives me a choice of what to focus on depending on my mood. Sometimes this works well, sometimes it feels like days wasted without progressing my fiction. But, although I agree with those writers who warn against waiting for inspiration to get writing – because that inspiration might never come – I have noticed that in some frames of mind I’m only producing rubbish and it feels much more productive to do something more mundane.
    Sorry for the splurge and thanks for the opportunity to semi-order my thoughts on the matter!

    • Caroline

      So many interesting points here Anne. Thank you. The insight that emotion does not progress in a logical way, and therefore won’t in fiction either is a useful one for me. And I notice that when I force myself to write I don’t always write anything of any value.
      But learning the craft of fiction after learning the craft of academic writing is challenging. I think academic writing is challenging too, but I feel more confident about it. I usually know how to put it right, both for myself and for anyone I am coaching.
      But the rules of fiction writing are not so clear, and one can do so many different things, and all it needs is a sense of purpose and the effect. Perhaps I need to write with more attention to the craft, as well.
      Good luck with your talk. Come back and let us know if you have any more thoughts on this.

  3. lots of resonance for me with this post Caroline – thank you! My take on this is that context has a more significant influence on my work than whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction. When I am in Spain, I feel somehow freer in my imagination. I write more and allow myself more elbow room with what I write. Back in England I get back into organisational mode and put some shape to the work. For me too, the mechanical aspects of writing a novel – keeping track of and editing different scenes, chapters and drafts – has taken almost as much time as the writing itself. Well done for getting back to the novel. Have your tried Scrivener yet?

    • Caroline

      Hi Jon,
      I hadn’t thought about context in this way. But it is true, I sometimes do excellent work on the train! Your observations on the different kinds of writing work in Spain and England are a fascinating variation.
      We’ll have to talk this one over!
      No I haven’t tried Scrivener. Are you recommending it?

  4. What a wonderfully honest post, Caroline. I can relate to everything you say. I’m currently writing my fourth YA fiction novel and my fourth non-fiction title. As I suffer from bouts of depression I find it difficult to get ‘in the zone’ for my non-fiction on low days. I worry that my voice will be flat and lifeless rather than the inspiring and motivational tone I’m trying to set. My fantasy fiction, however, is like an escape for me. All the best with your book (love the cover) and your writing. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog posts. 🙂

    • Caroline

      Hi Shelley,
      this is also a very interesting variation. I am so pleased you have a productive channel on those low days when the non-fiction doesn’t flow. Not so good if you have a deadline looming!
      And thanks for the encouragement about the blog.

  5. Eileen

    I heard Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame) interviewed yesterday who said she wrote on dark material on dark days and on bright days bright material. Interesting.
    I am not writing a novel so can’t speak from experience but do write personal reflections and poetry everyday when I am writing non-fiction. I find it easier though when I am carrying out tasks I need to complete for my Inklings course.
    I liked this post Caroline – thank you and the responses to it.

    • Caroline

      Hi Eileen,
      welcome back.
      It seems that writers have very different ideas about what they can and can’t write on different days or at the same time. I never knew until I wrote this blog post.
      Thanks for your comments. Still envious of the inklings course.
      C xx

  6. Eileen

    Yes, I am starting Inklings again next Tuesday. I can only do 5 of the 8 weeks as the last three sessions clash with my trip to the US. I’ll write when I am away though. Actually that would be a great blog from you – what you write, and how you write, when travelling.

    • Caroline

      People will think you are feeding me with the prompts I want; I have just been reading Robert Louis Stevenson about his travels across the Cevennes. Guess what I am about to cross the Cevennes (well part of it/them) in May. And will write a post about the reading. I love connecting travel and writing.
      You should do it for your American trip.
      C xx

  7. Eileen

    I always take a reflective journal on my travels. Sometimes it ends up as a record of what we have done and places visited but I do like something more than that when I have the time including feelings, emotions and the delights of meeting people one would not normally come across and how they effect the experience.

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