One of my good friends, the very same man who recorded the audiobook for Tiny Instruments, Phil Mayes, inspired me to write this post. In addition to his audio work, Phil is the co-author of two wonderful self-help books, Secrets of a Successful Relationship Revealed and How Two: Have a Successful Relationship. Despite an obvious gift with the word, he told me, “I’ve tried writing fiction, but I couldn’t do it.”
I’ve heard this kind of thing before, and I understand where it's coming from... but I disagree. I’ll say this unequivocally: anyone who can write about their own personal experiences in an interesting, informative way is more than capable of writing fiction. It’s all in the mindset!
Personally, from an editing standpoint, I see little difference between fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction is more than informative writing based on facts - if it is going to be good, it still needs to elicit emotion! That means variation in sentence-structure, and that means conflict. Think about it this way: at the end of a self-help book, if you don’t feel empowered to change something in your life, there was something wrong.
Simply put, nonfiction is telling what happened, what you were feeling and what you were thinking to provide insight into experiences or modes of thought. (Or, in the case of biography, what happened to your subject, what they felt or what they believed.) In nonfiction, characters or ideas are already made. All you have to do is be truthful.
Fiction, on the other hand, is telling what would happen and how you, as your character, would feel or think in a certain situation.
Notice I didn’t say, “you or your character”, but rather, “you [AS] your character”. To understand and empathize with someone, all we can do is imagine what it would be like for us to be in their shoes. It is the same with writing someone. Should I choose to, my empathy allows me, as a white male, to bring insight to the life of a young black girl in the deep south. Whether the story is written in third or first person, while I’m writing about that human being, I am a young black girl because she acts in the way I would if people looked down on me. She speaks in the way I would if I had her background. She feels pain and joy in the same way that I would if I were her - because I am her.
And so here lies the connection. Not everything in fiction is make believe. Characters are as real as can be within the confines of their own individual worlds. They find their basis in emotional and psychological truths. To make the switch to fiction, all one has to do is imagine a situation, and write things the way they are.