Christina Hoag on Moving From Non-Fiction to Fiction

Christina Hoag, author of Skin of Tattoos

My connection to Christina Hoag is one of those things that really makes you believe in those six degrees of separation. We both belong to the same mystery readers email list, which how we first connected. Turns out, we’d actually met face to face the week before at our local Sisters in Crime chapter meeting here in Los Angeles. Even better, she knows some friends of mine from the Miami Herald. She’s also got a really great novel out, Skin of Tattoos, which came from her work as a journalist. Here she writes about the difference between the two.

Many novelists have started their writing careers as journalists. Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene to name a few. But writing nonfiction is a different skill than writing fiction. To be sure, there are many similarities, but there are also key differences – namely one is restricted to truth and the other enjoys the panoramic realm of imagination. There are others that are less obvious, as I was to find out when I started writing fiction in earnest, trying to fulfill my childhood dreams of writing novels.

I’ve been a print journalist for thirty years. I’d written fiction on and off since I was a child. In fact, I won a prize when I was six years old for “writing interesting stories.” So becoming a journalist was a natural step for me. It’s been a career that I’ve loved but ultimately I also felt restrained by. It was always about writing someone else’s story. Fiction is your own story, of your own choosing, and I was eager to undertake this challenge, but in order to develop my fiction I had to “undevelop” several journalistic habits.

The key hurdle in writing fiction for journalists is emotion. Journalists are trained to be neutral observers, impartial witnesses, to present a balanced picture of the facts. Emotion, in your average news story, does not factor in the equation, although it does to a greater degree in narrative fiction. Emotion, however, is the cornerstone of good fiction. Novelists need to portray the range of emotion their characters feel in order to evoke emotion in their readers. There’s no need for balance or impartiality. Indeed, the less of that stuff, the better.

Those elements stand in the way of portraying emotion, and why, in my opinion, many reporter/novelists gravitate toward writing plot-driven stories, such as detective mysteries, where there’s more of a “just the facts ma’am” feel to that type of fiction. Mysteries, for example, generally involve little emotion or emotional arc in the characters.

When I was writing the first draft of my first novel, I got about 170 pages in and I realized what I’d written read like a reportage. I chucked it and started again. It actually took many more drafts before I found myself loosening the reins and letting that emotion come through. And when it did, it gushed out.

Something that really helped me in this regard was acting classes. Acting is all about depicting emotion. Once I gave myself license to do that physically in either scene work or exercises designed to reach and draw out inner emotion, it became much easier to do that on the page with my characters. I also understood better how emotion works in dialogue and scenes, how to show it more than tell it.

I firmly believe, however, that journalism is great training for novelists. Reporters instinctively know what a good story is. They know how to research, how to interview. They know that details can make a story come alive and how to construct sentences that make sense, and structure and order a story. They are exposed to all types of people, issues, lifestyles, experiences. As I like to say, I’ve interviewed bums to billionaires, presidents to prostitutes. All that makes great grist for the novelist’s mill. Maybe, most importantly reporters are used to sitting down in a chair in front of a blank computer screen and filling it with words—on deadline.

I would never exchange my background as a journalist for, say, an MFA. Yes, it may take some work to switch from one to the other, but many have done it, including myself.

Thanks, Christina. You can find out more about Christina Hoag on her website www.christinahoag.com, or connect with her via social media at Facebook.com/ChristinaHoagAuthor, Twitter.com/ChristinaHoag, or Instagram.com/ChristinaHoagAuthor. Skin of Tattoos is available at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

Anne Louise Bannon

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for running this, Anne! I’d be interested in your thoughts on going between journalism & novel-writing. Topic for our mext meeting!

    • For sure a topic for our next meeting. Looking forward to it. But I do agree that journalism training will do more for an aspiring writer than an MFA. And I like MFAs.

Please talk to me. I'd love to hear from you.