I always wanted to be a novelist and became a newspaper reporter in college thinking that would be a good way to learn how to write. Looking back, I realize that being a reporter can teach you a lot about writing, but it isn’t necessarily the best path to becoming a novelist.
My first stint as a reporter was at a small afternoon daily where I did a little bit of everything from covering city hall and the local school board to writing about car crashes and fires.
With an afternoon paper, the deadlines come early. There’s a sense of urgency and I learned to write quickly. But, writing fast and writing well are totally different things. Writing well takes time and patience. Writing fast mostly just takes typing.
Two of the toughest adjustments you have to make when moving from journalist to novelist is becoming comfortable with solitude and adjusting to the freedom of fiction. In a newsroom, you’re surrounded by other reporters amid barely-contained chaos. Plus, you’re always running across the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up type of stories that inspire the imagination.
Writing a novel, on the other hand, can be a very lonely exercise. It’s just you, the computer, and the wall. Typically, a blank, beige wall isn’t very inspiring.
Perhaps that’s why I often go to a local coffee shop to write. People are streaming in and out, the door is banging, and I’m surrounded by conversations that have nothing to do with me. It’s almost like being in a newsroom.
The biggest difference between being a journalist and novelist, though, is that as a novelist you don’t have to play by the rules. As a journalist, you’re expected to be fair and balanced, present both sides, and don’t insert your opinion. In other words, your freedom is limited.
As a novelist there are no rules. None. Really. Some great writers even ignore punctuation. In fiction you’re telling your own version of the truth and you’re free to let your imagination run wild.
Last week I was in the coffee shop trying to write when a woman came in and stood two feet away from me and had a very long, very loud, phone conversation about her latest doctor’s appointment. At first I was annoyed.
Then I understood. She was a perfect twofer.
She was simultaneously providing the chaos of a newsroom and freeing me to imagine new and vile ways to kill someone.