One of the first things I get asked when someone discovers I’m a writer is, “Oh, do you write fiction or nonfiction?” This question used to confuse me a little because I didn’t understand why I had to choose a category. I mean, can’t a writer write both fiction and nonfiction?
Seems there is no shortage of advice for writers on this subject. We are told to pick a genre and stick with it or risk annoying (and potentially losing) our audience. We are told that if we do write in a different genre we should use a pen name so as to not confuse people (and then, of course, spend an impossible amount of time trying to build and maintain two author platforms). We are told that most nonfiction writers just don’t make good fiction writers and vice versa.
I say nonsense.
Seriously, did anyone dare question Stephen King, one of the most prolific fiction writers of our time, when he published On Writing, a nonfiction book about the craft of writing?
I could be naive, but I think we belittle our audience when we think they can’t sort out our contributions to different genres. Most people these days have varied tastes in what they read and watch on the big and small screens; I have friends that dig the darkness of the Game of Thrones but also swell up when they watch Disney’s Frozen. Should a person be precluded from checking out the latest books by Brandon Sanderson if they normally go for self-help and personal improvement books?
I personally read fiction and nonfiction, so why shouldn’t I write both as well?
I have been writing seriously for a year and a half. In that time I have published four nonfiction books (three about yoga and meditation, the other a travel memoir), a collection of short stories, and a few dozen articles on my blog, ranging from personal essays and thoughts about quotes to flash fiction pieces and short stories.
I have come to realize that what one learns from writing in one arena can strengthen skills across the board. Here are six things I’ve learned from writing both fiction and nonfiction.
1. Writing nonfiction taught me the value of simple structure
We writers need to structure our material in a logical fashion, in a way that makes it easy for our audience to follow along and not get lost.
In nonfiction writing, this can be straightforward and as easy as following a recipe. Do this first, then do this next, and so on. There is a sequence, an order of events, a moving from point A to point B.
When I first started writing short stories I realized the same simple structure idea can be applied to fiction. After all, we are telling a story, and things happen in a certain order. For instance:
Once upon a time there was a character. Every day he __________. But then one day __________ happened. Because of that he had to __________. And because of that he had to ____________. Then, because of that he had to ___________. Until, finally, one day he ___________. And ever since then he _____________.
Writing nonfiction taught me that structure doesn’t have to be complicated, and that’s a lesson I now apply to my fiction writing as well.
2. Writing nonfiction taught me to use simple language
Writers love words. They are our tools, the way we convey our ideas. Sometimes, though, we become too enamored with the words themselves and let them get in the way of the information we want to present.
Writing nonfiction taught me to be concise and direct with my words. I don’t want my readers having to stop and wonder what I meant when I’m describing a yoga posture; I want them to be able to execute the posture, not to have to reach for a dictionary.
This economy and directness of expression have also served me well in my fiction writing. After all, my fiction contains themes and ideas I want the reader to understand easily so that they don’t get bogged down and lose interest in the story.
Now, I’m not saying to dumb down your writing, but if you make things too obtuse you risk losing your reader to confusion or frustration.
3. Writing fiction taught me how to “hook” my reader
If you don’t grab a fiction reader’s attention in chapter one you will lose them. And, given the fact that most digital platforms offer potential readers a free sample chapter or two, if you don’t have a compelling “hook” you won’t turn them into one of your readers in the first place because they have a slew of other books to choose from. You must give them a reason to want to invest their time and money in your story.
While the concept of “hooking” a reader is usually referred to in the fiction genres, I believe it also applies to nonfiction. I want the beginning of my nonfiction book to grab the reader’s attention, to tell them upfront what they can expect to get out of my book, what’s in it for them, and why they should care.
With all the competition these days for our reader’s attention, we writers don’t have the luxury of hoping they’ll stick around just because we think we’ve written the next American classic. That’s not enough. We must “hook” them, regardless of genre.
4. Writing fiction frees my imagination
One of the best lessons I’ve learned through writing fiction is to constantly ask the question, “What if?” This is a delicious question that can lead you down many roads of discovery for your characters. I ask myself this question often when I feel stuck or when my characters are becoming too predictable.
Can the “what if” question help nonfiction writers? Of course! I believe that anytime a writer feels his writing is lacking that certain je ne sais quoi he can ask “what if” to get the imagination soaring and the writing juices flowing again.
Think of “what if” as your writer’s vaccine against staid writing and the dreaded writer’s block, no matter what genre you’re in.
5. Writing both fiction and nonfiction has broadened my audience on social media
You’ve heard the joke that being bisexual doubles your chance for a date on Saturday night? Well, I’ve found that writing both fiction and nonfiction can double your chance for followers on social media.
You do have to use common sense, though; you probably don’t want to mix a bible study audience with your cowboy erotica or your deep space steampunk ones.
And remember that you need to provide value to your readers, nonfiction and fiction alike. That means sharing other authors’ works in your fiction genres and perhaps articles and tips that relate to your nonfiction subjects.
I share with my readers and social followers quotes related to reading and writing, as well as interesting author facts or books that have influenced me. I also throw in some yoga and travel tips along the way, as well as guest posts I’ve written about writing. People really are curious about the process of writing, so don’t forget to give them a glimpse of your writing world!
6. Writing both fiction and nonfiction has broadened my ability to connect with and learn from other writers and bloggers
Writers are writers. Nonfiction and fiction writers have the same words to choose from just as classical and punk musicians work with the same set of notes (even though the results are dramatically different!).
Just because I don’t write romance or erotica doesn’t mean I can’t learn from a writer in those genres. E L James taught us all a thing or two about the writing business when she released 50 Shades of Grey. And Hugh Howey continues to shake things up in the publishing world as he refuses to be pigeon-holed into any one genre or publishing model.
I love the writing groups I participate in online. We are people who happen to write in every possible genre and sub-genre you can think of, but we understand the value of connecting, cross-promoting, and sharing the knowledge we’ve gained along the way. These connections from the nonfiction and fiction realms are priceless and worthy of nurturing.
So, can a contemporary writer straddle the fiction and nonfiction worlds successfully? You bet! Writing nonfiction increases my opportunities to get the word out about all of my writing and writing fiction keeps my imagination fired up and ready for new opportunities and ways of doing things. Great combo if you ask me.
Now, I’d like to know what you write. Fiction? Nonfiction? Both? How do you straddle the two worlds?
K. Kris Loomis is the author of After Namaste: Off-the-Mat Musings of a Modern Yogini as well as several other nonfiction books about yoga and meditation, a travelogue about her time spent living in Ecuador, and a collection of short stories.
When Kris isn’t at her standing desk writing, she’s usually off playing chess, folding an origami crane, or practicing a Beethoven sonata on the piano. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two cats.