Novel Writing: Does real-life experience as a journalist help or hurt?
I was recently asked by a blogger if my experience as a journalist and news anchor helped when it came to writing novels. My first reaction — of course! But then, after really thinking about it, I realized that my time as a reporter might have made my learning curve a little more steep. Let me explain.
As a broadcast journalist, you quickly learn that everything is about deadlines. There’s a deadline for the noon show, the 6 o’clock show, the ten o’clock, and so on. And not only do you have to complete your assignment, but the stories have to be accurate, compelling, and brief. Most of the time, my own stories were never longer than a minute and 30 seconds. That’s not much time to get in the necessary Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How!
After working in the television biz for six years, I became quite adept at completing assignments, writing down my script in the news van (going over bumps in the road), and typing at (a little under) the speed of light. Unless I wanted to look for a new career, there was no missing any deadlines, so I learned to work fast and smart.
When I decided to retire from the news desk, stay home with my children, and dip my toe into the author world, my experience as a journalist certainly came in handy. I could come up with a zillion ideas, I was disciplined enough to crank out several pages of manuscript in a day, and I could create fun and interesting characters.
On the flip side, I wasn’t used to working on a single project for longer than a day or two, so sitting down at a computer keyboard and working on the same story day after day was a challenge. Also, instead of the fun, noise, and excitement of the newsroom, I had my laptop and a tiny, quiet corner in my house. I’ll admit, my first attempts at novel writing were not pretty — meaning, I didn’t take the time to plot, I just sat down and wrote. My stories meandered and went in a million different directions, and when I tried to rein everything back in, I might as well have been trying to catch raindrops in a sieve.
After my first couple of tries, I had to completely re-think writing stories. I began to outline, I worked from note cards, and I had friends read what I’d written. (It still wasn’t pretty, but it was better!) For me, planning, outlining, and getting to know my characters BEFORE I started writing was the key. I’d never had this luxury in the news business, but it was crucial to getting a good story together.
I did make myself finish each manuscript (approximately 80,000 words). I do think completion is important, even if your novel will never see the light of day. There’s a huge sense of accomplishment when you can type ‘The End.’ It’s not a waste of time, I promise. You have to work through the terrible, awful first drafts. Otherwise, it’s too easy to give up. All that will get you is a pile of ten thousand word drafts.
Of course, I still tend to be impatient and wish I could crank out three thousand words a day like Stephen King, but now that I am taking the time to plan, the actual writing part is much more fun. The added bonus is this: the revising is a lot less painful. Think sweeping off your front porch with a broom rather than trying to use a toothpick.
So, did my experience as a journalist help when it came to writing as an author? Again, the answer is yes, but it took being open to learning new methods and even greater discipline. The foundation is crucial — sentence structure, grammar, story structure — but the test is in your own tenacity. There’s no trick or shortcut. It’s about being in the chair, day after day, even when you don’t want to sit at your desk or you feel less than motivated. There’s no substitute for the hard work.
If you’re a writer, make time for yourself, also. Celebrate when you reach that 20,000 or 40,000 word milestone. Kiss your children, hug your parents, and smile at a stranger. People watch — it’s a great idea generator. Dream a little. Wonder ‘what if.’
Every day, I feel blessed and lucky to be an author. And I will keep doing the hard work, because I wouldn’t trade the life of a writer for the world.