Monday, May 24, 2010

Why Fiction Writers Should Write Non-Fiction

Several years ago I wrote some articles for regional magazines here in Western Canada. I really enjoyed the experience. Although I found interviewing to be a somewhat daunting experience, it was also very rewarding; I never failed to learn something new and fascinating.

Unfortunately, life interrupted my career as a budding magazine writer. The needs of my then young daughters, the demands of my day job, and an eventual move to a new province, meant that I had to put writing magazine articles on the back burner.

Not long ago I ran across a class at Writer U, ( )where I often take on-line classes, called Magazine Writing for Fiction Writers. Julie Rowe was our instructor and she brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, as both a fiction and non-fiction writer. Here are some of Julie’s reasons for fiction writers to write non-fiction:

1. You can actually earn money from your writing! As an e-published writer of fiction, I’m not exactly rolling in the dough, so a little extra income would be nice. With over 5,000 magazines published in North America, there are plenty of opportunities to be published and paid, even if you’ve never written non-fiction before. Julie says: “Magazines buy from new writers. Editors are always looking for good ideas and they can't come up with them all by themselves. A new writer means new ideas told from a new angle.”

Julie also encouraged us to query the big magazines that pay the best rates. “A lot of people make a BIG mistake at this point - they start at the bottom with magazines that pay little or nothing thinking none of the high paying, popular magazines will buy from a new writer. WRONG! A good idea or article is a good idea or article. Period. If it's written well who cares if you've been published before. Previous writing credits can help, but the sale is in the idea, the presentation and the writing.”

2. You don’t have to be an expert to write for a magazine. You just need curiosity and the ability to research. And if you’re a fiction writer you’ve already become very good at ferreting out information. In some cases you may be able to use research from your fiction writing to come up with ideas for magazine articles. Or maybe you can use something you’ve researched for an article in your novel. For instance, if I’m writing an article on propagating house plants, maybe I can make one of my characters in my novel a gardener and give her actions the air of authenticity.

3. You don’t have to limit yourself to writing about just one subject. You can write about anything your curious mind is eager to learn about.

4. Writing freelance teaches you good writing and work habits for your other writing. To have articles published (and to earn money) you must continually send out queries. This forces you to work consistently and teaches you perseverance. Julie says it is also important to keep track of all your queries and their results, organization skills that are helpful in other areas of writing. Since articles are sold on the strength of your query, magazine writing will teach you the necessity of revision. Julie revises her queries 6 to 10 times before sending them out.

5. Magazine writing will also teach you how to work with an editor, and how to deal with deadlines.

6. Having published articles under your belt will help you build writing credentials. When you query editors of fiction, you can confidently state that you are a published writer. I also found that being a published magazine writer helped to build my confidence. If I could be published in non-fiction, why not in fiction?

7. Cross promoting - Julie Rowe says: "Include your pen name for fiction in your byline – Suzie Q. Anderson (writing romance as Judy Snow or AKA Judy Snow). The other way is to develop networks and writing relationships with your real name in magazines. Then, when your novel is due to come out, approach the editors you've been working with and ask if their magazine would be interested in publishing a short excerpt of your novel in their magazine under your pen name. Good Housekeeping and many other magazines do this. You could also write short stories for a variety of magazines under your pen name, thus enlarging your audience for your novels."

8. Validation! Now when your friends and family ask when you’re going to be published, you can proudly tell them the date your next article will appear, and show them the finished product. Julie says her husband didn’t take her writing career too seriously until she received her first cheque from a magazine. After my articles appeared in print, several of my relatives commented on how much they enjoyed them. I knew that for the first time they actually saw me as a “writer”. And to be honest, it was the first time I thought of myself that way too!

Magazine writing takes organization, persistence and effort, but the results can take you from unpublished to published writer. As a writer of fiction, you may already possess some of the skills needed to write articles: research capability, organization skills, determination, work ethic, and a curious mind.

Have you ever considered writing articles for magazines, either in print or on-line? Do you think writing non-fiction would contribute to your fiction?


Vince said...

Hi Jana:

I think a writer should always be writing. I’ve sold nonfiction magazine articles and humor. Articles published tend to get you more articles and even paid PR pieces that look like articles. They can also get you speaking engagements. It really helps if you’ve been in Toastmasters and can give a speech.

A fiction writer has a big advantage in that she knows how important it is to be interesting and to keep the reader’s attention. When you write nonfiction it is wise to keep good fiction principals in mind. Look how interesting the TV show 48-Hours can be as nonfiction.

Also note that nonfiction pays for facts. An editor once wrote that the difference between a $50 article and a $500 article is the research. Dig deep and make it interesting with surprising facts!

Jana, in your course did the instructor advise you to send in a sample article with your query to an editor who has never seen your work? There are a lot of people out there who cannot write. Let the editor know you can write.

I also found that it helps if your sample is in the style they already use. With computers it would not be too hard to alter an article’s style to match the publications. In the same way, I found it very useful to just write the article and send it in if it is a topic I am highly interested in anyway and it is not too long.

In short, discover all the different ways you can market your writing skills. Just about everything you write can be used in some way in your fiction.

After many years, I still never get tired seeing my name in print. (I even like to see it in these posts! :) )

Thanks for your post. It got me thinking of articles again.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Vince,
You're absolutely right; a writer writes. It doesn't matter if it's fiction or nonfiction. And like you said, the research and writing you put into your non-fiction work will likely pop up somewhere in your fiction.

You brought up the subject of speaking engagements and Toastmasters. Speaking in public terrifies me, but I can certainly see the value of becoming adept at public speaking as a way of getting your name out in the public and as another source of revenue. I've thought about joining Toastmasters for years. Maybe I should actually do something about it.

Our instructor definitely talked about sending clips with our queries to magazines editors. We covered a lot of ground in the course, including how to research the magazines most suited to the story idea you have. Julie Rowe is planning to hold a Master Class in Magazine Writing in 2011 and I intend to sign up for it. It promises to expand on the subjects we covered in this class.

This class got me itching to write articles again. I'll be talking more about that in blogs to come.


Unknown said...

How tempting ... when I'm trying to concentrate on writing fiction.

I used to sell short non-fiction pieces. Many sold to multiple markets.

On the premise that non-fiction is easier to sell than fiction, I'm still tempted to see if I can set up a non-fiction file for general interest or personal essay stuff ... just to prove I can sell my writing.

Vince said...

Hi Jana:

Are any of the Prairie Chicks Toastmasters?

Speaking looks so hard to do but the Toastmasters make it so very easy to do. They are non profit. They are not about making money. They teach you to speak at you own speed – mostly by having you take baby-step after baby-step until it becomes so easy, no one can shut you up!

Think of this plot: the heroine needs to do public speaking to advance in her job. She joins Toastmasters scared to death when she finds out all the members except the president are men. Lots of single men who are the go-getters in their fields learning to speak in order to move up the corporate ladder.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again. Visit a few Toastmasters Clubs. You'll be welcome.

Just think what the research could do for you. And talk about conflict! I think this idea would be very saleable.


Anita Mae Draper said...

I'm of 2 minds on this:

1. Yes, writing is writing if you need the money and the credit.

2. Not if it takes away from your wip when you're already complaining that you don't have enough time to write.

I used to write articles back in my twenties. My closest rub with publication was when a historical piece was accepted 'upon publication'. The magazine folded a couple months later.

At this point in my writing, with my kids at school and hubby bringing in the pay cheque, I want to devote all my time and energy to my wip. Yes, I'm blessed.


Karyn Good said...

Many, many eons ago I took a weekend course in publishing magazine length nonfiction. Very interesting. I'm tempted to take a stab at it! Almost.

Right now, I find it a challenge to give my wip the attention it needs.

Pepper said...

This is great info. I just finished taking a course about article writing that encouraged me. I write mostly novels, but after this class, I realized how many opportunities there are through magazines too.
I'm just starting out in that venture, but it's very hopeful.

Good notes, as usual, Vince :-)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Forgot to say, Jana, thank you for the valuable info. Just because I'm not using it now doesn't mean I won't need it in the future.

Thank you.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita and Karyn,
There's no doubt that writing non-fiction will take time away from a WIP. Like any other writing, it takes time and committment. Is magazine writing for everyone? No, of course not, especially if you're already stretched for time, or the interest isn't there. Until I give up my day jobs I likely won't be able to pursue non-fiction in a meaningful way.

A couple of things about magazine writing: for the most part, articles are sold based on the strength of a query. Unlike fiction you don't write on spec. So that saves a little time and energy. Also, our instructor encouraged us to go after bigger markets that pay decently. If a writer has never written articles before she doesn't think a big glossy magazine will be interested in anything she has to say. But even a big magazine will buy an article from an unknown writer if it's well written.

And like Vince says, I like to see my name in print too. The validation is great!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Vince,
I don't think any of the other Chicks belong to Toastmasters (let me know if I'm wrong ladies). One of our friends from Saskatchewan Romance Writers is a Toastmaster and I know she got a lot out of it. I think the experience boosted her confidence.

One of these days I really am going to have to join.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Kay,
Yes, it is a temptation. I really enjoy finding out about things and letting others know about it. If I'm wondering about something, chances are someone else is too.

Even though I'm kind of shy and nervous about interviewing people I do find it fascinating. I once interviewed a young lady who was the youngest person to be hired by the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. She was twelve! Since the auditions were blind (the musicians played behind a screen) the people doing the hiring had no idea how young she was. It was very interesting meeting her.

The down side of all this interesting work is that it can cut into the time needed to work on a WIP. Julie Rowe is going to be our guest blogger in September and I'm hoping she'll give us a few tips on how she juggles both sides of her work.

Back when I sold some articles in the 1990s, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to find a market. It's quite gratifying to make a sale from your writing. And get paid for it!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Pepper,
Thanks for dropping by. Best of luck with all your writing ventures, both fiction and non-fiction.


Jana Richards said...

Hey Anita, you're welcome. I haven't written an article for sale for almost fifteen years. But the desire is still there. At the moment I'm trying to come up with ideas for articles and I plan to research possible markets. At some point I'm going to say goodbye to my day job and hello to a new part-time magazine writing job. Right now I'm laying the foundation.

Janet said...

Great reference, Jana - I'll be coming back to it often. I attempted some mag articles in the fall before I started my Day Job from here - I think I would have enjoyed the research and challenge. Well, maybe one day when I can give up the Day Job. Right now, all my extra time is spent with fiction writing and trying to get organized in the new house...

Oh, yeah, and enjoying the +31 degrees ;) I'm really not sure if I am in Nova Scotia!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Yes, I found that magazine writing does take time, but I think it's worth that investment in time. I'd really like the opportunity to dig into the challenge of research and telling interesting true stories. Hopefully some day you'll be able to come back to article writing if you choose.

Lucky you with the heat. It's raining here today, but supposed to hit 30 by the end of the week. Can't wait!


Suse said...

Hey Jana, thanks for this post. I think combining both nonfiction and fiction writing is a good idea. The two types of writing really do complement each other - look at all the reasons you listed.

Everything that is essential in fiction is also important in nonfiction - characterization, setting, dialogue and pacing.

Writing nonfiction also provides income while we're working on the fiction. Without the money earned from nonfiction, I wouldn't have been able to attend the Surrey International Writers Conference last October.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
I think fiction and non-fiction can complement each other. A lot of the same talents and skills are needed to write both types of work.

The idea that I can potentially make some money from non-fiction writing is very tempting. Like you said, it will keep me going as I try to sell my fiction.