How to Transition: Journalist to Novelist

In her article of 8 July 2022 on the Writer’s Digest website, Mary Ford, debut novelist, writes about her transition from an award-winning journalist to a novelist.

Mary Ford

MARY FORD is an award-winning journalist who spent 28 years as the editor of two small-town community newspapers in Massachusetts: the Cohasset Mariner and the Hingham Journal. She met her future husband, Conley, in 1971 in California where she was teaching English and has always been fascinated by his story. Conley and Mary were married in Los Angeles and were featured on the Newlywed Game with Bob Eubanks. After their first appearance, the popular couple was asked back for the Alumni Game. They came in last both times. Their incompatibility has lasted for nearly 50 years. Boy at the Crossroads is Mary’s first novel.”

Mary says, “Being a journalist and novelist have one big thing in common: writing. But that’s the easy part. It’s the how to write that is the challenge.

Journalists report. They provide information. They explain and sometimes, overexplain. They try not to leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Their job is to stick to the facts and deliver the story in a concise, readable way that provides the reader with what they need to know.

A novelist doesn’t have to adhere to the truth, worry about attributing quotes with the person’s title, follow AP style, or wrap the story up in 800 words. A novelist can be more creative and depart from the facts.

A journalist tells what’s happening: Saturday’s temperature broke records. Water restrictions are now in effect.

A novelist shows what’s happening: Sweat trickled down my forehead and cheeks on Saturday. When I turned on the tap to wash my face, nothing came out.

When I retired four years ago after 35 years in journalism, the best advice I received as I started drafting my novel was to “leave the newswoman behind.” After all, no one wants to read a novel that reads like a 250-page report.

As I embarked on my new career as a novelist, I took classes at Grub Street Boston, a creative writing center. I listened and welcomed criticism during the workshopping sessions. After the class finished, I paid my instructors to critique my full manuscript and give me honest feedback. I also joined writing groups.

A big advantage that journalists have is a thick skin. They are used to being edited, having their stories cut, and having parts rewritten for clarity. After a decades-long career as a newspaper editor, I welcomed the direction and criticism.

A big challenge today for the plethora of self-published authors is to find a good editor and listen to their advice.

A journalist asks the questions such as: What does this mean? Is this clear? Is there another side to the story? What’s next? In other words, the journalist is writing for the reader.

While a novelist is free from the restrictive rules of newswriting, it’s still important that their writing is clear and doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary prose. A novelist should also write for the reader and not for themselves. That’s an important distinction.

Budding novelists, who are new to public writing (not simply journaling or writing for their own enjoyment), can be too attached to their own words. They need to put themselves in the reader’s shoes and think like them.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of having been a journalist is news judgement. A good reporter knows what the story is. Over the years, I mentored dozens of reporters and contributors. When hiring a new reporter, I always asked: “Are you a writer first or a reporter first?” They almost always answered “writer.” That was the wrong answer! It was much harder to teach them to report than to write.

Recognizing a good story is paramount for a journalist or a novelist. No amount of wonderful description or flowery language is going to make up for the lack of a good story. That’s where writing classes and groups can help. Fellow aspiring novelists can provide excellent feedback. Take comments to heart like: “That’s confusing.” “What’s your point?” “Boring!”

Over the years, I have found that good writing is more of a craft than an art. That doesn’t mean there aren’t brilliant, talented writers out there. Their books fill the classics shelf in the library. But a working writer with a good story—writes, rewrites, and revises—and then does it again until they are comfortable with their manuscript.

Discipline, not procrastination, is part of a journalist’s life. Today, in the world of competitive breaking news online, a reporter has to get down to the business of writing right away. There’s no putting it off.

I was the editor of two weekly newspapers for nearly 30 years. They were going to come out every Thursday and Friday, without any blank pages, no matter what. We had to get the job done week in and week out.

The best advice I have is to “do it!” Write as if there was an editor standing over your shoulder needing the story. If you want to be a published novelist, there is no way around the hard work of writing. Books don’t write themselves.

Outlines for novels can seem daunting. The synopsis, even more so. A synopsis is something you’re going to need because it’s vital to selling your novel if you’re going to query agents or publishers. And the outline is going to save you time while you’re writing your novel. Starting with your premise, expanding your outline, and then writing your synopsis is the perfect way to understand exactly what your story is about and how to get it done.”

Faith, Law & Writing

On Writer’s Digest (16-04-22), bestselling author Robert Whitlow talks about how he combines writing what he knows with writing what he’s passion about—faith and law—and how his characters get to that crossroad.

Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow is a film-maker and a best-selling author of fifteen legal thrillers. He is also a contributor to a short story The Rescuers, a story included in the book What The Wind Picked Up by The ChiLibris Ring. In 2001, he won the Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction, for his novel The Trial.

Mr Whitlow says, ” My newest novel, Relative Justice, sits squarely in the middle of the crossroads of faith, law, and writing. Well, maybe faith and law. The characters leave the writing part to me. But the journey referred to in the title of this article is often lived out by the fictitious people who inhabit the pages of the stories I write. How do my characters get to this crossroads? What are the rewards of the journey?

Let’s start with the law, not faith. In the real world, ethical attorneys (and the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known over the past 43 years as an attorney are ethical) don’t knowingly misrepresent the facts or the law. They strongly advocate for their client’s recollection of what took place and why the law should be applied in a certain way, but they don’t make up facts or evidence to deceive a jury or mislead the court. When writing about the law, believability of character is linked to accurate portrayal of the legal process.

One of the axioms repeated countless times at writer’s conferences is “write what you know.” Knowledge empowers creativity. By writing based on knowledge, an author can craft a story with nuance, texture, and freedom from stereotypes. I’m from the South. I’ve lived my entire life in Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina. My professional career has been spent as an attorney. I write southern, legal dramas, and I populate my novels with people drawn from the cultural soup I’ve eaten since I was a small child.

So, when writing a novel containing legal elements, I enter the creative arena with an awareness about the world of the law—trials, investigation, depositions, motions, client relationships, law office politics, etc. That knowledge is obtained either by direct experience, observation, or research. These are all a form of “knowing.” Only then can a story achieve the acceptance awarded by a discerning reader. Courtroom time can be compressed, cross-examination shortened, and shocking surprises inserted. But no writer wants a reader to stop in the middle of a chapter and inwardly think, “There’s no way anything like that could happen in real life!” Such a tragic moment takes the reader out of the world the author created and boots them into a place from which he or she may never return.

Relative Justice is a story about a small, southern law practice consisting of family members preparing to battle a behemoth drug company. It’s a David versus Goliath scenario. Every lawyer has a few rocks in his sling, but do the attorneys in the novel have the right ammunition and skill needed to slay a giant? If not, is there another way to legally bring down an imposing enemy? That’s the law part of the journey.

A second, less common axiom for writers is “write what you’re passionate about.” That’s equally important. For me, that means incorporating faith into the lives of my characters. Not every character, but faith is strategically interwoven into the lives of some of the people who inhabit my books. And because the world of faith is someplace I “know,” based on experience, observation, and research, it’s possible to achieve the goal of credibility. The reader may not agree with a character’s expression of faith (neither do I in every instance), but what a character believes and how it impacts life can be told in a way that fits with the flow of the novel to the intersection for faith and writing.

To safely arrive at this intersection, it’s necessary to avoid writing what I call “a crusader novel,” a story in which the writer has an agenda or message that the characters can’t carry. This doesn’t just happen in the Christian fiction genre. There are crusader novels written about many topics: environmentalism, race relations, and political agendas, to name a few. A book is relegated to this category when the author’s opinion becomes intrusive (preachy) and overrides the capacity of the characters to convey the message in a legitimate way consistent with who they are.

There’s nothing wrong with characters having opinions about a topic. But the writer must provide them with the background, education, or life circumstances that can justify what they believe and express. In Relative Justice, there are characters with various levels of faith or no faith at all. I take them as I find them and discover where a faith journey might believably take them, just as it occurs all the time in real life.”

Review: The Moral Imagination

This non-fiction work, subtitled The Art and Soul of Building Peace, was recommended to me by a colleague who is a peacebuilder. Since I am a trustee (chairman) of the Peaceful Change initiative, a UK peacebuilding charity, I felt I should read it. The book confirms much of what I have learned on the subject, and it explains why so many in the general public (including those who should know better) misunderstand it.

The author is John Paul Lederach, who is an American Professor of International Peacebuilding at Notre Dame University and a Distinguished Scholar at Eastern Mennonite University. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado. His academic work draws on his experience in the field as a mediator, negotiator, peacebuilding practitioner, trainer and consultant. At the international level, this has involved input into peace processes in Somalia, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Columbia and Nepal.  He has written widely on conflict resolution and mediation. He is a Mennonite Christian. He currently works for the foundation Humanity United.

John Paul Lederach

Lederach describes ‘Moral Imagination’ in terms of three parameters: an Awakening – the capacity to see things at a deeper level and beyond what initially meets the eye; a kind of Aesthetic Creativity which surpasses logic; and Transcendence, the refusal to be bound by the existing views of perceived reality. Having read the book, I would define Moral Imagination as: the application of God-given creativity, planned or accidental, so as to achieve a unique and valuable amelioration of a complex human problem. I say God-given, because its source is genuinely inspirational. Sometimes it is accidental – what Lederach refers to as serendipity. It is unique because every human situation is different. And it is rarely a ‘solution’ because complex human problems are almost never solved in one go.

Lederach says that there are four disciplines which are necessary for peacebuilding. These are relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity and risk. In peacebuilding it is essential to be able to visualise the complex web of relationships which make up any particular human society, because it is the dynamics of those relationships which can lead to conflicts. Paradoxical curiosity approaches social realities with a respect for complexity, a refusal resort to dualistic truths (e.g. good vs evil). Risk is the ability to step into the unknown without a guarantee of success or even safety.

Time is an important parameter in peacebuilding. Humanity has developed the capability of developing mechanisms and agreements for stopping violent conflict, but we have little capacity for building and sustaining a stable, peaceful society in an unstable environment. What is required for the latter task is the creation of a flexible, effective platform, which houses dynamic processes and patience.

An effective peacebuilder exhibits constructive pessimism in order to be aware of distrust in society, because distrust can be glossed over ignored, and violence will resume.

Lederach tells us that creativity in peacebuilding is more of an art than a technique. In this sense it is akin to writing haiku.

In terms of relationships, the peacebuilder must learn to think of them as a dynamic web which exists in all sorts of social spaces and which include unexpected interdependencies. Thoughtful, unhurried observation of this human web is essential.

Critical mass is not an effective test of numbers of people required to make a change successful, because the critical mass can override a vocal minority, and distrust is renewed. It is better to have a ‘yeast strategy’ in which small numbers of effective and trusted communicators become distributed throughout the society.

In modern, Western society we tend to think of time in the order of past, present, future. But in many societies, the past can lie ahead in the sense that the recent past, including the legacies of those recently deceased, can not only affect our futures, but our sense of who we are as a people and individuals. It is counterproductive in these societies to adopt a ‘forget the past’ solution. The past must be included in the future.

Finally, Lederach says that finding voice is an essential act in peacebuilding. Neglected members of society must also find their voices, and the peacebuilder him/herself must find their own, authentic voice, shaped by a sense of vulnerability and an appetite for risk.

Judging by the attitudes of many philanthropists, who view peacebuilding as a low return investment and one where achievements are difficult to measure, much of Lederach’s peacebuilding is not understood. What he is saying is that Moral Imagination Peacebuilding is the only way to achieve lasting peace in conflict-affected regions. Military solutions, mediated deals and other top-down solutions will ultimately unravel because they fail to address the underlying causes of the conflict. MIP takes time, patience, commitment and money, but the ultimate costs of continuing conflict are far greater.

This book should be read by every president, prime minister and secretary of state. And by those of us who wish for a more peaceful world.

Edgar Allen Poe on Vivid Writing

The http://www.writerswrite.co.za website has a compilation of advice from famous writers on writing.

“Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor, and literary critic. He was born 19 January 1809, and died 7 October 1849.

Edgar Allen Poe

He was one of the first American short story writers. He is known as the inventor of the detective fiction genre, and for contributing to the emerging science fiction genre. His works include classics like The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher.

Poe was ahead of his time in his writing. He understood that less is more and he had a critical plan for each piece that he wrote.

In his essay, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, he explains the elements that make up a good story. Poe takes us through the creation of his poem, ‘The Raven’. He says he selected this well-known work to show that nothing is in it by accident. He writes ‘…that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.’”

“Here are five tips that Poe gives on vivid writing:

  1. The work should have a vivid, original effect. He writes ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’ He says that tone and incident should be worked together to have the desired effect (mood) on the reader, ‘whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone’.
  2. Do not overwrite. To have the desired effect, it should be read in one sitting. He says, ‘if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.’ Obviously, novels do not necessarily fit this rule, but he believed this was essential for effect. Perhaps our modern unputdownable novels with shorter chapters have the same effect on the reader. The ideal length for a poem, he says, is one hundred lines.
  3. Know the ending before you begin. He believes you need to know this to be able to plot effectively. He says, ‘Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.’
  4. Choose a setting that works for the story. Poe first decides what he wants to say in the poem, or rather what he wants the characters to say, and only once that is in place, does he decide where to set the poem. He says he needed to bring the lover and the Raven together in a specific way, ‘— and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture.’
  5. The tone should reflect the theme. He says the choice to allow the raven, a bird of ill omen to repeat one word, ‘Nevermore’, in a monotonous, melancholy tone at the end of each stanza allowed him to ask: ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death — was the obvious reply.’ The melancholy tone echoes the theme of death.”