Sunday, 24 November 2013

Creative Non-Fiction - Part 4

Do you ask enough questions? Another creative non-fiction writing technique is to ask lots of questions.

All writers ask questions - it’s a great way of finding out new information. Journalists ask questions to establish facts and to use the answers as direct quotes. However, this has limitations. Journalism is all about telling. Or reporting. Whereas creative non-fiction is concerned with showing and revealing information. 

When journalists quote their interviewees they’re also subject to the limitations of their interviewee's (limited - potentially) vocabulary. Interview someone who trekked hundreds of miles to reach the North Pole and ask them “What was it like there?” and you’d be forgiven for being a little frustrated when they answer you with, “It was really, really, really cold.” 

Creative non-fiction writers take the process one step further. Instead of reporting what it was like, the creative non-fiction writer asks as many questions necessary so that they can then write about the place as if they were experiencing it themselves. In other words, they ask all the questions they need to be able to write about it as if seen through their viewpoint. This then allows the writer to use their own language skills to convey the drama to their readers in an interesting manner. Ask enough questions and the writer can step into the shoes of the interviewee.

This is how many ghostwriters work - those who are employed to write someone else’s story. Some celebrities use ghostwriters to write their autobiographies for them, but they’re written in a way that makes the reader think the celebrity wrote them.

Writing from your subject’s viewpoint is more common than you may think. It’s not just celebrities who use ghostwriters; anyone can. Pick up any women’s magazine containing real-life stories and most of them will have been written by professional writers, not the people whose lives the stories are about. (The piece may be attributed to a writer, “as told to Fred Bloggs,” or the writer's name may appear near the spine of the publication in a font size that requires an extra strong magnifying glass!) If you read the stories, though, you’ll see that they’re written in the first person, using first person pronouns, like I and we. The writers have achieved this by asking their interviewee lots of questions. 

It’s an interesting exercise to experiment with. Ask someone lots of questions about a specific time, or moment, in their life and then write it up as if you were them. Do that, and you can describe what they saw/felt/heard/smelt/touched using your own language skills and vocabulary, rather than rely on those of your subject.

Good luck.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Creative Non-Fiction - Part 3

Creative non-fiction writers can add sparkle to their text if they use dialogue. Remember, dialogue requires at least two people to speak: there needs to be a conversation. Traditionally, if non-fiction writers wanted to add authority to a piece of text they would quote some words from a relevant expert. Whilst this involves putting text into speech marks, it’s not the same as dialogue. Here’s an example:

It’s a fact. Christmas is getting earlier each year. “We’ve studied the period when retailers begin showing their Christmas adverts,” says Fred Bloggs of, “and we’ve discovered that most retailers are launching their advertising campaigns two weeks earlier than they were five years ago.”

Okay, I made that up. (Am I the only one fed up with watching Christmas adverts already?) However, in this example, the quote tells the reader that the writer’s statement (Christmas is getting earlier each year) is not a personal opinion, but a belief held by others. But when quotes are used like this the writer is reporting what was said. I consider this pushes readers away from the source of the quote. Effectively, the writer is saying, “Here’s what this bloke told me the other day.” The reader is getting the information second-hand, and is being told what was said.

Dialogue changes things, and works better for some areas of non-fiction, such as travel writing and (auto)biography. When a reader comes across dialogue, it offers some immediacy. It’s as though the reader is standing just behind the writer’s shoulder and listening in to their conversation. With dialogue, the reader feels as though the action is happening now. They’re experiencing the conversation just as the writer did.

You look like a man on an adventure,” says the waiter, with a wryness to his smile.
“I might be.” I hedge my bets.
“You should go to the market at first light, tomorrow. You’ll see locals, then. Leave it until an hour after sunrise and you’ll be one tourist amongst thousands of others.”
“Thank you. I’ll do that.”
“Watch out for Pedro on the rug stall. He offers good deals but short changes his customers.” The waiter winks and walks away.

That, in itself, is a little scene (see last week’s post about scenes), but I hope you found that more engaging than the quote example earlier. It still conveys a lot of information to the reader, but in a more immediate way. The writer could have written: Go to the market at first light to watch the locals go about their daily business before the tourists arrive. And beware of Pedro on the rug stall, who’s known to short change his customers. It gives the same information, but those two sentences lack life. Dialogue adds that life.

Essentially, dialogue allows a writer to show the reader information, whereas quotes tell the reader stuff. In fact, if you read last week’s post again, you’ll see that the opening scene begins with dialogue, because it’s a great way of grabbing the reader’s attention. It’s the immediacy of dialogue that helps achieve this.

So next time you want to convey some interesting information to the reader, consider the art of conversation. It can be quite revealing.

Good luck.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Creative Non-Fiction - Part 2

Last week I looked at how being a little creative with events in your article can help you convey the facts, or the truth, of your piece in an interesting way. Another creative non-fiction technique is to write in ‘scenes’.

All non-fiction requires a structure of sorts, and considering your subject matter as a series of individual scenes can work well. By focusing on one particular idea in each scene you make your writing more succinct and precise. With a clear idea to get across to your reader, you’re less likely to go wandering off at a tangent. 

However, thinking in scenes also allows writers to use those scenes more creatively. Here’s an example from a published article of mine:

“Solvitur Ambulando,” he shouted, as he dashed past me on the path to Watergate Farm, at Loweswater.

“Morning,” I replied, wondering what the heck the at-least-80-year-old hiker was going on about as he made his way back towards Maggie’s Bridge. Had he heard me muttering as I ambled towards the trees at Holme Wood? Probably. I know I have a habit of talking to myself when I’m out walking, but talking to yourself can be some of the best conversations a person can have. Sometimes I just get carried away and forget to whisper. And if a route suddenly gets busy, I have been known to hold a mobile phone to my ear, because people seem to find this more acceptable. That was until someone pointed out there was no mobile phone signal in the area I was walking.

I know I was having one of my more in-depth discussions with myself, because I was trying to resolve a problem. I’d been working for a particular client for some time and was getting frustrated at the amount of effort I was putting in for the meagre reward. Being self-employed, it’s easy to say yes to any work that comes your way, because any work is better than no work, especially in this current economic climate. But that work/life balance equation rears it’s ugly head every so often, especially that phrase of ‘working to live, not living to work’.  
Today was one of those days in the Lakes when you had to get outside. I frequently escape to the Lake District, but being self-employed, I often find myself doing some work whilst supposedly ‘on holiday’ – with so many self-catering properties and hotels having free Wi-Fi, these days, it’s difficult to break free. And despite my earlier comment, I did once check my emails half way up the Old Man of Coniston. But today was one of those classic clear blue-sky days, with not enough moisture to make a wisp of cloud, and no wind to turn a leaf, let alone a wind turbine.
Normally, for me, it would have been a day to go high. I’m not one to set out to climb a mountain if it’s guaranteed to be in cloud. If I’ve put effort in to ascend a summit I want to be rewarded with a view, or at least a sneaky peak of a view, and so days like this always have ‘Go high!’ stamped firmly across them. But as I contemplated where to go, my dilemma influenced my decision. If I went high, I’d be doing it because that what I always did. It’s like saying ‘yes’ when someone offers me work. It’s what I felt I ought to be doing. So, going against the grain, I decided to stay low. I wouldn’t climb: I would circumnavigate instead. Which is why I found myself approaching the shores of Loweswater.

The first scene (paragraphs 1 and 2) introduces readers to the old man I met on my walk and how I came to be talking to him. The second scene (paragraphs 3 to 5) goes back in time and explains how I came to be at this place and talking to this old man.

Had I written this in strict chronological order then scene 2 would come before scene 1. But paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 wouldn’t make a good opening. So, by writing this as a series of scenes, I’ve been able to use the the fiction technique of ‘flashback’ where you start at a point of interesting action and then flashback to a period in the past to give the reader the information they need to understand the article in full.

Some great examples of this scene structure in articles can be found in the real-life stories in the women’s magazines. They often have this fictional feel to them because of this scene structure.

So next time you want to make your non-fiction more engaging, look at the scenes in your piece. Have you got them in the right order? Shuffling them around may give you a more interesting piece.

You can read my creative Loweswater article in full here: (which was published in Lakeland Walker magazine).

Good luck.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Creative Non-Fiction - Part 1

The term ‘creative non-fiction’ may seem like a contradiction of terms. After all, if non-fiction refers to the facts and truth, as opposed to fiction being all the made-up stuff, then how you be creative with facts? 

It all comes down to the fact, or truth, that you wish to get across to your reader, and how you go about doing that. The creative element comes into the delivery of the truth/fact, rather than influencing the fact itself. And there’s a lot of scope for using creative non-fiction. Writers who explore travel, biography (and autobiography), nature and food writing can use the techniques, as can ghost writers. Being creative with how you deliver your facts is what helps to engage the reader. Here’s an example:

“Watch out for the lobsters,” screamed a little girl running out of the church door. “They’re huge!” She ran off down the steps and onto the beach to rejoin her family.
I marvelled at the imaginations of children as I stepped from the heat of the midday sun into the cooler air of St Julian’s Church. The heavy door fell behind me, into its frame, with a solid thud, cocooning me from the bustling beach scene outside. Now I was alone, standing in a space only big enough for four pews, three thin stained glass windows and, above the altar, a fishing net with three of the tackiest, bright orange plastic lobsters you’ve ever seen!

I’ve been creative with some of this scene: the little girl did not exist. I made her and her dialogue up. But it doesn’t matter, because if the reader were to go to this particular church, on the harbour front at Tenby, they wouldn’t meet her. However, they will come across those lobsters hanging on the wall above the altar (see photo as evidence!). This is the fact that I wanted to convey to the reader.

Bringing in the little girl to offer some dialogue helps to draw the reader into the paragraph. Dialogue adds life and interest to text, and when you use dialogue, readers feel as though they are there at the scene, ‘listening’ to what’s being said as it happens, rather than being ‘told’ or ‘reported’ what was said, like a journalist would. So by using a little creativity here, I have, hopefully, made the fact a little more interesting.

So next time you want to convey some facts and figures to your readers, let your imagination wander. See how creative you can be in delivering some facts and truths to your readers. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be exploring some of these creative non-fiction techniques in more detail.

Good luck.