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Writing vs. Writing

How life in a newsroom can hurt—and maybe help—your fiction-writing career.

By Dann Halem - October 22, 2003

I always wanted to be a writer. The only question was what kind. In high school, I edited the school paper; in college, instead of picking up a notebook, I finished two novels and was represented by a New York literary agent. It was a lot to digest at age 19, and I missed a few important lessons—like figuring out what to do after college. When the time came for graduate studies, I didn't apply to creative writing programs. I had never learned such programs existed. Instead, I moved back into journalism. I applied to five prestigious schools and was accepted across the board. To get in, I sent each a bound fiction manuscript.

Confused? So was I. Especially since I had no dreams of spending my career as a full-time reporter. Looking back, my naivete is forgivable: It's easy for an outsider to look at writing as one big interconnected family. You want to write novels? Get experience in journalism. You want to be a journalist? Prove your worth by writing well-crafted fiction. Until a few years ago, I still believed my journalism experience would eventually help me become a fiction writer. After all, I was being paid to write; I was working with editors, meeting deadlines. Surely, this would be seen as a plus. As a writer, journalism seemed to me like the best kind of on-the-job training.

But that's not how it works, which I eventually realized. Writing isn't all interconnected, at least not in the eyes of literary editors. If journalism is basketball, fiction is baseball. To succeed, I would have to become a two-sport athlete. And, as Michael Jordan learned, that's easier said than done. In fact, crossing over as a writer would be the hardest thing I had ever tried. In the fiction world, few editors cared if I could slam dunk a magazine article. All that mattered to them was if I could hit a literary home run.

I wish I could say that I've proved I can, that I've got a book deal and fiction credits in The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Maybe it will happen someday. Maybe not. My crossover remains a journey in progress.

What I can report is that it is possible. I've spoken with authors—bestselling authors—who started their careers as newspaper stringers or interviewing celebrities for supermarket tabloids. No need to embarrass them by naming names; just know they're out there. So how did they do it? The most important ingredient was being incredibly talented writers. But that's not all that mattered. There are reasons why most journalists never trade in their byline for their name on the front of a book jacket. If you, like me, are pursuing such a crossover, keep these three important pitfalls in mind:

1. Great journalists are often bad fiction writers.

Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe might disagree, but, sadly, this is conventional wisdom in mainstream publishing. At a recent New York conference, where speakers included an editor from a major publishing house, two review editors, and a prominent agent, one said that while fiction writers often make good journalists, the quality of fiction from most journalists is poor. To be fair, the quality of fiction from most lawyers and fast-food workers is also poor, but the publishing world holds us to a higher standard.

So how will this perception hurt you? Very subtly. It could be hurting you already and you don't even know it. When I started, I wrote query letters where I mentioned my journalism education, magazines that had published my work, and anything writing oriented that I assumed might be impressive to editors. Such editors, I thought, were accustomed to getting submissions from writers who had never been published in even a newsletter. While my fiction would have to stand on its merits, my professional experience would help me. Right?

Wrong, as I've since been told many times by authors, publishing houses, and literary editors. Quite the opposite; journalism experience has the potential to hurt us as unknown fiction writers. With thousands of submissions flooding in each year, editors and agents are looking for reasons to reject us. The conventional wisdom about journalists is that we're reporters for a reason. Journalists, say many in the literary world, simply lack the creativity and verbal panache to make it as successful authors. Is this hooey? Of course. But it's powerful hooey, powerful enough to necessitate a change of strategy.

I no longer tell editors that I've ever been a journalist. I don't reveal my education (painful, since I'm still paying for it), and I don't mention my non-fiction credits. I keep my query letters very short and only mention fiction experience. As an author, journalist, and literary editor recently told me, it's great to have journalism experience. It's just not something you want the gatekeepers to know before they've read your work.

2. Journalists don't want to master the craft.

Perhaps one reason many journalists write poor fiction is because we grow arrogant. When we're already being paid to write, it's easy to assume we're already good writers. And if we believe we're good writers, why do we need to learn anything about how to write fiction?

Journalists can be terrible students. Or we can be star pupils. Much of it depends on whether we've acknowledged there are things we still must learn. When motivated to learn about crafting fiction, journalists have an excellent start. We already know how to write stories. The journalists I've met in writing classes are often just a few tools away from writing great fiction.

Most important for us is that we get back into the classroom. It took me years before I realized just how important the nuts and bolts of writing fiction were for me. Landing an agent without ever taking a creative writing class didn't help my progress. For years, I skated along on raw talent, but never wrote a fully satisfactory story. Even worse, I couldn't figure out why. Eventually, thanks to classes and workshops, I began to fill in my biggest holes. Not surprisingly, my writing has improved because of it.

The lesson? As writers, we need to swallow our professional pride and recognize that fiction requires a different skill set. Though the result is still putting words on paper, the process of how is entirely different for journalists and fiction writers. If you want to learn more, invest time in a creative writing class. Seek out workshops, university extension programs, and other writing opportunities in your community.

3. Journalists want to skip to the front.

Cutting in line is my worst vice. I can't help sending my short stories to major magazines and journals. As a journalist, I'm so accustomed to querying and being rejected, it's made me professionally fearless. Yes, it isn't impossible that one of my stories will be bought by a major magazine. It's just highly unlikely. The odds are probably better that a tsunami will strike Nebraska over the winter.

Still, the thought of spending hundreds of hours writing a story and then sending it somewhere where few will ever read it is hard—especially for working journalists, used to a certain audience. There's symbolism in the act. To me, it reeks of starting over. In reporting, we spend years building our journalism portfolios. I started at a small weekly newspaper and spent a lot of time working my way up the ladder; I now write national magazine features.

When it comes to getting stories published, there is a natural progression for fiction writers, as there is for journalists. Just as we started small in journalism, fiction writers are expected to begin their careers by publishing in modest and often obscure literary journals. Usually, these journals pay very little—if at all—and are seen by precious few readers. They will almost certainly never be seen by most editors and agents, who don't have time to scour small journals for the next Tobias Wolfe or Alice Munro.

So what's the point? Even if we're publishing in Vanity Fair, three short stories in journals like the Podunk Quarterly (it doesn't exist, so don't bother Googling) can be incredibly important for our careers. Why? Because even if gatekeepers are unimpressed by a 5,000-word non-fiction piece, editors at mid-sized journals will be impressed that somebody—even the Podunk Quarterly—chose to publish our fiction. This can lead to being published in larger literary journals, which might eventually lead to our fiction being published in magazines or literary anthologies. It can also help us land an agent. As one well-known agent told me, any writer with a short story collection should include published clips of at least three of their stories. This shows agents that someone, somewhere likes our work and was willing to spend a little money to print it.

* * *

Friends sometimes ask me how they can get into journalism, telling me how much they love writing prose or poetry. If you want to be a poet, I tell them, don't go into journalism. If you choose to pursue journalism, do it because you want to spend your life as a journalist. If you want to be an author, go get an MFA. Not only will you receive education and guidance, but MFA graduates are more likely to have their work taken seriously by editors and agents. Yes, your work must still be brilliant, but in the fiction world an MFA is half a sneaker through the door.

Of course, if you're in my boat, the news isn't all bad. Combining your fiction dreams with your journalism bread and butter is a wonderful way to use different parts of your mind. If journalism is an opportunity to consult with your logical half, fiction is a chance to commune with your inner creativity. As journalists, we're trained to see things as they are. As fiction writers, we can spin these truths into brave and original directions. Put the two together, and we can rule the world.

Dann Halem is a Los Angeles writer and journalist. Although he shouldn't tell you, he has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has written for Playboy, Premiere, Maxim, and many other publications. He is a two-time alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and is slowly but surely learning the finer points of fiction. He is currently at work on Sunset Royale, a collection of interconnected short stories set in Los Angeles.

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