This week, while wandering around cyberspace, delaying dreary tasks that needed doing, I ran across various blog posts and comments debating whether former or current news reporters make good fiction writers. The arguments were along these lines:
News reporters do not write good fiction because:
1. They are accustomed to writing in a format that discourages creativity; the details of an event are reported without adjectives and adverbs that would help a reader understand the emotional state or mindset of the people who are involved.
2. They use the “inverted pyramid” style that gives away the ending; all the important information is in the first paragraph. Thus it is difficult for them to sustain suspense.
3. They are required to be emotionally detached from the participants in an event on which they are reporting, and are thus unable to create the empathy for characters that fiction writing requires.
News reporters are excellent novelists because:
1. They have spent a lot of time observing all sorts of people, and are familiar with human nature in a way that writers with a narrower exposure to the world are not.
2. They are experienced at doing accurate and pertinent research.
3. They are used to having their work edited and critiqued and do not take it personally when editing by others removes a lovingly crafted phrase.
4. They are used to working on deadlines and don’t spend a lot of time waiting for inspiration or perfect writing conditions.
5. They know how to write an initial sentence or paragraph that grabs the reader’s attention and compels him to read on.
6. They have developed a spare prose style that eliminates unnecessary words and non-essential scenes, characters, or subplots. Space is at a premium for a print journalist, as is time for a television reporter. The pretty but useless junk has to go.
I am not one to make absolute statements that “all…..are…..” There are good and not so good fiction writers and some are or were news reporters. My reading experience leads me to believe that a background in journalism is an asset to a novelist. Certainly an accomplished writer can transfer skills between and among genres; as a bookseller, I have been interested to observe that Catherine Coulter and Iris Johansen each have two large groups of fans, one for their historical romances and one for their contemporary crime fiction. The switch from nonfiction reporting to novels is a little more complex, but the ability to tell a compelling story remains the same. The clincher for me, if I were to make a generalization about reporters as novelists, is the ability to eliminate the nonessential and get to the point.
As a reader, I love to pick up a thick, 500 page or longer book, anticipating hours of living in a fictional world which I am reluctant to leave when the book ends. Usually these are family sagas spanning generations or historical novels in the vein of James Michener or Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Crime fiction, on the other hand, does not lend itself to such length. Recently I have found myself becoming truly annoyed by books by bestselling authors which seem to be padded. I wondered if they were being encouraged by their publishers to “give the reader his money’s worth”; when I checked back on their earlier works, it turned out that they were just as long. My perception of unnecessary verbiage is probably due to the fact that I listened to these books on audio in my car. When reading a traditional book, one can skim over the junk to get to the good stuff. It’s riskier to advance a couple of tracks; there might be some important information lost. One audiobook I listened to, which had been traded in to my store, had several tracks that had been destroyed and had to be skipped. I missed nothing.
In one case, I started to feel that if the main character retraced the same path through a small town inch by inch or described the scenery in his journeys from that town to the nearest large city one more time, I was going to scream. I think the point was that he was getting a feel for the environs and looking for clues in order to solve the crime; he could have just gone back to X place with a new idea without laying out every footfall again. I found myself talking to the book the way I “talk” to other drivers, as a way to relieve stress: “Just get on with it!” “Move; time’s a-wasting!” “Where did you learn to drive (write)?” and other comments not suitable for a family blog. (This can be a dangerous habit; besides the fact that it appears that you are talking to yourself, you run the risk of getting very angry at rude drivers in a traffic jam and forgetting that you turned off the AC and put the windows down so the car wouldn’t overheat, as I once did. Woops!)
I don’t experience this same dismay with books by Michael Connelly or John Sandford, both former journalists. Their books run 400 to 450 pages, and I have listened to several on audio. The 550 page tome with the excruciating, repetitive description which annoyed me so much was not written by a former journalist. Coincidence? Connelly and Sandford rely on subplots and back story to enhance the main plot. The book I found padded focused on one event in a small town, where the detective was a stranger. It did not merit 550 pages, although the plot itself was fascinating. It was just hard to get to it. The right length is what it takes to tell the story.
Two of my favorite New Jersey authors, Brad Parks and Wallace Stroby, are both former journalists. Their styles are entirely different, but they share the ability to make every word and scene count. When Carter Ross searches out a renegade bear in Newark in The Girl Next Door, while he is really trying to solve the killing of a newspaper delivery woman, it makes the point that he is doing his investigating in addition to his full time job, develops the character of his intern and adds his trademark humor to a serious situation. When Crissa Stone, in Kings of Midnight, travels to the forested wilderness of northeastern New Jersey in search of a fortune stolen years ago, we get a sense of isolation and menace without a mile-by-mile description of the route.
I won’t make a blanket statement that current or former journalists are the best crime fiction writers. There are too many good novelists from all sorts of backgrounds. But if a new author contacted me with a request to read his or her book and promote it in my store, he or she would get a lot higher in the pile of such volumes I have accumulated if I knew that employment as a reporter was in the background. I would anticipate tight writing and little temptation to skim; I would expect every word to count.