Can journalists make the switch to fiction?


There’s a long list of successful authors who were once journalists but you can be sure there’s a much longer list of journalists whose novels never got off the hard drive or the back of a beermat.

I’ll admit I’m hoping the answer to this question will be yes for me, as I have been a journalist for most of my working life and have been attempting to make that leap to fiction. I’m currently seeking representation for my first novel while working on the first draft of my second novel.

But let’s be completely objective and take a look at what natural advantages and disadvantages news scribblers can expect on the rocky path leading from fact to fiction.

Uphill struggle

1. Lack of staying power. Journalism has always been about concise writing and fitting the space available. But things have taken a more radical turn with the advent of ‘mobile first’: some top news organisations are now advocating stories of 500 words or less. I worked under strict length guidelines for a long time with the result that I am now hard wired to have any story wrapped up within 1,200 words. I believe that has cramped my style in short stories, where I struggle to get above 1,500 words. And it makes me unconsciously (until this moment) write short chapters. One to work on.

2. Empty tank. The need to constantly come up with new story ideas in the day job can suck the creative juices dry. But it’s not just the idea mill that demands creative energy, more creative effort must go into the researching and crafting of those articles, with precious little inspiration left for other subjects.

3. Ingrained style. Journalism is about spelling it out, clarity all the way. You inevitably develop (and overuse) favourite words and turns of phrase. Newswriting is a genre in itself and you become steeped in it, consuming the work of others and probably imitating them too. There is some scope for introducing emotion or descriptive writing in feature articles but that still remains inside a set framework.

Grease the wheels

1. The groove. You’ve already got the habit and the discipline of writing on a daily basis. You have to produce texts that are coherent and correct, over and over again. That is definitely worth something. Language and storytelling skills build up over time, and the grammar, punctuation and sentence-building muscles become strong.

2. The Professionals. Once you have worked as one kind of professional writer, it should be possible to make the transition to a different category, shouldn’t it? Deadlines are not a problem. The same goes for the editing process. A good journalist can’t be precious about their work. They have to accept tough editing decisions and be prepared to rewrite if necessary.

3. Eye of the magpie. Journalists listen to conversations and watch situations differently. Could there be a story in that? is the reflex thought. They are keen observers, interviewing someone while at the same time taking in their appearance and the surroundings with a view to writing about it. I notice the same dynamic at work as a fiction writer. When I hear or see something sparkly that could be used for a story, I pick it up, magpie style, and stash it away somewhere for safekeeping.

There can be a hint of scepticism from people in the literary world when journalists stray into their territory. Are they interlopers who’ve jumped the slush pile because of their name or connections? I don’t know about that. Most journalists are (semi-)unknown and publishing industry outsiders. But some may have a platform and platform has become important. My guess is the publishing industry is so spoilt for choice they don’t need to give anyone special treatment.

Have I forgotten anything? It would be great to be able to add to the list of advantages (especially) or disadvantages (if you must) for journalists turning to fiction. Are there any journalists-turned-novelists whose work you’ve enjoyed, or not? I can think of three recent Irish examples – Kathleen MacMahon , Rachel English and Shane Hegarty, only one of whom has ‘given up the day job’ and it hasn’t all been plain sailing for her.

Lunchtime walk at the office

2014-04-09 12.57.11

It’s 1pm outside a monochrome office block on a season-defying day on the outskirts of Bern. If it’s autumn, the air shimmers in the heat of a ridiculously late Indian summer. If it’s winter, a false spring has sprung, only to scamper away again by evening.

The automatic doors sweep open and a motley but relaxed group emerges from the grand entrance of the building. The smokers outside are heard to snigger amongst themselves and a raucous voice calls out: “Et voilà, les anglais.” A disparaging remark is made about the lunchtime walk.

Les anglais are mostly not anglais but they do subscribe to a certain English decorum and do not dignify the heckling with a response. United in purpose, they stride away in the direction of the allotments, shedding jackets with practised ease, and commenting on the deceptively pleasant weather.

On their walk they will pass houses and tower blocks, an old farm and country house, little scraps of gardens tended by homesick foreigners, a hospital, a school and a motorway. All of human life is there, although because this is Switzerland there will not be many human beings in evidence.

The walkers will split into little knots of twos and threes. Discussion will turn from politics to family matters. Holidays are being planned or children are having problems in school. An elderly parent is ailing. The conversation has been going on for years, added to in small increments, and responsible for the familiarity and affection that has built up between les anglais.

There will be something new on every walk to provoke a moment of reflection: A hearse waiting at the back of the small hospital; grandparents on their allotment lovingly setting out toys around a baby on a blanket.

The walkers complete the loop all too quickly. There won’t have been time to talk to everyone about everything. But there will be another walk the next day, and the next. There will be small news and big news to share and always someone to listen.

Back in the office, the different members of the office family return to their stations. There will be coffee at three, a short break where laughter is the main currency. For now, the keyboard beckons: username, password, login.

This little tribute to office camaraderie is dedicated to my former colleagues of at least twenty nationalities at SWI in Bern. I spent the best part of ten years in the trenches at swissinfo, a happy soldier demobbed just last month.

When I get my ducks in a row I will officially embark on a new phase of working as a freelance writer and translator, final grand title to be decided. I welcome any tips on the organisational or motivational side of freelance work.

Here’s to old friends and new beginnings!

Ps. This post was partly inspired by this lovely article about ‘work family’ by Marion McGilvery writing in The Guardian.

Cats and kings on Twitter

I’m not just a late adopter, I’m a reluctant one. If I’d been around in the 1920s, I probably would only have only learned the steps for the Charleston in 1931. It took a social media course at work for me to finally ‘join the conversation’ through gritted teeth last May. Turns out, like many arranged marriages, it was a good match after all.

Some see the service only as a glorified link-sharing platform or a place to let off steam, but it is much more than that. Twitter is a fantastic shortcut to good quality information. Through Twitter you borrow the eyes and ears of the people you find most interesting, important or fun. I think of it as a never-ending group discussion, like sitting around with a bunch of people making scrapbooks from a pile of global content. They’re pasting news reports, research findings, events, reviews, blog posts, videos, photos, personal observations and witty one-liners into their scrapbooks, pointing out each item to you as they go along. It’s a way of sharing passions and you can join or leave the feast at any time. For me that’s been invigorating, it has fed into my work on the journalism side as well as my creative writing.

Without Twitter I would not have:
1. Entered a flash fiction story for the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology yesterday because I wouldn’t have heard of it without following Irish writer @NualaNiC (Nuala Ní Chonchúir)
2. Interviewed @AlaindeBotton in Basel on Wednesday (all arranged last minute on Twitter, more about that next week)
3. Written articles about women’s issues in Switzerland in response to Anne Marie Slaughter’s @SlaughterAM having-it-all essay.

Twitter is all things to all (wo)men. The Twitterati I follow fall into three broad categories – news, countries and writing.

Twitter is a fabulous resource for people interested in a particular region or country. It has helped me feel much more present in Ireland. From small things, like hearing a pub I used to work in burned down, to big things like the current abortion debate, I get a sense of being around again. Don’t worry there’s lots of good stuff too, like the pictures of sunrises in Sandycove posted by @blathnaidhealy.

On the ground
There’s a thrill to be had following a dynamic developing story on Twitter. You don’t have to wait for the reporter to come out of the court for his or her piece to camera. Follow the right person (like BBC Africa Correspondent Andrew Harding @BBCAndrewH at the Pistorius trial) and you can get the action line by line as it happens.

Of course with an unfolding story, information has to be handled with care. One tweet during the Boston manhunt said it all (I’m paraphrasing here): “Faced with this barrage of confusing and conflicting information, I just wish there was a printed summary of all the verified facts available the next day.”

There’s so much to say about the writing community on Twitter that I’ll have to put it in another post. For emerging writers Twitter is Open University meets support group. Check it out for yourself!