NaNo Recap: Fiction v. Nonfiction

Okay, I know that I whine about how hard it was basically every session of NaNoWriMo, but for reals, guys, this one was hard. I was really worried I wasn’t going to make it there toward the end. I spent a significant chunk of the month feeling supremely uninspired and had to start counting words that maaaaaybe really shouldn’t count, but they counted enough and I was scared. But this month’s scrappy desperation felt a little different because, for the most part, I was writing nonfiction. I’ve never tried that before. And let me tell you, it was hard.

I went into this maybe a little underinformed. The closest I’ve come to writing nonfiction before was a creative nonfiction short story of which I ended up having to completely rewrite the ending—the ending where the guy is executed for that murder he was found guilty of—because it turns out the guy’s execution was stayed at the last minute and he was released and spent his final days as a barber in upstate New York or something. Truth is stranger than fiction, I guess. The point is, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. And that never ends well for me. (Except for in marriage. Happy anniversary, babe!)

As it turns out, writing nonfiction is a totally different beast than writing fiction. Here are just a few of the differences that made my life difficult last month:

Nonfiction requires citations and stuff. You can’t just claim that the magic crystal pumps out thirty kilosparkles per minute under a full moon. You gotta annotate that junk.

Nonfiction sticks to the facts. Can I prove it? No? Then get that corn outta my face. It doesn’t matter that I like to make things up when I have no idea what’s going on. I have to figure out what’s going on. Even if it takes forever. That said…

Nonfiction is way slower to write. Yeah, that not making things up thing? That means that I have to look up anything I don’t know. Not just look it up, but find it (preferably in two or three places), weigh the merit of the publication, reference it, and add it to my bibliography. Every ten words takes about thirty minutes. It burns us.

Nonfiction requires research. Again related to the above point, but seriously, if I don’t know it, I have to figure it out. And if someone hasn’t already done that research, then I have to. Doing the research takes even more time than compiling the research, which takes even more time than writing about the research. And a thirty-one day writing sprint is definitely not the time to be conducting research. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

And I’m sure there are way more issues out there. This is just what I managed to uncover in a month of dabbling. (Did you know there are people who write nonfiction all the time? For a living? Willingly? It’s true!)

That said, there are advantages to writing nonfiction as well (and probably way more than I’m listing because augh, it hurt so badlyyy).

Fiction is more elaborate than nonfiction. There is something very straightforward and clean about writing nonfiction. Is it a verifiable fact? Then yes, that can go in. If not, save it for the alternate history fanfic. Probably nobody wants to know what the butter’s thinking as it melts in the fry pan anyway. (Probably.)

Nonfiction takes less concentration. For me, at least. When writing fiction, I need absolute silence, stillness, twenty minutes of meditation, and a sacrificial unicorn heart. Since nonfiction only deals with what really exists, though, and I don’t have to go into that zen creative brain space reserved for crafting universes out of what ifs and bat farts.

Nonfiction teaches. You could argue that fiction can do that, too, but mostly fiction is for entertainment. Nonfiction imparts knowledge, and that’s really cool to think about. Rare is the situation in which more facts and truth is a bad thing. Knowledge is power, y’all.

All that said, I’d like to keep dabbling in nonfiction, but I don’t think I’ll try it again during a NaNo month. Most of my difficulty can probably be attributed to trying to rush a project that would have benefitted from more thought. Despite the grind, I still want to finish both of the nonfiction projects I was working on last month. But I’m enjoying the work more now that I’m not tallying every word that I write as I nervously watch the clock winding down. (I really wouldn’t have won at all if I hadn’t paused in my nonfiction to draft out a fictional short story and notes, which ended up being nearly a quarter of my total wordcount for the month. I justified it because I was already working on multiple projects during the month, so what’s one more? Yeah, rules get a little bendy when you’re thirty percent behind schedule and things are looking grim.)

How about you guys? Any of my fine readers work in nonfiction? What are some of the pros and cons I may have missed in my quick splash in the shallow end? Let me know in the comments and, until next week, happy writing!

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Blogiversary V, Part II

The party continues! For today’s short story, I give you a piece of creative nonfiction about a murder that took place in Fairbanks Alaska (or at least a patch of wilderness that would later become absorbed in the then infant town of Fairbanks). It’s quite a bit more serious than Monday’s piece (which is unfathomably stupid), but is still kind of a work in progress as I continue digging around for more information and documentation. I’ll think I have everything settled, and then find something new! Sometimes I feel like I could write a whole book about this case, but I’d need a heck of a lot more sources than I’ve currently been able to scrounge up. Nevertheless, I think it’s an interesting story that you might enjoy, fine internetfolk. Cheers!

Dead Man’s Slough

Clouds rolled over the sun in a murky eclipse, and Mark Skorlich shivered in the sudden shadow, glaring up at the sky. It was dark enough in October without this.
Skorlich huddled down tighter in his sweater and trudged on to his friend’s cabin, four low walls with a sheet of canvas for a roof. He’d known Jacob Jaconi since the two of them came to the Klondike together, and been partners off and on in the four years since, hopping back and forth between Dawson and Fairbanks, between fishing and panning and river-poling. Both immigrants, both struggling to scrape a living from the unforgiving landscape, they took care of one another. Now, with Jaconi settled on the bank of the Noyse Slough four miles between Fairbanks and Chena for the winter, Skorlich popped in for a visit every few days with news from town. And this time, an invitation to join him hunting.

The noon whistle shrilled back in Fairbanks, and Skorlich trudged along the bank of the partially frozen Chena River, his boots squeaking in the snow. Three men on dog sleds swept down the opposite shore toward town, the dogs baying happily. They disappeared around the bend, but Skorlich could still hear the dogs.

It took him a moment to realize that the sound was coming from before him. And that instead of barking, the dogs were howling.

Skorlich caught the scent of smoke in the cold air and froze.

Something was wrong.

He ran up the river, turning onto the slough, and finally saw the cabin through the trees.

Smoke bled up into the clouds, the canvas burned away. The front of the cabin was merely scorched, the damage worse toward the back, and the dogs were scattered around the remains, mourning. Skorlich ran to the cabin, clutching his rifle, and stepped inside. The back wall was nearly gone, and a burnt hide was draped across the crumbling remains of the bunk, all of it still smoldering. He fell back a disbelieving step, staring around the home he had stayed in countless days and nights.

Jaconi might not even know yet.

Skorlich leaned his rifle against the blackened wall and ran back out into the woods, calling wildly, “Jacob! Jacob!” He paused, panting.

How much of the cabin could they possibly salvage at this point?

And how long had Jaconi been out that he hadn’t noticed? Where was he?

Heart pounding, Skorlich turned back to the cabin. Jaconi’s biggest dog watched him with mournful eyes as he returned on stiff legs.

Skorlich picked up a stick and stepped back into the smoldering cabin, his eyes locked on the bunk. He started slowly toward the scorched hide, and finally realized just what he was looking at.

To read the full story (or at least what I’ve dredged up about it so far), go here!