Fiction Is More Stressful Than Nonfiction

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As I return to fiction writing with my next novel in the Avenoth series, A School of Many Futures, I find it more stressful than writing non-fiction. I write a lot of nonfiction, and it’s relatively low-stress, yet fiction . . .

My experience with fiction writers reveals this isn’t universal – some are quite relaxed about making it, others knotted with anxiety. So I wondered, why is it more stressful for me – if I understand that, perhaps it’ll help others.

It didn’t take long for me to find out.

Nonfiction writing is . . .

Useful: It takes effort or vast ignorance to make a nonfiction piece truly useless. Oh, it’s possible, but a sincere effort will create something of value. Even if its from a limited viewpoint, at least that nonfiction piece matters to a slim slice of humanity.

Grounded: Nonfiction is grounded in the real world (or our idea of it). Research is available, data is available, previous examples are available. As I heard it once put “nonfiction all shares the same universe.” Research and reference and editing is much easier.

Organizeable: Most nonfiction work lends itself to patterns, outlines, and so on. This is because it is grounded in reality (we can refer to the structure of that reality) but also humans have been busy organizing reality for aeons. There’s plenty of reference. In fact . ..

Relateable: Because we humans share enough similar experiences, good nonfiction work can connect with readers easily.

Marketable: Let’s be honest, when you write nonfiction you sort of know the target audience. If you’re a specialist, even moreso. Sure, your coffee table book “Toilets of America in the 1800’s” may seem narrow, but at least you know your exact audience. Besides, you tell me that wouldn’t be an amazing gift for a plumbing professional or historical writer.

Now with this said, let’s look at fiction, using the above as a template. What makes fiction so stressful?

Unknown Value: Fiction is not real. We don’t know it’s value because of the diversity and unpredictability of people. Is this story going to deliver what people want or flop?

Ungrounded: Fiction isn’t grounded in reality. Even “modern day” fiction can be complicated by the fact we’re making things up in the real world, making it more stressful. I think this is why good fiction writers find hooks.

Hard To Organize: We’re making up something that never happened. How do we organize the unreal?

Potentially Distant: We’ve got to have people “get into” the fiction. But can we create a gateway for them to connect to our work when there may be no solid common ground.

Unsure Market: With so much fiction, with so many ways our stories can go, is there a market for our work? We don’t know. I know fiction writers who obsessively research, but that has to be exhausting.

In summary, nonfiction is something that is likely valuable and grounded in shareable experience, whereas fiction is unpredictable and connected in strange ways. In this, we can see how people managed to make fiction less stressful – they make it more (but not totally) like nonfiction. I can see this in my own writing.

This gives me a few ideas of how to deal with stressful fiction writing.

Value your work: Know why you do your work, what matters, and who it’s for. “It’s fun” is 100% fine.

Ground your fiction: Make sure your fiction is grounded in something, from solid worldbuilding to hard emotional truths. That makes it real, connectable, and removes anxiety – while inspiring you.

Organize: Plotting, pantsing, outlining, iterative improvement – there’s many methods to organize fiction writing. With that organization you have that confidence in what you’re doing, that sense of re laity. Note your method may be “whatever with plenty of iterative improvement” and that’s fine.

Connectable: Make sure people can connect to your work via emotional relevance, good descriptions, etc. When it’s connectable people care – and you get that sense of connection.

Market Decisions: Address marketing concerns head-on. Do you care? Do you want to sell a lot of books? Maybe you do intense research, maybe you just do your thing. Do it and go on.

I’m not saying make your nonfiction like your fiction. That’s ridiculous. What I am saying is take lessons from nonfiction, from organization to sense-of-reality, and apply it to fiction. If you can make a book of spacefaring dragons or cyborg superspies something a person “gets” as sure as a mouth-watering recipe, then you’ve done your job.

After all, be it real or imaginary, the goal is to have people get into and experience your work, be it fact or fantasy.

Steven Savage

Editing: The Fiction/Nonfiction Difference

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As everyone who even remotely checks my blogs knows, I’m editing A Bridge To The Quiet Planet, my techno-fantasy novel and return to fiction.  I’m learning a lot from the editing process and my editor (who I am glad to refer to anyone).

One of the things I’ve realized is how radically different editing fiction and nonfiction are.

This probably surprises few people, but it had never really crossed my mind.  This was because I’ve done both and I’ve written so much over the decades, I hadn’t thought about the shift.  It was all ‘writing’ to me, and I assumed I wouldn’t be that rusty.

Well, I was definitely a bit rusty.  But I also began to see the unique challenges of fiction writing after spending time away from it.

Fact checking is harder.  In fiction you’re basically making facts up.  You’ve got to check and be checked on things you pulled out of the air.

There’s more ways to do it.  Instructional and nonfiction works have certain structures and patterns you usually end up following – from the workflow of a process to breaking things down.  Fiction gives you room with metaphor, wordplay, flashbacks, etc. that give you so many ways to do fiction editing and planning is much harder.

You’re in the heads of unreal people . . . you have to get into the minds of fictional people as you write about them.  So you not only have to empathize with your audience, you have to empathize with people that don’t exist.

. . . and have to empathize with your audience in complex ways.  If I write a good instructional or nonfiction piece, I have very set goals and can pretty easily figure my audience out to deliver it.  For fiction I have to think of a variety of experiences the audience may have, their attitudes, backgrounds, and more – and wrap all that in connecting them to a fictional world.

There’s much more back and forth in fiction.  Because of the unique elements of fiction, I find that editing is a lot more of a back and forth thing.  You find a bit of inconsistent language here and have to go back all over your story.  You realize you need to tweak a “feel” here and there.  With nonfiction I usually can go through one or two edits and be done, with fiction there’s more.

You have more of an illusion to keep up.  Nonfiction is about reality and communicating.  Fiction needs you to keep up the illusion, which requires you to be careful with language, repeated words, being properly evocative, etc.

So that was informative.  I’m glad I took time to write it down.  Now let’s see what else I learn . . .

-Steven Savage

Writing Thoughts: The Story Is Just Part Of The Story

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

When you make a story of any kind, the beginning isn’t the beginning and the end isn’t the end. Any truly living story is just a slice of something much larger. I learned this lesson lately.

As I’ve begun the final edits of my novel, A Bridge To The Quiet Planet, I had decided to try writing short fiction on the side. I had many ideas, from using random stories to doing more in the setting of my novel. The idea seemed fun, interesting, different, and relaxing – and maybe profitable.

With my first attempt in draft form, I handed it off to some friends to edit, confident that if I could get such good reactions to my novel draft, this was sure to be of equal quality. However, one of my editors was extremely critical – he noted how it was constrained, limited, and it didn’t seem to be like my other work. How could I have gone so wrong?

At first annoyed, I sat down and analyzed his voluminous comments (this person is someone I’m trying to push towards pro writing and editing). Soon I realized that he had a point.

There wasn’t the sense of setting I usually created – I write on Worldbuilding but this world didn’t seem alive. There was little sense of extra details or of things going on around the characters. It was like a studio backlot.

I didn’t do much with character senses or feelings. The tale was limited and scriptlike, minimal on sensations. Even with the rather intellectual cast of my experiment, the focus was too literal.

Characters themselves seemed constrained – only when they really interacted were they characters. They also didn’t interact well with the setting. It was like actors wandering through a soundstage.

My story, in short, wasn’t alive. So I asked myself how did I get here – and the answer became very apparent.

I had taken a break from fiction for awhile, and returned to it with my novel. To do the novel I had used various plotting and outlining techniques, and I tried to do the same for the short story. I had produced a very detailed outlining system for short stories, ensuring I got to the point and didn’t overdo it.

I had built a skeleton for a story. However I’d put very little meat on the bones – the minimal at best. I had created a system, but not created much of a story, at least to my standards and that of my friend.

With this idea in mind, I examined some of my other short story ideas that had been incubating – and they felt much more alive. These were ideas that had been sitting around for some time, that were played with and thought over. Because of this imagining and re-imagining, they were more connected, more alive, more nuanced.

This story I had just attempted was the least thought-over and least nuanced. Too much of it was alienated from itself.

That’s when the lesson of all of this hit me like a thunderbolt – you don’t write a story, you write part of one.

A story should be a slice of your setting, a piece of the history of that setting, a small and interesting part of a much larger potential. It should have characters who are not sprung into being at the start, but are created and written so they feel like they have pasts and futures outside of your story. Everything should feel large, no matter how short the story is.

Now these things may not be immediately apparent – you may have a story idea and need to better realize the world and characters. You may only need so much detail. But you need enough for the story to be alive because it’s part of something larger, at least conceptually and imaginatively.

Based on this idea, I’m back at it. I can’t say what you may or may not see, but if you do see any short fiction from me, I think it’ll be much better.
– Steve