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