Drawing parallels between writing reports and writing fiction – and why characters are everything.

Last week, I was asked to give a talk to a group of counselling trainees at my local FE college about creative writing and academic writing. The contact came through my local writing group, The Beverley Chapter. I was suggested to the FE college because I once belonged to the world of academia and still do  a lot of technical writing and, as you know, I write fiction.

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Totally irrelevant picture of Stormtroopers carrying chocolate.

The brief I was given was fairly vague and I found myself standing in front of a group of 26 adult students, with an hour to fill. So I started off by outlining who I was – someone who had always wanted to write fiction, but was encouraged to do something more ‘practical’ so that I could get a job when I grew up; Biochemistry degree and microbiology PhD from Oxford; short-lived post-doc career; the move into information science and intellectual property, ending up with my current job of IP officer for a university. In parallel, a second career as a romance novelist. After that, I ran out of steam a bit.

Luckily, they asked questions. Here are a few topics we covered:

 

Parallels between structuring a novel and structuring an academic essay:

Both have a beginning, a middle and an end. In academic writing it is an introduction, an argument (or, in case of science papers, a experimental section) and a conclusion. We discussed how a novel is essentially an illustration of an argument. The argument is the theme. Good will triumph over evil, the end doesn’t (or does) justify the means, love conquers all adversity – these are all themes which are exemplified in stories. You use characters to explore the theme.

 

Why use creative writing in academic writing:

I told a story about how I learned a load of stuff as an undergraduate. I was good at learning stuff and passing exams, so I did it. I even found it interesting from time to time. But I didn’t appreciate why it was important until my fourth year.

I chose to take a module called Genetics and Disease. One of the textbooks contained testimonials. The first one I read was about the CFTR protein and its gene – which is linked to cystic fibrosis. This chapter had a section written by someone whose sister died of cystic fibrosis. The contributor talked about their grief of losing their sister, about how, if she had lived longer, she could have benefited from drugs that could have improved her quality of life, and about how the contributor herself felt about the fact that she was carrying a defective copy of the gene that she could pass on to her children. This testimony moved me to tears. Suddenly, this module which was about genes and proteins and metabolic systems had meaning. It affected real people. This was important.

People are interested in people. Give case studies, where possible. It’s all about human interest. As novelists, we know this. People read to see what happens to the characters. In academic writing, there is less room for characters, but if you can find somewhere, get them in. Give the work a human context.

 

Does passive writing have a place:

Yes, I believe it does. Nothing we write is ever truly objective, but writing in the passive voice forces us to frame things in a more objective way. Most report writing is done in an objective way, but I know that in my own reports, my word choices are affected by how I feel about an invention. The facts remain the same, but at some point my opinion comes into it, sometimes without my noticing. If I describe something as say, ‘eye-catching’ it conveys a different impression to if I described it as ‘flamboyant’.

This lead onto a side discussion about opinions and their place in formal documents. There are times when you are required to give a professional opinion. This can be in the form of a recommendation. It is important that the reader is told that this is an opinion and not a fact. The facts that were used to arrive at the opinion need to be clearly listed in the text before. The introduction – argument- conclusion format lends itself well to this.

 

Saggy middles:

We discussed the flailing around stage in the middle of documents. I talked about the dreaded saggy middle that all novelists face. We talked about the thread of the narrative and how real life has events all over the place – some relevant to the plot, some not – and how, as a novelist, I have to work out which events drive the plot forward. If they’re not relevant to the plot, I have to leave them out.

This lead to a very interesting discussion about the counselling process where you know where you started and  you know where you ended up, but you’re trying to work out the narrative of how you got from one place to the other – which events were relevant, which events were background noise.

 

Towards the end someone asked me why I write romance (because from my background, it would seem I’d choose sci fi). Here’s my answer:

It’s about people falling in love. Why would you not want to write about it? People are endlessly complex. I write about people and how they change. The change happens to involve falling in love.

Besides, that first kiss feeling is wonderful and I live it again and again through my characters.

But, as they rightly pointed out, you’d expect me to read a lot of sci fi. I did when I was younger. Also fantasy and crime. I still do read those, but nowadays I read a lot of more romance and women’s fiction.  I have a theory that this fits better into the way I read post-kids. I no longer have the luxury of diving into a book and staying there for 3 hours until I’m too hungry to carry on. I read in 5 to 10 minute bursts.  I also have a shockingly bad memory (mumnesia, it’s really a thing).  A romance novel is mainly about an emotional arc, which is easier to pick up and put down.

I read A Game of Thrones recently (only the first one, I’ll get to the next in time). DH and I discussed it later. I went on and on about the relationships and the emotional arcs of the characters. He asked me what I thought of the politics … tumbleweed. I’d been too invested in the character conflicts to really pay attention to the subtleties of the politics. I got the broad brush stuff (you can’t miss it), but the subtle power games… nope.

I love reading thrillers (not horror – I’m squeamish). Again, I will plug into the emotional tension and feel the characters’ fear in my short bursts of reading. Give me something where the character emotions  are secondary to the beautiful descriptions and I’ll probably put it down after two chapters.

This being a counselling group, we also talked about how I wasn’t allowed to read romance novels as a young teen, in case it gave me ‘ideas’. I was supposed to focus on studying. I grew up in Sri Lanka, where this was normal. I negotiated with my mother and read ONE Sweet Dreams romance. One. In the end, I decided to write my own. I still have my old typescripts – they’re badly faded and the edges have almost melted from being handled by hot little hands, but you can still read the notes my school friends scribbled in the margins. Reader feedback. It’s a wonderful thing.

The people in the group were all very lovely and said it was different and interesting talk. I hope it was. It was certainly a very interesting experience for me. The people I usually talk to are writers who are more interested in the how than the why. It was interesting to be made to think about why I write what I write. I still come to the same answer. People are so fascinating. Why wouldn’t you want to explore them more?

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