Novelist as journalist

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I’ve read two things of late which attribute a journalist’s skill to writing a novel, and vice-versa. Details, handled with care, are what link these two approaches to writing.

In Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler creates a world of 2025 with almost no technology advances, but terrible declines in safety, water supply and food. In her novel she lays out a California with so much detail that some reviewers compared the writing to reporting. It’s a great read, easy to keep plowing through — and it even addresses some spiritual needs of a society in peril.

In The New York Times Magazine, novelist Alex Witchel uses the talents of a fiction writer to capture a dazzling portrait of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. Lots of scene, peeking into the subject’s psyche. Verisimilitude, indeed. A thick, juicy chunk of creative non-fiction, with the emphasis on creative. (And if you haven’t seen Mad Men on AMC, watch. One blogger who writes screenplays calls the first season of this ’60s-era Madison Avenue ad-men drama “a master class in character development.”)

I come from journalism, so details and dialogue are old friends. Structure, though, is the real lesson which I work to learn and practice. Novelists, of course, know story structure but have to do their reporting in a newspaper’s brevity. It’s all writing, after all.

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