7 Reasons Fiction Writers Should Sell Nonfiction

by Carol Ottolenghi

This article first appeared in Speculations. Copyright © 1997 by Carol Ottolenghi. All rights reserved.

Most of us, unless we’re independently wealthy, wring our writing time from those moments between job, family, and basic living obligations. So, if it’s fiction you yearn to produce, why waste any of that precious time writing nonfiction?

Because writing nonfiction–whether it’s straight news, opinion pieces, business reporting, feature stories or service articles–can boost your fiction-writing career.

I’m not suggesting that establishing a name in nonfiction ensures that your fiction will wing from your word processor to the printed page with editors genuflecting as it passes. It won’t. But writing and selling nonfiction CAN increase your fiction sales for reasons ranging from the psychological to the professional.

  1. Selling nonfiction beats back the “Who am I kidding?” monster.

    Even with multiple sales, most writers descend into what Frederik Pohl described as “periods of wondering what the hell ever made me think I had a chance of making it as a writer.” Without sales, it takes a staggering blend of self-confidence, need and bull-headedness to keep plugging away, struggling to convince spouses, roommates, parents, and ourselves that we are writers. Nonfiction sales help quiet those nagging doubts.

    Because significantly more nonfiction is published than fiction, nonfiction is easier to sell. Often the quickest route into print is your local weekly paper. Many small papers are desperate for writers who can string words together without violating major tenets of grammar or sense. Whether you write feature articles or report on City Council, those stories will bag you clips, comments from your neighbors and, best of all, checks.

    Those checks are tangible evidence that you can produce writing that someone will pay for. That discovery is very freeing. Rejection slips stop being personal judgments on your worth as a writer and become business decisions on the suitability of one particular story for one particular market. By reducing rejection’s trauma-factor, nonfiction sales encourage us to continue–or begin–submitting our fiction.

  2. Selling nonfiction reinforces regular writing habits.

    Writing professionally is a business, as well as a craft. Stories are our products. And this is where some writers stall out: They don’t finish making the product.

    Meeting nonfiction deadlines means that you write whether your muse is crooning in your ear or has departed for exotic ports and left no forwarding address. After you’ve sold to an editor a few times, it’s assumed that you’ll follow through on an assignment. Never mind that your daughter forgot her piano book, the dog threw up on the carpet and a really crabby customer decided to unload on you right before you got off work. There’s a blank page waiting for your article. Get it written, or you may never write for that editor again.

    Because deadlines underline the necessity of writing whether it’s convenient or not, you can use them to establish a writing routine. Then, once you complete your initial assignment, set personal deadlines and continue writing–fiction or nonfiction–at the established time.

  3. Writing nonfiction stretches your mastery of the craft.

    It’s a truism, but writing is like anything else: The more you do it, the better you get.

    Nonfiction has many of the same requirements as fiction: Opening hooks baited to entice readers; personalities and settings developed appropriately; background material presented without dumping; consistent internal logic. In fact, nonfiction’s familiar traits–who, what, where, when, why and how–translate easily into character, problem, setting, setting, motivation and problem-solving action. Presuming that you don’t blow an assignment off as “just a piece for the local throwaway,” writing nonfiction gives you both practice in meeting these requirements and regular feedback on how you’re doing at it. There’s nothing like a rough edit–an edit you usually won’t get to see until it hits print–to tighten your writing on the next assignment.

    Sometimes an editor will suggest a subject so boring it’s painful. Accept these challenges occasionally. Then seize your reader’s attention through grace of style, humor and quirky facts. If you can make “Grandma Mae’s Ceramic Chicken Collection” fascinating, think what you can do with that truly inspiring fiction idea clamoring for your attention.

  4. Writing nonfiction forces interaction with a multitude of people, ideas, information and opinions.

    Rudyard Kipling wrote “the motto of all the mongoose family is, ‘run and find out’.” It’s a pretty good motto for writers, too. The more we discover outside of ourselves, the deeper and more varied our stories.

    Writing fiction is a solitary pursuit. If we don’t periodically venture into the outside world to replenish our store of ideas, our work can become self-referential and shallow.

    Gathering material for nonfiction articles forces us to venture outside to meet people and places we might never have encountered otherwise. You may meet some unsavory opinions along the way, but they may be just what’s needed to jump-start a piece of passionately-felt fiction.

  5. Writing nonfiction clears the mind.

    Sometimes running and finding out results in a surfeit of good stuff. You know there’s something for your fiction in the mountain of information you’ve discovered, but which nugget is gold?

    Organizing information into nonfiction articles helps you mine an abundance of material. It defines the slag, eliminates the clutter.

    It also provides a home for information that doesn’t belong in your fiction, but is “too good to not share.” I’ve used Ohio’s canal era as the setting for a series of original tall tales, a piece of historical adventure, and an adult mystery novel currently under development. The short stories are written and sold now (the tall tales to Cricket and the historical adventure to Spider), but they wouldn’t gel for a long time. The action plodded, dragged down by my zealous inclusion of all the cool facts.

    I couldn’t trim my canal-based fiction until I’d completed a nonfiction series on the canals (sold to Ohio Magazine and West Central Business Magazine). Then, having shared the information, I didn’t strain to include anything in the stories that wasn’t pivotal to their plots.

    Yes, it’s mind game. But it works.

  6. Writing nonfiction sharpens research skills.

    During a panel discussion at an American Library Association conference, T.A. Barron said, “You have to know your subject cold to win your reader’s belief.”

    That seems obvious–every one of us has been yanked forcibly from a story by phony physics or shoddy history–but many writers are shocked to discover that research is a vital part of writing fiction.

    On the other hand, research and fact-checking are accepted elements of writing nonfiction. Burrowing after material for articles provides experience in defining the type of information needed, how much, where to find it, and how to find it fast. Fact-checking also cultivates the routine of automatically selecting a few, very focused details that lend verisimilitude to the whole piece. These habits can be applied to writing fiction as well as nonfiction.

    So can copious note-taking. A slim “Reporter’s Notebook” fits into most purses or pockets, and is handy for jotting down bits of overheard conversation, descriptions, personality sketches–whatever snippets of life might add flavor to your stories.

  7. Selling nonfiction pays better.

    The large number of nonfiction markets–local weeklies, trade journals, literary slicks, and everything in between–plus frequent publication plus high word/article rates equals significant dollars.

    Frequent reprint sales add to the available pot. Since many nonfiction markets are regional, you can sell second serial rights to the same article many times. I self-syndicate service articles to more than 50 parenting papers and a similar number of dailies across the U.S. The papers only pay between $15 and $300 per article, depending on the publication’s size, but each article sells at least 10 times.

    The better pay allows you to write and still put groceries on the table. But there’s a catch. It’s too easy to park a piece of fiction you’re doing on speculation while you finish nonfiction assignments that you know are sold. Just for a month, you promise yourself. Maybe two. Three at most …

If you enjoy writing nonfiction, as I do, there are times when it’s right to concentrate on it. There are also times to run away. It’s a matter of balance, of recognizing whether writing nonfiction is stretching or hindering your growth as a writer.