“The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn’t.”
― Iain M. Banks
In life, it is important to know your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what you do well and what gives you trouble helps to inform your choices and gives you something to try to improve upon. Sometimes, though, you need to accept reality for what it is and realize you cannot be good at everything.
It’s the same with writing.
At the beginning of the year, I published a collection of short stories that I worked very hard on, but did not, shall we say, break any sales records. There are a multitude of possible reasons — ugly book cover, poor marketing, no one buys short stories, everyone hates Philly, everyone hates me — but a major one could be because, quite simply, I’m not very good at writing fiction.
I’m not alone. There are plenty of other, better writers that have produced stellar nonfiction work but struggle when they attempt to create an entire world from nothing.
I’ve spent time thinking about why this is and I’ve come up with three reasons why I stink at writing fiction.
First, I was trained to write nonfiction. I majored in history and then obtained my MBA in finance, two areas that have very specific ways of writing, and worked to perfect the proper techniques in those areas.
Similarly, I am not only excellent at research, but I enjoy it immensely. I used to love barricading myself in the library for hours, perusing old books, and searching until I found a great line or anecdote that said what I wanted to say, only better. That’s still my strength. Even now, I prefer coming up with a thesis, researching it, writing about it, and including quotes and footnotes to support my point.
Beyond the classroom, I have a strong understanding of a few topics — hip-hop, movies, sports — and I’ve spent years studying them, learning as much as possible and reading the best individuals that write about them. I can lay out an entire case for why an album is underrated or why the public was wrong about a specific film or why an athlete should be celebrated, with facts and supporting evidence, which is exactly what I did in my new book.
Secondly, I’m an impatient writer. And reader. And listener. When someone is telling a story that is beginning to drag, I begin to lose interest. I don’t need to know how your friend’s neighbor’s brother met his wife eleven years ago while they were both shopping in the produce aisle of Super Fresh. Similarly, while I appreciate and occasionally even envy the ability of someone to take three pages to painstakingly describe the inside of a bedroom, I often get bored reading it, so there’s no way I could write it.
When I do write fiction, I’ll do my very best to vividly depict a scene, trying to paint a clear picture through my description. I’ll visualize it in my mind and attempt to take what I see behind my closed eyelids and put it onto the page. When I’m done, I’ll take a step back to look at it and it’s maybe three paragraphs. Oftentimes, it’s much less. It will do a good enough job of setting the scene, but it’s not enough for the reader to get totally lost in it.
My impatience is not just limited to creative writing. I hate nonfiction books that take a small, basic point and repeat it ad nauseam. I am very familiar with the three-step concept of (1) tell them what you’re going to tell them; (2) tell them; (3) tell them what you told them, but there are ways to do that in a fresh way that presents a thesis from different angles rather than simply being repetitive. Even in my nonfiction work, I’m probably a bit too brief because my natural tendency is to say too little rather than too much.
In my determination to avoid being overwrought and wordy, I fear that I am too sparse, falling short of crafting a lush, detailed world full of three-dimensional characters and believable settings. Subconsciously, this is probably one of the reasons I chose to make Philadelphia a collection of short stories rather than a novel. Instead of trying to tell a single story over 200 or 300 or 400 pages, I could play around with the format — some stories were ten pages, some were less than one — and avoid boring the audience (or myself).
A few years ago, I did write a 200+ page novel that I think is pretty good — not amazing — but looking back on it, I see where there are gaps and soft spots that could have benefited from a bit more description or backstory. I remember when I was writing it that I couldn’t wait to get to the end, so that would make sense.
Finally, my best writing has always come from honesty, when I am writing in my own voice. Whether it is opening myself up and laying bare my soul and secrets or defending a piece of pop culture that I love, my passion comes through most when I’m writing as myself, so perhaps it’s understandable that I have trouble writing in someone else’s voice.
Maybe I struggle with fiction because I have true stories that I feel I need to tell before I can make up new ones. Some of them are cathartic — my first girlfriend dumping me; getting bullied at basketball camp; my prom date sleeping with someone else in front of me; the death of my best friend; or how I’m a shitty, selfish person — and some I think are just interesting — federal marshals pounding on my door; eating dinner with Beanie Sigel, a book that changed my life — but one thing they have in common is that all of them are a thousand times better than any fictional story I’ve ever penned.
Or perhaps the truth is much simpler. Whether a natural gift or a honed skill, creative writing, the kind that fills pages and tops bestseller list, is an ability that few posses — if it were easy, everyone would do it — and maybe I just don’t have it. Not yet. No problem, I’ll stick to nonfiction.
Ultimately, it’s all about knowing your strengths…and weaknesses.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of seven books, including a novel and a collection of short stories, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on numerous sites, including XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, I Hate JJ Redick, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter and subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter.