The Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction


If you ask me what the difference between fiction and nonfiction is, I’d say, “apples and oranges.” And to most writers, that’s a given. For people who don’t write professionally, however, words are words whether they’re made up or based on fact.

There’s an art about each. And both have their challenges. For me though, using my imagination, and letting go into it are difficult. There is no way of controlling what will happen to my characters. There is no specific date or fact that can completely direct my story. That’s why writing a children’s book has been a continual hurdle for me. And why I drool over real authors the way I do over runners running past my window.

Here’s what Ayn Rand says about the two in her book, The Art of Nonfiction:

“Contrary to all schools of art and esthetics, writing is something one can learn. There is no mystery about it.

In literature, as in all the fine arts, complex premises must be set early in a person’s mind, so that a beginning adult may not have enough time to set them and thus cannot learn to write. Even these premises can be learned, theoretically, but the person would have to acquire them on his own. So I am inclined to say that fiction writing-and the fine arts in general-cannot be taught. Much of the technical skill involved can be, but not the essence.

However, any person who can speak English grammatically can learn to write nonfiction. Nonfiction writing is not difficult, though it is a technical skill.”

She says the essence of fine arts can not be taught unlike nonfiction. Anyone can write nonfiction, but where does that leave a wannabe fiction writer?

I sometimes question that myself. Does a fiction writer have to be born? Can anyone, even a straight, factual nonfiction writer create?

I’m apt to say, “Of course!”

But the journey has been a long and furiously frustrating one.

While I often offer advice on my writing posts, I’m throwing this back to you dear readers. What do you think is the main difference between fiction and nonfiction? Can a nonfiction writer learn to be a fiction writer? Which one is harder for you to compose?

Why You Haven’t Gotten Published Yet

Writing in a cottage

“Friends sometimes ask, ‘Don’t you get lonely sitting by yourself all day?’ At first it seemed odd to hear myself answer No. Then I realized that I was not alone; I was in the book; I was with the characters. I was with my Self.” – Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

The more I commit to writing fiction, the more I appreciate the genius that is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

I made up a fiction’s children story on the fly. My husband and I were resting at the most beautiful country cottage in Point Reyes. It was a raining, fire kindling kind of evening when I told it to him. That was 4 years ago. I’ve been plowing through since then.

And then I stopped.

I took a hiatus for many reasons. But my story was verging on complete annihilation because when you pause for that long resistance wins.

Resistance wins through rationalization.

Pressfield says in his book, “What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true. They’re legitimate.”

I moved, had a baby, and was diagnosed with autoimmune disease. I got busy. Priorities shifted. But deeper than that, What right did I have anyway to write fiction? I was doing pretty well as a nonfiction writer and blogger. But fiction? Fiction was meant for truly talented writers. I was not one of them.

Since working on my fiction stories again, I have about 5 now, some completed, a few ones still in progress, I realized what was really keeping me from my work. It wasn’t the external stuff that was getting me. It was the internal belief that I couldn’t do it or that even if I could, who would read it anyway?

That is why this passage written by Pressfield in his book really hit home for me:

“What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means diddly. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace. Lance Armstrong had cancer and won the Tour de France three years and counting. If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet. Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.”

I had given birth and yet the idea of writing a book seemed impossible. This reminded me that there are no real reasons to give up, just fear.

If we keep to our computers or our notebooks every day, whether it’s 10 minutes or 4 hours, fear won’t have disappeared, but its power will diminish into the background like the white noise of an unwatched television screen.

If you take your work seriously, your commitment will override any fears you have. And just like the ordinary man behind the screen in the Wizard of Oz, you’ll find it’s a lot less intimidating and powerful than you imagined it to be.


A Slice of Writing Wisdom: Fiction

{Etsy pie by designsandimages}
{Etsy pie by designsandimages}

Think of these features as the fast food of writing wisdom. Quick. Meaty. And effortless. Grab and go back to your writing.

This week’s post is on fiction straight from the words of Rachel Joyce, author of a recent book I read and am still digesting: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

In the back of this inspiring novel, I found an interview between Joyce and another author, Charlotte Rogan. I gleaned a handful of fiction and even insights on life from their conversation. I hope you will too:

Rachel Joyce: “Reading is a creative process. As writers, we must do everything we can to make a world that stands up as if it could be a real one. Not necessarily the real one; not necessarily the world the reader knows. But within its own confines, that world must be plausible. It must add up. After that, the reader meets you halfway. The reader fills out your words with pictures, with breath, with feeling.”


“…whenever I begin a story, I like to ask myself, What is the situation here? What is the thing that has to change? All the clues-I think-should like in the opening scene. But they mustn’t have rings round them, signifying LOOK AT US! WE ARE CLUES! The story must work on a superficial level, and it must also work on a deeper level for someone like you who cares to look back and re-examine. That is the delight of storytelling for me: that it can be what it is, and that it can also carry reverberations, when you go back and look a second time.”


“…my first drafts are shocking. I reread them and I want to give up. After that, I go back and I go back and I go back. And every time I look at a scene-or I scrape at the surface-I see things a little more clearly. As for inspiration, sometimes I read poetry. Sometimes I look at writers I admire. But the thing is, I can only be who I am-so I have to keep whittling away. Besides, no one knows the story you are writing as well as you know it. And so you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to keep asking, Is this true, as I know truth?”

How SCBWI Schooled Me: Fiction Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

{Etsy print by thedreamygiraffe}
{Etsy print by thedreamygiraffe}

Going to the SCBWI Hawaii Chapter Conference was well-worth the Benjamin this weekend. I learned a ton about fiction-a topic I rarely write about. It was an eye-opening experience teaching me all the mistakes I’m making and probably will make in my fiction future. I thought I’d save you the expense by sharing all the secrets I learned this weekend. So close your wallets and pull up your laptop. It’s going to get good right now.

1) Showing off.

It’s tempting to be like a peacock and show off your feathers. But puffing up your ego with superfluous verbiage may make for pretty prose or witty wording, but if you don’t have a good story, forget about it. You’ll lose your audience.

2) Not reading enough.

I’m guilty of this. Not that I don’t read. In fact, I’m a readaholic. But when it comes to fiction especially kid’s fiction? Yikes. I need to jump on it. The thing is, you can’t write a good piece of work, if you aren’t familiar with what’s out there. So thank you Matt de La Pena for reminding me of the obvious. Great writer = great reader

3) Rushing it.

You want to finish it. You want to see it in print. But rushing the process makes for hurried, chaotic and unintentionally messy writing. Take your time to enjoy the scene you’re currently in.

4) Writing shallow.

Nancy Galt literary agent Marietta Zacker says all good stories have one thing in common. They all have a distinct voice that comes their emotional truth. What is your emotional truth and how has it directed your life and the life of your current work-in-progress?

5) Hitting send prematurely.

I’ve done this one before. But Zacker reminds me that you should only send in your submission when you can imagine the editor and agent on the receiving end. If you would feel proud of what you’re submitting, it’s ready. If not? Step away from the computer!

6) Gabbing more than writing.

Writer groups are beneficial for a lot of reasons. But you need to be clear about why you’re spending time together with other writers. Make sure the time you’re spending is helping, not hurting your ability to complete your work.

That’s the 6 golden rules I learned this weekend. I’ve got a few more nuggets I’ll share later this week. So grateful for both Zacker and de la Pena’s words of wisdom and the writing community for motivating me to get hopping on my fiction WIP.

P.S. Have any fiction tips I haven’t included here? Please share.

The Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction

{Flickr photo by psyberartist}
{Flickr photo by psyberartist}

You’re a writer. Fiction, nonfiction it’s all the same. Or is it?

To me, they feel like two different literary monsters. One’s like breathing. The other? It’s what I imagine skydiving would feel like. Super fun and exhilarating, but also vomit-inducing.

Which one you experience all depends on your comfort level.

For me, nonfiction is safe. There are research, experts, facts to back up my words. Fiction? Fiction is like free falling. I never know where my imagination will take me. It’s part thrilling, part walking on the edge scary.

When I’m feeling particularly insecure, my left-brain tries to pry out logic from the illogical. It grasps on in desperation for something concrete. The left-brain is my worst critic. It’s the one that gobbles up any creative idea, late-night inspiration and spits it out in disgust. “Crap,” it says. “It’s just crap.”

While it does an equal job of tearing apart anything nonfiction, there’s also editors and fellow writers who can critique it. It’s like math. You can filter out what’s right, from what’s dead wrong.


Fiction’s a lot murkier.

It’s why I have 3 stories mid-written. There’s always another way it can go. I can’t control my imagination, the way I can push around words here and there in a nonfiction article, for example. It’s a constant battle-this desire to create, compose and let be. My right brain’s continuing working, running amok while my left-brain’s trying to manage and understand it all. It’s like a funnel trying to filter through all the stuff that’s in there and translate it into something that makes sense.

Is it just me?

Do you have a hard time juggling fiction and nonfiction too? Let’s commiserate.

Creative Thoughts on Creating Fiction

When I was frantic last week, a few fiction writers graciously helped me out. And so did an article I picked up today.

As I side note: Did you ever notice that answers come when you ask the right questions?

The surprising source was one of my favorite home decor magazines, Coastal Living. In their November 2011 issue, Million Dollar Decorators star Kathryn Ireland answers a few decorator question. I skimmed through them until I stopped at this:

If you can’t make it out, it says:

What are your rules for hanging art so that it looks pleasing and not chaotic?

KI: I prefer an unstructured look, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t basic principles. I like to start in the center of the wall with the largest piece of artwork, and work outward from there with smaller pieces. I never hang any piece of art higher than the tallest door frame and I keep every painting at least three feet off the ground. Most importantly, I always leave above three inches between each piece so they don’t look crowded-the artwork needs to breathe.

What does this have to do with writing?

It might be far-fetched. But it reminded me of what writer Natalia Sylvester said in her comments of my last post. Maybe it’s okay to let our work-in-progress guide us. Maybe there is freedom in that. Like Ireland says, “[T]he artwork needs to breathe.” But she also says, “that doesn’t mean there aren’t basic principles.” I think that adequately describes the process of writing.

What do you think? Is there a sense of structure in your madness and flexibility in your story’s structure? Is a blending of both needed to tell a good story?

Fiction Anxiety – Help!

{via pinterest}

I’m venturing into an unfamiliar territory. Fiction. Ack! Talk about anxiety. Fellow fiction writers I welcome your input on this one.

Anyway, I let my husband read passages from it every once in awhile. And while I wait, I try to appear calm, but I’m really scrutinizing every eye movement, every shift in his position.

What I got from him this time scared the bejeezus out of me.

“It’s good. But I’m worried about one thing.”

“What?” I asked. At this point, my mind went to horrible, bad plot, unbelievable characters, amateur storytelling.

What he said was, “I’m worried that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. But I read that the author I’m reading now does the same thing so maybe it’s okay.”

What do you guys think?

Do you know your entire story before you finish it? Or does your story take you on an adventure where you never know what’s going to happen until you write it?