I'm pleased to host best-selling British author Chip Granger, writing as Pip Granger. Pip has had success with both fiction and non-fiction, and has much to tell us about the differences as well as the similarities in writing techniques. Her latest book, Up West, was listed as a best-seller by the London Times.
While ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ that fiction writers can normally make a decent fist of writing non-fiction, editors of my acquaintance suggest that the same cannot be said of non-fiction writers who try their hand at writing novels. Although the two types of writing have a lot in common, there are added dimensions to writing fiction that make them differing skills.
My first book, Not All Tarts Are Apple, a novel, won the Harry Bowling prize for fiction. Three more novels followed, and then my publisher asked me to write a memoir of my unusual, 1950s childhood. The result - Alone - went on to become a bestseller. Te book relied more heavily on my memory than the non-fiction writers’ normal toolkit of research, interviews and a passionate interest in the subject. As a result it was completed fairly quickly, largely because I knew the plot.
My latest effort, Up West, was nowhere near as easy. It is a vox populi emotional history of the West End of London from the immediate post-war years, through to the early 1960s. The project allowed me to indulge three of my passions; social history, the historically fascinating post-war years; and that little patch of London that has featured so large in all of my books, my beloved Soho and its West End neighbours, Covent Garden and Mayfair. The project took years, and plenty of angst, but it also became a bestseller.
From my own writing experience, I have noticed that there are several skills that are equally important in fiction and non-fiction. The narrative should flow seamlessly in both kinds of book. If a novel has required a lot of research, the fruits of that research should weave in and out of the pages. The reader should be unaware of the joins. If the movement between researched ‘facts’ and imaginative fiction isn’t smooth, then the book suffers and the whole is unsatisfying. Letting the research show can slide so easily it a lecturing tone and that’s irritating for the reader. It’s easier to get away with it in a text book, where dry facts are so often the norm, and showing erudition can be positively encouraged, but even so, the book is easier to read and understand if the narrative and the research make an absorbing whole.
Setting the scene is also important in both types of work. The backdrop to the action is a vital ingredient to any good read. Setting facts or fiction in a proper context always, always pays off. Peopling the scene with believable characters is, ideally, another shared skill. In fiction, good character development is essential and it doesn’t go amiss in non-fiction either. Reading about a character, real or imagined, is so much more fun if our shared humanity is explored a bit. There’s always a risk of a cardboard cut-out type depiction, which would be flat or, worse, clichéd, and so detract disastrously from the readability of the work. In non-fiction, however, some restraint is important, because it can be a very a fine line between fact and fancy , and in non-fiction one should always land on the side of fact - even if fancy does make the better story.
Pace is equally important in either kind of book. Too slow, and the narrative becomes ponderous; too fast, and the content can look flimsy, and in non-fiction terms, under-researched.
So why do some non-fiction writers normally find fiction too slippery a customer to tackle effectively? I can see why, sort of, but I still find it tricky to pin down in words. Dialogue is one obvious problem. An ear for dialogue is one of those nebulous things that you either have or you don’t, like a sense of rhythm or a gift for maths. That innate ability can be worked on, honed, improved upon, but the nub has to be there in the first place. And if it isn’t, it isn’t, and that’s all there is to it. Some non-fiction writers can’t do dialogue and that immediately cramps their style.
Good storytelling ability isn’t given to all writers, although I do think it is something that can be learned up to a point, by reading a lot. However, as in comedy, timing is very important and is very hard to pin down.
As with so many other things that novelists find essential as tools of their trade, a lot of these attributes are helpful when writing non-fiction and make for a better book, but they are not absolute musts.
If I was asked to choose whether to limit myself to one or the other form of writing, I’d go for fiction. I have enjoyed a good story all my life and have discovered that writing stories is as good as hearing them or reading them. The same is not true of non-fiction. There, I have to keep my wits about me, stick to the hard-learned facts and most importantly, quote people exactly in order to be true to the spirit of their time, their place and their stories.
It’s a big responsibility, but the pay-off has been that, judging by the letters, emails and ‘phone calls I’ve received, it has touched a lot of people and as such, has turned out to really be a work that speaks with the ‘voice of the people’ - or some people anyway.
Pip's web address is http://pip-granger.com