How Journalists Can Celebrate National Novel Writing Month

Journalism moves

I’m a journalist whose love affair with words began with novels. I grew up reading at least three books a week—usually more, I’m a fast reader—and I’ve gone through stages where I’ve read a myriad of book types: mystery, romance, historical fiction, science fiction, literary and others.

Before I began to think about facts and ethics, I wrote creatively. So, celebrating National Novel Writing Month is a given for me. But books aren’t a way of life for all journalists. Still, exploring writing beyond the inverted pyramid can help any journo get their story down, no matter how they choose to tell it.

A few ways to party-like-a-journalist and also be part of the novel festivities this November:

1. You could, you know, actually write a novel. I know you’re sitting there thinking: But, novels are big with so many pages, you can’t possibly compose one in a month, can you? I mean, I actually have to write journalism articles and blog posts and tweets and emails everyday, ya know?

Yes, of course, it’s easy to make excuses. But that’s what they make coffee for, right?

NaNoWriMo brings together writers from around the world who take the challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. The writers meet-up, on and offline, and support each other along the way. This community is one reason why Amber Kennedy, a UK writer writing for The Gaurdian, loved her NaNoWriMo experience. That and the way the word sprinting made her fear writing less.

If you’re in need of a dose of confidence about your work, writing a novel, even if it ends up being complete crap, might be exactly what you need. It can boost your self-esteem and even improve your ability to write journalistically. Plus, deadlines are wonderful things aren’t they? The rush of rushing to meet them and then the pure happiness when you do (and you’re confident you did a good job).

How to do it: Visit the NaNoWriMo webpage, sign-up, look for others in your community and get to work. You might be starting a little late, but you could have time to meet the deadline. I know one writer who didn’t start until Novemeber 14—and she still finished! Do consider that a little planning is advisable before jumping in, though.

2. Or at least open yourself to the possibility that journalism and novels could attend the same party. Maybe you read, or glanced at my first tip, and thought: But, I don’t write creative writing. I like hard facts and data.

But what about narrative journalism/creative nonfiction? Perhaps that’s not out of your realm? OK. So, novels are fictitious, and journalism is not. Therein lies the rub, but although it’s not even a little bit easy, some journalists are successfully using fiction-writing techniques in their traditional reporting.

This point can be argued, but Tom Wolfe, who I greatly admire, began this unique style in the 1960s and called it New Journalism. He worked as a reporter and developed a literary journalism style. Other writers get creative with their stories too. Hunter S. Thompson is one example; Norman Mailer is another.

According to a study by the Readership Institute, a group at Northwestern University, readers learn more from stories written in narrative form. Also, literary journalism is finding new life with the push for long-form features and sites, such as the Byliner and The Atavist.

Be forewarned: this party with traditional journos and creative ones can get ugly. Accuracy isn’t always a top priority for literary journalism, and, understandably, many journalists are not OK with this.

How to do it: Experiment with narrative style in your writing. Read articles from the two sites mentioned above to get some ideas.

3. Take time to read a whole journalism novel. If you’re not going to write a novel, at least read one. Some suggestions:

  • Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which tells the story of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
  • Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is taught by some journalism professors as a way reporters can blend the reportage of fact with the writing style of fiction. He embellished facts in his novel, even though he initially claimed “impeccable accuracy.”
  • Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
  • Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza, which is a meeting of the comic book and investigative journalism.
  • Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing is about a young magazine journalist who gives up her job. Quindlen is a Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist who left her journalism job to pursue fiction. About her move, she said,

“It was the idea of facing a future skimming the surface of life, winging my way in and out of other people’s traumas, crises, confusions, and passages, engaging them enough to get the story but never enough to be indelibly touched by what I had seen or heard.”

So, now is the time to read or write. What do you think, will you accept my invitation to the journalism-novelist party?

2 Responses to How Journalists Can Celebrate National Novel Writing Month
  1. [...] I also wrote about how journalists can join the National Novel Writing Month party. [...]

  2. Victoria Madrid (@VictoriaCMadrid)
    November 4, 2011 | 9:52 pm

    As a fellow journalist and aspiring novelist (yes, they can co-exist in the same person), I can relate to much of what you’ve said.

    When I first studied journalism, I immediately fell for the literary journalism style of John McPhee, Joan Didion, etc. We also studied the middle column of the Wall Street Journal for ideas on making stories rich, detailed, and interesting.

    Journalism helps with novel-writing. All those facts and details that we’re used to finding come in handy when we need to make them up for a novel. We’re used to expecting them in our writing, so we remember to create them.

    Happy writing!

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