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Active and reactive writing: A journey from journalism to fiction

On Writing

Active and reactive writing: A journey from journalism to fiction

Stephen H. Provost

With the year drawing to a close, I decided to look back on the blogs I’ve posted in the past 12 months and noticed a theme: A lot of them involve politics.

It wasn’t my intention, when I started blogging, to spend so much time on political matters. An earlier blog I authored (no longer available online, sorry) was meant to do just that, but I wanted to move away from politics with this one.

I haven’t been entirely successful.

I could take the excuse that this election year has been so crazy it would have been hard not to write about it, and I suppose that’s true. In my defense, I’m not the only one who’s done it: A lot of very accomplished author friends have devoted considerable space to the news of the day in articles, blogs and social media posts.

Excuses aside, however, it raised the question of why.

Restating the obvious

First off, it occurred to me that outrage can be one of a writer’s greatest motivations. It’s also one of the easiest things to write about because it’s so obvious. If you’re irate about something, it’s often because the answer is so obvious (at least to you) that it might as well be screaming at you from a couple of inches in front of your nose … so you want to scream it at other people.

Obvious things are easy to write about, and we writers aren’t immune to the temptation of taking the easy way out. In some ways, we might be more susceptible to it than most: Writing – especially creative writing – can be laborious, so it can feel damned good to see the words just pouring out from your fingertips onto the screen in front of you.

Add to that the feel-good nature of a nice long rant – or a short, Twitter-pated one – and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of political posts, especially in a year such as this one.

There’s a second issue at play, however, that’s related to the first but is more fundamental. It involves the distinction between active (or creative) and reactive writing.

I’ve spent most of my career doing the latter, because it’s what a reporter or columnist does: He or she reacts to the news. This transitioned nicely for me into historical nonfiction (my books Fresno Growing Up, Highway 99), because writing about history is another sort of reactive writing.  This is fairly easy, because the ingredients for a story are right in front of you. All you have to do is put it on the page.

That’s not to diminish the importance of telling the story well. In some ways, nonfiction is a bigger challenge: You can easily fall into the trap of parading events before the reader in a predictable chronology (“and then, and then, and then”) that will put a reader to sleep. This is how you get dry textbooks and newspaper articles full of jargon, wherein police “respond to the scene” and victims “sustain multiple contusions, lacerations and blunt-force trauma to the head.” Are you still awake? Me, neither.

Next stop: Novel Land

That’s a challenge to a writer’s skill set, but not to his or her creativity, which is what comes into play with active writing.

A couple of years ago, I set about writing my first novel, Identity Break, and I remember being very excited about it. I had what I thought (and still think) was a great concept, and all I had to do was put it down on paper. I was still reacting to my own idea, but there was more work involved because I had to keep drawing on my own creativity to fill in the blanks. The novel, which I self-published, got some good reviews but didn’t create enough buzz to really take off, and what I had planned as a trilogy wound up truncated into a single book and a prequel novella called Artifice.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I decided to give novel-writing another go. Memortality started out as a “fun breather from non-fiction” after I’d finished Highway 99. Once again, I had a great concept – even better than Identity Break, and a lot more complex. It was that complexity, though, that exposed me to the real challenge of writing fiction: keeping the creative juices flowing while ensuring iy all made sense.

I told myself I never finished the sequel to Identity Break because I didn’t want to spend time on a project that wasn’t taking hold with readers, and that’s mostly true. But I also wasn’t as comfortable about active (fiction) writing as I was with (reactive) non-fiction, so it was easier to tap that well again for my next big project, which turned out to be Fresno Growing Up. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I did. It has turned out to be far and away my most successful book to date.

That led me to the idea for Highway 99, and after I’d finished writing that, I plowed ahead with a similar work on U.S. Highway 101, thinking I’d found my niche. That was before I asked my publisher: “How would you prefer me to spend my time, working on 101 or putting together a sequel to Memortality?” I expected him to say the former, because Linden had always focused heavily on California history books and Memortality was its first fiction release. When he suggested I focus on the sequel, it threw me right back out of my comfort zone.

Yes, this is work

I finished writing that sequel last week, and I’m very pleased with the result (sorry, no title yet – I have one, but I’m keeping it under wraps for now). But it may be the most difficult book I’ve ever written. The more I wrote, the more I had to delve into my own creative space; the longer I had to rely on active, rather than reactive writing. In the end, I think the struggle paid off with a story that’s pretty damned inventive, if I do say so myself, and one I hope readers will find engaging.

But it was work. I’m used to having everything just flow, the way it has since I started writing in high school. Most of that writing, I now realize, was reactive. As a journalist, that’s what I’ve done for 30-plus years, so I’ve all but tamed that beast. Active writing is a different animal – one you don’t want to tame. You want to let it run loose and see where it takes you. I’ll need every one of the skills I learned as a journalist to keep up with it, but I’ll also need that little extra something known as inspiration.

It’s easy to react to the events of the day, especially if you’ve worked yourself up into a lather about them, so I don’t blame myself or my fellow writers for focusing so much on politics. I will admit, though, that seeing the same posts on the same subjects from the same people on social media day after day can get tedious, especially when I know the people making those posts are gifted, creative writers.

None of this is to say they should never write about politics again – or that I never will myself. My father was a political science professor, and I’m supposedly a distant relative of Alexander Hamilton, so it’s a family tradition. Nor am I going to stop writing about history: It’s just too damned much fun (go ahead, call me weird). What I will say is I have a lot of respect for writers to delve into their creative reservoirs and have the guts to engage in active writing, and I can understand why George R.R. Martin might take a while to produce the next “Song of Ice and Fire” novel.

This stuff ain’t easy, but that’s part of what makes it so rewarding.

Note: I'll be speaking periodically about a related topic, "Making History With Your Writing: The Past as Every Author's Inspiration," at various presentations. Check the Events page for details.