Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Journalist vs. author: There is a battle

I am a veteran journalist and a fledgling author. Both tasks require a mastery of words. Both require creativity and intense devotion to proper grammar, spelling, etc. They differ, however, in how I use that creativity.

And that can be the problem.

Journalists are the short-order cooks of the writing world. They must tell a good story but get to the point. A reporter might have 20 inches of copy in which to tell that story. The requirements are simple: Write a good lead, establish the focus of the story quickly and follow with supporting facts and quotes. (Notice that I followed proper journalism style and dropped the Oxford comma.)

Novelists are chefs who take a long time to prepare a proper menu. Writing a good lead is there, but it wears a disguise. Those of us who attended Don Maass' Breakout Novel Intensive workshop recently spent considerable time on the need to write a scintillating first sentence. You have to hook the reader, agent and editor. But from that point on, a novel is a different feast.

An author leaves little clues about character and plot. There is no need to wrap up the storytelling within a 20-inch requirement. You might write a 100,000-word novel, and doing that raises certain issues with my journalism background. As a reader, I begin to itch when an author spends too much time on too many details. Description of character and setting are valuable, but too much detail gets in the way. I loved reading Chris Pavone's "The Expats," but details got in the way sometimes. He spent lots of effort describing the look of a frosty highway in Luxembourg, for example, or a chip on the corner of a kitchen counter. Patricia Cornwell also overwhelmed me with detail at times in "The Bone Bed," particularly in a section in which she was detailing a potentially key piece of evidence. While putting down the facts about the evidence, Cornwell wrote long sentences describing the streets in Boston on which Kay Scarpetta is driving.

The journalist in me kept saying, "So, stick to the point already."

I face that same dilemma when I write. I am much more leisurely in my author's role, but I can't escape my journalist tendencies. My writing is pretty tight. I set up character and setting, but I don't overload the details. I get to the plot. I get to the action. I get to the interaction and conflict between and among characters.

Do I push that emphasis on a quick pace too much? Am I too sparse on details? Do I leave too much about my character or settings up to the reader's imagination when I should supply more concrete clues? That is part of my focus as I continue the revision of my latest novel.

* * *

I must take a quick side trip here. I manage a department at The Denver Post, and I oversee 16 employees. Well, I had to tell five of those employees recently that their jobs were being eliminated. There are few worse jobs to do. All five employees are skilled at their tasks, and they are good people. I hated to be the bearer of bad news. I sat up nights and beat myself up mentally about telling them. I couldn't make myself into an unfeeling robot.

I lost my job more than a year ago because of a reduction of force, so I knew their situation. I let that show while I delivered the news, but I also told them that there is reason to hope. Almost every person who was cut during my time of job loss has an excellent job now. Still, I know shock, tears and uncertainty are dominating my workers' time as they scan the horizon for a good alternative career. I don't like that. Like I said, all five of them are excellent people. Excellent people shouldn't have to suffer, but the world often isn't a kind place.