Monday, March 13, 2023

The Unique Pleasures of Writing Both Non-Fiction and Fiction: Guest Post by John McNellis

John McNellis:
 The Unique Pleasures of Writing Both Non-Fiction and Fiction
Switching to fiction after a lifetime of writing non-fiction is akin to a Parisian deciding to learn Spanish. It can be done, but not without effort. While many nouns are common to French and Spanish, even the occasional verb, they are different languages. Even within the world of non-fiction, there are different dialects, mostly having to do with timing. A reporter writing an ephemeral piece against a daily deadline has no time for polishing or rewriting, her style is subsumed within the facts, her voice is discouraged, she knows her words will be forgotten, all that matters is setting out the facts in a coherent, logical fashion. Who, how, what, where and why in the lead paragraph.  
Writing a monthly essay allows one to use his voice, more time to choose words and phrasing with care, words that will hopefully resonate, perhaps even recalled by readers days and weeks later. Yet newspaper essays, too, must be timely, rooted in the moment, tied to a current event. 
Writing a non-fiction book—in my case, a real estate primer—permits one all the time in the world to write, rewrite and rewrite some more. As opposed to articles and essays, the book must be timeless, its lessons hopefully evergreen. One’s voice can be relatively full-throated, but in business writing at least, everything must be explicit, the dots connected, nothing left to the imagination. The non-fiction is grounded in facts and informed opinion—flights of fancy would be as out of place as a rose in a wheat field. 
Writing fiction is both liberating and terrifying. Freed from the gravitational pull of the real world, one can float in the clouds, writing whatever comes to mind, however implausible. This freedom is, however, more curse than blessing. Without a strong foundation in fact—if not in setting, then in realistic characters—fiction all often becomes unsatisfying fairy tale. 

O’Brien’s Law is so heavily fact-based that some readers have supposed it my autobiography, while friends realize it’s a fiction, a painting stretched over a detailed and accurate canvas of time and place: the swinging 70’s of San Francisco. I’d say my novel is a bit like concrete, which is roughly half sand and half cement. With too much sand, concrete is loose and collapses; with too much cement, concrete is brittle and susceptible to stress fractures. That 50-50 formula works for writing; O’Brien’s Law is about half fact and half fiction. The fun part is guessing which is which. 

Frankly, my novel is heavily fact-based because, not unlike my protagonist Michael O’Brien, I’m lazy and I truly dislike doing research. I lived in San Francisco for six years in the 1970’s, kept personal journals and could thus ground the tale with a verisimilitude impossible with any other city. Setting the story in San Francisco enabled me to write about what I know and, happily, to avoid any location research. While the story is dependent upon neither San Francisco nor the 1970’s—it could unfold anywhere at any time—the City in the 70’s was so alive, crackling with everything from great culture to mediocre professional sports to counter-culture events like the Fillmore to fabulous food, all in the most beautiful physical setting of any city in America. To a 25-year-old like O’Brien, the City promised—or at least gave the illusion of—endless possibilities. That this fabulous care-free setting would have a dark underbelly of suspense and murder is what—hopefully—makes the novel enchanting. 

As for my writing process, I knew the basic story arc from the first, did an outline before any writing it and yes—spoiler alert—I always knew it would have a happy ending. But the rewriting upon rewriting upon rewriting would make even a persnickety line editor proud. 
A journalism undergraduate at Berkeley, John McNellis went to Hastings Law College, practiced law in San Francisco for half a dozen years before until he switched to real estate. Despite his successful business career, John was always writing: comedy shows for a theatrical club, a monthly column for the Registry Magazine and the San Francisco Business Timesand, ultimately, a critically acclaimed real estate primer, Making it in Real Estate: Starting Out as A Developer, now an industry standard and taught in universities nationwide. 

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