From the newsroom to the bookshelf

Listen, bub. Writin' is writin'. Now I gotta churn out 500 words in the next ten minutes. Shoo. (For the record, this is not me. Thankfully.)

Originally, my sailing-ships-in-space idea wasn’t going to be a novel, but rather a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. At the time, I had plenty of reasons for taking that tack — a strong DIY game e-publishing market, low overhead, Wizards of the Coast’s “d20” open-source rules system and, perhaps most importantly, a geeked-out personal background.

But you know what? Looking back, I can honestly say that, at the time, I simply didn’t think I had it in me to write fiction.

The thing is, I was already a successful journalist and writer. I interviewed some pretty cool folks, back in the day, and managed a scoop or two. I had hundreds of news reports and features published in newspapers around the world, and I had done both Web and magazine work. Heck, I wrote a non-fiction book on small business technology in 2002. But fiction, to my mind, was different in a kind of scary way. I could write non-fiction, sure, but the materials were already right there. Creating an actual story out of whole cloth was just too daunting.

Yet there were still ideas for plot and character that stuck with me, even as the idea of a role-playing game fell by the wayside. Years later, with more experience under my belt and perhaps a hint of maturity, I began to wonder whether I could actually write a novel. The question was how. I had no formal fiction writing training. I was rather fuzzy about concepts like character development, narrative arc, whatever. I’ll admit to even Googling some of the finer points.

But there was one thing I knew how to do: ask questions. It put food on the table for nearly 20 years, after all. So I took those basic journalistic questions — who, what, when, where, why, how — and started applying them to the vague ideas I had about a novel.

And it worked. Who’s aiding the super-evil antagonist? How do frigates keep air and gravity in space? Where would you go to obtain the alchemical essence of Jupiter itself? Why would someone want to try mining on Mars? When should things really hit the fan, and to what degree? Each answer begat more questions, more ideas. It was a massive positive feedback loop.

Call it the journalistic method of writing fiction. From the basic “elevator pitch” through the details of each scene, I’ve repeated those questions over and over. It’s forced discipline on me as a writer, and a certain rigor and continuity in the novel’s plot, characters and setting.

Not bad for an old wire service hack, I suppose.

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