How Writing Nonfiction
Made Me a Better Storyteller
by Charles Salzberg

I honestly can’t remember the first time I decided I wanted to be a fiction writer. Maybe it was soon after I learned how to read. Or maybe it was the first time I realized the magic of the written word, that it could take you places you’d never been, and take you away from places where you didn’t want to be. But of one thing I’m sure: as a shy kid, I took refuge in books like The Winning Forward Pass and The Adventures of Robin Hood, and later, novels like Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, The Adventures of Augie March, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. They saved me by showing me there were other worlds and other people with problems to overcome. It was all very dazzling and I wanted to be able to create a world I wanted to live in, instead of the one where I did.

I was an English major in college, and after a short detour that took me to law school for a year, I found myself needing a job. A friend suggested, because I read a lot and because I could write, that maybe I ought to become a magazine editor.

Sure. Why not? And so I managed to get a job in the mailroom and New York magazine, in its heyday, with writers like Tom Wolfe, Nick Pileggi, Nik Cohn, Gail Sheehy, Pete Hamill and John Simon, writing for a magazine edited by the legendary Clay Felker.

It didn’t take long to realize I did not want to be an editor. They were overworked, and seemed chained to their desks, while the writers, who popped in and out at odd hours, seemed to be having all the fun. That’s what I wanted to do, and so after three months I quit to become a freelance magazine writer.

The choice was odd, because I’d never wanted to write nonfiction. In fact, I looked down on it. What was so hard about going out and interviewing people, or watching an event, and then writing down what you heard or saw? That wasn’t very creative. Now writing fiction, that was the real accomplishment. But writing fiction wasn’t going to pay the rent, and so, somewhat reluctantly, I became a magazine journalist.

It turned out to be the best thing I could have done, because I learned so much about writing fiction from writing nonfiction.

The first and most important thing I learned was that fiction and nonfiction writing aren’t much different. Nonfiction, especially in those heady days of the New Journalism, used fictional techniques. Scenes had to be created. Dialogue had to be spoken. And, a cohesive story, with a beginning, a middle and end, had to be told. And so, writing magazine articles allowed me to sharpen my fiction writing skills.

Another important thing I learned as a journalist was to scrupulously keep to a word count. That means, making every word count. It means going over your copy numerous times to make sure there’s no “fat.” It means looking critically at every word, every phrase, and every sentence, to make sure it’s necessary. This, as it turned out, became a very valuable skill to have as a novelist.

Another unexpected bonus was having to go out there and meet new people, people with interesting jobs, people different who thought different from me, people who were different from me. And so, for instance, there was the time I had to write a story about a skip tracer, a profession I knew nothing about. But once I did, I decided to give that profession to Henry Swann, the protagonist of the Swann series.

I also learned important research and interviewing skills, which came in handy when I’d research novels. For Swann Dives In, I interviewed a rare book dealer. For Swann’s Way Out, I learned about the art business and the movie business. And for my latest novel, Second Story Man, I learned burglary techniques by reading about the subject and interviewing cop friends.

In the end, I developed a well-earned respect for journalists and I’m pretty sure I’m a much better writer for my experience not making stuff up.

Charles Salzberg is the author of the Shamus Award-nominated Swann’s Last Song, Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair, Swann’s Way Out, and Devil in the Hole, named one of the best crime novels of the year by Suspense magazine. His latest novel, Second Story Man, was just published. He teaches writing the New York Writers Workshop where he is a Founding Member, and he is on the board of MWA-NY. Visit him at www.CharlesSalzberg.com.


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Thanks to Joseph Borden and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s editorial.