"Careful, or You’ll Wind Up in My Novel." (But Probably Not).

From the mailbag:

“So, when are you going to try your hand at fiction?”

Thanks for asking. I hate absolute answers to almost anything, so I’ll qualify my response to this particular question by saying, “Probably never.”

Actually, that’s not entirely true (see what I said about absolutes?). The truth is, I tried my hand at fiction years ago, and found out I stunk at it. My problem is similar to Clifford Anderson’s in Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap: dialogue is a snap for me, but I have a hard time with plot. And since there’s no Sidney Bruhl around to serve as my master plotter, I’m better off sticking with non-fiction, which, for the most part, already has the basics plotted out for me in advance.

In fact, it’s the ability to plot that I admire most in fiction writers — that ability to find a story in a casual remark or a twinkling bit of junk embedded in a hillside. I have a good friend, a fiction writer and filmmaker, who practically bleeds plots, scribbling them in notebooks near his bed, hoping he can get them down on paper fast enough. He’s one of those people who’s great at asking “What if? . . .” or “Wouldn’t it be cool if? . . .” and taking it from there. I wish I was that way.

I’ve heard some non-fictionalists say that, all things being equal — meaning, I guess, that if they could write both fiction and non-fiction equally as well — they would always choose to write non-fiction because (wait for it!) . . . “real life is so much more interesting.”


Apart from being an annoying sound bite, I don’t buy the explanation. First of all, I think it’s a backhanded way of setting up non-fiction as somehow superior to or “purer” than fiction, a conceit I find patently elitist and flat out dumb. Second, I always think that anyone who falls back on that kind of a pseudo-intellectual defense is doing so because they’re worried that admitting they can’t plot, or write fiction, is like admitting they can’t operate a knife and fork — as if they’re lacking some basic life skill.

That’s nonsense — fiction and non-fiction are very different creatures. The ability to write one well and not the other is hardly a sign of some intellectual or creative failing. But rather than say “I can’t,” they say, “I can, but I choose not to.”

I can’t — but if I could, I would. Good fiction is fun. It’s fun to read, and while writing is always work, I’m sure a craftily plotted piece of fiction is also fun to write. If I could do it, I wouldn’t deprive myself of such a pleasure in the name of a snooty retort.

But I can’t do it. I’m not a Plotter; I’m more of a Good Explainer. For now, then, I’m sticking with that.

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