Transitioning from Tech Writer to Fiction Author
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
My first memory of writing was from second grade. Our teacher asked us to write our biographies. I took it seriously (although I’m sure it was full of misspellings and may have only consisted of eight sentences). A week later, at the parent-teacher conference, I sat outside the classroom (door open) as my mom and teacher talked. They began hysterically laughing at my biography. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
I never wrote fiction growing up, probably because of that singular humiliation.
I was good at math in school. I remember being singled out in an early grade, allowed to breeze through math workbooks in the corner, while the teacher instructed the other students at a slower pace. It made me feel special…proud.
Math made sense to me. It had rules and order. Writing, at least fiction, seemed without rules. Words and stories plucked out of thin air by artistic types with a different kind of brain.
In my early work career, I found that technical writing benefited from my sense of order. Introducing concepts in a way that made sense and flowed. Simplifying complex subjects in a way that was accessible to any reader. It became a passion of mine to take what I deemed awful technical writing by others and polish it into something great. My coworkers said I could polish any turd!
Decades later, after my mom passed, my father decided to write the science fiction novel he’d always dreamed of. He was a former math major, computer scientist and chief of technology for several large companies before he retired. He’d never written fiction before.
His endeavor prompted me to consider trying my hand at fiction. First, I needed to school myself. Sure, I knew how to put sentences together. But I had no clue about story structure or arcs, character development, point of view, setting, writing emotion, and a myriad of other subjects. In fact, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!
How did I teach myself fiction writing at age 52? I started watching writing lectures on YouTube. They were free and I could binge-watch them for hours. Later I could re-watch them after I’d been writing for a few months and the concepts would suddenly click. But more importantly, I had to map out a story and some characters and just begin writing.
Showing versus telling was the first major obstacle. In technical writing, it is pretty much all telling. Telling is direct, simple, efficient. Showing is more artful, indirect, subtle. There is a place for telling and a place for showing. But I found the more often I ‘showed’, the more my novel improved.
My first draft was only 60K words and I thought it wasn’t too bad. Until I gave it to beta readers and an editor. That was an education! Their feedback was a master class in itself.
Some people will say don’t be overly critical when beta-reading others’ writing. Sure, don’t be mean for the sake of being mean. But you should never pull your punches. The gut punches I received were invaluable wake-up calls for me. They pushed me to improve my writing and story-telling, helping me fix disastrous flaws.
It always stings a bit to get criticism, but I’m not a second-grader any more. My self-esteem can take it. At my age, I have the right amount of confidence to admit I don’t know everything, but not let other people’s negativity slow me down. I often wonder how younger writers can survive the ups and downs of writing without the battle-tested armor of older age.
I’ve been writing fiction for only fifteen months and completed two novels. The process gets faster the more you work at it. I used to wonder how authors could put out 2 or 3 novels in a year. Now it makes sense. Writing is a skill that anyone can learn. As a skill, practice increases speed and quality.
In some ways, I feel technical writing provided a good foundation for me. I could organize thoughts on paper logically. I developed a sense for including only necessary details for the reader. I’m good at creating the connective tissue between ideas. I don’t get hung up on perfect first drafts. I have a decent vocabulary and know how to research subjects I’m not familiar with. I’m well versed in how to use MS Word and using styles to format a large document. And most importantly, for decades, other people have reviewed, critiqued and marked up my writing in bold red ink.
How did I increase my skills as a fiction writer? These are the steps I’d recommend to someone starting out.
1) Learn story structure. Even if you are a Pantser (write by the seat of your pants), you need to understand story and character arcs. Read books about the craft of writing.
2) Learn the lingo. Watch author-tuber videos about character development, tropes, setting, voice, point of view, plot devices, etc.
3) Read. Pick up a couple novels in the genre you are interested in and read them with an eye for how the author introduces character, setting, conflict, and goals.
4) Write. Begin writing a story. Any story. With a strong protagonist, goal, conflict and antagonist. It doesn't have to be good. Just get something on paper.
5) Get critiques. Look for beta-readers, even those not within your target audience. Hire an editor. Accept all criticism and address it in your writing.
6) And keep rewriting. All good writing is rewriting, and more rewriting.
Lastly, write a story that you want to read. You’ll be reading your story over and over for months until it is completed to a professional level. If you don’t love your novel, no one else will. So swing for the fences and make it spectacular!