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Why Write Fiction

Why write a fiction? It’s a question I ask myself whenever the writing goes badly. There’s no money in it. The world doesn’t need another book. My story is banal, the characters cardboard, the setting hackneyed, and what’s more I never learned to use the comma properly. So why do it?

The reasons must be as varied as individual writers. I do it because it helps me impose meaning and structure on experience. It helps me to live what I consider to be a full and productive life. I knew I was a writer when, in junior high school, I wrote a humorous sketch for an English assignment. The teacher praised it and read it to the class, which laughed when it was supposed to. The piece even seemed to entertain the adults who read it. I realized that my words, my creations, could entertain and, as a result, people—including girls—would pay attention to me.

In high school, I wrote stories, plays, and poetry. In the army, I wrote reviews and stories. In college, I wrote a column for the school newspaper and an unpublished (and unpublishable) novel. I found a job as a writer on a trade magazine and spent 25 years as a reporter and writer, raised a family, but always continued to write poetry, plays, and another unpublished (and unpublishable) novel. I went back to college and earned an MA in creative writing. I became a ghostwriter and have now published 19 business books, but never stopped writing fiction and have now published Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan.

I believe my earlier novels are unpublishable because, while I found the central character fascinating (he should be; he was me), no reader found his concerns, his wants, or his problems very engaging. While fiction has no unbreakable rules, a good general maxim is this: If readers don’t care what happens to your main character they’re not going to read your book. Ideally you want an interesting character in an interesting situation so that readers want to know what’s going to happen next. Occasionally a writer will put cardboard characters in an extraordinary situation and sell a million books (The Di Vinci Code) but that’s unusual.

The novels I enjoy reading tell me something about the world and the human condition. Ideally, they tell me something new. It’s why I prefer a police procedural mystery to, say, Agatha Christie. For that reason, the books I want to write, ideally tell readers something about the world and how it works.

Thanks to the US Army, my undergraduate college experience, and regular practice ever since, I speak enough Japanese to have been hired to lead tours in Japan. It occurred to me that a tour would be an interesting situation to fictionalize…a diverse group of Americans…a foreign culture…an inexperienced guide…many opportunities for tension and conflict. And the thought became the seed that grew into the 240 pages of Getting Oriented.

While I did not consciously set out to do so, I find that I tend to put my imaginary characters in real places. I do not care for books that are set in an imaginary place (Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct mysteries) or are coy about identifying their real setting. Someone who wanted could replicate the tour in Getting Oriented, although, again, the tour in the book is neither the tour I led nor are the characters in the book portraits of people on my tours. The tour guide is not me. Like most fiction characters, these are composites of many people I’ve known.And although I think they live and breath on the page (because they live and breath in my imagination), readers will have to tell me whether they do or not.

I am sometimes asked about the relationship between my non-fiction ghostwriting and novel writing. With a business book, I have a wealth of material to work from. I spend as much time as I can with the author to immerse myself in that world. I went to one author’s day-long seminars then spent almost another day and a half interviewing him before I began his book. If the author has speeches, white papers, presentations, whatever, I want them all.

The author and I meet regularly throughout the writing process, although today that meeting may be via phone or e-mail. For one recent book, I did not meet the California-based author in person until after she published the book. I send the author every chapter as I write to ask for feedback, and some authors are far more hands-on than others, editing what I have written. While I use fictional techniques to great effect in non-fiction (description, scene-setting, dialogue), I have no limits—beyond plausibility—in fiction.

In a novel, I can tell you what a character is thinking and feeling. In non-fiction I can tell you only what I’ve been told or learned through research and experience. Non-fiction is usually very clear about its natural audience: marketing executives, salesmen, general mangers, advertising managers, whatever. Every article in the trade magazine for which I worked had to tell readers either how to make money or how to save money. A clear test.

Genre fiction is also clear: mystery, romance, thriller, paranormal, chick-lit, sci-fi, with subcategories under the major groups. With a book labeled, a bookstore knows where to shelve it. With a book that is not easily labeled—and I’m afraid Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan is just such a book—publishers and bookstores have a much more difficult time. Nevertheless, I was brought up to believe that if a book were good enough, it would eventually find an audience. I can only hope readers find it and enjoy it.