When I left my journalism career in 2018 to study creative writing, I worried that my journalism training would make it difficult for me to write fiction. After all, if there’s one thing my time in newsrooms taught me, it’s that I’m not allowed to make things up. The facts were the facts. Dates and statistics had to be checked three times, statements and names confirmed, deadlines cross-checked, and if ever I was wrong, a correction had to be issued as I sulked in embarrassment.
And so, getting into fiction was like pulling your teeth. I continually doubted myself, not knowing if the characters and events I concocted were believable. For months, I wrote looking over my shoulder, as if the fact police were going to pin me to the ground for daring to make things up. But as I continued to write, to spin my novel, Everything that is not said—a literary mystery about a young woman who tracks down witnesses to her brother’s grisly murder, determined to find out what happened and why they each claim they didn’t see anything – a big part of my journalism training, which, I thought, would stop me from writing fiction, actually helped me write, edit and sell my novel.
Below are some of the skills I learned as a journalist that, rather than being a hindrance, have been of tremendous help in writing fiction.
A confession: when I started to write Everything that is not saidmy biggest fear wasn’t that it would be bad, it was that I wouldn’t be able to find enough material to hit the minimum word count for a novel – well Where wrong. At Los Angeles Times, the average length of an article was about five hundred words. For a feature film, I had the luxury of twelve cents. This meant that the thought of writing over sixty thousand words about anything was one of the most daunting challenges I had encountered as a writer. Sixty thousand words equaled one hundred and fifty spontaneous press articles!
I overcame this fear by approaching my novel the same way I approached journalism: trusting the process and doing a little each day. As a journalist, if I only wrote when I felt inspired, I would probably have been fired very soon. So, with little more than a vague idea of what I wanted my novel to be, I started writing. I set the bar very low – three hundred words a day – to ensure I broke through it and felt a sense of accomplishment. The words weren’t always good, but writing every day made it a habit, which made it less daunting, which gave me the confidence to keep going. Discipline, I learned, is more reliable than inspiration.
One of my least favorite things about being a journalist was getting the daily readership figures. Few things were as daunting as spending weeks on what I thought was a big, important article, only to see it bottom the rankings because no one was reading it. I learned the hard way that it’s not enough I thought a story was interesting – I had to Craft it is also interesting for the readers. That meant hooking a reader with a compelling lead, prioritizing what was newsworthy, and keeping them engaged with rewards, whether it was a story too good to put down, a character made too colorful to look away or too important information to ignore (see: George Saunders’ explanation of “petrol stations”). I took this lesson right from the opening line of my novel, which could serve as a thread for a feature article: “The circumstances of Denny Tran’s death were so violent that most Cabramatta residents were too scared to attend his funeral..”
I used to study the work of journalists like Tom Hallman Jr., Lane DeGregory and Eli Saslow because I loved how their stories made me feel. I was struck by how well I remembered the people they wrote about, how well I could replay in my head the interactions they rendered on the page. Part of what made their storytelling so good was their clever use of quotes. In their articles, they paraphrased until the very moment a source said something so insightful or telling that a paraphrase from a reporter would not have done them justice.
I kept this in mind while writing Everything that is not said. As I was designing character dialogue, I would examine each line, asking if a character needed to speak and, if so, what was accomplished through their speech. If a dialogue snippet didn’t do its job, it went the way of many of my news articles (cut, cut, cut!).
Conducting research may seem counter-intuitive to someone trying their best to get away from the facts, but research ended up being the thing that unlocked my imagination. I had to know the facts before I could deviate from the facts. For example, I set my novel in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta at the height of its heroin epidemic. I wanted my novel to address the epidemic in some way, but because I was a child in the 1990s and my education in Cabramatta was relatively sheltered, I had huge knowledge gaps. . Things I didn’t know included: why the heroin epidemic was centralized in Cabramatta; how much heroin costs; how a person went from smoking heroin to injecting it; and why some people got sucked in while others were able to keep a distance.
In journalism as in writing, I’ve realized that if I can’t stand up for my own story, no one else will.
Although my novel ultimately didn’t focus on heroin, by reading newspaper clippings and ethnographic articles from the 1990s, and interviewing people who lived, worked, and consumed in Cabramatta, I was able to imagine characters which were products of that time and place. It gave me a clearer starting point from which to invent things.
An inevitable part of being a journalist was pitching. Before I could start an article, I had to get the go-ahead from my editor, who often had to get the go-ahead from his editor, who, if he was aiming for a front-page spot, then had to launch their editor. With each layer, there was less time to cast, less room for detail, less attention to pay. The result was that if I wanted to tell a story, I had to be able to distill it into an elevator pitch with a clear “nutgraf” (i.e. that sentence at the start of an article that explains to the reader the wider implications of a situation).
This skill came in handy when I was writing my novel, as it helped me stay on track. I always knew what I wanted my story to be. on. But it was even more useful when I cold contacted literary agents to seek representation.
When I started telling my friends about my novel, I hesitated: “Well, it’s about this refugee community in Australia, and they’ve been ignored for a long time, and they’re also going through an epidemic. of heroin, and then this woman’s brother gets killed, and then she…” I could see their glassy eyes. By the time I was ready to send my letter of request to the officers, I had fine-tuned my argument: “When a 17-year-old boy is beaten to death in a busy restaurant in a refugee community and witnesses say all having seen nothing, his older sister is in charge of finding each witness to find out what happened.
I’m not a natural salesperson – I bet not many people become writers because they like making sales pitches. But in journalism as in writing, I’ve realized that if I can’t stand up for my own story, no one else will. If I can’t convince an agent to time my manuscript, what chance will an agent have of convincing a publisher, and what chance will a publisher have of convincing a reader? I’m relieved that pitching isn’t a big part of writing fiction, but when I have to, I make it count.
Everything that is not said by Tracey Lien is available from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.