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Life After Deadline: From News to Novels
Written by
She Writes
July 2019
Written by
She Writes
July 2019

This guest post was written by Karen Dukess, author of The Last Book Party

The editor was hovering over me, nodding at my computer and checking his watch. I read over my article one last time. With my heart thumping, I hit “send.” As the news editor rushed back to his desk to edit my story moments before the deadline, I said a silent prayer that my article about the controversial City Hall decision was accurate. The adrenalin rush was both terrifying and thrilling.

That was my life as a newspaper reporter. Now, my days follow a different rhythm. After breakfast, I settle in front of my laptop, sometimes still in pajamas. I write for at least an hour, throw on some exercise clothes, and head out to walk the dog. Mid-way around the block, with my thoughts wandering aimlessly, words will come into my mind. I finally know what to write next.

By the time I started writing a novel, I had more than three decades behind me as a journalist and a United Nations speechwriter. I could write on almost any topic within almost any time frame.  You need an article about the new zoning decision by 4 pm? I’m on it. An op-ed on the dangers of child marriage by tomorrow? No problem.

But soon after joining a writing group, I realized that while my years as a professional writer had left me well-prepared for some aspects of writing fiction, they also had created the wrong mind-set for finishing a novel.

First, the good news:

I was good at research.  Newspaper reporters are quick studies; they learn not to fear the unknown and how to become knowledgeable enough in new subjects to write about them authoritatively. It’s the same for speechwriters. During my first week as a writer at UNICEF, when I was assigned to write a short speech about malaria, I thought “Me? I don’t know anything about malaria!” But then I remembered that I knew how to report on malaria. I read a pile of papers and articles on malaria and I found one of UNICEF’s malaria experts right in the building. Which brings me to my second bit of good news:

I wasn’t afraid to ask stupid questions. One of the first rules of journalism is that whatever question you don’t ask because you think it’s too stupid is the exact question that your editor will ask you. The look on her face when you admit you don’t know the answer is far worse than whatever scorn you might have faced by asking the question earlier. As a speechwriter, I often had to talk to United Nations experts who had their own lexicon, filled with jargon and acronyms. I not only became comfortable asking basic questions but grew confident that the questions I felt silly asking were usually the ones other people would have too, people who would appreciate my getting the answers for them.

Why is this relevant to novel writing? Because it’s not only historical fiction that requires research. Writing a novel requires creating a believable world, and that often means doing research and talking to both experts and “ordinary” people on an array of topics. To finish my novel, The Last Book Party, I had to gather information – from written sources and from people – about anti-depressants, food trends of the 1980s, and some of the intricacies of a long-gone era of book publishing.

I was a stickler for accuracy. In both journalism and speechwriting, accuracy is paramount. As a reporter, there’s nothing worse than having a correction on an article, which is akin to walking into the newsroom with a scarlet E on your blouse. And if you make an error in a speech, you’re not only embarrassing yourself, but potentially harming the reputation of the person delivering the speech.

Accuracy matters in fiction too. As a reader, I know how even the smallest erroneous fact can pull me out of the story. When an author gets the small things wrong, it’s hard to trust him on the big things. I almost made one of those little errors in my novel; during final edits, I realized that I had a character listening to an Indigo Girls cassette the year before the album came out. Not a big deal for everyone but the die-hard Strange Fire fan, but that error might have lost me the faith of that reader.

I respect deadlines. As reporter, I’d learned that an approaching deadline not only induced a feeling of panic but usually resulted in my best work. I started my novel while in a weekly writing group that met on Tuesday afternoons. Every Tuesday morning, I’d settle into a favorite café to draft pages to bring to the group. By an hour before deadline, I was usually distraught, my story going nowhere fast. But in that last hour, panic would turn to productivity and by the time I had to leave, I invariably had material worth sharing. I not only respect deadlines, but rely on them. Without that Tuesday afternoon deadline, I’m not sure I would have finished my novel.

Now, for what I had to learn:

I had to accept not knowing where my story was going. As a reporter or speechwriter, the idea of starting a story without a clear idea of what it’s about is absurd. But as a fiction writer, it not only makes sense, but often is the best method. Some novelists are outliners, who figure out the whole story before they write. After many months, I learned that I’m most creative when I let my imagination roam and continue writing even when I’m not sure where I’m headed. Time and again, the leader of my writing group would tell me to “let the story reveal itself.” At first, I thought that was crazy, but in time I realized he was right. Now I know that the first draft is a “discovery draft” and when I let the story unfold almost subconsciously I come up with the best plot twists.  It’s in the second, third and fourth drafts that I make more deliberate decisions to bring the whole novel together.

I had to learn to trust the reader. Journalists are often told to write at an eighth-grade reading level and to answer all questions that their article raises. Fiction is not so straightforward, and is often better when it’s oblique. A good novel will deliberately raise questions it doesn’t fully answer; those omissions, in fact, can build suspense. My early drafts were filled with too much explanation, and I had to learn to accept that the reader knew enough to want to continue. At the same time, I had to learn to slow down and fill in the action and dialogue with mood and atmosphere. While news articles move at a brisk face, a novel, if written well, can meander and still propel the reader forward.

I had to learn patience. As a journalist and speechwriter, I usually finished my first drafts in a matter of hours or days. Occasionally, I had as long as a month to complete more substantial pieces. By contrast, the first draft of my novel took more than a year and the final draft wasn’t done until nearly three years later. That’s not only because novel writing is usually far more complicated than you imagine going into it, but because sometimes you need to take a break.  Shortly after I finished a first, very messy draft of my novel, my father got ill. I set aside my novel to spend time with him. After he died, I decided to do some writing about his life. By the time I returned to my novel, a year had passed and I saw my work in a new light. I realized what I had to do to finish it and returned to the work with new energy and focus.

And the most important thing I learned? That as much as I loved being a reporter and speechwriter, nothing beats using my writing skills and imagination to tell my own story.

Karen Dukess has a work history as eclectic as her taste in books. She has been a tour guide in the former Soviet Union, a newspaper reporter in Florida, a magazine publisher in Russia and, for nearly a decade, a speechwriter on gender equality for the United Nations Development Programme. She has blogged on raising boys for The Huffington Post and written book reviews for USA Today. She has a degree in Russian Studies from Brown University and a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. She lives with her family near New York City and spends as much time as possible in Truro on Cape Cod.

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