Let me tell you about my first time

I started reading young. I fell in crazy-mad love with books, or at least became addicted to the way they made me feel.  I began to wish that I could use words to make other people feel things, too. So I wrote vivid (if imperfect) grade-schooler epics in spiral notebooks, then worked on every campus paper from junior high to college, and became a newspaperman. I got paid to write and even won a few awards because I was pretty good at it.

But it wasn’t enough. Somewhere deep down in the heart of the heart of my ink-stained heart was a dirty little infatuation.  I wanted to be a real writer, and real writers wrote books.

How hard could it be?  The transition has been made by so many writers, such as Hemingway and Twain, I believed it would a natural, painless, pleasant metamorphosis … like a colorful-but-earthbound caterpillar becoming the brilliant butterfly he was meant to be.

OK, maybe not quite that enchanting. Maybe more like shifting gears in a sleek sports car, where the transmission is set differently for shorter and longer trips. I saw book-writing as just a longer trip. I was already a storyteller of sorts, wasn’t I? Just do it a little longer and use more words. No problem, just shift into gear and settle back. And so I began.

Unfortunately, no butterflies were born. The engine never clicked.  I spent six arduous, unsatisfying months starting a novel that I literally destroyed in a fit of frustration. Broke the floppy disk into a billion tiny pieces and shredded about 20 awkward manuscript starts into the compost bin. The story sucked.  It was too reportorial, too distant.

Then came a low-grade epiphany. I realized I must become a beginning writer again, after almost 20 years in newspapering. Once I got past the errant and arrogant notion that a newspaperman was naturally gifted to write a book, I was free. I shed my conceited cocoon. I took a college creative-writing class, read a lot of writing books, and tried to separate what I knew about journalism and what I didn’t yet know about fiction.

Much of what we learn in journalistic storytelling is anathema to longer writing, especially fiction. In a newspaper, we’re taught to distance ourselves from the material, to put our emotions in a box, to write short and fast, fabricate nothing, produce a publishable first draft, and put the most important thing first.

Well, a novel would be very short if we put the most important thing first! And everything is fabricated, the revision is endless, and the story would be empty if it wasn’t filled with an author’s emotion. Think about it: a poet, a songwriter, a news anchorwoman and a technical writer are all wordsmiths and each tells a kind of story — but none of a news anchorwoman’s skills make her a natural poet . . . none of a songwriter’s talents ensure he could be a good journalist. We have many storytelling modes, and each requires special proficiencies.

I emerged from my self-imposed (and unpaid) internship with a new perspective. I restarted the novel and a few years later my first novel, ANGEL FIRE, became a critical and commercial hit that’s still in print more than 13 years later.    

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In the end, my newspapering inspired my fiction, and vice versa. My fiction has benefited from the authenticity of my newspaper writing, and my newspaper writing has benefited from my development of a more distinct voice and confidence in long forms. And they are blended most inextricably in my recent nonfiction books, where I’ve told true stories using some of the tools in a novelist’s toolbox, such as foreshadowing, dramatic pacing, dialogue, and a more literary flourish. Over time, my wings have strengthened and take more naturally to the wind.

Today, beyond my newspapering, I have written three novels, 14 book-length nonfictions, three screenplays, and plunged headlong into narrative journalism … all with some degree of commercial and artistic success. At each pivot I swallowed my arrogance and went back to the beginning, to learn the conventions, skills and techniques that prepared me to tell those stories the best I could.

What always came next was easy. I merely had to … fly.

Cover photo by Ali Yahva