Making the Shift From Tech Writing to Fiction

When I expressed an intention to write fiction, I was warned it would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to make the switch from technical writing to writing fiction, because the left hemisphere of my brain was obviously dominant. Writing fiction, I was told, required a dominant right hemisphere. In researching the subject, I read an opinion by a learned man, who said  we’re literally two thinking beings residing in the same body. Reading his comment caused me to worry that in pursuing fiction I would end up stuck in some tortured place between the right and the left hemispheres of the brain and couldn’t get back into either. Or maybe my personality would change and I wouldn’t recognize myself and neither would my family and my friends. I gave up the absurd idea that I should write fiction.

The idea wouldn’t give me up. The little girl inside kept knocking on my mind and whispering, “Fiction. Fiction” I reconsidered. After all, I was used to being warned that misfortune would befall me if I pursued some “crazy notion.” I was warned when I returned to school to study language and speech that I wouldn’t be able to support myself through writing; I would be homeless; I would starve. I proved them wrong, and had supported myself on income from tech writing for more than 10 years.

I tried fiction again; wrote some awful material. Even I knew it was terrible. Whatever is worse than writer’s block–I had it, but never when doing technical writing. “They” were right. I was left-brain dominant and my left brain wasn’t going to easily give up control of my mind.

One day, I was thinking about fiction and staring at a blank computer screen when my right hand started doodling on a pad of paper. It drew a circle and I wrote a character’s name inside, then drew another circle and another and another. I wrote a word inside each circle. More circles. More words. When done, the words created a personality and a physical description for the character. That was my break-through experience, the first time in years the right hemisphere dominated my brain.

Using the words inside the circles as a base, I wrote a scene, gave the character lines and a look. The result was a two-dimensional, repressed Pinocchio. I needed a plan.

After cajoling my right and left hemispheres into working together harmoniously, I researched and made a list of the elements of fiction, including narrative, introspection, dialogue, setting; description, point-of-view (POV), story arcs, tags. At the local bookstore, I gathered writing technique books, lots of books, until I had checked off each of the elements on my list.

One-by-one, I learned the elements. When learning dialogue, for example, I wrote dialogue only until I could get inside a character’s head and write in her personality and rhythm. When I learned point-of-view, I described settings in first and third person, and became obsessive about eliminating head-hopping from the vignettes I wrote.

The technique hardest to learn was how toexpress emotion with only words. This was also the most important, because fiction is emotion. In addition to reading books, I made a list of emotions and the senses, the six senses because I write paranormal stories.

After feeling comfortable with the elements, emotions, and senses, I allowed myself to write a 5,000-word short story. It was quickly acquired by a publisher. Although the prep work took a year or more, I saved time, money, and disappointment by waiting to send queries until I wrote a publishable story.

I learned that technical writers and novelists all use both the left and right hemispheres of their brains to create their particular types of writing. The novelist creates a plot, a left-brain endeavor. The technical writer creates charts, document design, graphics; that’s right-brain territory. Today, I write technical material and fiction with equal ease and writer’s block is a distant memory

Note: This post originally appeared in NovelSpot.com during July 2008 when I was a guest blogger.

6 Responses to “Making the Shift From Tech Writing to Fiction”


  1. 1 beagley September 22, 2008 at 10:46 AM

    Hi,
    Thank you for your thoughts. They are really wonderful.

    I am a 5-year technical writer who has been writing fiction and poetry on and off his whole life.

    I have always believed that a methodical left brain attitude can actually HELP produce a readable novel. I’ve written four, and none of them are close to publishable yet, but I’m sure learning a lot and having a lot of fun! In my writers group, I’m always the one pushing people to strengthen story arch and specific motivation leading to specific action. They keep pushing me on more right-brain-style areas of writing. It’s enjoyable.

    Thank you for your thoughts and experiences. Keep blogging about this stuff! I will read.

    I am at http://beagley.livejournal.com/

    -Douglas in Vermont

  2. 2 cnorth September 22, 2008 at 12:16 PM

    Hi Douglas:

    Thanks for your kind comments. Keep at it. One day it all comes together.

    Have you visited my web site to download some writing tips? The link is http://carolnorth.com/writing-tips.htm.

    Carol

  3. 3 chapman208 November 22, 2008 at 2:48 PM

    Hi, Carol. You’re so right about technical writing vs. fiction writing. They’re very different, yet they can be complementary. I’ve been a technical writer for decades. I had a nonfiction book about the OS/2 operating system published by McGraw-Hill in 1995, and I contributed three chapters to a book about computer hardware in 2005. I’ve also had numerous white papers and other technical publications published over the years.

    In 2003, I decided to try my hand at fiction for the first time since high school (way back in the ’70s).

    I wrote a “hard sci-fi” novel with plenty of real science thrown in (astronomy, cosmology, metallurgy, etc.). Doing so allowed me to use both sides of my brain at once.

    The quality of the writing itself, however, didn’t equal the inventiveness of the storytelling. Improving the writing was a process that took several years of learning, workshopping, and polishing. (My writing at the time was too mechanical, too nonfiction-like.) In the meantime, I wrote a second, a third, and half of a fourth novel, each one better than the last. As I finished one, I’d go back and edit and polish the ones that came before, improving the quality as I went along.

    Then last year I sold the first two (The Mars Imperative and The Tesserene Imperative), both receiving rave reviews from readers and reviewers. This year I sold the third (Sunrise Destiny) to another ebook publisher (Red Rose). The book will be out in early 2009. (Still working on selling the fourth while I finish my fifth.)

    All but Sunrise Destiny have been hard sci-fi, so I get to stretch my technical muscles while writing creatively. It’s a win-win situation for me. I’m glad to hear it worked out as well for you.

    Mark.
    Web: http://tesserene.com
    Blog: http://tesserene.blogspot.com

  4. 4 cnorth November 22, 2008 at 4:04 PM

    Hi Mark:

    Congratulations on your writing success. There are several of us tech/fiction writers out there. I believe we have a leg up when we begin pursuing fiction because we already know a lot about grammar, style, and formatting.

    I appreciate your comments.

    Carol

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