Writing non-fiction vs writing fiction

Obviously this is my perspective and your own experience may differ wildly, but I find I need different motivations to get seat in chair and write fiction vs. non-fiction.

First, by the end of next year, I’ll have 3 non-fiction titles in print to my one novel in print, but I don’t consider myself more successful as a non-fiction author than that as an author of fiction, just luckier I suppose. I had the right book at the right time for that market. (I do have two completed novels I’m shopping with agents and publishers – so hopefully this will change soon)

To write fiction, you have to be interested in the character, their journey their motivations and how they get past their challenges. It sometimes helps to know how this will all work out, sometimes it helps to discover this as you go. If you know too much, you can get bored in the writing, if you know too little, you can flail around for ideas on what does the character do next.

To write non-fiction you have to know what you are writing in advance. The work has to be clearly laid out and organized so that others can follow you. While in fiction you may wish to mislead your readers (such as in a mystery where you don’t want the reader to see the ending too clearly) and you can use unreliable narrators to help you achieve this, in non-fiction you have to be amazingly transparent and work hard to ensure that anyone who reads your work understands what is going on. Outlines are a must.

To write non-fiction, you must be exited about your subject matter. If you’re writing for adults, the books are often long. A book of 300 pages takes a long time to write, and if you are not exited about the subject, that will become an unwanted chore quickly.

I’m the kind of non-fiction author who wants to get my points down and then fill in the foot notes as I edit. I don’t recommend this, but it can help you focus on the production of text on the page. It helps me, but the review of the text looking for each place where I need to place in foot notes should be a separate edit than the read to ensure it makes sense, and read for typographical errors. This means you’ll want to leave yourself with enough time for at least three edits before you send it to your publisher.

The lion who dwells within

Without pride, the lion who dwells within
Sought to follow the Buddha
Walking alone, like the unicorn
Until moonlight broke the neon glare of Times Square
And in taking my hand, gave me a pride
And walked with me and I sought no more
But for my pride, I find myself hunting for unicorns
An endless journey through moonlit forests
Like a knight in service to the Fisher King
My grail a unicorn who will walk with a lion in peace

Behind the Sonnet

Captain Phil (Phil Merkel) invited me to his radio show recently to discuss my sonnet.  If you were unable to listen in, here is the full text:

HI, my name is Walt Williams, though I write as W. B. J. Williams to keep myself from getting confused with other authors of the same name.  I have a novel in print, The Garden at the Roof of the World, which is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other fine book sellers.  I also have a short story with Abyss and Apex magazine.

Phil and I have been friends since I was sixteen.  When he learned that I’d written a sonnet for my wife on our 29th wedding anniversary, he asked me to share it with you, and to tell you a bit about it.  I jumped at the chance.

First, let me share with you the sonnet itself, and then I’ll talk about it.

Would you walk with me in the soft moonlight

Star strewn sky glimmering, hope in the night

in the shadows we stroll, your hand in mine

hearts dancing to crickets, music divine

Would you walk with me under the hot sun

Sweat clad hands held, over the sand we run

Seeking quiet shady groves and solitude

A fragrant breeze, an echo of quietude

Would you walk with me in the driving rain

Or in the snow like we did so long ago

Memories delighting, ignoring pain

Hand in hand through puddles and hills of snow

We approached the huppah, you took my hand

Our delight worn daily, our wedding bands


The poem was inspired while watching twelfth night with my beloved wife of 29 years.  I am always inspired by Shakespeare’s delightful iambic pentameter.  I’ve written Margo poetry for over a third of a century, giving her new poems on valentines day, her birthday, and of course our anniversary.  Finding new motifs and new themes is always a challenge, especially as the core message is I love you and I love that you’re in my life.

I’d never tried a sonnet before, but knew the different versions and how a sonnet is meant to be a discourse that is resolved in the final couplet.  There was no argument or issue I meant to resolve in my poem, so in that lack, the poem fails as a sonnet.  I chose to go with a form popularized by Spensor, as I delight in rhyming couplets.  I once spent two weeks straight talking and writing in rhyming couplets, after reading Orlando Furioso.  I only stopped after Margo threatening divorce if I didn’t stop.  This is why in the sonnet, I break the rhyme scheme in the third verse.

Because the idea of writing a sonnet for her came from Shakespeare, I went to his rhyming scheme for the third stanza, rather than doing homage to the older Italian rhyming schemes, or the more modern ones.  Again, a very subtle reference but one I expected she’d get.

The poem is filled with references to events Margo and I have shared in our courtship and marriage, and even refers back to another poem I wrote about Margo in the Chinese Moon Garden in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  This garden has two names given to it by the Chinese artists who created it.  In translation, these names are “In Search of Quietude”, and “In elegant repose”.   Some of the events are from our courtship, like the beach, others from our life as a married couple, such as the hills of snow, recent – ignoring pain in the rain, to a long time ago, our first walk together at night in New York City on our first date to see Moonstruck.

As the poem didn’t have an argument needing resolution, I resolved the past and the present in our walk to the huppah and in my wearing her ring.

When I presented her the poem, I explained how I broke the rhyme scheme twice, once with a bad rhyme, once with breaking the rhyming couplets.  She asked me to see if it worked better if I tried it formally.  I reworked it, and we both agree, the broken version is better.  Our lives are more beautiful because though lived brokenly, they are lived together.

A sonnet, on the occasion of my 29th wedding anniversary

I have written my first ever sonnet. I cheated a tad on the final line, as I could have made it a better rhyme by focusing on just me, but I wanted it on us.
There are a number of references to events in our lives together in this poem, moments we treasure, so it doesn’t have the structure of this and that but this other thing to then bring it together that you get in a Shakespearean sonnet. I also altered the rhyming scheme of the third stanza, so this would likely get points off in a poetry class. Yes, I could have swapped the lines to keep the form of the rhyme scheme, but in my opinion, this is better.
Slightly proud of this.
Would you walk with me in the soft moonlight
Star strewn sky glimmering, hope in the night
in the shadows we stroll, your hand in mine
hearts dancing to crickets, music divine
Would you walk with me under the hot sun
Sweat clad hands held, over the sand we run
Seeking quiet shady groves and solitude
A fragrant breeze, an echo of quietude
Would you walk with me in the driving rain
Or in the snow like we did so long ago
Memories delighting, ignoring pain
Hand in hand through puddles and hills of snow
We approached the huppah, you took my hand
Our delight worn daily, our wedding bands

The missing

After an afternoon of art and poetry, I stepped out of the SF MOMA to encounter a performance art piece in protest of a social justice issue: the unexplained and unresolved disappearance of so many women of the indigenous peoples of North America over the last year.

I took some photographs, spoke with the organizer, and wrote a poem about what they are trying to communicate:

United they hold the line
Diverse in
Unified in message
A plea
(Which looks more hopefully on the past than I do)
But together
They call out to us
To set hope
For the future
Find the missing women
Of the indigenous peoples

I wish them well.

I dearly hope that their art, and my poem in reflection on their art, helps bring attention to the problem, and some sort of hopeful resolution.

Books for authors

On one of the panels at Arisia 2020, we discussed what books new authors can turn to to master the craft.

Here are some of my suggestions:

Must read books

A Farewell to Arms ( how to break the reader’s heart with as few words as possible)
The Sun also Rises (complex and deep characters in as few words as possible)
Lolita (how to make someone who is revolting compelling)
Ada or Ardor (how to write an idea – relativity)
Pride and Prejudice (how to be critical of your society and make them love it)
Our Mutual Friend (how to reinvent your story in the middle (he needed an editor, but he published as a serial)
The Crying of Lot 49 (how to get the reader to turn the page)
The Tropic of Cancer (how to write ecstatically)
Henry and June (how to write people you know so compellingly they become legends)
Kafka on the Shore (excellent surreal narrative)
19Q4 (there are chapters where nothing happens and you care deeply about that nothing)
Beloved (how to write about regret, grief, and love)
The Maltese Falcon (an actual mystery in a detective story and some of the tightest prose ever with brilliant first person narrative)
Frankenstein (launched a genre or two)

Narrative poems still worth reading

Orlando Furioso
The Dream of the Red Chamber

II. Genera specific books

Lord of the Rings
Foundation (all the books)
Left Hand of Darkness
Wizard of Earth Sea
The Compleate Complete Enchanter (all the stories in all the books)
Book of Atrix Wolfe
Forgotten Beasts of Eld
The Bridge of Birds
Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser (all the stories in all the books)

World building
A writer’s guide to weapons

III. Poetry books
Books on writing poetry

A poet’s guide to poetry, Mary Kinzie
The making of a poem, Mark Strand & Eavan Boland
Types of Poetry, Howard Hall
An Introduction to Poetry, X.J. Kennedy
Rhyme’s Reason, Joh Hollander
What is Poetry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Narrative Poems, C.S. Lewis
Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Paul Fussell
The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry

IV. Plot books
Books which mainly focus on plot

Meander, Spiral, Explode, Jane Alison
Beginnings, Middles, & Ends, Nancy Kress

V. Character books
Books that mostly focus on character creation or development.

Take your characters to dinner, Laurel Yourke
Writing the Other, Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

V. Grammar books
Books which mainly focus on grammar and punctuation

The New Well-Tempered Sentence, Karen Gordon
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, Karen Gordon

VI. Revision books
Books that focus mainly on drafting and editing

Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin (make certain you get the Eighth Mountain Press edition)
Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Mass

My Arisia Schedule

Stories from the Cities, Reading, Fri 5:30 PM
Starters’ Pack for Science Fiction, Panel, Fri 7:00 PM
Starters’ Pack for Fantasy Fiction, Panel, Fri 8:30 PM

Books for Aspiring Writers, Panel, Sun 11:30 AM
Time to Bring Back Some Tropes?, Panel, Sun 8:30 PM

The antagonist who is not a villain

One of the best reasons to read widely is to encounter things both outside of your cultural framework and your expectations.

Kafka on the Shore is one of my favorite novels. Murakami’s protagonist, Kafka, doesn’t have a conflict with the story’s antagonist, who is the delightful and talented Miss Saeki. She did something in her youth that set off all that is wrong in the story. Kafka doesn’t need to put it right, no, his challenge is not to be sucked into destruction when what she did is put right by Hoshino, a random truck driver who befriends Nakata, who dies trying to put right what Miss Saeki broke when she was younger.
She doesn’t try to stop them.
In fact, she is glad when things are set right, though that means she will die.
Kafka surreally kills his father in a dream, fulfilling a prophecy. He then finds refuge with Miss Saeki, and becomes her lover. He hadn’t wanted to kill his father, in fact, he had run away to avoid it. Miss Saeki hadn’t wanted to break reality, but it is that brokenness that impacts all of the other characters within the novel, and she dies when reality is put right. In her dying, she works to make certain that Kafka, who loves her, doesn’t die with her.
There is, within the novel, another character who could serve as an antagonist. That is Johnny Walker, the name a spirit gives himself. This spirit is a cat killer who wants Nakata to kill him before he kills another cat. When Nakata kills Johnny Walker, Kafka’s father dies.
Both antagonists want to be over come. They want balance and rightness restored to reality. It is Nakata who overcomes both, and in doing so dies from the struggle. Yet it is not his story, as he doesn’t grow or change, he is just the agent of change.
The protagonist is Kafka, who must overcome grief and loss and find a way back into the world he fled to try to prevent the very grief and loss that he must endure.
I prefer an antagonist who is not a villain. So much more human. So much more real.

The joys and perils of Internet Research

The joys and the perils of internet research. I was able to learn so much about many places, their history, and culture when researching my novel, The Garden at the Roof of the World, BUT the internet sites that described the the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi which doesn’t rust neglected a key bit of information about it. While I learned that if you wrap your arms around it with your back to the pillar successfully it will grant you your wish, I didn’t learn that in the mid 13th century, they’d built a Mosque around it.

So I got the scene all wrong.

Drat, darn and fiddle faddle.

That Mosque just happens to be the oldest Mosque in India, unique for having just a single brick minaret, and would have been completed about a century before my story.