The Difference between Fiction and Non-Fiction
I finished writing the second novel in my Nostradamus trilogy two months or so ago. It will be published in the UK by Corvus (a new imprint of my regular publisher, Atlantic – Corvus, in Latin, means a raven) in August 2010, under the title The Mayan Codex. Over the Christmas and the New Year period I have been completing two other books for Watkins (my non-fiction publisher), one of which is illustrated, one not. Now I am winding up to starting the third and final part of my fiction trilogy, and it occurred to me in the run-up to actual lift-off (and somewhat belatedly, you might say), that the process of writing fiction and non-fiction is so fundamentally different that they may as well stem from entirely different constellations in the mental mindset.
Non-fiction is a largely intellectual exercise. You work things out – set yourself problems – happen upon clever wrinkles that give added value to the book – allow research to lead to further research – pursue right brain serendipity with the enthusiasm of a catechumen. And all the time you are adding and adding to an existing snow-pile of material which you know, through long experience, will eventually satisfy most, if not all, of your contracting parties.
Fiction is another matter entirely. You get an idea. Then another idea. You flesh out a character or two. Then a character you didn’t rate at all, and meant to spend little, if no time on, muscles his/her way into your plot and threatens to hijack all your carefully laid plans. You are perpetually being hoist, in other words, with your own petard. The novel, and its meanderings, is never far from your thoughts. Every single thing you experience while writing it is potential grist to the novelistic mill. You open your mouth like a basking shark, filtering plankton, and only really close it when the novel is done and dusted and perched on a shelf marked with your name. It lives in the mind of its creator, in other words, like no non-fiction book ever can. It becomes a part of you. And when its parturition is over, it still reverberates with a strange sort of afterlife, forcing you, every now and then, to revisit it and check if its okay.
That’s why I hate starting work on new novels – and why I love writing them.