Anna Quindlen: “My Fiction Life Is Thanks to Journalism”

From “Reflections on Journalism,” a talk that journalist-novelist Anna Quindlen gave to a luncheon of the American Society of Magazine Editors in April 2000 at New York City’s Harvard Club:

My journalism life is thanks to editors. My fiction life is thanks to journalism. People in our line of work sometimes say that the heavier the paper weight, the more valuable the product. But the truth is there really isn’t much difference between what we do in newspapers, magazines, and fiction.

One of the most important things I learned as a newspaper reporter is the most important thing I know as a novelist. I learned how real people talk by writing down their words verbatim in notebooks. You all know when you read a newspaper or magazine piece and there’s a quote in it that’s absolutely perfect and it’s written in eloquent English and you look at it and think this is completely phony. If you do that in fiction, that makes for the kind of fiction that makes people think you don’t believe it for a minute. Writing fiction you need that idiosyncratic syntax and speech which you learn over and over when you’re a magazine or newspaper journalist and you’re interviewing people about real things.

I learned how to look for the telling detail: That small thing about someone’s appearance or how a town looks or the way two people interact that gives the reader almost in a word or two or three or four a sense of the situation. In journalism you may only have 1,000 words and you have to make each detail count for something, which is critical in a novel as well.

The last thing I learned  in journalism is how to write on demand and to space. I was at a writer’s conference and this woman wanted to know the secret of how to write a novel. I said to her what I always say: You put your butt on the seat of a chair in front of a computer screen. She didn’t want to hear that because it’s too easy and too hard but anybody who has been in the business understands that you just have to do it.

People ask me about writer’s block. Can you imagine if someone came to me at 4:30 at the New York Post or New York Times and asked for 700 words on the state audit and I said I’m blocked? There isn’t really writer’s block. There is despair in writing eloquently which newspaper reporters, magazine writers, and novelists have. Sometimes your words aren’t eloquent—they start out non-eloquent and half way halfway through you hit boom and y0u have a good day. I learned to do that by having deadlines and having to turn things in on time.

It’s also necessary in journalism to write to space. You start out with 3,000 words and then you’re told 1,800 and then you’re told 1,000 words. You learn what words are really important and which are there because you’re in love with the sound of your voice. That’s critical in a novel, too. When I read a good novel that makes me angry because there’s something wrong with it, the thing that’s wrong is that it’s too long, it’s bloated. Someone needs to pull out 30 or 40 pages. That’s something you learn to do in journalism. You learn to make every word count.

 

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