I live in a college town. There are a lot of very smart people all around me, in the grocery store, in my Sunday School class, on the streets. They are everywhere. It’s no big deal to have a terminal degree (Phd, MD or Law Degree). Many of these people are experts in their particular fields, whether biochemistry, geology, public administration or horticulture. You name it, experts abound in my community.
All these smart people give us a wealth of resources. It enables our community to tap the skill and knowledge of lots of people. I’ve noticed, as a novelist, that everyone thinks they can write a novel. They believe if they can write, they can create a novel. And, unfortunately with the world of publishing at a self-publisher’s fingertips, many of these novels see print. But do academic writers make good novelists?
My answer is no. The only way to become a good novelist is to become an expert in that field. Just because you’ve been published in an academic journal, does not mean you are qualified to write a mystery or a thriller or a fantasy.
- Academics write in the passive voice. This is one of the biggest differences in the two genres. It’s rare to pick up an article in a medical journal and find active voice and good solid active verbs. Instead the academicians write with the to-be verb and use passive voice. It’s okay in that environment. Not in the world of novel writing.
- Academic writing requires a level of citation that fiction writing does not. Indeed we can’t make up too much when we write fiction (unless we’re writing fantasy or science fiction). We must do our research. But, we need not cite every reference nor quote long passages.
- Long sentences are the bane of fiction (unless you William Faulkner!). Today’s fiction writer must keep readers reading, not put them to sleep. Academic writers enjoy writing long sentences and long paragraphs with few breaks.
Even with some of the above style differences, the academic writer who wants to write a novel must learn the craft of writing fiction. Here are some items such a writer might need to study:
- How to create suspense. Whether writing romance novel or a thriller, suspense keeps readers reading. Few academic writers know how to create suspense in their writing.
- How to write dialogue that doesn’t sound stilted. I can think of not one academic paper that I’ve read where dialogue existed! Writing dialogue is a new skill all novelists must master.
- How to develop a character with inner feelings and outer actions. The psychological development of characters takes a lot of practice and learning.
- How to write action scenes. Long drawn out descriptions of a scene will not keep readers reading. They want action. This is something most academic writers do not have to worry with when scribbling their professional papers.
- How to show and not tell. Academics love to tell. Just join an academic at a dinner party and you’ll hear all about their latest whatever. Fiction writer is all about show and less about tell.
These are just a few of my observations when reading the novels written by people who have come out of an academic environment. What are some of yours?