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Put a Little Variety in Your Life: Try Publishing Fiction

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Independent presses tend to emphasize nonfiction works, but publishing fiction can be lucrative. Fiction stays current for longer, so a market can be developed slowly and steadily. If you are already known for your nonfiction work, you have a ready “hook” to snag some publicity as well as readers for your fiction books. And the variety of working on fiction as well as nonfiction may give an extra spark of creativity to ALL your work.

Sometimes it’s easy to categorize yourself as one type of publisher—of nonfiction for example—and not realize that you may be setting unnecessary limits. Forget about those limits! They could be “limiting” your potential!

As a career academic in a business school, I had been used to writing nonfiction. I wrote numerous articles in accounting and finance and co-authored a book on corporate reputation. Several years ago, I decided to branch out and reinvent myself by trying my hand at fiction.

The result of extending my goals? In addition to academic articles, several different kinds of publications came into existence: a financial cartoon about risky investments, a fantasy tale about a Martian takeover of the stock market, and a mystery book about a murder at a finance convention. As you can see, I have continued to wear my finance cap as I ventured into fiction.

Here are some tips for nonfiction writers wanting to write some “fun” fiction:

1. Rewrite a fairy tale and provide a message related to your nonfiction work.

Fairy tales have a wonderful power to jog your imagination. I came to appreciate this when I was writing an article about derivatives, a complicated type of investment security that can be very risky. I wanted to write about the fact that it’s risky to put your money into an investment that you don’t understand. Not wanting to sound too academic or preachy, I got my “lesson” across in the form of a fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Derivatives.” As she walks through the woods, Little Red Riding Hood is tempted to partake of the derivatives frenzy. The big bad wolf urges her to “Just plunk down your money and you’ll get a great return, not a puny return like most suckers in the market get.” When she questions how the derivatives work, the wolf is scornful. He produces little explanation but lots of technical materials. “My, what big equations you have,” the little girl responds. But she is unimpressed and decides to leave her money in plain old stocks.

The wolf loses all the money he invested in derivatives and his job as well. Needless to say, he doesn’t live happily ever after. On the other hand, our gal “Red” earns a steady return on her stocks and eventually starts her own company to manufacture little red riding hoods.

I sent this fairy tale to a number of places before it was ultimately accepted for publication (Business News, New Jersey, January 11, 1995). To my surprise, publication came with a bonus. The editor, Mukul Pandya, turned my story into a 12-picture cartoon! The illustrator, Mary Linnea Vaughan, did a terrific job and really brought life to the characters.

There’s a reason why fairy tales never go out of style. They have the power to jump-start our creative juices. Fairy tales provide interesting characters and a magical world of fantasy. Pick up a book of these tales and I guarantee that you’ll find one or more that relate in some way to your nonfiction writing.

2. Use your nonfiction area of expertise to create a story related to a current item in the news.

The possibility of life on other planets is a topic that often makes the news, so I thought it would be intriguing to write about some very enterprising extraterrestrials. My story, “Martians Are Going to Kick Butt in the Stock Market” (The Rutgers Observer, October 28, 1993), reverses the usual thinking about outer space. Martians become the observers; Earthlings, the observed. “My” Martians predict the future with perfect accuracy, so their investment success rate is 100%. Unlike their Earthling counterparts, they never back a loser. This enables them to take over the stock market and to live happily ever after.

I am amazed and amused by the fact that my studies in economics and finance are so useful for writing fiction! It is, of course, fiction with a “kick,” the little extra that makes use of my academic background.

I advise keeping your fiction “antenna” open to receiving vibes all the time, from any source whatever—newspapers, movies, plays, lines from songs, comic strips, etc. Who knows what will inspire you? My antenna must have been tuned to an extraterrestrial channel when I wrote the story described above!

3. Give a creative slant to an on-the-job situation.

Setting your fiction at the scene of work (whether it’s a volunteer or “paying” job) can add richness and reality to your writing. For many years, it’s been part of my job to attend a great variety of conventions. All kinds of conventions—for professionals such as accountants, investment advisors, and academics. Thus I decided that a convention would be an ideal setting for my first mystery novel, Beaned in Boston. It’s a finance convention at which someone makes a killing, the kind that leaves behind a corpse.

The victim, Richard Duncan, is a finance professor with lots of talents—talents for acquiring money, lovers, and enemies. There’s a bull market of suspects and motives, but the police manage to get some inside information from two savvy ladies: chambermaid Katie Maguire; and finance instructor and amateur detective Lisa King.

What would a convention be without boring speeches, inattentive audiences, and the tendency on the part of some attendees to grab up every freebie in sight? All of these are, of course, part of the auction in Beaned in Boston. And having taught for many years, I really enjoyed being able to make some comments about the antics and vanities of academics. The teachers in my story are not especially industrious. In fact, one comments that the best part of college teaching is that you don’t have to do it much!

Telling stories about work may prove to be a stress-buster. Don’t let petty annoyances at work get you down. Take them home with you, put them down on paper, and use them (in a disguised version, of course) in your fiction. Writing mystery fiction can be a wonderful escape mechanism. Think about it!

You can be in perfect control, killing off or glorifying the characters as YOU see fit. It’s cheaper and more satisfying than psychotherapy. It’s less dangerous than telling off your boss or voicing your complaints to co-workers. Don’t get mad; get published!

4. Join organizations that enable you to meet some fiction writers.

I joined Sisters in Crime (SinC) and Mystery Writers of America (MWA). Both organizations offer lots of opportunities to mingle with, and learn from, writers of mystery fiction (and nonfiction too). Membership brings social as well as business benefits. I’ve been inspired by the energy, skill, and cooperative spirit evidenced by members of both groups. And I’ve learned about numerous conventions and conferences in which I can participate.

Academic writing continues to be an important part of my career, but extending my goals to fiction has brought new energy and zest to my nonfiction writing.

The best gift you can give yourself is to discover talents you didn’t know you had. Writing fiction has done this for me. It feels good. I highly recommend it. After reading “Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Derivatives,” one of my friends commented: “I didn’t know you could write cartoons.” My response: “Neither did I!”

If you are a nonfiction publisher thinking of taking a stab at fiction, my advice is: Try it, you’ll like it!

Gail Farrelly is an associate professor of accounting at Rutgers University and the author of many articles on financial reporting and investment risk. Her first mystery book, Beaned in Boston (Chicago Spectrum Press, 1995), was named to the 1997 Washington Irving Book Selection list. The sequel, Duped By Derivatives, will be published in 1998.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor August, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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