by Jackie Romine Walburn
Until starting my first and still-to-be-published novel, this lifelong professional writer- reporter-turned-corporate communications manager had never written a word of fiction. So, how did a reporter switch from journalistic rules of “just the facts” and “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy” to making things up?
It took a downsizing and layoff from that corporate communications job amid the 2008 economic crisis, multiple rereads of Stephen King’s On Writing, a kernel of a news story I covered as a reporter, and lots of days with the door shut writing one word at a time and finding the truth inside the story — just like the Post-it note says.
The yellow curled Post-it still hangs on my computer. In 2009, I gleaned the red-inked advice from King’s opus on writing and taped it to my computer screen, where it still clings. The advice urged this reporter to make up people, places and situations in my first novel, Mojo Jones and the Black Cat Bone. “Mojo” is in its sixth revision with the help of priceless early readers and my fiction writing teacher and editor Carolynne Scott and our weekly fiction writers group.
This constant revision is another leap for a writer who earned her living in the fast-paced business of reporting and corporate communications (which, believe it or not, IS all nonfiction).
As a reporter, you write a news story or feature; it is edited by an editor, printed and that’s it. You’re on to the next story. Fiction, however, means revisions and more revisions.
Writing fiction also means decisions about point of view; I started with four characters telling the story in first person and now am converting-revising to a third person narrative. Right now, I am also trying to decide if the original but revised prologue is in or out.
A successful reporter-turned-novelist warned me about this revision thing when I first started and I asked how to get an agent, how to get published. He said to worry about all that after your sixth or seventh draft. He spoke the harsh truth, but it took early readers and query rejections to bring the revision reality home to me.
Harper Lee spent several years of full-time revising of her original manuscript “Atticus” with a New York editor to create To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite and oft-reread work of Southern fiction. I’m just saying….
So, I revise, chapter by chapter, trying to make sure I write what is seen, heard, smelled and touched, telling the truth behind the story and omitting needless words – a reporter rule not on my Post-it (and No. 17 in Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”) that is true for all writing.
I continue to refine Mojo Jones and the Black Cat Bone, a story that starts with the sheriff being tied to a tree by an escaping suspect with rumored voodoo powers (the kernel of the real news story) and explores how a magic spell and a killing affect characters in a fictional community in the Alabama Black Belt.
Still a reporter at heart, I am learning the fiction biz, including how difficult it is to get published in today’s e-book world, and, as Mississippi author Tom Franklin told us at the last Alabama Writers Conclave meeting, “if you’re not revising, you’re not writing.”
It’s all writing, you know. It’s what I do, be it fiction or nonfiction, and I am always grateful and challenged.
King, a pro who writes every day, gives good advice in the 1999 book that helped spur this reporter to fiction, including “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
He encourages all his Constant Readers who are writers or wanna-be writers: “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”
I keep drinking, Stephen. Thanks.
Jackie Romine Walburn is a career writer, former corporate communications manager, editor and award-winning reporter – having reported for The Birmingham Post-Herald, The Auburn Plainsman, The Auburn Bulletin, The Selma Times-Journal and The Birmingham News. Most recently, she’s been published in The Birmingham Arts Journal and the Alabama Writer’s Conclave’s www.alalit.com. She is polishing the sixth draft of her first novel, a story of good and evil set in the Alabama Black Belt. She lives in Birmingham and writes the blog http://jackierwalburnwrites.blogspot.com.