What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction?

Okay, so I’ve written 12 published books and more than 75 computer manuals (I work in Silicon Valley). I’m now writing my first fiction novel. It’s a great experience because, although I’ve read quite a bit of literature (between 5-8,000 novels in English, German, Spanish, and Danish) (a few years ago, I had some 5,000 books), I never really understood the process of writing fiction.

Non-fiction is like an engineer’s bridge: A) the bridge has to cross the river, B) it must support the load (if cars fall through, bad bridge!), and C) the documentation covers the bridge’s engineering, maintenance, etc. All non-fiction is like this: The goal is to do something and the documentation describes it.

Fiction however… whoa! The bridge can start… and suddenly, veer back. Or do loop-de-loops. A US Civil War troop can gallop across and be attacked by zombies. There are no rules from the real world. Anything is possible, yes, but there are rules, namely, the novel’s self-imposed rules.

Fiction starts as a blank slate and the author creates a world (Tyrannosaurs in F-14s!). Each fictional world has its own rules: Dirty Harry can use a .44 Magnum, but Elinor Dashwood (Sense & Sensibility) can’t. The author also creates moral failures in the characters and sets up a goal. With all of this in place, the author kicks the box and sets everything off on its path to its logically-bound conclusion.

This means a good author can tweak the rules to make it appear very real (see Mavis Gallant’s short story “The Ice Wagon”, utterly incredible writing) but as Nabokov pointed out, it’s an illusion. The best writers make that appear effortless, where you don’t notice the rules at all,  like a good Las Vegas magician. At one extreme is the avant-garde of Joyce and Danielewski; at the other is Emily Bronte and Tolstoy.

If you want to discuss books, let me know.