Making the Switch from Nonfiction to Fiction: Q&A with Kate White

Image: Kate White

Today’s Q&A is by journalist and romance writer Cathy Shouse (@cathyshouse).

Kate White (@katemwhite) is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen novels of suspense; six standalone psychological thrillers, including Have You Seen Me? (2020); and eight Bailey Weggins mysteries.

For fourteen years she served as the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, and though she loved the job (and all the freebies to be found in the Cosmo beauty closet!), she decided to leave eight years ago to concentrate full time on being a suspense author.

Her first mystery, Even If It Kills Her, was a Kelly Ripa Book Club pick and No. 1 bestseller on Amazon. Her most recent Bailey Weggins mystery, Such a Perfect Wife, was nominated for an International Thriller Writer Award.

Recently, Kate answered questions via email about how she morphed into being a fiction writer from a long career as a nonfiction editor and writer.

Cathy Shouse: Many writers dream of writing novels but enter into the field through nonfiction writing. Tell us about your unique introduction to professional writing.

Kate White: The entire time I was growing up, I had a huge desire to write plays and novels, especially mysteries (Yup, I was a Nancy Drew fanatic), and I also loved putting out my own little magazine in high school. I had no idea, though, how to break into any of those areas. My senior year in college I won the Glamour magazine Top 10 College Women contest and appeared on the August cover. Because of my introduction to the Glamour staff, I knew I had a decent shot at getting a job at the magazine. A particular lane of writing suddenly opened up in front of me and I followed it, leaving the other areas of interest behind. 

I started as an assistant at Glamour and advanced from there, eventually becoming a full-time feature writer. I ended up writing the first personal essays the magazine ran. Mine were about being single in New York. Ha, my articles were popular but did not become an HBO series.

From that point on I was firmly in the world of nonfiction. I became the editor-in-chief of five different magazines, including Cosmopolitan, and also wrote several nonfiction books. But I still had a secret dream to write fiction.

Your name first came onto my radar in the mid-90s when my employer supplied all the women with your book, Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do (updated in 2018 as The Gutsy Girl Handbook: Your Manifesto for Success). When you became so successful with nonfiction, were you tempted to stick with what was working?

I loved being an editor-in-chief and I also really enjoyed writing nonfiction. One of the magazines I ran was Working Woman, a really terrific magazine for women in the workforce, and I found it exciting to write about career strategies and leadership secrets, to guide women at a time when they were moving in huge numbers into the workforce. And it was very reinforcing, too. Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead not only became a Wall Street Journal bestseller, but it was also considered a bible at the time by many women. My agent encouraged me to keep at it.

But, as I said, I never lost the yearning to write a novel, which I’d tried a few times unsuccessfully over the years.

During the time I was running Redbook magazine, a woman pitching a horoscope column asked to read my palm and she told me, “You love this office but you would also love to be in a little space all by yourself doing something very creative.” I used that crazy experience as a kick in the butt. If I was going to write fiction, I had to do it before I ran out of time.

I wrote four chapters of a mystery novel about a true crime reporter named Bailey Weggins, who freelanced for a top women’s magazine based in Manhattan. I should add that it really helped to recognize that suspense was the right genre for me, not women’s fiction, which I’d attempted before.

I was just getting ready to show it to my agent when I was offered the position of new editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. I was, of course, thrilled to be offered the job, but I knew I would never be able to write a novel while I was taking on such a huge responsibility. I said yes and stuck a printout of the four chapters in a drawer for the next five months—but eventually came back to it.

I heard one agent say it is a disadvantage to be a nonfiction author and go into novels, although it seems fairly common. What do you tell a journalist or nonfiction writer who expresses interest in writing fiction?

Let me start with the pluses first. Writing nonfiction trains you to pay attention to details and to be an efficient and effective researcher, skills you need for writing mysteries and thrillers. And if you work full-time at a job that involves nonfiction, you’ve probably learned to be darn good at handling writer’s block. When there are deadlines at a magazine, for instance, you don’t get to say, “I haven’t heard from my muse today.” You just write and edit, and if you feel it sucks a little, you probably have time later—like when it’s in a first pass—to tweak.

And it’s possible that writing a nonfiction book first—or making a name for yourself with nonfiction articles—could give you an edge when it comes to both getting an agent and securing a contract for a novel.

My agent [who sold the nonfiction book] suggested we try to sell the mystery with simply a proposal, an outline, and four chapters, and she thought it was only fair to offer it first to my Good Girl publisher, even though we suspected they would pass. To our surprise they bought the book, If Looks Could Kill, as well as a second unwritten mystery, based solely on the material I presented. And they gave me a great advance. This was due in part to the fact that they had a prior relationship with me. They knew from experience that I was reliable and easy to deal with, and that I could be counted on to deliver a full manuscript in a year.

Now here’s the negative. Fiction writing is so different than nonfiction writing. When I first started my novel, I spent a huge amount of time not only trying to be better at writing fiction but also unlearning some of my skills as a magazine writer. They hampered me.

What methods did you find most helpful for making the switch? Did you have a point where you wondered if you could make it happen?

I believe that old adage that nonfiction writing is about telling and fiction is about showing, and I really had to work hard at burning off the need to tell. When I first started my novel, I wrote the early chapters over and over again, learning to let go of the urge to over explain or “info dump.” I had to discover how to let my characters simply talk and act. In a nutshell, the difference between showing and telling is writing, “She smiled,” instead of, “She smiled, feeling happy.”

I never thought I couldn’t do it, but there were plenty of times in the beginning when it was really frustrating. If you make the transition, it’s important to accept that you’re on a learning curve and need to be very patient with yourself.

Here’s what I feel it comes down to: I really think you have to get up one day, put on your author pants, and decide to stop treating the idea of writing a novel as a fantasy. Just do it. Plenty of people have confided in me that they want to write fiction, but they make the mistake of only dabbling, writing during vacations or when they have free moments here and there. 

I wrote eight mysteries and thrillers when I was at Cosmo. It wasn’t easy, but many novelists start when they have a day job. I would take my kids to school on the early side (the school had actually opened and there were teachers in the room, I swear!) and then write for a solid hour before my staff arrived at the magazine. On weekends I got up before my kids and wrote for two hours early in the morning. That’s not a lot of time but I forced myself to do what I called “deep work” and really concentrate. It also helped to set a goal of a certain number of pages for each week day (two) and each weekend day (four). The pages added up.

You have to decide to be all in and really put in the time.

I’ve read that Anna Quindlen would write her column one day and her novel the next, not attempting both on the same day.

I think you have to find the system that works for you personally. I can write nonfiction anywhere, any time of day, but for some reason the only time I can compose fiction is in the morning.

When I decided to commit to writing fiction, I was worried I would end up avoiding the task since I had a pretty full plate. So I used a time management technique that I had learned called “slice the salami.” We often avoid important tasks not because we don’t want to do them but because we make them so daunting. The idea is to slice these big tasks down into really small, manageable slices, as small as we need. I thought a lot about how small my daily slice should be for me to be willing to approach it. And I decided 15 minutes. I knew that if I told myself I had to write for only 15 minutes a day in the beginning, I would be able to pull it off. And so that’s what I did. Over time I was able to greatly expand.

So try slicing the salami. Crazy but it works.

How would you describe your genre?

I think of my Bailey Weggins mysteries as amateur sleuth procedurals with a strong whodunit element and also with an irreverent sense of humor. They’re not cozies, though—because Bailey finds herself in some pretty dangerous situations. My standalones are psychological thrillers. They are edgy and I hope really scary, and since there are plenty of twists and lots of misdirection, they play with your mind. I’ve really enjoyed writing both genres.

I’ve tried to stick as much as possible to what I know. Bailey Weggins is a true crime writer for magazines and now mostly websites, and that’s a world I know, of course. The characters in my standalones have jobs that touch on realms I’m familiar with from my magazine career, such as marketing. Or jobs close friends have—and I’m able to really pump them for information.

Today, do you consider yourself primarily a novelist? I’ve noticed your newsletter promotes nonfiction releases (when they occur) and fiction releases, and wondered how you handle promoting both?

It’s funny you ask that because a year or so ago, I made a big decision on that front.

When I decided to leave my job running Cosmopolitan, it was to be my own boss, and I planned to have a kind of bifurcated writing life. I was going to write nonfiction career books and speak on leadership at companies and conferences and also continue to write suspense fiction.

As my going away present from Cosmo, my boss paid my way to the Harvard Business School’s executive education division’s Women’s Leadership Forum, something I was dying to do. Each morning before classes started, groups of around six of us would work as a team with an executive coach. It was as if we all had a small board of advisors and the purpose was to help us each deal with one important question in our careers.

My question: Should I really have this bifurcated career, or should I instead focus on just one type of writing? I explained that I loved doing both.

Well, everyone but one in my group, including the wonderful coach, told me “Do both. You love both, so why not?” Only the Turkish banker had a different view. “Do one,” she said.

Well, I ended up doing both for seven years. I loved sharing career strategies with women and being a public speaker. And I loved being a suspense novelist. But about a year ago I began to realize that it wasn’t really working to serve two masters. There weren’t enough hours in a week to really give my all to each area, particularly with the explosion of social media and all the hours it demands of our time professionally as writers, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Cover of Have You Seen Me? by Kate White

I think it’s fine to have a multi-faceted life as a writer if those facets are related and serve each other. Lisa Scottoline writes both suspense novels and humorous essays, which are later published in book form. The essays fit in wonderfully with her career as a novelist because readers are eager to know more about her. But my two worlds were really like apples and oranges, and neither served the other. I even suspect the career expert aspect of my life might have negatively impacted the suspense writing part, making it appear as if I wasn’t all in with being a novelist.

So last year I made the decision to give up the career expert side. And oh, it’s been exhilarating to just be able to concentrate on one thing. Plus, a couple of nice successes happened for me in the last several months—being nominated for an International Thriller Writer Award, having my latest novel sell to the UK (though I’ve sold fiction in a bunch of countries, I’ve never cracked the UK before). I can’t actually trace these things back to my decision, but in some ways it felt like the universe was rewarding me for choosing to be faithful to one lover going forward.

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