How this Nonfiction Writer Became a Novelist

“Nobody just writes a novel, okay?” I cautioned Dr. Kelly Flanagan. A psychotherapist and author of two beautiful nonfiction books on personal identity (Loveable) and intimate relationships (True Companions), Kelly was now considering his next writing project. (Working with writers includes regular gut checks on magical thinking.)

We’d been through a couple of passes at the idea stage, including the incorporation of some fictional elements. Now the idea had arisen—suggested by his publisher, no less—that Kelly consider fictionalizing the entire approach. A novel.

“And if you do get it out there but it doesn’t do well, it can be a deal-breaker on any future chances of getting published in either category,” I pointed out helpfully. (The best defense against magical thinking is a good ruthless-reality-therapy offense.)

In October 2022 Kelly released his first novel, The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell, in which a troubled man’s recurring nightmare prompts him to face into his pain instead of fleeing from it, at the potential cost of everything he has worked so hard to hold onto. An imaginative portrayal of how transformation rises from the ashes of despair—a process Kelly invites readers into in his nonfiction—the book has garnered an enthusiastic early reception even from those elusive male readers who typically eschew fiction.

Just this week I read the final draft of Kelly’s second novel (under contract), which eclipses its predecessor in dramatic scope, finishing beautifully to give its readers everything they might have expected from the first novel and more. Both books are connected by place, yet different enough that regardless of which one you read first, you’ll want to read the other one as well.

Before our very eyes, voila! A writer jumps genre categories successfully. How does this happen? What did Kelly do to pull this off? I’ll condense years of hard work into a few bullet points:

  • He has a history of reading great quality fiction. Kelly often effuses about novels he has read recently, such as Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (on my shelf, et al.). He has developed a good ear by reading.
  • He came up with a provocative premise and worked it hard. The nightmare sequence is the first image I remember from our early conversations. It became the prologue, and I’ve had readers tell me it’s an irresistible hook. Thanks to Kelly’s extensive work with it, it also serves as a central metaphor on which the whole story can hang.
  • He let the characters live and breathe their own lives. One of the surest ways to tell the difference between a novelist is in service to a story instead of in charge of it is when the characters acquire agency. They tell the writer what their story is; they refuse to submit to chess-piece roles on the writer’s grand storyboard. It’s danged inconvenient—plot points change, major and minor characters morph, the narrative arc threatens to fall to the floor in pieces, and the writer has to rip up the storyboard and reassemble it. But it makes all the difference between readers suspending disbelief and vicariously entering the story or setting the book aside with a shrug.
  • He wrote and rewrote and then rewrote even more. I remember an agent who worked with several prolific novelists saying that every published fiction author has 10-12 unpublished novels on the shelf before they land their first. Kelly broke the rules of conventional publishing wisdom because he kept writing and rewriting until it worked—yes, he had heart and talent and seasoning, but he surrendered them to the yoke of his work ethic.

The odds in the publishing business usually play like the lottery, which is why the only reasons people stay in it is because either they’re gamblers or they can’t stay out of it. It’s all the sweeter when you get a win, therefore. And the best wins are earned. Kelly, you “done well.”

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