What type of writer are you? Do you write novels, poetry, short fiction, plays, film scripts, memoir or creative non-fiction? Perhaps you write in a variety of forms. But how do you find the form that best suits your way of working, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
I love writing (and reading) flash fiction but, like any art form, writing flash fiction requires practice. So, why write it? Because flash fiction forces you to fine-tune your writing, whittling away at chunks of exposition that aren’t necessary. It makes your writing lean and strong. It is fun to write, fast, and you can be quite experimental. Regularly writing flash fiction helps maintain a daily writing habit and there are plenty of opportunities to publish your work on-line. There are many advantages to flash fiction but it’s unlikely that you’ll manage to sell a collection of flash, or make serious money from it.
Writing poetry can also expand your repertoire as a writer – even if you’re not a natural poet, or if, like me, you scarce know the difference between a sonnet and a sestina. Rhyming poetry, or the strict forms of a haiku or ghazal can improve your writing and powers of observation. As with the short flash form, there’s an advantage in restriction. I liken it to the difference between having a roomful of toys to play with and a single cardboard box – a child with too many toys can get distracted or bored, but a cardboard box can be almost anything – a boat, a castle, a hiding place, a sledge, a hundred other things. As with flash fiction, it’s not so easy to sell poetry, but it has gained in popularity in recent years, and if you enjoy performing there are plenty of opportunities to perform your poetry, or share it on-line. Poetry is generally written to evoke a strong emotion and that’s definitely something we can apply to other forms of writing.
What of the short story form? Whole books and articles have been written on this subject and I can only touch on it briefly here. A short story can be almost as short as a flash fiction piece, or it can be up to 25,000 words. Whether you write in the short or the long form will depend on how much you want to expand your characters and the plot, but it will also depend on how comfortable you feel with the form itself. But why write a short story when you could write a novel? Again it depends on your preference as a writer. A short story requires less plotting and fewer words to get down on the page. However, although short stories may seem easy, they are notoriously difficult to get right. But when they work, they are a real joy to read. They aren’t an easy sell either, although again there are plenty of on-line opportunities, and a plethora of local and national short story competitions.
And the novel? How does form matter here? Form is partly about how you tell the story – is it a parable, a fantasy, an epic, an epistolary novel, or even a graphic novel? The form of a novel is also how it looks on the page – the paragraphs and chapters. How do you find the right form for your own novel? Should the chapters be short or long? Does the text need dividing into sections? Do the chapters need to be approximately the same length – do you need chapters at all? And how long should the novel be? The average length of a novel is 70 – 120,000 words but longer novels exist – fantasy novels tend to be longer – while the word count of literary novels can be as low as 60,000. And what of the novella, at between 30,000 and 50,000 words? These are certainly harder to sell than novels but with self-publishing, and people’s busy lives, they are growing in popularity. And with a shorter word count, they take less time to write.
Lastly there’s memoir and creative non-fiction –writing about your own life, or the natural world, for example. Many works mix these forms – for example, The Outrun, Liptrot’s account of her battle with alcoholism and her return to the Orkney Islands combines nature writing with memoir.
It may be that you naturally gravitate to a particular form. But experimenting with different forms of writing, or mixing up writing forms within a text, can be liberating and interesting for both writer and reader. Never forget that you are telling a story though, (poetry excepted) and that the reader is looking for a satisfying whole. Be as experimental as you like but always keep this in mind.
This post was first published in Authors Electric on 12th May 2018