What’s the best form for your next writing project? Often, this is decided by the sort of thing you want to write. Your sprawling epic fantasy idea likely won’t work as a short story, for example. But what if your writing project’s form was dictated more by your mindset rather than the content?
This won’t work in all cases, of course. But for those of you who have an idea that isn’t yet tied down to a particular execution, it might be interesting to write depending on how you feel like expressing yourself.
Here are some of my favourite forms of creative writing, and when I feel most drawn to them.
Because poetry deals so intimately with language and imagery, it’s perfect for the intense need for self-expression. My urge for poetry is strongest when something in my life feels a little undefined or difficult to express. It’s primal, emotional. But it’s also distant and sometimes indirect. With poetry I can come at a thing sideways. I can talk about very personal things without the reader always knowing exactly what I’m referring to. It’s creative catharsis.
With poetry, I can also explore emotions I don’t yet have clear vocabulary for. In a Writer-in-Residence article I talked about the heightened anxiety and unknowns of the early pandemic being the perfect conditions for poems. I still feel that poetry is uniquely suited to expressing things that the direct light of prose would blow apart.
Poetry is where I cut my teeth as a writer, but short stories were where I lived. For many (many) years, I wrote short stories primarily. I loved them. As a reader, I loved that they were easily digestible yet complex in structure or theme. They could be returned to often, rediscovered. As a writer, I loved the limitations of the form. A tiny cast of characters, a clear idea, precision of language, no word wasted. Short stories are lean and efficient.
I wrote short stories when I felt I had a hundred things to say and I wanted to get them out quickly. They were also great for times when I wanted to consciously build my craft. I worked on some stories for years and honestly loved those times of agonizing over one sentence. Was it meaningful but succinct? Did it illuminate a theme or drive the story? Was it necessary or did I just like how it sounded? It felt exhilarating to work in the constraints of a short story and still produce something that a reader could connect with.
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I love foreshadowing, don’t you?
After years of short story writing, I noticed something troubling: They were getting longer. It wasn’t long before they began elbowing the traditional 10,000-word limit of a short story. Not only did this make it more difficult to seek publication, but I was beginning to daydream about very un-short-story things. What would it be like to indulge in a paragraph of description that didn’t further the story or develop a character? What if I had – heresy – a subplot?
The Quiet is Loud is my debut novel, but it isn’t the first one I wrote. That honour goes to the gender-swapped rip-off of The Outsiders I spent an entire summer on when I was thirteen. Back then I wasn’t concerned with craft at all – I was just a kid having fun. But in the years that followed, a story would sometimes hook itself into me and wouldn’t let go. It was the kind of story that I had to unfurl in order to understand.
Unlike short stories, novels are where I turn when I want to take my time exploring an idea, when I want to luxuriate in storytelling and all it entails. Novels have the inner complexity of poems but, in this case, a direct light is exactly what’s needed.
The novella is the newest form for me, and it seems like it should have been my logical next step after short stories. Who knew the perfect time to try a novella was after writing two full novels? I find novellas to be the best of both worlds, with the constraints of a short story but the expanded storytelling of a novel. I have to be focused and intentional, but I can indulge in a little description or play around with language while I’m at it.
Spending years on a novel is highly rewarding, but it’s also just tiring. With a novella I can write a satisfyingly full story while relaxing into the form’s limits. Sometimes it’s comforting to reveal just enough to tell the story and be done. I can experiment in a reasonably low-stakes environment. And sometimes micro-exploration is more satisfying than an epic journey.
I came of age in the late-nineties internet, which felt like a dimly-lit small town on a remote island. There, it was rare to use your real name – and in fact most of us didn’t. Maybe that’s why I felt free to write whatever I wanted. I used to get a scenario in my head, write out a few paragraphs illuminating this moment in time, and post it. I could tinker with symbolism and figurative language like I loved doing with poetry, but also explore ideas of character and theme. And best of all, I didn’t have to get bogged down in pesky details like plot. I didn’t even really have to revise it much if I didn’t want to. It was the ultimate in experimentation.
Prose poetry has the emotion of poetry with the more straightforward language of prose. Sometimes those two things held in balance can feel almost dreamlike. I turn to this form when I want to evoke a mood or idea without submerging fully into the more esoteric waters of poetry.
Whether or not your favourite writing forms align with mine, I hope that these examples will inspire you to tailor your creative expression around time constraints, emotional capacity – or just life in general!
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Samantha Garner is the author of The Quiet is Loud, shortlisted for the 2022 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. A Canadian of mixed Filipino-Finnish background, her character-driven fantasy novels explore themes of identity and belonging. When not writing, Samantha can be found daydreaming in a video game or boring a loved one with the latest historical fact she’s learned.
She can be found online at samanthagarner.ca and on Instagram and Twitter at @samanthakgarner.