Imagine you are obsessed with your grandmother. She emigrated from Ireland at the age of 15 and then labored to earn money to bring over her 10 brothers and sisters. Or perhaps she came to this country and invented a new type of paper clip. Or maybe she was a bit more rambunctious and had an affair with a local politician. Her illegitimate daughter is now considering a run for Senate. Perhaps she did all three!
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You find yourself thinking about your grandmother’s story all the time. Talking to people about her. Jotting down notes. Sometimes you sit at the computer and research her hometown. You want to write something about her, but what? A novel? A memoir? A biography? Maybe a poem? How do you decide what form your writing should take?
These are the sorts of questions I get all the time as a creative writing teacher at Gotham Writers Workshop. Sometimes, the answer’s easy. If the story you’re thinking about involves a detective and a murder victim, then your best bet is probably to write a mystery. If you’re imaging characters in an alternative universe and there are space ships and robots, then you should probably write science fiction. But what about all the other types of stories?
Let’s start with some self-diagnosis:
- Who are you hoping will read your work? Family and friends? Or a wider audience?
- How much time do you have to put into this?
- How imaginative are you? Are you good at spinning stories?
- How comfortable are you with the craft of writing? Or, put less politely, can you write?
- What do you like to read? (If you love reading memoirs, for example, you’ll find it easier to write one because you’ll already have a sense of the format.)
Now that you’ve analyzed yourself just a bit, let’s move on to the two major types of writing: nonfiction and fiction. Nonfiction is true, in the sense that it is based on actual and verifiable facts. If grandma left Ireland in 1923, you cannot write that she left in 1925.
Fiction is made up. You can use your grandmother as the basis for a character in fictional writing. You can draw on her strength and sense of humor. But you can also change her. Make her meaner or nicer or more interesting. It’s all up to you. One of the advantages of fiction is that it does give you a little distance. If your relatives object to your fictional depiction of grandma, you can say, “I wasn’t thinking of her at all.” Harder to do with a memoir!
Three types of nonfiction
A memoir is a true account of a brief and meaningful episode in your life. Note the word “brief” in that definition. A memoir is not autobiography. It does not start with your birth and go forward, year by year. Rather a memoir focuses on a meaningful segment of your life: the summer you spend with your grandma on Lake Ontario, when she taught you to overcome your fear of swimming. Or maybe that road trip you took with her, that changed your view of life. For inspiration, check out some popular memoirs, such as Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Memoirs tend to be fairly short, running from about 65,000 to 80,000 words, though there are exceptions. One of the attractions of memoir is that you don’t need to be famous to write one. Some wonderful memoirs have been written by “ordinary” people.
Selling a memoir, however, can be a challenge, if you are hoping for one of the big traditional publishers. The market is highly competitive, so if you don’t have a famous last name or an incredible story, you may find yourself turning to smaller presses or self-publishing.
Questions to ask before writing a memoir:
Do you have access to supporting information? Diaries, journals, newspapers, family members to interview? Readers expect that you will make the memoir as accurate as possible.
Is the story transformative? At the end of Eat Pray Love (spoiler alert) Elizabeth Gilbert finds personal understanding and love. What is your takeaway from your memoir? How did this story change you? (and how will it change the reader?)
Can you deal with the fallout? When you write a memoir, you’re telling your story, but you are invariably telling part of someone else’s story, too. Family members may be hurt or disagree with your version of the story.
A biography covers the entirety of a person’s life. Grandma was born in 1915 in Dublin and died in 1979 in New York City, and this is what she did, year to year. Writing a biography is less to do with mining your own feelings, as a memoir does, than about exploring the facts of another person’s life. Biographies tend to be long. Robert Caro’s prize-winning biography of Lyndon B. Johnson spans four volumes. And he’s not done!
Not surprisingly, biographies can take a long time to write. Writing a biography of someone you know can be a moving tribute, but it will be hard to sell to a large publishing house unless the subject is well known or you are well known.
Questions to ask before writing a biography:
Do you have a subject who intrigues you? You’re going to be spending a lot of time thinking about this person, so make sure she’s interesting.
Do you like to research? You’ll be doing quite a bit of it.
Are you well-organized? Over the course of writing a biography, you will accumulate thousands of facts. Will you be able to keep track of everything?
Also known as creative nonfiction, this format requires the accuracy of nonfiction with the story-telling tools of fiction. A master of this form is Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm. Although writing about a real group of Gloucester fishermen, Junger brings them alive on the page. We’re with them on that boat. We feel their concerns and love and worry. He describes their world vividly. Consider this passage from his book:
A soft rain slips down through the trees and the smell of ocean is so strong that it can almost be licked off the air. Trucks rumble along Rogers Street and men in T-shirts stained with fishblood shout to each other from the decks of the boats.
Writers of narrative nonfiction have a little more leeway with embellishing the truth than other nonfiction writers because readers understand that to bring some scenes truly alive, including dialogue, the writer must imagine a little bit. But experts in this field, such as Junger and Jon Krakauer and Erik Larson, ground their narratives in rigorous research and detail. This sort of narrative fiction is quite popular with readers, and if you can find a compelling enough subject, you may find the larger publishers interested.
Questions to ask before writing narrative nonfiction:
Do you have a topic in mind? There has been a lot of narrative nonfiction lately about people who might have been overlooked in the past, such as Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Is there some unexplored piece of history you can uncover?
Are you a good writer? It’s important to make the reader see and feel the world you’re writing about.
Are you creative? Can you go inside the minds of the people you’re writing about and make them understandable to modern readers?
Three types of fiction
A novel is a long story, and that’s about as much of a definition as you can get. Some novels are really long. Herman Melville’s epic, Moby-Dick, is more than 200,000 words. Some are very short. Paul Harding’s prize-winning novel Tinkers is less than 50,000. Most novels are in the 80,000-100,000 word range. Some cover vast worlds: Think of George R.R. Martin’s work. Others look inward: Think of Virginia Woolf. Some novels are literary and readers savor each word. Others are plot driven, and readers can’t wait to turn the page. Novels come in all different genres, from mystery to science fiction to romance. Some novels are closely based on real life. Others are entirely made up. Most are a mixture of the two. When it comes to getting a novel published, there are an increasing number of possibilities, ranging from the big traditional publishers, to hybrid publishers, to small independent presses, to self-publishing.
Questions to ask before writing a novel:
Are you patient? Novels take a long time to write. Yes, there are people who succeed in writing a first draft in 30 days, but that’s a first draft. A finished novel takes a lot of polishing.
Do you have a good imagination? Even if your novel is based on fact, such as your grandmother’s life, you’re still going to have to make things up.
What do you like to read? The best way to know what sort of novel to write is by considering the ones you enjoy.
Short stories are like novels, but short. And focused. Whereas a novel usually covers a long period of time and a broad cast of characters, stories generally focus on a specific time and a small group of people. (There are, of course, a thousand exceptions to this statement.) Writing a short story requires, as does a novel, attention to character, plot, setting, and all the elements of craft, but because it’s short, it doesn’t usually take as much time. So it’s a good place to start. (Better to discover you have to toss a story you spent three months on than a novel you spent seven years on.) A short story can be under 100 words (flash fiction) or more than 15,000 words, but most are between 3,000-5,000. Masters of the short story include Junot Diaz, Stephen King, and Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. There are thousands of short story publications, ranging from the venerable New Yorker to smaller magazines, such as Crack the Spine Literary Magazine and Crab Orchard Review.
Questions to ask before writing a short story:
Are you succinct? The short story is not the best format if you like to meander around in your writing. Often a story is focused around a few strong scenes.
Do you like to finish something? Many of my students opt for a story because they can write “The End” after a fairly short period of time, unlike novelists, who tend to plug on for years and years.
Do you like to experiment? Short stories are great formats for people who want to try a new structure or an unlikeable narrator or a weird plot twist.
The great poet Carl Sandburg defined poetry as follows: “Poetry is a sequence of dots and dashes, spelling depths, crypts, cross-lights, and moon wisps.” In other words, poetry is about beauty and emotion and words. Sometimes it rhymes and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it tells a story, other times it’s a stream of images. Some poems are only a few words long. Others are epic length. Some well-regarded poetry magazines include Kenyon Review, Poetry, and American Poetry Review, but there are many small poetry markets.
Questions to ask before writing poetry:
Do you enjoy words? More than any other format, the poetry writer must evoke sensations with words, so you need a deep well to draw from.
Are you precise? No matter what type of poem you write, each word must be carefully chosen.
Do you have a favorite poet? Writing poetry without reading it would be like trying to play the piano without knowing Mozart.
With so many formats to choose from, which is best for you? Try testing out a few, but I guarantee that when you find the one that fits, your writing will flow, and you may learn that the story you wanted to tell had nothing to do with your grandmother at all.
Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her short story “The End of the World” was recently published in Malice Domestic Murder Most Geographical. She teaches creative writing at Gotham Writers Workshop. Web: susanjbreen.com.