Thursday, January 21, 2010

Can't Get Your Point Across? Try a Different Form

Today's post is about form. Most of the people who read this blog are primarily novelists, but you might also dabble in other forms. Maybe you don't. If you don't, you should, and here's why:

Using a different form for your writing can put a whole different take on the piece and how it comes across.

My lecture this morning was from Sherri Reynolds, author of several novels and a play, Orabelle's Wheelbarrow. But Orabelle's Wheelbarrow didn't start as a play. It started as a novel, but was rejected by her editor. (Yes, she was already published. Yes, her novel, The Rapture of Canaan, had already been chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection. Rejection can happen to anyone. Don't give up.) So she sat on it for a little while, but the story stayed with her.

Eventually, she decided to try writing the novel as a play to see if she got any ideas for developing it. She took a playwriting class and ended up with a 200-page play. (For those who don't know, that's....very long. Very.) Then she cut it down more and more, whittling out scenes until she ended up with 120 pages. That play won the Women Playwright's Initative award in 2005 and was published and produced - after she cut another 30 pages.

What does that have to do with anything? The point is, Orabelle's Wheelbarrow didn't work as a novel; it needed to be reimagined and thought about in a new way. So she thought on the form, created an incredible play, and in the end she thinks it works much better that way.

Tonight, I'm going to offer you a could even call it an assignment (wow, I feel like Shannon with her USC Lessons over here.) This is the assignment we had in Sherri Reynolds' workshop, so I'll even tell you what I came out with and how I think it will really help me tell a story.

Assignment: Think about a piece of writing you've been struggling with, or a story you've wanted to tell for awhile but haven't been able to. The writing can be anything - a section in your current WIP, a short you've been mulling over, a novel you stuck in the drawer years ago...anything. Then, think about how you might reinvent it and write it in another form. It could be a poem, a piece of flash fiction, letters, a narrative essay, a play, a song, a diary entry, a sitcom - anything, as long as you change the form.

What I did: I know I'm usually full of wit and charm, but this is going to get serious, guys. A little more than six years ago, my mom died. She spent a few days in the hospital in a coma before she finally passed. On my first day visiting her, I held her hand in mine and squeezed it. She didn't squeeze back, and it was the first time I really felt like I knew she was gone (even though she hadn't died yet). I always knew I wanted to write something about the power of that moment, but for years I've struggled to find the words. And today it hit me - that isn't a short story, or even a section of a novel, which is what I'd always tried to write it as. It's a poem, using my mom's hand as a guide for me throughout my life, and showing the times she was there and when she wasn't. It was so obvious when I thought of it today I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it before. (Probably because I don't really do poetry, but after hearing Beth Ann Fennelly read hers on Tuesday I'm a poetry lover.) No, I will not be posting the lame poem I wrote here, unless I can clean it up some. But I do feel, for the first time, that the story is being told the way it should. And I feel so glad that I could finally get it down.

Another great thing that this lecture on form did is show how you can take something like a poem and come up with an incredible plot. We looked at a poem called Eulogy for a Snake Handler Killed by Canebrake. I won't post the poem here, because it's very long, but you can follow the link if you're interested and see that there is a LOT of story in that poem.

So the next time you're struggling to write something, remember - it might not be you, or the story, it might be the form that you're putting the story in.


  1. I have never thought about trying a piece in a different writing form, after reading this I am suddenly inspired to run back through my dresser drawer through a couple of pieces I had thrown the wayside and attempting it!

    Great idea!!

  2. This is probably some of the best advice you could have given/been given. Back when I wrote more, I used various methods and forms. I've written stories in prose, poetry, screenplays, stage plays and even an attempt at a series of letters (some of these you might even remember...) Most, with the exception of the poetry and maybe some of the short stories, were horrible and scrapped before any major plot points happened, but almost all started at least in idea form as a straight up short story.

    Even if the new form is foreign, it is still a good idea to try. And maybe, you might be lucky enough to have a sister or something that knows a thing or two about the foreign form, and perhaps has a few published pieces in it, who can help you out... Of course, I respect if you want to keep your last moments with Mom to yourself, but if you want I can give a few pointers on poetry in general. Or if you want to go to your professional writer connections, I won't take it personally. ;)


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