The Benefits of Spending Time Outside the Box
One of my aims for 2019 was to be more experimental with my writing. As such, I have been spending time writing in different styles and genres that I wouldn’t normally touch with a bargepole – not because, I don’t think they are worthy but because they seem so alien to the way I usually write. Second person point of view? Science fiction? A story that consists of nothing but a list of items to take on holiday? At the beginning of January, these were the sort of ideas that might have brought me out in a cold sweat. Now, though, I am starting to embrace the prospect of trying new things. I feel like I’m learning a lot from it and I hope that it will infuse my more natural writing style when I allow myself to return to it in the not-too-distant future.
Embracing New Ways of Framing a Story
For any story, a writer has certain choices to make before setting off. Should it be a long piece expansively told or a short piece that revels in concision? Should it be written in the present or the past or maybe the future or even the future perfect continuous? What perspective should be chosen (1st person, 3rd person omniscient etc.)? How will dialogue be formatted? How will emotions be portrayed? ... I could go on. Many writers can get stuck in a comfort zone whereby they no longer challenge themselves with those questions. This is ok. This is comfortable, after all. But, I feel there are a lot of benefits to trying out different ways of framing a story.
From writing a piece where I purposely eschewed any form of dialogue punctuation, I learnt a lot about how tone of voice can effectively bleed from dialogue into narrative (and vice versa). In writing a flash from 2nd person perspective, I felt like I improved my ability to portray emotions through subtle details. A piece that I have written in staccato fragments (heavy on punctuation, light on grammatical correctness) has helped me hone my concision to a level where I now consider it to be a strength rather than a weakness. And from exploring subjects and themes outside of my usual choices, my horizons have broadened which I hope will help infuse those tricky-to-get-right peripheral details of future stories.
The key thing that I’ve learnt is that experimentation is invaluable when it comes to improving your writing. Therefore, I’ll be continuing to take risks and to try out new techniques in the weeks and months to come. Can I form a story within the context of a cake recipe? Can I write a piece that can be read from back to front as well as from front to back? Can I construct a flash fiction that contains the secrets to life, the universe and everything?
Writing in Different Genres
A couple of weeks ago, I published a showcase blog post focussing on fantastic flash fiction from across the genres and it got me thinking about the different challenges that each of them poses. Historical fiction, for example, is very much constrained by facts. What happened can’t be changed and it can be tricky for the writer to balance ‘truth’ and ‘entertainment’ within the story they are trying to tell.
Conversely, speculative fiction (fantasy and sci fi) is constrained only by a writer’s imagination. This might seem like a dream scenario but creating an alternate reality requires a deal of planning. To be effective, you need to know everything from the colours of the landscape to the naming conventions of its inhabitants. What’s more, you need to have reasons behind these divergences. Everything needs to be rooted in some sort of logic.
Horror, suspense and detective fiction all require a careful ratcheting and release of tension at key moments. There are likely to be emotional extremes within the thread of the narrative and this means the writer needs to master the skill of showing rather telling to be most effective. Meanwhile, romance writing calls for a very different handling of emotions. Romantic fiction can often be derided because the writer’s choice of vocabulary is too ‘creative’ or the characters’ tone of voice is caricatured. Ensuring it doesn’t verge on the comical requires a balancing act between divulging enough information to satisfy a reader’s curiosity and not going overboard. Scenes of a romantic nature have caused many renowned authors of literary fiction to come a cropper in the past.
All in all then, I think there are a lot of benefits to be found in trying out different genres. I have so far turned my hand to historical (which tied me in knots), speculative (which threatens to boil over into a novella rather than the planned piece of flash fiction) and I am now having a go at writing a detective noir. Each of these different pieces has opened my eyes to new possibilities which hopefully will stay at the back of my mind to the benefit of my future writing.
Writing outside the box is all very well and good, but I think that it’s just as important for a writer’s development to read outside the box. Reading other people’s work provides a yardstick by which a writer can measure their own output – in terms of style, in terms of risk, in terms of emotional depth, in terms of entertainment value and in terms of quality. And reading novels, short stories or small fictions that are in styles/genres different to that which you normally read can provide a completely new perspective. For example, I took a lot from reading “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” at the beginning of last year even though it’s so dissimilar to the books I normally enjoy. Similarly, I’ve found a lot to be learnt from reading the contents of literary magazines that showcase pieces that experiment with form or tone of voice or blur the edges between poetry and prose.
None of this makes ‘outside the box’ any less intimidating a place to be. But I am starting to see the wisdom of passing time there and learning what I can before a scuttle back to my comfort zone of being firmly ‘inside the box’.
A very little something that I wrote was published by the Drabble at the weekend. "Constellations" is about ears and bullfrogs and meandering comets amongst other things.