3 Reasons Why You Should Write In Other Genres
For years and years I've defined myself as a writer. When people ask what I write, I say literary fiction, as close as you can get to real-life while still being fiction, with the occasional fantastical element thrown in. This has worked for years and years.
But the time and devotion spent working on my novel recently has made me want to step away from fiction. I've been used to playing with words and exploring ideas in my writing, and fiction (particularly this novel) halted that playfulness. I got too close to it, too intimate, and my playful inspiration has disappeared.
In replacement, my muse has been asking me to explore the memoir and TV writing worlds.
Say what? Muse, what are you doing?
I felt weird about this at first. I'm not a memoirist or a TV writer! I write litfic. How could I possibly conquer these projects when that's not what I do?
But this is narrow thinking. This is my brain being fearful, being cautious, putting me in a little box where I know things are safe. And that's not a place I want to be.
If we go back to the definition: I'm a writer. Not a specific kind of writer in particular, but a writer as a whole. That means I tell stories, I put words on paper, I document truths about the world. That doesn't mean it has to be through the medium of only literary fiction novels.
I've decided to commit to exploring these new mediums, new forms, new genres (whatever you want to call them), and allowing myself to tell the stories I want to tell in the ways that suit them best. Because that's my job as a writer. My job is not to churn out novel after novel or short story after short story, but to tell each story as it wants to be told, whether it's the form I think I know or something new entirely.
You should always be seeking to tell your stories in the way they deserve to be told, strengthening your writing skills, and exploring new worlds and forms you haven't considered before. This is how you become the writer you want to be. Denying your muse the opportunity to play with other genres is just going to make inspiration disappear. And if you force your story to be something it's not, it's not going to turn out well.
Still not convinced? Here's 3 reasons you should play with other genres.
1 | Strengthen your writing muscles
Writing in an unfamiliar genre is NOT going to hurt you, I promise. In fact, it's only going to teach you more about storytelling and make you a better writer than before. Each different form has different rules and conventions to follow which requires you as the writer to think and act in different ways.
If you want to advance any of your storytelling techniques, go straight to the medium that will give you a masterclass in how to do it better.
What are these mediums and what do they do for strengthening your skills? Let's go through them:
poetry: Strengthen imagery + word choice
When you write poetry, you strengthen your imagery and description skills as well as your need to choose the right word. The conciseness and brevity of poetry requires you to focus your attention on being precise with how you show the image (and theme) you're trying to convey. Every word counts a lot in a poem, so you take the time to make sure you're choosing the best words possible. If you play with poetic forms (like writing a villanelle or sonnet or sestina), the constraints of the form ask your brain to think in different ways, which may result in surprising images and themes.
ESSAYS: Strengthen Show + tell analysis
When you write essays, you strengthen your exposition and analysis. Essays require you to show and tell, but you have to tell it in an interesting way without being too lofty or condescending. Writing essays asks you to explore what it is you really mean to say and how to say it in a way that is beautiful, concise, and meaningful, while showing and telling.
You also pull from real-life to write an essay because they're nonfiction. Whether you're writing a personal essay about yourself or a critique on contemporary society, you have to deal with facts, interpretations, and real-life events and people. Considering these elements makes you a well-rounded and engaged citizen of the world because you consider yourself in the context of your own reality. (It may also lead to some interesting ideas for fiction in the future!)
scripts: strengthen dialogue + visual cues
When you write scripts (films or TV shows), you strengthen your visual representation and dialogue skills. Scripts don't allow you to be wordy and depict exactly the placement of the napkin on the hardwood table crafted by your protagonist's grandfather 65 years ago. You have to show what needs to be shown briefly and then move into action. Considering camera angles and cutting in between settings asks your brain to think differently about the scene you're creating and can lead to very interesting insights.
Additionally, your characters have to do something and they have to say something. This is the heart of your story and all you're really able to express on the page. You learn how to write dialogue that advances the plot organically with distinct voices for each of the characters.
Short Stories: Strengthen management of all story elements
When you write short stories, you strengthen your ability to manage all story aspects in a succinct form. For a short story to succeed, you need to have a unique and compelling character, a strong setting, a forward-moving plot, excellent dialogue, a strong beginning and ending. You need to master each element individually in order to finish with a story that shines. The brevity of the short story allows you to practice these pieces quickly in a way that's easier to manage than a whole novel.
Novel: Strengthen commitment + intimate world/character creation
When you write a novel, you strengthen your ability to know characters and a world so intimately. Because you have room to explore backstory, setting, exposition, and plot, you have to create realistic, fully-fleshed out worlds and characters.
You also get a masterclass in commitment—because this thing is going to take a long time. You strengthen your ability to stay with a story and see it through to the end, even when it seems tough and you feel like giving up.
*If you want even more mediums, forms, and genres to play with, check out my friend E.M. Welsh's site. She discusses how to write for plays, film, video games, novels, short stories, and more.
Taking the time to explore these other genres strengthens your skills. Even if you only want to write novels, taking the time to study dialogue through script writing will strengthen your abilities to write witty and realistic dialogue in your novels. Even if you only want to write scripts, taking the time to consider word choice and imagery in poetry will strengthen your ability to focus on the right visual elements of a scene. Exploring different forms won't hurt you, but only strengthen your skills.
2 | Freedom to tell the story the way it needs to be told
Not all stories are suited to all genres. If you are writing a deeply personal story about the facts of your life, it won't have the same effect as a TV show than it will as a memoir. If you are writing an epic battle story with adventures and war, it won't have the same effect as a poem than it will as a movie. Although any story can be anything (The Goldbergs is a TV show based on creator Adam Goldberg's life and The Odyssey is a classic epic poem about adventures and war), you want to choose the best medium for this particular story.
Choosing a genre changes the presentation and tone of the story. Writing in the various genres will highlight certain elements and minimize others, as we saw before when we considered strengthening your muscles: TV and film will rely heavily on dialogue and visual effects; memoir will rely heavily on truth and analysis; and so on. Your job as the writer is to get to the heart of this story and figure out the best way to show it. It may or may not be in the way you think.
In the end, the genre you choose may not even be super important. Take, for instance, Pam Houston's novel Contents May Have Shifted (*affiliate link!). The "novel" follows a protagonist named Pam on a variety of adventures the writer Pam has actually undertaken. Houston visited my college when the novel was released and discussed her process of writing. She made certain to note that many of the events and feelings in the book were true, and many were exaggerated or imagined for the sake of the story. When she went to publish it, the decision to market it as "novel" or "memoir" came down to design on the cover. "Novel" fit better in the cloud on the cover, and so, it was a novel.
In the reader's perspective, at the end of her writing, it doesn't really matter. We want a good story and Houston delivers just that. If Houston had decided she was definitively writing a novel, she wouldn't have had the opportunity to include some of the amazing tidbits that actually happened in real life. If she had decided she was definitively writing a memoir, she would not have had the opportunity to explore the imagined elements that make the story stronger. Instead, she just wrote a story; and the result is amazing.
Hybrid stories and crossover genres are increasing in popularity. You've likely read some hybrid work in the past, things like prose poems, flash fiction, lyric essays, or instructions as literature. Utilizing these kinds of forms and genres gives you as the writer the freedom needed to explore the work deeply, uniquely. It allows you to tell the story in the way the story needs to be told.
Look at this definition of hybrid forms by Thomas Larson:
The hybrid writer isn't trying to get things exactly as they should be according to traditional standards, but is trying to tell the story authentically using whatever techniques from whatever genres, forms, and mediums it needs. Often, it does this to surprising and fantastic effect.
For example, in Claudia Rankine's book Citizen (*affiliate link!), she tackles issues of race in American society. She could've written a collection of essays, created a documentary, or fictionalized her message in a novel. But instead, she presents a book of prose poems interspersed with photographs and graphic art that enhances her work in a unique way. Writing in this hybrid poetry/photography/prose genre creates an experience in the reader, allowing them to feel and interpret Rankine's message in a way unlike any other. The reason it's so powerful is because of this deliberate presentation.
For another example, in Sandra Cisneros' novel The House on Mango Street (*affiliate link!), the story doesn't follow a definitive plot. The protagonist Esperanza speaks in short vignettes, almost prose poem chapters, painting a picture of her world and her mind at different moments as she grows up. Cisneros could've written a novel where first a happened to Esperanza, which caused b and then c and so on, but presenting the story via these vignettes allows her to show a world that feels so authentic, so fragmentary, and so true. It emphasizes that this story isn't just about what happens to Esperanza, but how she feels about what's happening to her. It would come across differently for the reader if it was written as a traditional narrative.
Giving yourself the freedom to play with a variety of techniques and fuse them together into a hybrid form frees your story and message to be told in the way that is most authentic and true.
3 | Brands your voice as "human" not only as "novelist"
Perhaps writing novels has suited you just fine up until this point. That's great. But that's only one hat you wear as a human of the world. That's only one singular lens your readers get to look through in order to think about you, themselves, and the world we share.
Is that enough?
You're not just a novelist in real-life. You're also a worker, a sister, a mother, a wife, a coffee drinker, a yogi, a hiker, a friend, and a variety of other things. You are a complex human with a variety of traits, passions, and experiences. Why shouldn't your writing reflect that?
You don't have to be only a novelist. You can also be poet, screenwriter, essayist, memoirist, or whatever else you want to be. It's not as uncommon as you might think.
For example, take Roxane Gay. Gay is most famous for her essay collection Bad Feminist (*affiliate link!), but she's also responsible for a novel, a short story collection, and working on the Black Panther adaptation. And she's often writing opinions in The New York Times and other places. Gay writes to her personal themes, her personal writer's DNA, in whatever medium best suits the story. Readers can count on the fact that Gay will say something beautiful and meaningful about politics, feminism, human rights, race, and other aspects of identity in whatever she publishes. She's written herself as human, using the story, novel, and essay forms that reflect that human self appropriately.
Example #2: Marina Keegan. A voice lost too soon, Keegan's writing shines in whatever medium she pursues. As a student of writing, I'm sure she was required to write in a variety of genres, but she excelled in each of them. While she doesn't have the same level of overarching themes that Gay demonstrates, it's clear through reading her posthumous collection (*affiliate link!) that she devotes 110% of her energy to making the story/essay/speech be the best it can be. She doesn't limit herself through only looking through a singular lens, but allows herself the freedom to express her truths in the mediums appropriate. She's written herself as human, using the story and essay forms that reflect that human self appropriately.
And another example, Margaret Atwood. Although she's best known for her phenomenal The Handmaid's Tale (*affiliate link!) right now, she's published "seventeen books of poetry, sixteen novels, ten books of non-fiction, eight collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, and one graphic novel, as well as a number of small press editions in poetry and fiction" in the past (Wikipedia). That's quite a diverse collection of things to write! Atwood can do this because she's written herself as human, using the story, poem, graphic novel, and TV show forms to reflect that human self appropriately.
The form they choose to tell the story may vary, but we pay attention to and care about these writers as people, as humans.
If we prefer fiction, we may seek out the writer's fiction first (or vise versa for essays etc.). But when we fall in love with the story, we often fall in love also with the way this human thinks and portrays the world. We inherently get drawn into the way the see and explain the world. We want to see the world through their eyes, and by reading their writing in a variety of mediums, we're able to do that. We trust the way the notice the world and seek out their interpretations.
This means we're falling in love with the human mind, not just the story.
As a writer, this is important. This allows you to be the fully formed complex human you are. This should give you freedom and possibility for growth. This allows you to be the writer you want to be, whatever that could possibly mean.
Additionally, this is your brand. It broadens your reader base by attracting a variety of people to your work. Writing in this way means you're not only attracting readers who are interested in your apocalyptic zombie novel, but also your poetry and essays and scripts and whatever else you come up with.
Is it always easy and accepted to do this? No. In fact, most publishers will tell you to stick within one singular genre so as not to piss off current readers. But not all readers are going to like all your stories anyways. I write for me first. I want to express what it means to be me, not just what one reader base wants in one medium.
I encourage you to write for you and tell your truths (no matter what medium or form) too.
Writing in a variety of forms helps you as a writer. It strengthens your skills by paying attention to a variety of techniques. It allows you the freedom to tell the stories and messages you need to tell in the forms best suited to that work, crossing genres and blending them together as necessary. And it lets you be the writer you want to be, telling all the stories you need to tell as a human, not just the ones you feel like you should tell wearing a singular hat.
Play with different forms. Experiment in a new genre. Tell the stories that matter to you. You'll grow into an even more amazing writer than you already are.
Have you experimented with a variety of genres and forms in your writing? Which ones do you feel like you need to explore further? Which ones would help you strengthen your skills as a writer?