Don’t shoehorn yourself into the wrong form of writing

Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Ron Rash and Deborah Levy all feel it is important for beginners to try out different forms – poems, novels, short stories, plays – to see what suits them and what excites them

(For the full how to write series click here)

Last week’s article dealt with inspiration, but deciding on the right form for an idea may help find your story’s narrative. For anyone determined to write fiction, the novel is often the default canvas. It’s a marathon compared to the sprint of the short story, but both have very different rules and requirements.

Short stories, by their brevity, are tempting because they can be completed in an accomplishable time period, but aspiring writers should never underestimate how difficult they are to get right. That said, 2,000-4,000 words is a far less daunting commitment than a 300-page novel – so how important is deciding on form?

American author Ron Rash's novels included Serena and The Cove. His short story collection, Burning Bright, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and in 2013 he published Nothing Gold Can Stay. "New writers shouldn't concern themselves about whether they are story writers, novelists, or poets," says Rash. "They not only limit themselves but could also be mistaken as to where their talent lies. Faulkner and Joyce both wrote poetry early on but came to realise fiction was their métier. The important thing is to write every day. The rest will sort itself out."

Advice from a chameleon

Deborah Levy agrees, possibly because she is something of a chameleon when it comes to form. A playwright, poet, novelist and short story writer, her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. She tells a story about how writers often shoehorn themselves into the wrong form of writing.

“I once had a student who showed me a short story that was mostly written in dialogue. I asked him to walk around and read me this story aloud from start to finish. He really enjoyed reading it and put all kinds of feeling and subtext into the way he moved around – nuance that was not there on the page yet. So I taught him how to write a play – the rigour of that form – instead of the short story. It was right for him and now he’s a famous playwright.”

Nuala Ní Chonchúir has just published her second novel, The Closet of Savage Mementos, but also moves fluidly between the novel, poetry and short stories. She believes it's important for beginners to try out different forms and see what excites them.

“You may discover that, while you yearn to write a novel, in fact your gifts are better suited to the concision of the short story. I get a different hit from each of the forms I write in, and in terms of the benefits to novel writing, short stories teach you to cut the dross and say things succinctly. Beginners should read widely, and if you learn the sea by sailing it, then you learn to write by writing. A lot. Anyone who is serious about it will put in the hours.”

When starting out, many writers swear by literary journals and competitions as an important lifeline. Not only is the deadline element helpful for completing work, but the visibility of being published by The Stinging Fly or The Dublin Review is encouraging for a young writer. The short story never went away, but has definitely had an upturn in recent years, showcasing new voices.

Photographs and films

For some writers, it's all about the novel, and Gary Shteyngart once quipped that he keeps a picture of fellow American writer Lorrie Moore on his desk "to remind me not to write short stories". Moore herself once famously said: "A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film."

The visual element of the last analogy makes sense to Ron Rash. He advises to come up with an initial idea and then figure out the shape. "I start with an image, not knowing if it will lead me to a poem, story or novel, but I start writing and soon characters begin to arrive, bringing their stories with them. Twice I've written a poem, then a story, and then a novel – all inspired by the same initial image." His short story Pemberton's Bride was originally part of the novel Serena, and he later expanded the short story Speckled Trout into the novel The World Made Straight.

Novels and short stories have as many differences as intersecting points, and some writers advocate starting small and working your way up to the novel’s muscle. Deborah Levy thinks it is helpful to attempt a shorter version of a story but points out the potential problems. “The metabolism of a novel is different from a short story – but I cut my writerly teeth on short stories and it taught me some of the things I needed to write novels. In a shorter work we can display all our known strategies and techniques to good effect, but in a longer work we have to find out how to do something we have never done before.”

Nuala Ní Chonchúir has started short stories that later grew into novels, but cautions that spending too much time thinking about form, or any singular aspect of writing, will slow a writer down. “If you faff about planning or musing, you’ll never begin. Start writing and see where it leads you. Don’t be in too much of a hurry; take your time and write every day. The words and the genre will follow if you show up and work.”

This is part two in our 12-part How to Write a Book series. Every Monday, we will look at a different aspect of the process. Next week’s column focuses on characters


  • Don't overthink what it is you want to write – just start writing.
  • Try out different forms: see what excites you and where your strengths lie.
  • Short stories are short, but don't be fooled into thinking they are easier to write than a novel.
  • Don't vehemently commit to one form – you may decide that a short story would make a better poem, or your novel idea works better in a shorter form.
  • Enter competitions: deadlines are good for finishing work.