Columns > Published on April 13th, 2017

But How Do I Write It? Methods for Matching the Medium

When an idea comes to me, I don’t always initially know what it wants to be. Is it a small thing? How small? Maybe it’s a tweet, punchy and tight, or maybe a Facebook post, more honest and less fitted, or perhaps even a series of connected tweets, leading into each other in a rant of (1/7)s through (7/7)s.

Sometimes the short ones are poems, too special to be a tweet, too good to give away, too artistic to sit inside 140 characters. Free verse? Rhymed? A form? How long can a prose poem get before it becomes an artistic essay? How different are an essay and a blog post, really?

Of course only certain thoughts merit poetry. Sometimes a story needs to be told. If it’s fierce enough, it could be micro fiction – a single idea in a little bulb. Or maybe flash fiction, or even the infinitely more sellable short story, but careful lest the idea bloom and run away on petaled feet. Then you’re left wrestling a novelette or novella into something it doesn’t want to be – cutting or adding, shrinking or expanding – and before you know it there’s a novel in your to-do tray.

Maybe that flash fiction is a scene in something larger. Maybe that blog post is the beginning of a nonfiction book.

Or maybe that idea was just a component of a novel you’ll write someday. A line from a story. A phrase in a poem. Maybe that flash fiction is a scene in something larger. Maybe that blog post is the beginning of a nonfiction book. Maybe, and I hate to say it, but maybe that novel is really bloated and would actually serve itself much better whittled into a short story with a single through-line. Can you bear it?

What if there’s an option I would excel at and fall madly in love with that I don’t even know exists, or have no inclination to try? What if screenplays are my calling, or slam poetry, or online comics?

It’s an interesting thing to be a writer in a creative world with so many options. (And that’s not even touching on non-writing art forms. Dance can tell stories, painting can capture scene, photography can reveal character…) I’ve turned tweets into lines in novels, turned novel scraps into poems, utilized ideas I thought were short stories instead as metaphors in my blog. How does one know which medium calls? Is there ever really a “right” answer? Or is it simply a matter of personal predisposition plus circumstance? How do we, as writers, match an idea to a medium?

Length

As I mentioned in my examples above, the most obvious consideration (at least to me) is scope. If the idea is tiny and self-contained, it probably can’t sustain the weight of a novel. And if it’s large and sprawling, it probably won’t ever be whittled into a short story.

Some of knowing how “big” an idea is comes from practice, I think. The more we write works in different lengths, the better we can gauge how much space an idea will take up once written. Even then, though, it’s easy to be surprised. Sometimes an idea that seems small grows legs and runs away, leaving you no option but to chase it across pages and pages of type. And sometimes an idea that sounds ambitious is actually just a seed of value surrounded by useless fluff.

Skillset

And then there’s the issue of experience. No matter how obvious it may seem to me that an idea is just a little microfiction, to a writer who only writes short stories, it will probably look like a short story. (If all you have is a hammer, and all.) Some writers are only novelists, only poets, only essayists, etc. and that’s fine too. I suppose the issue then becomes: should I make this idea fit into my preferred medium, or should I let it pass by in favor of better-suited ideas?

Even so, there are times when we see that an idea would be wonderful in a medium beyond our skillset. I’ve never written a graphic novel before, and don’t currently have much interest in trying, but if the most amazing, irresistible, grab-me-by-the-throat idea came along and demanded to be a graphic novel… well, I guess I’d reconsider, wouldn’t I? At that point it becomes a matter of weighing appeal versus cost. Do I believe strongly enough in this particular project idea to learn an entirely new medium to execute it?

Time

Which leads me to… how long will this take, anyway? Teaching myself a new skill could take months or even years, so the decision there probably needs to be more practical and considered. But trying out a new poetic form will only take me a little while (unless maybe it’s the sonnet redoublé; Google that if you’re a masochist), so the cost-risk there is low enough to chase a few whims.

Time also becomes a factor in the realm of business. If I’m maxed out on deadlines and my To Do List takes seven pages to scroll through, I probably don’t have time for anything — not even a tweet. (Some days I don’t even open the Twitter beast.) So I guess imbued with time considerations is the unspoken presence of priority. (In other words: goals.) Not just ‘do I have time for this,’ but ‘is it worth making time?’

Exploration

That said, sometimes making time to play and explore becomes a priority no matter how busy we are. For me at least, it seems to become a priority especially when I don’t think I have the time for it. Burnout and fatigue are real issues, and pretending we aren’t heading toward them when we are is not only unhealthy, but a potentially time-gobbling, costly mistake. If we make creative play and random rabbit holes an intentional part of our writing life, we can stave off the bigger crashes that come when we push too hard for too long with no break.

Creative play comes in as many shapes and sizes as mediums. We can explore ideas outside our main project, explore mediums we haven’t tried yet, mix things together, even take breaks to try expressing ourselves in art forms beyond writing. Even the ones that don't pan out can always spark new ideas, after all...


Writers and creatives of all breeds, how do ideas strike you? Do they come fully-formed within their chosen category, or do you have to decide what medium will best serve its needs? And if it’s a process, how do you go about choosing?

About the author

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She’s a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, as well as anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 3 & 4 and #1 Amazon bestsellers Killing It Softly and Fire. She’s an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at AnnieNeugebauer.com for news, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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