Friday, September 3, 2010

Thoughts on Form and Structure

I don’t remember who said or wrote: “Form sets you free.” When I was younger, just starting out, I rebelled against anything that smacked of rigidity or confinement. But lately, I have found that writing within a set form or—even better—sticking to firm word limits, has freed me to experiment with content or style within set boundaries. I have written 750-word essays on environmental subjects for our local paper and for Northern Woodlands magazine. I’ve written 150-word Letters to the Editor. I signed up for Hamline’s blog, in part to see if I could stick to the (suggested) 250-word limit. (It’s hard!) My next goal is to leap into poetic forms, as Kevin does in Ron’s Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.

My most challenging, yet liberating, experience with form was writing a novel for Breakfast Serials, a company that publishes serialized stories in newspapers nationwide. The novels appear in 18 installments. Chapters are 800 words; each ends with a cliffhanger so the reader will buy next week’s paper. Writing within these guidelines was like solving a puzzle. I had to invent a story with a clear through line and strong forward momentum. I learned more about plot and pacing than I expected and yes—thank you, Jane!—I was forced to slash “lard-ass prose.” Now I realize: a student could write a serial novel in a semester. A chapter a week, four or five chapters per packet, 14,400 words total—and you’d have a complete novel. Anyone game to try?

(This post=249 words.)

1 comment:

  1. Liza,

    A quote, found by the fabulous Ms. Grabill, on just this topic:

    “William, don’t you find fourteen tightly rhymed lines an absolute prison? Ah, Pablo, if you could just yank that picture off that lousy scrap of canvas! ...Form is not a bar to free expression, but the boundaries within which writers and artists freely choose to work” Katherine Paterson