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4. Form and media
It’s important to learn as much as you can about media, form and genre. You can’t waltz into a form or media without first understanding it or its audience.
The best way to learn is through experience. Be part of the audience. Read, watch, and play as widely as you can. Try new things in your practice to get a better understanding of the kind of writing that appeals to you and fits best the story you want to tell.
4.1 Short-form prose
4.1.1 Short Fiction
Short fiction is a work of prose fiction designed to be consumed in a single sitting. It is a lean, compact form that centres on a single, central conflict. The abbreviated length of the short story allows for great creativity in structure, voice, and style that might be unsupportable over a longer work.
Within the umbrella of short fiction come many sub-forms, each with their own unique challenges and pleasures. As a starting point, the shortest of short-form fiction is micro-fiction, complete at 1-50 words. Next is the flash fic, at around 50 – 1000 words. After that, the short story, between 1000 – 10 000 words, though some would argue the short story can be up to 20 000 words. These word-counts are strictly rules-of-thumb; there is no formal definition for the length of various genres of short fiction, and word-count expectations differ greatly between publications, literary genres, and audiences.
In the latter half of the 20th century the short story fell somewhat out of fashion among the general reading public. Partly this is due to the economics of publishing. Short-form fiction is difficult to market to audiences, and expensive to print unless it is packaged with other short-form fiction. Fortunately, the rise of digital publishing has allowed the form to resurge in popularity. Now it is a growing market, suited for e-readers and eminently consumable.
Traditionally, short fiction is the domain of the literary magazine, the writing competition, and the anthology. Magazines and anthologies usually pay either per-word or per-piece for short fiction, and have much shorter editorial turnarounds than long-form publishers, with the corollary that authors do not earn royalties on a piece sold. Competitions usually have prizes for stories that place, and often require a submitter to pay a nominal entry fee. Digital and self-publishing have allowed authors the opportunity to sell their stories directly to audiences via sites such as Amazon and Kobo.
The Australian Short Story edited by Laurie Hernegan
It’s Raining in Mango by Thea Astley
Literary magazines such as Meanjin, Island, The Lifted Brow or Overland
4.1.2 Short Non-Fiction
Short non-fiction is a work of prose non-fiction designed to be consumed in a single sitting. Usually, short-form non-fiction works to inform, argue, or expose a topic to the audience.
Short-form non-fiction takes a variety of shapes, including the essay, monograph, magazine article, dissertation, review, opinion piece, memoir, technical manual, scientific paper, and newspaper column.
Non-fiction may not always be true, and is certainly not always objective – what makes a piece non-fiction is that the writer is writing what they believe to be the truth. Non-fiction can be quite dry, especially in the case of scientific, legal, political, and technical writing. It can also be very literary and accessible, in cases of memoir, personal essay, review, and opinion pieces.
Markets available for short non-fiction vary depending on the individual form. Academic and peer-reviewed journals accept work from academic sources. Magazines, newspapers, and websites are always looking for articles, reviews, think pieces, and the like, and often these venues pay quite well. A prestigious magazine with wide distribution can pay up to a dollar a word or more, though the more prestigious a magazine, the harder it is to be published. Magazines, newspapers, and websites generally require writers to pitch ideas to them first, instead of submitting finished work. Editors will then commission the articles they think will most suit their publication, and the writer will go away to write the article as discussed with the editor.
Literary magazines such as Meanjin, Island, The Lifted Brow or Overland, including their online editions
Feature writing in major newspapers, especially weekend editions
News magazines such as The Monthly including online editions
4.2 Long-form prose
4.2.1 Long-form Fiction
Long-form fiction is any form of prose fiction that takes an extended period of time to read. Generally, this is understood to mean novels, though the digital space is changing that.
The novel is a complex form dealing with many intertwining parts: numerous characters, plots, concepts, and themes. There is no definitive guide to what length of work qualifies as a novel, just as there is no definition of a short story. Most adult novels are longer than 50 000 words, though there are many famous exceptions (The Great Gatsby, for example, is more correctly a novella). Young adult novels can be shorter, sometimes even 30 000 words. Contemporary publishers often have word-count requirements for different genres, and don’t accept novels by debut authors over 100 000 words. This is for economic, not artistic, reasons – 100 000 words is the upper limit on what is affordable to print, while still making a profit on an unknown name.
While traditional publishing offers prestige, quality, and distribution, the extremely high bar of entry, slow turn-arounds, and lack of authorial control means some writers prefer self-publishing. Self-publishing provides a higher level of control and faster turnarounds; however, there are subsequent trade-offs– self-publishing can be expensive, time-consuming, and poorly remunerated. E-publishing has changed the landscape of fiction publishing, creating a market that is much more flexible on word length than previously, and allowing authors to self-publish online cheaply. Many traditional publishers have opened digital-first imprints, allowing them to tap the e-book market. These imprints often don’t pay advances, but the percentage of royalties is higher than for a print book.
Hades by Candice Fox (Crime)
Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed by Anna Campbell (Romance)
Dark Space by Marianne de Pierres (Science fiction)
Drylands by Thea Astley (Literary Fiction)
The December Boys by Michael Noonan (Young Adult)
4.2.2 Long-form Non-Fiction
Long-form non-fiction is any form of prose non-fiction that takes an extended period of time to read. As with long-form fiction, this usually means it takes the form of a book.
As with short-form non-fiction, there are myriad sub-forms and genres. Non-fiction book forms include history, cookbooks, biographies, self-help, guidebooks, instruction manuals, and memoirs. Each sub-form has its own associated formats and styles.
When writing long-form non-fiction, ask yourself what qualifies you to write this. You will need to justify to your audience why you are an expert in this field, and why they should listen to you. If you are a historian, readers are more likely to trust your expertise on history than if you are not – so if you are not, you must prove that you have done your research.
In traditional publishing, non-fiction books are bought on the strength of a book proposal, not on the completed manuscript. The proposal must be thorough and prove both the expertise of the writer and the prospective market of the book. Self-publishers need not worry about the book proposal, but will need to consider the same risks faced by self-published fiction writers.
Three Crooked Kings trilogy by Matthew Condon
The Family Law by Benjamin Law
12 Edmonstone Street by David Malouf
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Screenwriting is any writing intended to be performed on screen. This includes film scripts, TV scripts, and advertisements.
Screenwriting is highly structured and a movie takes significantly less time to watch than a novel takes to read. As a rule of thumb, an A4 page equates to roughly a minute onscreen, but writers don’t set out to make a ’92-minute film’ and edit for that target any more than novelists aim for 352 pages.
However, tight time restrictions and highly structured nature of film and television narrative requires screenplays to be compact, concise, and focused.
The screenplay manuscript is a strictly formalised document and knowing how to correctly format a script is one of the first things to learn before launching into writing. Many screenwriters use special software to help them format their manuscripts correctly, such as Final Draft or Scrivener. There are also free platforms that will format your screenplay for you, like CeltX, WriterDuet and even templates for Microsoft Word.
Emerging screenwriters often write spec scripts to help get their name out. These are scripts that are not intended to be produced, but exist to demonstrate the writer’s talent to producers. Screenwriters with an established body of work pitch original ideas to producers to be optioned or sold; screenwriters are also commissioned by producers to write screenplays. In cinema, screenplays are often rewritten or ‘doctored’ by other screenwriters if producers feel that the existing script ‘requires work’ (something that happens to pretty much every script that makes it to production). This requires professional screenwriters to develop a thick skin. Frequently, screenwriters work collaboratively within a team to produce scripts, especially in television and big film studio productions. Turnarounds for scripts in production can be fast and writers frequently working within tight schedules set by others.
12 Canoes written by Rolf de Heer
The Castle written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, and Rob Sitch
Muriel’s Wedding written by PJ Hogan
Lantana written by Andrew Bovell
The Dressmaker written by Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan
4.4 Playwriting or Writing for the Stage
Playwriting is any writing that is intended to be performed live. This includes plays, musicals, and monologues.
Plays can be tightly structured, like a film script, or highly experimental in structure, style and form. Plays are written using dialogue and stage directions, which explain the actions that will happen on stage and necessary set descriptions and changes. While there are no set formatting rules for plays like there are for film scripts, plays need to be formatted in a way that makes clear who is speaking and what is happening on stage. A play script will usually begin with a list of characters who appear during the play. Depending on form, plays can be broken into acts, which are made up of a series of scenes.
A performance of a play is called a production. A play production is usually created in collaboration with many other creative professionals, including a producer, director, dramaturg, designers, actors, a stage manager and backstage crew. Sometimes a playwright will take on some of these other creative roles in the production of their play, for example as a producer or acting in a role, other times they will be removed from the process after the script is written.
When writing a play script, a playwright must always consider how their play will exist as a living organism on stage with a live audience. A playwright’s job is to communicate as best they can the story, characters, themes and ideas they want to share within their play text. The rest of the production team will work together to interpret this in a stage production.
The Harbinger by David Morton and Matthew Ryan
Georgia by Jill Shearer
Dead White Males by David Williamson
Pale Blue Dot by Kathryn Marquet
St. Mary’s in Exile by David Burton
The Tragedy of King Richard III by Marcel Dorney and Daniel Evans
Comics and graphic novels are stories primarily told in a sequential visual format, with dialogue and a small amount of narration. This includes comic serials, graphic novels, web comics, single panel comics, political comics, and ‘the funnies’.
Writing a comic is more akin to writing a screenplay than prose, though there are differences between the forms. For one, comic scripts are broken down by panel, rather than scene. Comic scripts also need to communicate important details about visuals to artists. Many comics writers are artists themselves – web comics, single panel comics, political cartoons, and serial cartoon pages are usually written and illustrated by a single creator. Writers of comic books and graphic novels may or may not be artists; in these cases, the writer will hand their scripts over to another person for art, inking, and colour.
The online space has made publishing comics much more accessible for the average person. Traditional comic publishing is dominated by several large companies, and functions similarly to traditional prose publishing. However, some large comic houses (especially those dedicated to serials, such as Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse) commission established writers and artists.
Burger Force by Jackie Ryan (comic book series)
Ginger Meggs by Jimmy Bancks (newspaper comic strip)
Inverloch by Sarah Ellerton (web comic)
4.6 Picture book
Picture books are prose or poetic fiction written for a young audience, accompanied by illustrations. Books for pre-literacy children can be very short indeed, while books for children developing literacy skills begin to become more complex. Picture books are often their audience’s first contact with fiction, and thus have the dual task of both telling an engaging story and teaching their audience how to understand narrative.
Picture books are short, usually no more than 1000 words. They have basic, easy to follow plots and simple characters. Many picture books have a moral or educational dimension, though these are not essential. Because of how books are laid out, most picture books have 32 pages (effectively 24 pages, after end papers, copyright and title pages are taken out). Thus, most picture book writers need to consider how their story will appear in the limited space.
Picture book writers need not be artists themselves, though they can be. Traditional children’s publishers purchase picture book manuscripts and then commission a suitable artist themselves. Of course, some writers are also illustrators, and provide images themselves. Self-publishing a picture book when the writer is not an illustrator often requires them to contract an illustrator themselves, which can be expensive.
Many picture books have been successfully published as apps, especially for the iPad, however many of the most successful ‘book apps’ have been created by specialised digital studios with a wealth of creative, engineering and design resources, and often in partnership with traditional book publishers. Digital tools exist to create ‘enhanced’ ebooks, in particular for the iPad, but so far none have had a major impact on the industry.
Squish Rabbit by Katherine Battersby
The Cow Tripped Over the Moon by Tony Wilson
Mama and Hug by Aleesah Darlison
My Nanna is a Ninja by Damon Young
A Curry for Murray by Kate Hunter
Sylvia by Christine Sharp
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Poetry is writing that uses the aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to create meaning.
Poetry is one of the oldest forms of writing and storytelling, and as such, various styles and modes of writing poetry have fallen in and out of fashion. Most people are first exposed to poetry through metered, rhyming verse styles such as sonnets and nursery rhymes. Bush poetry and traditional poetry styles still employ regular metered lines and employ playful rhyming schema. These methods are useful for conveying narrative, as these types of poems are often employed to tell a story.
More contemporary and experimental styles of poetry use a mixture of methods for conveying meaning, but are often unmetered and do not rhyme. These poems are often employed to capture complex impressions of scenes, experiences, or emotions.
Poetry is not well paid. Most poets sell their work to journals and literary magazines, which mostly pay per line. There are several prestigious poetry competitions offered around Australia that offer significant prize money or even publication (for example, the Thomas Shapcott prize, announced yearly at the Queensland Poetry Festival, offers a publication deal with UQP). Poetry collections are difficult to publish through large commercial publishers due to the lack of commercial appeal; however, some smaller presses have dedicated poetry lines and are actively looking for new collections. There are also many opportunities for poets to perform – poetry slams, bush poetry meetups, and readings happen frequently across major cities.
The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt
Love Poems and Death Threats by Samuel Wagan Watson
The Special by David Stavenger
The Deep North: A Selection of Poems by Bronwyn Lea
Literary magazines such as Meanjin, Island, The Lifted Brow or Overland, including their online editions
Interactive fiction is a comparatively new form of writing. It is an intensely collaborative form, and often requires writers to have at least some knowledge of programming, coding, and design. Of all the forms in this list, it is the least straightforward, which is to say, it is the form that is most difficult to simply sit down and write from beginning to end.
The size and type of the game often dictates how and what a writer writes. A text-based interactive adventure will have very different dimensions to a mobile app, which will be different again from a multi-million dollar first-person shooter. Games are mostly created by teams of people working in concert, meaning game writers need to by hyper-adaptable to keep up with the moving target of gameplay, programming and art. In smaller studios, writers can have significant input on the central narrative direction of the game; in larger studios, writers can sometimes find themselves trying to cobble together a sensible plot out of disparate elements the other departments have created. This presents a hectic, challenging environment, but not without its own rewards.
One particular challenge facing game writers is that writing is often subordinate in importance to gameplay mechanics, which can lead to something called ludonarrative dissonance. This is where the narrative implications of gameplay mechanics, and the actual narrative itself, fail to gel or are even contradictory – for example, if the narrative states that instant healing is impossible, but healing potions are a major aspect of gameplay. Navigating the space between emergent ludonarrative and written narrative is one of the greatest challenges game writers must grapple with.
Most game writers work for studios as full employees, or in a small independent team. It is rare for a game writer to write solo, unless they are an equally talented programmer, artist and designer. Despite the volume of writing required for most videogames, writing staff sizes tend to be quite small, and writing jobs in the industry are relatively few and highly competitive.
All the Delicate Duplicates by Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell
AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS by Christy Dena
Fruit Ninja by Halfbrick Studios
The Gardens Between by the Voxel Agents
L.A. Noire by Rockstar Games and Team Bondi
4.9 Social media and blogs
These days, it’s a rare person who does not have experience writing online. At the end of 2016, Facebook had over a billion users, Twitter had over 300 million, and Instagram had 600 million. Thousands of blogs proliferate across the web. That’s a lot of content being created every day.
Most people write on social media for an audience already familiar with them as a person – this allows the average social media user to write off-the-cuff and idiosyncratically, rather than following any standardised format. However, the proliferation of careers that centre around producing social media proves that there is a definite skill to writing for these platforms.
Each of the major social media platforms supports a different style of communication, and social media writers must be fluent in multiple genres of social media to be successful. Twitter, for example, requires extreme conciseness, prudent use of hashtags, and skilful deployment of short-code URLs. Instagram, however, facilitates longer posts, more hashtags, and a stronger image-based form of communication. All modes of social media writing require writers to time their posts for maximum reach.
Blogs (short for ‘web logs’) are longer-form than social media. Blogs are usually themed around a specific topic or idea – there are blogs dedicated to recipes, parenting, hobbies, travel, writing, books, history, science, or anything else a person might want to write about. People often start blogs to pursue an outside passion by writing about it, or to keep friends and family up-to-date with their lives. Many writers of other forms maintain blogs as part of their marketing strategy.
Bloggers may use dedicated blogging platforms, such as Tumblr, Livejournal, or Blogger, or may create websites specifically to host their blog using website builders such as WordPress, Squarespace, or Wix. Dedicated bloggers need good knowledge of online analytics programs, social media, marketing, and coding.
Anybody can start writing online, but pursuing an actual career as a writer online means either finding a position as a social media content creator or marketer at a company, or it requires writers to find a unique angle to sell themselves. Income for self-employed social media writers or bloggers comes in the form of ad revenue or product endorsements.
Delicious Everyday by Jennifer Schmidt
Shine by Three by Margaret Zhang
The Creative Penn by Joanna Penn
Collapse Board by Everett True
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+
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4.10 Activity: Out of your comfort zone
Pick a form you have never written before. Search online for an example of the form as it is written by the writer, not as it is received by the audience. Using that as a guide, try your hand at writing a small piece using the same formatting and techniques as your example work.
- Short story
- Magazine article
- Screenplay or stage play
- Comic script
- Picture book
- Video game