Concerning Craft: In Defense of the Multi-Genre Writer

Nicole Hylton is a writer-of-all-trades from southern Maryland. She writes poetry, short stories, and nonfiction essays and has completed two novellas, Internet Official and Dropping Her Gloves. Her work has appeared in The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review (where she is a regular contributor), Aethlon, and SlackWater. She holds a BA in English from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, with minors in sociology and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Nicole’s poetry, “the missing recipe,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase through this link). She read this and another poem at our issue launch in January (video below). This guest post is part of our regular “Concerning Craft” series.

“So, what do you write?”

It’s perhaps one of the most common questions I’m asked at conferences and readings. It’s an innocuous question, an easy icebreaker writers ask other writers to start off the conversation, but I have struggled to find an easy answer to it.

I enjoy writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all in different ways but in about equal measure. I do not have a default genre as I believe many other writers do. I go through cycles, of course, of writing a lot of one genre and less of the other two, but usually the genre comes to me at the same time the story does. The story often suggests the genre when it comes to me. I’ll think of an idea for a story I want to tell, and the story will say, “Hey, I think I would look really good as a poem.” For example, let’s say I watch the movie Wonder Woman for the first time and feel empowered by the way the titular character is written, given how female superheroes have been portrayed in past films. In about the same instant, I’ll think, “There’s a poem in here somewhere,” or “I could write an essay about this.” (For those playing along at home, I wrote an essay, and you can read it here at The Eckleburg Review.)

In general, though, when it comes to genre, there aren’t any black and white rules for me. In fact, I would argue there is a substantial amount of carryover between genres. And I’m not talking about cross-genre work (although I am particularly fond of prose poems). I mean that there is writing advice that applies regardless of genre that all writers can use. Here are some that I find myself using nearly every day.

Every sentence must serve a purpose. I’ve heard this advice from multiple sources and in a variety of ways, but the gist has always been that every piece of the written work (be it a sentence in a short story or a stanza in a sonnet) must serve some purpose. According to Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” I don’t know how much I believe that exact claim, but I do believe that every piece of your narrative must be serving some kind of purpose: it must provide something new that has not already been said. Everything in there should be in there for a reason. Clutter is not useful.

The first line is a powerful thing. Not only should the first line of a work be attention-grabbing and put your reader’s butt in their chair, so to speak, but it should intrigue in other ways. The best first lines will disorient your reader, drawing them in to further understand. Most importantly, your first line (and the first couple of paragraphs of longer works) will teach your reader how to read the rest of the work. The first line is the entry point for the reader, the looking glass through which the rest of the work can be seen.

“The most important part of the story is the one you don’t hear.” This quote comes from the main character of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna, a closeted gay man persecuted in the 1950s by the American government for his sexuality and relationships with communists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. What isn’t said and why is just as important (and often more interesting) than what is. What are characters holding back and why? What do they not feel at liberty to express out loud? What isn’t said can often reveal just as much about a character or speaker as what they do say.

There are a number of other writing recommendations I’ve received that could probably be added to this list, but these should give you something to start with. See if you can apply some of your own writing advice to other genres, and try writing in a genre you haven’t in the past.

So, what do I write? Well, I write a little bit of everything.