Growing up as I did in the western United States, perhaps the horse analogy is inevitable. But for those who didn’t spend their childhood summers on a ranch, let me explain: American Quarter Horses are sprinters, generally the choice of cowboys and ranchers, because they are fast out of the gate. They need to be, to herd those stray cattle, turn and zigzag on a dime.
Thoroughbreds, as any Kentucky Derby fan can tell you, are the long-distance runners. They are bred for endurance. So, while the average Quarter Horse can likely beat the average Thoroughbred out of the gate lickety-split, in the long haul the “T-bird” will win.
I’ll leave it to the horse breeders to passionately defend their preferences. My analogy is not one meant to contrast better or worse. Just to emphasize different.
Some writers excel at vivid bursts of prose, like newspaper columns that leave readers gasping or laughing. Or weave engaging short stories. They are the sprinters, the Quarter Horses of the writing world. They usually engender immediate reader responses, positive or negative, to what they write.
Other writers are the Thoroughbreds, tackling meaty novels and intricate plots. They too can leave readers brimming with emotion, of a deeper kind that may linger longer. We probably all have a book or two in our past that we simply can’t forget.
Likewise, some readers like their prose pithy and turgid on Page 1 of the daily newspaper, others prefer devouring big, juicy books that take days or weeks.
Of course, many writers can crank out short or long products. Some writers pick their mode of expression simply by mood or more often, the practical paycheck.
But as a writer, even if you feel you’re equal to many tasks, chances are you excel in one format over another.
So the challenge for writers is: How do you know if you’re a Quarter Horse or a Thoroughbred? We all only have so much time day to day, much less on this earth. It seems there’s hardly enough time to write paragraphs, much less pages. All the more important, then, to make those precious hours count.
Here’s how to tell what kind of hobby-horse you are:
- Instinct. You feel drawn to one writing format over another. You feel more comfortable. I’ve written some cool articles over the years, but my heart’s calling is the novel. I was literally seized with terror some years back when my former editor asked me to write a novella. I did it, and it turned out fairly well I think, but in my Thoroughbred brain there was always the nagging sense of something not quite finished. In my heart, it needed more pages to make me happy. About 300 more. Yeah, I know. Quality over quantity, blah blah blah. Nope. You don’t bring a Thoroughbred to a screeching halt at 400 meters. It feels unnatural to the horse, as it did to me.
- Attention Span. This could be yours and/or your readers’. If you are easily bored and need constant variety, staring at a goal of 100,000 words all revolving around the same few characters might feel overwhelming, even smothering. If you find yourself constantly setting the book aside to do something else, look for the “why.” If reviewers’ eyes glaze over when they read your drafts, that’s another clue. But if you can crack people up with a single line or pack a real emotional punch with a slim holster of words, that’s a real gift — and a hint you may be a Quarter Horse as the pencil flies.
- Feedback. Honest feedback from others will go a long way to putting you on the right path. The key word here is “honest.” Friends and family may lavishly praise anything you write, but that isn’t particularly helpful when you’re trying to winnow it down to your true calling. Consider letting outsiders weigh in. I know it’s scary. But growing as a writer means taking risks.
Oh, by the way, there’s no right or wrong answer to this “Q or T” question. The point is to make you smile, help you focus your talent and hone your happiness in the limited time we all have on this earth.