Monday, October 24, 2011

Using the Short Form to Get to the Long Form--Two Fun Excercises for Your Book This Week

A good writing friend once shared this piece of wisdom:  Sometimes we have to get small to get big, with our books.  Books span large areas of time and space, and it's easy to get lost in the expanse of them, overwhelmed with all the details.

In my writing classes, I use two fun exercises to help writers manage the immensity.  One exercise is a poem, the other is an exploration of one of your main characters, your narrator, or your potential reader, by putting them in a five-page short story. 

These two exercises are such fun, they can feel like a sidetrack away from the "real" writing.


One writer in my book-writing workshop (see more about the upcoming workshops at the Loft in November and December) wondered about this. In the middle of working on an epic novel, she was suddenly finding herself drawn back to some short stories she'd started years ago.  Was this a valuable detour or a derailment by her Inner Critic?

She had a deadline for her rough draft and needed every week between now and January to make it.  Working with a goal-setting plan each writer sets up for herself in my workshop, she was excited about finally have a good solid draft of her novel.  She even had a "nag buddy" (her words), to keep her going forward with check-ins each week.  Her buddy was doubtful that the pull towards short stories made sense, given her goals.

I know this writer pretty well, since she's taken many workshops with me, and I could see the stress in her face every time she discussed her book.  It was beginning to weigh her down.  The light was going out of it for her, and she needed a fresh look, a way to get over the overwhelm.  She's also quite dedicated to her writing and I had no fear that she'd stop the novel.

So I agreed; she needed to take a break.  I gave her two possible exercises:  Veer off into one of the short stories that was attracting her, only play with adding one of the characters from her novel.  She loved this idea--because the character she had in mind was perfect for complicating the story's plot.

"See if the short story might actually end up as part of the book," I said. "Don't write it toward that goal; let your creative self just explore the possibility."
 
Short pieces of writing, taken as breaks from my books, have taught me so much--about pacing, dialogue, the tension arc, the beginnings and endings. I remember writing, then publishing short essays, as a vacation while I was struggling with writing a memoir.  These ended up enlightening me as to why I was so stuck with the larger piece of writing.  When I was deep into my novel Qualities of Light, I explored a series of short stories about the same group of characters, working from small to large, finding out that the most compelling of the stories was the pivot for the novel.

In the long months and years of writing a book, we all need breaks of brief intensity. Experienced writers often conscious divert to the short form, then come back from their "vacations" refreshed and ready for the long haul.

This Week's Writing Exercises

1.  Create a haiku or short poem about your book, as it is now. Try to have the beginning, the ending, and the main conflict included in a few brief words. Then add a line about the main setting. And a line about the emotional focus of the book. (Thanks to Stuart Dybek--Coast of Chicago--for this inspiration.)

2.  Write a five-page short story about one of your main characters, your narrator, or your potential reader.  Put this person into an event or challenge that brings out something unexpected in them--a strength you didn't know about, a weakness that they've hidden, a secret previously unrevealed.

3.  See if either of these "sidetracks" actually takes you deeper into your book.