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?
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."
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.