Friday, June 10, 2022

Using the Short Form to Get to the Long Form--Powerful Exercises to Boost Your Creativity This Week

A good writing friend once shared this piece of wisdom: Sometimes we have to get small to get big, with our books. Book projects span a lot of time and space. It's too easy to get lost in such an expanse, overwhelmed with all the details.

In my writing classes, I used 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. But they give a serious boost to creativity.

One writer in my book-writing workshop years ago wondered about the logic of this--using the short form to get clarity on the long. She was in the middle of working on an epic novel, suddenly finding herself drawn back to 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 book's rough draft and needed every week between now and that January to make it. Working with a goal-setting plan, she saw how she could achieve this, and she created a "nag buddy" (her words) to keep her going forward with check-ins each week.

Her buddy was also doubtful that the pull towards short stories made sense, given her goals.

I knew this writer pretty well, since she took many workshops with me. I saw stress in her face every time she discussed her book. 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 gave her two possible exercises to allow the short-term gratification and creativity boost she needed. She could veer off into one of the short stories that attracted her, but use it for a specific purpose: 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 a scene in the book," I said. "A twofer, in a way. 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 teach me a lot--about pacing, dialogue, the tension arc, 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 writing my first novel, Qualities of Light, I explored a series of short stories about the same group of characters, just as a creativity break. I learned that working from small to large allowed me to sift out the extra stuff that didn't contribute.

In other words, even though a book has a lot more room than a story or essay, there is still a requirement that page space must count in the reader's mind. Going short to nurture the long allows you to find out if your pages do count.

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

Here are the two exercises I find most helpful. Maybe try one or both this week. See if either of these "sidetracks" actually takes you deeper into your book.

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, author of 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.

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