Writing Exercises

Why You Should Write Short Stories

I like big things, don’t you? I like a big house, a big car, and when it comes to writing I really enjoy a giant story world. I am probably one of the many writers suffering from what I call the “Silmarillion” syndrome. That’s that thing when you want to feel like a God and create vast things so that people can look at them and go ‘wow’!

But ask anyone who ever tried to build an Eifel Tower from Legos– it’s not the easiest of tasks. It requires a lot of concentration, attention, ability to split the large into small parts, have each small part make sense on its own, and then find its place inside the big picture. And everything must flow like music, be catchy and relevant, pleasant looking and emotional, wonderful, amazing and great. No pressure there, none at all…

But the truth is that’s what I always thought a writer’s life should be– about creating big things. I dream of the novel that becomes a trilogy and the trilogy that becomes part of a multiverse Saga that spans space and time. A Saga that later becomes a movie, then a series, then a… Ok, I’ll stop, you get my point– I am a megalomaniac, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you show that behavior at the right moment and at the right time.

First Things First

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t start writing the Saga of the Century right of the bat, but what I am trying to say is that it will be a bit harder. One way to ease the pain is to learn how to focus on those little pieces down at the base. Learn how to build your basic Lego structures and soon you will have enough skills to put them together into a massive architectural wonder.

I am talking, of course, about short stories. Just like (I assume) many other writers, I started by totally ignoring short stories. I thought that I would waste good ideas that could become a novel in just a few pages, and I thought that instead of being focused I will become completely scattered. I wasn’t totally wrong, but I soon learned that that was not necessarily a bad thing.

What is a Short Story?

A short story is a fully developed story, with plot, setting, and characters, but significantly shorter than a novel. There are some discussions on the proper length of a short story, but I usually consider a short story anything between 1,000 words to 10,000 words. Note that those stories shorter than 1000 words typically fall into the flash-fiction category.

In my opinion a good length for a short story is between 2,500 and 5,000 words. At an average of 250 words per page, you get a story between 10 to 20 pages, double-spaced. Keep in mind that these are not set in stone, just guidelines to give you some idea.

Length is the main aspect that differentiates a short story from a novel. All other aspects are more similar than different. A short story will follow a mini three act structure, will have a developed plot and a climax, will have characters, dialogue, description and narrative. Unlike novels though, in a short story the brevity is paramount. You must get to the point and get there fast; there’s no space to waste, you simply cannot afford it. Make each line, paragraph and page count; be stingy with words and you will develop the ability to say more with less.

Why Should You Write Short Stories?

Now I am finally getting to the point of this post. Let’s look at the pros and cons of writing short stories:

Pros

Lower Complexity – Short stories are easier to write, hands down. Unlike the novel where you need to track what happens over 300 or more pages, here you need to keep track of what happens on 10 pages. Every time you work on your short story you can read your story again in entirety to refresh your memory. It’s far easier.

Multiple Projects – You can easily work on a lot of short story projects at the same time, just because they are smaller and that allows you to move your focus from one to the other without damage to either story. With novels, you might work on more than one, but each requires a lot of concentration, so switching gears, whereas possible, will not be that easy.

Quick Brainstorming – When you brainstorm for ideas, turn those ideas into a short story, even if the idea was designed for a major novel. This will train your brain to take a kindle of an idea and turn it into living words. You can do this many times a day, and you can have as many stories as you have ideas.

Learn Different Techniques – The short story is a condensed novel, a very brief novel if you will. If you want to improve on certain techniques, use short stories to practice them. Do you have trouble controlling your point of view? Write the same story from different points of view. Having trouble with a fiction element? Maybe dialogue or description? Write a few short stories and focus on those aspects only. Each story will add knowledge to that particular building block and in time your overall writing technique and style will get better.

Create a Name – This is one of the most important ones, especially for the beginning writers. As a beginner, you have no name. Nobody heard of you, so what they have to do is take your word for it and a few pages of your work and decide if they want to publish you. That’s why publishing your first novel is a hard, hard job. So, look at short stories as little stepping stones toward your novel publishing. First you will start with smaller, less known publications. Once you publish a story, and another story, and another, then you move to the next level. Larger, better known publications, wider distribution, and so on. By the time you are ready to publish a full novel, your name is now floating in the atmosphere. You can refer agents and publishers to your short story works. Maybe one of the editors that published your short story is willing to give you a testimonial. Either way, you are no longer a nobody in the eyes of the book publisher. You are somebody that wrote stuff that made it to print already. That’s a huge step.

Cons

Competitive Market – As in any industry, when things are easy to do, there’s going to be a lot of people doing them. Short stories are easier to write, so a lot more people will be writing them. Some of them really, really good. So, you will compete with a lot of others trying to publish stories in limited spaces such as magazines or anthologies. One advice I can give you is to look for niche genres, things that are not as popular, places where the competition is less fierce. This may give you the advantage you need to break out of the pack.

Low Pay – The average pay for short stories is between 0 and 5 cents per word. I am talking about new writers, not about Stephen King, ok? So, it is virtually impossible to live as a writer just from short stories. Sad but true.

Time Away from Big Projects – As always, the more time you focus on short stories, the less time you have to dedicate to your larger projects. But that is a matter of time management. Organize your work and your time in such a way that balances between your short stories and your novels.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, I think that short stories will help your writing development process. They will be fuel for your imagination and will help train your fingers. Writing them will allow you to circumvent writer’s block that happens in large works and will teach you how to quickly switch gears and focus between projects. They will help you create a name for yourself and will pave the way to your novel publishing career.

If you are a writer, I am very curious if you feel the same about short stories, and if you are a reader, let me know how many short stories do you read every year, give or take? I am just curious…

Thank you,

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Writer’s Block or Will-Power Block

writer's block

Tips to Overcome Writer’s Block

If you are a writer it’s almost a certainty that at one point in your writing life you experienced what’s called a “writer’s block”. I say “what’s called,” and I quote it because I am not 100% certain that writer’s block, per se, is a phenomenon exclusively dedicated to writers.

Let me back up a bit and explain what I am talking about. I’ve been in writer’s block hell, more than once, and this is how it has manifested for me: all day I’d run around doing my things, my work, my chores, and so on, but never stop thinking about writing. I feel excited about it, I think of new plot lines, new scenes, new characters and settings. During my commute I read books on writing or my favorite authors and observe the way they worked their craft.

The Black Hole

The whole day is basically a preamble for my evening writing. Then I finally get home, chat with my wife about our day, eat, take a shower, put my child to bed, drink some tea or a glass of wine, and eventually sit down at my desk. Turn on the computer, fix the keyboard, fire up my writing software and Bam! That’s when it starts. A feeling of emptiness, a deep black whole inside my brain and my body, a twirling sand trap in which I am slowly sinking, deeper and deeper. The sand fetters my feet, then my arms and eventually covers my face, fills my nostrils and mouth and suffocates me.

My fingers feel stiff. I type a sentence. I can’t write another one, I have to read the first one first. I read it. It sounds stupid, puerile, idiotic. I delete it. I write a line of dialogue, ending it with XYZ said. Now I read the name of the protagonist. It sounds childish and dumb. Now I am thinking I have to go back and change the name throughout the entire manuscript. Now I am panicked. What if everything else sucks as well? Do I have to change everything? What do I do???

An hour later I am still staring at the screen, just three shy words crawling in front of the blinking cursor, mocking me with his joyous flicker. So, I turn everything off and I go away and that’s when it happens… the worst thing ever. I say to myself: “it’s ok, I probably didn’t feel it today. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

That is Doom, with capital “F”. Because the truth is this: tomorrow is never easier. Tomorrow you carry on the weight of the doubts of today. Tomorrow you won’t forget the panic you set in today. Tomorrow will be worse. And just saying that “I didn’t feel like it” is a defense mechanism. It’s a way for me to be at peace with myself. It’s a lie, I lie to myself trying to sugarcoat my lack of will power.

Everyday Block

And we do this in all aspects of life, don’t we? Have you had one of those days in the office where you just don’t feel like doing anything? And you roam around the office, dragging folders and files around, looking busy, making copies of blank papers and faxing doodles to non-existent numbers? No, it’s just me? Ok… But you did experience something similar to that. And at the end of the day you had a friend or family member close and you said: “You know, today I just didn’t feel like doing shit.” And you feel good. You feel redeemed. You didn’t lose the day. You just didn’t feel it. You’ll pick it up tomorrow, you say, forgetting you now have a pile of stuff to catch up with.

So, let me return to my point: the writer’s block is not a write’s block, it’s just a human block. It’s a part of our being, it’s our procrastination baggage that we carry everywhere. It’s almost the same as leaving the dirty dish on the table, because it’s easier to wash it tomorrow. It’s not a writer’s block, it’s just you being lazy!

Ok, so what can you do about it? I created my own plan of breaking out of this deadly locked out state. I needed a way to free my mind and my body from this lazy glue that covers me like a death cloud and slows down every bit of my being. I found that the secret to that is to 1) change focus and 2) do it fast.

Change Focus

writer's blockI strongly believe that as a writer you should never stop at working on only one project. Of course, you may have your “big” project, the book, the novel or what have you. But alongside that project you should always keep writing other things. You should always flex your writing brain by reaching out into other genres, into non-fiction, or even into poetry.

This is how I do it: I have an ongoing Word file where I do my writing exercises. I don’t even separate it by anything because it’s basically just a dump of writing bits whose purpose is exclusively to fire up my brain.

When you feel like you don’t “feel like it”, don’t argue with that feeling. It’s hard wired into your brain. The more you fight it, the deeper you will go. Instead, change focus. Stop the work that you’re doing and turn yourself to a different project. Open up the ongoing file and write a page long sentence. Do not stop until you completely fill-in a page. Do not put a period until you reach the end.

Do you need writing prompts? Ideally I’d like you to think of something yourself; for example, go back to your entire day. Start from the morning and do a fast-forward in your head. Did anything capture you during the day? A person, a place, an event, a sound, anything? Make the story about that. If you are really stuck and you don’t know what to write about, use a writing prompt. On this site I present (almost) daily a new writing prompt. Get some from here: Writing Prompts.

After you finished with this page, don’t waste time reading it. Go to the next page and write one page in a genre that you hate. For example, if you are Sci-Fi author, try to write a romance page. Or even better, dwell into erotica or murder mystery. Anything that you are 100% not comfortable writing. Guess what: nobody cares what you write because nobody will read it, probably not even you.

What do these exercises accomplish: one, is getting your hand to answer to your brain. You are putting words on paper. You are generating content. Second, it forces your brain to go outside of the comfort zone. Just like your biceps lifting 15 pounds everyday and getting to a plateau, so does your creative side of your brain. Sometimes it needs a jolt of something different. Sometimes, writing into a genre that you genuinely dislike may remind you how much you like your genre. Now you are again excited about getting back to your project.

Regardless of the type of exercise you use, try to make it to 1000 words. It’s not a lot, but just enough to get you going.

Do It Fast

Whenever you feel the block taking over, don’t try to fight it. You will only dig a deeper hole. Change focus right away and stay away from your project for those 1000 words. Then try to get back to it. If you still can’t you have two options: do it all over again or start from the beginning. I hope you will excuse me for being coy, but the reality is this: your block is a mental state that you accept. If you accept it, soon it will become a part of who you are. Don’t let that happen. Act fast, act now.

Change your focus and reframe yourself. Do it as many times as it takes until you feel you climbed back out of the sand.

Keep at it!

writer's blockIn reality, depending on the severity, it may take a few days, but I guarantee that if you keep at it and you do not let yourself trapped into the downspiral, you will overcome the block and you will be back at writing in no time.

And let me share a little secret with you: this post was me changing focus. As a matter of fact, I find that non-fiction is a great way to completely shift focus. If you are a blogger you can use that to your advantage. Write some posts, post some comments. Keep writing something different every time. You will not only pull yourself out of the blackness of the block, but in the same time you will improve your writing craft and you will flex those little brain cells and take your creativity to new levels.

Your story

Do you have any writer’s block horror stories? What happened, how did it manifest? What did you do to get out of it? Did you get out of it? Use the comment box below to share your story or thoughts with us and help the community!

All the best,

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Writing when busy

busy writer
If you are like most beginning writers, you probably have a job. Something that brings you money, maybe a lot of money or just enough to keep you going. However, regardless of your job, your dream is to write, publish, and maybe one day be able to quit that job and replace your income with royalties. Good thoughts, shared by many, but not as easy as you might think.

The truth is that even the best writers need practice, just like every athlete and every musician need to exercise a lot to maintain their level. Writing is an art and just like any art, it needs work. You may have an inherent talent and that’s great, but you become excellent through practice. After all, our brain is the most complex part of our organism, so it’s not difficult to see why it needs practice.

And that is where the two worlds usually clash. You must divide yourself between your job, family and your writing. Unfortunately, the latter will always suffer. Your job needs you. After all, those reports will not write themselves, and you can’t loose your job–how will you live? Your family needs you. You will not tell your wife, mother or children that you don’t have time for them. They don’t see you the whole week, will you ditch them during the weekend too? How’s that fair?

Let’s not panic, I feel you are getting there… There is a simple answer to this conundrum and it’s called: divide et impera, or divide and rule. If you take your life as a whole and try to back out like a fast movie camera and pan left to right over it, you will be overwhelmed with its vastness and complexity. But once you start breaking it down into smaller pieces, you will soon learn how to rule those parts, and when you put them back together into the puzzle, now you have a structure you can work with.

As a writer, this is exactly what I want you to do. I want you to divide your life into small pieces and ‘conquer’ them. We will start with a day.

Writer’s Weekday

Depending on your job and situation, your day may look different, but for the purposes of this explanation we will assume that you have a 9-5 job, you wake up at around 6:30 to get ready and return home around 7:30. Then late at night you go to bed at around 11:30PM.

Morning Brain Exercise

Beginning tomorrow you will start waking up 15 minutes earlier. I promise you that 15 minutes will not alter your behavior or get you more tired during the day. So, you wake up 15 minutes earlier, you get out of your bed and you go straight to your writing place. Don’t turn the radio or TV on, don’t look at the newspaper and by all mighty Gods in the Universe, do not, I repeat, do not check your email! Simply open up your favorite writing tool (which, by the way, can very well be a pen and paper) and start writing. You will write for 10 minutes without stop. Once you finished, read your work out loud (or whispered) and make short notes. That should only take you 5 minutes.

What does this do for you? It will fire up your brain. Over night our mind works in the background. Sometimes we get a peek by having a vivid dream or deja vu sympthoms the next day, but most of the time it’s just working on it’s own. Your goal is to resurrect those thoughts from the depth and bring them to your fingers and onto the paper. This repeated exercise will do wonders for your idea factory and will help improve your style, voice and craft in general.

Writing During Commute

This obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, but it does apply to some. For example, I commute via bus and I have 30-45 minutes every day, each way. So, I can use those precious minutes to improve my writing. All you need is a portable writing device, and I highly recommend it, because it is not that easy to write with a pen and paper on a bus or train. Get yourself a cheap and simple writing device, something that works for you. I have a Neo Alphasmart.

In this situation you have a few options, but I will start with the one that I prefer. Remember that all fiction and all your ideas are somehow, in their basic form, driven from reality. No matter how twisted and fantastic your writing is, it still comes from your life experience in this world. So, one important skill that you must develop is the ability to take things from real life and put them in your fiction.

When you commute you are outside or otherwise surrounded by other people. Look around and pick something. May it be a building, a field, a car, a person, anything that your eyes stop over in the first 3-5 minutes. Start writing a scene about that. Use that item as your central point, it will give you something to write around. That sort of hook is very powerful because it allows your brain to hang on to something and then develop a story around it.

You don’t have a lot of time so start writing. Again, you don’t have to edit your work or agonize over every word. Your goal here is to push your imagination to take reality and make it into powerful fiction. So just write as fast as you can.

If you cannot write during your commute because you are driving our it’s too short and you can never get a seat, you this time wisely to improve your craft by reading or listening to audio books on writing craft. So far I bought and read about 100 books and I still enjoy any new one that falls in my hands. They’re a great resource and the more you read the more those words will get fixated in your brain and drive your craft toward excellency.

Writing At Work

Again, this depends a lot on your own environment, but pretty much every job has a lunch break. Most people mingle with their co-workers, go outside to take a walk, read the news, watch the scores, or check their personal email. Forget all of those. If you have a precious hour in the middle of your work day, use it wisely.

The way I like to use my half an hour of lunch is by creating what I call a “job novel.” It’s basically a main idea for a book, nothing too fancy, nothing ground-breaking, since that is not the focus. What I want to do is get used to continuity. It’s fun and nice to keep writing new random scenes, but it is a different skill to learn continuity. So, I pick a subject and decide how long it would be. Let’s say a murder mystery on 100 pages. Then I write as much as I can each day during my lunch hour, making sure that I stop when a scene or chapter is over.

Unfortunately you will find that this is not always possible because of the unpredictable character of general jobs. What you need to do is write as much as you can in that time, BUT, and that’s a big but: do not jeopardize your job. If it is not possible for you to use your lunch hour to write, just don’t do it. Remember, you cannot steal corporate time and use it for personal things. That is a privilege that belongs exclusively to your boss…

Evening Writing – The Main Event

So during the day you’ve been pumping your brain. You started in the morning, during your commute and, if possible, during your free time at work. Now you are home and you can dedicate some time to your larger project. A larger project is a novel, a series of short stories, anything that you want to finish and aim to publish one day.

Ideally you should be able to allocate one hour or as much as you need to write 2000 words. If your life situation doesn’t allow, try to shoot at least for 30 minutes and 1000 words. If possible do it when you feel the most comfortable and less pressured. If you need to put your kids to sleep in one hour, maybe it’s best you do your writing right after. If you have a tradition of dinner in the family, don’t break it, work around it. The goal here is for you to find the best time to allocate to your writing.

Writer’s Weekends and Holidays

You may think that you have a lot of free time during the weekend, but as we all know, that’s not true. You try to cram one million things in your weekend and you wake up Saturday morning, you blink and it’s Sunday night. So you need to divide and conquer the weekends as well.

I think that a reasonable time to allocate during a weekend day would be 3 hours. My guess is that you can do an hour early morning, one in the afternoon and one at night. You can also do them all three in one shot. I actually prefer it that way. Whatever works for you, but make sure you allocate those hours and you stick to that plan.

Putting it all together

So, we got a workday with 10 minutes of brainstorming, 30 to 60 of putting reality into fiction, about 30 minutes of story-telling, and one hour of working on your main project. In a weekend day we got 6 hours of working on your project. Let’s bring it forward (some items are rounded down to account for diminished productivity):

Period Brainstorming Practice Practice Project
Weekday  10 min. 30 min. 15 min. 1 hr. / 2000 w.
Weekend 6 hr. / 6000 w.
Week  50 min. 2.5 hr. 1.25 hr. 7 hr. / 8000 w.
Month  3 hr. 10 hr. 5 hr. 30 hr. / 30,000 w.
Year  40 hr. 130 hr. 65 hr. 360 hr. / 350,000 w.

Of course, these are just calculated numbers. They don’t take into account vacation, time off, etc. They are ideal numbers obtained mathematically. The point is, that if you were to stick to this strong regimen during one entire year, you should be able to write not one book, but three!

But let’s make it more realistic. Let’s call 200,000 words for the year, with the rest being left for self-editing. But still, with this method of dividing your time, you should still be able to put at least two complete manuscripts out in one year.

Even in a worst case scenario where you can only allocate half of that, you should still be able to produce one complete manuscript in one year.

Tracking Your Writing

Tracking is paramount, without it you will lose track of your progress and you won’t know where you stand. It keeps you focused and it helps you achieve your goals. First of, let me say this: daily goals are difficult, you should aim for weekly goals. That means that if one day you cannot do the 10 minutes of brainstorming, maybe you can catch-up during the weekend. Either way, you must achieve your weekly quotas.

So, open an excel or use a notebook and draw a table like the one above. Under the period put the date for each day and fill in that row with minutes and words. After each Sunday make a subtotal for the week. After each month-end make a subtotal for the month. Very soon you will start feeling proud of the table getting longer and longer and those total number of words climbing up.

You CAN Do It!

As you can see the writing process for a busy person with a job is definitely not easy but absolutely doable. It takes a lot of concentration, will power and ability to be in control of your life. This routine will actually help not only your writing skills but will also help you with your time management in general. It will teach you how to be realistic with your time, how to reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary things and allocate more time to what is important to you.

But most importantly, the continuous alternation between brainstorming, story telling, adapting reality, continuing a story line, and working on a large project, will tickle your brain from all sides and will drive your imagination and writing craft.

One mistake that beginning writers do, and I am very guilty of that sometimes, is to think that if they managed to write a good page, scene or chapter, it means that they are now accomplished as writers and they can duplicate that result any time. Wrong. You need practice, you need will power, and most of all you need to be realistic with your self and with your time. Keep your perseverance up and on track and you will succeed!

Now, go back to writing!!

Enjoy,

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