All writing exercises should get you writing. They should get the pen to paper, the pencil to pad, or the keys clacking. Essentially, there should be no exercise that proposes to solve the writer’s problem without making them do their own writing. As a result, there should always be an abundance of bits and pieces around. This isn’t a bad thing!
One exercise that tends to generate a whole lot of extraneous material is the short story experiment. As a novelist, this is one exercise that has helped immensely in the early stages of an idea. Although a true short story qualifies as its own genre, writing out an independent narrative outside the novel structure demonstrates issues that could complicate a draft. Catching these early saves a whole lot of time and frustration in a first edit.
Essentially, the short story experiment is like trying on story elements like new pairs of shoes. If a new main character looks good to you, come up with a quick scene or story and write them into your world. See how they fit, which other characters they click with, or what their voice sounds like in practice.
A short story demonstrates a character’s potential, but other elements benefit from this exercise too. Experimental short stories can be applied to test:
Character strength. Of course we addressed this just in the last paragraph, but consider revisiting this exercise as the story goes on to experiment with minor characters, cameos, or other colorful additions. Thrilling though it may be to have a cameo by a character from a previous book, or yourself in character form (as Clive Cussler does in his books), trying out options outside the main narrative expends a lot of that distracting energy that could slow down the main work or lead to a confusing tangent.
Scene Potential. One of my personal favorite pieces of advice I ever received was, “If you’re stuck, skip to the scene you want to write and fill in the rest later.” This is paraphrased, and eventually we all have to go back to those gaps we left, but writing out the scene on your mind is an example of the experimental short story exercise.
Certain scenes require multiple rewrites, like a novel’s opening scene, and trying out all the potential options not only highlights the best option at the time, but also generates material to reference when rewrites come along. The trick is not to throw them away, and not to lose track of all the work you did. Remember they may come in handy!
Description. For anyone writing fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction, the settings require a bit more attention than contemporary fiction. Description demands even more precision from non-fiction writers. While it would be wonderful if the picture painted itself the first time around, that wish is far from reality for most of us.
One technique I’ve found helpful is to write a description of the same object (limited to a specific item / place / character) from scratch every day for a week. It only takes a couple of minutes, but striving for a unique angle every day multiplies the available depth and detail. Not every single item needs this treatment, obviously. Still, generating material gets to be fun after a while.
Strength of Concept. Explaining a concept for a novel or series, especially to general people with short attention spans, reduces even the finest long-narrative artists to stuttering idiots. Sometimes, all we want is to know if the idea will fly. Is this concept interesting to anyone other than myself? Well, there are a few ways to test.
One is to come up with that awful 2-3 minute summary (or “elevator pitch“) before the book is even written. Another option is to spend months writing the thing and then begging people to read it. Or you could write a short snippet and try that out on a few readers. I typically opt for the last option, using in-person critique groups as my test audience.
People are more willing to read short material as their time is valuable and they’ve got busy lives. They’re even more willing if they’re offering you something of theirs to read, and if they have to face you after doing it. If you want opinions, sharing the idea in easy to digest chunks goes a long way. If, heaven forbid, the idea flops, you haven’t invested everything in that one short scene draft. Far less wasted writing time on that.
For anyone who may be thinking these short, practice works are going to go to waste, there’s another way to think about this investment of time. Short fiction can be published now just as easily as novels can, though it’s typically through electronic means. Some authors make use of their prewriting in this way, polishing and fluffing it up to publishable quality before putting out novellas or short story collections between major releases. Donna K. Weaver as done this with her work, publishing A Season of Change and Hope’s Watch as supplemental, ebook exclusive short stories connected with her other works: A Change of Plans and Torn Canvas. Others use the short work as promotional material on their blogs or websites, maintaining their readership with more from the characters they know and love.
Even if these aren’t intended to come to public light, keeping material provides a cushion against imagination droughts. Saving written exercises (not just what the exercises were, but what you generated in using them) builds up a “junk yard” to raid later on in your career. Who knows? That character you tried out but didn’t fit might be the perfect solution for a story later on.