"If a story is in you, it has got to come out."
"If a story is in you, it has got to come out."
Writing something is better than writing nothing.
Let's face it, there are some days when you may look at your current work in progress and just be stumped or dreading continuing on at the moment. This is often hard for me because I set aside time to write and don't usually have minutes to spare, so when the creative juices don't start flowing, I feel like I'm wasting valuable time. But, I've figured out, over the years, that writing something is better than writing nothing.
So, here's a list of five different pieces that I like to write that still allow me to work on my characters and the world that I'm trying to perceive, but that may not make the cut into the final piece.
1. Character letters
Drafting letters between characters (postcards or emails work too) is a great exercise to help find your character's unique voice and to work on relationships and background. Imagine the letter between your main character and his/her love interest. What might your antagonist write to the protagonist? Or what about a plea from your main character's side kick to the protagonist's right-hand man to turn to the side of good? Or the letters could be more mundane, like a mother forcing her son to write to his uncle (who happens to be the mentor figure in your story). Or the main character writing an obligatory letter home from summer camp about the boring daily life activities going on.
Obviously, there are plenty of options for you to write character letters no matter what plot or genre you have. And sometimes, when you're writing about all of these exchanges, you find an event, piece of information, or detail that you may need or want in your manuscript.
2. Informational pamphlets
Sometimes it gets hard to write so much prose, especially when all of the logistical details aren't sorted out yet. There's this religion that has something to do with nature, but if you're going to have it be on your novel, you should probably (definitely) know more about it than that.
An informational pamphlet or brochure is perfect when you need to get those details sorted before writing. Imagine you had to explain everything about that religion in one pamphlet. What details would you include? What are the deities names? What are they each in charge of? Why? What importance do they have with certain groups of people? You catch my drift? You can even look up or sketch out photos and images to help you visualize. Obviously most of these "pamphlets" will never be printed in your novel, but they're great references for you while writing and can make the world building of your novel even more realistic and concrete for your readers because you thought about all of this ahead of time.
3. Scene summaries
This may seem pretty basic, but when I get to a scene that I'm just not ready to tackle, I'll still write a scene summary. I'll ask the basic who, what, where, when, questions and most importantly I list the why.
This is can be as easy as listing the questions and giving a short answer or writing out a few paragraphs for the summary, as much as you think you need.
Another reason to use scene summaries is to decide which direction to go. By sketching out a scene summary multiple ways, you can determine what works best for the flow and plot of your story instead of writing a whole scene and then deciding it doesn't work (which, unfortunately, happens anyways).
Lastly, scene summaries can help me to figure out where I want to go with my story. Sometimes I'll get to an important set-up scene and I'll need to write the summary for the reveal scene before writing the set-up, just to make sure I'm including and accomplishing everything that I want in the first scene.
4. Side stories
Sometimes the main storyline of your novel just isn't working or has got you pulling out your hair. When that happens to me, I like to send my characters on side quests. These things could be in the same timeline of your novel or before the events even happen. The purpose behind this is to throw your characters into an unusual setting or event and see what they do. Think Algernon and the maze. Side stories will usually be completely different from the main story and that's okay. You learn something about the history or motivations of your characters and can sometimes find interesting little pieces to add into your novel.
Okay, so this is more of a bonus since it makes the list longer than 5 things, but who's counting? Like the line at the top of this article, writing something is better than nothing. Why not create an alternate universe where you characters mom didn't die when she was a child? Or what would a fanfic shipping your antagonist and protagonist look like? Create a list of what ifs and answer each one of them. Or, if you're having trouble with dialogue or setting, write a scene in script format where dialogue is prominent and stage directions are minimal.
No matter what writing exercise you choose, at least you can look at your writing time for the day and know that you accomplished something that gets your novel one step closer to completion.