How Small Projects Can Keep You Rolling in the Dry Spells

Today’s guest post is by author Sarah Allen:

Whether we’re between novels or slogging through the slow middle of our work-in-progress, all writers go through periods of feeling creatively weighed down. Some writers go through weeks or even months when every word of their novel feels like it’s been wrung from a dry sponge. It can be heartbreaking when these heavyweight projects—into which we’ve poured blood, sweat, and tears—seem to be absolutely unwilling to cooperate.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, sometimes a few weeks off from a major project can be the best thing for it, but that doesn’t mean our progress has to stop. I believe we can turn these seeming dry spells into productive detours rather than complete dead-ends. In other words, we can keep the words coming rather than succumbing to a multi-season Netflix binge of Frasier. (That was only once, okay?)

The problem is how to accomplish this. How do we keep our writing careers moving forward when our big projects insist on taking a vacation before they’ll budge an inch? If only we could take a vacation with our muse. The danger is that then we might never leave the beach.

I think the key here is thinking small. Smaller projects, like short stories, flash fiction, and poetry—and even creative nonfiction, scripts, and magazine articles—can be a lot less intimidating. And even though many of us consider ourselves novelists primarily, these smaller projects can help in many ways to move us forward on our career path.

Smaller projects stretch our writing muscles. Even when we can’t do our normal heavy lifting, smaller projects like short stories and poetry can help us keep our writing habits from atrophying completely. I know for me personally, I have the hardest time getting back into the swing of things when I’ve spent several days not writing at all. Even just a few paragraphs can keep the momentum from coming to a complete halt. When I am stuck on my novel, I take the day to work on a short story, poem, article, or essay so that I keep my fingers warm.

Then when you try to get back to a more normal writing schedule, you’ve got at least some momentum behind you, which is easier than trying to jump from zero to sixty.

Smaller projects add to our skill set. Imagine the life of a professional pianist. Not that I’m terribly familiar with that career, but from what I know, professional pianists are typically focused on deep knowledge in a specific study, such as classical music. But perhaps by broadening his skill set and studying additional styles, a professional musician can take advantage of a wider variety of opportunities, such as performing in a jazz concert or the orchestra pit in a Broadway play.

The same is true for writers. Each author typically is focused on a specific genre, which is great. That is the way we build solid careers. However, additional opportunities and even a wider readership can come when we broaden our genre horizons a little bit, and these smaller projects are the perfect way to do that.

I do not really consider myself a sci-fi writer. While a lot of what I write has an element of the supernatural to it, I’ve never written anything straight sci-fi before. However, one of my favorite things to do is browse contest listings and calls for submissions on sites like NewPages and PW.org.

I recently saw a call for a sci-fi anthology about colonizing Mars. I decided I might as well give it a try, and started doing some reading and research. I wrote and submitted a story about a young girl who is taken to Mars, befriends a cat breeder, and has to fake her own death to escape being married off to someone she’s never met. Results haven’t yet come back, but regardless of the outcome, I know I’ve stretched and hopefully improved as a writer through the experience. Plus it was great fun!

Small projects buff our resume. One of the scariest parts of submitting anywhere is that scary bio section. Editors, agents, and publishers all want to know our previous publishing history. Now, the writing really needs to stand out and speak for itself, but if you’ve spent a bit of time submitting smaller projects, you might have a few credits to list in that scary bio section. Even a couple of short stories published in some literary magazines can get your larger submissions looked at with a little bit of extra seriousness, and that little bit can make all the difference. And it doesn’t have to be The New Yorker. I’m of the opinion that any credits show that you’re putting in the effort and taking this writing thing seriously.

Small projects grow our network and readership. Editors and agents move around all the time. The editor from that small magazine that published your personal essay may move to a publishing house that might be a good fit for your new memoir. You just never know. And I think it’s just generally a good idea to surround yourself with smart, connected professionals in your field.

And what about audience? As a reader, you don’t read only in one genre, right? I think most people who read books pick them up from at least a couple different places in the bookstore. Which means that just because someone generally reads historical romance doesn’t mean they won’t also enjoy your young adult fantasy. Marketing professionals often say to focus our efforts on our target reader, our niche audience, and I think that’s wise. However, I think it’s also important to remember that a reader who stumbles across your short story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine may very well be a great potential reader for your steampunk novels.

It is always tough when our most important projects get stuck in the mire. But it happens. Acknowledging that these slow times are a challenge that every writer faces can help us relax and move forward. We can also make the most of these slow times by working on smaller projects that can expand our skill set, boost our resume, and grow our readership. And besides, it can be good plain fun.

And then watch a couple of episodes of Frasier.

Sarah Allen headshotSarah Allen is querying two novels (one adult, one YA, both magical realism) and drafting a third. She has been published in several literary magazines and placed in several writing competitions such as the Utah Arts and Letters Original Writing competition and the Writer’s Digest 77th annual competition. She received her English degree from BYU and currently lives in Las Vegas where she works as a grant writer for Best Buddies Nevada.
You can find her at her blog, Facebook, Twitter, and a myriad of other places. Her short-story collection, Cross-Eyed, is available on Amazon.

Feature Photo Credit: [ changó ] via Compfight cc

7 Responses to “How Small Projects Can Keep You Rolling in the Dry Spells”

  1. Murees Dupé November 10, 2014 at 7:11 am #

    This is an excellent post. I need to work on smaller project, but I’m so afraid of short stories. Maybe now would be a good time to practice while my muse is being uncooperative.

    • Sarah Allen November 10, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

      Don’t be afraid of short stories 🙂 They are fun and can be very helpful as a practice tool and for building a resume. Best of luck!

  2. Alex J. Cavanaugh November 10, 2014 at 7:43 am #

    I haven’t written too many short stories, but they are a great way to keep writing when you’re stuck on a big project.
    Cat breeders on Mars – who knew?

    • Sarah Allen November 10, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

      Exactly! They can be very helpful and useful when the bigger projects aren’t working.

      Here’s hoping cat breeders on Mars works for more than just me 🙂

  3. Jan Christensen November 10, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

    What great advice. I’ve had over sixty short stories published, and several novels, but I always work on one type of project or another. Either a short or a novel can blog down, for me, usually near the middle. Switching between them might be just the thing I need to do to get going again. Thanks!

  4. Margaret Skea November 12, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    Great post – timely reminder that the writing muscle needs regular exercise.

  5. Susan Kane November 12, 2014 at 11:20 am #

    I enjoy writing the short story or flash fiction. Word choice has to be precise and move along. Sharpening skills does happen with this exercise.

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