September 13, 2011

How Do You Stretch Yourself?

Woman doing yoga stretch

With any job or activity, if we want to get better, we have to stretch ourselves.  Athletes strive to move faster or stronger.  Musicians aim to complete a harder, more intricate piece of music.  And writers…

How do writers stretch themselves?

We can collect feedback on our writing from beta readers, contest judges, and critique partners to learn how to improve our writing.  We can study books we enjoy to figure out how the author accomplished their goal.  We can learn new techniques from craft books, workshops, or blogs.

And that’s all great, but general improvement isn’t quite the same as really stretching ourselves.  What’s our equivalent of a record-breaking 100-meter dash?  What’s the impossible goal we want to reach?

Categories of Writing Goals

One person’s goals are going to be different from another.  After all, we have different strengths and weaknesses, and what we find difficult—a real stretch for our abilities—someone else might find easy.

The point isn’t to make it easy on ourselves, but to make it hard.  We should make it so hard we think it’s impossible.  Crazy.  Insane.  That’s when we’ll know it’s a stretch goal.

  • Word Count

If we usually write novels, then our stretch goal shouldn’t be to write an 80K word story instead of a 100k word story.  *pshaw*  That’s a shade of gray.  No, we should aim for a short story or flash fiction.  And of course, this works in the reverse if we usually write short pieces.

  • Genre or Tone

If we usually write dark stories, we should try a funny one, and vice versa.  Or maybe we should push ourselves past our comfort level with the political, religious, horror, or sex levels.

  • Point-of-View

If we usually write 3rd-person, maybe we should try 1st or even 2nd.  Or if we usually alternate between hero and heroine, we should try to tell a full, rich story with just one perspective.  On the other hand, if we usually stick to one POV character, we should try to write a tight, coherent story with multiple perspectives.

  • Verb Tense

If we usually write in the normal literary past tense, maybe we should try a present tense story.  Yes, this means writing in the brain-warping style of “he runs” rather than “he ran.”

Why Should We Stretch Ourselves?

It’d be easy to look at that list and dismiss it.  After all, if we want to be known as an “A” kind of writer, does it really make sense to push ourselves into this “B” place?

In a word, yes.

These experiments aren’t necessarily anything we’d make public, so they don’t have to dilute our brand.  And the point with a stretch goal isn’t to succeed or fail, but to see what we can learn about our craft and ourselves along the way.

Take “verb tense” for example.  By forcing ourselves to switch tenses, we learn about how sometimes unexpected words take on specific tenses, we learn more about grammar and sentence construction, and we learn that we’re capable of more than we thought.

Here’s my confession: The list above is exactly what I’ve been facing over the past week.  In last Tuesday’s post, I shared a line—“While this is a low-class hornet’s snuggery”—from a spam comment I received that I wanted to include in a story someday.  Then in last Thursday’s post, I mentioned that my muse had been distracted with a short story idea based on that line.

Guess what I’ve been doing since last Thursday?  *smile*

My muse finally convinced me to write the story when he challenged me to stretch myself.  How could I say no?

I write novel-length paranormal romance and urban fantasy stories in 3rd person, literary past tense.  My muse’s idea was for something completely different. A 12K short story. A dystopian romance with paranormal and steampunk elements. In first person. Present tense.

That’s right.  I broke every single one of those brick walls in my skill-set simultaneously.  I thought he was killing me.  I thought I couldn’t do it.  I thought wrong.

I finished my rogue story yesterday afternoon.  I’m not saying it’s perfect or anything, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what I thought I could do.

And that’s my point.  We learn more when we’re on the verge of failure.  Or when we’re pushing the envelope far from our safety zone.  Or when we have a go-for-broke attitude.  We need to find the walls around our self-expectations—and smash them.

How much have you pushed yourself beyond what you thought you could do?  What did you learn from the experience?  Can you think of other categories to add to the above list?

(And lastly, let me know if you’re experienced with present tense and interested in beta reading.  Or for that matter, let me know if you have suggestions for anthology collections or publishers interested in short stories.  Now that I finished this thing, I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do with it.  *smile*)

Comments — What do you think?

Click to grab Unintended Guardian for FREE!
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Susan Sipal

Jami, I love your thoughts here! For any kind of growth, it’s necessary to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone.

One way I challenge myself the most with my writing is through POV. I try to do either a POV I’m not entirely comfortable with, or a POV style that can be tricky. For instance, one of my earliest stories was a relationship book between a husband and a wife. The story starts in her 1st person POV, and truly remains there the whole way, but because of a head injury she gets early on while unconscious, it shifts into her husband’s POV with hers subtly woven underneath. Then we come back to her fully at the end.

I love playing with things like that. And your short story sounds fabulous. I know of one possibility and will check and let you know what I find out!

Raelyn Barclay

Love this.

I’m always playing with POV, I love exploring it, but most of my stretching has been in the form of genre or rather sub-genre. I can definitely see the benefits of stretching that length comfort zone and will be adding that to my list.

Your short story sounds extremely interesting. It’s been awhile since I’ve dealt with present tense but am always up for beta reading if you still need someone.

Michael Haynes

Nice post and congratulations on your new story! 🙂

As you noticed, I’m going through my own stretch, specifically with fiction length. I’ve never written anything longer than what I guess you’d call a short novelette (9500 or so words). I’m now about 4700 words into a novel. It’s exciting, but also kind of scary!

Jacquelyn Smith

I’ve been playing with tense and POV lately… I’ve been trying to do more first person, and I recently wrote a short story in first person, present tense. I had to keep catching myself from slipping into past tense. Old habits die hard. 🙂

Michele Shaw

Present tense is a challenge, but I’m sure you had no problem, Jami. I’m always up for a read if you need it:)

Sarah Pearson

I’ve never been able to write a decent short story, so I’ve recently started playing with flash fiction. It’s an education 🙂

I love that you wrote a story with that line, it was my favourite.

Gene Lempp

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I started as a pantser. Learning to be a plotter has been my stretch goal for the last year. I’ve read craft books on every subject. Dissected them. Read hundreds of plotter articles. Plotted out a dozen novels and written small segments detailing out each story milestone. The end result is, I’m still a pantser, but now I’m one with an strong understanding of structure that allows me to set a boundary around my pantsing playground.

See, in the past, I’d start a story, notice an interesting tangent, explore it for a day, forget where I was, bump into a tree, pass out and wake up in a different story with a random squirrel slapping me to consciousness.

While I ended up with hundreds of story ideas I never completed anything. Plotting acts as a built in playground monitor that keeps me focused.

I love the options you list and I’ll be exploring some of them. I’m not sure about the present tense one, though, maybe I’ll save that for a future stretching session.

Great post, Jami 🙂

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

My recent forays outside my comfort zone.
* Attempting write words after years of writing code.
* Starting on something as huge as a novel.
* Acknowledging that most of what I’d written was crap, and rewriting, and rewriting again.
* Allowing professional writers to actually read what I’d written.
* Writing the vision statement of a startup company as a haiku (no, really, I did)

Future forays?
* Nanowrimo
* Short stories
* Something outside urban fantasy (Likely sci-fi)

I’m guessing most stretches are shared by anyone who wants to write novels, and may be considered goals, but in many case, stretching is simply setting good goals.

Jemi Fraser

Pushing ourselves and stretching can be a lot of fun. I’ve tried some new genres. I love Nano (although I don’t know if I’ll do it this year – in the middle of editing 2 projects). Great post!

Laura Pauling

I”m trying to do that now with my current wip. I’m writing something my crit partners would never expect from me. I’m working on my weaknesses, even if it means overwriting and more editing more later. I’m not thinking about anything and just letting the story go.

Haley Whitehall

Another great post, Jami.
I admire you for breaking so many of your skill-set comfort zones with one story. I am currently stretching myself by writing fantasy. Some chapters are dreadful but I’m not worrying about that now.

I’ve written a few first person stories but seldom like the way they turn out. Another one of my projects it to write a novella of 30,000 words or less. That is less than half the words of my natural novel length stories. It is quite a challenge.

So you said you don’t know what to do with this rouge story. You could always offer it as a free read or put it up for 99 cents 😀

Darcy Peal
Darcy Peal

I try to stretch by writing “How To” manuals for different things. For example, “How to tie your shoes”, “How to raise a baby”, “How to adjust an adjustable wrench”.
These manuals are written in humor, or fiction or other genre styles. They really twist my mind sometimes, as well as the minds of those who read them.

I guess I’m wired differently than most. I should write a manual for myself. 🙂


[…] you’ve seen any of my recent blog posts, you know I’m referring not to the meat in a can but to a spam comment submitted to my blog. […]

Todd Moody
Todd Moody

Hi Jami,
My WIP was originally 1st person present tense, and on advise from someone I have a great deal of respect for, an author with more than 60 published books, I switched to 3rd person past tense. I had to rewrite more than 100 pages to get back on track. So, I think I can be helpful in QC ing your short story, if you are stillin search of beta readers. I’d be happy to help.

I’m toying with some short story ideas to stretch a little and even did one of Chuck Wendig’s number challenges this week, actually did it twice. Great post as always!


[…] blogged before about how the experience was a great way to stretch myself, but even beyond that, attempting shorter length fiction can help us understand the basics for […]


Yeah I agree that we should challenge ourselves to do something we normally would never do. I used to write exclusively in 3rd person limited, but then one day for some reason I tried the 1st person, and it turned out better than I expected! My friends actually liked this 1st person story better than my 3rd person ones.

Hmm other categories?

Well if your protagonist is always a girl, then try a male protagonist, and vice versa.
If you’ve always written about human beings exclusively, then try writing one exclusively about animals.
You can also try writing a character personality that you have never written about before. Say if all your protagonists in the past were romantic daydreamers, then try a realistic, down-to-earth main character.

And oh yes! We can try to deliberately change our writing style. If we’ve always written in the Hemingway style—spare, simple prose—then we can try the more elaborate Victorian prose. If we’re used to straightforward story telling, then we can try using more imagery and metaphors (don’t force them in though; make sure they grow out organically from the story.)

Click to grab Stone-Cold Heart now!