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.
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*)