Finding Time to Write: the Power of Small Assignments

Finding Time to Write: the Power of Small Assignments

HeadShot1As I write this, I’m sitting in my living room before an undecorated Christmas tree, with my kiddo whistling Christmas carols as he puts together the Lego train that will circle the tree—and I’m coughing counterpoint to the music, sick with a nasty case of bronchitis that’s knocked me out for the past few days. The house is a mess, the presents aren’t wrapped, and there definitely isn’t time to write.


Not exactly. That used to be my view of situations such as these…but since a dose of writing time is my best antidote for stress and overwhelm, I’ve got a few page after page tricks up my sleeves for sneaking in a bit of writing even when my world gets topsy-turvey.  Inspired by Heather Sellers’ Page After Page, here are some “small assignments”—writing tasks that take me anywhere from 5-55 minutes—that help me get my daily writing dose even during the craziest times of year. Hope they help you, too!

Small Assignments…for Characters

  1. Write a character’s memory
  2. Map a character’s thoughts and emotions as they move through a scene
  3. List possible character reactions to a discovery or event
  4. Explore a character’s greatest fear
  5. Identify a character’s “public” goal or desire
  6. Identify that character’s secret goal or desire
  7. Come up with a quirky habit or pattern of speech
  8. Freewrite a scene in which your character’s greatest weakness is revealed
  9. Free associate ways in which your character’s greatest strength could play into the plot
  10. Find a token, some item that symbolizes your character, that you can wear or hold in your hand to remind your subconscious to keep working.

 Small Assignments…for Plot

  1. Reread the latest paragraph/page/chapter of your work-in-progress, followed by 5 minutes of visualization re. what happens next.
  2. Play with plotting software such as Scrivener (now available for Windows—woo-hoo!)
  3. (For plotters…) Review the plot outline for places where something unexpected could happen, and brainstorm twists and turns
  4. Visualize the next scene you want to write in terms of action and reaction: what will each unfolding event trigger?
  5. List fifty different ways your story could end—and don’t forget to surprise yourself
  6. Pick a favorite ending and brainstorm different paths that lead there

Small Assignments…for Setting

  1. Brainstorm sensory information in a scene
  2. Choose *one* item from the above list and explore how it could evoke a sense of place
  3. Spend 5 minutes taking notes on your current setting (especially if your crazy schedule has landed you someplace cool)
  4. …or spend 5 minutes browsing images online for setting inspiration (and don’t forget to take notes!)
  5. Freewrite about an important place in your life, paying attention both to setting details and the emotions they evoke

Small Assignments…for Recharging

  1. Read, read, read!
  2. Give yourself ten minutes with a cup of tea and one of those writing magazines you haven’t had time to read
  3. Scribble a poem on an envelope
  4. Take a deep breath and cross three (or ten) things off your to-do list
  5. Having trouble doing that? Remind yourself that stress decreases creativity…and try again!

Maybe it’s a gift being sick this time of year: it forces me to pick those things that are most important and let go of the rest—you know, like cleaning up the messy house :-). When you can’t possibly do it all, make sure you pick the things that are most important, like time with friends, family, and—if you’re anything like me—a bit of time at the page.

Wishing you all a magical winter break!


  1. Great ideas Cheryl! I especially like your setting suggestions, since that is an area I tend to gloss over.

    Hope you feel better by the time Christmas arrives.

  2. Thanks for the ideas, Cheryl! Those look like so much fun I might forget to do my holiday preparations!

    • Ooh, sounds like fun…especially if holiday prep work involves any house cleaning. I’m still low energy, so I’m about to embark on some writing fun rather than the house decluttering I’d planned for the afternoon.

  3. Cheryl–I’m feeling a lot like you right now (except for the sick part; hope you kick the bronchitis soon)! These are terrific suggestions, and good things to ponder any time. Thanks for sharing.

    • Pam, I bet you’re feeling the overwhelm, with all your deadlines looming! I can’t wait to read your next book…

  4. Bookmarked! These lists are definitely little treasures to help pass this next week or so misery-free! (I get a touch of green-eyed monster when I can’t write for a day or two ;-p). Thanks for sharing your great lists!

    • Hi Natalie–good to know I’m not the only one who starts feeling a little crazy when I can’t write :). I hope these help! I’m about to try out #2 under plotting RIGHT NOW and I’m very happy about it.



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