Wednesday, January 12, 2011


In a post a couple of weeks back, Kate talked about “practice pieces.” Pieces you write and feel free to be as out of it, or as in it as you wish because no one will ever ever ever see it. She also said if you don’t have a practice piece going, you should try to get it.

Now, those of you who know of my strong and indelible aversion to writing only for myself are probably thinking “Ah, bet you Sarah doesn’t have a practice piece.”

You would of course be wrong. Sarahs are that way. This particular Sarah has several practice pieces, ranging from snippets that will never go anywhere to fully developed short stories, to partial novels. I don’t have a finished novel, but I have novels I could finish given a couple of days.

Practice pieces – that are started knowing they will never see the light of day or at least never see the light of day in their present form – are things that I’m not sure I can pull off; I’m sure I can pull off but sure I can’t sell; sure I can pull off AND sell but don’t want associated with me, even at the remove of a pen name (or two.)

They are the equivalent of doodling pieces done by artists, which are never going to interest anyone unless you happen to be Leonardo DaVinci.

So, you’re wondering what is the difference between these pieces and stuff you begin and never finish, the never ending bits and pieces that all of us have in file cabinets, on our desks, or in our drive?

Well, practice pieces are sort of part of a pact with yourself. You save them to a special place, perhaps. The fact you know no one will ever see them but you allows you to try things without your friends/editors/fans thinking you’re stupid or not competent or sick or... I often use my practice pieces to experiment with extreme situations and see how far I can push things before I break a character, for instance. Also to feel the power in that sort of situation and figure out how to harness it for others.

Now, mind you, some of my stories do move from the private file – particularly the ones that are fine, but don’t have a market. Markets change. But at that point they must be stories I’m no longer working on, so I don’t feel like I violated my own trust. (Be still. It’s weird in here. If it’s not weird behind your eyes, you’re not a writer.) At that point it is the equivalent of taking a sketch and fleshing it out into a painting.

But most of my stories in the practice file will remain in there forever, safely locked up.

So, do you have a practice file? What do you keep in it? (General, not violating your own privacy.) Do you find it useful? Would you consider having one?


Ellyll said...

I don't have anything I've compacted with myself to be practice files, other than one piece you had suggested I try in response to another post. I do have what I consider 'doodling' files on my computer, and in notebooks. Sometimes I use them to work out ideas, and sometimes to get things out of my head that I know are useless, but my mind keeps spinning on them.

I kind of like the idea of the pact, though. Maybe I need to make it official. ;)

MataPam said...

I used to.

I had this Medieval village, and I stuck characters in there to see if they would work. Very eccentric characters, extremes of the archetypes. The wicked witch, the Evil Wizard-Tyrant, now retired and herding sheep. With his Evil Goats, who happen to be his former enemies. Giggly girl-witches who would never marry, but still get crushes and boy crazed and have babies (girls only) to carry on the traditions. Mages who formed gangs and pretended they didn't need women in their lives. The jolly inn keeper, and the orphans he adopts Two, count them, two Lost Princes. A dragon stuck in human form. Three old Gods, who've pretty much been out-grown in the greater world . . .

I dissed my Muse in public and she made me write the verbage equivalent of about ten novels in that universe. They aren't _that_ bad, and with a whole lot of editing they will eventuially see the light of day. Probably still horrifyingly unorganized.

And I'm looking for another "Private--Writer Only" space to be totally uncontrolled in. This one I'm going to hide from the Muse!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Matapam.

Some very interesting things swept under the carpet at your place.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Ellyll, I doodle too.

I keep a doodle file in my head and when ever I'm somewhere, like waiting to pick the kids up from the train station, I dip in and doodle so I won't be bored.

Never know if something will make it out into the real world.

Chris L said...

Yes I have practice pieces, the key to practice piece is the pact. You have to stick to the part that says: "I shall not submit this."

It can be hard.

Chris L said...


I love the sound of your village.
Really. I might have to create my own.

Like a paper and ink holodeck.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I'm told -- by people much older than I, of course -- that writers used to do their doodling in paper of some outrageous color -- like purple -- which kept them from ever sending it out. It's really very freeing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually I meant more than the "never ending soap opera, set in a world I'll never publish" because that is different. That -- though it gets cannibalized IS something I write for myself, formless and empty like the world before creation. Practice doodles are different. I have somewhere about twenty beginnings, when that was what I as practicing. And each beginning has versions...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


My memory is not that good, so I keep a doodle file in my computer. And the kids KNOW if they EVER publish a scrap of it after my death, I'll find a way to haunt them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L

Absolutely. The pact IS the thing.

Kate Paulk said...

I have any number of practice pieces, although there's usually only one active at any time. Sometimes I'll share bits with close friends I trust - who have this disturbing habit of telling my I must finish this and submit it for publication. All I'm wanting when I do this is a sanity check on "am I doing it right?"

Me being chronically disorganized, I don't have anything so fancy as a separate folder for the practice pieces. I just have a whole bunch of files with cryptic names that I open now and then to see what the heck that was (invariably a practice piece I've forgotten about).

Usually if I convert one to "live" it gets sanitized somewhat - I tone down the snarky redshirtings and the like. Er. Mostly.

They tend to be all manner of universes - sometimes the universe is the purpose of the piece, sometimes it's characterizations, sometimes it's trying to work an annoying technical fault out by focusing on not doing that to the exclusion of everything else (which makes for uber-sucky writing, but it's how I cured myself of adverbial froth).

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yes, Kate, by definition they concentrate on ONE characteristic of writing -- mine too. And you're not the only one who finds pieces she totally forgot.

However, it's not the practice pieces that throw me for a loop. It's the ones that are "to send out". Whole short stories, sometimes novels that I have NO recollection of writing.

Ellyll said...

Rowena, I do that, too. In waiting rooms, and down time at work, and boring drives. Sometimes, it's working on the 'real' stories, but others it's just the doodling.

Sarah, I love the purple paper story. And, of course, people much older than you are (and than I am). Naturally. ;)

'Listening' to you all, though, I think maybe some of the doodling should be more sort of non-specific practice: not so much working out problems specific to an ongoing story as having some practices that are more general, as Kate described... Hmm....

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Right, everybody go out and buy purple paper

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Kate is FAR more organized at doodling than I am. Actually ninety percent of my doodling is one thing -- defeating my reluctance to write strong emotions in a fashion that's not so understated that any readers who AREN'T Stoic Spartans miss them.

Ellyll said...

Having grown up in the 'no whining' school of behavior myself, I have a similar problem. I always get almost embarrassed when my characters are in deep emotion. Part of me always wants them to maintain a decent restraint. ;)

Which doesn't mean I shouldn't be practicing to improve my other weaknesses, of course. :)