Friday, August 26, 2011

Fifteen-Minute Writes (Some of Which Might Even Apply to Your Work-In-Progress)

Many of us don't have an hour a day to write. At least we don't have it all at one time. Some of us have lots of time on one day, but not much on others. Nevertheless, most of us have short periods of time we could spend writing or at least preparing to write.  I sometimes call this “Writing in Waiting” because much of it can be done while you are waiting for something like waiting for a doctor's appointment, waiting for the kids to get out of soccer practice, waiting for your flight, waiting for a business appointment or just waiting for Godot. All you need are a pad and a pen and fifteen minutes. Of course, if you have a laptop or mini-laptop with you all the better.

Character Dossiers

Character development is arguably the most important aspect of fiction writing. Even plot takes second place because the plot is simply a series of actions taken by the characters. If those actions are inconsistent with the characters, then the plot seems contrived. That means you need to know your characters inside and out. One way to do this is to create character dossiers. In a notebook simply put the name of the character at the top and then write down basic information about the character. Start with physical appearance: hair, eyes, height, weight, physical defects, strengths. Move on to mannerisms both physical and verbal. Then jot down information about their goals in life, their fears, and those things which stand in the way of them achieving their goals. Jot down what they were doing a year ago or two years ago. Put down small details like favorite food, color, style of clothing, etc.

Outline Scenes

A story is a series of scenes. Most of us have a vague idea of what is going to happen in select scenes in our heads. We might not have all the details, but we know essentially who is involved the start and the outcome. One of the difficulties, though, in planning is that sometimes these scenes come out of order. So, here's an idea. Keep a bunch of 3X5 file cards with you. When you have a few minutes, take out a file card and jot down these notes about the scene:

How the scene starts
How the scene ends

For instance, here's what I might write for my work in progress.

Setting: Cavor's Restaurant
Characters: Carolyn and Michael
Beginning: Discussion how the killer is evolving
End: Call saying that the Judge in Aldrin Village has been murdered

The Worst Thing

When everything goes right for your main character, your story becomes boring. So, during a fifteen minute break, review where you have arrived in your story and ask, “What is the worst thing that can happen to my characters right now?” Write a short paragraph or two describing it. You can flesh it out later when you have more time.

Main Points

In writing nonfiction, you usually have the article or chapter divided into a series of main points. Jot these main points down on cards. One point per card. Take the cards with you, when you have five minutes list the ideas you want to express under one of those points.

A variation on this exercise is to take 15 minutes and just write that section of the article or as much of it as you can in that time frame. You would be surprised how much writing you can get done in just a few minutes.


This is a perfect 15 minute exercise. Simply sit down with your computer or a pad and pencil and write down whatever comes to mind about your work in progress. Don't worry if it is orderly or not. Just write in stream-of-consciousness fashion about it. Later in the day, take another 15 minutes to repeat the process. Then do it again at another time during the day. By this third time, something will start to take shape you might be able to incorporate into your work.


Everything in your story has to take place somewhere. This is a simple fifteen minute exercise. Close your eyes and see the setting. Then open them and write a 100 word description. If you want to make it more fun describe it like you were writing a travel brochure or a real estate ad.

You don't have to spend a lot of time writing to get work done. These are just a few fifteen minute exercises that can actually help you write your work in progress.

Do you have any other short exercises you can think of or have heard about? Share them with us on the discussion board.

Learn More about time management techniques in a time management for writer's workshop to be offered by in September. Watch this blog for details.


  1. This is fairly close to a couple of your points, especially the Worst Thing. It involves loosening up enough to turn off the self-editor, which is something that you implied above.

    Let's say you're stumped about how Jean will react to John's marriage proposal. The plot calls for her to stall and eventually say yes. Or the reverse. Spend 15 minutes scribbling as many variants as you can of Jean's immediate internal reaction and then of her verbal or physical response. Allow yourself to be goofy, melodramatic, whatever.

    You can use this "Scribble Method" for lots of situations. Examples: You have the good guys cornered but haven't quite figured out how they overcome/elude the bad guys. The hero/villain needs to get from point A to point B. How do you make the walk across town interesting? Scribble a variety of scenes, brief encounters, etc.

    I'm not saying this always works! I've tried this method with my WIP. I've created a variety of options to overcome the "bad guy" for my main character and his friends. Too many options. I think the choices have paralyzed me.

  2. Great post. I use anytime I can to get either writing in or reading, long car rides, doctor appointments, etc.

  3. Sherry, that's a great exercise. Love it.

    Karen -- yes, it has application to a lot of situations and to a lot of tasks as well.

  4. Great post. I'm able to get in lots of reading time, using 15 minute blocks of time, but find it hard, at times, to do that with my writing. Sometimes it takes that long to get my mind in writing mode. I'm not saying I've never written anything in 15 minute blocks, because I have. I'm just not always successful with smaller amounts of time when it comes to writing.


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