WRITERS AT WORK

WRITERS AT WORK
Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Topic 13: What Else Is Out There?



Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Introduction: David
September 2, 2014
          

Hi everyone,

It has been a long while since Sandy Asher and I added to WRITERS AT WORK, the series in which we visit informally about various aspects of being writers. To refresh everyone’s memory of previous conversations, here’s a list of topics.

WRITERS AT WORK

September 2010       The Care and Feeding of Ideas
October 2010            Obstacles to Writing           
November 2010        Reality of Rejections
December 2010        Editorial Suggestions
January 2011           Perils and Joys of Writing in Many Genres
February 2011          Pros and Cons of Having an Agent
March 2011               Wrestling with Endings
May 2011                   Dealing with Speaking Engagements
June 2011                 We Get Letters – and Lots of Email, Too
January 2012           Regarding the Emperor’s New Clothes
March 2012               About this Business of Internet Publishing
June 2013                 Making On-line Challenges Work for You

So now we take up a new topic: WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE? And why is this timely? Because even during the short span of these chats the publishing world has undergone changes that impact writers around the world. Living by the philosophy that there will always be a need for good writing in some form, we find ourselves constantly contemplating the market, seeking ways to peddle our peaches (as folks around here used to say).
We hope that you will join us on each of the next four Tuesdays as we post Parts 1-4 of our conversation. As always, it’s an open forum that invites comments and shared experiences. I’ll go first next week on September 9. Hope you’ll join us.


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WRITERS AT WORK
Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Part 1: David
September 9, 2014

Sandy, I think there’s more to surviving as a writer than reacting to perceived changes in our niche markets. Maybe it has to do with our need to communicate about something that feels important. In previous WAW sessions I described how I began as a short story writer and segued to writing for children, beginning with picture books and, over the years, adding nonfiction, poetry, and educational books.
In this first part of WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE, I want to talk about my journey into educational books that began in 1997. At the time many teachers were expressing concern that they were expected to teach poetry but had little or no personal or professional experience in writing poems. After several such conversations I wondered if I might write a how-to-write-poetry book for classroom teachers. This, I think, is an example of two principles: write about what you know, and write about what interests you.
But guess what? I had no more idea how to write an educational book for teachers than many of them had about writing publishable poems for trade books. We loved the same kids but spoke to them in different languages. I had never been a classroom teacher. Had never taken a course in education. Never read a book written for teachers. The only teachers’ conferences I’d attended were to speak, not to listen and learn. Did I have a lot of nerve or what!
Many years earlier I’d gone to England to research a book I meant to write about English history. I came home discouraged but wiser. I didn’t know enough about my subject to ever write well about it. I scrapped the project. In this case I knew my subject but wasn’t sure how to translate from “writerly” to “teacherly.”
I needed to partner with a teacher, someone with national name recognition. Then I thought of Bee. Bernice Cullinan. Dr. Bernice E. Cullinan, professor at NYU, former president of International Reading Association, Poetry Editor-in-Chief for Boyds Mills Press, the publisher of my books of poetry. Bee loved my work and I loved her. I spoke with her about partnering on a book to help teachers teach poetry. She agreed.
Then I thought of Wendy Murray, my editor at Instructor, a publication of Scholastic. In 1994, Wendy had published a poem of mine with a brief article on writing poems. Since then Wendy had left the magazine side to join the educational book group. Next time I was in New York I pitched the idea and Wendy liked it. Back to Bee to outline a table of contents and agree on what I would write and what she would do.
We each wrote an introduction. For the sections that followed I introduced and explained various elements of poetry. Bee provided commentary and activities for use in the classroom. So far so good.
Then we came to the part of my outline that dealt with verse. Bee struck it out, explaining that elementary children were not ready for verse and only free verse would work in the classroom. I put it back in. Children, I insisted, are perfectly capable of playing with rhyme and rhythm and most of their favorite poems are structured language rather than free verse.
She said absolutely not. I said absolutely yes. She said she would not have her name on a book that had verse in it. I said I would not have mine on a book that didn’t. We called for a meeting with our editor. Poor Wendy!
Back in New York we met in a conference room at Scholastic. Wendy sat midway along one side of a long table. Bee and a doctoral student of hers sat at one end. I sat at the other end. The meeting was stressful but it eventually ended with an agreement that verse would be included in the book if teachers (to be consulted) thought it was a good idea. They were, they did, and it was.
When I sent my next poetry manuscript to Boyds Mills Press, Bee was still too upset with me to edit me. Instead, my friend Jan Cheripko was thrown into the breach and edited my book, Wild Country. He did a fine job.
My “Bee” book came out in 1999 as Easy Poetry Lessons that Dazzle and Delight. Our long suffering editor felt compelled to write a note to go on the credit page, something you seldom see. Here it is in full.
“Four years ago David Harrison and Bee Cullinan decided to write a book together, going on the hunch that their different perspectives – that of a poet and of a teacher – would complement each other nicely. But they quickly discovered in this arranged marriage of authorship that their views on teaching poetry were remarkably different – and that they sometimes clashed. Bee favors free verse and questioned introducing too many details of structured verse to children, while David doggedly defended his belief that teaching iambic pentameter and the like wouldn’t turn children into staunch poetry phobes. Faxes, Fed-Exes, and phone calls flew back and forth between the three of us, revision upon revision towered like stacks of Saltines in our offices. Teachers were called upon to read drafts and give their views. Poems and lessons were added, deleted, tweaked, and debated until days before the production deadline. In the process, we reexamined our beliefs about teaching poetry and wound up with richer, broader perspectives. And in the end, Bee and David wrote a book that offers an eclectic mix of their sensibilities. This is its beauty and its strength. Too often in educational publishing we deliver one school of thought on a topic, and tune out others. Working with Bee and David taught me a lot about the wisdom of editing with an open mind and about the power of sticking to one’s convictions. Their passion as educators and poetry lovers is remarkable, and it produced a fine book. (And a whopping strain on my fax machine.) – Wendy Murray, editor”
Our book has done well. Bee and I kissed and made up long ago. She told me she had learned that verse is not a bad thing for children to write. I told her I had learned that teachers want less philosophy (from me) and more information with direct application in the classroom. Bee and I remain friends. She invited me to write the poetry chapter for the 3rd edition of Children’s Literature in the Reading Program, co-edited with Deborah Wooten (University of Tennessee), and published by International Reading Association. I’m currently working on the poetry chapter for the 4th edition of the book. These days I belong to the major educational organizations and read their journals. I often present on educational issues at state and national conferences.
So, Sandy, my story has a happy ending. But there is a lesson in it. Be careful what you wish for. Or at least be prepared to take a few lumps along the way when you choose to investigate WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE!

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WRITERS AT WORK
Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Part 2: Sandy
September 16, 2014

“Historians don’t hug.”

That was my husband Harvey’s observation when he joined me for one of my conferences years ago and realized why I couldn’t wait to get to my events while he simply trudged off to his as a professional obligation of his long career as a professor of history.

People who write for young people hug.  A lot.  We don’t read one another’s work with an eye toward getting published by refuting it.  We do respond to one another’s work, usually in small groups – and, okay, sometimes with an editor as mediator – but the goal is never self-serving or competitive.  We can’t write one another’s books, poems, or plays, and we’re enthusiastic audiences and readers.  So when we get together, we aim at making the dream each of us dreams for each of our own creations come true. 

Respecting children and their literature, understanding the challenges and frustrations of our chosen field, working toward the same goals, we get close.  Close enough to hug.  It’s an excellent perk of the job, don’t you think, David?
           
That closeness takes on a slightly different importance in playwriting, which is my main “what-else-is-out-there.”  I majored in English and only minored in Theater, so I was never fully in the loop.  When we moved to Springfield, MO, I worked alone and mailed scripts out, much as I did with stories, articles, and poems.  Winning a few playwriting contests helped get those particular plays produced once, but what about other productions in other theaters?  There were many long dry spells.  It took me years to uncover the big secret:  theatrical producers and directors tend not to take chances on new scripts unless they feel a personal connection to the playwright. 

Why?  Because theater is a community effort.  Sure, as book-writers and magazine-writers, we encounter editors and art directors and marketing people.  But we rarely get to meet them, and we certainly don’t interact with them on a daily basis.  They go about their jobs, sometimes with our approval and often without it.  In live theater, the cast and crew are in one another’s lives for hours a day, every day, for weeks, months, even years of rehearsal and performance.  The four members of the Children’s Theater of Charlotte’s Tarradiddle Players just spent an entire school year traveling the southeast together in one van, doing 110 performances of my adaptation of “Too Many Frogs” plus other plays for other ages, day in and day out, weekends included.  Can you imagine the in-your-face closeness of that?  A cast has to be chosen for compatibility, patience, and endurance as well as talent.  And often with a new script, the playwright is in the room from auditions through rehearsals through at least the opening performance.  Not much will be accomplished if everyone gets on everyone else’s nerves.

It wasn’t until I began participating in theater conferences that I learned how the business really works.  And I do mean “participating,” sometimes as a panelist but often less formally.  At conferences dedicated to children’s theater, sessions tend to be hands-on.  A technique is presented and then everyone stands up and does it, as if they were children in a class or audience.  At this summer’s American Alliance for Theater and Education conference in Denver, for instance, I found myself wearing a rooster mask and enthusiastically greeting a series of imaginary mornings.  You just never know!

And you never know where such antics will lead.  I’ve had more than one director whom I’d never met before come up after a session and tell me, “I like what you had to say in there.  I’m interested in working with you.”  One such occasion springs immediately to mind because the ramifications went way beyond being commissioned to write one new script.  It involved the director of a children’s theater in Salem, OR.  Our casual conversation during the break between two sessions led to a plan for working with senior citizens and middle-school students to create an original script about growing up in Oregon.  The deal included two trips from Missoui to the Northwest, which just so happened to be where my son was living.   Nice perk (and, yes, more hugs).  This experience also led to commissions from other companies for other community-based scripts that have taken me to Omaha, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago . . . so far.

Another serendipidous  AATE meeting was with the director of a children’s theater in York, PA.  “I’ve been watching you,” she said, after inviting me to lunch.  “I’d like you to do an adaptation of Little Women for my theater.”  Apparently, directors are constantly running auditions, even when no one in the room knows they’re auditioning!  This director and I have been friends ever since (hugs!), and working with her in York, PA, meant visiting a mutual friend in neighboring Lancaster, someone we’d both met at conferences (more hugs!).  And that led to my moving to Lancaster after Harvey retired – and working on three new plays with these two friends since.

Showing up, as we know, is Step One of success in any field, but more so in theater, I think, than almost anywhere else.  Networking at these conferences make a huge difference.  Participating in more than one each year means really getting to know both the regulars and the newcomers and getting thoroughly inside the loop.  Besides AATE, there’s One Theatre World, New Visions/New Voices, Write Now, and more.  Getting involved with local theater groups, onstage or behind the scenes, is another great way to show up, learn, and network.
           
I’ve long suspected that one could be a hermit living on a mountain top and maintain a book or magazine writing career, as long as there was some way of getting one’s manscripts off the mountain and into the hands of editors.  No one would care how long one’s beard had grown or how often one took a bath.  Not so in theater, where a certain amount of hugging is practically a requirement.  It’s a matter of getting out there to become part of “what else is out there.”

Willingness to don a rooster mask and crow on cue is considered a definite plus.

So, David, what else is out there for you?

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WRITERS AT WORK
Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Part 3: David
September 23, 2014

“Don a rooster mask and crow?” Really? Sandy, I think I’ll stick to poems and stories! But I would like to hear a recording of a roomful of playwrights limbering up their barnyard chorus. Hmmm. Maybe you could make a recording and play it as background music for a staged sequel to Too Many Frogs called Too Many Roosters. Just a thought.
So now it’s back to me. In Part 1, I wrote about my decision in the late 90s to break into the educational market. I had a reason, a plan. My logic was to become better known among the university folks who teach children’s literature and write about authors and poets who create it. I wanted to go to the source so that new teachers would already have an idea about my work. I got my share of comeuppances along the way but teachers are above all generous so I had plenty of help and encouragement as I toiled along unfamiliar pathways.
It didn’t take long to learn some important differences between writing for kids (via trade books) and writing to teachers about kids (via educational publications). For example I learned that trade book authors “speak” at conferences while educational book authors “present.” The way in which national conferences treat trade book authors has changed during the past fifteen years. These days fewer of us are featured in conference programs. Looking back, I made the transition almost without realizing at the time that I’d made a lucky choice which gave me a second option.
Sandy, as we’ve mentioned before, nothing is easy or uncomplicated about this business no matter whose yard we’re playing in. One of my early initiations into the educational market was learning how to write and submit a proposal to present at a conference. I went online, downloaded a submission form, blinked and swallowed rapidly, asked myself, “Why? Why?” and tackled the blanks. Who was I? What did I propose to present? In what way would my presentation be useful to classroom teachers? What credentials could I offer germane to the occasion? Who should attend my sessions? And on.
On my first submission, I was accepted but conference planners paired me with another presenter and told us we’d each have half of the allotted time. The other party and I were strangers. She was repelled by the requirement of sharing, especially with a trade book writer! After a terse exchange, she contacted the conference chair and refused to appear. I got the whole hour. Nanner nanner nanner. Next I was paired with a different professor, again someone I didn’t know. We met for the first time a few minutes before going on. We got through it but it wasn’t the most professional act you ever saw.
Then came a conference where I met Mary Jo Fresch at an authors’ reception. She’s a professor of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University and loves children’s literature. Our friendship was immediate and it wasn’t long before we not only started presenting together but writing books too. We now have five titles in print and are working on a sixth. Our presentations draw well. Our current proposal, which includes two others, is already submitted for IRA in St. Louis next year. There is never a guarantee of acceptance. One year at NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) Mary Jo, Margaret (Peggy) Harkins, and I packed a large room. Every seat was taken and people sat on the floor along the walls while others in the hall craned to look in. The next year NCTE turned down our proposal which, by the way, included one of the big names in education, a man who is a frequent keynote speaker.
I sometimes remind myself that this was my “what else is out there” plan to find new work and become better known in educational circles. It has taken on a life of its own but in the beginning I envisioned it as a way to promote my name and my trade books. On with my story. There’s the matter of money to pay for these conference trips. By the time I learn if I’ve been accepted, many of my publishers have completed their author support budget for the year. If I don’t present, they won’t help me. But if I don’t tell them in time, they can’t help me. If I present at more than one conference during the year, they may not be able to help me. Universities tend to provide conference funding for their main professors as part of the “publish or perish” big picture. Trade authors have no one to turn to if our publishers can’t help. Sandy, I’m not whining about this. Okay, I’m whining, but not BIG whining, just LITTLE whining. If we want to play in someone else’s neighborhood, we have to play nice and accept their rules. I’m glad I made the effort and happy to have become part of the educational publishing crowd.
Sandy, I’m about ready to pass this back to you, but there’s one more point I want to make. It’s another aspect of the educational writing business. I find myself doing a lot of pro bono work. I am delighted, flattered, and honored when asked to contribute something to a journal or book. Recently I wrote a chapter in a book for classroom teachers. Of the twenty-one authors, I was one of two not involved directly in education, mostly at the university level. The other author was James Cross Giblin. Did I work hard on that 20-page, 5,600 word manuscript? You bet I did! I wanted it to be my best effort and I worked hard on it for a good many weeks. How much was I paid? Not a dime.
Not long ago I was invited to write an article for a planned issue of a respected journal. Four professors and a number of others were involved and everyone worked hard. Chalk off another several weeks. When all was ready, we had a nasty jolt. The journal’s editor resigned and was replaced by someone with different ideas about the direction the journal should take. Our issue was cancelled. I have a good article now, taking a long nap in a file.
That’s it. What else is out there? Plenty. Writers write and we’re a curious lot to boot. Over the years I’ve gone from fiction to nonfiction to poetry to how-to books to digital publishing to educational publishing. The list of possibilities is long, my friend. I wonder what we’ll try next?

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WRITERS AT WORK
Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Part 4: Sandy
September 30, 2014

Uh-oh, David.  Sounds as if you’ve wandered awfully close to the Forest of People Who Do Not Hug at those academic gatherings.  You’ve accomplished great things there, but hold tight to your map so you can find your way back out!

As for me, my latest adventure in discovering “What else is out there?” has taken me deep into hugging territory.  In fact, it’s all about hugging experts: very young children.  And it was my granddaughter, a hug specialist, who led me down this marvelous path when she was three years old.

It all began in December of 2008.  My daughter and son-in-law had been offered free lodging in London over the holidays while U.K.-based friends traveled back to the United States to visit their own family.  Their house had a spare bedroom, airfares to England were affordable in the dead of winter, and the grandkids would be in residence, so, of course, off we went.

But before leaving home, I went on-line and booked tickets for three shows being performed during out stay by theater groups who specialized in work for young audiences.  My daughter, granddaughter, and I would attend; the grandson was still too young for live theater, so he would spend that time with his dad and granddad.

All of the performances were professional, and each was unique.  One was almost wordless, but visually beautiful as it explored nightfall, bedtime, and falling asleep from a child’s point of view.  Another was a raucous adaptation of a Raold Dahl story I’d never heard of, “The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me,” complete with huge puppets and a Keystone Cops kind of frenetic energy. 

And then there was the third, “How Long Is a Piece of String?” created and performed by Tim Webb’s astonishing Oily Cart Theatre.  The other performances were excellent and well attended.  This one was a life changer.  This was “What else is out there?” with frosting and jimmies and a cherry on top!  It featured a kind of theater for the very young that was new to me, but not to Oily Cart and their Artistic Director, Tim Webb.  They’ve been creating and touring new works for 30 years now, specializing in theater for the very young (0 – 3 and 3 – 5, mostly), and in theater for young people with special needs. 

No, that is not a typo.  They do theater for children under a year old, and their parents, of course.  In small groups.  They also do theater for no more than a handful of seriously challenged children and their caregivers at a time, and I believe they’ve done one piece where the audience consisted of one child at a time, plus caregiver(s).  No need to take my word for it.  Visit their website at http://www.oilycart.org.uk, follow them on Facebook, and, to see clips of actual performances, search for them on YouTube.com.  I recommend starting with “Oily Cart + String Trailer,” “Oily Cart + Air Trailer,” “Oily Cart + Blue,” and “Oily Cart + Blue Balloon” for examples of their work with and for all of those populations.  You can also see interviews with Tim Webb, Artistic Director and resident genius.

Okay, so there we were – daughter, granddaughter, and moi – on a cold, crisp December afternoon in London, excited about going to the theater but completely unaware of what we were about to experience.  When about 15 children, mostly 3 – 5 year olds, and their accompanying adults had assembled in the lobby, we were instructed to put one hand on a red string and follow it to where the play would be taking place.  This took us to a cavernous black box theater space.  I knew immediately something extraordinary was about to happen because there were all sorts of string-related gizmos, designs, and contraptions on the walls and a musician was singing us to our seats while playing – what else? – stringed instruments.  What followed was something called “full immersion” theater, an approach in which children become an integral part of the play and fully experience the world of the story through their senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

At first, I was holding my granddaughter’s hand and leading her into the experience, but within five minutes, all of the children had left their adults behind and taken up residence in the world of the play.  The Pied Piper has nothing on the Oily Cart company!  And then the magic took over for me, too.  Seated with the rest of the adults in the center of the room as the action moved around us in all directions, I realized this was great theater for everyone, child and adult.  It had everything: a clever story well-acted, delightful music, and spectacular visual imagery – heightened by the breathtaking sight of our own little ones totally enjoying themselves as they learned to care for yarn doll babies, worked the Rube Goldberg-style gizmos, rowed a boat while being spritzed by water, crossed a rope bridge, bathed their babies in cascades of multi-colored bubbles, and finally tucked them into a caravan of cribs to be reunited with their String Parents.

I fell madly in love – with Oily Cart, with “How Long Is a Piece of String?” and with the concept of full-immersion theater for the very young.  I returned home determined to write that kind of play.  My picture book Here Comes Gosling! seemed a good place to start – children could join Froggie and Rabbit in a variety of activities involving their senses.  (We’re more restrictive about serving children food here in the U.S., so “taste” ended up as pretend-eating rather than actual ingesting.)  At an American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference, I read the book at a Playwrights Slam session and announced that I needed a theater group to work with me on developing a full-immersion script for the very young.  Patricia Zimmer, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, came forward immediately, saying she’d worked with a large Head Start school in her area before and could see this as a great match. 

It was!  We took Patricia’s university students into the Head Start classrooms to test out my ideas with real, live 3 – 5 year olds and later performed the finished play for them.  I will never forget the moment when the children were gathered around a red-and-white picnic blanket, playing “Dance and Freeze” with Froggie, Rabbit, Goose, Gander, and baby Gosling and giggling madly while their parents and teachers grinned ear-to-ear in the background.  “I did it!” I thought.  “They’re experiencing this dance at this picnic in this imaginary world because of the words I put on a page.”  And then I thought, “How can I ever again write a play in which preschoolers don’t get up and dance?”

Well, I calmed down, of course. And so did they, sitting quietly to listen to Froggie read a story before filing out through the greenery-decorated archway that had led them into this new world and would now take them back to their everyday lives.  After other productions in Austin, TX and Bentonville, AR, the stage version of Here Comes Gosling! is headed toward publication by Dramatic Publishing Company. I hope it keeps a lot of little people dancing for a very long time.

I’m now working on a new script for the same age group, “Chicken Story Time.”  Through “full-immersion theater,” very young children discover “what else is out there.”  And so do I!

Hugs, everybody!

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Topic 12: Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You



Making On-Line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 1:  Sandy
Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lora Koehler’s and Jean Reagan’s Picture Book Marathon . . . Julie Hedlund’s 12 X 12 in 2012. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Write Fifteen Minutes A Day Challenge . . . Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month . . . Maureen Thorson’s National Poetry Writing Month . . . and more. The Internet is awash in writing challenges, many of them well-organized, encouraging, free, and all but guaranteed to increase productivity for those who participate. 

How to choose?  Where to begin?

Much to my surprise, my answer turned out to be, “Why choose at all?  Begin everywhere.”   And that’s exactly what I did.  From January of 2012 through April of 2013, I took on and met every one of the above challenges, one after another and often more than one at a time.

Which might have been impossible, except that I added a twist:  “Do it your own way.”

“Why?” you might ask.  Well, I had my reasons . . .

As 2011 came to a close, I found myself wondering whether I had anything left to say to the readers and audiences I’d been sharing my work with for nearly 50 years.  Behind me stretched a publishing record of 30 books, more than three dozen plays, and well over 200 articles, stories, and poems in magazines and anthologies.  Ahead of me loomed a significant birthday.  A feeling of dread settled over me as I recalled a colleague’s announcement:  “I haven’t written anything in a long while.  Maybe I’ve retired and just don’t know it.”

But how does a writer retire?  Writing has always been far more than a job to me.  It’s been a way of experiencing life itself.  I write, therefore I am! 

If I stopped writing, I’d be . . . ?  Whatever that was, I didn’t want to go there.

So when a message arrived by email describing the on-line Picture Book Marathon – a pledge of 26 drafts in that February's 29 days, I signed up.  Perhaps this would be the very thing to nudge awake my snoozing brain cells, assuming they’d only dozed off and weren’t actually dead.  But as February approached with no further word from the Picture Book Marathon folks, I decided to sign on for Julie Hedlund's 12 X 12 challenge of a dozen PB drafts, one a month for all of 2012.  No sooner had I begun January's effort for the 12 X 12 than confirmation came through for my participation in February’s Picture Book Marathon, with the starting gun about to go off.  I was now entered in two races running at the same time!

Okay, I thought, I'll do both.  And then I added Laurie Halse Anderson's August event AND the well-known Picture Book Idea Month challenge of brainstorming a new idea every day in November.  AND THEN, with all that behind me, I took on the National Poetry Writing Month challenge to write poem a day every day in April, 2013. 

I completed them all.  BUT, with the exception of Anderson's writing prompts, which simply had to be addressed as posed, I tailored each challenge to meet my own needs.  Nothing against the original guidelines, mind you.  They were all impressively well thought out and, as each blog’s posted comments attested, all successful in helping writers get motivated and stay motivated, myself among them.  Call it cheating, if you will, but I had a personal agenda I couldn't ignore:  Along with various interrupted plays and one bogged-down novel, I had 50 years of short-form fiction manuscripts filed away in my cabinets, each of them carrying the promise, “I’ll get back to you some day.”  So my 26 Marathon drafts in February began as fresh revisions of some of those manuscripts.  I looked them over (finally!), all 37 of them, narrowed them down to the 26 most hopeful and set out to tackle one a day. 

To my happy surprise, reworking my ideas-gone-stale began sparking new ideas, so my daily output for February became a mixture of the brand-new and the old-becoming-new-again. 

Meanwhile, back at the 12 X 12 challenge, my one picture book draft per month became an opportunity to tackle the 12 most-likely-to-succeed pieces out of the 26 I'd generated or revived in February -- a full month of focus and further revision for each.  The new ideas took additional leaps forward; those that had fallen asleep in my files long ago began to stir, stretch, sit up, and take a look around.

Did I feel guilty not doing the challenges exactly as they were designed to be done?  Well, yes.  A little bit.  But how bad could I feel when I was writing each and every day, looking forward to that with renewed eagerness, and generating a wealth of material?  Retired?  Heck, no!  I was recharged! 

Did the on-going advice and encouragement offered by each challenge host still apply to me and help me?  ABSOLUTELY!   And reading about what others were up to as they met the challenges added to my options for and approaches to my work.  I’ll talk about one particular inspiration I received in my next post.  For now, I’ll just say that it was amazing how the sound of strangers cheering out there in cyberspace really did keep me going.  The challenge organizers were that good at communicating their encouragement and keeping their blogs lively with guest bloggers, participant comments, writing tips, mini-contests, and so on.  They offered daily reminders that I'd made a pledge -- maybe not the pledge they’d originally asked for, but very much the pledge I needed to make and keep.  With their help, keep it I did.

More specifics about how I did that next time.  But now, it’s your turn, David.  I’m curious about how on-line challenges look from the point of view of the challenger!

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Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 2:  David
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Well, dear Sandy, dear Sandy, I’m glad you asked how on-line challenges work from the point of view of the challenger. So far I haven’t been much of one to accept challenges but boy can I dish ‘em out.

My challenge-tossing habit began in 2009 when I became sole owner of a brand-new blog thanks to the devilishly clever Kathy Temean who, upon finishing the nifty website she’d created for me, said that I had to have a blog and, in spite of my manly protestations, proceeded to make me one anyway.

After some stuttering starts, I settled into the routine of searching for material to post. I didn’t want to talk about what I had for breakfast, as utterly fascinating as that might be. Besides, some mornings I skip breakfast so where would that leave me? I began to think about worthwhile content that would justify the time of anyone who happened by my speck of space.
One of my favorite exercises is to take a word – any word will do just fine – and see where it takes me. I’m hardly alone in doing this. What reminded me of it at the time was something I’d just heard Billy Collins say when he lectured in Springfield. One of his poems, “Hippos on Holiday,” sprang from those three words. First came the title, then the poem inspired by the thought.

I issued my first challenge, which I called, WORD OF THE MONTH POETRY CHALLENGE, in October 2009. It has continued each month since then. Again enlisting Kathy Temean’s help I created one category for adults and two for students (grades 3-7 and 8-12). Each month a number of poets, some in other countries, think about the word until a connection occurs that starts them off writing a poem. Long ago I stopped tracking how many poets, poems, and countries have been represented on WORD OF THE MONTH during the forty-five months since it began. Maybe one thousand poems? I get contributors from United States, Canada, U.K., Italy, Australia, Philippines, South Africa, Germany, France, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, and many others. I always accept my own challenge so I’ve now written forty-five poems for WORD OF THE MONTH.

The challenge hasn’t been as successful with students although we’ve attracted quite a few. Partly it’s a matter of time. Rules call for teachers to select up to three poems per month per class to post. But if a teacher is into a nonfiction unit or bearing down on math or preparing for testing or a million other things, spending time with young poets has to slip down the list of priorities.

Over the years I’ve thrown down the old gauntlet a few other times too. Now and then I’ll respond to some spontaneous urge. A year ago the lake behind our house was “turning.” Scum from the bottom was rising to the top as the weather changed and caused the semi-annual cycle. I moaned on my blog about my ugly lake and issued a plea for help in couplets. They came in serious numbers from poets who seized the moment to dash off a bit of sarcasm or encouragement.

Linking up with my friend and partner in two books (bugs and Vacation), I occasionally prevail upon Rob Shepperson to provide one of his wonderfully witty drawings, which I post with a challenge to caption it. The idea is borrowed from the weekly contest on the last page of the New Yorker.  I see it as a way to exercise a different writer’s muscle and many of my visitors apparently do too.

On several occasions I’ve enjoyed posting challenges issued by others. J. Patrick Lewis has come on my blog with such interesting challenges that poets leap into the game. Steven Withrow suggested a challenge. So have Joy Acey, Jeanne Poland, and others. I’m happy to act as host when these opportunities come along.

Sandy, for some reason the challenges I’ve issued so far have all involved poetry. I think I know why. There are many good bloggers who keep writers challenged with writing novels, picture books, creating story ideas, and so on. I also know of some who challenge their visitors to write poetry. Laura Purdie Salas posts a picture on Fridays and asks poets to write something in fifteen words. But poetry keeps me amused so I tend to stick with it.

My most recent addition, May 2013, is something called THEME OF THE MONTH POETRY CHALLENGE. The twist here is to help writers focus on one basic theme, very much like they’d probably need to do if working with an editor in hopes of being published. For this one I asked visitors to suggest themes and I got a lot. The first one I selected was fishing.  For June, the theme was food. This month it’s relatives.

Sandy, I think I’ll wait for my second act to talk about the responses I get from those who accept my blog challenges. By then maybe I’ll have some new comments from participants that I can pass along. So for now, back to you!

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Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 3:  Sandy
Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wow, David, so much to think about in your post!  Thank you!  Besides the fascinating insight into challenges from the challenger’s point of view, I note two points that resonate in important ways with my experience:  First, all those “others” who’ve influenced your decisions – Kathy Temean, Billy Collins, Rob Shepperson and the New Yorker cartoon contest, and all your guest bloggers – are absolute proof that writers do not and should not work alone.  We encourage, inspire, read, respond, and, yes, CHALLENGE one another.  Good for us! 

Second:  The line “See where it takes me.”  You’re talking about allowing a single word to lead you into a poem, but that’s exactly the approach I took to the on-line challenges.  They were a starting point that led me down unexpected but highly productive paths.  And isn’t that the creative approach to everything?  Whatever presents itself, see where it takes you.  That requires a certain amount of courage, doesn’t it?  But, oh! The places we go!

So, where was I?

Twenty-six picture book manuscripts in February.  Done.

A draft of a picture book each month in 2012.   Check.

Fifteen minutes a day of responding to writing prompts in August.  Yes, ma’am.  (Although, as Laurie Halse Anderson warned it might, this one did take until August 43rd.  And as she assured us, that was just fine.)

I was on a roll!  And then along came Picture Book Idea Month (familiarly dubbed PiBoIdMo), soon to be joined by National Poetry Writing Month (aka NaPoWriMo).  By now I was not only a writer emphatically and energetically still writing, I was a pro at taking on-line challenges and making them work my way.

Did I really need to sign on for PiBoIdMo?  With 26 first drafts and 12 second drafts in progress, I now had more than enough work to keep me busy for the foreseeable future.  Would any of it actually be publishable?  I had no idea.  I could already see that some of the stories I’d generated were better suited to magazines than the book market, but – hey! – I was generating something, a lot of somethings, and enjoying the daily doing of it the way I’d enjoyed myself as a very young writer.  I was writing for the sheer fun of it, because there was simply no time to worry about anything other than the writing itself.

Still, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at what was going on at PiBoIdMo.  How were folks generating an idea a day?  There were posts from those who had taken the challenge before and parlayed an idea or two or three into actual publishable manuscripts.  They had contracts in hand to prove it.  In describing their process for the benefit of the rest of us, they showed how they’d generated ideas willy-nilly.  Nothing censored; everything gained:  A Picnic with Monkeys, A Picnic with Rabbits, A Picnic with Ants . . . each and every one admissible as a day’s work.

Oooh! I thought, as another unconventional modus operandi hit me:  For years, I’ve wanted to write a cycle of poems around one topic – maybe even a book’s worth.  (Full disclosure:  I’ve loved David’s poetry books and longed to try one of my own.)  So how about my idea a day becoming not one for a picture book, but for a poem?  Yes!  Around the topic of . . . um . . . let’s see . . . well, I was up to my eyebrows in book ideas, how about around the topic of libraries?

I was off on a new brainstorming frenzy and accumulated my required number of ideas right on schedule, plus a dozen or so extras, because once you start brainstorming, you tend to keep on going.  In keeping with the storm metaphor, “It never rains but it pours.” 

Short pause, deep breath, and then BOOM!  A post on Facebook about National Poetry Writing Month!  I was too late to sign up, but that didn’t stop me.  With my ideas already written down, I was ready to begin my long-awaited cycle of poems, one a day and sometimes two, to catch up with those who’d left the gate before me.

Which brings me to today.  After considerable revision, I just sent off my collection of library poems.  Wish me luck, and stay tuned!  Plus I’ve got a couple of PBs out there knocking on doors, a magazine story submitted, and a bunch of other promising drafts awaiting my attention.

Does every on-line challenge fit everyone’s needs?  No.  National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is very strict in its procedure.  Write a full-length work of fiction in one month from scratch.   Excellent!  But not for me, thanks.  Not this year, anyway. 

Laurie Halse Anderson’s August challenge prompts are heavily weighted toward novels and therefore probably not well-suited to those with PB or poetry dreams.  Still, in my challenge-taking mood, I was interested in whether this wise and wonderful author had anything to offer me.  She did.  My responses to her varied prompts began to clear a path back to that novel I’d set aside years ago.  Am I ready to pick up the manuscript and dive back in?  Not yet.  But I did write all those 15-minute snippets Anderson called forth.  I’m thinking I may take the same challenge this coming August and see what more I can learn about my unfinished piece.  And maybe the August after that. 

Bottom line?  A writer writes.  On-line challenges – adjusted to fit my needs – have restored my confidence.  I am undeniably still a working writer.   So thank you, Laura and Jean and Julie and Laurie and Tara and Maureen and David and Kristi and everyone else out there giving back to the profession in this clever and uplifting way.   Much has been said about writing alone, but much can also be said about writing together.  It helps!

Back to you, David, master of the poetry prompt . . .

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Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 4: David
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hi again, Sandy. I’m astounded by the number of challenges you seem to handle without breaking stride! On occasion you have mentioned that you think I possess a lot of energy. But REALLY! You make me feel like taking a nap after reading about all the projects you’ve been working on. You also are the personification of a writer at work. As you so succinctly put it, “A writer writes.”

Some of us may accept writing challenges and/or propose them because writers sense a constant need to test our mettle, stay fit, compare our work, get it out there. Some highly successful writers, such as you, also provide a service as role models for writers who may be a rung or two down but actively engaged in improving their craft.

Jane Yolen, for example, occasionally jumps on my poetry challenges with one or several poems. It invariably causes a burst of energy that attracts other poets to join in. Others have lent their talents as well: J. Patrick Lewis, Joyce Sidman, Laura Purdie Salas, Sara Holbrook . . . the list is much longer. One surprise visitor was Gregory Maguire, author of WICKED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST.

As I mentioned earlier, not as many student writers have been represented on the Word of the Month challenge as I’d like, but we’ve had quite a few. Two in particular who stand out in my memory are Rachel Heinrichs and Taylor McGowan. They were both 4th graders when they first began posting their poems. In those days we held a vote-off at the end of every month to determine the Poet of the Month in each category. The girls mustered so many backers for their cause, some from other countries, that my total count of visits for the day – something over 1,600 – remained a record until early this year. It has been fun to keep track of Rachel and Taylor as they’ve grown, developed additional interests, and entered middle school; an unexpected bonus for issuing a challenge that young people can also take on.

In another case a teacher began sending poems written by her high school kids. These were students with various learning issues and much of their work was not of the highest quality, but they loved the idea that they could write poems that would be published on my blog and they were proud of the encouraging comments they received from other visitors there. Their teacher wrote me a note. “When I introduced poetry, my students were interested.  At first, they tried to act cool and aloof, but I knew them... When I showed them poetry, they were a little interested.  When I taught them to read poetry, they were more interested.  When I told them to write poetry, they thought I was crazy.  When they wrote poetry, they came alive. Were the poems good?  No, not technically.  But they poured their hearts into them and they loved seeing their names on your blog. And that is when their reading scores went up.”

Sandy, I can see that my challenges may be different from those that come with specific rules and guidelines. You have had success accepting the challenges but making them work to your advantage by adapting them to your own needs. In my case, Word of the Month Poetry Challenge merely tosses out a word for anyone to accept or not. Some months most of the poems come from regular contributors but along the way new names are always joining in the fun. There is no long-term commitment involved so people come and go depending on whim, time, and energy. Some of the first devotees of Word of the Month continue to post their poems while others have dropped out somewhere along the line.

From a challenger’s point of view, I take pleasure in watching a community of writers come together around a central issue such as writing a poem inspired by one word or writing something that is theme related or, well, writing anything at all. What invariably happens is that the sense of community serves like an extended family to welcome in newcomers and develop ties with everyone involved. People get to know one another. They exchange bits of personal history, express their concerns about an unruly line or a rhyme. Sometimes they even ask for advice although an unspoken guideline is never to offer unless asked.

So what do I make of these challenges? I think they serve an important purpose and you’ve already stated it: Writers write. No one ever said that writing is simple, fast, or easy. It takes work. It requires patience. It demands passion. Whatever it takes to keep us exercising our writing muscles can’t be a bad thing. I don’t take credit for the marked improvement I’ve observed in the writing of many who routinely post their work on my blog where I can see it, but I believe that those who write on a regular basis are going to get better. That’s how it works.

And now – drum roll please – Sandy and I are delighted to announce our special guest for next week’s concluding essay on this subject of “Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You.” Our mutual friend Kristi Holl has agreed to join us on the 5th Tuesday so be sure you are here on July 30 to learn what she has to share. Until then here’s a way to get better acquainted with Kristi and her wonderful work. http://www.kristiholl.com .

Thanks, Sandy! It has been good fun as always.

Kristi, the floor is now yours.

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Making On-Line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 5:  Kristi Holl
Tuesday, July 30, 2013

“I Challenge You!”

In April, I ran two 30-day challenges from my writing blog based on Dorothea Brande’s classic book Becoming a Writer. She claimed that unless you could do two certain types of writing every day, you’d never have a career as a writer.

Structure of the Challenges

One type was early morning writing—the kind you do as soon as you get up (after necessary restroom visits and letting the dog out.) I make microwave hot chocolate to have while I write. But within ten minutes you are to be at your keyboard, even if you have to get up half an hour early to avoid those you live with. You write whatever you feel like writing, a lá Julia Cameron’s morning pages. It might be creative writing, a gripe session, a planning session…anything.
The second type of writing Brande called scheduled writing. You study your day’s schedule in the morning, decide where you would most likely have 15-30 minutes free to write, and schedule your writing for that specific time. When that time comes, you stop whatever you’re doing and WRITE. No excuses for skipping, other than maybe the house is on fire. You change the time from day to day, depending on when you have available times to write.
I kept the challenge groups to eight or nine people. (There were four groups.) I wanted them to get to know each other; with bigger groups than that, it’s too impersonal. And when it becomes impersonal, the accountability is lost. (In a huge group of strangers, “no one will notice if I check in today or not, so I guess I won’t write”…is common.)

Challenges, Improvement and Progress

From January through March, I had done a “30 minutes per day” accountability exercise with another writer. She had read that it took three consecutive 28-day periods of writing to make a solid writing habit, so that was our goal. After just doing the challenge for six weeks, I had seen a significant change in my writing, especially in three areas: (1) my enthusiasm for my writing went up, (2) my procrastination went down, and (3) the actual word count increased significantly.

I blogged at Writer’s First Aid about how much the accountability was helping me, and many readers made comments like, “I wish I had someone to do that challenge with.” Voilá. I decided to set up the group challenges for April. I said participants could sign up for one or both challenges. Four people signed up for both.

Each group mentioned different difficulties when they checked in throughout the day. The early morning “dump it on the page” groups had the highest number who completed the challenge. At first they had a hard time putting the writing first, feeling like they were squandering time they didn’t have to waste. Gradually they realized that the early morning “dump” writing was clearing the decks—priming the pump—for the more structured writing later. As Heather W. said, “I forgave myself and wrote what I needed to write in the morning to get into my day. The ‘real writing’ is always waiting for me.”

The scheduled writing groups had more challenges because they were trying to squeeze the writing into their already crammed days of small children and day jobs. At first, many scheduled their writing session late in the evening, after their day job ended and the kids were in bed. If they got the writing done, often they were exhausted from staying up too late. Gradually, over the month, I noticed a number of them shifting to writing during newly discovered “down” times during the day: waiting room times, sitting in the car pool lane, sitting in bleachers, while cooking supper, etc. They became better at noticing previously wasted times throughout the day, and consistently they reported at the end of the week that they couldn’t believe how much writing they finished just by fitting it into odd “unused” times in their busy days. That was a major paradigm shift for many of them.

Another big benefit was reported by McCourt T. “During the challenge I attended a writing conference, and I really appreciated how writing every day boosted my confidence. I felt that I could confidently talk about my works-in-progress because I was actually spending time on them!”  This confirms what professional writers frequently say: nothing makes you feel more like a writer than writing.

One surprising result was that one participant decided she didn’t want to write professionally after all. As Kim T. said, “I stopped checking in 2/3 of the way through the month because I realized that I don’t want to force my writing.  I don’t want to schedule it in my day and be held to that… I have realized that I don’t want to be a full-time author.  I want to keep writing as a hobby—to write what inspires me when I am inspired to do it.”

Did the challenges actually help the participants? Heather W. thought so. “I signed up for the early morning challenge. The theory was that if you wrote in the morning before your brain really kicked into gear that, when you sat down to write later, there wouldn’t be as big a struggle to focus and find the right words for your story. I hoped that would be true. It was… I initially felt I wasn’t ‘doing it right’ because my early morning writing was a more of a diary, a place to vent frustrations, count my blessings, organize my day, etc. I thought I wasn’t really ‘writing.’ Well it turned out that the ‘non-writing’ was one of the best things I could do with that time. It just made the rest of the day better.”

Many participants noted that even writing fifteen minutes daily reactivated the feeling that they truly were writers. As McCourt T. said, “I was surprised that some days were so busy, I really only had about 15 minutes to write, but those 15 minutes made a difference. Just focusing on my writing each day, even if for only a small amount of time, made my writing seem like a priority again… this challenge helped me realize that writing every day is good for me—not just for my writing itself, which definitely improves the more I do of it, but also for my mental well-being and sense of personal accomplishment.”

The participants exchanged email addresses when the challenges ended so that those who wanted to could continue. Many expressed the concern that Jennifer R. voiced here: “I would love to continue to stay involved in an accountability group. I have never written more consistently than I did while participating in this challenge. I am afraid that without the accountability group I will fall back into my old habits and writing will only happen when I get a chance instead of making time for it.”

I can understand that because I’m exactly the same way. I really need someone to “report” to. Many of us are truly helped by these daily check-ins. I hope my writing accountability partner never wants to quit!

Kristi Holl is the author of 42 books, including Writer’s First Aid and More Writer’s First Aid, as well as the new e-book Boundaries for Writers. Go to her blog to sign up for her free e-book Managing Your Writing Space and Your Writing Time

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