Sandy Asher and David Harrison

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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