To prompt or not to prompt

Hi everyone,

For those of you soon headed to Honesdale for the poetry workshop, I look forward to seeing you. Thank you for your many notes and warm exchanges as we’ve gotten acquainted. I’ve now received poems from most of you so I can begin reading and thinking about them before we meet at The Barn.

Lately some of our conversation has been about prompts that various people use to stimulate their writing. The subject is always of interest. Some of you might have read the most recent series of WRITERS AT WORK by Sandy Asher, Kristi Holl, and me, which is about giving and accepting writing prompts. We called it “Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You.” For reference you can find the individual episodes posted each Tuesday in July beginning with July 2.

See you soon!

David

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Writers at Work: Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You, Part 5

Hi everyone,

Thanks to Kristi Holl for concluding our WRITERS AT WORK conversations this month. Sandy Asher and I each took two swats at the subject, “How to Make On-line Writing Challenges Work for You.” We were delighted when Kristi accepted our invitation to take the fifth Tuesday. As you will soon see, we couldn’t have a better anchor!

WRITERS AT WORK
Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 5
Kristi Holl
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Kristi Holl
“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. http://www.kristiholl.com

Writers at Work: Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You, Part 4

Hi everyone,

Thank you for joining me today as Writers at Work continues with this month’s subject of making on-line writing challenges work for you.
David publicity photo
WRITERS AT WORK
Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 4
David
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hi again, Sandy Asher. 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 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 a privilege to keep track of Rachel and Taylor as they have grown, developed additional interests, and are now preparing to enter 8th grade this fall — 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.

David

Writers at Work coming soon

Hi everyone,

Yesterday I told you about Shannon Abercrombie’s 100 Days of Summer challenge. http://www.shannonabercrombie.com

Today I’ll remind you that on each Tuesday in July I’ll feature an episode of Writers at Work and the subject is MAKING ONLINE CHALLENGES WORK FOR YOU. Sandy Asher will take July 2 and 16.

http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu/authors/asher

http://usaplays4kids.drury.edu/playwrights/asher

http://usawrites4kids.blogspot.com

http://americatheownersmanual.wordpress.com

I’ll do July 9 and 23, and Kristi Holl will bat cleanup on July 30.

Kristi’s web site: http://www.kristiholl.com

Kristi’s Writer’s First Aid blog: http://kristiholl.net/writers-blog

Find Kristi on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KristiHollBooks

I hope you’ll join us for those discussions.

David

Writers at Work back in July

REMINDER: Please keep Barbara Robinson in your thoughts and prayers. Her daughters want everyone to know how much your comments and good memories mean to Barbara. They read them aloud and they lift Barbara’s spirits. Thanks to all.

Hi everyone,

These days there are all sorts of writing challenges issued on blogs and each has its followers. Sandy Asher and I decided to reprise Writers at Work in July to discuss the subject.Sandy Asher We’re calling it MAKING ON-LINE CHALLENGES WORK FOR YOU. We’ll post our thoughts on Tuesdays, beginning with Sandy on July 2, me on July 9, Sandy on July 16, and me on July 23. Since there are five Tuesdays in July we’ve invited Kristi Holl to be our guest for July 30.
Kristi Holl
As many of you remember, Sandy and I have written on many subjects in the past that dealt with aspects of writing and/or the writer’s life. We keep the conversation informal and focus on the nuts and bolts of what writers think about and do. I hope you’ll mark your calendars and plan to join us with comments or questions.