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!

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 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.

1) Let the voting begin! 2) WRITERS AT WORK – Obstacles to Writing (Part 5) with Guest Author Kristi Holl

Hello everyone,This is a busy day! We kick off voting for this month’s Hall of Fame Poet and Hall of Fame Young Poet. It has been wonderful to see so many talented poets and young poets contribute their creative work during October. My thanks to everyone who participated!

Today I’m also asking our judges to begin deliberating over their choices for Word of the Month Poet and Word of the Month Young Poet. For a reminder of our outstanding panel of judges, here’s the link when I introduced them. https://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/very-important-announcement/

Below you’ll find the voting boxes where you can cast your votes. To reread this month’s candidates, back up to yesterday’s post and there they are.

And, below the ballot boxes, you’ll find a very find article for WRITERS AT WORK! Have fun!

And now, welcome to another post in the series WRITERS AT WORK. I hope by now that regular visitors to my blog are familiar with the ongoing chat about writing that Sandy Asher and I started on September 28 and have maintained since then on each Tuesday. If you are new to the blog and would like to get caught up, you can check back to my Tuesday posts. Also, at the end of each month we are posting the total conversation for that month on America Writes for Kids at http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu/ Sandy and I welcome the comments of other writers to this conversation. If the comments are long enough to post as a Guest Author, we’re glad to do that. Our topic this month has been: Obstacles to Writing. Today the entire column is provided by an old friend, Kristi Holl. Thanks Kristi!

“Dealing with Distractions”

During the early stages of a writing project, when you’re gathering ideas and deciding on your approach, it’s useful to daydream and be unfocused in your thinking. However, there comes a time to focus, to fully concentrate on the work, as if you were putting a beam of sunlight through a magnifying glass to concentrate its power until the paper it touches bursts into flame.

Why Focus?

When you focus, you’ll accomplish writing projects in half the time, and your concentrated efforts will produce better work. Focusing also builds momentum and enthusiasm, urging us to move steadily toward finished stories, articles, and books.

Being able to focus is critical. As Stephen Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) says, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Getting Sidetracked

What keeps us from focusing? Distractions. They have always been with us. Agatha Christie once said, “I enjoy writing in the desert. There are no distractions such as telephones, theaters, opera houses and gardens.” While our modern-day distractions may have changed a bit (e-mails to answer, faxes coming in, the World Series on TV), the result of being sidetracked by them remains the same. We don’t finish our writing. We don’t study guidelines and mail that manuscript. We don’t follow up on marketing tips. If we stall long enough, we may quit altogether.

So how do we deal with things that take us away from our writing? Try adapting the Serenity Prayer for this purpose: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the distractions I cannot change, courage to change the distractions I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Wisdom to Know

What are some distractions you cannot change or ignore? Sometimes it’s a sick child or spouse or a crisis with a friend. Sometimes your boss gives you an overtime assignment with a “now” deadline. There may be a project that needs to be attended to without delay, like your teenager’s last-minute college entrance application. This type of interruption or distraction you have little control over. You grin and bear it.

However, we need wisdom to know the difference between the distractions that are unavoidable and those we allow. Chances are, you’re your own worst enemy when it comes to distractions that keep you from writing. So take courage! Change what you can in order to focus on your writing.

1. Use an answering machine to screen calls. Better yet, turn the ringer off altogether so you’re not tempted to pick up when you hear your best friend’s voice. Then return calls at lunch time or when you’ve finished your daily writing stint.

2. Isolate yourself as much as possible from the traffic flow. I now have my own office, but I’ve written in family rooms and bedrooms and dens. The family room was the most difficult with constant interruptions of TV, kids, and doorbells. The more you can shut the door on distractions, the easier you’ll find it to focus.

3. Take note of your own personal distractions. The blinds in my office are pulled because I look outside every time a car/garbage truck/motorcycle/UPS truck/bus/delivery truck goes by. I also remove all chocolate from my work space. Even hidden in the back of a drawer, it calls to me while I work and distracts me, whether I stop to eat it or not. Nice weather tempts me to go out for a while, so I don’t put on makeup until late in the day. I know I won’t show my face in public without it–so I’ll stay home and write instead.

4. Leave the mail alone. Reading letters and e-mail and surfing the Net can be a major distraction. It interrupts your flow to stop and sort the mail. And if your mail contains rejection letters, bills, and bank statements, it can create an instant slump. So get the snail-mail if you must, but stash it in a basket until the end of the day when you’re done writing. The same is true for e-mail. Leave it unopened and unread till late afternoon (unless it’s a response from an editor!).

5. For non-emergencies, make your family wait. Barter with your family for writing time. When you’re finished, you’ll make popcorn. When you’re finished, you’ll play catch. When you’re finished, you’ll go rent a movie. (Just be sure you actually follow through on your promises!)

6. Leave home. If home is too chaotic sometimes, take your work to the library or a park or a cafe, somewhere quiet with no phone and a minimum of distractions.

7. Organize your work space first. Arrange your work space before you begin writing, to ensure that you have everything you need. Don’t run out of paper halfway through typing your chapter. Keep things within reach. Even finding a new ink cartridge or box of paper clips in your supply closet can distract you. Before you know it, you’ve spent half an hour rearranging the closet shelves.

8. Silence can be golden. Are you as distracted by noise as I am? I run a fan on high speed for white noise, and during school vacations I also use ear plugs. If traffic bothers you–or if you’re in a quiet neighborhood where twittering birds distract you–close the windows during your writing time.

9. Change your schedule. Get up earlier and write when the world is still asleep. Phones don’t ring. Kids don’t interrupt. Your spouse is still snoring. (This works equally well if you’re a night owl and can write after the world shuts down for the night.)

10. Eat healthy meals at regular intervals. Avoid the distraction of a growling stomach or a hunger headache. If you’re always thirsty, keep cold drinks within reach. A mini-refrigerator in your office, filled with bottled water and fresh fruit, an keep you from constantly running to the kitchen.


Take time to study yourself, discovering your own favorite distractions. Once in a while we have absolutely no control over interruptions. However, most of the time, we (consciously or not) use distractions to keep us from having to face the work and anxiety of putting words on paper.

The next time you sit down at your keyboard, close your eyes and imagine yourself as that concentrated beam of light focused by the magnifying glass. Then open your eyes, hit the keys, and set the world on fire!
Kristi’s web site at www.KristiHoll.com
Over 40,000 subscribers at Kristi’s Writer’s First Aid blog: http://institutechildrenslit.net/Writers-First-Aid-blog
URLs are:
Kristi Holl http://www.kristiholl.com/
Writer’s First Aid http://www.thewritersbookstore.com/M3990/
Boarding School Mysteries http://www.boardingschoolmysteries.com/

WRITERS AT WORK – Obstacles to Writing (Part 4), also featuring Guest Author Amie Brockway

Greetings from WRITERS AT WORK, the ongoing chat between Sandy Asher and David Harrison about the nitty-gritty of being writers. Rules are simple. We select a question that is often posed and take turns (two each) responding to it. We invite others to join in the conversation and will post longer efforts as Guest Authors on future WRITERS AT WORK slots. In addition to today’s guest, Amie Brockway, we have Kristi Holl on October 26.

October 19, 2010
Topic 2: Obstacles to Writing
Response 4: Sandy

Hey, David –

It’s nice to know I’m not alone, even though it’s the answer-all-your-emails-first club I belong to. Not only answer them, but hop to it and deliver anything anyone asks of me in those e-mails. But, like you, I get a lot done in spite of my e-mail addiction, so I guess we club members could free up at least a little of our time if we spend less of it feeling guilty!

The internal obstacle I’d like to talk about is something like a taped message that goes on in my brain during the writing of first drafts. I start out each project in a state of high optimism: “This is a fabulous idea. It’s going to be easy, too! And everyone’s going to love it.” Off I go, then, scribbling or typing away with a big smile on my face. Roughly halfway, maybe less, into the first draft, the tape begins: “This is not going to work. This is garbage. Whatever made you think you could write? This is awful. Stop! Give up! STOP!”

I don’t know where that message comes from, but I do know other writers hear their own version of it. Another club we joined unwillingly, but there we are, in it together and wrestling with another obstacle to our writing. Some writers do stop and give up. As for me, I’ve come to think of that moment when the negative message clicks on as something like the wall that marathon runners talk about. Somewhere in the race you feel as if you will drop in your tracks if you take another step. But if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, sooner or later a “second wind” will kick in and carry you to the finish line.

So I keep putting one word in front of the other, with the message repeating on a relentless loop in my head, and eventually, I get an entire draft done. That entire draft, I’ve found, is a critical milestone. It’s easy to throw away the first few paragraphs of a story or even the first couple of chapters of a book. But an entire draft? Uh-uh. I’ve lived with the characters too long. I know them, I care about them, and I’m not going to toss them in the trash without at least trying to do their story justice.

The taped message in my head hates it when I get on with the second, third, fourth, or nth draft of a piece. It slinks away. Until the next project. It’s been visiting me for decades now, with no signs of weakening — a formidable foe, but not an unstoppable one. I just write it down!

My turn to go first next time, David. I’ll be taking on “How do you deal with rejection?” And do I ever have experience in that area!

Thanks, Sandy. I’ll look forward to your opening remarks. But before we change subjects, we have two other Guest Authors on tap. Today we feature the witty remarks of Amie Brockway and next Tuesday we feature Kristi Holl. Here’s Amie.

Hi Sandy and David,

I would love to figure out how to make use of your new venture. What gets in my way?

Today, it’s 327 e-mails that have to be answered, deleted, or otherwise dealt with. I keep meaning to tell you, Sandy, that I’m reading your book about writing and rewriting. I read it while I eat–that’s multi-tasking, right? It’s a wonderful book, and I’m sure it will help me.

I’m trying to get to my two writing projects, and I thought I had pretty much the whole day today to focus on them. But, here it is 4:30, and I still have 21 unread e-mails and a whole stack of e-mails for which I have promised to try to get this or that done today.

I don’t know.

I made up a time budget, and it has 34 hours in a day. I tried multiplying that times 5 days and spreading it over 7 days, and if I remember correctly I ended up with 4 spare hours.

Guess I won’t be trying to blog anytime soon.


Amie Brockway is producing artistic director of The Open Eye Theater, Margaretville, NY. Her plays include adaptations of THE ODYSSEY and THE NIGHTINGALE (both Dramatic Publishing Company). From: Open Eye Theater. Here’s the link to Open Eye Theater: The theater’s website is www.theopeneye.org.  

WRITERS AT WORK – Obstacles to Writing (Part 3), also featuring Guest Author Veda Boyd Jones

Greetings from WRITERS AT WORK, the ongoing chat between Sandy Asher and David Harrison about the nitty-gritty of being writers. Rules are simple. We select a question that is often posed and take turns (two each) responding to it. We invite others to join in the conversation and will post longer efforts as Guest Authors on future WRITERS AT WORK slots. In addition to today’s guest, Veda Boyd Jones, we already have Amie Brockway on October 19, and Kristi Holl on October 26.

October 12, 2010
Topic 2: Obstacles to Writing
Response 3: David

Hi Sandy,

Good point about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. Up to a point, that is. When I’m into reading for a nonfiction book, making notes is fairly routine and allows for a certain amount of interruption to the process. But good nonfiction is far more than reporting, of course. To hold any audience’s attention for long, the writer must find ways to weave the nonfictional information into a narrative that interests the reader and keeps him or her turning pages. That’s when the story teller in me takes the lead, and that’s when the usual need for peaceful thinking time clicks in.

Okay, now for the third part of our question about obstacles to writing: internal ones. For many of us, this is the worst culprit of all. Self induced problems run the gamut and I’ll bet that everyone reading this will have his or her own list of reasons not to write. (If you have your own particular demons, let us know so we can share them.)

Here are some of mine. I need to clear my e-mail. The inbox must be empty. Ditto the sent box and the delete box. I want my time clear of such obligations before I turn to my day’s work. I also check my blog about 200 times a day to make sure I don’t owe someone a response to a comment left there. By the way, Kate Klise suffers from the same need to clear her e-mail as a requisite to writing. I drink coffee most of the morning from 6:00 on. It might surprise me to keep track of the time I burn between my computer and the kitchen, pouring or warming cups of coffee.

As the day progresses I wander the house to check on this or that. Maybe to look at the lake to see if the swan has returned. I’ll dig into a box of crackers and wonder if the salt is really all that bad for me. I suddenly remember that I owe someone a response so I stop for that. I make a list of things I need to be doing, like WRITING SOMETHING.

I check for e-mail. Maybe an editor has responded to a query or someone has invited me to speak somewhere or . . . sigh.

I get down some words. Oh yes! Wow does this feel good. Why didn’t I put off all those other things and do this first? Will I ever learn? Sometimes at this point I take my pad to some other part of the house, outside even, to get away from this computer. But you know what? As disorganized as my system appears to be (even to me!), it’s my system, and it has been working out for some time now. I’m often congratulated for being so prolific. I smile and want to tell people, “If you only knew what I have to overcome each day before I write my first word!”

Before I send this back to you, Sandy, I want to share the remarks of Guest Author Veda Boyd Jones, a prolific author and frequent speaker on the subject of writing literature for young people. Veda, the stage is yours.

Sandy and David,

Great idea to keep a running conversation going by working writers. When I first started writing, I could only write from 1:00-3:00 in the afternoon. Jim came home from work for lunch, then headed back, and I put the boys down for their naps. Anyone with kids knows you can’t think when kids are tugging on you needing this or that. I needed silence and alone time to think and write.

So, I learned early on that there’s no waiting for inspiration to write. I’d read what I’d written the day before and then I’d start from there. It’s like listening to a book on tape in the car. You pick right up where you left off. I guess you just get in the zone, focus.

I also learned quickly to take pen and paper to Little League practice. In the car I was alone, even thought chaos reigned on the baseball field.

Once all three boys were in school, I set a routine. Do the breakfast dishes, laundry in the washer, sweep the kitchen floor, plan supper, all those everyday things, then I’d be at the computer by nine. Pre-caller-ID, I’d answer the phone because it could be a family matter, but if it was a friend, I’d talk a bit, then say I had to get something finished.

I agree with David that everyone perceived that I didn’t work. (Did they think I just ordered books in the mail with my name on the cover?) Of course, I was a room mother, and I got stuck with the worst behaving kids on field trips since I was used to three boys (although such good sons they are). Still, family does come first, to a degree. There’s such a thing as overindulgence that keeps kids from becoming self-sufficient. It’s absolutely a balancing act.

You can see that I had the luxury (and fatigue) of being an at-home mom, and that let me carve writing time out of the day. When I’m asked how to become a successful writer, I usually answer, “First, marry an architect.”

Veda Boyd Jones