Phil’s Official Writing Challenge Guidelines

I would have titled this “How to Write In Ways That Will Make You Feel Like Your Soul is Dying”, but I realized that might be a hair melodramatic. Special thanks go to my college pal Andrew Webb for texting me last night with the following texts, as he was inadvertently responsible for this topic.

Phil, I have done a terrible job with writing since I stared working full time, how do you do it?”

I responded by saying I force myself to find time every day to write, even if it’s just a little. If I get stuck working on one thing, I focus on something else. Above all else, it’s important to find time for writing. That resulted in this response:

Do you force yourself to a genre or anything goes including journaling?

My phone had conveniently been switched to Do Not Disturb mode by that point, however, because I had to be awake at 6a.m. and those texts first arrived after 12:30 last night. Feeling somewhat guilty for not answering, and finding this to be a good blogging opportunity, I decided to give a long-form answer in the form of a proper writing challenge anyone can hold themselves to (for the sake of self-destruction, really). Keep in mind that I may be a subject matter expert of sorts, but I am by no means a be-all, end-all source of wisdom on writing and so this is mostly just issuing a challenge to help writing in the same way I’ve been keeping up with my writing. Feel free to adjust it in ways, and let me know what works best for you in the comments below. It can be a sort of note-comparing among creative folks who also like finding their limits and then using those limits to inflict torment upon themselves. I’m joking, mostly.

Also, I really should note how much of a gigantic ego-boost it is to have people asking me advice on writing. Holy shit, folks, that is awesome. Right. Moving on…

The Challenge – Write EVERY SINGLE DAY

The Time Frame – There is none. 

The Rewards – Knowledge you will undoubtedly improve over time with constant practice of your craft.

When I decided to do the first One Hundred Days of Blogging, or when I briefly lost my mind and wrote an entire novel in about three months time, there was one common denominator involved. I wrote every single day, even if only a little, in order to keep myself from falling into the bottomless abyss of self-loathing and doubt that is not creating things. The problem for writers who went to college is how the structure, due dates, and general senses of dread and imminent failure are no longer a part of the equation. A short story that would have taken the wee hours (Yes, I typed “wee hours”; rest assured, I already hate myself for this.) of a morning before class to write now lingers somewhere in the dustier, less used parts of one’s brain for weeks at a time. Months. Sometimes years. It’s terrible stuff, really, but it’s possible to get over these problems.

The only thing preventing your novel from being written is you. I know how absolutely hokey-cheesy-bullshitty that sounds, but it’s the truth. Established, published, and largely-beloved authors had to start somewhere. While it’s easier to imagine that they were all blessed with a special number of hours a day that no one else can access, they had to find a foothold somewhere. That somewhere was finding time between jobs to slap a few more words on a page. Skipping out on sleep for one (or two or three or so on) more paragraph(s). It’s important to remember that daily writing = daily practice = honing skills. Seriously. Go back to last year or the year before and look at your writing style. Your narrative voice. Analyze the hell out of that stuff. Once you’ve done that, read something from more recent. Notice the evolution. It might be subtle, or it could be massive; it all depends on how regularly you get to writing, and how much you work on adjusting and altering the way you approach writing as a craft.

Here’s the meat of the challenge, for those of you interested:

Find time to write every day. It doesn’t have to always be one project, but that certainly does help keep focus. Don’t set limitations or parameters for your writing. They might be helpful at first, but I’ve found that saying I’m going to write X number of pages a day or do X number of hours only ends up making me feel frustrated on those days I can’t actually accomplish that much. There will be bad days, off days, and days where your brain just says “nope” on repeat. Prove that bastard wrong by writing even just one word in your project, as it could lead to another word. Possibly even multiple words, leading to multiple sentences. Or it could just be a day you write one or two words. There’s nothing wrong with that so long as you accept it as progress instead of defeat. Any progress is good progress, as it’s proof you took time to write instead of wondering what it would have been like had you more time to write. Repeat this each day until a project is finished, and then select another project. Repeat until death (or Death, should any of you be secret wizards).

What you write is up to you, as no two writers have the same particular focus in what they want to work on. I can’t very well say “work on a short story, novel, or piece of flash fiction” if you prefer writing poetry. I’d be setting people up for failure. However, it should also be noted that challenging yourself to write outside of your comfort zone may not be a bad idea, either, as it opens up other opportunities. It would also probably give you a greater appreciation of writing however you most often do. Along these lines, I should give poetry a chance. I’m sure that the Vogons will really appreciate my work when they arrive to demolish the Earth. In response to Andrew’s question: journal writing should count, but make sure it does count. There are tons of sources of journal prompts in this wide, wild Internet, and there are easy ways to start open-ended entries. Write a journal entry that begins “Today was good”, but then be sure to ask yourself why was today good. Expound upon things. Let your thoughts run wild, as is conducive to journal writing. Doodle stuff in the margins. Go nuts. It’s progress, and it’s another day your thoughts aren’t left to ferment in your head. Fermented thoughts lead to all sorts of problems, like stinking characters and shitty story ideas and foul poetry and so on and so on. Best to get them out into the open, even if they need to be edited into oblivion.

Speaking of editing, let’s not. That can be another post for another time, when I’m ready to actually tackle the subject. My usual process typically involves a lot of crying and drinking, and I’m only half-kidding about both of those things.

However, I can talk about beta-readers. It’s important to find beta-readers who enjoy your work and the genre you’re working in while also being able to maintain the necessary level of distance required to pick a draft to pieces. Let them work on their terms and be sure, if they are also writers or artists of a sort, to reciprocate critiques and help whenever possible. Beta-reader extraordinaire Lindsey has helped me a greater deal than I can properly describe, and as such I do what I an (with flimsy deadlines and horrible work ethic) to help her out. Speaking of which: if you see this, Lindsey, I’m pretty sure you should get to writing again because the world needs more of your work. Ahem. Digression aside: the process of getting to better, more refined drafts depends on effective, thoughtful criticism from good beta-readers. I’m talking about people who go beyond saying something is good or bad. On a related note: don’t be the person who says “I liked this” or “this is good”. Nothing is more infuriating to an artist than flat, generic, throwaway phrases like those.

Once you find the ideal beta-reader, get to editing, and feel comfortable with one of your projects, take to the internet to find places to send it. Expect rejection. In fact, you should embrace the idea of rejection before you even send something. I’m not saying this to be negative, really, so much as to prepare anyone who hasn’t submitted things for the inevitable: publishers reject work all the time, and it’s more of a matter of space and money than it is your work. Some will send a detailed reason for why your work didn’t go with their publication, while others may not. In my experience, all of them have been very encouraging about keeping with writing. That part is important, as I’ve been in places (mentally, of course) where some words of encouragement were all that stood between me and feeling like a complete failure. When searching for places to submit, it’s important to pay attention to what they’ve published before, if they have specific manuscript formatting, and so on. Typical manuscript formatting, which I learned from the eternally-wise and mostly-weird Zachary T. Owen (whose latest book can be purchased here), is as follows: Times New Roman font; size 12 font; double-spaced, with lines removed between paragraphs. Be sure to check for any specific directions a publisher may have, however, as improperly formatted manuscripts could be the death of an otherwise-perfect piece of writing (there are no pieces of writing that are actually perfect, per se, but the idea stands). Also: keep track of if a publisher is okay with simultaneous submissions or not. Be courteous. Don’t treat your work like it’s God’s (or the Gods’) gift to the world. You will be surprised how that is not the case. Send stuff everywhere, keep trying, and be sure to celebrate like crazy when you do get something accepted somewhere, even if it isn’t a paying publication. One of the best feelings in the universe is getting that e-mail that says a publication wants your work. Use that energy to start writing something else. Surprise, you’re still writing. That’s the point, to never stop and never risk stagnation.

Please note that this isn’t to say you can’t take breaks. If you’re frustrated to the point of wanting to smash your computer, it might not be a bad idea to walk away. Maybe read a little. Put on Netflix. Whatever. Just do so in moderation. There’s a clear difference between watching an episode of something to relax versus burning through an entire season. I’m looking at you, fellow Doctor Who fanatics, because we’re the absolute worst at this. If absolutely necessary, taking a break off here and there can be beneficial. I urge the use of caution when choosing to take days off, however, as it is one of the quickest routes back to feeling frustrated with your writing’s quality and frequency. Kind of the opposite of what you’re going for with this challenge, too.

There is no fail condition, of course. If you choose to not write every day, especially if you find a method that works better for you, that’s awesome. Just so long as you make it a point to keep writing as much as possible, whenever possible and not to the detriment of your personal well-being, good for you! You’re making progress in ways you wouldn’t be if you choose to stick to what-if scenarios and bemoaning your current situation (I speak as someone with experience in this area as well as something of a hypocrite, as I’ve had some really off-days lately as well).

To recap:

The best possible thing you can do is find time each day, write a little, and make sure a notebook is always nearby for capturing ideas that could otherwise disappear. Bad days and off days will happen, and the only way to really keep yourself from falling into old habits and joining a self-pity parade are to push past those bad days and keep writing. Write whatever the Hell you want, just so long as you’re actually writing. Write however much of it you like, so long as you keep doing it every day. Don’t give in to those negative thoughts, as they are assholes who know nothing about what they’re talking about. Celebrate victories by turning that positive energy into more writing, and reflect on rejections as learning opportunities. Above all else, keep writing! I cannot stress that enough. The more art you create, the happier you’ll be. The happier you are, the easier it is to write more.

I hope this proves to be helpful, and that any of you who take this challenge find it beneficial to the quality of your work. As much as I complain about blogging every day for one hundred days, I feel like I’d be letting myself really laze about if I didn’t inflict such structures upon myself. Happy writing!

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One thought on “Phil’s Official Writing Challenge Guidelines

  1. The most important piece of writing advice is write every day. That’s what every writer will tell you. For about a year I searched authors’ quotes and blogs and articles looking for the secret to writing, but that’s the secret. Just do it. I’m still such a victim to, “I don’t FEEL like it,” and can go for days without writing. Then I feel guilty. Then I remind myself writing is just for fun so if I don’t feel like it I shouldn’t do it. Then I remind myself I want to actually publish (self-publish, but still) this stinking novel one day. Then I write every day for a week or so before I no longer feel like it. Anyway, I’m keeping track, trying to hold myself accountable, and once again writing every day.

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