December Writing Challenge


As November — and NaNoWriMo — come to a close, it’s time for me to issue my annual December Writing Challenge. There are a number of thoughts behind this challenge, and its timing. The first, perhaps most obvious, is that if you spent November writing like crazy in order to finish your NaNo novel, the last thing you should do come December first is collapse in an exhausted heap and cease to write. It’s tempting to take a few days off, to reward yourself for all your efforts with a mini vacation, but if you do that, you lose that excellent momentum you’ve built up by writing regularly for the entire month. Don’t stop; keep writing.

The other main reason behind a writing challenge in December stems from the month itself. December can be insanely busy, jam packed thanks to the holidays and the fast approach of the year’s end. It’s easy to get caught up in shopping and cooking, family visits, parties, and travel. Many businesses also face the end of a fiscal year, which means tying up lose ends. If you work any sort of retail, December means extra hours or wrangling seasonal staff. December appears to be a natural month to write less, or stop writing entirely, which is precisely why it’s an excellent month to challenge yourself to write. If you can maintain a writing practice in December, you can probably write all year round.

Finally, the end of the year is coming up quickly, and with it that annual practice known as making new year’s resolutions. I’m not a big fan of random resolutions, myself, but I do think it’s important to look back at the year and see what you’ve achieved, and use that as a basis for setting goals for the year to come. It’s far easier to do this if you’ve at least been writing regularly. The December Writing Challenge will set you up with a running start for your writing goals for 2016.

The rules of the writing challenge are very simple: Write every day. There’s no word count requirement, no set time of day you need to put pen to paper or attack that keyboard. You just need to spend some time writing every single day.

How long do you need to spend writing? Well, that’s up to you. Ideally, if you can squeeze in an hour a day, that would be fantastic, but I know that’s not always possible. So I encourage you to try for at least half an hour. If all you can manage is fifteen minutes, so be it; maybe you can sneak in a second short session as well, if that’s the case. But the important thing is to make a date with your writing every day.

What should you write? Whatever you want. If you’ve got a current work in progress, great. Deadline looming? Even better. But if not, don’t feel you need to write the same thing every day. Tackle a stack of writing prompts or see if you can write a new piece of flash fiction or an essay designated for a particular magazine. Experiment. Play. If you feel blocked on one project, alternate it with something else. Just keep writing.

A daily writing practice is about commitment, priorities. It’s about saying that your desire to write, to be a writer, is important enough that it deserves a slot in your day, just like brushing your teeth or taking the dog out. It’s about developing the habit, training your brain to deliver on command as much as possible. Plenty of people argue that you don’t need to write every day to be a successful writer, and there are certainly examples of that, but for the purpose of this challenge, the goal is to write every day and see what you come up with.

Life does happen. I understand that, and of course there can be tons of life packed into the month of December. So, for the sake of your sanity and in honor of holiday madness everywhere, I give you two free days if you need them. That means over the course of December you can take up to two days of your choosing off from writing. Family descending for holiday celebrations and you have a day of airport runs? Fine. Hung over from your father’s infamous egg nog? I get it.  If you need the days, take them. But try not to. Who knows what kind of interesting writing you’ll produce in your egg nog-induced stupor?

So that’s the December Writing Challenge for 2015. Starting tomorrow, commit to your writing, or if you already have a daily writing habit, recommit. Remind yourself what you love about writing, and why it’s a part of your life. Then sit down and do it.


Friday Links: Late-and-Lazy Thanksgiving Weekend Edition

Yesterday, instead of posting my usual Friday links, I spent the day napping, reading, and eating leftovers. However, it was not my intention to take the entire weekend off from this blog, so here I am with some belated linkage and a two-part announcement/reminder.

Those of you who have frequented this blog for some time know that as NaNoWriMo comes to a close, I like to let participants know that, while I applaud and encourage your November writing efforts, I don’t want to see queries for them come the start of December. With very few exceptions, what you’re writing for your NaNo novel is a draft only — a first draft — and likely also too short to be considered a novel unless you’ve exceeded your 50,000-word goal. What you have is a starting point; please take that and finish it. Lengthen, reread, revise, send to critique partners, and revise some more. I’m happy to hear about your fabulous book, but only once you’re done making it fabulous.

The second part of my announcement is that for the past several years I’ve issued my own little writing challenge for the month of December. I like to encourage writers to take that NaNoWriMo momentum and run with it. Or, if you didn’t participate, to dig in during this busy month and find a way to develop new writing habits so that, when the new year kicks off with all its resolutions and goals, you’ll be well on your way to making them a reality. So look out for the official challenge post on Monday.

But now for the links. A little late, but hopefully no less enjoyable for it. Wishing you a lovely rest of the weekend. Happy writing!

Make It Now: The Rise of the Present Tense in Fiction – Interesting look at this growing trend.

Want to Be an Artist? First Go a Little Nuts – Korean novelist Young-ha Kim on letting creativity stem from play.

Podcast: Master Class with Winnie Holzman – A chat between screenwriters Winnie Holzman (MY SO-CALLED LIFE) and Jason Katims (ROSWELL, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS).

Ever Wonder Why Americans of the 1930s and 40s Spoke with an Accent? – An intriguing peek at what is sometimes thought of as movie-speak.

Neil Gaiman on Storytelling in the Age of the Internet and Other Oddities – Gaiman talks about how storytelling has changed as a result of social media and other modern conveniences.

12 Authors You’ll Love No Matter Your Favorite Genre – Great list.

The Ultimate Guide to Getting Published in a Literary Magazine – A look inside the process, plus tips on navigating the system.

25 Outstanding Podcasts for Readers – Great places to hear about new books, new authors, and other reader-ish pleasures.

How Writers Get Their Start: Katori Hall

It’s a short week here in the U.S., as Thursday is Thanksgiving, so I thought I’d share another of The Paris Review blog‘s wonderful series of videos where writers share their “first time” getting into print/publishing. So often writers are told to write the thing they want to read. In the case of Katori Hall, she saw a definite absence of a certain type of play when she went to prepare a scene for an acting class — something that featured two young black women in conversation — and so she decided it was up to her to fill that gap.

Friday Links: Writing Outside the Norm

Happy Friday, everyone. I hope you all had a good, productive week, despite the ugliness that’s been taking place in the wake of the attacks in Paris. Wishing you a warm, safe corner with people you love, whatever part of the world you happen to hail from.

That said, I’m going to get right to this Friday’s links. Whether you’re enjoying a leisurely weekend or plowing through your #NaNo novel or working industriously on some other project, I hope you have time to check a few of these out. It felt like a particularly good week for interesting, writerly posts, particularly when it comes to writing something different and outside the box. Enjoy, and happy writing!

David Mitchell: Advice to a Young Writer – Some really excellent thoughts from the novelist.

English Is Not Normal – A fun article on some of the stand-out facets of the English language.

Finding Alice’s “Wonderland” in Oxford – A look at the areas of Oxford University frequented by author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and young Alice Liddell — the inspiration for his heroine.

Reading Lives #35: Angela Flournoy – The latest Reading Lives podcast at Book Riot featuring the author of The Turner House, which was a National Book Award finalist. Great interview.

From Murakami to Oates, Why Does Running Appeal to Writers? – Interesting look at the relationship between running and writing.

The Art of the Strange Writing Exercise – On breaking out of the norm and experimenting with your writing.

How Could You Like that Book? – Why we read what we read, even when others don’t understand.

How Writers Get Their Start: Donald Antrim

The Paris Review blog features a series on writers’ first times, short videos in which they talk about how they started out and what project allowed them to break through into publication. Each story is unique and, I think, encouraging in some way, particularly because they illustrate so clearly that the one thing these writers all have in common is persistence.

Today’s author is Donald Antrim, author of Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.

Friday Links: Writing Advice to Escape the Doldrums

Happy Friday the 13th! Does anyone truly get spooked when that day and date collide? I’ve always wondered. One of these days I need to look more closely into the origins of the superstition. I do know that in some countries, 13 is considered a lucky number. Funny how differently these things develop depending on where you are.

In my book, Fridays are a good thing pretty much across the board, though this week I anticipate burning a bit of midnight oil to finish up some things I swore wouldn’t creep into the weekend. Earlier this week I had my phone and internet upgraded, and of course that meant no service plus a technician on the premises for a good chuck of a day. It never ceases to amaze me what a few lost hours of work time can do to my schedule. But on the upside, I now have speedier internet, and my computer no longer groans when I go to download email with enormous manuscripts attached.

But enough chatter; I have Friday links to share. This week I seem to have a backlog of links I’ve been meaning to post previous weeks along with some new things I discovered, so in the interest of closing tabs, I’m just going to throw them down and let you all go to town. Plenty to entertain and inspire here, especially if you’re feeling like you need a bit of a pep talk. Enjoy, and happy writing!

Colum McCann’s Letter to a Young Writer – Some lovely words of advice to keep you plugging along, no matter your age or stage of writing career.

How Do You Write for Teenagers? – Looking to write YA? Here are some words of wisdom from writers in the know.

I Hate Women’s Fiction and I’ll Tell You Why – An impassioned and intelligent look at the distinction between works of fiction about women written by women, and those written by men.

Sometimes Writer’s Block Is Really Depression – An honest, personal account from author Mary Robinette Kowal.

Why We Read (and Write) Short Stories – An interesting analysis by skilled short-story writer Lorrie Moore.

The Rachel Connection: Why Rachel Fershleiser Is a Wizard of New York’s Literary Community – The woman behind bookish Tumblr.

How to Build Your Own Self-Hosted Author Website in 30 Minutes – Clear step-by-step instructions from author Joanna Penn.

To Question and Be Questioned: The Millions Interviews Azar Nafisi – An interview with the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books.

6 Things You Should Never Write About for NaNoWriMo – A list of things to avoid when diving into NaNoWriMo, or, in the case of most of them, any writing project at all.

Practice Makes Perfect: NaNoWriMo as a Writing Exercise


Practice makes perfect. While the relative perfection of any finished project is up for debate, the reality of writing, as with many creative endeavors, is that you need to work at your craft in order to improve.

When you were a small child, first learning the building blocks of what would eventually become your ability to write – the alphabet, how to fashion individual letters, how to spell short words: cat, hat, bat – no one expected you to get these things right the first time you tried. The adults teaching you understood that it would take time for you to remember all the letters, to comprehend their meaning, to adjust to holding a pencil and forcing it to make recognizable shapes, to memorize what letters represented the words you already knew. They coaxed you through repetitions, assured you of your progress when you grew frustrated, and encouraged you to keep adding new skills to your arsenal.

Writing a novel is no different, and I feel it’s particularly important to stress this now, in the midst of NaNoWriMo, when so many aspiring authors dive into the task of writing a novel in a month. Publishing professionals, and agents in particular, are quick to remind NaNo participants that their completed NaNo novel is in no way ready for submission on November 30th. What you create during this month is a draft, a very early version of what your book might one day be. But more importantly, this month of writing every day, of shaking off your internal editor and sitting down to add more words to your project instead of editing or deleting yesterday’s efforts — this month serves as a fabulous writing exercise.

Whether you are writing for NaNoWriMo or just for yourself on an average day of the year, each time you sit in front of your keyboard or pick up a pen and notebook, you work a sort of alchemy. You are creating a story out of thin air, plucking the idea from your imagination and personal experiences and influences, then fashioning it into something some other person might read. Any given day you might write a string of sentences or pages that never make it past the confines of your writing desk. They might get rewritten later on or you might give up on that particular concept and move on to something else. But never consider those abandoned pages wasted effort, because the act of writing requires practice, and part of any practice is understanding what not to do as much as what you should do.

Producing 50,000 words in a month can be a difficult haul, especially for a new writer, but ignore the naysayers who tell you that you’re crazy to do it. Because at the end of thirty days, you will have a great deal of writing practice under your belt and a good chunk of first draft to play with. Likely you’ll need to add to it, since most novels are a longer than 50,000 words. And you will undoubtedly need to revise it. Parts might get discarded, and others changed until they barely resemble their origins. There are plenty of stories of professional writers who cherry picked through their NaNo drafts, taking only the interesting bits to make a better book. But that’s no different from any first draft of a project. First drafts are meant to be jumping off points, not finished works. And with every first draft you create, your writing skills get more polished, more adept. Each book teaches you something new.

So to those of you participating in NaNoWriMo this month, whether for the first time for the fifteenth, I say good for you and happy writing. The same goes to anyone simply plugging along with their writing practice, because of course you don’t need an organized event to write daily. After all, there are eleven other months in the year, and practice makes perfect.

Friday Links: From First Drafts to Engaging with Readers


These days Friday feels like just one more herald of the coming of year’s end. Work weeks are busy and weekends are filled with attempts to catch up not just with additional work but with every single thing I intend to accomplish before 2016 rolls around. Anyone else feeling that same sense of speeding up to fit everything in before the holidays hit?

For those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, this weekend marks the one-week point. Don’t think about being ahead or behind, just get those words down. Write, write, write, and the editing and polishing will come later. Remember that everyone’s first draft is pretty crappy, no matter whether you’re writing to a deadline or just working your way through the story at a leisurely pace. First drafts are just a jumping-off point.

Whether or not you’re swamped with NaNo and a long to-do list, I hope you’ll take a few moments to check out some of this week’s links. They range from entertaining to practical, and there should be something to appeal to everyone. Enjoy, and happy writing!

21 Invaluable Writing Tips from Renowned British Writers – Some excellent advice here.

Scrivener for NaNoWriMo – Some great tips on using the writing program to organize and work through your NaNo novel.

Scrivener NaNoWriMo Offers – Discounts on the writing software in honor of NaNoWriMo; either 20% off now, or 50% later if you complete NaNo.

My 2.5 Star Trip to Amazon’s Bizarre New Bookstore – Amazon opened their first brick-and-mortar shop this week in Seattle. One visitor’s thoughts.

Want a Jane Austen Quote Delivered to You Everyday? – A new app for Jane Austen fans.

The Book Seer – A fun new online tool that recommends books based on the last one you read (and presumably liked).

Walter Dean Myers, Writing White, and Affirmation – One writer learns to put herself into her work.

What Do Writers Owe Readers? – A thoughtful look at the reader/writer dynamic, and the level of expectation that sometimes seems to come from having read an author’s work.

Refilling the Well: On Avoiding Creative Burnout

No matter how much you love something — your job, a favorite book, playing sports, chocolate chip cookies — there comes a time when you need to take a break from it. Nothing remains lovable 24/7 for weeks or months on end. It might be tempting to indulge, especially if you haven’t had access to something for a while, but the risk of binging is always going to be burnout.

Writing is no different. Whether it’s something you work on full-time as a career, or you squeeze it between your day job and family obligations, writing draws upon your creative reserves and demands you give it your full attention when you sit down in front of that blank page. It can be exciting and rewarding, but also emotionally draining to the point of exhaustion. That burnout can lead to some common issues, including writer’s block or sudden disinterest in a project that previously had you all fired up.

As with a day job that gives you weekends off and a couple of weeks of vacation each year, you need to schedule small vacations from your writing in order to keep the creative energy flowing. Julia Cameron refers to this as “refilling the well” in her series of books on writing. She recommends a weekly “artist’s date,” where you take yourself off for some non-writing personal time for a couple of hours — a trip to a museum, a movie, a long walk. But it doesn’t need to be a hard-and-fast weekly thing. Consider how much time you spend writing and then plan your breaks in proportion. But do take them seriously. Mark them on your calendar and don’t blow them off for anything other than a true emergency.

So what does it mean to refill the well? The idea is to simultaneously give your creative mind a break where you stop demanding it deliver story content, and to garner a bit of inspiration to supplement your existing arsenal. Creativity is a funny thing; the more you imagine, the more you can dream up, but the variety and strength of the ideas does require fresh input from time to time. It can be as casual as giving yourself permission to daydream without the pressures of an agenda, or as formal as planning a full day of culture or other activities. Take into account your level of fatigue; if your burnout is purely mental then some physical activity might make for a great break, but if you’re exhausted on every level, plan something low key and relaxing. Try mixing it up, as well, so you’re not always focusing on the same senses. Listen to music with your eyes closed, or wander through a botanical garden and smell the different flowers.

You can refill the well with purpose, too, checking out things that might help you flesh out the background of your current writing project, but try to make the focus on taking a break rather than looking at your outing as research. Let yourself absorb the sites and sounds and information, but draw the line at taking notes. You want to come away inspired and refreshed, not feeling like you were actually working.

What sorts of activities are good for filling the well? Anything that lets your thoughts wander and sparks new ideas. Long walks through new neighborhoods make for great opportunities to daydream, people watch, and check out different architecture. Or hike a local walking trail or through a nearby state park. If you live somewhere that offers walking tours, take one and get a new perspective on your city. Take in a sporting event or participate in one yourself: pick-up basketball, a local running club, etc. Seasonal outdoor activities can also make for wonderful breaks: apple picking, ice skating on a pond, horseback riding, gardening, sailing, wandering on a beach.

If you’re more of an indoor person, check out local museums, concert venues, or theatrical productions. Fix a mug of tea and stretch out on your couch with your favorite music playing. Indulge in a bit of pampering: a massage, a good manicure and pedicure, a facial. Take yourself out for a nice lunch in a restaurant, someplace where you can sit in the window and watch the world go by. Take a cooking class or learn to throw pottery. Head for the local arts theater and see a foreign film or documentary. Hit up some yard sales or wander through thrift stores and see what sorts of strange items you find for sale. Live near an historical site? Go take a tour. Indulge a neglected hobby.

Ideally, you will schedule these breaks occasionally and keep yourself from reaching the burnout stage. Think of them as mind maintenance. But if you do run yourself ragged — whether from pushing to make a deadline or because your non-writing life has conspired to keep you hopping — make a point of refilling the well as soon as possible. The worse the burnout, the more time off you’ll require — and you might need to devote time to a nice nap as well as to your well-refilling activities. Treat your creative mind as the important writing tool it is, and you’ll keep your best ideas flowing when you need them.