How to Use 2, 5, 10, or 30 Minutes as a Writer

How can you make use of short snippets of time as a writer?  Click through to this post for suggestions on what to do in as little as two minutes!  These action steps apply no matter where you are in the writing or publication process. | Something Delicious

Do you ever feel like there’s not enough time in the day to do everything you want to do as a writer and, when you do have time, you’re not sure what to do with it?

Say no more. Today we’re going over tasks you can do in as little as two minutes out of your day, right on up to a luxurious thirty minutes.

Most of these apply no matter where you are in the writing and publication process. You can pursue them exactly as written or use them as inspirational jumping-off points. Whatever sparks your creative fire!

Before we start, let me emphasize that these time frames aren't set in stone. They're categorized based on my own ability to complete them on an average-for-me day. Please don’t think less of yourself if you need more time to complete some of these tasks. It’s all relative to our physical and mental capabilities on a day-to-day basis. ^_^

Finally, a big thank you to Sarah Morgan, whose post inspired this one. Her blog is a must-read if you’re building any kind of online business.

Now, let’s get to it, shall we?

Two-minute tasks

  • Reflect on something you love about writing and/or your work-in-progress
  • Write a Tweet about what’s going on in your writing world
  • Clear mugs, glasses, and other clutter from your writing space
  • Stretch your neck, shoulders, hands, and/or wrists
  • If you’re in a public place, set a timer and write down everything you hear for the next two minutes
  • Pick four words and/or phrases from the nearest book and write them down as a writing prompt for later
  • Choose a character from your work-in-progress and write down words and/or phrases that you associate with them
  • Check in with a word count tracker and do a happy dance to celebrate how far you’ve come
  • Create a Goodreads shelf to keep track of research books for a work-in-progress

Five-minute tasks

  • Add to your collection of writing prompts from Pinterest, Instagram, or other sources (I keep mine on Pinterest, but you could also keep prompts in a bullet journal or writing binder)
  • Research and choose a name for a character
  • Start a wishlist of things you’d love to add to your work-in-progress
  • Create or add to a detail cluster
  • Support and encourage writers on their Twitter or Instagram accounts
  • Create or update the signature at the end of your emails to link to all the good stuff (your upcoming book, perhaps, and your social media accounts)
  • Write an email from one character to another about what’s happening in the last scene you wrote
  • Read a blog post about writing and note down anything you’d like to try
  • Retrieve past positive feedback about your writing and revel in it

Ten-minute tasks

  • Create or update a collection in your bullet journal
  • Respond to a writing prompt
  • Respond to an email from a reader/critique partner/industry professional
  • Write a list of research questions for your work-in-progress
  • Write an email or letter to someone who inspires you
  • Review the scene you just wrote and jot down notes of what you’d like to explore in the next
  • Create a playlist on Spotify for a specific writing mood or your work-in-progress
  • Start a spreadsheet to keep track of all the scenes in your work-in-progress
  • Watch a YouTube video on a writing weakness of yours or something you need to research for a work-in-progress

Thirty-minute tasks

  • Work on your rough draft
  • Get rid of writing notes that no longer apply or interest you
  • Read and annotate research for your work-in-progress
  • Gather every draft of your current work-in-progress and decide which ones are keepers and which ones can be got rid of
  • Do a set of character development exercises (some of my favourites are laid out in Create an Epic Character Foundation)
  • List writing tasks and deadlines for the month ahead, calculate the approximate time required for each, and mark checkpoints in your calendar
  • Fill out and reflect on a writing life wheel
  • Research professionals to reach out to in the next stage of your writing process (e.g. sensitivity readers, developmental editors, or agents)
  • Write morning pages (even if it’s in the afternoon or evening – be a maverick!)
  • Have an impromptu brainstorming session with a writing friend

How do you make use of small snippets of time as a writer? Feel free to share in the comments below so we can make this list better and better!

Midpoint Reflections on Find the Write Spark

The midpoint of a writing challenge is the perfect time to reflect on what's working and what could use some tweaking.  Here are some reflections and takeaways from the Find the Write Spark challenge so far, along with some examples of how it's exploring character development. | Something Delicious

Hey there, creative soul! As we’re into the second half of July, I think it’s about time to check in about Find the Write Spark 2019, don’t you?

If you haven’t heard of this before, there’s still time to join in or do your own version of the challenge!  Read this blog post to find out what all the excitement is about.

As a quick recap, Find the Write Spark is a monthly challenge where we take passages written by some of our favourite authors; transcribe them word-by-word onto a fresh sheet of paper or electronic document, paying attention all the while to the effect created by the choice of words, sentence structure, and so on; and then rewrite the passages in a whole new way.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the challenge on Instagram and am having so much fun seeing the books that other writers have chosen and even some of the rewritten passages! Here's one of the posts I saw recently (alternatively, you can check out the hashtag #findthewritespark2019):

My own version of the challenge has changed shape a little (as you might have guessed by the fact that I haven’t done this update until now). On the bright side, I’m getting even more out of it than I thought I would!

Let’s jump into a few things I’ve learned so far that might help you, too.

Prepare to be flexible

I was all hyped up and ready to do three separate passages each day of July. No problem, right?

*cue obnoxious buzzer sound*

It might have been doable if this had been a more low-key month, but with everything I’ve had going on (99% of it wonderful, 1% of it being a summer cold) combined with the approach I started taking to each passage (more on that soon), three passages a day was too ambitious. I felt like I was doing it to fill a quota, and it became stressful rather than a thoughtful, genuine learning experience.

It took me a little too long to realise this, so I spent the first part of the month overwhelmed by the task I’d set myself and putting it off and then trying to do a few days at once.

Not good. Please don’t do this.  It was kind of fun at first, and then it just got more overwhelming.  I do love this set of books, though ...

By the time I decided to do one passage a day instead of three, I was drastically behind and embarrassed at how badly I’d flubbed my own challenge, until I realised how ridiculous it was to get upset about a number that was just an educated-ish guess to begin with.  This challenge was created in a flurry of creative excitement.  It's not meant to be overly structured and taxing.

I needed to focus on what’s important about the challenge, not how I wanted it (or me) to appear.

Truth be told, I love the passages I’ve done so far. They’ve been a fantastic experience both in trying out different writing styles and getting to know new things about my characters (which is like catnip to me).

Also, there are eleven days left in July. That’s eleven passages I can still do! Eleven more opportunities to learn and explore!

If you, too, found yourself overwhelmed by the challenge, and maybe even gave it up, please give it a second chance. You can mould it into whatever you want it to be. Paring it down drastically may both revive the joy and open the necessary space to learn something valuable from your passages of choice.

Challenge Takeaway #1

Don't cling to your original plan if it's no longer serving you.  If you're curious to see what happens if you speed up or slow down, go for it!

A writing challenge can rejuvenate your work-in-progress

When I first imagined how I’d approach this challenge, I planned to use each passage as a writing prompt and see where it led me.

If it was unknown territory with completely new characters and storylines, that was great.

If it was the familiar stomping grounds of my established characters and stories, that was awesome, too.

Little did I know how enthralled I would be by rewriting the passages as if they were in my own stories. I’ve rewritten passages to include my current main characters, past versions of characters from future books, and even childhood versions of some of my characters (when rewriting passages from Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown).  Find the Write Spark has given me a better look into the relationships between my characters and how they view the world.

This is another reason why I chose to move from three passages a day to one.  Choosing which characters would best suit the passage has been such an enjoyable part of the process, I don't want to rush it.  It gives me a bit of time to ponder what I've written and discovered, too.

So far, I think I’ve only rewritten one passage with new-to-me characters.  I tried, and I do enjoy how that passage turned out, but it’s just not where my heart is with this challenge.

Considering all this alongside the fact that I’m feeling freer and more confident with writing in general (emails, blog posts, you name it), this challenge already feels like a triumph, and we’re not even at the finish line yet!

Challenge Takeaway #2

If you haven't enjoyed using spur-of-the-moment characters and situations in your rewrites, use your own instead, even if they're not a perfect fit for the passage!  It'll encourage your creativity and showcase different sides of your story.

Not all books are created equal for every challenge

Not every book you chose may fit the bill for this challenge, and you might not know until you try it. I must have spent a good twenty minutes flipping through Tamora Pierce’s Lady Knight, searching frantically for a passage that felt challenge-worthy.

Nothing did.

It’s not because she’s a poor writer, obviously, and Lady Knight remains one of my favourite stories of hers. It was just too different from the kind of novels I’m writing at the moment. The stories I’m writing are contemporary adult fiction with a generous helping of romance. The struggles Keladry faces in this fantasy novel about her first command post as a full-fledged knight are too far afield of what I’m writing about.

I could have used this book quite easily if I was doing this challenge with spur-of-the-moment characters and situations for the rewrites, but, like I mentioned above, that’s not what I’m enjoying and benefiting from this time around. I’ll be keeping it in mind for next year, however!

Challenge Takeaway #3

If your book list isn't cutting it, make a change.  You can make small shifts, like switching to a different series by the same author, or major ones, like swapping authors.

Three before-and-after passages

I love seeing examples of people’s progress through challenges like Find the Write Spark, so I picked a few of my favourite passages from my own challenge so far.  I've included a brief explanation of the direction I took for each rewrite, as well.

Before, from Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater:

Sam’s expression turned a bit wistful, but he led me through the underbrush, up a gradual hill.  As he promised, it got better.  The thorns thinned out and the trees grew taller and straighter, their branches not beginning until a few feet over our heads.  The white, peeled bark of the birches looked buttery in the long, slanting afternoon light, and their leaves were a delicate gold.  I turned to Sam, and his eyes reflected the same brilliant yellow back at me.

For my rewrite of the Shiver passage, I melded it with a scene idea I've had before:

Griffin’s expression turned a bit guarded, but he took my hand and let me lead him through the parking lot, past the abandoned ticket counter.  The highway noise faded and the night grew quiet, the stars lighting our way from their perch in the sky.  The dingy white mass of a screen looked bright in the moonlight, a shadow cast from a rogue tree on the left edge, and it waited.  I turned to Griffin, and his eyes shone: with the light reflecting off the screen or the same memories that played in my mind, I couldn’t be sure.

Before, from Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery:

Mr. Phillips was back in the corner explaining a problem in algebra to Prissy Andrews and the rest of the scholars were doing pretty much as they pleased, eating green apples, whispering, drawing pictures on their slates, and driving crickets, harnessed to strings, up and down the aisle.  Gilbert Blythe was trying to make Anne Shirley look at him and failing utterly, because Anne was at that moment totally oblivious, not only of the very existence of Gilbert Blythe, but of every other scholar in Avonlea school and of Avonlea school itself.  With her chin propped on her hands and her eyes fixed on the blue glimpse of the Lake of Shining Waters that the west window afforded, she was far away in a gorgeous dreamland, hearing and seeing nothing save her own wonderful visions.

My rewrite of the Anne of Green Gables passage dove into my main character's past, transforming Anne's daydreaming into a glimpse at the beginning of Alice's struggles with depression:

Mr. Andrews was back in the corner explaining a problem in algebra to Lucy Stiles and the rest of her classmates were doing pretty much as they ought to, lending pens, whispering about the assignment, doodling “helpful” notes in the margins of their paper, and experimenting with how eloquently they could program their calculators to respond to their queries.  Griffin was trying to catch Alice’s attention and failing utterly, because Alice was at that moment totally oblivious, not only of the very existence of Griffin, but of every other classmate and of the classroom itself.  With her forehead cradled in her hands and her eyes fixed on the blur of figures on the paper sitting on her desk, she was far away in a barren galaxy, hearing and seeing nothing save the vastness of something she had no idea how to face.

Before, again from Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater:

Sam came around the back of the car and stopped dead when he saw me.  “Oh my God, what is that?”

I used my thumb and middle finger to flick the multicolored pom-pom on top of my head.  “In my language, we call it a hat.  It keeps my ears warm.”

“Oh my God,” Sam said again, and closed the distance between us.  He cupped my face in his hands and studied me.  “It’s horribly cute.”  He kissed me, looked at the hat, and then he kissed me again.

I vowed never to lose the pom-pom hat.  Sam was still holding my face; I was sure everyone in town was looking now.  But I didn’t want to pull away, and I let him kiss me one more time, this time soft as the snow, barely a touch, and then he released me and took my hand instead.

For my rewrite of this passage, I time travelled into the poignant past of two characters who, by the time we meet them, are divorced.  This is when they were still (relatively) happily married:

Bennett came around the back of the house and stopped in his tracks.  “What the heck is that?”

I placed a hand on my hip, my free hand petting the pink feathers cascading off my head.  “I believe it’s called a flamingo.  This chapeau is all the rage for pool parties.”

“What the heck,” Bennett said again, and closed the distance between us.  He tilted his head up, making eye contact – I presumed – with the plastic eyes and beaky expression of the bird sitting atop my head.  “It’s terrifying.”  Dragging his gaze back to mine, he placed his hands on my waist and kissed me, glanced up, then kissed me again.

I vowed to stow this hat away and bring it out every year.  It would be a tradition alongside this pool party.  Our first tradition.  Bennett's hands were still on my waist; our guests would be arriving any minute.  But I didn’t want to pull away, and I kissed him one last time before letting go, giving him a gentle shove.  “We have to start bringing the chips out.”

The fun carries on!

And there we have it! There’s still a good deal of the month left to go, so let’s finish strong, shall we?  I’d love to hear how the challenge is going for you, so feel free to drop a note in the comments below, sharing your favourite part of the challenge so far, what you’ve been focusing on, or something that’s helped you. You can even include one of your before-and-afters, if you like!

A wee follow-up note: I had originally planned to write an extensive wrap-up post for Find the Write Spark 2019.  Even though I didn't quite finish the challenge, I had some stellar breakthroughs ...

I learned that writing more descriptively (my Achilles heel) can be fun and occasionally delightful!  The challenge gave me more confidence in my abilities as a writer, and even my nonfiction writing got a boost.  My notebook was constantly at hand because I couldn't stop coming up with innovative ideas for pretty much any dilemma, fiction or non, writing or otherwise, that came up during the challenge and the following weeks.

That being said, it was my first time running a challenge, and I admit I got a little overexcited and intimidated by the process, to the point where I talked myself out of writing the wrap-up because I didn't know if I could do it justice! *grins bashfully* Welcome to my human side, creative soul. ;)

I do plan to run the challenge again in 2020, with a little more notice and forethought this time, and I can't wait to see what you cook up next year!  If you'd like to share your experience with the 2019 edition of Find the Write Spark, please include it in the comments below or send me an email!  I'd love to hear how it went.

How are you enjoying Find the Write Spark 2019?

How to Prepare for a Year of Writing

How do you prepare for a year of writing?  These questions help ready you for the marathon-like endeavour of devoting a year to writing a novel, looking for agents, and anything else that comes your way as a writer.  Answer these questions before getting into any in-depth scheduling and organizing. | Something Delicious

As fun as it is to improvise one's way through life, I can't deny that:

(a) I love a good planning session, and
(b) planning helps this flighty Gemini pursue her passions diligently

Sometimes that's a very structured process, with oodles of lists and spreadsheets and calendars. *swoons happily*

Other times, it's a process more like what I'm sharing today, clarifying and strengthening the foundations of a writing life to support something as ambitious (and rewarding) as a year of writing. We'll focus on some of the biggest areas that require love and care to best support your writing process.

Let's jump right in, shall we?

Know your priorities and where writing fits within your priorities

The writing world is full of advice on writing routines, schedules, habits, and the best of all of the above.

What that advice doesn't often take into account is the varying nature of our abilities, responsibilities, and inclinations.

If you’re working, going to school full-time, or have other things in your life that zap time and energy (a passel of kids, for example, or a chronic illness), a year of writing for you may look a fair bit different than, say, that of a married, childless, comfortably middle class full-time writer without any ongoing health concerns.

Acknowledge where your priorities lie and, as much as possible, make your peace with them.  Otherwise, you'll be constantly striving to stick to a writing schedule or routine that doesn't allow for what's important and necessary for you to take into account.

This has to be about where you're at now, not where you'd like to be six months down the road.  Be honest about your priorities and your writing life will start to flourish as a result.

Read more: How to Use a Writing Life Wheel

Ask yourself these questions ...

What are my top priorities?  Where does writing fit within that list?

What needs to come first, no questions asked?

Are the other priorities likely or able to shift around? What does that look like?

Am I at peace with these priorities?

Do these priorities truly reflect how I want and need to live?

Are any of these priorities “shoulds” rather than “wants” or “needs”?  If so, am I able to rearrange or rethink them?

Centre the inspiration and heart of your writing life

Are things like self-discipline and consistency important to writing? Abso-flippin’-lutely!

However, it’s so important that we don’t discount the importance of what inspires us and feeds our creative fire along the way. This helps us keep our bum in the chair even when Netflix sounds its siren call. Honing in on the “why” is one of the first things I do with a coaching client and one of the most powerful tools in our writing toolbox, because if a story (or writing in general) feels pointless, it’s a flashing red light that we’ve gone off-course and need to correct our path as soon as possible.

I do believe it's worthwhile understanding the "why" for our writing and for the individual stories we're working on, as they're not always one and the same.

This can (but doesn't have to) overlap with the theme(s) running through your stories.  One example I love is the criteria the Marvel Cinematic Universe higher-ups gave to the makers of the upcoming Avengers video game: so long as they incorporated humour, heroism, and humanity, it could truly be considered a Marvel game.

Ask yourself these questions ...

What do I love about writing?

What brings me back to the page when life is difficult?

What brings me back to the page when writing is difficult?

Fill in the blank ...

I write because ________

I won't give up on writing because ________

Writing a story makes me feel like ________

Ask yourself these questions for each work-in-progress ...

Why is this story important to me?

What would I regret the most if I didn't finish this story?

What do I love about this story?

Once you’ve figured out your “why” for writing, your stories, or both (at least for now – it’s okay and not unexpected if it evolves over time!), create something to help you keep it front of mind. This could mean:

  • distilling your answers to the above questions down to an index card-sized statement you can carry in your purse
  • writing a poem with imagery specific to the first moment that played in your head when you thought of a story
  • creating a playlist with songs that make your Muse take flight or remind you of your characters and/or their journeys (here's a playlist-in-progress for one of my current WIPs)
  • creating a Pinterest board full of quotes and images representing what inspires you and/or a story
  • choosing Tarot cards that represent your "why", taking a picture of them, and making it the home screen on your cellphone
  • recording yourself (with a phone, microphone, or webcam) sharing your "why"

Remember, none of this has to be public; if you're hesitant about your "why" or feel protective of it, keep it close to your heart.  You don't have to create any tangible representations of this "why" if you don't want to.

One last thing about your "why" for a specific story: if you can come up with ways to connect with it regularly, do so.  For example, the nurturing qualities of food and cooking are important to my current WIP and the main character, so I’m going to get back in the kitchen more often, jot down observations and experiments as I go, and possibly share this on Instagram, too.  It's a fun way to share my writing process, connect with the heart of the story, and potentially even reach future readers.

Read more: How to Nurture the Heart of a Story

Establish a creative support network

Any long-term endeavour requires support, and writing is no different. For you, this might include a monthly critique group or it might be the writers you connect with on Twitter. If you haven’t told anyone about your writing yet or are feeling a little shy, there’s nothing wrong with staying more anonymous. You can even find inspiration and support through reading the works of your favourite writers and remembering that, by being a writer, you are part of the same creative web as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Neil Gaiman. Pretty wonderful company, eh?

As you embark on your year of writing, make sure you have time to connect with this support network on a regular basis, whether it’s setting up a bimonthly writing date with a friend, posting regularly on a writing forum, or working your way through the entirety of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series.

Read more: How to Build a Creative Support Network

Ask yourself these questions ...

Who are the most fervent supporters of my writing?

What kind of feedback or assistance makes me feel most encouraged, uplifted, and inspired?

Who or what can I rely to give me a boost when I’m feeling discouraged?

How can I regularly connect with my support network?

How can I best and most easily support other writers?

Understand what you’re working on

No matter how you like to schedule and plan your writing projects (with spreadsheets and checklists or flying by the seat of your pants the whole way through) it's worth taking a few minutes to consider what a year in your writing life will consist of.  The more projects you're tackling, and the busier your life is outside of writing, the more likely you are to need a more specific, goal-oriented schedule.

Remember, too, that "writing project" doesn't automatically equal "rough draft."  Consider whether your year of writing includes projects like:

  • books under contract with a publisher
  • querying literary agents
  • learning about self-publishing
  • writing the rough drafts of two novels and one short story collection
  • researching and prewriting
  • revisions
  • marketing

When you're listing out your various projects, remember to consider both the ones you're already committed to and the ones you'd like to tackle if you can.  Seeing them all in one spot will help you figure out if it's too much for one year or just enough to keep things interesting.

Ask yourself these questions ...

Which projects can I reasonably expect to work on this year?

What’s the approximate scope of each of these projects (if applicable)? For example, how long of a rough draft am I aiming for, or how long will the book tour last?

Will any of these projects overlap in time and, if so, which one takes priority?

Will I have less time than usual for writing, more, or the same?

Are any drastic changes on the horizon for my writing career? Are there any I’m trying to bring about?

Create a supportive writing space

If you’re going to commit to a yearlong endeavour, having a supportive creative environment is incredibly helpful.

This doesn’t have to be one set space (this is something we talk about in my Vive la Writing! workshop) if there’s not enough room or you prefer to keep things portable. The main things that make up my writing space are my laptop, a Hilroy notebook, a pen, and some music (usually through Spotify). So long as I have those things, I can write quite happily, and anything else is more dependent on my mood or circumstances at the time. I usually write while sitting on my top of my duvet, but sometimes I’ll pop over to the library or a coffee shop.

It helps to think about these things because it can start to feel like we need a plethora of gadgets and apps and special pens and forty-two pieces of chocolate before we can write, and that’s not true.

However, if you find it difficult to write without music or without having a pen nearby to fiddle with while you’re musing over a plot complication, you do you! After all, having a spartan writing space is no more a badge of honour than a writing space overflowing with paper and post-it notes and books.

What makes you a genuine writer is a commitment to following your unique creative path, wherever it takes you.

Read more: Behind the Scenes of a Longstanding Writing Routine

Ask yourself these questions ...

What are my essentials and “nice-to-haves” for a writing session?

Is it time to replenish some of these supplies?

What’s something I LOVE having nearby when I write? Can I incorporate this more often?

What distractions in my environment make it nearly impossible to write? Can I eradicate these in part or in whole?

Keep a list of things to investigate and learn

The best writers never stop thinking of themselves as students of creativity and the craft of writing.  If we want to have careers as writers, or pursue writing as more than a passing fancy, we need to remember that the learning never ends.

The best part about this is it means we can always improve, and isn't that a wonderful thing?  Especially so if we have a tendency to get caught up in comparison games.

Knowledge areas we need to dive into could be anything from research for a story to an area of craft that feels awkward to learning how to format a manuscript for Amazon.  Some of this will be obvious, surfacing as we plan a story or reach a stumbling point in the publication process, while some of it will stay hidden unless we look for it.  That's why it's important to reflect now and again on what it is we'd like to learn and need to learn to become better writers.

This is the main reason why I tackled the Find the Write Spark challenge as of July 2019: I realised that one of the main reasons I was struggling to write was that I'd lost confidence in my voice and style as a writer.  Once I realised that, I could start devising a plan to get it back.

Be gentle and honest with yourself about what it is that you need and want to learn, investigate, and research in your year of writing.

Once you know where the gaps are, you can start finding sources to learn from!  Yay!

Read more: Introducing the Find the Write Spark Challenge

Ask yourself these questions ...

In what areas do I need to build up knowledge and develop skills as a writer?

What do I feel the need to focus on first?

With my current work(s)-in-progress, what do I need to research or brush up on to best tell the story?

How and when will I approach this research? Where will I start?

At the end of the day, there's only so much we can prepare for a year of writing.  Life has a way of sidling in and ruffling up our careful plans and meticulous schedules.  That's not to say we shouldn't use scheduling tools or set specific goals, but preparing as we can with the questions above will help ensure that, even if things do go a little off the rails, we can chart a new course without too much trouble.

The stronger our foundations as writers, the more surefooted our steps along the path and the more we're able to give to our stories.

What will your year of writing look like, creative soul?

Introducing the Find the Write Spark Challenge

Are you ready to find the write spark?  Check out this free challenge to help you improve your writing skills in 15 minutes a day in a fun, relaxed way, with the help of all your favourite authors.  It's even a great way to bust through writer's block. | Something Delicious

What if I told you that your favourite authors (alive or passed on) could help you with the writing dilemma that’s been driving you nuts for months?

And that you could do it in about 15 minutes a day, give or take?

And that it would be free?

Hold onto your quill and inkwell, because that’s exactly what’s about to happen in the inaugural Find the Write Spark challenge.

For the month of July, we’re going to spend some time with our favourite authors, get comfortable with writing every day (or as often as you’re able to), and improve your skills in the craft of writing.

Sound like a plan? Read on, creative soul!

(And yes, if you're seeing this post near the end of July or even after, you can totally do the challenge anyway.  There will just be less community participation.)

If you’d like to skip past the bit about my personal motivation for instigating this challenge, click here to pop down to the writing advice that inspired it instead!

The Best of "Aha!" Moments

Long-time readers of Something Delicious may remember that I once had a lengthy hiatus from fiction writing and wasn’t sure if I’d return.

Thankfully, I realised I still had a passion for writing, but it had been suffocated by the expectations I was placing on myself and the perfectionist tendencies that surfaced along with them. While this realisation, return to my own novel writing, and renewed interest in devouring every morsel of information I could about the life and craft of a writer gave me the insight I needed to help other writers pursue their dreams, I’ve never quite reached that same comfort level with writing that I used to have. Writing fiction makes me feel like my skin is stretched too tight, my thoughts too heavy for my fingers to translate onto the screen, and for the longest time I couldn’t seem to get past it.

Looking back, I’m pretty darn sure this is a result of spending so long away from writing in the first place. As well as falling back in love with story and creativity (check!), I need to fall back in love with the craft of writing, and that’s where I’ve faltered.

Once I realised this, I picked up my copy of Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover and flipped to the section on revisions for style ... only to see her share a brilliant expansion on an idea that I’ve used in the past to great effect.

I tried this new-to-me exercise and nearly burst into tears after.

I’ve had 10,000 word weekends. I’ve had writing days that made me laugh and cry. This, though ... this was the first time since before my writing hiatus that I can remember feeling confident, excited, and hopeful about writing in a way that didn’t dissipate hours later.

Doing this exercise lit a lantern on the path back to my creative joy, a path I’m going to follow throughout the month of July. If you’d like to light your own lantern and help me create a forest of light, carry on reading.

The Inspiration Behind the Find the Write Spark Challenge

Years ago, I got the idea (from myself, this book, or somewhere else, I’m no longer sure) to try typing out a page from a beloved book, in hopes of getting a feel for polished, vivid writing. It was so much more effective than I thought it would be and, while I didn’t carry on with the practice, I remember that typing out the words of a published author and putting that into my muscle memory made me feel more confident that I could achieve an entertaining flow with my own writing.

Fast forward many years, to my writerly cry for help and the answering wisdom of Elizabeth Lyon. In Manuscript Makeover, she said, “You already model the writing style of others, whether you’re aware of it or not. Intentional imitation of favorite authors is a technique that can expand your creativity and repertoire.”

I perked up. This felt familiar.

“Type slowly, word for word, thinking about the author’s word choices and sentence construction, feeling the patterns and rhythms in your fingers, and imprinting them in your body-mind. Don’t type like a robot, copying mindlessly. Connect with the author’s writing in a deep-listening way.” As Lyon mentions a moment later, this is about getting the experience and feel of the writing into your muscle memory and creating “new patterns of thinking.”

This was ringing so many bells. All the bells!

I was even more excited to see what came next: a second technique, that could be done separate from or in tandem to the first.

“Pick short excerpts written by favorite authors,” said Lyon, “and imitate the focus, emotion, syntax (the ordering and relationship of the words), and imagery (descriptive comparisons), but apply what you learn to your own manuscript.”

It had never occurred to me to take things a step further and emulate my chosen author’s style in an extension of the exercise. I barely made it through Elizabeth Lyon’s examples before trying it out for myself.

First, one of her examples, the initial passage being from The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan:

“The claw-footed iron tub was as soothing as a sarcophagus....”

And Elizabeth Lyon’s modelling:

“The moth-eaten, springy couch was as welcoming as a bed of nails.”

Nifty, eh? For my turn, I grabbed one of the nearest books to hand (On the Steamy Side, by Louisa Edwards) and first typed out this passage:

“What would we do?”

The poor man sounded positively bewildered. Taking pity, Lilah said, “Any number of things! Like today. I mean, Tuck didn’t spend all day on his art. We also went to the cutest little bookstore in the Village, Three Lives & Company. Have you ever been there? They had a great children’s section that kept Tucker happy while I found a couple books on things to do with kids in the city. Don’t you worry, I’m absolutely brimming over with activities for the three of us!”

Devon was silent for a moment. Lilah wondered if she’d blown the needle on the enthusiast-o-meter and scared him off. She took it as a good sign that he hadn’t rejected the idea outright.

Finally he blew out a breath and squeezed his eyes shut. “Fine. I’ll give it a shot.”

Here’s my modelled version, using characters and a plausible scenario from my current work-in-progress:

“What would we do?”

The poor woman sounded completely flummoxed. Resisting the urge to wrap her up in a squeeze, Griffin said, “All sorts of things! Like yesterday. Lolly and I didn’t loll about on the couch all day. We ventured out onto the porch and hunted for bugs in the tomatoes. Have you ever done that? Peering at the underside of every leaf kept Lolly happy while I taste-tested all your herbs and scoured YouTube for dinner ideas. Don’t worry, I’ve got enough jotted down to keep us all busy for weeks.”

Alice fiddled with the lavender stem. Griffin wondered if he’d overstepped his bounds and shot them right back to high school, when neither of them knew what the heck to do with each other. It had to be a good sign that she wasn’t pulling out a cookbook and losing herself in its pages.

Finally she shook her head and smiled. “Okay. Let’s give this a try.”

I’d still have to tweak this a bit to feel comfortable using it in my rough draft (more on that below), but it already feels like an improved, more vivid version of what I would write myself. Can you see why I was excited to take this further?

How to Get Ready for the Find the Write Spark Challenge

The idea behind this challenge is to mine a certain number of passages each day (or however often you're able to participate) for writing gold, first by copying them out, paying attention to the words chosen and the structure used; and then by rewriting them with our own individual twist, as explained above.

Three relatively short passages per book is a good number to aim for, but you can adjust this up or down based on your own preference.

By doing this consistently, we'll begin to get a sense of what works and what doesn't, without the pressure of coming up with everything from scratch.  Every day is a new, stress-free writing experiment that's devoid of expectations.

What do you think?  Shall we give it a go?

Yay!  Let's do it!

There's a blank planner page for this process over here.  It will open in a new tab or browser window.  To make use of it, you can save an editable copy to your own Google Drive (click 'File' and 'Make a Copy') or print it out (click the 'Print' button or 'File' and 'Print').

Start by choosing your own focus, whatever you'd like to improve in your writing.  This could be something broad, like worldbuilding in historical fiction or writing better dialogue, or specific, like love scenes that sizzle or introducing characters in a way that makes us want to hear more.

Next, decide how much of a commitment you're able to make to this challenge.  Can you commit to 15 minutes a day?  Half an hour each weekend-day?  An hour on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings?  This will vary based on your typing/writing speed, but I found I could complete my own version of this challenge (three relatively short passages) in about 15 to 20 minutes.

Finally, it's time to choose your authors and books!  The sooner you can do this (preferably before July 1st), the better, so you're not scrambling at the last minute.  Again, this will vary based on how much time you're able to devote to the challenge, but I would suggest using at least four different authors (one per week).  Any less and you're at greater risk of emulating one specific style rather than finding your own style by exploring different ones.  Be sure to choose books that can help you with the focus you've chosen.

Also, don't edit people that you think are “too good” off your list.  Get those bestsellers and classics writers on there, if those are the authors who come to mind!

Oh, and one last practical note: if you don't own the books and have them out on your shelves, make sure you'll be able to access them when you need them, whether they're packed away or at the library.

How to Participate in the Find the Write Spark Challenge

You're absolutely welcome to participate privately in this challenge.  There's no bonus prize for public participation; no prizes at all, in fact, other than the satisfaction of having spent a month improving your writing. ;) This is something we'll be doing solely for our own benefit and enjoyment.

However!  There is a lot to be said for supporting and being supported by the writing community in our writing endeavours, so I've devised a few different low-key ways for you to participate, if that's something you'd like to do.

To participate publicly, you could:

  1. Follow the hashtag (#findthewritespark2019) on Instagram
  2. Share your adventures throughout this challenge with that same hashtag on Twitter and/or Instagram.  If you're not sure what to do, you could share:
    • a before-and-after snippet on Instagram stories
    • which authors feel most comfortable to mirror and which ones are a struggle
    • what you're learning along the way
    • a favourite passage you've written as a result of the challenge
  3. Share any of the above on the weekly progress posts I'll be doing here on Something Delicious (where I'll also be sharing some of my own before-and-after passages).  (Edited on July 21st to add: there was no check-in post for the first week, but I've just published some midpoint reflections!)

My Personal Guidelines and Book List

I'll be sitting down to do this challenge every day (likely in the mornings) for the month of July.  My schedule is pretty jam-packed at the moment, but I think I can manage to do three passages a day (from one book).

When making my book list, I decided to make sure I chose a minimum of ten authors to learn from, three books per author at most.

The short version of my focus is voice and writing style.  More specifically, I want to:

  • liven up exchanges between characters
  • be more vivid and descriptive
  • regain my comfort level with writing rather than constantly second-guessing myself

The books I’ve chosen to help me with these things are:

  • Lament and Shiver (Maggie Stiefvater)
  • Cracked Up to Be and Fall for Anything (Courtney Summers)
  • Sweet Salt Air (Barbara Delinsky)
  • Can’t Stand the Heat and Too Hot to Touch (Louisa Edwards)
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)
  • A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
  • Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen)
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
  • Letters from Skye (Jessica Brockmole)
  • Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty)
  • Lady Knight and Sandry’s Book (Tamora Pierce)
  • The Truth About Forever (Sarah Dessen)
  • Soulless (Gail Carriger)
  • Shopaholic #1 (Sophie Kinsella)
  • Sisterhood Everlasting (Ann Brashares)
  • The Penderwicks #1 (Jeanne Birdsall)
  • Wicked Lovely (Melissa Marr)
  • Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (Maud Hart Lovelace)
  • The Ship Who Sang and Acorna #1 (Anne McCaffrey)
  • The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman)
  • The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
  • Nefertiti and Cleopatra’s Daughter (Michelle Moran)
  • Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery)

While these won't apply to everyone, I wanted to share two considerations that went into my choices for this list, in case they help you in creating your own.

Even though some of the best books I've read lately have been by Black and Indigenous authors (such as With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Acevedo, and Hearts Unbroken, by Cynthia Leitich Smith) I haven't included them in this list.  If I were focusing on any other aspect of craft, I would have included these authors in a heartbeat, but I personally am doing this challenge to help clarify and develop my voice and writing style, something that I believe to be influenced by many things about our personal identity, including our heritage, how people treat us, and our day-to-day experiences.

I've been learning so much over the last few months about how many Black and Indigenous people have been ridiculed and disrespected for speaking in ways culturally true to their upbringing and/or heritage that other, lighter-skinned people use to sound "cool" or "hip" without any similar detriment.

While this wouldn't be my intention in doing the challenge, the last thing I want to do, even unknowingly, is contribute to this ill-treatment by incorporating Black and Indigenous voices into my own.  So, at least for this round of Find the Write Spark, I won't be including these excellent authors.  Instead, I've chosen authors whose heritage is not marginalized, that I’m aware of, or is shared with my own.

As for my second consideration, you may have noticed there's a wide range of genres and audience levels in this list. ;) Everything from classics to historical fiction to fantasy to contemporary fiction to romance.

This is, once again, because I'm focusing on voice and writing style, which I'd like to be consistent across the different genres I enjoy writing.  You might want to take a different tact with this if your focus for Find the Write Spark is to improve your ability to explain magical abilities or explore historical settings.

How to Avoid Plagiarism

How exactly do we do this challenge and still avoid plagiarising these authors in our writing?

This shouldn't be a concern, so long as we take a few precautions.

The first is, as Elizabeth Lyon herself suggests, not doing this with just one or two authors. The more variety we incorporate, the less likely we are to favour and unknowingly imitate one author’s specific style in our own.

The second is not to use this as a warm-up directly before our regular writing time. You’ll need to make your own decision on this, but I feel more comfortable, at least for now, keeping this separate from the time in which I sit down to work on my rough draft. I don’t think it has to be a particularly lengthy separation, but going straight from one to the other feels a bit like treading on thin ice.

The third is to review what we’ve done, but not obsessively so. We need to use these passages as inspiration, not something to lift verbatim into our rough draft. I plan to do more research on this in the future, but to use the passage I shared earlier as an example, I love how it flowed and the idea it gave me for a scene. I’ll be using it as a building block for a scene, for sure. If I want to use the passage itself, I’ll go over it a couple more times, make some tweaks, shuffle some things around, and ensure it fits with the flow of the rest of the scene and the way I’m most comfortable writing, something which will be evolving throughout this challenge as I get more clarity on what works for me and what doesn’t.

How to Measure Your Progress

This is totally optional, but, if you’re anything like me, you find it encouraging to be able to see the progress you’re making. The Find the Write Spark challenge lends itself beautifully to this, so let's look at a little before-and-after exercise you can do to see any progress made even more clearly.

Before the Challenge

In the lead-up to July 1st, once you’ve chosen your focus for the challenge, take a piece of paper or open up a document on your computer (whichever method you’ll be using for the rest of the challenge). Give yourself a few minutes to write a passage – 250 words or less – that fits within this focus.

If you’re focusing on worldbuilding, for example, you could write a passage about the first time magic is introduced or the massive storms that set the region apart.

If you’re focusing on memorable character entrances, you could write a passage about the first meeting between love interests or the return of an antagonist who was thought to be deceased.

If you’re focusing on voice and style, like myself, you could pick a writing prompt from Pinterest or explore a “what if” scenario that takes a scene you’ve already written down a different path.

Whatever you choose to write, make sure you know what prompt you’re responding to or what you’re writing about, even if you need to write it down at the top of the page. Once you’re finished, set this piece of writing aside.  We'll be coming back to it at the end of the month!

After the Challenge

Once August 1st rolls around, it’s time to pull out the prompt (or whatever you decided to write about) and respond to it all over again.  Don’t look at what you wrote before.  Don’t look at the modelled texts you’ve written for the past month.  Just respond to the prompt, again aiming for roughly 250 words or less.


No peeking!

Really finished now?  Okay.  Now you can look at what you wrote before.

Look at your responses side-by-side.  Observe what’s different and what’s stayed the same.  How has your style changed since the beginning of the month?

If you see a drastic shift, please be kind to yourself.  Don’t rail on the horror of what you wrote before, because (1) I doubt it’s as bad as you think and (2) you deserve better than that.  Having the courage to put pen to paper is an awesome feat, no matter how “good” or “bad” your writing may seem at the beginning and end of the challenge.

If, on the other hand, you don't see much of a difference, don't despair!  I'd guess there have been small, subtle shifts, even if they're not visible at a glance.  Even if there aren't, you've broadened your writing horizons, tried something new, and grown more confident in your own voice.  That's just as worthy a result.

Were you reading ahead to scope out the end of this little exercise, before starting the challenge itself?  I understand!  I'm one of those people who struggles not to flip to the end of a book or look up spoilers for a TV series while watching it. ;) Now, let's get ourselves ready for the starting line of the challenge!

Ready to Begin? 

This was a hefty post, so you might want to hop back up to some of the previous sections if you're trying to remember what to do first.  Here's a quick list of the sections (click whichever one you need):

When you’re ready, hop into the comments below and let me know what you’ll be focusing on in Find the Write Spark 2019 and some of the authors you’d like to learn from!

If you'd like to read more about this challenge, click here to read a midpoint takeaways and reflections post!