Introducing the Find the Write Spark Challenge

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 and 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 WIP:

“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

Some of the books I’ve chosen to help me with these things are Cracked Up to Be and Fall for Anything (Courtney Summers), Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen), Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty), and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (Maud Hart Lovelace).

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 white 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):

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