What is a Writing Challenge?

by Melinda Van Lone
published in Writing

When I first launched my writing career, the task of writing a novel seemed daunting. The blank page stared accusingly at me, like I’d failed before I even started. I knew the basic story I wanted to write, but beyond that everything was a haze of mis-matched sentences and bizarre people lurking in shadows. Then I found NaNoWriMo, a writing challenge that takes place every November. Write fifty-thousand words in 30 days. Sounded like a great way to jump-start my novel.

The weeks leading up to November 1st were filled with frantic activity. I tried to plot. I tried to plan. I tried to follow every piece of advice they dished out. I read every motivational email they sent my way. I joined the forums and found other newbies just as scared and eager as I was. 

Then November 1st rolled around, and I happily sat down at the computer to start writing. 

Nothing happened.

Day 2, I fumbled a few words on the screen, then deleted them. 

Day 3, 4 and 5 passed by in a blur. 

Day 6 I started to panic. I managed to write a few pages of dribble. It was horrible. I’m not even sure there were complete sentences. I shared my angst with people on the forums, and that’s when I learned the first truth of a Writing Challenge: 

1) It’s not meant to be beautiful

It’s meant to get your butt in the chair, and your fingers moving. I heard “give yourself permission to suck” a lot in those first few days.

I mastered that part perfectly.

The next seven days sped by. I piled on more words, but I was so far behind the goal that it seemed like I’d never get to the end. I’d already resigned myself to not finishing, which made it very difficult to put any words down at all. “Why bother?” crossed my mind several times. If I couldn’t reach the goal, why even try?

That’s when another motivational email flittered across my screen, carrying with it another truth of a Writing Challenge: 

2) You Can’t Edit a Blank page

A writer is not someone who sits and stares at a blank page. A writer is someone who writes. No matter what mood she’s in or how horrible that first draft is. No matter that there’s a holiday coming up, or that she worked 16 hours that day and have seventeen kids, six dogs and a raccoon to care for. Writers write. A writing challenge helps you focus on the one task that ensures your writing career: putting words on the page.

It became my personal mission to make 50k and join those on the other side of the finish line, even if I had to toss all the words on December 1st. I rearranged my expectations. I would not have a finished novel at the end of 30 days. But what I would have is something to edit, the experience of having written, and the companionship of others trying to accomplish the same thing. 

As my fingers sped over the keyboard, the third truth arrived: 

3) The More You Write, the Better You’ll Become

Somewhere in the middle of the night around November 27th, after several rounds of caffeine, too much turkey and far too little sleep, I met my main character Tarian. I’d been pushing her like a puppet through events and plot points for 27 days. She’d fought me most of the way, which I didn’t understand until I was in the middle of midnight marathon. She told me: “This is not who I am. I would never do things this way. I’d do them that way.”  I closed my eyes and thought; “Let her speak. What’s the worst that could happen?” I followed her along a far different path from the one I’d planned. 

She showed me who she was that night, and finding her story and my voice. 15k words later, I crossed the finish line. November 29th. 11:00 pm. I’d won the challenge. More than that, I’d won the companionship of a main character who would carry my entire series. I learned how to let her voice shine. And I learned how to make a deadline. 

So what is a Writing Challenge?

It’s a chance to find your voice, your story, your character, your muse, and yourself. At the very least, it’s a chance to meet other writers all trying to do the same thing. You’re not alone. It’s comforting to know, at 2:00 am when you’re in a caffeine induced haze, that someone else is out there feeling your pain. 

My first novel, Stronger Than Magic, was born during my first writing challenge. The final story is nothing like that first vomit draft written in the dead of night. But I wouldn’t have a published a novel at all, much less a series, if I hadn’t tried the challenge. I’d probably still be staring at a blank screen. I figure Tarian’s pretty happy I didn’t give up.

If you’re looking for a writing challenge for the summer, stay tuned. DIY MFA has something in the works that you’re going to LOVE.


Conquer the Craft in 29 Days!

Speaking of  challenges, check out Conquer the Craft in 29 Days (#CTC29).

It’s a prompt-a-day challenge designed to help you write more, write better, write smarter.
There’s still time to join, but it’s happening now so hurry and sign up. Click the link for more info.

MelindaVanLone-BioPicMelinda VanLone serves as DIY MFA’s official shutterbug. Melinda earned an MA in publishing from Syracuse University, which she applied toward years as a graphic artist/designer, a skill she uses today at www.bookcovercorner.com.

In addition to book cover design and photography, Melinda writes urban fantasy and blogs on her website melindavan.com. As an air force brat, she’s lived briefly in places all across the country, but currently resides in Rockville, MD with her wonderfully supportive husband and furbaby. When she’s not playing with imaginary friends in her fantasy worlds you can find her playing World of Warcraft, wandering through the streets with her camera, or hovered over coffee in Starbucks.

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