Category Archives: January Challenge

Motivation to Write: Setting New Goals to Move Beyond a Success

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

It’s the 12th day of 2014. I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded in both directions with the binders, books, papers and plans from yesterday’s work: reviewing curriculum for the rest of the spring.

I sat down with my laptop to finish what I was working on — but first ended up re-reading comments from author Gae Polisner in response to an excerpt from my novel draft that I had posted on her Friday Feedback column.  The comments from her and other readers had me re-opening the novel draft for Wake.  I scanned past the excerpt I had shared, getting lost in the voice of a new piece I’d written during the holidays.

There are times in life when you are staring down the barrel of multiple to-do items. And there are times you see your life revealed with remarkable clarity.

Last Year’s January Challenge

One year ago, I was teaching writing part-time. I loved the job and the students, and it gave me time with my two sons, but it perplexes me how I kept them fed (or tuition paid at their school) with how little I was being paid.  On the upside, I would drop the boys at school in the morning, come home and write for 2-3 hours, go teach for the afternoon, pick them up and come home. I finished research for Wake.  I finished the novel draft and made it through first revision rounds.

I reached goals.  Every single day, I faced those free hours by asking myself, “What one (or 5) thing(s) could I do right now that will make my life better tomorrow?” and I tried, every single day, to that first.

What puts my life in perfect clarity right now is that one year ago I hosted the January Challenge here to use just that kind of strategy to tackle competing goals and make real progress.  (Don’t check it out now; I’ll put links at the bottom.)

One of those things that would “make my life better tomorrow” was the writing: get the novel polished enough to query by end of summer.  Some of them were personal, like resolving my divorce and where the boys and I wanted to live.  But one big goal was that wanted to be hired to teach full time.  I love teaching in a way that is similar to my love of writing: I love the in-the-trenches intensity of it, the creativity, the constant demand for solutions, the perspective that working with middle schoolers gives me, the way both professions continually re-examine the world.

It’s interesting that New Year’s hit this year and I felt no temptation to set resolutions, because I really did follow the strategies I wrote about, and made a ton of progress last year. I had kept my novel writing goals and tripled my blog traffic.  I made money off my site.  I expanded my writing about education.  I made progress with the family goals.  And one big fat accomplishment: I was hired as a full time teacher, tripling my income from the previous year and satisfying my hunger to grow into a more challenging professional role.

The “Day Job” Challenge for Writers

I’ve written before (link below) about how most writers balance their time for writing against the demands of a day job, whatever it may be, calling it the “time-money-credit trifecta.”  For anyone new to the term, it’s not a pejorative but recognition of a writer’s job other than writing.  The day job could be literary agent, partner at a law firm, teacher or professor, full-time parent, journalist or night clerk at a hotel.  Even the time published writers spend in lecturing or attending book signings is work that takes time away from writing.

The truth is, no matter the drive to complete a novel, it is important for writers to have an income that allows them to be housed, fed and healthy, and not worried about supporting their families.  I can’t downplay how important it is to my family that I succeeded in teaching this past year, nor the opportunity for growth and “street cred” that teaching has offered my writing.

Success as Hurdle to Motivation

I sat on the cusp of 2014 completely unworried. My goals this year related to continuing in success, not creating it.  Sure, I was short on time and behind my target date of getting the novel done, but I still have the coming summer.  Things were going well.  There were still some family goals to focus on and plenty of demands for me to address in teaching, so why worry about the writing?

Let Hunger be Your Fuel

I wonder if other writers would relate to this same moment: what made me go back to setting goals this morning was the hunger that it awoke in me, to have shared an excerpt of my novel draft with another writer and to read her feedback.

“Keep going,” Gae said at the end of her comments.

She had questioned certain things, praised others and wondered about context.  I went back to the full draft and, reading my own work, heard my characters’ voices and saw things to fix. The hunger was there to get back to it.  I wanted to do just what she said: keep going.

And other goals came alive, too: to follow through with the grad school applications I’d started or registration for workshops/conferences I wanted to attend.  To light the fire that would keep me moving forward, not just continue.

During the school year, I focus 1,000% on my students, my sons and the amazing work being done at the genuinely fabulous school where I teach.  If I stop to write, it’s often new teaching materials or an article on what went well in class.  I like that I teach in a demanding environment, where it feels like competing at the Olympic level.  And yes, I still work on the novel when I can.  What I am experiencing now is the success I worked for last year.  It’s awesome.

But current success was hiding the hunger that had compelled me to grow.  I needed to re-find that hunger.

Do First the 1 Thing That Helps You Grow

The hunger this morning recognized that I have dropped my own rules for continuing to grow.

Yes, I will get back to what I need to do to continue my current success.  But I need to remember not to skip that step beforehand: to do, first, one thing that will continue to move my goals forward.

Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have goals I still need to work toward.  Whether it is spending an hour on the novel or finding the number of the professor I need to call for  a recommendation letter for grad school or… the small steps done each day are what get us closer to reaching our goals.

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Are you looking for motivation or working on writing goals?

Does any of this ring true with you?  Feel free to share your own goals, successes, or blocks in the comments below.  If you wrote about a similar theme, feel free to share a link to your blog post.

I’ll re-share links to the January Challenge, below. It was a popular series, as the strategies shared are particularly helpful to writers, who are often challenged to keep motivated despite competing priorities.

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grasp c Elissa Field

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January Challenge Week 4: And Then Plans Changed…

Time for January in July: revisiting the January Challenge to see how we are all doing with goals set at the beginning of the year. Review this post for its list of strategies for evaluating how you’re doing and what to do next.

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Motivated to Write: 12 Tools to Get Writing, Now

Day One - Begin

The bottom line with all writing advice is you have to get started. Write first thing in the morning, while coffee brews. Block out time to write on your calendar. Set word-count goals or write in 3o minute sprints. The bottom line on all of these is: get started.

While lots are taking time off to vacation this month, thousands of writers from all ranges in experience are committed to write every day in July or even the whole summer, to get this thing (whatever their writing project may be) done.

Whether you are a joiner, jumping in to share your daily accomplishments in a public forum, or are going it alone in classic writerly isolation, here are 12 online resources get you motivated to write every day.

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1.  Online Writing Forums & Challenges – motivation, camper-style

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Lantern-Vertical-BannerThe most well-known forum at the moment is Camp NaNoWriMo, which began July 1. The July “camp” is an off-shoot of the Office of Letters and Light’s original project to “write a novel in 30 days” during National Novel Writing Month (November). NaNoWriMo gets writers going with site software for tracking daily word counts, counting down to reach a total wordcount goal. Traditionalists may balk at the thought, but the site attracts a full range of experienced and newbie writers who find the site’s ability to turn daily writing into a trackable accomplishment with peers cheering you on just plain fun. (Yes, NaNo has had lots of “real” books published.) NaNoWriMo is especially good motivator for a new project, but “rebels” (those who’ve already completed a novel draft, or are researching or…) abound, with rebel forums and guidelines for setting project-specific goals.

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonMore forums and daily challenges:

  • Teacher or Librarian? Teachers Write is a vibrant “writing camp” hosted by a slew of adult and young-adult authors, currently running (through summer) with daily prompts, Q & A with authors, community and feedback.
  • Is your writing goal to “build platform” (audience) for your writing? Robert Lee Brewer’s Platform Building Challenge from April 2012 is the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen for expanding competence in all social media formats. Click the link to go to day 1 – and check out Wordsmith Studio, an ongoing writers’ forum that arose from the challenge.
  • Blogger? If your goal is to post every day, join Liv, Laugh, Love’s July Bloggers’ Challenge which offers daily prompts and a Facebook forum to gain audience.
  • Poet? Try Our Lost Jungle’s February 2013 Chapbook Challenge for a month of inspiration to write daily poems and organize a chapbook.
  • Submitting for publication? Try Our Lost Jungle’s  May 2013 Submit-O-Rama with daily inspiration, goals and resources.

camp writingAm I participating in any of these forums? I used the 2012 Platform Challenge last year, I’m a Founding Member of Wordsmith Studios, I’ve participated in Teachers Write, and I’m a rebel at Camp Nano (find me here). For testimonial on how online interactions impacted the day’s writing, check out Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends at NaNoWriMo.

2.  Use Good Prompts

Cynical about prompts? Not all prompts provoke insightful writing or help you advance the conflict of your story.

Of all the prompts I’ve ever encountered, I think literary agent & author Donald Maass rules. He occasionally tweets them from as a numbered list, as shown below. Follow him (@DonMaass) or his hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday for more. Below these tweets are links for more from Maass, as well as a recommended resource from Ann Hood.

More Maass prompts:

Another of my favorite books to prompt novel inspiration is Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions . Read about it here: Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy.

3.  Time & Word Count Motivators

Lots of writers motivate themselves with daily milestones. Ann Hood has built a career by writing 2 hours every day. Others aim for a word count goal. Writers with a deadline set this by dividing the number of  needed words by the available writing days.  Others may aim for 1,000 or 2,000 words — adjusted to whatever their normal, productive word count would be.

  • Written? Kitten!  Just for fun, to feel a sense of accomplishment for, say, every 100 words you write, you have to click and check this out. Every time you type 100 words, you’re rewarded with a kitten. (I’d forgotten using it, once, until I was transferring text from an add-on doc to my WIP and found it ended with the sentence, “If I keep typing, any word now a kitten will appear.” Meow.)
  •   750 Words This site takes its inspiration from the practice of writing morning pages recommended in The Artist’s Way. The site keeps a bowling card style score for each day you write, with double points each time you hit 750 words (equivalent to 3 pages) per day. Unlike the Kitten, you have to provide your email address and log in.
  • Timed Writing. Finish reading this first. Then log off the internet when writing, to blog the temptation to surf during writing time. Some writers use more forceful options: check out Mashable’s 6 Apps That Block Online Distractions So You Can Get Work Done.
  • For more time-management strategies, go to the January Challenge, below.

4. Strategies for Getting Started – or Finished

In January, I hosted the January Challenge… Check out the strategies below for ways to manage competing priorities to accomplish your writing goals – from writing daily to applying to residencies or increasing submissions.

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What About You?

What writing goal are you working on this month? Are there resources or forums that help you stay motivated, or are they a distraction for you? (Despite this post, I find resources both “helpful” and “a distraction,” so balance between networking and hermitsville.)

Feel free to share goals, prompts or links to your own articles on similar themes in the comments.

And, best wishes with whatever your goals this month.

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January Challenge Week 4: And Then Plans Changed…

space suit c Elissa Field

Anyone who has followed the January Challenge since the beginning knows that it sets out to support all of us in kicking off 2013 goals by spending one week apiece to focus on:

During Week 2, I posted How the January Challenge Arose from Freelance Writing to address how each of these steps is needed to keep a writing career growing — whether as a full time professional, a novelist with a day job, a busy blogger or someone still dreaming of getting a first draft off the ground.

Writers have accepted a profession that seeks unstructured days to have the freedom to write or explore the world. But, truth told, “freedom to work” sometimes takes more discipline and structure than lives yoked into a traditional job. Writers take on responsibility to stoke their own forward momentum so that free hours don’t escape unused.

Beyond that, writing hours need roll-bar-strong discipline to fend off the interruptions that continually threaten to claim a writer’s attention.

Children. Day job. Editing project. New client. Platform building. Broken dryer. Teaching. Deadline. Travel. Blank page. New inspiration. Friends, family. All these quality things vying for attention. For many writers, these distractions increase with success as new demands arise for speaking engagements or teaching or promotional tours.

In posts like 15 Strategies for Finishing Work, I shared some tricks for setting concrete tasks that help create a clear plan for getting the writing done.

And Then Things Change

My own weeks 3 & 4 of the January Challenge became a prime example of why those “roll-bars” are needed.

For Week 2 (“start something”), I set about the steps necessary to begin production of a literary magazine for my students, as planned. Fate laughed, and in a single day my prior job of teaching 3 writing classes and leading the literary magazine was switched entirely to cover a position vacated by a colleague who leaves our school this week.

Which brings us to…

Week 4: (Re)Evaluate and (Re)Plan

It’s easy to take sudden changes in plans or priorities as the latest “derailing” of the writing we planned to get done. How many times does intended writing get back-burnered because of a genuinely justifiable interruption from work or life?

The key to keeping writing moving forward is expecting those interruptions. Change wasn’t a surprise. New demands on our time aren’t a surprise. We know — it’s not our first rodeo — something always comes up.

Whether ending a project and needing a new client, or running into a production snag, or having a new PR issue to address. Whether a writer setting aside your own revisions while teaching others to write, or an agent pitching novel drafts without time to work on your own, or a parent trying to finish a novel with a sick kid, late sports, holidays or packing for a family trip… There’s always something.

As I said in the post about freelancing, this is why I evolved the “finish, begin, improve, and evaluate/plan” cycle, so you can continually dovetail new work in without stopping work on your original goals.

So we take on Week 4 of the challenge: it’s time to (re)evaluate and (re)plan.

Applying Steps of the Challenge as You Evaluate & Plan 

Evaluating and planning really means creating a new to-do list for the coming months, applying many of the steps set out in prior posts.

  • Evaluate what you accomplished in the prior month (or day or week). Reward yourself with check-marks, log word counts in Scrivener, or hours on your calendar. Blog about it. Celebrate.
  • Evaluate where you stand on existing projects. Create a list of tasks for steps that need to be finished, targeting any obstacles that have kept you from moving forward.
  • Evaluate what is going well. What do you want to do to continue this success, or to replicate it on a different project?
  • Measure these successes against your ultimate goal. In celebrating your 10,000 words written last month, will this get you to a finished draft by March? Set new quotas or adjust the ultimate goal, as fits.
  • Sometimes intermediate successes cause new hurdles. New material I wrote on my novel draft last fall requires new revision steps to reach the final version. Since I don’t want to delay finishing, what will I do to add writing hours to fit these revisions in? (I cancelled an optional conference.)
  • Did success in one project prevent work on another? Evaluate if it’s time to reclaim hours for a project pushed to the back-burner.
  • What will you take off your list? Surprises, successes and changes in plans often leave old to-do items irrelevant. Remove things that no longer matter to you.
  • What will you finish this month (or day or week)? Maybe you have a deadline or mandatory project to finish (I need to hand off my prior classes to the new teacher). Otherwise, like in Week 1, pick one thing you’ll just get done.
  • What new goals arose? Add in new goals or things you want to start. For me, this includes starting my new classes. But also planning for a Reading Challenge on this site in March.
  • What needs improvement? I’ve improved linking around my blog, improved how quickly my sons can get out of the house in the morning, repaired my car, cleaned my office. I want to claim more efficient writing time with a computer upgrade: I’ll schedule a laptop upgrade within the month to make the most of working time during the school year. I’ll plan a website upgrade in June, as I’ll have more free hours for tweaking during the summer.
  • What will you delay? It’s not lame to adjust a timeframe if you are still honoring what is most important to you. Don’t quit the goal; just move it to a better time on the calendar. With revisions, this sometimes includes scheduling a break to allow some distance from a piece of work.
  • In a prior post, I mentioned how writers often balance the time-money-credit trifecta. Evaluating your current balance of those 3 things impacts how to prioritize goals in the coming months. This last month brought me increased income and increased street cred to write in one of my subject areas. That means I’ll evaluate and plan where I will steal time back to work on the novel and stories (or when I’ll write pieces to make use of the street cred). This is key in planning my to-do list. For example, the money allows me to pay for 3 tasks which actually free my time or increase my efficiency to work on the book — and I need to make sure that takes place.
  • What resources do you need? Don’t forget to list supplies or knowledge you need to acquire to achieve immediate goals, or have on hand as you reach later steps. Key in this: what experts or peers could you seek out to expand your potential? Don’t overlook delegating or reaching out to a friend.
  • Don’t forget to plan when you will re-evaluate again. Consider the chunks of time/priorities on your calendar, and see how they form natural times for when you will pause and set priorities. I will be evaluating things with my day-job daily over the next week, as it is the transition time for the new job. I’ll have a breather to evaluate during next week’s 3-day weekend, at which time I’ll plan for the weeks until spring break. I can claim some writing during break, and will also use that to spend time with my sons and plan through the end of year.

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Where Are You in Your January Challenge?

write start badgeHopefully your January Challenge didn’t involve as drastic a change as mine did — unless it was a fabulous success that makes your wish list irrelevent!

A few readers who responded said that they wanted to take on the challenge but weren’t sure if they were doing it in the right order or at the right time. Hopefully the post on freelancing or this post make it clear: there is no right order or time. Our mutual challenge is just to get our 2013 goals off and running by recognizing obstacles that keep us from getting started and breaking projects into steps we can tackle.

It would be great to hear from you in the comments (or share link to your post if you blog about it):

What challenges did you take on, whether to finish, start or improve?

What obstacles are you encountering? What strategies helped you move past them, or what encouragement could you use?

What successes have you had?

If you blog about your January Challenge, please include a link back to one of the January Challenge posts here, and then share a link to your post in the comments below. You are welcome to use the January Challenge badge if you want to be festive. There is no time limit — we are working on goals for the whole year, so you are welcome to participate well past the end of the month!

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January Challenge Week 2: Start Something

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Time to launch Part 2 of the January Challenge — starting one new project from your 2013 goals! 

Today’s kick-off addresses claiming time and selecting which project to start.

But first, for anyone who hasn’t read previous posts: the January Challenge arose because many of us have competing goals we want to tackle in 2013. To get the year started, I applied strategies from freelance writing (and teaching and parenting…) to stoke projects in various stages and keep progress moving forward.

write start badgeEach week of the challenge focuses on finishing one thing (last week), starting one thing (this week), improving one thing, then evaluating and planning the next step.

Links to prior posts are embedded in today’s kick-off where relevant — or find them all at the bottom of this post.

Join the challenge at any time and adapt it to fit your needs. If you join in — even well past the end of January — let us know what you are working on or the kind of strategies that work for you. If you blog about it, please share link to the challenge (you can use the JC badge, if you want to be festive), and share link to your post in the comments below.

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Week 2 Launch: Start Something

I mentioned last Monday, the challenge in starting is sometimes the pressure to finish a lingering project first (read more on that here). 

I’ve felt that way this week: I need to start production of this literary magazine, but ideas for revising my novel jump into my head (“finish something”), my reliable truck spent the week in the shop having its fuel pump replaced (“improve something”), and I’ve had to drop everything to attend meetings to plan events later in the semester or next year (“evaluate and plan“). 

Too often, the project you need to start is like a guy trying to elbow his way to place an order at a crowded bar, vying to get the barkeep’s attention.

This week’s first motivator: give yourself permission to claim the time.  Don’t wait to be less busy. Steal a chunk of time to get going, right now. Well. Finish reading this, then go.

Part of the pressure in starting something new is the feeling you have to set aside something else to do it. Not necessarily. You can continue using strategies to tinker with other projects, even as you focus on starting your new one.  I’ll post more later, but here are a couple strategies from Week 1:

Today: Select the Project You Will Start

In talking to friends, most have several things they want to start in 2013. For this challenge, pick one.  Don’t stress: you can start one now and start another one a couple months from now, or string several small starts to quick finishes.  The key is to stop waiting and jump in.

My goal is to start production of the literary magazine I have to produce for 150 writing students, which needs to be printed and delivered by the end of May.

If that were not mandatory, here are some of the other projects I could imagine taking on — which might be similar to your goals.

  • Apply for acceptance to a conference, workshop or MFA program. Summer programs like Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House or Grub Street will announce programming and accept applications now through March. (check my links page for more info)
  • Begin final revisions of a novel manuscript. Revisions might be “improving” or “finishing,” but this step is also the beginning of a new process, including new formatting, finding beta readers, finding agents and beginning querying, or learning the self-publishing process.
  • Begin submitting stories for publication. Submitting is a new step, involving finding publication targets, drafting cover letters, or organizing your tracking process.
  • Begin an online business. Several outlets allow for uploading materials I (or any of you) could market, and it’s the next step in projects I share with peers.
  • Beginnings in your day job or personal life are fair game. The literary magazine will parallel projects in your day job or for a freelance client. Same goes for projects like looking for a house, starting a job search, planning a wedding, getting ready for a baby.

How Do I Decide Which to Start?

My reflections on 2012 revealed that I’ve made my way through some challenges in recent years. One of the ‘rules’ that led to my best progress is:  Do first the thing that will make your life better tomorrow.

Ask yourself, for any project you consider taking on: will my life be better when this is done, or more of the same? What you start today is an investment in what your life will look like next week, next month and beyond.  If deciding between projects, do first the one that gets you closer to your overall goals. This might include:

  • Honor deadlines. Start first any projects where you committed to a fixed deadline.
  • Invest in tasks that empower you or give you more options. If you need to be employable, start a course that buys you credentials, certification or street cred, rather than one that’s just for fun.
  • Plant seeds for future success. Market now for clients you will need in the summer. Build your website or social platform now for the novel you’ll need to market next year. Submit stories, then wait for replies while working on your novel.
  • Take the first step in big projects. Some starts are just that first step on a big project. My litmag, for example, was really started with mock-ups and volunteer meetings and soliciting work last fall. Grad school starts with investigating programs or soliciting recommendation letters. You might only tackle this one step for now, with other steps taking place much later.
  • Did you try the 3-column to-do list in this post, to identify obstacles preventing you from moving forward? If so, consider starting a project that removes an obstacle. Start a task that increases income if lots of your projects are held back by a lack of money. While you might normally fight for time to work on your novel, starting a client project (or spring cleaning and yard sale) might allow you to replace your laptop — in turn, letting you work more on your novel.
  • Certain goals take priority in the category of: “Twenty years from now, you’ll regret more the things you didn’t do than those you did” (attributed to Twain, repeated by many). For those trying to finish a novel, prioritize that. It takes a long time to go from draft to edited and published copy in a reader’s hands; invest in getting closer to that. Every day you put off starting puts that end goal that much further out of reach. Other intangibles — like foreign travel or falling in love or dropping everything to play with your kids — fall in this category.
  • Protect the status quo. As with honoring deadlines, be sure to start projects that keep good things present in your life, like maintaining a healthy client relationship or success in your job.
  • Peace of mind counts. All this talk of improving life for tomorrow doesn’t mean you can’t have “start an herb garden” or “organize family photos” as your challenge this week. Will you feel better tomorrow for having done it? Go for it.

Your task for today is to select what you want to start. Share your goal in the comments if you want us to cheer you on. Tweet your goal with hashtag #januarychallenge or blog about it and share your link below.

Here’s what I’m wondering, for the next post:  What keeps you from starting a project that is important to you? Are you unsure what to do first? Are you afraid it won’t go well? Do you need resources, materials or answers before you can start?

Now, go!

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How the January Challenge Arose from Freelance Writing

Day One - BeginI began this month by proposing the January Challenge (finish something, start something, improve something, then evaluate & plan where to go next) not because it was the logical way of doing things but because, for many of us who are writing, each of our goals shares our attention with multiple competing tasks.

If we want to start that novel revision, we first have to finish this project for our day job. If we want to get started with story submissions, we first have to finish revising. As I addressed in 15 Strategies for Finishing Work  last week, much of what we do involves time management of competing priorities.

It just dawned on me to say:  I learned this cycle by freelance writing. 

Considering the interest many of you expressed when I blogged about day jobs, today is a reflection on why the finish-start-improve-plan cycle is so important to making progress as a writer.

Most of my freelance jobs evolve into long-term roles, with enough work and pay to become my sole client. Still, others involve sporadic projects with clients not sure of their own goals, projects too small to be substantial income, or even an occasional client who was slow to pay. For anyone considering freelancing, know that continually stoking the fire for new work is part of the weekly task list.

So it was from freelancing that I learned the overall writing skill: that a productive writing business involves constantly feeding the 4-step cycle of finishing, starting, improving and planning.

It’s illogical: why do I put finish before start, or before plan?

This week I covered a friend’s 4th grade class one morning and, as I presented her lesson on the animal lifecycle with the circular cycle of egg-chick-chicken-egg… I was reminded why I list finish before start.

Yes, on day one — like that “START HERE” space on a board game — you begin with “plan” and “start.”  But there’s only one “start here” space on that gameboard, and most of us are not really on day one of our writing.

Most of us have a half dozen or so projects floating (overlapping writing and family and clients or day job, etc. projects) so taking a valid, productive step forward with our writing involves getting something else finished and out of the way, first.

I can get started with submitting my writing, but maybe I need to finish revision first. I can start with revising my novel, but I need to finish last week’s day job project first. I can start an idea for a novel, but maybe I needed to clear away holiday-vacation emails from clients first. I can start with my big project (the literary magazine) this week, but needed to finish last week’s grading and semester planning first.

The Key: Stoking All 4 Steps of the Cycle

What is most important is this single concept: once these 4 steps rotate into a cycle, notice the overlap of planning your next steps, finishing remaining work, and starting something new.

Before you even finish one project, you should have been evaluating and planning for the next project you will be starting.  My husband was a pharmaceutical rep and, in sales, they referred to this as “pipeline.” You have what you can finish today, but have already planned and seeded what you will do next, with your next project ready in the pipeline.

In freelancing, this meant I had already been marketing for new clients before I approached the end of a project. In fiction, it might mean having short stories submitted to literary magazines then start work on revising that novel while you’re waiting to hear back. It might mean, as you head toward finishing that novel draft, thinking ahead to what will be needed to connect with agents — maybe anticipating summer writing conferences or learning how to write a query.

A Little of Each, Every Day (or Week)

Although I set up the January Challenge to address one step of the cycle for each week of this month, I kept my freelance business going by addressing all 4 steps of the cycle every week, if not every day.

Every week I had a task list of steps needed to complete a current project. I evaluated and planned what was needed for that publication, as well as where the next job would come from. I scheduled steps to get the next project going (if with the same client) or took marketing steps to keep the pipeline fed.  I improved the functioning of my business (sent invoices or reorganized or tweaked my (now offline) website). A little of each, every week, kept the machine constantly fed and moving productively forward.

In truth, particularly when I became a mom, the economy crashed and other personal challenges made life more complicated, it was applying all 4 of these steps that has brought about my most successful moments. On the job or scrambling with kids or working to finish writing — attending to all 4 steps keeps progress moving forward.

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write start badgeThis Week: Begin Something

That said, this week of the January Challenge will focus on Starting Something New (link takes you to next week’s launch).  In the meantime, think of a project you need to get underway to accomplish an important goal in 2013.

What do you have to begin in 2013?

Remember, this is a group challenge and we’d love to hear how it is working for you.  What goals do you need to take on (this week, this month or sometime this year)?  What strategies work for you? What obstacles keep you from getting started?

If you join in, we’d all love to hear how your challenge progresses: write about it on your blog (use the January Challenge badge if you’d like); include link to this original challenge, and be sure to come back here and share your link with us.

Be sure to check out the Week 2: Start Something launch later this week!

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Going on this month:

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January Challenge Week 1: Did I Succeed at Finishing?

grasp c Elissa Field*

Ahhhh…..

Three o’clock came on Monday, deadline for entering grades. Project finished. I met my goal for Week 1 of the January Challenge — I finished this one thing.

I’ve heard from two others who also finished their challenge for the week, and I’ve heard from many who are using this week’s challenge to prioritize how they will get projects finished later in the month, or at other times throughout the year.

What all of the posts and emails have acknowledged — and what I observed, working toward my deadline — are the hurdles and resistance that are particular to finishing a project.

  • In the week’s kickoff post (Week 1: Finish Something), we thought about resistance or obstacles that keep us from completing projects and used strategies to identify the real obstacle, to break the resistance down in manageable steps.
  • Then, Sunday’s post (Week 1: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work) shared several concrete strategies for keeping the work moving toward “done.”

Advice is great. I really do use all those tactics, and heard from so many of you how these kinds of strategies are useful.  But you just know I didn’t glide toward perfect completion of my project following all that advice to a T, without a hitch.

Today’s post shares the insights that came to mind as I applied the advice of those earlier posts (successfully and with rough spots) toward finishing my goal. As always, do share your own experiences in the comments, whether you are actively participating in the challenge or if you stumble upon it even months down the road.

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Avoid Wheel-Spinning

Any of my regular readers might notice that Sunday’s post of “14” strategies was updated to “15” as I realized I left off one that is key (now #8 on the list): avoid wheel-spinning.

One thing that is hard for writers is that finishing work requires shifting gears from the energy of generating lots of new ideas to limiting efforts to the tasks that get the darn thing done.

“Avoid wheel-spinning” recognizes that in those goals for working hours or word counts it is easy to be busy working, yet not focused on steps that will get the job done. My goal last weekend was just to get any remaining grades entered to close out last semester. Sure, that includes tasks like filing paperwork and reflecting on how the semester went. But it was wheel-spinning for me to spend half an hour making notes to a student on a paper that won’t be revised again.

Going back to the endzone metaphor I used in Running on the Grass: imagine you are the running back, carrying a football (your project) toward the endzone. Discipline yourself to avoid running sideways or backwards, or wondering what’s happening over on the baseball fields or suddenly stopping everything to jump rope. Finishing a project means only strides that take you closer to that endzone.

What’s Worth Finishing – and What to Drop

In a few responses from readers, I heard a continued hesitation to even take a project on. They liked the idea of finishing something for this week’s challenge but… you could just hear it in their voice: they weren’t sure they even cared about their project any more. I’m thinking that is worth its own post.  Don’t you hear a list forming in your head, of good reasons for finishing something vs. when to just drop it off the list?

For today’s sake, let’s just say: sometimes you have to amputate certain parts of a goal in order to get it done. In grading, I had one class that was hard to get finished. We made it through our main units, but there was one other assignment I always have students write.  We ran short on time because of classes cancelled during hurricanes, but I was going to be stubborn and force it in — one more paper to write, one more paper to comment on and grade (when already slowed down with the holidays and a cold).  A more seasoned friend shrugged.  There were plenty of grades to accurately reflect the students’ learning; nothing was going to be done with that “one more paper.”  There was no reason not to drop it.

Throughout the weekend, making my deadline involved knowing when to edit out steps. File student papers later, get them graded now. Trade information with a peer by email, rather than a lengthy meeting (when our friendship gets us chatting).  We all know this strategy from our daily lives: make sure the kids learn important values, but don’t worry if you mastered scrapbooking.

Pick your battles. Know what matters and what to drop.

Declaring it Done

Hand-in-hand with that, finishing a project requires knowing when to declare it done.

Please people. Last summer my goal was to polish the third revision of a novel whose characters and storyline were thoroughly written in order to query agents by September 1. What did I do to myself instead? Discovered a whole new thread for a main character’s motivation. Augh.  I mean, yes, okay, it might be a better book for it.  But do I not realize that this second-guessing kind of revision (requiring a thorough rewrite) is what kept me from ever querying the last one? Every time it was just about to finish its writing-marathon, my little novel would say, “You know, I think I’d like to go back and re-run mile 15 differently.”

In perfect irony, that novel draft I never queried has a scene where the main character is an artist, working on finishing a painting in her studio. Watching her, the artist’s daughter asks, How do you know when a painting is done? Roughly quoted, the mother answers, You never really do — just, at a certain point, it starts to stand on its own. At a certain point, you have to take your hands out of it.  If not, it would be sold, framed and on the wall in a collector’s house, and I’d still be taking it down to make one more change. 

For both of the first two points above, as I was grading I had to limit the tasks I took on. It was being a perfectionist that didn’t let me read a student paper without adding one more comment, even knowing the paper and the semester were done. And the definition of finished (grades entered in the software by the deadline) did not need that one last assignment crammed in.

It seems the key is to clearly define “done” for your project, early on in planning.  When discipline is needed, you can then edit out unnecessary tasks and distractions by evaluating whether or not they are needed to reach that definition of done, and hold yourself to declaring a finish line crossed when you reach it.

Build a 20% Cushion on Your Deadline

Deadlines help, as they draw the line in the sand after which there is no more tinkering to be done — but deadlines need a cushion, as problems always come up.

Later this week I’ll introduce my Begin Something challenge: I have a literary magazine that has to be printed and in student’s hands by the last day of school. Which means the printer has to have it no later than May 10th. Which means he really needs it by May 1st. Which means I need to tell myself I have to deliver it to him by a week before that, or even by April 15th. There are holidays and conflicts with other spring projects that month, which means my deadline for having it finished is really April 1st. (Heh. Did you hear my shriek at the thought of how soon that is?)

Something always comes up. A glitch. Weather. Someone you are waiting on who delivers something late. Someone goes on vacation or is out for surgery. A brilliant idea for a last minute change. Run out of paper or ink or…  And we, ourselves, are imperfect. Procrastinate. Lose confidence. Have a glitch in our software or lose a key piece or catch a cold.

My grades weren’t due to be posted until 3pm Monday. Monday was a teacher workday for entering the grades. Awesome: that gave me 5 hours to grade, right? Who could have expected that a tragedy at a school in Connecticut would spur a Monday morning safety review meeting? Still, 2 hour meeting leaves me 3 hours, right? Except the training meeting evolved into the local SWAT team (you planned for this, right? we all plan for sudden SWAT developments?) performing evacuation training on-site until past lunch. Then a follow up meeting. Then a friend with a question. Arrival and assembly of new desks, redesigning my class layout.  Planning for new classes.

I learned after my first year teaching: never expect to grade on a planning day. Have it done the night before. In a perfect world, if I were as smart as posting-advice-lists would imply, I would have set my deadline 2 weeks back, at the end of the semester– anticipating that a Christmas cold would leave me worthless for grading during my weeks off. We are imperfect — subject to colds and procrastination and wanting to run see a movie with a friend and maybe struggling through finishing certain steps of a project.

We have to build a cushion to accommodate that imperfection and expecting — it never fails — something will always come up.

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That Said, I Met My Goal — How Are You Doing?

write start badgeI have some stray housekeeping (returning papers, filing, etc.) that keeps my finish something goal from being completely cleared off my desk but, overall, I met my goal.

How are you doing with yours?

Most readers and friends I have talked to are working on their Week 1 project throughout the month (or even the year) — and really, none of us want to finish just one thing. As soon as I have time, I’ll work in finishing my grad school apps and getting stories out, not to mention those novel revisions. So we’ll continue to trade insight on what works.

Do share your thoughts in the comments.  What are you working on finishing?  Do any of these strategies ring true for you?  Or are there others that help you finish your projects?

Have any of you decided to completely drop a project from your to-do list?

If you have blogged about this challenge, please share a link to my original post (so people can read the challenge) and post a link to your blog here in the comments so we can read what you are up to!

Next up will be kick-off of Week 2: Start Something. Think about a project you need to get started — mine will be the lit mag.

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