Category Archives: Teaching Writing

January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something

write start badgeI started yesterday’s January Challenge (read overview here) by saying I’d found 2 great online challenges — the only problem being that the first month of 2013 required me to focus not just on one thing, but many.

So the January Write Start Challenge was born:

  • Week 1 (that’s now), I’ll finish one thing
  • Week 2, I’ll start one thing
  • Week 3, I’ll focus on improving one thing
  • Week 4 will be the wrap up to evaluate how things are progressing and plan what comes next.

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First, for housekeeping’s sake — if you want to participate at any point in the month: say hello in the comments here, then post your goals on your site. Be sure to share link to this post in your article (you can include the badge above, if you want to be festive), and then come back here and share link to your article in the comments so readers can follow your success.

Most of my readers are writers, but you’re welcome to share any goals you are working on!

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Week 1: Finish One Thing

Inspiration for the Week 1 Challenge:

Christa Desir was the source for this week’s challenge.  Christa is a writer (repped by Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown) whose debut young adult novel, Faultline, comes out in November. So, first off, kudos to her — I look forward to seeing her book in the fall.

Picture 6Earlier this week she shared her 2013 Jan Plan: an unstructured challenge to simply complete one thing in January.

She said, “This is the month for all of us to take a project and finish it. It can be anything…book, cleaning out the garage, knitting a sweater…it doesn’t matter. Just whatever you have been putting off, it is time to finish.”

Be sure to visit her blog and let her know, if you take on this challenge.

Choosing The One Thing to Finish:

Originally, I intended to take on only Christa’s challenge for January (and you are welcome to do that, rather than a different challenge each week).

It was the perfect excuse for me to take on one of my nearly-finished short stories, complete revisions, and get one submitted to a literary magazine. I have unfinished grad school applications.  I have a half-painted living room. I’m sure everyone has some project like these on their to-do list — and there’s something reassuring, even fun, in tackling them together.

But the truth is that I have a deadline to complete all paperwork for fall semester by this Monday, which includes grading all the essays turned in just before the holidays.  So — while I may use Christa’s challenge to tackle one of those other projects later in the month — my goal for the first week of the challenge is to complete grading for last semester.

Some Thoughts on Tackling Unfinished Work:

It’s possible you are just taking up the next thing on your list. Maybe you just hadn’t gotten to it yet. Maybe it was already the thing you planned to do this week — like my grading or taking down holiday decorations or writing holiday thank-you’s (shoot, I need to do that). If that’s the case, your path forward may be simple. Get to it.

But often, when we face an unfinished project like the unrevised short stories, or the grad school application or even things like unfinished painting or a half-knit sweater, we are facing a project that has lingered, getting stale and unlikable, on our to-do list for months or even years.

Strategy for Tackling Stale Projects:

Awhile back, I faced a to-do list like that. A couple items rotated from one to-do list to the next, but never got smaller.

Mystified, I applied a new trick —  I wrote my To Do list in 3 columns:

  1. The first column named the project that needed to be done.
  2. But, in the second column, I answered the question, “Why have you not done it yet?” Almost always, the answer was that it took materials, money or time I didn’t have, or… eek… I was afraid of failing or lost interest.
  3. So, in that third column, which became my actual to-do list, I wrote what I needed to overcome that resistance. Instead of “paint the living room,” my to-do item started with, “match paint sample, buy paint and roller.” Instead of “revise Hotsy Totsy,” my to-do item became “send HT to a beta reader for feedback; then, revise with feedback.”

Why is it so important to ask why you didn’t get it done before?

  • To address any resistance. We couldn’t finish painting the living room because the paint had been discontinued, so it helped to add “get new sample” to the action list. Addressing the resistance honors that you weren’t being lazy or unproductive; there is an actual obstacle to fix. Action steps always feel more constructive.
  • (Restated as a specific for writers:) Avoid telling yourself to “revise that story”or “finish that book” — it helps to break writing projects into action steps. Where vague orders like “revise” or “finish” beat you down with over-repetition, being clear gives you direction and the chance of actually completing the step.  Try “write the ending,” or “submit a proposal to (target publications),” or “address rambling in middle chapters,” or “research names of participants in the Easter Rising.” I gave the example of my short story Hotsy Totsy because we sometimes bang ourselves (and our stories) over the head with the same approach to revision, over and over. I knew that story didn’t need my revision again, but feedback from another reader, and solutions came much more quickly when I wrote “find beta reader” on my to-do list. (Kudos to Gerry Wilson for that!)
  • To identify overlooked steps. “Submit grad school applications” sounds like I need to fill out a form. But no, I did that already. What I’d need to write on my action list is: “email (specific names) for recommendation letters” and “write personal statement.” I might have forgotten, also, to budget for the application fees.
  • To plan better. As a mom, often I’m short on time. If that was the case, I answered the question, “What did I do instead of this thing?” I used my answer to that question to plan better times to work on the project — say, when I had time off from work or when my boys were at school.
  • To shift priorities.  Sometimes you need to honor that there is a roadblock that won’t move any time soon. When almost all of my hold-ups on one list were the cost, I realized the some of the unfinished projects were low priority compared to other expenses — and literally moved them off my list. In fact, I switched them for tasks that increased whatever was in short supply (“send out resumes” or “submit expense report”).

In some cases, projects are unfinished because we lost interest.  Maybe sharing this challenge will help you regain that excitement. Post a picture showing progress of that baby blanket getting crocheted. Post the garden you hope to plant, come summer.  Share your fears or frustrations, and the small steps as you move forward.

Here’s mine:

I have stacks of essays to grade, which is daunting. I need to chug my way into them.  I will find inspiration to move forward as I hit some great work.  Some of them I will flag for inclusion in the literary magazine I’ll be working on next week.  But I’ll use other milestones to keep me going: the satisfaction of watching grade columns fill in our grading software. Or I might use a timing clock, setting an estimated time-per-paper to help me read more efficiently. Maybe I’ll put some easy ones first to make quick progress, then save a few easy ones to reward myself with as I near the end.  And I’ll schedule a break, here and there.  Thirty minutes of TV with my boys, or a walk, or a snack, or 30 minutes to work on the novel… If I’m not back by Sunday, send a rescue crew. (Kidding.)

For more strategies for finishing a goal, read Sunday’s motivational post:  January Challenge: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work

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Your Turn!

In the comments below, on another post this month or on Christa’s blog, be sure to share with us the unfinished project you will be tackling whether this week or any time in January. 

What obstacles hold you back? Did you do the 3-column to-do list, and what did you learn from it?  Whatever your challenge, know you have a cheering squad here and be sure to check back in for the rest of the challenge, throughout the month!

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Filed under Inspiration, January Challenge, Teaching Writing, Writing Life

What I’m Reading: Summer Reading List 2012

School is out. The boys are making snowcones. And, along with plans to head out of town or to the beach, with time suddenly available, it’s a reader’s tradition to ask: What were those books I’d been meaning to read?

Dress of books: often posted without credit, this pic was taken at the Dallas Home Show 2011, by Lori of Katie’s Rose Cottage Designs. The dress was part of a display, by a vendor unknown.

My list isn’t summer reading in the “beach” reading sense, but an accumulation of great books I’ve collected during a busy winter and can’t wait for summer’s freer days to savor.  Most titles are linked to Amazon; options for or Powell’s Books are available on my Links page.


  1. Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy (2009, winner National Book Award for Fiction).  I had not read McDermott before, but began reading Billy a couple weeks ago to understand a comment Ann Hood made in workshop comparing the opening pages of my draft,Wake, to some aspect of McDermott’s writing. (Update this made my Favorite Reads list for 2012: I learned some interesting things about action/reaction in writing scenes from McDermott’s novel, which is rich in authentic character.)
  2. Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project (2009). I first became curious about Hemon, a MacArthur award-winning writer, after reading his painfully beautiful essay, “The Aquarium,” in The New Yorker online, about the loss of his daughter. (Update: This made my Favorite Reads of 2013 list, as one of the most complex, subtle and sophisticated novels — well worth the praising comparisons to the like of Nabokov. Expect a slightly slow, even confusing start — but note quickly how two novels entwine in one, to create a haunting and very personally told story. I look to read anything else Hemon has written.)
  3. Jan-Phillip Sendker, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (2012). Billed as “a love story set in Burma,” this was named an Amazon best novel in February. I fell in love with Berlin foreign correspondent Sendker’s writing after reading a single description he gave of riding a train so slow he sometimes jumped off and walked alongside.
  4. Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008).
  5. Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists (2011). Both Hedgehog (#4) and Imperfectionists won me over on a recent trip to Barnes and Noble, confirming them to be intriguing in the way I’d heard others speak of them.
  6. Thrity Umrigar, The Weight of Heaven. I have this 2010 novel downloaded onto my ereader, although others might be interested in Umrigar’s latest novel, The World We Found, which came out January 2012.
  7. Bradford Morrow, Fall of the Birds (2011). On a personal note, Bradford Morrow was the first editor to publish my work in a national forum. He is an acclaimed writer, and I was glad to discover this novella of his, available as a Kindle single.
  8. Margot LiveseyThe Flight of Gemma Hardy (2012). I first got to know Livesey as the Fiction Editor at Ploughshares, and have been eager to read her January novel, Gemma Hardy.  I’m equally interested in reading one of her earlier novels, Banishing Verona (2005).
  9. Emma Straub’s, Other People We Married (2012). Emma Straub is one of the writers I’ve discovered through Twitter.  I’ve come to trust her wit, so am eager to read anything she writes. Other People is a collection of stories.  Her novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, will come out in September and I believe will be featured as a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection.
  10. Laura Maylene Walter, Living Arrangements (2011). I can’t wait to read this collection of stories.  She is winner of the 2010 Chandra Prize for Stories.
  11. Adrian McKinty, The Cold Cold Ground (2012). Along with writers like Declan Burke and Stuart Neville, Belfast-born McKinty is among a group of edgy, intelligent writers who’ve turned the energy of post-Troubles Belfast to a new era of crime noir writing. If Cold Cold Ground is not yet available in the U.S., I’d consider reading Falling Glass.
  12. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895). I believe Wells’ book just came into the public domain, as Time Machine is in the list of classics available as a free download.


  1. Ann Hood, Creating Character Emotions .  One chapter into this book of advice for writing emotionally authentic characters, I have filled the margins with notes provoked by Hood’s advice (which you can read about in blogs here and here).  (Update: this book made my Best Reads of 2012 list, and has provoked more immediate, effective results in my writing than any other writing book I can remember, so I highly recommend it).
  2. Kate Messner, Real Revision: Author’s Strategies to Share with Student Writers (2011). I’ve followed writer Kate Messner for awhile, and found out about this resource to teaching students revision from comments during the TeachWrite! summer challenge for teachers and librarians.
  3. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I first encountered Cheryl Strayed years ago as a participant at Poets & Writers’ Speakeasy forum. While changes in the forum have slowed participation, Cheryl was part of a vibrant and generous group of writers back in the day. I was therefore thrilled to see the immediate and rousing reaction her memoir Wild has received, and can’t wait to read it.
  4. Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2011). Skloot’s well-researched story of the scientific life of cells from Henrietta Lacks made the New York Times bestseller list as #1 for paperback nonfiction this week. Curious, I was blown away, reading this review of Skloot’s book from the New York Times, which describes her narrative as being “far deeper, braver and more wonderful” than just the scientific facts.


  1. Saeed Jones, When the Only Light is Fire (2011). Saeed Jones, a Pushcart nominee in 2010, has captivated me with his refined snarky wit on Twitter.

Young Adult/Kids Fiction:

Some of the best books I’ve read in the past year have been young adult fiction. The first 3 on the list below are books I’ve bought for my classroom library, and am “stealing back” to read myself.  I also read with my sons, who are rising 3rd and 6th graders, so the last three books are ones I’ll be reading with them.

  1. Nova Ren Suma, Imaginary Girls (2011). A novel about two sisters, which sounds magical and intriguing! I can’t wait.
  2. Alyson Noel, Shimmer (2011). I bought this during book fair, looking forward to reading when students were done with it.
  3. Sara Shepard, Pretty Little Liars (2009). Okay: guilty. I’ve caught a few episodes on tv and now want to read the book(s).
  4. Jean Craighead George, My Side of the Mountain (1959). This and #5 are assigned reading for my rising 6th graders, which includes my son this year. It’s a perennial favorite, about a boy who runs away from the city and creates a life for himself in the wilderness.
  5. Gloria Whelan, Listening for Lions (2006). I’ll be intrigued to read this book, set in British East Africa in 1919, and assigned as summer reading for my son and my rising 6th graders.
  6. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861). Not really YA or kid lit, but I’m up to chapter 4 of reading this with my boys, since they fell in love with the Masterpiece Theater version this spring.

Literary Magazines & Anthologies:

  1. Silk Road.  I downloaded vol. 7.1, to read Jennifer Kirkpatrick Brown’s story, “The Roots of Grass.” (Update: Jennifer’s story is fresh and intriguing – I was glad to get to read it, and look forward to reading more from this writer.)  Silk Road is a great publication. As much as I would love to have had a print edition in hand, it’s great to have such easy access to it via download.
  2. Best American Short Stories 2011. I am especially interested to read stories by two writers I follow: Rebecca Makkai (her 2011 novel, The Borrower, released in paperback on May 29th) and Megan Mayhew Bergman (whose acclaimed story collection, Birds of a Lesser Feather, came out in 2011).
  3. Back issues waiting, from Lit and Southern Review.

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Want more information?

In keeping descriptions brief, I’ve mostly noted what drew me to the books. If you want to know more about a writer or book, let me know in the comments.

What are your recommendations?

I’d love to hear what makes your reading list this summer, or books you’ve read recently and would recommend.  Share them in the comments and I may update this list through the summer — especially as I am sure I have forgotten a couple from my own list!


Filed under Books, Reading, Teaching Writing