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Title: How To Keep Your Challenge Commitments
Author name: Icarus
Author email: icarus_ancalion@yahoo.com


How To Keep Your Challenge Committments - or - Strategies For Challenge Success

The flood of Christmas writing fests are now behind us and most are on to our New Year's resolutions. (I don't do New Year's resolutions because the only way to keep a resolution is to resolve and re-resolve it every day -- as you fail one day, examine why that was, then re-resolve, adjust if need be, and pick yourself up the next. The very concept of a limited "New Year's-only" resolution guarantees you will never change. Failure is part of the process of change and needs to be built into a resolution.)

Some of us may have done well on our writing challenges. Others may have fallen flat on our faces and find ourselves avoiding our friends, banned from participating in X or Z challenge next year, and counting our excuses. We have many to choose from:

- Last-minute emergency (translation: I didn't start early enough). I have a last-minute emergency every challenge. Let's be honest. The reality is that I look at that deadline and say "oh, lookie, I can write it all the last week after finals" and don't start early enough. I have very little elbow room when that due-date hits and something has invariably come up.

- I didn't have time (translation: I didn't plan very well). Part of the process of deciding to do a writing challenge is time management. You set aside the time in your mind and picture, "Hmm, okay, I need at least two weekends where I write the first draft, it takes a couple days to find a beta, the beta might need a week so I'll have... okay, this is minimum three weekends in December. That's doable." If you're vague about why you didn't have time then you didn't go through this planning process.

- The muse didn't strike (translation: I didn't plan at all). The point of a story challenge is to write a story. Sometimes it's a great story. Sometimes it's a lousy story. But you just have to produce something. Generally speaking, if you put the work into a story, it will be better than one where you put no effort. Creating a story for your recipient involves research and if you do your homework, you will have at least one story idea. It may be a lousy, stupid idea, but all you need is a story.

Why Does It Matter? The Cost To Your Self-Disclipline

The real problem of not meeting challenge deadlines is the cost to the writer. Yes, the mod will be unhappy, although the challenge recipient probably got a pinch-hitter. Yes, you're banned from participating next time, although probably not the only one who fell through. But writing is hard. Adding emotional freight makes writing even harder: guilt is bad for you.

More importantly, writing takes self-discipline. If you don't fulfill one commitment to yourself as a writer -- and a challenge is a commitment to yourself -- the next one becomes harder, or in a sense ... e-a-s-i-e-r ... to let yourself off the hook. Once you let yourself get away with not following through on a challenge, I've noticed it becomes easier to not push yourself through that tough spot in your own fics. Show me someone who consistently lets themselves slide on challenges, and I'll show you someone with at least one abandoned WiP or a stack of unfinished short stories. Because they have undermined their self-discipline. For your own sake as a writer do not sign up for challenges you can't finish.

All is not lost. If you didn't make your challenge deadline(s), you may just need to reexamine your motives and your strategy for writing challenges.

The Writing Challenge requires certain time management skills that can be learned. It's not a coincidence that the "busy" people in fandom who have the least actual time are the ones who manage to write for four or five challenges while working full-time, running an RPG, and juggling committee responsibilities (I'm looking at you, Femmequixotic).

#1 - Should You Sign Up At All?

First - Do you want to do a writing challenge?

This may seem obvious, but a lot of people sign up for challenges to help themselves get motivated. For a few this works, but for most, if we're not motivated, we're not motivated. A challenge won't change an underlying malaise. Do not sign up for this reason unless you know that challenges do, in fact, motivate you. If you've signed up for three different challenges and crapped out on the them all, chances are you aren't motivated by them.

Second - Do you have time? How long does it take you to write?

Some of us can whip out a 1,000-word story in an afternoon. Others of us crank through 100 words at a time -- and then throw away half. Don't worry if you fit the latter description. Some of the best writers in fandom do. But you will need more time to write. Make sure you will have the time to complete what you think you'll write for the challenge -- and notice how I didn't mention the minimum for the challenge?

I know people, excellent writers, who can't do a complete story in 1,000 words. Don't base your assessment on the minimum, that's a common mistake. Base it on your typical story length.

Third - How busy is your schedule around the challenge deadline?

A lot of challenges are due at a really busy time. Finals week for students. Christmas vacation when the kids will be home. Bear in mind that despite good intentions, you may not be able to get that story done in the months before that final week. You need to be able set aside enough time to do the whole thing from scratch the last week it's due.

"What?" you say, "I of course will do it Thanksgiving weekend!" Yes, yes, well, I just had a story due last Christmas and it just... stopped working for me. I couldn't spit it out. I ended up writing a new story from scratch the final week. Shit happens. And, ask any mod, it always happens the last week of the challenge.

Fourth - How many challenges have you signed up for all at once?

There is a 12 Step Program for the compulsion to sign up for these things. Be realistic. If you've never done it before, please just sign up for one.

#2 - Writing Stages And Planning

One of the best ways to take the pressure off a challenge deadline is to finish early. Way early. For my first second challenge I was nervous and finished the story in January that was due in March. It was the best story I've written for a challenge (The Hat Trick, if you're curious) and it went far more smoothly than all of my subsequent challenges. At the very least, give yourself a reasonable amount of time. Minimum three weeks for the average writer.

First - Research your recipient. Do this the moment you receive your recipient's request. You'll hopefully have a good writing cue from them, but even if you don't, go to their LJ and read what they write. Yes. Read your recipients' fanfic, or the fanfic they recommend. You will get a good feel for what they enjoy. For example, my last challenge Bluflamingo mentioned she liked Teamfic and Lorne/Sheppard. When I read Bluflamingo's fanfic I noticed she liked to have things tied very closely to canon and realized that was important to her. This helped fuel a few ideas for stories for her, and cut off a few dead-ends that I realized she probably wouldn't like. This should take an hour or two.

Second - Brainstorm a couple of ideas. Do this right away, immediately after you've read your recipients' fics. Why wait? The ideas are fresh now. Notice I said more than one idea? Write a few down. Because you never know if that first story is going to turn into a novel that you could never finish by the challenge deadline, no, never in a million years. Having something right away, even if you don't write it instantly, will remove that problem of "blanking" under pressure if you try to do this right before the deadline. This should take an hour, maybe less. Give yourself a couple of days to do it if you don't spark ideas right off.

Third - Scratch out your rough draft notes. Now I know a lot of people in fandom don't write truly rough drafts. Usually, they open Word and that first file is exactly what gets sent to their beta. If that works for you, far be it from me to mess with what works. But what works for me is a rough listing of scenes with a smattering of dialogue, either written down in one of my notebooks or hashed out in chat with a friend. The rough notes tell me if I can write this story in the time allotted. Otherwise, you'll probably be able to see how long your story will be within the first couple paragraphs. This should take three or four hours, tops, to have enough of your story to know if it'll work for your challenge. This is important. Many people end up with loooooong stories and under the gun. (P.S. Femmequixotic in comments goes a step further and estimates each scene will take about 1,000 words. Other writers might have longer scenes - yes, I'm smiling at you Auburn - but my scenes also average about 1,000 words, so that's a good rule of thumb.)

Fourth - Begin the first draft early. Hopefully, by brainstorming as soon as you got your recipient's request, you have a fresh idea that'll grab you early. There is nothing wrong with finishing a story way before the deadline. I've noticed a direct relationship between how early I've started, and the quality of my resulting story. Most challenges have a minimum of 1,000 words, but the average challenge length story is usually around 3,000 - 7,000 words. Depending on how fast you normally write (and how easily the story comes), you're looking at a minimum six to fifteen hours of writing. Most of us can't do it in one sitting, so probably three days minimum of five hours behind a computer, just writing. Which is really seven hours because humans run from writing -- check email, read fanfic, complain in LJ, etc. A smart person gives themselves at least a week for the first draft, and a week to beta it.

Fifth - this is the part that people forget takes time - Beta it. Yes, your beta may think your story is wonderful except for that typo on page five. Or they may tell you your ending makes no sense. Nothing's more frustrating than a story you didn't have time to finish, and then the readers come back and say, "Gosh, that was great except for the ending...." You want to tell them, "I know about the ending, I just didn't have time to fix it!" Well, if you give yourself a week for beta, you won't have that problem. *ding!*

In all, for a fanfic challenge give yourself no less than three weeks. Really.

#3 - Uh-oh.

But let's say that at your office it rained work and snowed delays. Or you've had a miserable quarter at school with many group projects. Or you didn't plan ahead, but, eh, it usually doesn't matter because you're a quick writer -- and this time it bit you in the ass. What do you do?

First - Notify the person running the challenge that you've run into problems but, by god, you're still working to get that story done.

I know. You think you're saying: "I am a pathetic loser who's failed, failed, failed at life!" But what the challenge mod hears: "I am a responsible person who cares about my committment, who has given you half a chance to plan a pinch hit, and most likely won't bail at the last second. Don't you love me?"

Yes, indeed we do. I've run a challenge. The people who communicate almost always come through -- no. Make that always. It's far more common for writers-in-trouble to run from their problems. And us.

Second - Streamline.

Back in the 80s, TV cook Julie Child knocked a turkey onto the floor during a live broadcast. She ducked behind the counter, plunked it onto the platter, and said, "Remember! You're the only one in the kitchen."

Remember! Your challenge recipient has no clue what you have planned. Neither does the mod. You're the only one in the kitchen.

When time gets short, jettison what you have to. Usually, this means your attempt to tailor your story to your recipient. Make your fic fit the challenge, of course, but chances are that when you're stuck, writing what comes from your gut will go a lot faster. When your options are "a story" or "no story" -- having "a story" wins.

Third - Pull Out The Speed Writing Techniques.

You no longer have time for that carefully plotted fic with each line honed like a diamond. I have two main speed-writing techniques:

NaNoWriMo Style -- I sit down at the computer and give myself a minimum word count for that session. I write anything to meet that word count. The results are often a little... slap-happy. But definitely unique. I once ended up with Draco Malfoy ice skating down a hallway and crashing when he hit the stairs. (Turns out I was listening to "Trapped Under Ice" at the time -- it filtered into my subconscious.)

Cheerleader Style -- I grab a hapless friend in chat and tell them the story, relying on their energy to get me through it. Then I copy-paste the chat transcript into Word and flesh it out. One time I ended up with Lucius Malfoy playing a deadly solo while chatting with Electric Android while another time Percy Weasley cross-dressed in public as I talked through the story to Lizardspots. In SGA, I once wrote an entire Sheppard/Lorne fic in LJ comments, egged on by Auburn, and you can ask Amothea how many SPN stories started out in chat with her.

Fourth - Cheat.

Check your hard drive. What do you have lying around half-finished that will work for this challenge?

Okay, okay, maybe you have to squint a little, or pick the option at the bottom of your recipient's list, or write Rodney into Teyla's role in that unfinished fic, or expand a drabble you never imagined as a longer fic. You know what they say about desperate times. I know plenty of people who've done this for Yuletide. Your unfinished fics could save your arse.

#4 - Dealing With The Guilt.

This is the point where you post your 1,500 word expanded drabble ... and invariably someone has written you a three-post 20,000 word epic. *blush*

Well. It all comes out in the wash or the rinse. Next year, you'll be the one with the 20,000 word epic. This year, at least you made it. And you're a better, more confident, and more disciplined writer. Congratulations.

(P.S. In comments Angiepen suggests that even if you miss your deadline, keep going and finish the story, however long it takes. That's excellent advice.)