set yourself a challengeSet Yourself a Challenge

Marg McAlister

To keep moving forward in your writing career, it's essential that you do two things:  

  1. Decide what you want to achieve, and  
  2. Decide when and how you are going to complete each step along the way to getting what you want.  

It sounds simple enough, but many, many writers struggle to reach their goals. They might spend hours at the computer - but they don't seem to get very far. Why is this?  

For beginning writers, it can be as simple as information overload. They feel that there is so much to learn, they'll never manage to do it all. They run around like rats in a maze, going first in one direction and then in another. Everywhere they go, they seem to hit a wall. Often, they are their own worst enemies: they have made the whole process of 'becoming a writer' a lot more complicated than it needs to be.  

For experienced writers, the problem can be burnout, boredom or simple frustration. (Burnout: they have been trying so hard for so long they're just about at the end of their endurance. Boredom: they have been doing the same thing for so long that it's not fun any more. Frustration: They just can't 'break in' - what should they do?)  

One of the most effective things you can do to turn things around is to carve yourself out a finite period of time to work on what you need most. There's nothing like the power of a definite starting and ending date to help you focus on the job at hand. I know this only too well from years of working with writers, helping them through various courses and programs.  

There's a reason for all the Writing4Success e-courses being 5 modules long, with each being run over a set six-week period (from whatever date the writer signs up): it sets writers an achievable goal in a reasonably short length of time. I've seen writers drop out because courses run on too long. Most people can set support systems in place and make a concentrated effort for short periods of time. ("I can do anything if I know it finishes in six weeks/12 weeks!") 

Similarly, when I run the 12-week Career Booster program, participants know that they have to set aside three months of their lives to focus on improving their writing and building their career. It's hard, and it requires a lot of stamina - but by the end of it, things will have changed.  

The advice below is based on a challenge run over 12 weeks. If it's the first time you have done something like this, you might prefer to start off with something shorter: maybe a month or six weeks. Just adapt it to suit yourself.  

How You Can Set Your Own 12-Week Challenge 

1. What Do You Most NEED? 

The first thing you have to do is to decide on the MOST IMPORTANT thing you need in your writing career. This will be the main thing that guides your 'challenge' activities. You might want to work on building up your writers' network and finding reliable critique partners. You might want to work on, say, six specific aspects of technique, tackling one every two weeks. You might want to finish the first draft of a book. You might want to earn your first-ever dollar for something you have written! 

A word of warning here: don't try to tackle EVERYTHING in one challenge. If you like the results of the first one, there's nothing to stop you doing it again, with a different main objective. However, if you try to do too much, you could be setting yourself up for failure - and take a step backward in your writing career, instead of forward! 

When you know what you need, you can set your main goal for the period of the challenge. Write it down. 

2. Flying Solo or in a Group? 

The second thing you have to do is decide whether you're going to do it by yourself or in a group. If you do it by yourself, you can set all the rules, weekly tasks, and deadlines. If you organise a group challenge, you will all have to agree on how you want to run it and what you want to achieve - but the bonus is group support. Even if one or two drop out, most of you will achieve big steps forward during the time of the challenge.  

3. What Do You Have to Do to Achieve Your Goal? 

This involves two things: (a) What you NEED to do - step by step - to achieve your main goal, and (b) what you are PREPARED to DO (and what you are prepared to give up) to achieve this goal. You might have to give up TV three nights a week, or part of your weekend. You might have to be prepared to spend weekend hours researching or networking, both online and offline.  

If you want to undertake a Challenge, your mantra for that time should be: 'WHATEVER IT TAKES!'  

Underneath your main goal, write down the various steps you need to take to get to this goal. You might like to number then 1-12 right away, or you might prefer to jot them down randomly for now then divide the tasks between the number of weeks later on.   

4. How Will You Measure Your Success? 

  • How will you know if you succeed? You should have some means of assessing this.  
  • How will you know whether your technique has improved? (Run it by other writers? Get more positive feedback from an editor? Pay a critique service to assess your writing before and after the challenge? Or will you assess it by listing how many fresh insights you feel you have into the craft?)  
  • How will you know whether you have a stronger writer's network? (By the new people that you have made meaningful contact with? By the added support that you can call on to give feedback on scenes?)  
  • Have you managed to earn some money from your writing? (How much did you want to earn? Did you want to increase your income? Find new paying markets?) 

5. Document Your Goals, Efforts and Results for 12 Weeks 

Write everything down! If something is just in your head, it's very easy to cheat - put tasks off until the next day or next week; drop back on the number of tasks you have set yourself; change the difficulty of the main goal.  

Create an actual '12 Week Challenge' record to fill in as you go. You can do this as a Word document that you keep on your computer, or print out a booklet with dates and spaces to be filled in, or simply jot everything down in a journal or notebook. HOW you do it doesn't matter, as long as you DO keep a record. 

Here are some headings to guide you.  

  1. 12-Week Challenge  
  2. Starts: 
  3. Ends: 
  4. Main Goals for this 12 Week Challenge 
  5. I Will Measure My Success By...  

Insert: 3 pages each showing one calendar month, with squares big enough for you to write in dates/activities/deadlines, and a short NOTES section at the bottom.  

Insert: 12 Weekly Activity Records, each spread over two pages. On each 2-page spread, show the month, the week number, and the main goal for this week. Have seven separate sections, one for each day of the week. Have a short 'NOTES' section at the end of each week. Here you can record how you went during the week, and anything that needs following up/developing.  

At the back of the booklet, leave a few pages for additional notes and comments. 

That's it! If you haven't tried a challenge like this before, you might be surprised at how much you can achieve when you know there's a limited time to do it. Especially if you keep telling yourself: "Whatever it takes... just for these twelve weeks: WHATEVER IT TAKES!"

 © Marg McAlister


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