The 100 day book – 10 lessons from this amazing challenge

Reading Time: 8 minutes
100 day book program
This writing challenge was hard work but so worth it. I wrote a complete first draft, with the 100 Day Book program. And now I’m shattered. Levens beach, in Fife, Scotland, September 2017

At the end of August I completed the 100 Day Book program from The Write Practice. From the middle of May, I had committed to a daily word count, and a weekly share of my work, and giving weekly feedback on the progress of other writers in the program. I had slogged and sweated and ignored the housework and at the end of 100 days I had a complete first draft of a fantasy novel.

This challenge is definitely not for everybody. You need to be prepared to work. There’s teaching and support in the program, but that doesn’t write the book for you. You have to put in the hours, every week, and share the results in the private 100 Day Book forum, without skipping a week.

It’s been unbelievably hard work, especially since like most people I have a family and a job. I can’t just swan off to a log cabin and bury myself in my art, tempting as that sounds.

So how do you do it? What does this program involve, and what have I learned from doing it that I would pass on to other writers?

1.Firstly, 100 days is not 100 days. Sure, it’s 100 elapsed days. And you have a word count goal to achieve in that time.  So many words per day, simple, right? But take out your calendar. Here’s that wedding you will be at all weekend. Here’s the go-live on a massive work project. Here are early mornings and evenings where you will be travelling in areas without signal. And in July the kids break up from school for six weeks. How are you going to write then?

Your task is to strike out all the days when you already know you won’t be writing. Divide your word count goal by the remaining days, not 100.

I got to July this year, with nearly six weeks to go, thinking this was easy. Then I realised that from mid July til the end of the challenge, I would not be able to write at lunchtimes or on Fridays – my two main opportunities to write. That meant I had to double my daily word count in the days I could write. Suddenly the task got a lot harder.

Lesson – count up your genuine writing days in advance. Divide your total word count by that number, not 100, to get the number of words you must write on writing days.

2. A writing community is an amazing gift. In the last four weeks of the programs I had a ton of catching up to do, and was posting 7000-10000 words a week in the 100 day book forum. And my readers were reading them – in amongst posting their own massive chunks of novel. I would have been happy for people to skim my posts just to give me a bit of encouragement and pick out a page or two to give feedback on. But they didn’t, they read the lot, they found plot holes and demanded to know what would happen next. So that was awesome, and helped keep me going.

Lesson – writing within a community of supportive, committed artists is a joy, and it keeps you going on days when the words will not come.

3. The 100 day Book program creates an addictive writing urge. When you stop having to write every day you really, really miss it. For three weeks since the challenge ended, I have been totally lost. The story  was over. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Last week I began creating my scene list, ready to do the structural edit which this book really needs. But even then, halfway through that task, I felt bereft.

I am now back on my 750 word a day general writing target. For now it doesn’t matter what I write* so long as I get back into that habit. So that’s a great takeaway from the 100 day book. It creates a writing habit, to the extent that afterwards you can’t not write. That’s pure gold, right there. Thanks, Write Practice!

(*It does matter what I write. My Type-A personality insists that I am writing towards a sequel or prequel or some other useful piece of work. Jotting down random thoughts does not count.)

Lesson: Writing intensively like this creates a lifelong habit which will fuel your productivity forever.

4. You can’t cheat on a creative promise. Sometimes you simply do not have time to go into the detail that you would give without an excruciating deadline. So you can add notes – ‘brief chapter here where hero explores the city and we see examples of the governor’s cruelty’ as placeholders ready for the second draft. But you can’t just go, ‘oh, here’s a bit where the plot is all solved, tada, I’ve written a book’.

I included a couple of places where I knew the scene I needed to write but had just run out of time. My readers in the 100 Day Book forum didn’t like that. They wanted to see words on the page. That was my promise. So be warned – to-do-later notes are fine, but your outline is not your 100-day-novel.

Lesson – don’t cheat your readers or yourself. You’ve promised to write a book, not a synopsis. Think – adding a load of Do It Later notes just gives you more to do in second draft.

5. The first week is really hard. Not because of the writing. That’s easy. You are the most energised at the start if a big project, brimming with ideas, raring to write the scenes which gleam in your mind’s eye. No, the hard part of the first week of the 100 day book program is having to create your book plan.

That’s right people, they make you do a plan. A synopsis of the story, but also a chapter by chapter book outline, plus identifying the book’s audience and creating a plan for marketing. For once in my plotting life, I had to know the ending before I started writing.

So that first week was a tough one for a lifelong pantser like me. But in the year since I started this blog and began exploring writing techniques, I have come to accept that planning can be useful, even if like me you prefer to do it in your head rather than on a  spreadsheet.

I had to tarnslate my instincts into a formal book plan. I always do know the kind of ending I want (big weather, dramatic scenery, the hero shouting his previously undeclared love across a ravine as the monster rears up to snatch him and the heroine away…) and I know the thing that kicks off the book – but I struggle with getting from A to B. Being forced to write the middle, ugh, the middle, was really helpful.

Lesson – knuckle down and make an outline, even if you hate it. Follow the program’s guidelines for doing this is you’re totally new to it. It works.

6. The synopsis and outline will help with querying later. This is great. Every week on the Write Practice forums I see questions from writers going through the process of submitting their work for publication. And everyone agrees that summarising your art for a potential commercial buyer is the hardest part. If you already have a premise, synopsis and outline, then you have a head start. It’s easier to hone something than to create it from scratch. I’ll be honing like crazy over the next few months.

Lesson – creating a premise is a long term gain.

7. Don’t miss that weekly deadline. I didn’t miss any of my 14 weeks, but if I had, there would have been consequences. In the case of the 100 Day Book program, this was a monetary consequence. You heard me right. You give them an amount of money for joining the program. At the end when you succeed, they give you a chunk of it back. But not if you miss deadlines. Now that’s motivation.

Also don’t miss the deadline because the weekly deadline is awesome. You feel a camaraderie with the others in the program, knowing that across time zones and beyond oceans, all over the world there are other people going, ‘Dammit, Friday already,’ and typing whilst stirring dinner or feeding the baby or sitting on the train. Then as the posts roll into the 100 Day Book forum, there’s that huge sense of relief. People head to the private Facebook page to give metaphorical air punches.

Lesson – deadlines are motivational as well as stressful. And sticking to them gets you cash (back) in the bank. Result.

8. Give feedback generously. Once Friday has passed, there’s a bit of a lull while everyone recovers. But before you start thinking about this week’s 7000 or so words, you need to carry out the final part of your weekly commitment: giving feedback on at least 3 posts from other writers.

In the general Write Practice forum, feedback tends to be critical, in the literal sense – designed to help writers improve and finesse. In the 100 day book program I found that feedback is necessarily a bit softer. After all, these are words typed at speed for the creation of a first draft. Critiquing at the sentence structure level may not be relevant, because the chances are, the writer has barely had the chance to read through what’s been written, never mind start scanning for tone, pace, and dangling modifiers. So I found that offering support and encouragement, and more general feedback -‘this part here was a bit confusing’, ‘this was exciting!’ – was more appropriate than line by line critique.

Also – you’re pressed for time. Even just letting the other person know you read their post,  supports them. ‘Great job, keep going, nearly the end.’ This is what we need to hear on a massive challenge like this. Because we already know it can’t be perfect, and it won’t be the thing of beauty that the publisher gets to see. It’s rough, and we’re awesome for creating, in such a short space of time.

Lesson – giving line edits is great, but giving feedback on any aspect of the work will be gratefully received by people toiling away and courageously sharing the raw output of their creativity.

9. It’s not just the writing, it’s the editing. My words come out rough. I write on my phone, mostly, and autocorrect plays havoc with every sentence. I know what I meant, but to another reader it’s nonsense. For example my phone replaces ‘that’ with ‘tyst’ every time, even though i have removed ‘tyst’ from the internal dictionary and it is not an actual word.

So as well as finding time to write, say 700-1500 words every day, I also needed to find time to read through and correct that week’s 7000-10000 words before posting it on Friday.

I guess I could have posted the original, to show I had done the writing, but it quickly became clear that everybody was turning in really crisp, clear, spellchecked first drafts. I kid you not. So I had to spend two to three hours a week, on top of writing, going through my horrendous mess of work and making it so another human could understand it.

Lesson – go back over that writing calendar and find more time than you originally thought you needed. There must be more housework you can not do, right?

10. Do it. Writing a book is a huge undertaking. I mean, you’re writing a full length book. Novellas do not count in this challenge. Everyone is writing something of 60,000 to 120,000 words long. These are sweeping stories with characters, plot and resolution, or memoirs covering long lives in carefully researched detail. This is not some fluffy ‘you can be creative yay’ type of program. It’s the real thing. Plan it, divide it into weekly chunks, do the work, follow the guidelines and you will turn in a completed first draft on day 100.

When you finish, you’ve done more than write a book. You’ve demonstrated to yourself that you are capable of completing a tough challenge – a technical challenge, an endurance challenge, a time management challenge, a creativity challenge. You can do it. Here’s the proof in the form of this manuscript. For me, that’s priceless. I’ve spoken to many lifelong writers who have the passion and the dream, but who lack confidence. This program gives you that confidence, that inner certainty that if you have an idea and a plan, you will be able to complete your creative dream.

Lesson: do it. Join the 100 day book program. Because at the end of it, you can no longer have any doubt. You’ve written a book. You are a writer.

And so:

I joined the 100 day book program on an impulse one Thursday night, with no book idea and no plan, and a dozen existing commitments in the next three months. I invented a plot on the Sunday and posted it in the forum when the synopsis and outline were due. Then I wrote to a regime for 100 days. And now I have a book, a book which before that first Sunday, I had not even dreamed of. Even better, it’s a book I like, and my readers loved the characters I created, and were invested in the plot, even in this rough early draft. In the world I created, there’s a load more mileage and my writer brain is already itching to start a  sequel.

If I hadn’t signed up, I would have written something, sure, some chapters here and there of various works in progress, some short stories… blog posts. But because I joined, I have instead written a whole book.

That’s what I call a  result.

The 100 Day Book program is run by The Write Practice, with training given by bestselling author Joe Bunting. Details on the program here.

By the way: I don’t work for the Write Practice, I’m not on commission to promote them or anything. I just think it’s a really great community and I recommend it to anyone committed to improving their writing and following their creative dream. You can find out more on their website.

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Persistence – conquering story craft

Reading Time: 5 minutes
persistence
Persistence is key to learning. Don’t let difficulty defeat you!  Stubbornness and hard work combined will bring success. (The Wall Street bull, March 2014.)

I’ve been teaching myself SQL – Structured Query Language, for databases – this week, because I have to give a training course on it next week. I’ve become fairly familiar with creating some queries with SQL (which I now pronounce ‘sequel’ like the guys in my technical team do) over the last couple of years. I can muddle through. But if I needed to join tables together, I turned to the SQL experts in my team, to take over. I had no motivation for persistence. SQL wasn’t part of my job, so I could reasonably ask others for help. But now it is part of my job. I need to be able to help other people use it. And the people I’ll be training are my peers, in the new team I’ve just transferred to. These people are experts, not perhaps in SQL, but they are consultants with years of experience in complex systems and high-stakes customer situations. I know from our previous training sessions that they will ask a lot of hard questions.

…No pressure.

This SQL business is a little like my situation right now with story structure. I’ve been learning about it for about nine months. Prior to that, everything I knew was based on my instincts as a writer, and of course, as a lifelong reader of stories. So I set out to improve my understanding of structure, because I wanted to measure my own stories against some well-tested methods.

But it was hard.  The terminology slid away from me on the page. Threshold. Pinch point. Door of no return. Second plot point. What? I couldn’t hold an entire structure in my head. It all just meant nothing to me.

This was annoying. Because… Well.

I like to think I’m not stupid. Back in the mists of time, I gained a first class honours degree, which I hoped might mean something about my ability to learn and apply new information. But this story structure stuff had simply not sunk in. I could appreciate it at an academic level. But I just didn’t care. I didn’t feel it, as the kids may, or may not, say. And I was doing OK without it. I had no motivation for persistence.

Back to SQL. Derived tables and hand-typed code are way outside my comfort zone. I’m an experienced report writer in my day job, using various software tools, but I never needed to do it this way, line by painstaking line. Every bit must be right or the query won’t run and you get a red warning message. ‘Syntax error near AND.’ What do you mean, ‘near’? How near? Where?

But having agreed to deliver this training, I have to do it. And because it is for my brilliant colleagues, I do not have the luxury of screwing it up. So I have knuckled down and read the books and typed out the code by hand and forced myself to learn SQL bit by tiny bit.

And gradually, over about three weeks, it has become easier. I have been writing a little more of the course every day. Yesterday I typed out an entire SQL statement to achieve a reporting goal, by hand, and it made sense to me and ran without errors and it brought back the data I was expecting.

I still have a lot to learn.  I’ll probably never reach the point where I have twenty possible solutions in my head for SQL, the way I do for my usual day job software. But I’m confident in the basic functions. Persistence paid off.

The same must now apply to my knowledge of story structure. I need persistence. I need to knuckle down, study (again) the books I bought about it, buy some more books, and apply what I read.  I can’t just wait for a structural edit to sort out the issues.

I have to figure it out for myself.

At uni I found story analysis hard. I had only ever read for pleasure, but suddenly I had to unpick the classics using all the weird ways my tutors showed me, and then apply that methodology to any story they named.

I hated it. I had a massive blindspot to identifying story elements. I knew what worked for me as a reader and what didn’t, and could point to it and describe it in my own terms. But to deconstruct a story in the ways my tutors wanted, was anathema to me.

Also, as far as I was concerned, an author does not necessarily mean something by including a yellow curtain in a scene instead of a blue one, or blinds. Nor did I think that a story’s plot must reflect the author’s stance on the global position of women, or reveal something about sexuality. But I persisted. I learned the wretched Structuralism and Postmodernism and I applied it to Jane Eyre and Miss Marple. I got the grades and I passed my degree. Woohoo.

It was six years after graduation before I read a book with any real pleasure.

Nonetheless, with persistence I conquered my blindspot, and my SQL ineptitude, and I will not allow story structure, which is only another academic exercise, to defeat me.

So I will return to my reading list, some of it from last year, some of it new, and work through it, making notes and applying the new ideas as I go, like I did with the SQL, like I did to get my degree. Because my writing is not worth less than that.

DIY-MFA update. (If you don’t know what I’m on about with this ‘DIY-MFA’, click here.) I started this self-imposed writing-improvement program three weeks ago. I am writing 500 words a day of fiction prose, poetry, blog, memoir or my various works in progress. I am reading a poem every day at poems.com and absolutely loving it. How have I left poetry out of my life for so long? I feel fifteen again. I’ve not done so well on the fiction front – I have read several short stories, but not one per day. I have been studying the writing craft, as detailed above.

I’ve read newspaper article and online articles as substitutes for the ‘essay’ part of the MFA requirements. And thanks to joining two new writing communities, fanstory.com and a Facebook group for flash fiction writers, I’m writing several very short stories every week. I’ve even written a few poems and entered one in a fanstory.com member contest, where it’s received some good reviews. I’ve submitted a story to a small zine and am looking for other outlets.

I’ve also joined two other Facebook groups and become a Patreon supporter for Ninja Writers, because its founder Shaunta inspired this DIY-MFA drive. Those three new groups have given me some great interactions already. There are a lot of us writers out there!

So after just a fortnight, I’m seeing the benefits of conscious self-improvement. I’m reading so much more and trying even harder than usual to squeeze in writing time. What I now need is to create a better record of my exact activities. I’ll work out a method and share that with you soon. Meanwhile, I recommend this endeavour to anyone – and if you want a more formal arrangement and some accountability, check out whatisaplot.com to sign up for Shaunta’s own DIY-MFA program.

What have you learned, or tried to learn, lately? How have you succeeded (or not)? Let me know in the comments!

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Like the plague: why you should avoid writing groups

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Horse Plinth Trafalgar Square 2016
Is being in a writing group just flogging a dead horse?

I’ve followed Joanna Penn for a little while now and found her website and its writing resources very helpful. So the chance to hear her advice on publishing, specifically self publishing, at the SPS summit in June was too good to miss.

Everything she said was relevant and informative, but one thing leapt out. She obviously knew it might be controversial but she went ahead and said it anyway:

Avoid writing groups for critique.

I spluttered my coffee when she said this – in approval, not outrage. Because with one notable exception, every single writing group I’ve been involved in has been utterly useless for learning or improving as a writer. They have mostly been useless for anything at all.

Joanna knew the reason why. Because the people in your writing group are not your target audience. Simple.

To explain: in a writing group, everyone writes in different genres and styles; ranging from literary fiction or poetry to fantasy novels and category romances. So the criticism offered is influenced by writing and reading taste, and might not reflect the quality of your work within its genre. Essentially, the people in your writing group are, as Joanna put it ‘not familiar with the tropes of your genre’ and so can’t judge whether you’re using those tropes well or badly.

I almost fell off my chair. Of course! So obvious. And it also explains why giving criticism is so hard in writing groups. You read the poem, you can see there’s something going on with it, but it is Not Your Thing.

This is precisely why my exception to the rule, The Write Practice, works for me. The Write Practice is BIG. There are plenty of writers involved and a fair few of them write in my genres of fantasy/speculative fiction. There are also poets and romantic novelists and YA novelists and many many others.

This means I can choose some writing in my own genres to critique, and give knowledgeable feedback. It also means the stuff is fun to read.

If I see something rather highbrow and literary I can engage if I wish, but there are a bunch of other people better qualified and more interested, who can do that for me. And if my honest response would be Please Stop, it is much better if I don’t have to mince words to avoid crushing someone’s dreams. It’s not necessarily a reflection of their writing skill, only of my deep dislike of highbrow, literary things. That’s what 3 years of Eng Lit will do for you.

But if you’re not signed up for The Write Practice, then what?

Joanna’s suggestion was to seek out readers/writers within your genre, within your target audience, and get feedback from them. She personally prefers to hire experts for specific critique – the examples she gave were of an expert on Maori culture, and an expert on Mumbai – and also to hire editors to do the kind of line-by-line picking that writing groups might offer. All this struck me as sound. Joanna suggested, shock horror, the internet as a brilliant resource for finding your genre experts and critique partners.

Just to be clear, she didn’t say writing groups were horrible – only that the people in them are by definition all amateurs (she put it more nicely). If you were learning to drive, you wouldn’t get in beside your non-driving friend and say, Well, let’s try this, and encourage each other when we seem to be doing something right. You would pay an instructor or seek out an experienced mentor.

I quite fancy having Joanna Penn as my mentor. Hey Joanna, pretty please?

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