The biggest one? Finish what you start.
(This post was written in March 2014.)
If you want to learn, teach.
I’d have laughed at the simplicity of that statement a few years ago, but I’ve found lately that every time I help someone else, I end up learning something myself.
The 30 Days, 30 Queries course, the first session of which we held in February and that now boasts over 100 students, was no different. I went in wanting to share every bit of knowledge about querying that I’d accumulated in the last twelve years, expecting to feel drained at the end of it. I expected, fully, to come out of these 30 days having exhausted every tip and method I knew.
Never would I have imagined that I would emerge having learned my own lessons in productivity, persistence, and patience. When the course ended, I was so inspired and motivated by the work and the energy of my students that I ended up taking up another 30 queries challenge of my own.
I don’t say this often, but if I were to launch the course again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Here are some lessons I learned running 30 Days, 30 Queries course.
1. You can write 60,000 words in a month
I thought about it a lot, but eventually I decided to write the 30 Days, 30 Queries course while it was ongoing. That is, I wrote all the course lessons a few days before they were to go out (read on to find out why).
What I had expected was a lot of stress and many sleepless nights; what I hadn’t expected was for my productivity to skyrocket. I had six 1,000-word feature articles due in February while I was writing this course, so in all, I wrote closer to 70,000. And while that sounds difficult, it really wasn’t. The daily deadline of the course and the deadlines for my articles made me super organized and efficient.
I didn’t have time for self doubt or writer’s block, to question whether or not this was worth doing. It was worth doing because people had signed up for it, and I needed to get them what they’d paid for. It was worth doing because six editors had given me deadlines and there was no way I wasn’t meeting those.
I’d like to say that it was smooth sailing all the way. It wasn’t. I had a couple of all-nighters and feelings of being in over my head, but you know what? I did it all working fewer than 40 hours a week, so really, it wasn’t all that hard. Some days I wrote as many as 6,000 words, some days I wrote none.
(Here’s my best advice on how you can write faster.)
2. You should change tactics as you go along
I learned a really valuable lesson with this course that I didn’t with the last one, which is that interacting with my students on an ongoing basis was key.
I wanted to write 30 Days, 30 Queries as I went along and the main reason for that was that I wanted to know, as my students moved through the 30 days, what problems they were facing as they faced them. It was easy enough for me to outline the course in advance (and I did), but by making sure that I was writing as we went along, I could address their problems in upcoming lessons and give them what they needed in the order that they needed them.
For instance, in my original outline, I had two lessons dedicated to idea generation and presentation. But I found, during the course, that most of the students were really struggling with not only how to find ideas, but how to tweak them for particular publications. We ended up with eight in-depth lessons on idea generation and packaging that really changed the way the students pitched stories. Many students made sales immediately just by refining their ideas using the packaging solutions I provided. I wouldn’t even have thought to do that if I had written it all out in advance.
I also combined several lessons because I realized students wouldn’t want to spend more than a day learning how to find editors, and how to communicate with them on social media, and by being able to see questions and feedback right away through the course’s Facebook page, I could integrate it into the course right away.
3. Community is important
Every year when people sign up to the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) forums, I’ve often wondered why they do it. I mean, isn’t it enough of a challenge to write an entire novel in a month? To then have to be social on top of it all? Isn’t that madness?
But here’s the thing: When you’ve undertaken a challenge that seems like a stretch and a lot of hard work, that’s when you need the support and the community the most. If you’re just aiming for a target alone, it’s a lot more difficult. But if there are other people in the trenches with you, it serves to motivate and inspire you.
Our Facebook group has been outstanding in making that happen, in sharing successes, disappointments, and feeling inspired. In my own small sample of initially 40, and now 110, students, I found that people who were part of the Facebook group achieved far superior results than those who weren’t.
4. Once you start, don’t stop until you’re finished
Starting is the hardest part of the process. Staring at a blank page is much more common, after all, than staring at a page full of words. When you’re trying to achieve daily targets, I’ve found that the best thing you can do is to keep going until you’re finished. This goes for anything. A blog post, a query letter, a chapter of your novel. Once you’ve started it, and have the momentum, don’t stop until you’re finished.
5. Look at the daily goal, not the monthly target
I didn’t intend to write 60,000 words in February. I intended to write a lesson a day, plus six articles. Doesn’t that sound so much more achievable?
In fact, I make it as easy as possible for my simpleton brain whenever I can. For instance, when I started the six-figure income challenge, I knew I had to bring in $2,000 worth of work a week. I made certain, at least in the beginning, to not convert this number to rupees. Because that’s Rs 120,000 a week. Blimey, I’ve held jobs that paid a monthly salary a tenth of that. 120,000 in any currency is quite scary. 2,000, not as much so. Even better, I realized I could use this currency conversion to my benefit. My husband is British, so in my household, we’re as comfortable talking in dollars and pounds as we are rupees. $2,000 is £1,200.
Doesn’t it sound so much more achievable when you say you have to make £1k a week, especially when you have clients who often give you £500 assignments?
So now I use that trick to make my goals seem more manageable. 30,000 words a month seems pretty difficult because you’re imagining yourself writing every single day with no break, ever. Instead, I think only in terms of work days. I take the weekends off and write 2,000 words every weekday. That actually comes out to 40,000 words. A bigger goal, really, but a lot less scary.
6. Write without fear
I overthink things.
It’s why, despite having threatened to write a novel for years, I’ve still not finished mine. It’s why I have four nonfiction book ideas almost completely ready to be shipped out, but I haven’t because I wonder too much about whether they fit into my brand. I’m overthinking it.
I need to accept that I’m a person with varied interests and I will write books about parenting and writing, while also exploring social issues and new technologies and hopefully experimenting with novels and shorter fiction as well. My writing may not all fit together into one neat whole like say Amy Tan’s books or Jodi Picoult’s novels, but as long as I’m interested in what I’m doing and my readers enjoy my work, what does it matter whether it fits into one coherent whole? Why do I feel this overpowering need to define myself?
This course is something I’d been thinking about for more than six months. Until I announced it, I wasn’t sure whether it was worth doing at all. But one day, I decided I needed to announce it simply so that I could stop talking myself out of it. Within days, I had a dozen sign-ups. By the time the course started, I had 40 people in the course and 5 people on the waiting list for the next session.
They believed, even when I didn’t.
And I’m so glad they did because I put my all into it and the course proved to be a tremendous success, giving me the impetus to finish and put out into the world all my other projects that are sitting at 90% completion.
The biggest lesson I learned from the 30 Days, 30 Queries course is to finish what you start.
Do that and you can never lose.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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