Surviving NaPoWriMo: Tips for a 30-Day Poetry Challenge

NaPoWriMo kicks off on April 1 and writers around the world will attempt to write a poem a day for 30 days. I’ve taken part in NaPoWriMo and other 30-day challenges, and I’ve also hosted them. I thought it might be useful to share some tips about how to get the most out of an intensive creative challenge.

Why Do It?

Writing is a solitary experience – we are only accountable to ourselves and that can be isolating. A 30-day challenge provides the opportunity to:

  • Focus: Put your writing front and centre for a set period of time.
  • Commit: Show up at the page every day.
  • Establish Boundaries: Protect your writing time as an integral part of your day.
  • Create a Writing Habit: It only takes 22 days to form a habit.
  • Be Part of a Community: Enjoy support and encouragement around a shared experience.
  • Be Surprised: At what you can accomplish in a single month!

What to Expect?

Week 1 – enthusiasm, excitement, fun – it’s a novelty and you’re full of ideas!

Week 2 – life intrudes, miss a day and it feels like failure, habit starts to slip.

Week 3 – inspiration fades, repeating yourself, overwhelm, time to push through.

Week 4 – almost there, renewed spurt of energy, rush of adrenaline, triumph!

Top TIPS for Surviving NaPoWriMo

It’s easy to become overwhelmed and burn-out when doing an intensive challenge like this, or to miss a day due to the everyday responsibilities and feel like a failure. Here are some ideas to help you make it through.

  1. Go easy on yourself: NaPoWriMo is a bit of fun, not another chore. If you miss a day, start again the following day. If need to take a day to catch your breath, same. Don’t write off the whole challenge because of a couple of missed days. At the end of the month, you will still have achieved much more than you normally would or had even thought possible.
  2. Manage your mindset: The challenge is derived from NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month in November, where the focus is on quantity, not quality. Think of it as a 30-day scavenger hunt – you want to spark an idea, capture the essence of it and move on. Switch off your critical voice. Knowing that these are fast first drafts takes the pressure off. As Jodi Picoult says: ‘You might not write well every day but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’
  3. Limit your writing time: I recommend a 15-minute free-write. It’s enough time to explore an idea or prompt but not so much that it will interfere with the rest of your day. It keeps the bar nice and low and the challenge manageable. Setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier or taking the time out at the end of the day isn’t too much of a hardship.
  4. Use prompts: Prompts focus the mind on finding the best way to write about a subject, rather than finding something to write about. It’s one less barrier to getting started and they can startle interesting responses that, otherwise, you might never have written. There are lots of resources online for writing prompts and the official NaPoWriMo site publishes a prompt every day.
  5. Join a group: Because it’s a global phenomenon, there’s so much support out there for poets during the month of April. A group provides encouragement for when the novelty wears off and you need to dig a little deeper. Check in once a day to keep yourself accountable. I recommend a ‘no critique’ environment as the work is just at the first draft stage – the focus of the group should simply be on supporting and encouraging one another in the task.
  6. Don’t try to write a complete poem in a day! Poems need time to come to fruition – this is about catching an idea, getting enough down on the page to pick up again later but do try to get the complete shape of the poem if you can. You’re creating a store of potential poems to come back to and develop.
  7. Manage Expectations: Not every idea will be genius and that’s OK. There is more to be gained in showing up at the page every day. It trains your mind to be receptive and open to new ideas. Think of it as a month of new beginnings, of exploration rather than achievement.
  8. Don’t Cheat: If you’re working with prompts, it can be tempting to pull a poem with a similar theme out of a drawer to give yourself a day off. The problem is your brain knows you didn’t do the work, that you’ve let yourself off the hook, and – because brains like problem-solving – it immediately goes looking for other ways to bunk off, the scamp! I recommend the fifteen-minute free-write for this reason – it’s achievable, even on the busiest of days. And if you need a day off, it’s better just to acknowledge this and start fresh the next day.
  9. Experiment with Poetic Form: Not every poem has to be an epic! On the days when the words are in short supply, try one of the many short poetic forms like Haiku, Cinquain, Triolet or Sonnet. Here’s a great resource of 100 Poetic Forms to play with.
  10. Ego & Competition: Challenges and group dynamics can quickly bring out your competitive streak – ignore it! The only person you are competing with in writing is yourself – your last poem, your best ideas. Don’t get caught up in ego trips or mind-games.
  11. To share or not to share? It’s daunting to share a first draft with a group of strangers – I leave it up to you to decide if it’s the right choice for you. Other options are to share a line or two that you like from your free-write or to simply report how you got on that day. I do think it’s important to post something every day even if you’re finding it hard to write (especially if you’re finding it hard to write). It’s a good way to check in with your writing self and reading the group’s responses to the challenge may shake something loose!
  12. Read other poems: Whenever I feel stuck in my writing, I’ll pick up a collection, start to read and within minutes ideas are sparking! In order to draw from the well of inspiration, we first have to fill it. A great resource is the Poetry Foundation’s Poem a Day – sign up to their mailing list and you’ll receive a poem a day in your inbox.
  13. Enjoy!

If that’s whetted your appetite, there are still a few places left in my NaPoWriMo April Write Off – a private Facebook group with prompts, daily advice, inspiration and lots of feedback and encouragement. Click the button below to sign up.

Featured image by Anna Sullivan for Unsplash.

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Submitting to Poetry Competitions: Which Competition?

I’m struggling with the flu right now but the general BLEUGH has been tempered by some good news on the poetry front.

I’ve had a couple of pieces accepted for a new women-led anthology on bodily autonomy, edited by poet and academic, Kathy D’Arcy, and due to be published by New Binary Press in the Spring. We have a historic referendum coming up in 2018, to repeal the 8th Amendment which compromises women’s healthcare in Ireland, and I’m proud to be among a chorus of voices writing about this important issue.

I’ve also had poems shortlisted and commended in a couple of competitions – the Doolin Writers’ Weekend Poetry Competition and the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize 2018.

A writer recently asked me, ‘What makes a good competition poem?’ As many of you read this blog for the monthly poetry competitions and submissions list, I thought it might be useful to talk a little bit about submitting work to competitions. I’m no expert but there are certain boxes I like to tick when deciding whether to enter a competition and what poems to send.

Why Submit to Competitions?

For me, it started with not being very confident and wanting to get a sense of whether the poems were any good – did they stand up to scrutiny? I submitted to competitions rather than journals because they are anonymous. I didn’t want to be submitting work over and over to an editor who (in my mind) would roll their eyes and exclaim, ‘Not this eejit again!’. Rejection is a big part of the process of writing and the competition route seemed a gentler introduction to disappointment.

I was very lucky to bag a win early on – a micro-poetry competition – word for word, my best pay-day to date! That early success encouraged me to keep writing and to keep submitting.

I do think it’s a good idea to ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. It rarely leads to wealth or glory but don’t despair – I have a few ideas about why it might still be worth your while!

Which Competitions?

This is a tricky one. Some competitions are hugely prestigious and attract thousands of entries from around the world. As a rule of thumb, the higher the prize money, the bigger the draw. It means your work will be read alongside – and have to hold its own against – established and extensively published writers.

These competitions are highly competitive. It doesn’t mean younger writers can’t win, especially if they have been writing seriously for a few years and have established a track record of good work, but if you’ve only written a handful of poems then these competitions are probably not a good bet. The idea of winning a major prize as a novice writer is seductive but, generally, they go to writers who have been working at their craft for years.

If you’ve yet to publish a full-length collection of poetry, look out for competitions that specifically target unpublished writers. Your work will be part of a smaller pool and be read alongside writers with a similar level of experience.

What About Competition Fees?

I also see a lot of debate online about the cost of submitting to competitions (and some journals) and how it can be a bar to lower-income poets putting their work forward.

I don’t believe competitions are money-making scams intended to exploit writers. They have legitimate costs that need to be covered – prize money, judge’s fee, administration, technical costs (eg. Web Hosting, Submittable, Paypal). Many offer discounts for multiple entries or membership. If there is a profit, generally it is being plowed back in to activities and publications that support writers. No-one is buying a yacht and retiring to the Caribbean on the back of a poetry competition!

That said, there are always exceptions. If a competition is hosted by an organisation you’ve never heard of, who doesn’t have a strong or transparent online presence and who charge an exorbitant sum for entry, then proceed with caution. Check out a few comparable competitions to establish the going rate.

I know it can seem hard that everyone pays and only a handful benefit, but I like to take a wider view. Nobody owes you anything as a writer – not publication, not prestige, nothing. When I trained as an architect, I had to absorb the cost of tools, equipment, wardrobe, membership fees – all the things I needed to present myself as a working architect. Same goes for writing. Paying to enter competitions and submit to journals is just the cost of doing business. It also helps support organisations and journals that in turn support writers – you’re contributing to a healthy literary community.

I am a low-income poet. I don’t have full-time income to rely on and this means I have to pick and choose the opportunities I pursue. I’m serious about building a body of work, so I set aside an affordable sum to invest in myself as a writer and I only enter competitions when I have work of a suitable standard.

No writer should enter every single poem they write into a competition or enter every competition out there! In one year, I might write 50-100 poems – only a handful of these will be competition standard.

IF I’M LUCKY.

With limited funds and a limited number of suitable poems, I pick my targets carefully. The odds are always against winning but there are better odds on valuable side-benefits. I look for competitions that are democratic, offering the largest number of rewards to the widest group of people.

Poetry Competition Checklist

  • Is the competition run by an established organisation or journal? Making the long/shortlist of a competition held by a reputable literary organisation or journal, eg. The Poetry Society / Magma, builds credibility and increases the chances of your name/work being noticed by other editors, publishers and literary organisations, festival committees etc. It also looks good on a writing CV, if applying for literary jobs, grants or bursaries.
  • Is the judge an established writer? Does the competition publish the judge’s comments? It’s an opportunity to have your work read and possibly selected / commented upon by a writer you would never have access to normally. Having a blurb about your work by an established writer can be helpful when approaching publishers and, again, it’s good for the writing CV.
  • How many principal prize winners? Does the prize money go to a single winner? Look out for competitions that spread the wealth among several winners and offer acknowledgement to runners-up.
  • Is there a published long/shortlist? It’s not feasible to give everyone a prize but it doesn’t cost organisers anything to publish these lists when they are an integral part of the judging process. If a competition attracts 2000 entries, your poem making it to the last 50 puts it in the top 2-3% – that’s no small achievement. Being included on a longlist, or going from the longlist to the shortlist in successive years, gives writers a boost in confidence / credibility and costs the organisers nothing. When writers pay good money to support a competition, I believe organisers should spread the love and offer as much value as possible in return.
  • Will the winners / runners-up / shortlist poems be published? If the competition is run by a reputable journal, it may also offer publication/payment to the top entries, eg. Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition, Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. Some competitions offer publication in an anthology. Publication in a reputable journal is always good. I’m warier of competition anthologies. Some are highly regarded and widely read within the literary community, eg, The Forward Prize annual anthology. Others feel like another way to exploit writers, using the writers work without payment and then expecting the writer to pay for a copy of the anthology to have a record of their published work. I’d watch out for the latter. If a writer has paid to enter a competition and the organisers want to use their work for publication, the very least they should do is provide the writer with a copy of that publication. I also have a bit of a bugbear about competitions publishing the entire shortlist without paying for use of the work. Most competitions exclude poems that have been prize-winners in other competitions but if a poem is commended or makes it to the shortlist, it might easily do better in another competition with a different judge or be submitted for publication to a journal. The only thing that would prevent it being sent out again is publication.
  • Will there be a prize-giving or reading? Many competitions are held by literary festivals to coincide with and help promote their main event, eg. Ledbury Poetry Prize. If prize-winners and runners-up (sometimes even the shortlist) are also invited to read at the festival, it’s an opportunity to meet and thank the judge, and have the work heard by a literary audience.

Sometimes, I’ll forego one or more of these. For example, if it’s a judge whose work I particularly admire and it would mean a lot to me to have my worked chosen by them. As a writer, it’s up to you to decide what’s important to you and hold yourself to that standard.

All of this is conditional on the poems being good enough to hold their own in a competition. I’ve written more than I intended about the competitions themselves, so I’ll save what makes a competition-worthy poem for the next post.

In the meantime, is there anything I’ve missed? What things do you consider when deciding whether or not to enter a competition? Please leave a comment below.

NB. I live in Ireland and these thoughts are based on my experience of the UK/Irish literary scene. I’d also love to hear thoughts about submitting to competitions in other parts of the world.

Photo by Gratisography