Making Mexicali Soup of Your Writing
Stir up your own challenge
In the children’s book Mexicali Soup, a mother tells her big family that she plans to make them their favorite soup—Mexicali soup—that evening for dinner. One by one, her children and her husband come up to her and say, “I love Mexicali soup! But can you make without the onions/potatoes/garlic/etc.?” After each request, the mother agrees to leave out that ingredient, growing increasingly irate. In the end, she serves them hot water.
I seem to have committed the error of Mexicali soup.
In my last newsletter, I wrote about finding a writing challenge that pushes me to write on a project-based timeline. Like creating one collage a day for the #Februllage challenge, I set out to find if there were similar writing challenges that would motivate me to write, finish, and produce consistently and prolifically in a burst of time.
I just had some stipulations.
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The challenge had to:
push me to create consistently,
give me the satisfaction of producing something each day, like Februllage.
support what I want to be working on, not a “side project,” but the Main Project.
I want to be held accountable and join a larger effort. I like the (virtual) community of multiple people working towards different versions of the same thing.
I don’t want it to feel like “factory work,” i.e. putting down the words just to fill a quota. This knocks out the well-known NaNoWriMo. I’ve tried this before and writing felt like I was just trying to hit a word count goal.
I don’t want to write short stories. They require a different mindset and techniques than longer novels, and I’m not interested in working for two months towards something that…I don’t want to write.
No poetry, either.
But once I filtered my search results through these criteria, I admit I was left, like Mama and her Mexicali soup, with hot water.* There weren’t any challenges out there on the whole World Wide Web that fit these criteria.
But maybe, working on elements I don’t want to spend time on are actually important to participating in a challenge because they push you beyond what you’d normally do (ding ding ding! She’s figured it out!). Soup is made with many ingredients, some of which you might not like, but it’s just hot water without them.
On the other hand, I’m the only chef with opinions in this kitchen, so perhaps I can tailor certain soup recipes to suit my taste. I came up with a few spins on challenges that already exist:
Create-Your-Own Writing Challenge
Short story challenges: Some short stories can be lengthened into longer novels, but they don’t always have the legs to do that. Plus, one of the most difficult parts about writing them is capturing the characters, setting, and plot in a very condensed format—which is simply not useful for a novel.
Tweak the recipe: Why not use a short story challenge to brainstorm the seeds of ideas for entire novels?
Combining art challenges with writing challenges: Artistic challenges are well-suited to following a daily prompt. One sketch, collage, or painting later and the day’s done. The closest thing to this in writing is a short story (or poetry). But what about…
Tweak the recipe: Combined with the above approach, utilize a monthly art challenge (and there are tons that would be great for a spec fiction writer: Monster March, Inktober in its many iterations, etc.) to incorporate each day’s theme into the novel seed idea. If you’re so inclined, create the art that goes along with it! Alternatively, apply each day to your current work in progress, using the prompts to flesh out background information about a character, the setting, or a plot point.
Self-design a challenge: The difference between a self-designed challenge and simply working towards your goal is that the idea for a challenge is setting a higher, unsustainable-over-the-long-run goal than you’d habitually pursue. The finish line should be a completed project, at some level of its life. A self-designed challenge has the advantage of benefitting exactly what you’re working towards; it has the disadvantage of being something you complete entirely on your own.
Time to get cookin’.
Stuff I Like
Writing Challenges: Easy enough to Google, but here are several lists of challenges you can join (some overlapping), plus two links to challenges to do on your own, which are better thought-out than the zillion lists out there that essentially just spit-ball ideas around (and I’m not sure why the number 9 seems to be the magic number; pure coincidence):
NaNoWriMo and Beyond: 9 Writing Challenges for Novelists, Poets and More