Looking for application management software? Learn about Submittable for organizations. Learn about Submittable for organizations.

Writing Fast and Focused for the Win: 7 Tips From Tom Strelich of Owl Canyon Press


Whether you’re in your stride or fighting a rut, a writing challenge might be just what you need. Be it the result of a limited timeframe, the volume of writing required, or the constraint of specific guidelines (or all of these), participation in contests, competitions, sprints, marathons, and challenges help writers make exciting work they would never otherwise create. Opportunities like the Owl Canyon Press Short Story Hackathon 4 can be just the thing for fun inspiration and great results. 

Owl Canyon Press Logo

Contest judge and winner of Owl Canyon’s first Hackathon Tom Strelich recently shared some smart tips with us for success in writing challenges. We hope they serve you—for your next NaNoWriMo, NaPoMo, Owl Canyon Press Hackathon, or any writing challenge, whether self-styled or group-sanctioned.

1. Enjoy letting yourself go

Ideally, we write because we love it. Strelich recommends focusing on the enjoyment in the process, rather than on specific productivity goals.

“Take pleasure in the writing process first,” he says, “and worry about progress second.” 

He notes the value of abandoning self-criticism and working to focus deeply—it’s all about trusting yourself. 

“Turn off your internal critic, turn off logic, and time, and causality,” Strelich says,  “and let the words and story take you where they will since that will allow you, the writer, to discover (much as a reader does) rather than simply framing or constructing something. Believe in your own genius (even if nobody else does) because if you don’t, nobody else will either.”

2. Embrace constraints

Some writers may believe the stringent guidelines or detailed prompts that challenges often include will inhibit inspiration. For Strelich, the opposite holds true.

“Constraints not only boost creativity but also drive economy and craft,” he says. 

Strelich’s background taught him this lesson—to always write with limitations front of mind.

“I started out as a playwright,” he says, “and writing for the stage is full of constraints; i.e., you’re generally limited to one setting (unless you’re writing some kind of abstract mime-leotard-gong extravaganza where a cinder block represents the human soul and NYC, instead of a more naturalistic play where a cinder block is just a cinder block), you’ve got to keep the cast small (so the payroll doesn’t bankrupt the theater), you’ve only got about 100 pages to tell the story), and you’ve only got what the characters say to advance the story (i.e., no narrative expository side trips into childhoods or whatever).”

This training led Strelich to embrace concision, looking to say more by saying less.

“As a playwright,” he says, “you’re always looking at what you can leave out and what you can leave unsaid (for the audience to fill in which pulls them further into the story which is what you want). Constraints, specifically story length constraints (i.e., 20 paragraphs max, 50 paragraphs max, etc.) force the writer to focus on the most essential elements in the crafting of their stories.”

3. Establish a retrospective routine

Strelich relies on a schedule with shorter work sessions and ample time for review.

“I generally write in short bursts—I mean really short, like the first half of a morning, an hour sitting in a pub (a favorite routine which favors longhand in a Moleskine)—and I generally start by re-reading the prior few chapters before confronting a blank page.”  

Revisiting recent work for Strelich is both motivational and pragmatic.

“I re-read for two reasons,” he says. “One is to see where I was and where I was going since it will challenge some creative inertia and possibly offer a creative spark for where to go next. The second reason traces back to the ‘believe in your own genius’ tip above—if you read what you’ve written, you can smugly think “Yeah, ok, I don’t suck, this is pretty good,”  and assault the blank page with confidence redoubled. Or you can think “Oh, this is crap”, in which case you’ll end up rewriting the crap which will ideally improve the work and also get the creative juices flowing.”

4. Rock some tunes 

Strelich likes to write to music. 

“Put on a DubStep playlist, he says, “but not too loud. And don’t spend your whole “short period of writing time” sampling and selecting a playlist.”

That said, Strelich does acknowledge that making playlists might serve an important purpose.

“Sometimes selecting songs for a playlist,” he says, “can end up having a big impact on a story. I found a truly strange version of “What a Wonderful World” played on a Theramin (a really weird sounding instrument used to make scary music in old SciFi movies), and it was so perfect for the style/tone/story of Dog Logic I ended up using it as the opening and closing music for each chapter in the audiobook version.”

5. Minimize common distractions

Many of us know to do this but actually putting away potential distractions can be hard.

“Put your phone on silent mode,” Strelich says, “but don’t forget to turn off vibrate as well—and don’t spend your whole “short period of writing time” checking messages.” 

One of the many advantages to focused, time-sensitive writing challenges is this opportunity to forget (even briefly) about devices.

“Anything that gets a writer,” Strelich says, “off their ass (and their phone and their email) and engaged in the process of writing is a benefit.” 

6. Revise as you write

Just because you may be writing fast doesn’t mean you should create without regard for the future (ie. necessary edits).

“I’m not of the just-get-something-on-the-page school,” Strelich says, “in which there’s a big-bang draft followed by a swirling vortex of rewrites. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever finished a chapter and told myself that I’d go back and fix it later since—if it needs fixing, then it’s not done, so just fix it.” 

Writing this way may take a bit longer but can ultimately save you time and energy in the long run.

“I tend to think, craft, edit, and revise as I go, “Strelich says, “so that I’m happy with both the story and the language I use to tell the story the whole time I’m writing. This probably traces back to my playwright background in which the language is generally more important than the story itself.

7. Write past the deadline

The technical end of a writing challenge doesn’t have to mean the end of a project if you’ve hit on something promising.

“Feel free to take a lifetime to write a substantial body of work,” Strelich says. “You’ll enjoy your life much more along the way and simultaneously take pleasure in writing as it comes to you rather than routinely trying to grunt out a 100k word novel in 1 month (which probably has a deleterious effect on quality).” 

There is value in short bursts and quick challenges but what you’ve created during them may not be your final product. 

As Strelich says, “I wrote the original short story for Dog Logic in a few weeks, but it took me another 3 years to expand it into the novel it eventually became.”

Get a move on

Ready to try a writing challenge? The deadline for the Owl Canyon Press Short Story Hackathon 4 is Sept. 30, 2020. Or for whatever challenge you ultimately choose, ideally it serves you in putting butt to chair and remembering why you love writing in the first place.

“The real value of competitions like the Hackathon,” Strelich says, “is the writing itself—and the discipline and joy (and yes sometimes the frustration) it brings to the author.” 

This blog was sponsored by Submittable partner Owl Canyon Press. 

Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is Senior Editor for Submittable's Marketing Team. She also writes and teaches poetry. You can find Rachel's creative work here: rachelmindell.com