The Dickens Challenge

December 9th, 2007

Here’s a challenge that will separate the brave and possibly dumb writers from the cowardly and perhaps more intelligent ones. Read on for details.

Charles Dickens was probably literature’s greatest pantser. When he died, in 1870, he left one of the world’s most famous unfinished novels, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Attempting to finish this book has become something of a cottage industry, in part because Dickens left behind not a note, not a scrap of a note, not a sentence fragment, to indicate where he was going with the story.

But he was an even more committed pantser than that would suggest. As he wrote sections of the book, they were immediately published in monthly installments that began in April of 1870 and were supposed to continue through March of 1871. Dickens’ death, however, cut it short when he was exactly halfway through; only six of the planned dozen installments ever saw print.

This means that Dickens was not only making it up as he went along, but that he couldn’t go back and rewrite. Whatever he wrote in those early chapters, he was stuck with it.

Is anyone reading this brave enough (or crazy enough) to take the Dickens challenge? Write a chapter a week or so and post them as you finish them until you’ve gotten through a whole novel (or novella, if you come up short).

I’m thinking about doing it. If two other people will bite the bullet, I’ll commit: I’ll post a chapter in a few days. I want to keep the commitment time short so neither I nor anyone else can knock out a book, go back and fix it, and then start posting a chapter at a time.

I’ll be posting my effort here. I’d be happy to host anyone else’s effort, or to link my site to it.

Any takers?

33 Responses to “The Dickens Challenge”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I’m not nearly brave enough to take this challenge, but I did post about it on my blog. I can’t wait to see how many people decide to take you up on this. Good luck to everyone who goes for it!

  2. Julie Says:

    Tim – First of all want to thank you for your recently published writing guidelines in F/NF. I’m effectively a novice in the area of fiction writing and have appreciated these a great deal.

    I need the challenge of a WIP, and this tempts me…but feel it would be rather more than I could handle at this stage. However, the idea is a good one, and I’m going to leave it on the back-burner, and maybe come up with a cut down version.

    Last novella I scrapped after a creative phase was a four week 80k job…I’ve cooled it a bit since then!

  3. Julie Says:

    Blog – The Virtual Journey

  4. Rachel Green Says:

    I’m tempted, but I’ve already got one novel commitment running. I’d be foolish to take another.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Julie, Hi, Rachel —

    First, thanks for responding. I had no idea what I was getting into when I had this harebrained idea. But several writers have said they’re willing (on Crimespace and a couple of other sites) so I’m stuck. In fact, I wrote half of my first chapter last night, and I’m going to put the whole chapter online next week.

    My opening line is, “People who say they’re their own worst enemy are usually forgetting about someone else.” I did about six pages, and it’s kind of funny and obviously going to be a mystery.

    What I thought when I came up with the challenge was that it might be fun not to shoot for lapidary perfection for once — in fact, not to take myself so seriously, and just write for the joy of it on the assumption that readers would be forgiving, given the circumstances under which the piece was written. I figure if it’s entertaining, I’ll have done my job. And if I crash and burn, well, that’s why God made Band-aids.

    Julie, I’m writing a novel right now that’s coming very fast — 1500-2500 words a day (although I doubt I’ll make 80k in four weeks — that’s Stephen King speed). What I figure re: the challenge is that I can do a 1500-word chapter once a week, probably in a single sitting or, at most, two, and still continue to work on the book that’s paying the bills.

    Or maybe not, but it was fun to get started yesterday and write from a somewhat lighter place for a little while. If either of you reconsiders, let me know — someone else has volunteered to create a “ring” site that will focus on the Challenge and link to all the sites of the writers who have decided to play.

    I have to think of it as playing, or I’ll probably freak out.

    Awww, come on. Give it some more thought.

  6. reality Says:

    Hello Tim,
    Here courtesy of Lisa@eudemonia.
    I am so tempted to say yes. It is there on the tip of my tongue. And I’m just wondering of my wife shall kill me if I agree. She is being kind as I finish my WIP. And I travel. And I have late nights to pay the bills.
    I wish I were published and I could play a little Russian Roulette.
    Ok I am thinking. Great idea.

  7. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Ha! I just stopped by to see if you had any more takers and I am delighted to see that Usman from Eastern Reality is on board — I kind of had a feeling he might do it.

  8. Jennifer Says:

    Hi, Tim:

    I’m also here thanks to Lisa’s link. Dickens is one of my all-time favorites. Your challenge reminded me of the recently concluded National Novel Writing Month; I was too timid to take part in that as well, though I can see the appeal. (Is there a place where the cowardly and possibly dumb writers can huddle together?)

    I’m eager to see how it works out for you and for the others taking part. Best of luck with it!

  9. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Cheerleaders! That’s what authors need! I volunteer to be a cheerleader for those who will post their work. I’d love to take part, but my writing schedule is so sporadic that I’m unable to commit to a chapter a week right now. But I’m a forgiving AND enthusiastic reader. Can’t wait to start reading . . .

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Lisa! Rachel! Cynthia! Jennifer! Reality! (I’ve always thought that word deserved an exclamation point.)

    Everybody’s taking this too seriously. First, we should all stop worrying about what people will think of our work. My favorite quotation in the world is from Ambrose Bierce, who said, “We wouldn’t worry so much about what other people think of us if we knew how infrequently they do.”

    Think about it for a minute:

    A chapter a week –could be 800 words or 2500 words, whatever you can turn out.

    A work of any length — could be a novella, a novel, a very long story.

    Do the best you can without obsessing about quality. You want to tell a story that will work in installments anyway, so it’s probably not going to be “Mrs. Dalloway” or “The Golden Bowl.”

    The point is to have fun writing it in the hope that others will have fun reading it. And if you decide, four installments in, that it’s not fun for you, drop out. No one’s going to laugh at you. You’re not going to be banned from the Internet.

    I’m going to put part of this note into a follow-up blog in which I propose some other ideas too — like that anyone can join at any time. But think about doing it. I even talked to my editor at William Morrow about it at lunch today, and she said, “Sounds like a great way to clear out the cobwebs.”

    Come onnnnnnnn . . . Think of it as doing Nanowrimo in a store window, but with no time limit. And I’ll come up with a prize for everyone who takes a flyer.


  11. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I LOVE the Bierce quote. Mr. Hallinan you’re starting to convince me. A long story or novella — hmm. You mean, something I might actually be able to finish? What’s the official start date for this?

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Lisa —

    PLEASE call me Tim. As someone once said, growing old is mandatory but growing up is optional.

    (And the Bierce quote is something I remind myself of almost daily.)

    Novellas, long stories, a sequel to Wuthering Heights — anything that might be bubbling up in you. I think I’m going to post my first chapter this coming Monday, but I might put it off by a few days. I tried to make it a short deadline to reduce the amount of pre-plotting people might do, but I’ve discovered I don’t care. The primary thing is being able to live with not being able to go back and change things.

    When I wrote the first half of my first chapter, it came from a place that I rarely get to when I’m writing — I was playing. I literally CAN’T over-think it: because of the way it’s being “published,” it’s almost ephemeral by nature.

    Oh, give it a shot. We can even set up a forum where we talk about each other’s work in writing group style — singling out strengths and offering support.

  13. John Dishon Says:

    Yeah, a chapter a week is not that much. I’ll probably just publish whatever I wrote for that week, even if it’s more than one chapter. I know I’m going to start with a prologue, but I’m not just going to post that for the week and that’s it.

    It’ll be more fun if more people join, though. And the more people who join, the less pressure there will be on each individual, because more people will be in it together.

  14. Steve Says:

    I was originally going to plead cowardice, but this might be a way for me to finish a story. Besides, “Bitter Bierce” (he was known as “Brose” and “Brady” when he worked as a waiter at Ed Faber’s) used to live in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana. But I have to cheat a little. The next couple of weeks are going to be pretty crazy (I’m an Amtrak ticket agent working in Normal, IL, but driving back to Indiana on my “weekend” of Wednesday and Thursday. Once the holiday rush is over, things ought to calm down. I have the beginnins of a novel that’s gathering virtual dust on my computer. Maybe two chapters at most. Then I’ll be in the same boat with Lisa (through whose blog I linked to yours).

    The “Dickens Challenge” conjures up images of men on the Hudson River pier, greeting the incoming ship with cries of, “Does Nell still live?” Maybe it will be fun.

  15. Lisa Kenney Says:

    OK, if Steve is thinking about it, then I’m in. I’ll start completely from scratch and I have no idea what I’ll write about, but I’ll see what comes to me tonight. I’m out of my mind. Today is Tuesday, so I’ll try to shoot for getting a first chapter up by Monday. Completely nuts. I am NOT good at outlining or plotting and I am typically a slow, writer and I tinker and edit obsessively. This is crazy. I’m also very self-conscious about sharing my work. So — I’m considering this aversion therapy. If I’m forced to do those things I most dread and fear, perhaps it will lead to a breakthrough of some kind. Geronimo!

  16. Julie Says:


    Don’t know if this is a glych or not, but your reply form does not appear to clear my personal details after entry.

    Thanks for the encouragement, the challenge is too ambitious for me re sustaining fiction writing at this stage, but your comments touched into a few ideas I’ve had on the back burner.

    I sat down on Sunday night and wrote unedited 10k by Monday lunchtime on an nf/f hybrid. Don’t know if I can take it any further, but its an interesting experiment and I need a WIP of some sort. Might post excerpts (in Journey) if it shapes up; just need time to think about it.

    I shall follow the progress here with interest!

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Steve and Lisa —

    It would be GREAT if you decided to take part. Steve, Bierce is one of my favorites, and if anyone was unafraid to commit his thoughts to paper, with blemishes intact, it was he. By the way, I’m assuming you know (SPOILER ALERT) that Little Nell doesn’t make it. Actually, the whole Little Nell thing is representative of what I like least about Dickens, a kind of planetary-scale sentimentality that you don’t find in, say, Trollope, whom I actually prefer. (Another great pantser, by the way. He set himself a four-hour writing period daily and if he finished a novel three hours and fifty-eight minutes in, he reached for a clean piece of foolscap, or whatever it was, and started another.) Please think about joining us. Start early by putting up the first half of your first chapter. See where the momentum takes you. I’m currently writing two novels simultaneously, and I’m still finding the time to knock out my chapter,

    Lisa — This is the best news. The whole point here, aside from having fun, is to see whether this process can blow away the cobwebs, mine included. Although we’ll all put up the best material we can, this method insures that it won’t be perfect — none of us, after all, is a genius of Dickens’ (or Trollope’s) caliber. And that should free us to follow the most enjoyable strands that the material presents us. (That’s actually the great joy of pantsing.)

    As soon as I can get a spare hour, I’ll do a second blog on how this has evolved. I really like the idea of an accompanying writer’s group in which we privately exchange positive feedback on each other’s work.


  18. Nadja Says:

    Sign me up, please. This is exactly what I need to get out of my funk and on the road to bestsellerdom 🙂

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    You’re on, Nadja — do you want to post to this site or your own, for starters, and when do you want to start?

    Look for my next blog on this topic, as soon as I finish with all these meetings in NY.

    But last night, I FINISHED MY CHAPTER. And I learned something interesting. By finishing early, I can (a) go back and fiddle with it, and (b) start to think about where all those threads are leading.

    I actually can’t wait to post it.


  20. reality Says:

    Hi Tim,

    You have me with the Writers Group and Supporting each other online part.
    I am in.
    BUT….let me say this, I travel a lot, am self employed. That means my hours are crazy, sometimes I can punch out 10K a week, at others I am gone for a fortnight. Is there flexibility; that we may miss a deadline.
    Of course there is the point that I am immersed in revisions on my WIP that is driving me crazy.
    I have completely no idea what to write about right now.
    This seems like such a list of excuses, but can’t help it. It is past 12 am here and I am still working on a contract proposal, I have to submit to a client tomorrow.
    Like Lisa predicted, I am in. She knows me so well. Sounds exciting.

  21. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Usman —

    I’m really happy to hear it. The only deadlines are the ones you set for yourself. I’ve decided on weekly for me because I want readers to remain engaged in the story, and I think if there are too many lags, they’ll stop coming back.

    I am also engaged in a WIP (two, in fact) and I also have nine million excuses, but I’m up for this and I’ll remain up for it as long as I’m getting something out of it and it remains fun. If it turns into a grind or I feel that It’s not limbering me up and training me NOT to let my inner critics slow me down, I’ll finish the book and maybe start another.

    Do you want to post on your own site only, or put it on mine, too, until we have the DICKENS CHALLENGE site up and ready to go?

    Just let me know.

  22. Nadja Says:

    Tim, I’ll post to my blog for now []. No one ever visits, maybe this will generate an occasional guest 🙂

    I’m sticking with Dec 17.


  23. Steve Says:

    Tim–I’m in, and glad to see that Usman is in as well. I’m looking forward to working with jou and my fellow bloggers. And Nadja, I’ll be taking a look at your blog. Like Nadja, I’ll post to my blog initially–first post on Satruday or Sunday.

  24. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Steve, Nadja, Usman, John, Lisa, everybody who’s decided to play or is thinking about playing — please read the DICKENS CHALLENGE 2 blog.

    I want to centralize this, meaning that anyone who visits my site and sees my end of the project is also directed to all of you (and vice-versa). I’ve made suggestions about that, and the writing group aspect of the idea, in that blog.

    This is going to be fun. At the very least, it’s going to generate some adrenaline so that our writing is not, to use Shelly Berman’s definition of flying, “Hours of boredom relieved by moments of stark terror.” This way, it’ll be terror all the time.

    I’m kidding . .

  25. reality Says:

    As soon as I get my braincells to start functioning and create a credible character/situation, I’ll start posting on my site.
    I’ll shift to the Dickens Challenge site when that is ready.
    I’ll let you know my start date soon.
    Waiting for your first chapter eagerly; as well as Nadja’s.

  26. Tim Post Says:

    This might be interesting, I blog the equalavent of a novella per month across a dozen venues. I’ve been looking for an excuse to step outside of technical and niche specific writing.

    I noticed in one of your subsequent posts that a venue for the “bazaar” style of publication has not been chosen. I would prefer to write in a “bazaar” style, vs a closed cathedral style. I’d just create a subdomain on one of my blog domains to host the work as it grows. A closed forum would take a bit of the fun out of it, for me.

    Count me in, please let me know when / if the challenge begins.

  27. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Tim —

    You’re in.

    A bunch of people will post first chapters tomorrow (Sunday) and/or Monday. Here’s how it will work for now, until there’s a dedicated website:

    Everyone is sending me a short blurb about themselves and their project. I’m collating those into a single document that I’ll put up as a preface to each of my chapters. It will contain links to everyone who’s posting. If you come aboard, I’d love to have one from you.

    This is what I wrote about myself, as an example:

    Timothy Hallinan is a novelist who lives in Los Angeles and Bangkok. The next novel in his Bangkok series, “The Fourth Watcher,” will be published in June 2008 by William Morrow. His contribution to the Dickens Challenge is tentatively titled “Counterclockwise.”

    Then the individual writers post on their own sites an overview of the challenge and the fact that they’re going to participate,usually with a link to these two blog pieces on my site. They post their chapter on their own sites, and (if they want to) they also post the introductory document I’m developing, so we’re all referring readers to each other.

    And until we can set up the dedicated site, which could be two weeks away, we can use the comments function to respond to each other’s work.

    If you want to do this, email me at, and we can work it out without everything winding up as a public comment.

    Really hope you join us.

  28. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Tim —

    A novella a MONTH? Lord, and I though I was fast. Where do you post?

    Sorry about the double-take — I’m trying to pull all this stuff together and I read your post too quickly to take that in.


  29. Liz Fenwick Says:

    Hi Tim,

    Dropping over from Lisa’s blog. Is it too late? I need a kick up the backside to plunge in again and this might be the thing. I also have a few ideas knocking around in my brain that don’t fit the genre I’m aiming for but might be fun to write in this format!

    So is it too late?



  30. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Liz —

    It’s never too late, unless you’re me and you’re trying to write this week’s chapter.

    PLEASE — Jump in.

    Write me a short bio (look at the ones that are already up — look, for example at the one in A NEW DICKENSIAN — and give me the title of your piece, when you’ll start revealing it to the world, and the URL.

    We’ll all be glad to welcome you.


  31. What the Dickens…? Life After NaNoWriMo | Write a Better Novel Says:

    […] The Dickens Challenge is the brainchild of novelist Timothy Hallinan, whose special concern for novelists  is HOW TO FINISH that sucker (so many of us don’t). Tim has challenged his readers to post one chapter each week of a current work in progress. […]

  32. Okay…I’ve Done It. Life After NaNoWriMo, Part 2 | Write a Better Novel Says:

    […] I had so hopefully begun was (to quote an old joke) out standing in its pasture. Coming across The Dickens Challenge was like hearing the starting bell at Churchill Downs. This old race horse bolted out of the […]

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