Geeks and science fiction. You can almost track the rise in influence of the former by the inexorable pop-culture spread of the latter.
So it was with a sense of destiny that I leapt into a six-week challenge: the Clarion West Writers Workshop’s 2013 Write-a-thon.
First, three bits of background. One, Clarion West is a long-standing Seattle workshop for promising writers of speculative fiction (including science fiction, fantasy and horror), now marking its 30th anniversary. Two, I once wrote short fiction for publications including Analog Science Fiction and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, so I am not a complete newbie. Three, I really prefer the term “nerd” to “geek,” for as writer Harlan Ellison once colorfully noted, geeks are the carnival sideshow performers who bite the heads off of live animals.
Knowing I couldn’t take six weeks from my day job to learn from six different professional authors and editors who teach (if, I should add, I were accepted), I instead decided to take part in Clarion West’s cunning parallel activity: the Write-a-thon.
The Write-a-thon is a clever construct. Not only are there no limits as to who can take part, it’s a fundraiser for the non-profit workshop that takes place over the same six weeks. The slim requirements are that you publicly state your goals, describe your style, and provide an excerpt of your writing (I chose a favorite GeekWire essay). The lone potential downside to not living up to the commitment is the same as being rejected by a popular classmate for a high school dance: broad public humiliation.
I offered that my goals were to, “write an hour each day (no matter where I am) for the duration of the Write-a-thon to complete an outline and first chapters of my (first-ever) novel, plus three GeekWire columns.” And my style? “Clear and light, sometimes sardonic, and occasionally thoughtful. Wit frequently applied, but not always correctly.”
With that and a background post on my blog, I dove in and joined 345 writers from 22 countries. I planned to tweet and post weekly updates on my progress.
And found in keeping a daily Write-a-thon journal that the road to hell is paved with good causes.
Day 3: “Researched subways under art museums, and abandoned stations. Discovered that preparing to write is the enemy of actually writing. But had to decide that on days when I do a lot of writing for my day job, research is the only non-brain frying alternative. So I will alternate and keep my brain safe for the Zombie apocalypse.”
Day 9: “Taking a day off due to heat. But decided to start the novel with the Wisconsin plane crash.”
Day 14: “Found it! (Long missing) 2007-09 novel notebook stored in drawer with checks and checkbooks. Whew. A couple of sentences, but begun.”
Day 21: “GeekWire column posted. Tweeted, LinkedIn, Facebooked. Does any of this count? I mean, it’s writing, right? Write.”
In the first four weeks, I chronicled many reasons not to write. I did log several bursts of sustained activity (“cranked out 824 words in just under 90 minutes;” “wrote for 45 minutes and 500 words”). However, with rare exception, they were for non-fiction columns.
Still, as I didn’t write, I wondered: What was the appeal of still holding a workshop for written short speculative fiction in a social and streaming media world? In order to avoid doing more writing, I asked.
Bestselling author Greg Bear, who taught Clarion West twice and has penned more than 40 books, said science fiction trains writers to think imaginatively, “But with focus and discipline – in essence, to chart a path into a possible future with all the factual resources at our disposal. And workshopping with those who have already taken up that challenge helps reduce the potential for false starts, discouragement, or even despair.”
Vonda N. McIntyre, who founded Clarion West in Seattle after attending the last original Clarion workshop in Pennsylvania and who also has multiple novels and awards to her credit, offered, “I don’t think you can teach anyone to write, but you can give them opportunities to teach themselves to write and to improve their craft. I felt that my experience with (the original) Clarion compressed several years of learning to write and learning about the business into six weeks.”
Workshop Director and Clarion West graduate Leslie Howle added that a workshop environment helps prevent distraction: “Writing is a lonely, personal thing. An intensive six-week workshop provides rare opportunities for writers to learn from one another that are always grounded in close readings of their work.”
And of that parallel beast, the wide-open Write-a-thon? McIntyre: “Community spirit, a bit of a nudge to get working.” Bear: “You get to exercise muscles you may not have used for years.”
That much is true. As my mental hamstrings loosened, unexpected side effects included a brain that started to generate fiction-worthy ideas, unbidden, and more of them than I could develop in six weeks. I no longer found the mental switching cost of sitting down to write to be as high of a barrier as it once was. Committing to the Write-a-thon primed part of me to always be thinking about writing, if not producing output.
Yet I also learned that it does no good to commit to write if you haven’t done the pre-work, such as enough core research on an idea to keep from getting stuck. I’d rather spend my time writing, not second-guessing.
And so, with roughly one Write-a-thon week left, I realize I haven’t outlined or begun chapters of the “(first-ever) novel” I’d promised. But I did accomplish one stated objective: I finished three GeekWire columns in six weeks.
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is a strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. See the archive of his regular GeekWire columns. He encourages donations to the Clarion West Write-a-thon, if not for his efforts, than perhaps to sponsor those of another author that a reader actually likes.