Over the past six weeks I’ve been knee-deep in writing for the Clarion Write-A-Thon, which a fundraiser and a show of solidarity for great up-and-coming writers who participated in the Clarion Workshop that ended on Saturday. It was tremendous fun — I’ve gotten to meet (and read snippets from) a lot of other genre writers, work on my writing with dedication and purpose, and deal with the challenges of meeting a goal I’ve held myself publicly accountable for. Taking a two-week-plus vacation in the middle of it made things even more exciting, of course!
I’ve learned quite a bit from the experience as you might imagine. I set a 40,000-word goal for myself, which I thought I could do over six weeks. And it turns out I can — even though I spent relatively little time with the projects I had intended to work on, I actually made it on Saturday (the last day of the Workshop and Write-A-Thon). It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been a pretty big step for me in reaching for that illusive goal of ‘writer-hood’. Here are a few things that I’ve learned from this part of the journey:
1. Community is important. This is something that I’m coming to appreciate more and more the older I get: working towards a goal with like-minded individuals at your back is incredibly helpful. While writing is definitely a solitary art, the feedback, sympathy and advice of other people in the trenches with you is invaluable. Our group, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, features a few really neat people who are incredibly serious about their work and are connected to a broader world that I’ve only recently gotten an inkling of. Their knowledge and attitude have kept me going long after I would have given up on my work in frustration. Just knowing that I don’t struggle alone provides me with a good push to keep going. The community is a refuge to turn to when the work itself fights you.
2. I have a LOT to learn about writing. My two projects over the past two weeks were two stories that had been percolating in my head for some time — “Sleepwalker” and “Bird”. Both are modern fantasies that have strange concepts that will definitely need to be tweaked before they’re as tight as I’d like them to be. What surprised me, though, was how frequently I ran against my own limits with the fundamentals of writing. Sentence construction, scene-work, description, dialogue, characterization, mood, tone, voice…all of these aspects have significant issues that will need to be worked on. In order to do these stories justice, I think I’ll need to go back to the basics, working and refining my skill by focusing on one aspect, then another, until I feel confident that I know how to use these tools properly.
And I’m not discouraged about that. The past six weeks have been illuminating. I know about the number and nature of problems I have, and I can work on them. I can get better, and I WILL get better. It’s just a matter of putting in the effort.
3. I may be a bad writer, but I am a WRITER. I have to admit that I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but I also have what it takes to get there. Spending these six weeks focused on these two projects have taught me that I actually have patience and persistence, and that’s something I didn’t know before. I can’t do the stories of “Sleepwalkers” or “Bird” justice right now, but I will some day. When I run into a problem or see something I’ve done wrong, I don’t throw my hands up and bail on the project. I stick with it. I think about it, study it, and wonder how I can solve the problem or make the story better. It’s actually pretty exciting to allow myself the room to make mistakes, because that’s also where improvements are made. I have a lot of room to grow. I’ve got the mindset now to do the work, instead of expecting everything to come easily.
So what now? These next few months I’ll be writing a lot to work on my craft. I don’t want to get too much more specific than that, but I’d like to have short stories, writing exercises and thoughts on process improvements up here (and elsewhere) on a fairly regular basis. It’s also time to get back towards writing books and manuals, just to bone up on my basics. So, while it’s a bit embarrassing to admit, it’s time to go back to The Elements of Style and Reading Like A Writer so I can really absorb what they have to say. What I plan to do through the rest of the year is working with those rules as practical applications. It’s one thing to say “sentences should read like this”, but it’s another thing entirely to learn how to construct them reliably, again and again.
The first three chapters of “Sleepwalkers” will go out to a few guys I’m in a group with, and I might try to mess around in the “Bird” universe without telling Bird’s story just yet. Perhaps actually writing some Changeling: the Dreaming fanfiction will tell me what I like about the World of Darkness fae, and what I’d change to make the setting my own. The protagonists of both stories have their own sets of problems that I’ll want to hammer out before making another run at them — and chances are I’ll be trying to do that in other stories and exercises.
I’m also going to be a lot more social and vocal with writers, as much as I can. That might mean keeping in better touch with my groupmates from the Write-A-Thon, but it could also mean bopping on over to the Furry Writers’ Guild or simply reaching out to other writers individually and getting to know them better. Also, learning to lean on Ryan a bit more is a good thing. I hope he knows how much I’m in his corner, but I haven’t always been the most trusting with my work. Part of it is I know how much better developed he is as a writer, and it’s always awkward to have someone go over the more basic aspects of it with you. It’s like being in kindergarten and asking your high-school brother to read this simple picture book you’ve made!
Overall, the Clarion Write-A-Thon was a tremendous experience, and I definitely plan to do it again next year. Hopefully by then I’ll have progressed quite a bit — both personally and “professionally” — and I’ll be organized and socially-oriented enough to really dive in next time. For now, it’s all about making sure I carry the momentum I’ve kick-started myself into so far.