Tonight at midnight, the 2012 Clarion Write-a-thon began. As a participant, I am trying to raise money to support the world’s greatest science fiction writing workshop, the one that elevated me to the writer rank of “Not Terrible.” The way I do this is acquring sponsors (Katniss style!), like you, dear reader, who really should donate to this awesome cause (for the cost of a latte, you can guarantee a new generation of spec-fic writers are on the way). I’ve set a pretty challenging goal for myself, a chronic procrastinator — 42,000 words in six weeks. That’s exactly 1,000 words every single day between now and August 4th. No days off. During these six weeks, I will be working at my day job, animating a cartoon series, programming a video game, attending my brother’s wedding (a five-day goat-roasting extravaganza in Iowa), and riding inner-tubes up hill at the coolest water park in Texas. None of that includes writing, but that’s what I have to do, whether I feel like it or not. It’s not going to be easy.
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My high school theater teacher would get really mad at us when we couldn’t remember our lines. He used to say, “People always ask actors, ‘How do you remember all those lines?’ That’s a stupid question. Asking an actor how he manages to remember all those lines is like asking a football player how he manages to put on all those pads.” In other words, memorizing the script isn’t the skill. Memorizing the script is the uniform.
For writers, ironically, writing is the uniform. The ability to physically type 100,000 words is insignificant. Any bonehead with one finger and a laptop can do that. What matters, like with actors, is what you do with the words. Agents, editors, and anyone who filters good writing from bad writing can attest that it takes no real skill to physically write a novel. The greatest literary work and the worst slush tragedy are both created the same way, one word after another. And trust me, there are a lot of thoughtless, boring, irrelevant novels. Most of them never see the light of day. Others rocket to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. But every author, good or bad, still manages to generate a word count. It’s not a metric of skill. “Spar” by Kij Johnson is 2,150 words. “Eye of Argon” is 11,000. I rest my case.
And yet there are so many aspiring writers who get stopped at this threshold. They think about how long it took them to write a three-page English paper in college and lose all hope of ever being able to complete even the rough draft of a three hundred-page novel. Honestly, it’s a good filter. Laziness and fear are an agent’s best defense against bad unsolicited manuscripts. Because some of the worst novels, by amateurish frivilous authors, never get written. Because writing is easy. It’s re-writing that’s hard. And if you can’t lay down 1,000 words without breaking a sweat, you’re never going to be a professional.
That said, no one starts being that confident. 1,000 words is hard. Damn hard. And when you’ve got a blank page and that awful “Words: 0 of 0″ at the bottom of your Word document, you can feel pretty intimidated. But writing is a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. When I began work on my first novel, I didn’t know how I would ever write the whole thing. It was an ambitious book, and it was long. In the end, I imagined I would have to write more words than I had up to that point in my life, total. Come to think of it, in retrospect, that was probably true. But I loved the book. I was commited to writing it. And so I dedicated time to my novel every night. I wrote a detailed synopsis, listing every scene in the book in order, and then painted by number, writing each scene in turn. Some days I wrote a lot, some days I wrote nothing, but little by little, I finished the book. 271,000 words. I was seventeen. And the book. Was. TERRIBLE! I didn’t mind, though. Long before they are throwing twenty-yard bombers, little football players have to learn how to dress themselves.
Now, I don’t even think about word count while I’m writing. Most people, even non-writers, write 1,000 words a day every day, when you think about all the emails, IM conversations, Facebook messages, and Twitter updates they write. What people struggle with is finding time between writing all those other things to actually write what they are supposed to write — fiction, or a blog post to buy time while they spin their novels in their heads.
I taught myself how to write, but Clarion taught me how to write for deadline. In a brief six-week workshop, you have to write six stories. There is enormous pressure. Good pressure. You don’t want to let down your teachers and your classmates. So you’re forced to crank stuff out. This was good practice. A few months after Clarion, I participated in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. When you look at that crazy schedule, it makes you think I chickened out with my 42,000-words-in-six-weeks write-a-thon. NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words in thirty days. About 1,667 words a day. But you know what? It took me a year and a half to write my first novel. For my NaNoWriMo novel, counting the 50,000 words I wrote that November, the rough draft only took me three and a half months.
Of course, the time from when I finished the rough draft to when I finished the draft that got me an agent was twenty months. Writing is easy. Re-writing is hard.
In spite of my improved writing speed over the years, I still find it hard to sit down and write. It’s like going to the gym. Once I’m doing it, I love it more than anything in the world. But it’s still hard to start doing it. That’s why I love events like NaNoWriMo and the Clarion Write-a-thon. The intense deadlines, the pressure, and the group support all make me feel like I have to finish. I can’t cheat. So even if inspiration isn’t drawing you into a time vortex (I’ve had a couple 5,000-word days) you can still summon the energy to write something to make your 1,000 words. Heck, sometimes, you might end up finding yourself on a roll, and go over your limit. This article is more than 1,100. Bonus!
This summer, I am participating in the Clarion Write-a-thon, an annual fundraiser for the Clarion Workshop, the longest-running and greatest writing workshop for speculative fiction. Notable alumni include Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, and ME! What makes the workshop really stand out is its instructors, which in the past have included George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Joe Haldeman, and other luminaries.
But the way Clarion makes its students better writers is the six weeks of concentrated writing time. In the spirit of that method, the write-a-thon encourages participants to write like crazy and accept pledges from kind donors in order to support this incredible workshop. The write-a-thon runs the same six weeks as the workshop itself, from June 24th to August 4th. Here is my author page:
I suggest you click around. You’ll see that authors you may know are participating as well, including Kim Stanley Robinson and Karen Joy Fowler (also a graduate, and author of “The Jane Austen Book Club”).
As you can see from my page, I’ve set a somewhat ambitious goal for myself of 42,000 words. That rounds out to precisely 1000 words a day, every day, for six weeks. 1000 words, that’s about 5 pages. But if you’re interested in participating, you can set a much more modest goal for yourself. Say, a page a day, or, one blog post a week! Or whatever you like.
If you don’t feel like writing, but want to support the next generation of hot shot genre writers, consider donating to me, or your favorite author!
If you want to write but the whole write-a-thon thing freaks you out, I’ve set up a Google Spreadsheet where I’ll be tracking my daily progress. Tweet @themattlondon if you want me to add you to this spreadsheet. Feel free to add your name and your goal and your daily progress if you want to follow along.
I find that the the best motivator for writing is the fear of public humiliation — remember all those papers you wrote in college the night before, because you were scared of your teacher? Yeah, me too. So keep track of my progress as well as your own — the more eyes I have watching me, the harder it will be for me to slack off.