Meanwhile, back at my desk

Why I’m thrilled that I attended the Viable Paradise speculative fiction writing program on Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Viable Paradise Oak Bluffs

A heartfelt thanks to my clients who were patient while I attended the Viable Paradise speculative fiction writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Many of you know that I was for many years a book reviewer for January and other publications; and most of you know that I’m on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop (a six-week summer program in Seattle). But not many people know that I also write fiction.

I studied fiction writing in college (Daily Themes — 300 words, submitted every weekday for an entire semester). I came away from that experience with the conviction that writing every day would make it possible for me to write something substantive — if and when I had something substantive to say. I certainly didn’t in college. But I learned to watch, analyze, and describe the people around me. This led to Columbia J-School and a career in journalism (which is another story).

Back to fiction.

In the early 1990s, I wrote a mystery novella set in a depressed industrial town in New England. Starting a long work is easy; finishing one, difficult but highly satisfying. By finishing, I discovered the shape of a book. However, I realized that it was the wrong book to submit for publication. For one thing, it was the wrong length. Not many mystery publishers want novellas. For another, I didn’t want to get “stuck” in that particular sub-genre. If your first book is about amateur sleuths in New Hampshire, you’re labeled a “cozy mystery writer,” even if your second book is about spaceships, aliens, and an evil computer named Zorg-X13.

I did not want to be a writer of New England small-town mysteries.

Life, as they say, intervened, and about 10 years ago I found myself experimenting with near-future science fiction. Then I dabbled in classic fantasy (magic! elves!), steampunk-flavored alternative history, and urban fantasy. Four years ago, while attending a panel at the Fourth Street convention in Minneapolis, I suddenly “saw” a story. I wrote it, workshopped it, and submitted it to magazines. I got some encouraging rejections from editors, including several suggestions that I develop the story into a novel. So I sketched several stories in that same world and submitted the core story as my application to Viable Paradise.

Of course, what happened at Viable Paradise was not as expected. It was far, far better. I had the good fortune to be with a group of writers that gelled rapidly. In short, I now know 23 people I trust to be superb beta readers and insightful reviewers.

I’m a kinetic learner, and it was only by going through a six-day round-the-clock process of lectures, writing, rewriting, getting critiqued, critiquing my classmates, and hearing both pros and classmates critique the work of others that better ways of doing things sunk in. How much better? I wrote a complete story on the plane on the way back to Seattle. And it’s the best story I’ve ever written.

If you write fiction, and want to move up to the next level, I whole-heartedly recommend a residential workshop.

Apply to Clarion West (Seattle) or Clarion (San Diego) if you can carve six weeks out of a summer.

Apply to Viable Paradise if you can take a week in the fall. I can’t say enough about the nine Viable Paradise instructors (a group of authors and editors that has worked together for years). The staff is a large team of Viable Paradise graduates. They can provide you with anything from an analysis of core works in contemporary speculative fiction to a large sandwich when you’ve forgotten to eat and are verging on the incoherent. (Best of all, you don’t have to ask for the sandwich. They will take one look at you, recognize all the symptoms, and hand you the food.)

Sure, at the end of all this, I had to return  home to the leaking window that needs to be caulked, the suspicious behavior of the aging refrigerator, the sink that mysteriously fills up with dishes when I’m not looking, and the lawn that needs to be mowed if and when it ever stops raining. And a few hundred emails.

But now I know what I’m capable of writing, and that’s the best motivation to institute some serious time management that willenable me to write, if not every day, at least three times a week. And I have a network of writing colleagues who share a similar experience and determination.

Speaking of time management: Writing for clients resumes a regular schedule today — barring intervention from spaceships, aliens, and Zorg-X13.

A story about me

Austin author Rebecca Schwarz wrote a story about me for the Clarion West Write-a-thon (well, a story about the OTHER me).

Austin author Rebecca Schwarz wrote a story about me for the Clarion West Write-a-thon (well, a story about the other me). I supported her in the Write-a-thon, and, in the separate reality she writes about in the story, I’m sure the other me would have supported her as well! It’s a great story.

The Write-a-thon is drawing to a close. Huge thanks to the folks who have sponsored me. I pledged to write three short stories and submit one; as it turned out, I completed two stories and wrote 8,000 words of back story for a fiction project I’m outlining.

Three of my donors sent in hefty $100 donations, and I matched those  donations with $100 donations in support of three other Write-a-thon participants. At this point, the Write-a-thon has raised just over $20,000 for Clarion West. We’ll still be taking donations through the participants’ pages until mid August.

Thank you to everyone who wrote, who donated, and who otherwise supported the Clarion West Writers Workshop this summer.


Back when the U.S. was an agrarian society, schools closed in the summer so students (and teachers) could help with the harvests.

Ironically, this long outdated calendar is what now gives many of us time off in the summer to attend (or teach) workshops.

My friend Mike Schway just posted a video of Cajun grand master Milton Vanicor performing (and teaching) at Fiddle Tunes at Fort Warden. Many of us have been posting pictures of Neil Gaiman reading (and teaching) at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle. Mike, who players fiddle and accordion, wouldn’t dream of missing Fiddle Tunes. Just as I wouldn’t dream of missing the Clarion West Write-a-thon.

Write. Now.

It’s time to join Clarion West’s “shadow workshop” and spend the summer writing.

Are you a wordsmith who wants to spend more time writing fiction?

I’m always delighted when my friends in journalism, marketing communications, and technical writing reveal that they have fiction projects underway — novels, short stories, poetry, and flash fiction. I want to tell you about a great way to get some of that creative work done this summer, as part of a virtual community of 300 writers.

Clarion West is a Seattle nonprofit that for 30 years has hosted a six-week residential summer workshop for writers of speculative fiction. It also has less-intensive opportunities for those of us who want to experiment with fiction writing or get back to a neglected fiction project. One of those opportunities is the summer Write-a-thon.

The Write-a-thon is like a Walk-a-thon, but usually less physical (unless your computer is on one of those new treadmill desks).

speculative fiction write-a-thon
You really should write that story.

Here’s how the Write-a-thon works: You set goals for your fiction writing and, if you want, a goal for raising money for Clarion West’s operations. Then you create a Clarion West account and a Write-a-thon page. After that, all you have to do is start writing.

If you’re the marketing type, tell your friends what you’re doing and ask them to support you and Clarion West. If you’re shy — hey, that’s OK. Clarion West will list you on their website, with a link to a Write-a-thon page where people can read your bio and an excerpt of your (published or unpublished) writing. You’ll attract donors (and perhaps secret admirers) this way.

Perks of Write-a-thon participation include hanging out with the Clarion West community on Facebook and attending “Tweet-ups” with some very cool authors.

I hope you’ll join me in getting some writing done this summer and raising some money for Clarion West.

My Clarion West Write-a-thon page is up. I’ve set the goal of writing three new short stories and submitting one to a magazine or anthology. I’ve also set a goal of raising $1,000 towards Clarion West’s operating expenses.

I hope you’ll join us, as a writer (Sign up before June 22!) or as a donor (You’ll have until August 2 to make a contribution). Please visit the Clarion West Write-a-thon headquarters to check out the growing list of Write-a-thon participants and read excerpts of fiction from hot new authors like Corry Skerry, Cat Rambo, and Jude-Marie Green and established novelists like Steve Miller and Cassie Alexander.

Please feel free to ask me questions about Clarion West, and I’ll be happy to answer them.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Clarion West board of directors and I’m committed to making a transformational workshop experience available for talented and courageous writers. 

October 7 fiction-writing workshop with Kathleen Alcalá

Author Kathleen Alcalá is teaching an Oct. 7 Clarion West workshop for writers.


news headline

Where do writers get their ideas?

My friend April Henry was inspired to write her novel Learning to Fly by news stories about panic and confusion in the aftermath of a chain-reaction car accident on an Oregon freeway. Her recent Girl, Stolen had its roots in the true story of a blind girl kidnapped while sleeping in her parents’ car.

On October 7, I’ll be taking a one-day workshop taught by author Kathleen Alcalá (The Flowers in the Skull, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist) on how to transform thought-provoking headlines into stories — and how to go a step beyond to create your own headlines (a.k.a. story titles).

The workshop will be in Seattle’s University District. You can find more information on the Clarion West website. There are still spaces open.


Explore the writers of the Clarion West Write-a-thon

Here are a few early progress reports from Clarion West Write-a-thon participants:

We’re off! 228 of us, pursuing writing, editing, and publishing goals for six weeks to attract donations for the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

I encourage you to explore the participants’ pages, where you’ll find excerpts from the work of pros like Andy Duncan, Vonda McIntyre, Elizabeth Bear, Louise Marley, Rachel Swirsky, Kelley Eskridge, and Nisi Shawl, and emerging stars like Vylar Kaftan, J.M. Sidorova, and Cat Rambo (to name just a very few of the 228 participants).

In the next few days, I’ll be posting here about my own Write-a-thon goals — which including writing three short stories inspired by Jonathan Coulton songs and publishing them on Writer Way. (Thank you, Jeff and Allen, for your generous support!)

Here are a few early progress reports from Write-a-thon participants:

Brenda Cooper is writing 1,000 words a day on a novel — plus training for the STP (Seattle-to-Portland) bike ride event.

Janine Southard is writing four short stories and outlining a novel.

Sandra Odell is writing 2,000 words a week on her novel while focusing on taming her Inner-Bitch (er, Inner-Editor).

Gabrielle Harbowy, who edits novels for a living, is going to start writing one.

I’m writing this post from the 4th Street Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis, where I just had the honor of moderating a writers workshop on storytelling that featured Oneal Isaac, Scott Lynch, Beth Meacham, and Mary Robinette Kowal. I was so inspired by their presentations and Q&A with the workshop attendees that I’m tempted to repair to my room and spend the rest of the weekend writing. But there are too many other great panels to attend, such as “Story Templates and the Folk Process” — which is starting in 10 minutes.

Do you write speculative fiction?

Signup is open for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, a “shadow workshop” that runs in tandem with the Clarion West Writers Workshop (June 17 – July 27) and raises money to support Clarion West.

Clarion West logoIf you write fiction, there’s a fabulous opportunity in the next few weeks to join with writers from around the world who are forming an online “shadow workshop.” It runs in tandem with the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle June 17 though July 27.

During the six weeks that the workshop’s in session, participants in the “shadow” group will be pursuing their individual goals for writing (such as outlining a novel, writing to achieve a daily or weekly word count on a current project, editing a completed piece, or submitting work to agents, editors, and publishers). The shadow project is called the Clarion West Write-a-thon, and each participant, in addition to writing, can raise money to support the Clarion West and its scholarship program. (Note: I’m a member of the “shadow workshop” and of the Clarion West board.)

For more information about the Write-a-thon and experience of being a shadow participant, please take a look at this post by author Nicola Griffith. She talks about the experiences of writers in last year’s Write-a-thon.

To sign up as a participating writer, see the Clarion West Write-a-thon page. You’ll find directions for joining the shadow workshop, including creating a profile page with a short excerpt from your work. You do not need to be a Clarion West alumnus to participate.

Not writing this year? You can still be involved — as a Write-a-thon sponsor. To make a tax-deductible contribution to support Clarion West through one of the “shadow workshop” writers, scroll down to the very bottom of the Write-a-thon page to see the growing list of writers who have signed up to participate.

News about upcoming writing workshops

Clarion West is hosting a series of one-day writing workshops in Seattle this fall with Molly Gloss, Mark Teppo, and Nancy Kress.

Here’s a quick roundup of news on upcoming workshops in the Pacific Northwest for speculative fiction writers. I plan later this month to create a separate page for this information.

Clarion West announces Summer 2012 workshop instructors

The Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle has announced the instructors for summer 2012: Mary RosenblumHiromi GotoGeorge R.R. MartinConnie WillisKelly Link and Gavin Grant, and Chuck Palahniuk.

Yes, that George R.R. Martin.

Applications for the six-week intensive writing program will be accepted beginning in December. You can find more information on the Clarion West website.

Clarion West now offers one-day workshops

This fall Clarion West is hosting a series of one-day workshops in Seattle:

  • “Alive in the World,” taught by Molly Gloss
  • “Jumpstart Your Novel,” taught by Mark Tepp0
  • “Your First Scene,” taught by Nancy Kress (including a critique component for which writing must be submitted in advance)

Cascade Writers Workshop announces 2012 program

The 2012 Cascade Writers Workshop, scheduled for Vancouver, WA, in July 2012, will include workshop/critique groups led by Tor editor Beth Meacham, literary agent Michael Carr, and novelists Ken Scholes and Jay Lake. More information is available on the Cascade Writers website.

Cascade Writers reaches beyond Science Fiction and Fantasy to include Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Young Adult, Historical, Non-Fiction, and Commercial writing(though this year, when I attended, a majority of the students were focused on fantasy and science fiction).

If you write speculative fiction…

Join the writers of the Clarion West community for the 2011 Clarion West Write-a-thon (June 19 through July 21)

Is there a speculative fiction writing project you want to get finished? Started? Submitted to a magazine, agent or publisher?

If so, I want to invite you to join the writers of the Clarion West community for the 2011 Clarion West Write-a-thon (June 19 through July 21). It’s a great way to challenge yourself to meet your writing goals — while raising money to sustain one of the nation’s foremost programs for speculative fiction.

People have used the Write-a-thon to start novels, to experiment with new writing techniques, to complete works-in-progress, and to polish and submit stories for publication. Last year author Michael Swanwick wrote flash fiction pieces that featured his donors as characters — and we expect there’ll be more such playfulness this year.

If you join the Clarion West online forums (, you can report on your progress and talk with other Write-a-thon participants.

Here’s how to get involved:

  1. Register for Write-a-thon and create your profile page. Use the profile to tell people about yourself and your Write-a-thon goals, and  post a short excerpt from your fiction.
  2. When the Write-a-thon starts on June 19, ask friends to visit your page and donate to support your writing goals and the Clarion West program.
  3. Start writing! You’ll have until July 21 to meet your goals.

You’ll find complete information on the 2011 Clarion West Write-a-thon at

Our goal this year is to involve 100 writers, attract 270 donors, and spark the creation and publication of some outstanding fiction. Please join us!

The “done” list

Most of us talk a lot about our “to do” lists, but not much about our “done” lists.

Most of us talk a lot about our “to do” lists, but not much about our “done” lists.

But science fiction author David Levine and marketing ninja Seth Godin are known for publishing their “done” lists. (Here’s Seth’s for 2010.)

I find that a “done” list is a great baseline for creating a better “to do” list for next year. What do I wish I had done? What do I wish I had done more of? What do I wish I’d done differently?

Here’s my 2010 “done” list:

  • Wrote a successful grant for the Clarion West Writers Workshop.
  • Wrote my first ebook, Take Control of iPhone Basics, published as part of the Take Control ebooks series in October, and launched the blog iPhone 4 Tips.
  • Appeared on two radio shows (MacVoices and Tech Night Owl) to promote the ebook.
  • Rejoined the Northwest Folklife board, filling the unexpired term of the late Warren Argo, and took United Way’s training for board members.
  • Wrote a website for a state government agency using “Plain Talk” standards.
  • Wrote six humor columns for a membership publication.
  • Wrote more than 100 blog posts, op-ed pieces, brochures, profiles and case studies for clients.
  • Took fiction writing workshops taught by Ellen Klages and Mary Robinette Kowal, and submitted two stories to magazines.
  • Worked as a volunteer at the Fremont Solstice Parade and conducted training for Northwest Folklife greeter/fundraisers.

Nearly every “done” on the list had a significant obstacle — from mastering new technology to dealing with difficult people — I had to overcome. In every case, the earlier and more thoughtfully I tackled the obstacle, the better the result.

A big thank you to the people who offered me the challenges, the people who mentored me through them, and the people who were there to celebrate with me when I finally crossed the finish lines.

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