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Need to get rid of your writer’s block? Try a writing hackathon

As the morning fog dissipated over San Francisco’s Mission District, I approached a quaint bookstore with a gray cat played upon a lime-green marquee. Alley Cat books, a small but integral watering hole among San Francisco writers, is known for hosting talks, readings and performances of all things literary. But today, the group gathered here was doing something a little different. In a little under 32 hours, we were going to write a full novel. Drafted, edited, saved, pressed, bound and presented all before the weekend was finished.

The 32-hour writing challenge is the writer’s version of the hackathon. Instead of inputing reams of code over beers and Red Bulls, the writers are required to write the chapter of a book, all based around a singular theme. The novel we were charged to write was the third part of a projected 9-part series, each novel representing one part of a whole that will be revealed in the final edition.

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In a city with over 5,000 startups, The San Francisco Bay Area has built a reputation as an accelerator of top talent through constant and vigorous work. This ethos has lead to tech companies hosting hacking marathons and to startup accelerators gathering hundreds of companies together to improve their products all at once.

But Lou Benna had different ideas. As the organizer of the event, Benna (a nom de plume) wanted to use collaboration as a tool for writers. “Having an external force keeping you on track is wonderful as a novelist. I’m part of a group where other novelists get together and just meeting our own deadlines.” But this philosophy of collaboration extends beyond the mere act of writing. Rather, the 32-hour writing challenge required equal participation for everybody right from the start.

The prompt of our novel was as such:

For twenty days in a row, time will stop at 11am for fifteen minutes. Everything around the protagonist will freeze, and he will be able to move objects, but not set objects in motion. After fifteen minutes, time will resume, and the entire world–save the protagonist–will be oblivious to the situation.

Benna handed out an entire sheet of stipulations based around the hypothetical universe. Included were items about how liquids, fire and time interacted with the protagonist in the story. But all of the limitations helped me focus on getting the plot and the setting right. Sometimes, setting strict limits on both time and content can bring out the best in a writer.

The 32-hour writing challenge invited a diverse group of writers from all parts of the Bay Area. Not only were none of the stories alike, but they also revealed many of the skills (and admittedly, weaknesses) each writer possessed.

Ramses Bulaklakan (another pen name), one of the nine participants in the challenge, had not written a short story since 1990, when she was an undergraduate at the University of Washington. I spoke to her about her work she had done before and during the writing marathon. Bulaklakan had not even considered returning to her old love of fiction, but an invitation from Benna reinvigorated her interest in the craft. Her story, “Dead Helicopters and the River No One Swims In”, used the conceit of time stopping as a way to look at her ancestral Philippines, where her parents had grown up. Not only were we using the stories to wring out our authorial cobwebs, but we were also tapping into the personal narratives that drew us into writing in the first place.

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While the challenge undoubtedly cured my writer’s block for the short amount of time we were given, the exercise also raised a number of other challenges. For example, how could I write a good story and stay true to the strict laws of the fictional universe? and how could I expect perfection if I needed to make sacrifices for the sake of time?

Well, those sacrifices are arguably the point of the challenge. The sensitivity that helps writer’s be more observant, witty and descriptive may also inhibit their confidence in prolonging a story or finishing a first draft. What I noticed is that some of the best collaboration was unspoken; instead of ruminating upon a single phrase, do as your peers are doing a compose furiously.

For the near future, Benna hopes to capitalize upon the event’s success to bring in a more diverse group of writers, including children’s book authors and designers. Benna hopes to have this workshop up and running in San Francisco by Spring of 2016. “There’s no end in sight,” said Benna. “These events will happen as long as I have the interest in writing them.”