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

Breville Espresso Machine

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.”

Five Minute Study Guide | Honoré de Balzac – The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy is a 16-volume, 90 novel long work that chronicles the lives of Frenchmen in Paris and abroad during the 19th century. Published between 1842 and 1848 but in total a two-decade project, Honore de Balzac himself has often compared his masterwork to Dante’s Inferno and even Arabian Nights. Just like Dickens, his works were meant to be examinations of contemporary, mostly urban life from the perspective of both the rich and the poor as well as the unemployed and the belaboured. Balzac’s Human Comedy was so influential that this work has today become synonymous with his name, and has influenced Karl Marx, Henry James, and even TV shows like the Wire, who seek to study the effects of urban life on people and their communities..

In 1832, Balzac first released Pere Goriot, what would officially become the opening work of the Human Comedy. It is a novel of education about Rastignac, a law student’s who rises in prominence in the impoverished quarters of Paris, just as an old merchant, Goriot, gradually declines in stature. Similar to a bildungsroman, that is, a novel of youthful formation, Rastignac’s ascent chronicles youthful improvement at the cost of a corrupt society.

Such is the nature of Balzac’s works. They are primarily focused on making those connections between two seemingly disparate elements. With The Human Comedy, we get an entire web of relationships. We get stories that focus on individuals but include characters from other works, such as The Search for the Absolute, a story about a man looking for a theory of everything, and The Unknown Masterpiece, about an artist’s search for the perfect painting.

But these relationships are not only between people and people, as he gets all the way down to the material objects that unify them. The impoverished eat similar foods and the rich take pride in similar adornments, and Balzac uses these as symbols not just to connote status, but to make light of man’s obsession with material goods. People are obsessed with the most banal things, and as finances become a more salient tension in the works, people will reveal their uglier side.

But we have to understand the context that Balzac is writing within. Paris in the 19th century has survived Napoleon and a revolution, yet it is still a burgeoning collective of both the rich and poor. The industrial revolution has not quite hit Paris yet, but the rural population is beginning to move to larger city centres, and with his we get major competition amongst both the old and the young.

Balzac may not have understood the most intricate nuances of modern society, but he knew how it moves. He likened it to an amorphous creature that is motivated solely by money and pleasure alone. however, he also paid respect to the noble causes, to those who either loved too much or those who lived by a code of honour they couldn’t sustain. The Country Doctor, for example, examines the possibilities of social reform, while Lost Illusions is primarily about genuine friendship. Still, behind all these cerebral ideals hides the eager presence of money.

The Human Comedy is unofficially the great pioneering work of Realism, and it employs several different styles of writing, including the epistolary form (as in letter writing),the prolonged dialogue, prosaic description, stories within stories, and even fragmented vignettes, a method he used to write Madame Firmiani in 1832.

Most objections about Balzac’s work come from the broad, imprecise execution of his characters, whom critics believe lack the complexity of Henry James’ or Gustave Flaubert’s. His characters are not necessarily supposed to be full beings, but rather take upon a type that fellow urbanites may identify with. His work has been eclipsed by later realists and even some modernists, but his encyclopedic account of Paris and its surroundings was virtually unprecedented and has been seldom matched. I think it’s important to read Balzac because it shows step by step how everyone, no matter how unimportant, is a cog in a much larger machine.