SKAGWAY - Coffee, it appears, is the fuel of novels.
Reading, writing and coffee 060414 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly SKAGWAY - Coffee, it appears, is the fuel of novels.

James Brooks | Ccw

Douglas Smith joins other writers Thursday morning, May 29 at the Skagway public library for the start of the North Words Writers Symposium.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Story last updated at 6/4/2014 - 1:57 pm

Reading, writing and coffee

SKAGWAY - Coffee, it appears, is the fuel of novels.

At 6:45 a.m. Thursday, before sunrise in every state but Alaska, writers came - mugs in hand - to open the fifth North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway.

For five years, writers have been coming to the Garden City to talk, trade tips and above all else - to write.

On Thursday, Deb Vanasse, a third-time symposium faculty member, welcomed a dozen writers to the Skagway Public Library. There were no introductions, only a writing prompt: "My father always told me ..."

For 40 minutes, the only sounds in the library were the clacking of laptop keyboards and the faint scribbles of hands writing in journals. Introductions could come later.

North Words got its start in 2010 as the brainchild of Jeff Brady, publisher of the Skagway News; Dan Henry, author and adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Southeast - Sitka; and Buckwheat Donahue, Skagway's director of tourism.

In that first year, it was envisioned as a traveling event, Henry said. The Sitka Symposium, a similar program, had just ended with no replacement in sight. A Skagway symposium could travel to Dawson City or Denali, attracting writers from across the Far North. The traveling never happened, but writers came anyway. This year's event included authors and writers from Anchorage, Ketchikan, Whitehorse and Juneau, among others.

"Even though it doesn't look impressive," Donahue told the assembled crowd in the back room of Skagway's Arctic Brotherhood Hall, this is the largest crowd we've ever had."

Sipping coffee and munching muffins, the writers listened as Henry outlined the first day's schedule - discussion panels, readings and consultations. Writers crave feedback, and the program was designed to give it to them. Keynote speaker Simon Winchester, the author of more than 20 best-selling books, shared insights into his writing schedule, as did others among the faculty. (For Winchester, that style involves pasting a number of things on the wall of his writing studio - the number of words in his next book, the deadline for that book, and a breakdown of how many words per day he needs to write to meet that deadline.)

Skagway librarian Douglas Smith said the conference is a big help to people like himself. "I haven't written for so bloody long, and that's why I came to this thing; I needed the push to put pen onto paper," he said.

While the symposium has a set schedule, author and essayist Nick Jans said what happens outside the scheduled events is as worthwhile as the events themselves. "Real business gets transacted here," he said. "You're treading ideas ... 'Will you blurb my book?' that kind of thing. It's as valuable for the faculty as the people attending."

Large-scale writing conferences are common across the United States, but Alaska has few. Homer offers an event, Anchorage and Fairbanks two or three more. The difference in Skagway, Jans said, is its scale. It specializes in Alaskana - books about Alaska - and the number of faculty means there are only three or four novices for every professional. That allows much more hands-on instruction and feedback. "I've been to a lot of writing conferences, and this is a good one," he said.

North Words can be found online at www.