Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Thoughts on the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest

or, Who Needs Sleep When There’s Coffee?

I am still coming down from the creative high of the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest that I participated in this past weekend. This year was the 32nd year of the contest’s existence. Thirty-two years of people willingly putting family, food, sleep, and all things healthy on hold during the final weekend of summer to create a novel where 72 hours earlier there was just an idea.

Of course it’s nuts. We’re writers. We (literally) wrote the book on “nuts.”

Now, I did not think the event would be easy. I’m not stupid. I know better than to mock the muse. So I prepared as best I could.

We were allowed to have an outline and research notes. I had both (less than 10 total pages of random sentences, driving distances, character biographies, and first-this-then-that sequencing).

I didn’t actually write it down, but I molded and massaged the first sentence and the book’s hook in my head for weeks ahead of time, so that when the time came, I could hack it out by heart onto the computer and thus eliminate the dreaded Blank Page Syndrome.

A week beforehand, I got my much-anticipated speech recognition software. I trained it to recognize my voice and speech patterns so that during the contest I could sit leisurely and dictate whatever brilliant ideas happened to fly into my head.

I was so primed and ready that I started typing up the notes to a completely different project just so I didn’t over-think the project I wanted to write about and peak too soon on it.

Then I came down with the Swine Flu. Which is not nearly as funny as it sounds.

The contest was slated to begin at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 5. I spent the greater portion of Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday flat on my back in bed.

(Actually, I got up long enough on Thursday evening for a friend of mine to drive me to the doctor’s office. I lay down on the exam table while the room stopped spinning and waited for the doc to see me. I voiced my concerns that I might have Swine Flu. While he looked me over, his nurse ventured into the waiting room where she informed my friend, “She’s really sick.”

“Yep!” The doctor said emphatically. “You have it!”

Cue the dancing girls.)

Because I don’t work on Saturday, I knew that I would miss the first hours of the contest, but had figured I could make up for lost time. Had not planned on making up for illness, however.

I very nearly didn’t do the contest. My family hadn’t seen me in days, and had to pick the slack for me all week, I reasoned. I couldn’t ask them to indulge me for another few days.

My husband pointed out that not trying would have been like setting fire to the $50 entry fee. He and a friend of ours didn’t mind running the household, taking care of Cassandra, and bringing me food at regular intervals (though an interesting sidelight of the flu was a complete and total disinterest in food).

My support staff gave their blessing. So, at 8:45 p.m. Saturday – nearly 21 hours after the contest began -- I took the dog and a fresh box of Kleenex and started writing.

The experience was unlike anything I have ever done. It was also completely different than I expected. I figured I’d be drained, sapped, and fried. On the contrary – as the hours went on, I felt that new pathways in my brain had opened up. I felt increasingly energized, seized with creative fervor.

I discovered that my wonderful new dictation software was incapable of recognizing my knocking-at-death’s-door voice. After four days in bed, my fingers weren’t the most coordinated typing instruments. Thank heaven for spell-check.

By Sunday morning, I had 30 pages written. The dog and I curled up on the studio loveseat and grabbed an hour and a half of sleep.

Late Sunday afternoon, I had an epiphany – I was writing almost on auto-pilot. Over 25 pages had flown from my brain onto the screen without me hardly even registering them. I had no idea what I’d written. But I wasn’t tired. Instead, I was… buzzing.

By 3:00 a.m. Monday morning, I was rounding on the 90 page mark. I started thanking God for keeping me cognizant, alert, and aware – and realized that I REALLY needed to get a little sleep, even though there was still a ways to go.

Kestrel and I curled up on the loveseat again, but this time, sleep was a hard time coming. My eyes kept seeing the computer screen and hearing buzzers. My hands had developed a nasty shake. I kept having flashbacks to the 56-hour marathon I once lived through when I was an inmate at an advertising company.

After 2 hours, I pressed onward. By Monday afternoon, with 12 hours left in the contest, I had all but two sequences done. But there was a glitch. An important piece of a character’s puzzle needed to be included. I knew what the piece was – I just didn’t know where to put it.

Sleep would help, I decided, and headed inside, to the comfort of an actual bed for an hour.

Five minutes after I laid down, the Answer for where the piece belonged pinged into my addled brain. Of course, sleep was impossible then….

So, back out to the studio Kestrel and I trundled. Inserted the missing piece – voila! It fit beautifully. Hammered out the ending, laughed out loud at discovering that it was unintentionally funny, and started editing with 3 ½ hours on the clock.

I read and discovered things I did not remember writing. They made sense, though, and moved the story along, praised be!

The final edit was finished at 11:57 p.m. Monday evening.

The next day as I printed out the manuscript for mailing, in keeping with contest editing rules, I did NOT re-read it with a fine-toothed comb, looking for errors. In a sense, that was the hardest part of the contest. Rrrrghhh! Sending out a first draft! The horror!

I expected to crash, comatose, and awaken in 2011 or so. But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion… It never came.

I finished the contest so jazzed with creative juices that, though I’m exhausted, I’m UP. It’s as if those newly created brain paths would kind of like to stay open and accept some direction. It has been an unexpected, and thoroughly delightful, part of the experience

That’s the long version. In short, here are a few things I learned from the experience:

1. Spending 52 hours non-stop with a new dog results in the dog developing an unhealthy attraction and dependence upon you. This manifests itself by the dog spending the entire night whining at the door when you are trying to sleep for the first time in days.

2. Trust your instincts. Second-guessing only leads to creative bottleneck. It’s fun to find out what’s behind Door #3!

3. Coffee is, truly, the nectar of the gods.

4. General Foods International Coffees Swiss Mocha Instant Beverage is, perhaps, the most repulsive thing on the planet that one can put into one’s mouth.

5. Nothing compares to having a flock of family and friends who support you even though they get stuck picking up the slack while you wander off to be “creative.”

Official contest results won’t come out for months. Unofficially, however, I have to say that I consider my experience of the past few days an unequivocal creative mountaintop. I highly recommend it!


dirtywhitecandy said...

Wow, Ami - I salute you! First for giving such an interesting insight into the actualities of such a marathon. It's so interesting what you found about the brain's pathways when pushed - I almost feel like having a go myself one weekend (it's nice to say that from the comfort of my study, while looking forward to a night of full and restful sleep!) Seriously, it was very thought provoking - perhaps our boundaries could be stretched more often. Not only that, I remember a friend of mine 20 years ago saying she did the competition- and it's so interesting to find out it's still running. So thank you for that too.
I've just stumbled across your blog and noticed your intriguing mix of writing and equestrianism. I'm also a dedicated horse nerd (although I keep my blog just for writing tips) - I will be returning for literary inspiration, and probably will also stray into your equine pastures too...

Ami Hendrickson said...

Dirtywhitecandy: I'm always happy to hear someone describe any little thing I write as "thought provoking" or "intriguing." Welcome to the blog! Poke around. Kick the tires. Stay a bit...

The contest was a ball -- and I agree with you about the merits of occasionally pushing oneself to see what happens on the other side. I have a writer friend who has done NaNoWriMo before. For my schedule, 25K words in 3 days was more doable than 50K in 30. Weird, but true.

I'd be interested to know if you decide to do the competition next year. If you do, best of luck!