On the advice of a co-worker, I decided to enter the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest this year. He seemed very excited about it and was looking forward to seeing what I would come up with. Since I’ve had a premise and outline for a novel bouncing around in my head and notebook for some time, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to smash into my first novel full-force and immediately gain some serious ground on it. A veritable brettzkrieg of words.
The contest called for roughly 100 pages (of Word document, mind you), which I highly doubted that I’d accomplish in that time. But best-case scenario was that I’d have something I could submit by the time the Labour Day weekend had elapsed, and maybe even win. Worst case scenario was that I’d be x pages into a novel that I’ve been hemming and hawing about for month to start writing. All between midnight of August 30th and midnight of September 2nd.
So imagine my surprise when I realized, about an hour before the deadline, that I was finished.
I took a short break to read over what I could in the last sliver of time, but I was done. Since this was a project that I’d been sketching the architecture of for months, I had a clear idea of my beginning, middle, and end. So I wrote the latter, then the former, and the middle just sort of took care of itself.
Aside from some time-consuming distractions during the first day and the unfortunate necessity of sleeping through the first few hours of the contest, I managed quite a few hours happily tapping away at the keys. Just me and the laptop, interrupted only by essential walks for canine excretion and also to the nearby liquor store for more cheap beer (or as I call it, Brett’s Writering Juice).
It was the second day that the fatigue started to kick in. The unbroken circle of letters started to jumble into a maelstrom stirred by stimulants, depressants, and other esoteric chemicals floating around my body either naturally occurring or introduced. I was tired. Couldn’t I just take a nap? No, no, can’t waste time. Besides, knowing my habits I’d sleep too long and never make up the lost hours.
I started rationing my time more. Instead of pulling many hours at a time and longer breaks, I did shorter rotations on each. Even on breaks, not wanting to go right back to writing but terrified of wasting time, I found my mind almost constantly juggling whatever I was doing with the proceedings going on inside that Word document. It hung halfway out of me, not ready to splash but too early to wipe.
Now, I’m this sort of person anyway. I can’t remember people’s names. I think I might be the closest a person can get to face-blind without having to pay less taxes. I’ve said and done things that I remember nothing of, regardless of how prolific/awful they were or how sober I was at the time.
Why? Because at any given moment I feel like I’m juggling a half a dozen story lines and a gaggle of characters in my head. It’s been getting worse since I started a book of short stories – working on more than one at once, plus the other projects I have, it’s a score of lives before you even introduce the real world I have to live in.
In the first day alone, I wrote 10,000 words of brand-new fiction that for the most part just poured effortlessly onto the screen. The second day was harder, much of it spent trying to restructure what was there, streamlining what would stay from my outline and what would go that just wound up wasting more time than it saved, and I only achieved about 8,000. The final day was a different story again. Fuck edits. I wrote over 9,000 (yes, really) and handed in 105 pages (92 after the proper formatting – Brodie!)
The third day also held a revelation for me. Since my second day felt like a failure, I wondered what was different. Even with the distractions of the first day, I’d done almost double than the next. What had changed?
The answer was structure.
I’m not a man of steady balance – every one of my orbits is elliptic. I have to force myself to sleep by sheer act of will in order to maintain any kind of rhythm. My natural inclination is pretty much to push myself until the point of absolute exhaustion and then sleep until I’ve sufficiently recharged enough to qualify as a living human again. This rollercoaster lifestyle extends to numerous vices and a strong aversion to any kind of real work. Even though I try to discipline myself into a reliable sleep cycle, smoothie breakfasts, hours of writing every day, and frequent gym visits, I’m never very far from bingeing an entire season of Archer and sleeping until 4 PM.
Maybe my new-found restraint helped, but it isn’t quite the structure I was talking about. Writing something this quickly required me to just let it flow. My habit of juggling these elements in my head became something stronger, coalesced into a whole. It felt like I was looking through a telescope of my own construction – my juggling wasn’t facts anymore, but holding a series of lenses into an array so that thought and action could pass through them in sequence. When they aligned, I felt like I was holding a universe between my hands, just a vessel for the words until they left me to become ones and zeroes. I watched the story unfold on loop inside my head.
It’s a hard feeling to describe, but the end result was that I wasn’t frustrated with a lack of material, at the word count in the bottom corner’s stubborn refusal to increase demonstrably. I was frustrated because the novel in my head could only come out as fast as my fingers would get it out. Curse these stubby digits!
It was a tremendous experience. I discovered that I don’t need to schedule hours and hours of time to write, as if my own brain were a lover aching for foreplay. Instead, I can treat my brain like the dirty slut that it is and write whatever I can in the time I happen to have available, hammering away furiously and leaving without so much as a thank you whether it has finished or not. The sheer volume of work I can put out with enough time and focus is way beyond what I’ve thought myself capable of.
Conversely, it took me ages to write this 1000 words. So maybe I didn’t learn anything at all.