Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Anatomy of the 72-hr Novel, Part One

...wherein we attempt to describe the experience and product of a successful 72-hr novel-writing marathon.

The temptation. This may come in the form of an advertisement in your local newspaper, chat rooms, writing groups or on Facebook. In my case, I took a wrong turn on the information superhighway, and instead of exiting at "3-Day Novel", I took the "Muskoka Novel Marathon" off-ramp and discovered a charitable event! I admire what they're doing. Literacy, computer skills, numeracy - things most people take for granted, but for others stand between themselves, and employability. Check the link. I really support their efforts, and I'll be asking for your help next year.

The daring urge. This is the moment in which you decide to chuck your hat into the ring. May be accompanied by such outbursts as "What am I doing?" and "Am I crazy?!" and often, incomprehensible giggles.

Cold feet. This is usually accompanied by feelings of self-doubt, guilt and fear. You may also experience strange stares from family, friends and acquaintances, some of whom may agree, "Yes, you are insane."

The story idea. This may come before you sign up for the marathon. It may come after the marathon. It may not come to you at all, even during the marathon. Fortunately for me, I'd had an amazing story idea come to me fully formed, in a dream, about three months earlier.

Preparation. In my case, I had driven in from Montreal (thinking about the story), spent a difficult week in Toronto (thinking about the story and not about work), then drove from Oshawa to Huntsville through farm country, rolling hills (thinking about the story) - and at last, into the Muskokas themselves, where inspiration lives. Where else to set a story about werewolves, but in a land of trees, water and rock? Add to this classical music, the whispering, swelling and crashing masterpieces - and to this, one moment of suspended silence, where all chattering mental static suddenly lifts, leaving just one thought: "I can do this."

The initial meet and greet. This is the moment in which you swallow all fear and march in through the door to sign in and accept your registration loot bag, then trundle down to the lunch room where twenty or so others are waiting. If this is your first marathon, you may note that some writers will reminisce about marathons past and compare track records (often explaining away absences and commenting on the new locale). This is also the moment in which you realize that, regardless of your idea or genre, you are among like-minds - which is probably one of the most potent of all the marathon experiences. And it's also the moment when you realize...I might just be able to do this.

The first ten pages. In our case, we tracked every ten pages with a slip of paper, stuck to a window. Me, being overly competitive, I absolutely wanted to be the first to stick something on the window. I did it, but only by mere seconds! Martin Avery was a very close second. Trust me on this: setting hourly goals helps you. It also helps to set landmarks, too - reach this point in the plot, grab a snack; reach that point, go for dinner with friends. Give yourself something to go to, and you will get there.

The first night. Don't expect to sleep. Bathing will help you to relax, physically, but don't expect your brain to turn off, because you are too danged excited about the whole experience!

The wall. It comes sooner than you think! For me, it happened Saturday afternoon, after I blasted through page 100.

The energy surge. Pick your poison: Rockstar, Red Bull, Monster...Surge at your own risk.

The wall. It keeps coming back. The second time you run into it (often coinciding the crash that follows an energy drink), you realize this is not just a contest: it's a true marathon.

The second night. Don't expect to sleep, especially if you leave the night on page 150, in the middle of your story.

The wall. It happens earlier and earlier in the day. Once you hit it, either you get your second wind, or you just keep pushing against the wall. That's what a marathon is.

Bonding. It happened for me, and maybe it happened with others, but sometime between Saturday and Monday morning, I developed a heart-swelling affection for my fellow writer. Every idea was brilliant, every person was a treasured piece of humanity, every foible a delight...And the friends I've made - people just starting off in their writing careers, some well-established, some peers like Paula Boon who is in the same position as me - agented and just so STINKIN' close to a break-through...I could name all my new friends alphabetically and in the order I met them, but this post is already long enough! Yikes!

The wobbles. From Saturday afternoon through Monday morning, I looked like I was trying to walk across the deck of a ship in a storm-tossed sea. Nothing was quite real anymore. Someone would make a comment, and my brain would add, "She said." Characters in the book became indistinguishable from the other writers. At one point, I swore I knew what people were going to say, a moment before they said it - the way an idea preceeds the written dialogue. This may also be indicated by the urge to say punctuation where appropriate. "This is such a good sandwich exclamation point," for example. Oh, and midnight office chair races are obligatory! Betting is optional.

The wall. After a while, you just feel punch drunk. You may laugh for no apparent reason. Or worse, if you have an apparent reason to laugh, you may start sounding like Barnie Rubble. Ask Amy Caughlin and some of the other girls - they witnessed it!

The third night. Try all you want, but you ain't sleeping, because you're about to have...

The moment when you realize everything you've written is absolute CRAP. Self-explanatory. This will occur in small bursts throughout the marathon - if you let it. For me, there was one big moment: about three quarters of the way through when I realized I had painted myself into a corner. Fortunately, this was quickly followed by...

The euphoria. Writing at that speed, your brain is forced into making snap decisions, and you're more or less witnessing the story, more than exerting a creative will over its evolution. Things you didn't even think you were thinking seem to just appear on the screen; you enter their world, listening to the sounds in their background, feeling their sun on your face...Suddenly you bust through the mental block, you see your way out of the plot hole - it's your Aha! moment, when it seems perfectly obvious, and why didn't you see it before? You chase down the idea, nailing it into place with each click of the keys...Characters speak their own lines, saying those profound things that advance the plot and add depth to their personalities - things that never made it to your note pages - things you could never imagine yourself writing even if you had all the time in the world! Imagine, watching this accelerating story unfold, trying desperately to write fast enough to keep up, and then, then you type what you hear: a character's perfect line, a line that you thought was meant for the other characters, but you realize the character was telling you something that you've been ignoring all along - You drift to a stop, breathless, stunned, staring at the screen, and you seep back into your own world, realizing just how far you had gone, how you had completely disconnected from your own body and time and space. The purest creative moment.

The glow. After all that frenzied writing and wrestling and spontaneous thought, it's done. The baby is born and put to bed. You can't breathe without sighing as you watch those pages emerge from the printer, one after another. No matter how good or how bad the work is, what was most important was the experience - the intensely personal and private moment of emerging from your own logical mind into unadulterated creativity, perfectly safe in the midst of your fellow artisans - people who know what you're going through, people who know when to stop you and pull you back from the brink - people who tell you they're leaving for the pub and you're coming with them! Everything seems cushioned, subdued. Walking and talking become a burden, and exhaustion settles in, erasing everything but the soft smile on your puffy face.

The addiction. You plan your vacation time around the next marathon.

Stay tuned for Part Two - the dangers of the 72-hr Novel Marathon.

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