To my great surprise, I did it. I did almost everything differently this year, and for the first time I came out of the weekend feeling better than when I went in.
In previous years, I’ve cleared my schedule, decided not to cook but to buy prepared food locally at mealtimes, skipped exercise, stayed up late, and forbidden myself to have any Internet or social contact for the entire weekend. I’ve also spent the last couple of weekends before the event actively working to outline at least one story idea, sometimes more. I’ve emerged from these weekends feeling sleep-deprived, anxious, and critical, or ended up writing practically nothing after I went ahead and did something forbidden and then lost my momentum.
This time pretty much my only constraints were a cleared schedule and no in-person social contact. I did no outlining and only came close to brainstorming about stories once – on the Thursday morning before the weekend – and was almost immediately derailed. I got at least 3 days of healthy food ingredients that I just plain like, plus some treats for every day. I resolved to exercise for at least 2 hours each morning (and did so, along with another hour in the evenings), and to go to sleep before half past midnight each night (again, success). I did not use an alarm clock. I also allowed myself to check email and a couple of websites a couple of times a day, although I (almost totally) avoided responding or participating.
In other words, I acted natural. I went through each day more or less as a normal workday, but instead of going to the office, I sat and made stuff up.
The process change I was the most concerned about was skipping the outlining step. I did use a structural prompt, though. Contest materials say the average story is about 100 pages, so I made a word-processing document with 100 blank pages, and every time I started to write, I didn’t stop til I got to the end of a page (about 250 words). Sometimes I did two at a time, but either way every time I started typing, I had a specific goal that was, at completion, visible on a single screen. And in a departure from previous years: I ended up cutting words to meet my immediate storytelling goal within my page rather than typing whatever popped into my head. I think this structural decision is the single element that is most responsible for what I see as the tightest, most even writing I’ve ever produced for this contest. Having hour-plus blocks of exercise during which I could think things over definitely helped, too.
I’m not submitting it for judging, but for the first time I believe – rather than take on faith – that I can produce a manuscript in this timeframe that is a credible competitor. This is a new feeling, even after years of confidence that I accomplish something valuable every year. I did do one superstitious thing every night before a writing day: I read through the notes I made about all my noteworthy dreams over the last couple of months (about 750 words in all). I didn’t write my dreams into my story, but it was a soothing, centering exercise that led nicely into sleep.