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Three-Day Novel

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.

The 3-Day Novel Contest

Nothing Happens Unless First a Dream

I have 2 kinds of dreams: extremely simple, literal dreams, usually about work but sometimes about fun stuff (I have dreamed depressingly long, ludicrously realistic sequences of Civilization turns), and genuinely weird, complicated dreams that almost always revolve around a living space. Lately I’ve been trying to be more aware of them, and at least make a couple of notes to myself even about the literal ones, because I wonder if there’s a pattern. Is my dreaming meaningfully related to food, regular exercise or sleep (or the absence of them), stress, notable events? I know there are some patterns – I’ve had unpleasant recurrent dreams when I’ve been depressed, for example, but those are as simple and obvious as literal dreams about work or other activities. What I really want to know, of course, is whether there’s anything I can do to make it more likely I’ll have the kind of dreams that leave me thinking, “Where did that come from?” In a (mostly) good way.

Here is one of my most vivid such dreams, from July 2003. I still think about this one because of the ducks. I do a lot of bird photography now, and my stepfather raises ducks and chickens, but this was a period when I didn’t think much about birds at all, although I was about to. I hadn’t even started watching The Sopranos yet.

I was in a little apartment with a front door onto the street and a back door onto a balcony with a yard below. I knew the neighborhood. It’s the one I lived in when I was in middle school, in Seattle, although it didn’t have any structures on it like the one in the dream. Actually, I got dropped off there that night, after a movie with my last boyfriend and a friend of his, a very close friend of his that he never introduced me to until after we broke up, and when they pulled up to the front of “my building” it looked totally different from the way it looked when I looked out my front door.

As we pulled up to the building, it was a fairly standard San Francisco apartment building, with a careful paint job and big bay windows in neat columns. From inside, it was a strange mix of elegant Asian design and junky 50s dark wood and stained glass in a range of colors reminiscent of amber. I had an enormous window next to the sliding-glass door for the balcony, and that window had only a screen, no glass. It was easily 6 feet high and 8 feet across. I remember looking at it and thinking, “That doesn’t seem very secure.”

The dream fragments are from just before and just after the movie. When the ex drove me home, he was also hauling a bunch of my things, things I had had with me, not things that I’d left with him, but an awful lot of things. It took two trips to get everything into the house, and there were three of us. I flashed back and forth between primping the place before I left and trying to put things away right when I got home with all this new clutter. The apartment was stuffed with things I had recently acquired from one place or another, including an intensely uncomfortable stool-like chair, with a bent-wire back, that I was trying to mitigate with an embroidered pillow.

I looked with frustration at a pile of junk in a bag that had burst open when set down on the floor. I knew I had to put these things away quickly, or my cat would play hockey with them. When I knelt down to start sorting the contents, I saw a duck near the fireplace, a brilliant male. I leaned toward him and caught some movement in the corner of my eye. A dull, brown-feathered female with what appeared to be a chick. I felt sorry for the ugly duckling.

I picked up the chick with ease, and the mother didn’t seem concerned. She walked over to me, and I petted her back. As I did, she lay down flat on the floor and I saw she had orange, not brown, coloring, and tabby stripes. She was, in fact, a cat. I looked up at the front door, and there was coming a steady procession of chick-ducklings with their dull-feathered mothers joined by tabby duennas, a half a dozen, now a dozen or more.

I explicitly remember thinking, “Oh rats” (in the interjectory sense, not as a simple observation) as the alarm went off.

Right now I have another reason for trying to capture these images. I am preparing for the Three-Day Novel Contest, which runs over Labor Day weekend. I do this every year, either as a personal writing retreat or as some kind of orgy of self-scourging, I’m not really sure. Even when I don’t have a good time, I learn something important, but it’s always more satisfying if I at least have some idea in my head about what to write by a comfortable few weeks beforehand. (It works if I change my mind at the last minute, too. There’s just something helpful – reassuring? – about having a concrete plan.) And so I am scouring my dreams, hoping for inspiration.