A 3-day novel, unicorn writing, Anne Murray and mental Pilates.


I participated in the International 3-day novel contest on the Labour Day long weekend. I registered on a semi-whim on August 30th, and started writing at 4am on the 31st. I finished yesterday, Sept 2, at 7pm. I slept for about 7 of the 72 hours we had to work with.

So obviously I didn’t have much time for preparation, though I was writing about material that I’m very familiar with. Considering how the writing process works, I wasn’t sure how much preparation could really be done for an event like this. I certainly don’t tend to stick slavishly to a structural outline when I’m working, and character traits that sounded great in the character sketches are often discarded (or never even acknowledged) when they start moving around in the world I’ve built for them. What I did try to do was prepare myself mentally, since that is something I do have some control over.

Although I can be extremely competitive when I’m writing, I also value the ability to know when I’m outclassed, and to switch my efforts from WINNING to LEARNING and simply doing the best I can. Let’s be honest here, competitive people get ahead, even in the creative world. My competitiveness kept me writing, kept me churning out pages long after I wanted to quit. My desire to come out of the experience with some kind of mental and emotional gain kept me from pushing myself to utter exhaustion, and allowed me to learn a lot about my process. So basically, whatever happens with the manuscript, I’ve already declared myself a winner. Cheezy, but true.

It took me a long time to give up control.

I write slowly and methodically. I go back and correct obvious typos right away, because they bug me. My first drafts look like third drafts, because I don’t even go near the page until the stories are clear and partially written in my head. I edit while I write.

None of that was going to work for me now.

Still, I refused to relinquish my grip on the narrative. I paused to question the relevance of certain paragraphs. I spent precious time chastising myself for the cliché, television-esque dialogue, the long expositional passages, the less-than-literary themes. For a while, I decided I was writing a romantic comedy and I nearly gave up altogether. One of my characters even says “Are we in a rom com right now?” Then I realized I was trying to use post-modern, self-reflexive writing in an utterly transparent attempt to forgive myself for a cliché, television-esque, highly expositional rom com, and maybe I had better just abandon my writing career altogether.

By the end of the first day, I had written 6 pages, and I was the worst hack ever to have put pen to paper. I thought of businesses who advertise that they want “perfectionist” writers. Wrong. Perfectionists aren’t people who get everything right, they’re people who obsess over getting everything right. We just sit and stew and never get anything done because nothing is good enough. What you need is someone who can just give it up and write. And then after the writing is done, what we all need is a copy editor who is a perfectionist. Thank goodness for those people!

On the second day (which I started at 2am), I was aware that I needed to just give up and write, but I wasn’t quite ready to do this. I ventured in to this realm, where you kind of unfocus your eyes and stop asking questions and imagine the words are coming from your hands rather than your head. Unicorn writing. So elusive! Being exhausted helped, and I’m sure that’s part of the idea of the contest, write until you(r guard) drop(s)!

At the other end of these brief sessions of unicorn writing was usually a trip to the processing plant, cutting off limbs even before I’d given them time to prove their potential usefulness. The words weren’t well crafted enough. The theme was too trite. Off with its head! In some ways, the lack of editing time at the other end made me more brutal. It had to come out right the first time or not at all.

By 6pm on the second day, the website said we should be half way through if we were hoping to reach the goal of 90-100 pages. I wasn’t even a quarter of the way there. This, FINALLY, is when the soul searching happened.

Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? Am I too focused on the page limit? What if I just write the best story I can, while shooting for 100 pages? What if I stop trying to be the Anne Murray* of Canlit.


On day three, the magic. (Finally!) Not good writing–give me a break!–I was exhausted and really really angry (letting go of control has that effect on me). For lack of a better description, I stopped writing in my conscious brain, and let the subconscious take the reins.

When the sun began to rise on the third day, I’d already been at it for four hours. At this point I can honestly say I was equal parts convinced that this was never going to happen, and absolutely certain that I was going to make it happen. So, there had to be some compromise.

Compromise #1: go for a walk. I know chaining yourself to the computer is a bad idea. I do it anyway. So, I walked into the neighbourhood: up Lakewood towards Hastings. In the same way that we sometimes ask our dreams for insight on our lives, I asked my brain for help.

And, in the same way that our dreams gather and mash up stimuli from memories, and current events and present them in a weird and wonderful narrative, my brain delivered.

As I walked up Lakewood, I passed a boxed-up old plastic Christmas tree that someone was giving away, with a sign on it that said FREE. The tree became an image, and the image suggested loneliness at a time of togetherness, and also the seasonally prescribed surrender to dopey sentimentality that Christmas provides, (Yeah, I’m a cynic- surprise!)  And that reminded me of one of my characters. When I got home, it became 6 pages of writing. I didn’t re-read it.

From that point on, the process was more like recording a dream in realtime than actually writing a story. Memories surfaced and were written into scenes, characters became a mash-up of people I know and some people I’ve just met. Voices came to me from old conversations, some of them even had accents! Even things people were posting on Facebook as I was working ended up in the work. No (or very few) questions asked. I’ve been in this zone before, and I suppose it’s what many writers would consider “pure” or “real” creative writing. But it’s not somewhere I visit very often, to be honest. It’s kind of like doing Pilates (yeah, I’m going there) I know I’m supposed to be using my core muscles, and that using them is the only way they are going to get stronger. But they are so wussy! And my back muscles are so much stronger! And they do a pretty good job, too. Until I wake up with a backache the next day.

Did that metaphor work? Maybe. Maybe got away a little from me at the end there. Give me some slack, I just wrote a novella! What I’m getting at, is that this contest forced me to stop writing with my back muscles, and start writing with my core.


I still don’t know if I prefer the idea of writing every possible thing down as part of realizing a first draft. It still seems unsightly- all those extra words. My way still FEELS more efficient. But projects like this force perfectionist types to try this method, and it’s worked for some of the greatest writers of all time. So I’ll keep participating in events like the 3-day novel competition, because it’s good for me, good for the process, and I feel great about what I accomplished. A 75 page, verbose, poorly assembled mashup of potentially usable material.

A true first draft.

*Anne Murray is famous for being a one-take-wonder, she could just sit down at the mic at a recording session and nail it the first time.

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