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The Mad Dash

I’m a very slow writer. A single short story can take up to six months for me to get to a point where I feel it’s finally right. A poem can take almost as long. Many of the writers I know complete whole drafts before going back to revise, and I admire that method. I keep trying to implement it, but I can’t. I plod through my writing hours, often going back to revise a paragraph before moving forward. This paragraph alone underwent five revisions before I moved on to the next one.

I tell you this because I want you to understand the full insanity of what I undertook – a technique that I call “The Mad Dash.” Simply put, this involves taking five writing days in a row and during a single session (For me that’s about two hours), writing a complete short story. No revisions, no stopping: two hours, one full-length short story. No cheating by writing flash pieces.

The idea isn’t new; it’s the writer’s equivalent of the decathlon, but it came back to me after reading an interview with Ann Beattie in the August/September issue of Poets and Writers. In the article, Joshua Bodwell reports that Beattie completed eighteen stories in three weeks, writing the first draft of each in one session. All but three ended up in her most recent collection. Beattie said, “Even I felt amused by how ridiculously productive I was being” (50).

I’m certainly no Ann Beattie. I hoped that if I had the steel to do this for five days, then I would at least have one story draft I could revise over the rest of the month.

The problem was process. How did I, an inveterate plodder among the keys, plan to do this? There would be no stopping to consider, no mulling of plot direction or character traits or dialogue quirks once the typing started. I could assume that because the whole draft was going to be bad, it would be worthless to worry about perfection, and, knowing I would worry anyway, there just wouldn’t be time. There also could be no distractions. I drew the blinds and set the laptop wi-fi receiver to airplane mode.

Thus, the mad dash began.

The first day was a bust because I’d write a sentence and then stop and tell myself there was no way I was going to be able to do this. The second day was pretty much the same thing, and I stopped in the middle. It was time to have a tough-love talk with my internal editor, the voice that’s always nattering on in the head about how the writing isn’t strong enough, the story is going wrong, the character would never say that, etc. etc. etc. I took the carrot-and-the-stick approach:

“Look, wimp,” I told my Naysayer. “I’m going to ignore you. I’m not going to let you hijack my writing time. Eventually, I’m going to do this, and maybe I’ll change my writing habit for good. Then where will you be? The alternative is to take a five-day vacation, and then you can work the other 25 days. That’s the deal.”

On the third day, I did better. I didn’t get to the end because the story kept growing and it ran out the clock on me. Still I was satisfied with the result. Perhaps in revision I would find an ending I overlooked during the mad dash.

The fourth and fifth days, I wrote complete drafts.

And that was it. I took the two wins, discounted the three losses, and called it a successful mad dash. Don’t think for a minute that the stories were good. I estimate one bears working through to the end, and the other will be put away for a long nap. (That’s the subject of a future post.) I counted the exercise a win because it started the process of moving me beyond the revision-fest I kept throwing for myself every time I wrote a paragraph. Even if I never run the mad dash for five days in a row, I’ve proven that my world won’t collapse because I’ve moved onto a paragraph without polishing the previous one. Eventually, it will become part of my process, and I’ll be a better writer for it.

As writers, we get into ruts: how we write, what we write, what we think about writing. That can be a good or bad thing, but so can a change to that system. Try something new. Write from a prompt. Write a complete story in a three-hour block. Write with a notebook if you always use a computer or vice versa. If you only write long fiction, try a shorter piece, or better yet, a poem. It might be bad. Terrible even. Then again, it might be good, and the benefit of the change will make whatever you normally do better in the long run.

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