I spent most of the six weeks ending January 31st on an entry for Canada Writes’ Creative Non-fiction contest. I’ve had this story in me for a while, and it was past time to let it out.
I canned my first draft. I regurgitated all the facts — a good exercise — but it was a very telling narrative: this happened then that happened. Facts, no creativity. I read some previous winners and some of the site’s articles on how to write these stories. I quickly saw what I had to do and I did it. *bang* 1987 words. The limit is 1500. I quickly pared it down to 1499 and took it to my January 5th writing group brunch where I read it.
“Wow!” times seven.
I knew the wows were deserved, but they were for the content, not the prose. How do I know that? Because all of my unedited prose stinks. I knew the content. I knew I had been through hell and I knew I’d captured enough of that experience with my words. But I knew it wasn’t crisp prose. I knew I needed to work at getting it to where it needed to be.
I must have edited it every day over those next ten days. I’d read it, mark it with red pen, and correct the document. I’d say to myself “it’s just about finished.” The next day I’d repeat the process. It was like errors fell from the sky and landed inside my computer. I thought my systems must have caught an error generating worm. On many days I found many more changes that needed to be made than the previous day. I wondered if I’d every find the right words.
On Wednesday January 16th I read it again at a weekly writing get-together at our main library branch. There were six of us, and two were at my first reading. I didn’t get any wows, but I did get a “that’s much tighter.” It still felt loose to me. I decided to shelve it for a bit.
The next Monday I pulled it out and a new set of problems showed themselves. I had number formatting consistency problems. I repeated a few ideas. I found repeated words. I found ideas that weren’t fleshed out completely — “this happened.” But what the hell is “this?” — and I found foreshadowing inconsistent with the actual events — I began with the concept of clean water but didn’t end it with dirty water, not explicitly. *water is a euphemism*
I felt like it was getting close to complete, but issues kept surfacing. I decided to look at it only every second day. On January 30th I spent all day downtown. I pulled it out at Starbucks and read through it with my red pen. I didn’t take the cover off. A friend joined me. Jon is a big reader with a sharp mind, a chess master. I know he was taken by my story, and of course it put him on the defensive. My story does that to you unless you know my experiences. Nobody has known; which is why I wrote it. My daughter called it scary. Jon and I have a fairly deep, respectful relationship only old kindred friends can have. He held off any emotions and gave me several points of feedback he knew I wanted: “I liked how this ties into that. I like this description. I like how …” I like are good words. I ignored them.
I read it again on January 31st. I liked it all. I said wow. I paid the $25 and submitted it. I don’t really care if it wins. I wrote my story, and people will read it. I’m proud of the piece, and I want people to read it. If it doesn’t win, I will publish it myself, somewhere, maybe here. If I publish it first, I can’t win, and $6,000 and a two-week trip to the Banff writing centre are too much to risk.