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A Novel in Three Days

By posted at 6:56 am on August 25, 2010 11

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Day three, ten a.m.: no sleep last night. Nothing else seems substantial anymore except for the words on the laptop screen. The backs of my eyeballs feel prickly, suggesting complete and unforgiving fatigue. My brain went AWOL hours earlier and I keep omitting words like ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘or’, and ‘of’ from sentences. Yet I am ecstatic—an intense happiness burgeoning in me from too much caffeine, too little sleep, and having just spent two and a half days in a dream world of my own creation. As of right now, I am a novelist.

Three days from midnight to midnight: write as much as you can, wherever you wish; this is the International 3-Day Novel Contest. The average finished entry is between twenty and thirty thousand words. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is about 77,000 words. Thus, the finished result is more novella than novel, but all the same, a grand effort considering the timeframe.

Back to day one: The Setup. The contest allows prior planning of plots and characters. Oops. I snatch at ideas, desperate for anything. How about an alien abductees’ support group? Brilliant—very Fight Club. (Didn’t Graham Greene once say, “Writing is a form of therapy”?) Having a vague idea for a plot, I engage in the writing process. Many authors talk of losing themselves in the “zone”. They make it sound as if the words write themselves. I wish. Midnight arrives and the word count is a contemptible 4,500 words. The zone has eluded me. The 3-Day Novel Contest is held annually in early September on the Canadian Labor Day long weekend. In 1977, a writer’s group in Vancouver accepted the challenge for the first time.

The contest has been running ever since. According to the organizers, the 3-Day Novel Contest has been called a “fad,” an “idle threat,” a “great way to overcome writers block,” and “a trial by deadline.” It opposes the notion that novels take eight years of angst to produce. Most entrants recognize that winning is secondary to finishing with a complete novella and no nervous breakdown.

Day two: The Complication. Fatigue and patchy concentration lead to self-doubt. The successful 3-day novelist, like an athlete, must tailor his diet for maximal alertness. Red Bull, orange juice, pancakes, dark chocolate, Indian takeaway, Pepsi, bananas, Canadian Club and Cola: nothing helps. (I thought only my characters were delusional alcoholics.) Back in the fictional world, my imaginary small town is rocked by a grim discovery at the local fishing hole: a young woman’s body. Worse, the deputy sheriff believes my protagonist’s ex-girlfriend is the killer. Did she do it?

Have you ever read a novel and wondered if even the author knew where it was going? Trust me, they don’t. In this masterpiece, characters change their motivations more frequently than their underwear. Fortunately, by midnight on the second day, I have managed to reach 10,000 words. My eyes close and my head hangs as I nearly drift off, still sitting upright on the sofa, laptop in front. Here is where the true writers are sorted from the wannabes.

To do nothing but write for seventy-two hours requires dedication and a lack of distractions. Some contestants book hotel rooms for the isolation. Budget writers have been known to lock themselves in the bathroom for the entire three days. Eccentric tactics are not unheard of amongst even the elites; Stephen King wrote his breakout novel, Carrie, on a typewriter in the cramped space of his laundry room. There are reports from contestants of exhaustion overcoming rationality. As one contestant’s testimonial states, “On the second day I was hanging out the window, shouting at the neighbor’s dog to be quiet. My neighbor doesn’t have a dog.”

Day three: The Resolution. I force my eyes open and resolve not to sleep for the final twenty-four hours. After two days spent hunched over, my ribs now feel bruised and tender. However, a transformation has taken place within me. Time skips by without realization as a state of manic hyperactivity consumes me. Two hours are lost when I think only ten minutes has passed. (Agatha Christie purportedly entered trance states while writing.) Here lies the true value in entering this masochistic contest. First, the enjoyment derived from losing oneself in the writing process is exaggerated in such an environment. Second, your most common mistakes and over-used sentence structures become woefully apparent by midway through this event.

My partner awakens in the morning, concerned to find I have not moved in eight hours. She feeds and tends to me with great sympathy. Feeling the fatigue, my problems now are clarity and plot progression. 3-Day Novels are famous for logic holes; this is when the murder victim from page three magically returns for the Vegas wedding at the end. The author must battle against sleep deprivation, sugar highs and lows, mood swings and headaches, successfully tying up every thread of their story. No easy task by day three. However, the word count is rising and I ponder how the career novelists do this for a living.

Stephen King typically writes first drafts in under three months. Enid Blyton produced nearly 800 books in forty years as a novelist. Reputedly, she consistently achieved 10,000 words a day at one point in her career. The first draft of Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring was written in little over a week. Better yet, Samuel Johnson reportedly wrote Rasselas in under a week to earn the money to pay for his mother’s funeral. Evidently, speed does not necessarily impair quality. That is why the first prize of the 3-Day Novel Contest is publication.

Sunset: The Epilogue. The end approaches for both the deadline and the novel. Many competitors get to this point, throw in a surprise ending two chapters earlier than expected, and find a warm bed to clamber into. I struggle on, realizing it is time to forgo any semblance of editing or proofreading. The climax arrives with a twist that I had not planned or foresaw until the words appeared on my screen. Bang! Gunshots sound out in abundance. The deputy sheriff is found holding the clichéd smoking gun. (Wait… it was him? Really?) The death of the hero’s ex-girlfriend has ruined all hope of a happy ending. Or has it? In an all too convenient twist, it turns out that there are aliens with advanced medical technologies who can resurrect my love interest. No time to change the cheesy ending, midnight is fifteen minutes away. I type my hasty ending paragraph of explanatory exposition and save the document. 97 pages. 20,000 words. As I put my book and myself to bed, I smile. The contest may not have been judged yet, but one decision has already been made: next year, I will do it all again.

Fortunately, Sean Di Lizio’s memories are hazier than his diary and he will be competing again in this year’s event. The 2010 International 3-Day Novel Contest will be held on September 4-6. To enter, download a registration form from the official website.

[Image credit: Joelk75]





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11 Responses to “A Novel in Three Days”

  1. dirtywhitecandy
    at 8:34 am on August 25, 2010

    Fascinating. I had a friend who did this years ago, locking herself in a caravan for the duration. I wasn’t so much into writing at the time but over the years I’ve wished I’d asked her more about it. You’ve assuaged a long-held curiosity. Thank you. And well done.

  2. Sanctuaryofinsanity
    at 9:59 am on August 25, 2010

    I entered the contest twice before. The last time was two years ago and now I plan to do it again this year. It’s an amazing experience, My past attempts have taught me a lot about how to approach writing for the contest and I am hoping that will help a lot this year.

    My main goal is to try and avoid the surprise “oh-my-god-I-only-have-two-hours-left” endings or Godding my characters out of situations they find themselves in that would take too long to write them out of normally.

  3. Clare
    at 2:30 pm on August 25, 2010

    I’ve wanted to do this contest for years, and I think I’m in the right place to do it this year.

    Oh, and to add to the 3 Day Novel Diet: many spoonfuls of sugar. And a shot of your choice, that would probably loosen you up a bit to let the words flow.

  4. Sanctuaryofinsanity
    at 12:03 pm on August 26, 2010

    Sleep is my best advice. The first time I participted I think I slept a total of four hours in three days. My eyes burned, my head felt like it was stuffed with cotton and I dropped into a near literary aphasia.

    The second time I slept for 15 hours. I know it seems like a waste of good writing time, but working with a clear head is a lot more productive than trying to slog through like a drooling zombie.

    The first time I wrote 130 pages and the second came in at 110. Obviously working for fewer hours resulted in fewer pages but the overall product was a lot better the second time around.

  5. Sanctuaryofinsanity
    at 11:02 pm on August 26, 2010

    Well, it’s more of a novelette.

  6. Novel in 3 Days ! « Writing To Be Read
    at 4:46 am on August 31, 2010

    [...] days. Everything has to be done NOW.  But a novel in 3 days? Sean Di Lizio writes graphically of his experience in an International 3 Day Novel Contest. That’s really making writing an extreme sport!I took [...]

  7. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 11:14 am on August 31, 2010

    I’ve always thought the idea of writing a novel in three days was completely insane (it takes me about 2.5 years) but in a good way. It takes a certain spirit that I find tremendously admirable.

  8. 3-Day Novel Contest strikes again! :: Black Heart Magazine
    at 11:31 am on August 31, 2010

    [...] at Fuel Your Writing. For more reading material to help you make up your mind on this wild ride, The Millions also has a recent piece on the trials and tribulations of a 3-Day Novelist, and Minister [...]

  9. Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » The 3-Day Novel
    at 2:01 pm on September 3, 2010

    [...] The Millions, Sean Di Lizio explains: The 3-Day Novel Contest is held annually in early September on the Canadian Labor Day long [...]

  10. Sean Di Lizio
    at 12:06 am on September 7, 2010

    Thank you to everyone for the supportive comments and helpful ideas! I have just finished this year’s 3-day Novel Contest and you can read a brief report of my experiences on my blog:
    http://litwatcher.blogspot.com/2010/09/3-day-novel-report.html

  11. Marion
    at 12:42 pm on September 9, 2010

    Good on you for mentioning your partner’s help. Having “done” the contest the last 3 year’s in a row, I don’t know how anyone can do it without a loved one willing to act as servant, sounding board and an sometimes taskmaster.

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