How To Write A Three Day Novel

#18 of 100

#18 of 100 -- still going!
#18 of 100 -- still going!

Or, How To Write A Three Day Novel My Way -- Your Mileage May Vary!

One thing I have discovered over the course of setting out to become a science fiction writer at age four (which then included fantasy, horrror, humor and Dr. Seuss in my concept of the genre) and today, is that every single novelist who becomes one by finishing a novel takes his or her own personal unique path to that goal. Just as every book is different, every writer is different. A method that works wonders for one writer just slows down, chokes or hamstrings another.

Many writers have sworn up and down to me that it's impossible to finish a book-length work without a sensible outline. It sure is for them. They'd get lost in it because they need to do it their way. There is, thankfully, no tried and true Right Way To Write Novels. There are as many of them as writers who have done so, but they fall into some loose categories.

One general type is the Linear method.

This is to start on Page One and start telling the story, keep going until you reach The End, then write The End on that page.

I do that. I believe Lewis Carroll was the one who suggested that in character in one of his books, probably one of the Alice books. Maybe it was C. S. Lewis instead. But that method does have some striking advantages for me and most of all, it's the one I enjoy most. That's the method in which I really don't know how it ends.

Therefore the characters don't know how it's going to end either and it's great for creating suspense. Doing it well and keeping continuity means taking notes as I go so that I don't contradict or forget anything important I did before. It's also easier for me to do that in as close to one continous process as possible. So doing it all in three days sometimes makes it easier.

I don't have time to stop and paint a picture or read someone else's book or get a different idea or even clean my room. I'd better stay with the book and look at what's on the next page, and that keeps the memory of last chapter and the first chapter very sharp. So the if the Linear method sounds like you and all the times you've written novels, speed writing challenges like the http://www.3daynovel.com Three Day Novel Contest may be right up your alley -- as long as you can do it without stopping.

I would suggest trying something smaller first like the month-long 50,000 word http://www.nanowrimo.com challenge, which has no entry fee, is free, you can try again every year till you get up to speed and if you really want to warm up to the next year's 3 Day Novel, try to do your Wrimo in the first three or four days or week of the month. Then you can join the small Multi-Book Elite and feel very proud of your big numbers and see how many novels you can do in one November. I've done that too and it's fun.

The contest's definition of A Novel is rather loose.

100 pages printed out averages about 250 words a page, if you sensibly use manuscript format and double space it in 12 point Courier New. Therefore, yur length goal for your first Three Day Novel does not need to meet the SFWA Length Definitions, established by Science Fiction Writers of America to categorize various works of fiction that may wind up as serials in digests or pulled together in two or three per volume or otherwise go into print in combination to get them to the size of a publishable book.

Regular novels, the kind you pick up at the store, range from 80,000 to 120,000 in length, the ones by Stephen King and other Fat Novel writers go to maybe 150,000 to 200,000 and when it gets much beyond that, the glue on the spines break and so you might ought to break it into sections, sell it in volumes and call it a trilogy or series. Stephen King's The Dark Tower is actually a seven book long story, a novel too fat to fit in only two covers. He also took forever to write all of it and I'm very happy he finished because now I can read it beginning to end without stopping and waiting months or years for the next one.

So was Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which also didn't fit in one volume. It too is better read all at once. But many trilogies and series really are made up of separate books like the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Each one is its own story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and can be read out of order and still make sense.

You need about 25,000 words to get 100 paper manuscript pages, anywhere in that ballpark will make the judges happy and it's called a novelette or novella. Don't recall the precise division there but there are two long story forms before you get to actual "Novel" for SFWA at 40,000 words.

My first Three Day Novel was 37,650 words and came heartbreakingly short of making the SFWA mark. I sent it in anyway, having paid the entry fee, and it didn't win. That was in the year 2000. In all the years since, I've wound up broke at the time it was time to send in the entry fee and didn't get around to setting aside the money, or put it off too long and wound up broke at the last minute.

Nonetheless, it was an incredible rush when my 2001 novel topped 40,000 -- I think it was 40,200 words or something like that. Maybe even closer. I remember diving back into it during the last hour before midnight tolled, looking at every description and stuffing in added details. Most of them turned out to be body language during dialogue, which is a very slick, effective trick for padding your word count without distorting the story -- it just makes your characters more expressive and characterizes them better. It's rarely extraneous and sometimes can make a hastily written dialogue make more sense. It's also less boring than "She said" to put "She pointed at him. 'Are you listening to me?'"

And far more dramatic than "She said sharply."

The other half of my writing method is that it is Organic.

I don't pre-plan the plot at all or decide anything till it happens. It's linear and organic because I make it up as I go along with only the vaguest idea of where it's going. In fact, I usually share the characters' ideas of where it's going right up to the point they do anything to move in that direction.

Then I think of what would really happen if they did and hit them with the consequences, hard.

This becomes Linear-Organic Writing and it is a specific, very fun method for churning out long stories at speed, because I do not have to stop and work anything out. Just describe my characters as they go on, let them be stupid, don't choke them if they do something I didn't expect but see what happens. If they solve the trap I thought was so clever, they did, and probably jumped into something else because of that. If they threw away their rope getting out of the trap, I can throw them some new situation where they wish they still had it.

That puts them, their psyches, their resources, their relationships and everything under fire from the first page.

I always pick the most interesting results out of the many different consequences that can happen. Usually these are nasty, but not always. Sometimes they do something clever where if it turns out to work, that opens up more possibilities than if I just slap them down. It does a lot to keep them on their toes and favors survivors and quick thinking decisive characters over wibblers and cowards.

I developed this plotting method because I was a freeform roleplaying game gamemaster for a decade before I ever finished a novel. Each of my characters in the story was controlled by a player who wanted to be entertained and dragged through hair-raising adventures and achieve great things in the story. I had the great good luck of falling in with experienced players when I was a wet behind the ears new gamemaster -- and they knew the book forwards and backwards.

So on the very first dreadful session I used all the Encounter Charts in the three ratty little secondhand beige booklets one of them gave me and rolled dice for what happened. Experienced players all rolled up starting level one characters -- with past lives that went through five or six years of extensive play-testing on the system. They had all that memorized. They all knew what to do no matter what came up on the dice.

They were nice about it and said it was a good time but I had spent weeks building dungeons for them and building up a good binder full of cool stuff that I'd spent days on end rolling dice to create... and they'd gone through what I thought should've been a good several months of game all in the first session. They were a dozen chambers away from the part that wasn't finished yet and close on the ultimate quest item. In one session. With baby level one characters and cheap normal starting-money equipment.

So the next session I threw away the book and started making it up off the top of my head. I did a little prep, at least made up some creatures and legends they'd never heard of -- but I let them bumble in all directions and threw no deliberate quest clues. I plotted off what each of them said he or she wanted in building their characters' motivations.

Wow. They pulled together fast and got scared the first time something didtn't come out the way it was supposed to and a monster showed up that no one had ever heard of. Worse, they started getting paranoid and reading a mighty deep significance into every careless bit of characterization I threw in a townspeople encounter... they were hunting for clues I had not laid and were all expert conspiracy theorists. They went seeking and so the first bullied barmaid turned into an adventure tag and her ex and her bad ex's relatives and the rest of the humans and some rather more sentient than usual monsters started becoming real enemies offended by the often offensive things they did in town in the usual games where nothing but a powerful monster could do their invulnerable characters harm.

I learned to pace by watching for times when they got distracted talking about great old adventures in other campaigns or my earlier ones -- and by watching for times when they'd been pounded just too many times and someone whooped out with something silly or a bad joke broke the whole thing up and started the Silly Session. I learned the Silly Session was essential to break tension in a suspense story -- that something has to lighten it up and people who've emotionally fought for their lives, or their characters' lives, through too many challenges will get giddy and slaphappy and hilariously funny at that point.

Playing with live people for characters gave me the knack of Character-Driven Plots.

Those make richer, more unique and original stories.

The starting point can be as cliche as you want. Start off with something as overused as Cinderella and depending on who that person in your story is, it can go anywhere and she can decide to blow off princes and balls in favor of running off into the woods to become a huntress and a bandit and avenge herself on her stepmother for murdering her dad. Not the usual rendering. The twists come hard, fast and intuitive.

So the starting point on a linear-organic novel is -- whatever interests me at that moment on that day for that 3 day novel contest -- and it can literally be anything. I've popped off with horror-humor instead of SF or sword and sorcery. I've wound up doing things I never expected. I wound up doing one that became a father and son story -- because I'd casually left a character a bastard who didn't know who his real father was and caught on about halfway through that the older man he wrangled with constantly who resembled him a lot was actually his dad, while they were building a fictive father-son relationship.

So things like that become deductive. I look at what's there and try to answer the questions the characters raise in the most interesting way -- and neither of them really believed it even when they began suspecting it was true because both of those men had been too deeply wounded about it for too long -- the older one because his legitimate son had just betrayed him horribly and the younger one because he knew himself well enough to know he needed a father emotionally too much and was probably projecting, not observing.

Writing books will say "choose incidents that push the story forward."

What this means is "choose incidents that push the story forward on the right path for that stage of the book." That is how pacing results in a novel of your chosen length instead of a short story or a seven volume wondrous opus that takes twenty years to finish but is so worth it in the end.

I break the plot process into stages. The beginning -- I throw in everything and the kitchen sink. Anything can happen. I have it all up my sleeve. I don't know that there aren't vampires in this novel or whether one can come out and try to kill the bad guy just when the characters need it, then become more of a problem to them because they saw him do it so other vampires will try to hunt them down and change or kill or enslave them. Just to pick an example of Deus Ex Machina that could be called Devil in the Machine instead. A quick solution to an immediate problem that gives an "easy" out with many more complications than their just sucking it up or losing would've.

Everything adds complexity. Every new character, for or against the first ones, adds complexity. Their conflicts aren't always the same. Very often that first conflict that sounded so neat will be solved within chapters of its introduction -- in ways that begin sounding the clear notes of the main theme and leading to the real quest.

I let themes happen as they will. It's intuitive for me, doing themes. There are a lot of ideas I think are good ones and I always test them against the natural exceptions to the rule, so themes will come up. Which ones dominate the story are the ones most important to those people then and there within it. What else the reader carries away from it is subthemes. I don't usually write from theme and that helps avoid preachiness.

They're smoothly demonstrated because I spent years thinking about them in unreadably long whiny journals where I worked out what I thought of those things -- and then still question them along with the characters as the book goes on because I'm alive and do that as easily as breathe or type.

The middle of the plot arc balances innovation and introductions, new complexity, with resolutions of conflicts already raised. Some early fights resolve themselves or at least clarify themselves. People pick sides. People change sides. Things happen to change things. It's half new stuff and half tying together what's there and it can actually be sustained pretty long -- almost indefinitely, though usually there is a graceful change between Beginning and Middle as the acceleration slows, a balance point somewhere that things start to decelerate and more stuff ties together details established in the beginning -- and sweeps up loose ends making them significant.

I mentioned the barmaid's sister was a witch. She needs to come onstage somewhere. Ah, I know, she's dating the vampire in the tower and is going to be a bit torn when the party comes up with her sister in it... they might persuade her to their side or just blow her away or join her if they hear her out. I don't know which will happen but I set up an opportunity-disaster-connection that iwll at least answer the story question "Why didn't the barmaid's witch sister do anything about it?" She did, or had reason not to, and the reader gets to see it.

Toward the end, the closer it comes, the tighter the web of destiny wraps around the characters. It's not made up of ancient prophecies, though I can edit those details into the vague ones I may have thrown at the beginning or bust those to smithereens by something the characters did. It's made up of all the consequences of everything they did in the book and its prequels if I'm doing a series. This is where that character who helped the barmaid clean up after it closed is going to find out that the little people thought well of her for it and one of them will just happen to give information at the right moment. This is where any real obvious tragic errors will get their major comeuppance and it'll hurt.

This is also characterized by the biggest twists I can throw to the plot. If there is a weird answer to the prophecy, that's how it'll turn out. The one no one expected.

"Drink the green glass to its dregs."

The character had to help a wizard who was making magical green glass beads out of molten glass and have a vision involving water while doing so, in order to get the actual sea charts to meet the wizard in person. They could communicate while the spells intersected and they got it together before he used the last drop of green glass to make a different magical artifact. They had spent 3/4 of the book looking for a green glass bowl or goblet -- but they drank it to its dregs so to speak and that helped him complete the quest. They were laughing at the scavenger hunt list of the prophecy too and all of it came true in sundry unexpected odd ways.

By the very end, what happens is almost pure causality. It hangs on one thing -- a moment of character in one or several of the main characters facing that very last moment. They can't break down then or they are ruined, no matter how good they were along the way. By then though they've been through enough fires that they do make it, they're experienced and tough enough and sure enough of where they stand to at least do the right thing within their own terms and usually fairly experienced at meeting the unexpected and not falling apart wibbling like a Lovecraft protagonist.

I have my style and I like heroes who are heroes, of either or any gender.

But that means they have to be exceptional in character, willing to take a stand, willing to do what's right when it isn't easy and capable of weighing difficult moral choices that burn their souls and hurt them deep. I pound them hard every step of the way and they get happy endings in one sense.

I used to think it was something wussy about me that I always gave characters happy endings. Till I realized how many of my novels had a happy ending consisting of "Thank the gods at least some of us survived that book."

They're epics. I do epic. Others do other genres. I write the books I want to read. I write them as fast as I can type.

Don't discount that either -- typing speed is a big help. I switched to the Dvorak keyboard layout and my word count for Three Day Novels soared just because I type and think at the same speed if I'm not stopping.

Practice builds typing speed.

If you have a year or more to prepare for a Three Day Novel, I would suggest doing it unofficially the first time and then try for a Nanowrimo win. In between, write every day. Not necessarily fiction. Not necessarily publishable. It could be ratty lousy whiny personal journal or lengthy blog entries or just hang out on forums and chat rooms -- but spend some time every day putting fingers to keys to say what you mean at the moment. Read very good fiction in your favorite flavors.

Learn from good fiction in your favorite flavors.

Terry Pratchett writes some of the best backstory in the history of fantasy. Look at how he connects characters' lives and keeps continuity for Diskworld both in its magic rules and its character histories. Look at how the characters have grown. Characters do not devolve, they don't grow backward to turn back into stereotype parodies of themselves. If they do, there is a reason such as they became alcoholics and you have this rich long arc to play with in multiple volumes.

Novels can hold up larger casts. How many people are in the story -- onstage with lines -- will influence its length. A chapter usually can only have one protagonist, same with a short story. Maybe two. A novel can have four or five seriously major characters and it may be a troupe story in which no one of them is The Hero but they're all important to the outcome. But in a given chapter one of them is the focal point.

So keep track of them with a cast list.

You can either plan and plot all this ahead of time -- in which case all the plot arc stuff still applies but you work it out in your notes in advance along with world building notes and spend your long weekend describing what you know happened -- or you can make it up as you go along and keep copious notes along the way.

Essesntial minimum notes for Linear-Organic Writing, which I have regretted every time I skipped them and had to repair continuity:

Cast and Name List -- if you name something, a person, a town, a pigment, you name it, you put it in the list in order of appearance. Carry it over in a side file like the "Pad" file in RoughDraft, copy paste it in for the next chapter's file and add to the end. This makes it easier to look up when the female shaman first showed up and what she said when you need to remember that as the other bloke's talking about her.

Chapter Synopsis -- what happened in that chapter, in just a sentence or two. B and C fought at the end of the drinking contest and passed out, R stole the magic gem, Z overheard everything and Knows Something.

That's enough to remember when to go back hunting for clues to tie together in the penultimate chapter where Z had better act on what he overheard or that was pointless and needs to be cut from that chapter. Sure enough, by then it'll matter a lot -- and it has to be solved for the reader why Z didn't say anything. This can be as simple as G slit his throat for some unrelated but also prepared reason as he was about to say it.

The ending ties it all together except for the very long story arcs that are also character driven. They set up conflicts for sequels. Usually to do a sequel, I look at the previous Happy Ending and ask what the nastiest consequence of their winning could be. Who got mad about it? Who got scared? What did they lose and why would they need it later? What's still looming over them? Did they blow up the castle but save the royal family? Well, people are more important than stuff, but trying to hold off a siege without a castle is pretty tough and I had some barbarians in the wings just waiting to invade.

How I relate this to Three Day Novels is that on the first day, I try to write as much as possible while I'm fresh and excited. I want the biggest possible word count before I get to sleep -- and before I have to go looking up things in earlier chapters and rereading the synopsis too often. Beginning and early middle happen on the first day. The second day, I don't worry about anything but middle, toward the end of it I start to decelerate. The third day is a race to tie off every loose plot thread well enough to get a solid ending -- whatever that is.

And then I sleep a lot.

As my Three Day Novels get longer and I type faster, I find I've gotten more sleep within the long weekend. I get actual breaks for meals now. I sometimes finish an hour or several before the final hour, and spend the last bit leisurely picking it over and doing minor edits.

Warning -- absolute warning. This can snarl me into massive rewrites without major benefits so fast. Whatever you name those characters on the first go, keep it. Do not make any name changes during the book. At all. If your hero has a stupid name then he has to live with it -- other characters react to it and it shaped who he is. The time to realize that two character names sound very similar and one should change is the Very Last Editing Pass -- you can jot ideas about it but do not make any changes in progress.

I have lost more time to cleaning up character name changes only to find I did have some unconscious reason for the first one, including it being a major plot point that two guys have the same or similar names and get mistaken for each other and that changes what happens, to know that changing character names is a bad idea. Play it where it lays. No matter where ti does. You can always come up with some reason why the lady had gray eyes in chapter two and blue eyes in chapter five.

She uses contacts and she is a mistress of disguise -- I found that out eventually after trying to fix it two dozen times for that character -- she wouldn't work with just blue or just gray eyes. So trust your unconscious, it knows the story and if you let it out very fast and just watch the pacing, it will all come to an ending whether it's the one you expected or not.

My last tip?

Pay the entry fee, sign up for the http://www.3daynovel.com contest and actually have enough ink, paper, postage and envelopes on hand to mail out your manuscript after the Labor Day Weekend. Check the dates and make sure you have your supplies. If you put in your $50 entry fee, you will be motivated to write at least a novella, format it, print it out and take your chances.

If like I brainlessly did, you spend years testing yourself and succeeding in writing them, like me, you'll never know if you would have won in previous years and have a nice royalty check coming in from small press publication and a fantastic achievement to add to your cover letters when you send in other novels for consideration. This year I'll be entering for real -- the money's budgeted and it's going on my very next check.

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Comments 3 comments

ChickLitBabe 6 years ago

Interesting hub! I also like NaNoWriMo and November is a good month for National Novel Writer's Month.


WendyU profile image

WendyU 5 years ago from Calgary, AB Canada

Somebody needs to start one that takes place over the spring or summer.

Just a note: 3-Day now has online manuscript submission and is $55 to enter after the early-bird date.


htodd profile image

htodd 4 years ago from United States

That's really great

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