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How I Survived The Three Day Novel Contest - An Insane Writing Marathon

Updated on September 9, 2009
Miss Barbara's Lookout, watercolor by Robert A. Sloan
Miss Barbara's Lookout, watercolor by Robert A. Sloan

Write a novel in 3 Days? That's nuts, right?

The annual 3 Day Novel Contest is sponsored by a group of Canadian literary publishers who started it in 1977. It is complete, total insanity. It is to Nanowrimo something like bungee jumping off a cliff (hence the illustration of the cliff) versus going off the high dive at the YMCA pool. I have done it ten times now, officially registered and paid the entry fee twice. 

I had no idea that novel writing could turn into an Extreme Sport, but there it is. That's exactly what the 3 Day Novel Contest is, it's Extreme Novel Writing. When I first tried it in 2000, I registered and had a week to edit my fantasy novel, Rites of Chavateykar,  while formatting it and printing it out. When I registered this year, having done eight unofficial practice runs in between and succeeded every time in generating a decent short novel (which I should have entered, I missed eight good chances to win), I found out the rules were toughened. 

Now you have to edit the dang thing within the three days of the American Labor Day Weekend. Despite the Canadian sponsors, it's held on the US Labor Day Weekend, no doubt because of a large number of US entrants who get that Monday off to spend it sweating over the final phase of their short novels.

Technically, a novel is 40,000 words. The majority of entries run between 25,000 words and 35,000 words, novellas or novelettes. About 100 pages of manuscript. My entry this year is 51,166 words and I stopped editing at 11:30pm on Monday night, recognizing that I was losing track of time and would go over the deadline if I kept going. Entrants provide a signed witness statement, but the contest is still run on the honor system.

This is an incredible rush. It always makes Nanowrimo feel like a walk in the park. The lazy easy deadline of getting a novel done with a whole month to work on it, especially since I'm disabled and don't have to waste any of that month working for a living other than the necessary sick time that schedules itself, is a breeze. In a good year I'll do more than one novel over Nanowrimo. Constant practice doing official or unoffical 3 Day Novel Contest novels is a big reason why that's possible.

I just finished the best one I've ever done. That may just be good attitude on my part. In any creative endeavor, when I do my best,  I want to wind up with something better than I've ever done. I usually do. I only measure my progress against my own past results anyway, even in actual competition. 

Past a certain level of skill, winning any contest comes down to the judges making hard choices on personal taste. There will always be more short listed entries that stand out on skill and technique than there are actual winners, so judges need to choose on hairsplitting technical grounds and personal taste. I do my best to produce a good entry and then let it fly, hoping I'll win but by no means certain of it or confident of it. While waiting, I fantasize about what I'd do if I won, which in this case would be get down to the hard work of editing the winning entry with the guidance of a skilled professional editor who'd push it to the next level.

First prize in this contest is always publication. Second prize is $500 cash. Third prize is $100 cash. Everyone who registers and then has the nerve to send in their entry gets a certificate of completion, which is a prize in itself. It means you jumped off the Everest of speed writing, the craziest, toughest writing event in the world. I may frame mine.

Cat Naps

Cat Nap by Robert A. Sloan, watercolor.
Cat Nap by Robert A. Sloan, watercolor.

What I Didn't Do Last Weekend - Sleep!

That new rule about editing flung me right into the pressure of my first-ever 3 Day Novel. I would not be able to just lazily pick through it for name changes, typos, continuity errors and line edits all week while reformatting it to manuscript format. I do still need to reformat it, but I'll have to avoid reading it while I do in order to avoid the temptation to continue line editing or fix any goof that I missed on Monday.

I didn't sleep during Labor Day Weekend. I cat napped for three or four hours and then slammed keys again. I was worried about having the time. I pushed my pace. I pushed myself hard. I also did several sensible things.

I wrote a paragraph chapter synopsis after finishing every chapter. This let me skim that rather than leafing through the whole existing part of the book to find the scene I needed to fix when I noticed during Chapter 10 that a guy who'd been shot in the back had asked whether they got the bullet out in Chapter 4 -- but had put his hand on the exit wound in Chapter 2. I could go either way on it, but it took me that long to connect that if there was an exit wound, the bullet had therefore exited and was somewhere on the road or in the killer's pocket, having been picked up. I decided it was more important to have the bullet than the exit wound and changed the first scene, made the guy reach around to touch the wound while he was in shock and couldn't feel the pain yet. Then made the blood run down the back of his legs instead of drip out of his torso in front.

I stopped writing to do that and rolled back to Chapter Ten and continued without losing where I was. For me this was a major achievement. Up to this novel, my rough-draft process and editing process have had to be kept separate because I'm almost like two different people when I'm doing those things. 

Inner Writer, the breezy creative guy, is my ten-year-old Inner Child, the dinosaur-lover, playing cops 'n robbers or spies or swordfights or wizard battles. I'm making up good stories as fast as I can, winging it, having fun and typing fast on an endorphin high. I play it as it lays. I treat everything that's already done as "fact" and anything ahead as "has to be consistent with what's down." Continuity is intuitive. It usually works, the goofs are never something major to the plot. They're just embarrassing, like typos.

It would not have mattered if I'd eliminated the bullet or the exit wound -- either would've worked. I made a split-second decision and fixed it in about the way I normally would've just noted "fix the exit wound problem" and rolled on. If it had affected the plot, it wouldn't have been a problem -- it would've fallen where it did, either wound or bullet would have been important enough that I paid more attention to it and I wouldn't have goofed. His getting shot and living through it was the plot-important thing.

My Inner Editor is a patient old man, something like an ancient scribe in an Irish monastery. He curls up around a tangible sense of craft perfectionism and takes as much delight in checking punctuation, considering the meaning of names and checking continuity as I do when I'm inking Celtic knotwork. It's like that. I build these intricate castles in the air and my Inner Editor is the one that makes sure they meet building code so they won't fall down... and makes them beautiful by laying the carpets, polishing the banisters and cleaning up the trim. 

Both of these are hemispheres in the brain. Art tends to be right-brained and intuitive. Visual images, daydreaming, fanciful things, imagination happens in the right side of the brain. Meticulous bean counting and technical care, the concentration of finite perfectionism comes from the left brain, where logic is applied to the structure. Some of the arts can lean more left-brain or more right-brain. I think in a way though, that all of the arts demand both. 

Writing definitely does. A writer's brain has to function well on both sides. I would not be surprised if a neurologist did a longitudinal series of brain scans on professional writers, testing them in college and then later when they've published numerous times, if you'd find that actually enlarges the corpus callosum -- the brain structure that connects the lobes.

Right Brain got speedy before Left Brain got speedy. 

Because of the change in my process when the deadline heat was on, I now understand what just happened. Up till now editing was slow and laborious because I was learning how to edit well. I had a problem for decades that if I tried to edit anything I wrote, I would ruin it in the process. The edited draft would be lousier than the rough draft. 

I actually put mistakes in sometimes, drifted toward passive voice in line editing through trying to be too precise. I would tone down the most interesting scenes and think they were too melodramatic while overemphasizing a detail into a boring lecture. It was bad. It may even have been unconscious self-sabotage. Or it might just have been a weird way of learning how to do it right by making a whole lot of incredibly obvious mistakes.

This time, writing and editing came together like pumping with my left and right feet while riding a bike. I didn't think about it. I was just working on the book. I noticed it and laughed about it in chat without stopping. So this year's 3 Day Novel Contest has given me something priceless just in the process.

It's still a good way if you tend to choke and have crisis of confidence problems working on your novels, to separate the processes in time. Set up different cues for writing and editing. Always play music while writing, or always play editing music while editing rather than the novel's sound track. Sit at a different chair for working on the edits, or use a different program in your computer. I love using RoughDraft but I recently got MS Word and considered using Word for all my editing processes so that I would get used to the Word screen to tell me that I'm editing, not making it up.

It's also possible to count editing process as mechanically as applying word count to your writing process. Count edits by how many pages got cleaned up. It can even be broken down to separate editing tasks, that's a good way to break the overwhelming task of editing a novel into smaller, more manageable tasks. "Check all the character names for consistency" is a separate task. "Proofread the whole book for typos" is a task that can be measured chapter by chapter. If you notice bad punctuation and fix it during a name-fix or typo pass, then it's a little less work on the later pass. But it's not a big deal and I don't line edit while I'm doing continuity checks unless I want to go very, very slow.

About half of the book is line edited. If the editors like it that far, they'll just see a demonstration of my line editing skill as such and either still be hooked on the story or not. Because the big secret is that a given perfect quotable sentence is not the point in a novel. A novelist generates lots of those. Some turn into popular hits by context. Others are just a fun little moment that gets forgotten in the heat of the story.

A novelist needs to develop a consistent level of quality where the worst sentences in the book still do the job, the dullest scenes in the book still shove the plot forward, the valleys between the peaks are not so bad. It's not a matter of having moments of inspired brilliance. Those come by themselves when they do. They're a gift. The more you practice any art, the more you open the door to them and the more of them flock in.

They're little reaches forward into skills you're still learning and techniques you're still developing, experiments that worked. Worth paying attention to. They often come out of mistakes. Someday when I am a much better writer and have studied this enough in other people's brilliant writing, I will write a book on novelwriting titled "Doing the Wrong Thing Write." Because for every rule there are gorgeous exceptions where breaking the rule was precisely the right thing to do in context. 

Most of the bad things you can do in prose are inappropriate attention-getting special effects going off in the wrong place. But I need to research it in depth and start going through all the specifics of good writing and its exceptions to write that. I'm getting there and not there yet in terms of understanding what makes them work when they do. I might subtitle it "How to Use Special Effects Well" or something.

So that was something major that came out of this year's 3 Day Novel. I made an enormous leap in my personal growth as a writer because the goofy insane deadline forced me to do that in order to get it done in 72 hours and have something worth submitting.

Let yourself fly

Cheeky Sparrow, colored pencil on paper, Robert A. Sloan
Cheeky Sparrow, colored pencil on paper, Robert A. Sloan

Once you know you can fly, you're not afraid to fall

That is the biggest reason to try the 3 Day Novel Contest in itself.

That little sparrow huddled up on a fence, toes turned together, isn't nervous about jumping off. He knows he could go in any direction, hover, drop to the ground to eat, snatch a thrown crumb out of the air. He's just taking a break at the moment. But a sparrow that thought he was an ostrich wouldn't even climb up onto the fence. He'd never know what it was like to sit on a phone line or swirl in a flock around the treetops.

I have been one of the biggest cowards in the history of wannabe writers. I am not kidding. I wanted this job more than anything else in the world. It is the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life, the only occupation that ever mattered to me was becoming a science fiction (and fantasy/horror) novelist. In a practical sense, that itself may have been an unconscious adaptation to my physical disabilities.

I'm not actually capable of an art career or any of the other things I've done. Some of them came closer to others, but none of them were sustainable in the long run. I'd drive myself into the ground and then get laid up with sports injuries from everyday activity. I got told growing up "You can do anything if you set your mind to it."

I've done that in a lot of situations, just long enough to know what it's like for people who do and have the capacity to sustain it.

Nanowrimo will turn you into a novelist if you try every year till you succeed, but if your natural length is the short story, then you may discover that your Wrimo worked best when it was a collection of connected short stories with a series plot. Every writer has a natural length. Your best work will always be in your natural length, whether that's short story, short-short story, ficlets, novella, novelette, novel, fat-novel, series of fat novels.

Stephen King's natural length is Giant Novel, his best work is The Dark Tower Series -- and it's one big novel in seven volumes. Reading it is reading a good serial. His natural length doesn't fit the presses. Even his shorter novels, his one-volume efforts, are thick doorstops good for a long satisfying read.

The 3 Day Novel Contest is a trial by fire. The only way to succeed in it is to write without hesitation. There is no time for dawdling. There is no time for rumination, that all has to come before the event. It's best to use an idea you've been thinking about for a long time, kept on the back burner till it smells irresistibly good and feels ready. You won't have time to refine it while the event is going.

What it can give you is priceless though. It can turn you into a Prolific Novelist. It can give you the skill of fiction writing at a journalist's pace.

There's an enormous, underappreciated host of good full time writers, excellent in their craft, who do nonfiction for a living. Significant numbers of them clock in at an office and work regular hours for a salary. Others freelance and make a good middle class living once they've learned the ropes and honed their skills -- what really makes a journalist's career is prose quality and experience.

Once the work is that good, it's your ability to do it fast on topic no matter the topic that gets a journalist the job or a freelancer the contract. Journalists write steadily for working-person hours. Journalists learn craft till the writing process itself is as invisible, as background and reflexive as the typing process. The average newspaper reporter has a better shot at finishing a three day novel than the average creative writer.

I honestly think nearly 100 Hubs have significantly contributed to the quality of this year's book -- and my skill at editing it while going. In writing Hubs, I wrote from life. Sure, it's all on topics I like -- but I wrote from life like gesture sketches. Get an idea, get it down. Get the facts straight on it. Tell little stories in the middle. Get used to a writing pace of "get it done now."

Articles often get edited in progress the same way I did this novel. I've done them on eHow too and other places. I'm a staff writer at too, where my articles are graced by a phenomenal editor and turned into little nuggets of gold, full professional grade writing. Dan is a genius of an editor as well as writer and I'd like to thank him right here and now for all he's done to teach me good nonfiction writing -- and good writing in general.

We get taught sometimes in school to treat creative writing as something precious. We can get encouraged into bad attitudes by teachers who have their own favorite genres and who look at future writers as having Literary Aspirations, trying to create monumental works of genius that will stand long past their time -- and sometimes too much toxic perfectionism gets drummed in along with that attitude.

The craft of writing is a human creative activity with a huge learning curve, the same as a doctor has or a lawyer, the same as an electrician has. It's a craft. It has an enormous amount of different skills that all need to be mastered to competence in order to do a good job. The number of people who make it through the self-training process is still low despite everything because as a career, you don't even get entry level work till you have those skills to a minimal level of competence and can easily get distracted by having advanced skills thrown at you as ideals before learning the basics.

It's not easy. It's fun if you enjoy doing it. Immensely rewarding, don't get me wrong. But even someone who sweeps through that learning curve fast because they started as a little kid, had lots of encouragement and a good learning environment is going to still have to learn every one of those skills. Brilliance rises out of craft.

After this scale of crazy stunt, making any realistic deadline starts to look like a cakewalk.

What the 3 Day Novel Contest can do for you is turn you into a prolific novelist. Prolific novelists get many more tries at first publication. Once published, they are much more likely to be able to make a good living writing books. Whatever didn't sell at the pro-published rate of pay can still bring in some cash in small press or Print On Demand. The level of craft where any finished book would sell somewhere is easier to attain after writing lots of books than to get it on your first publication.

I might actually hit that by having procrastinated and been chicken for so many years. I've fought every flavor of bad attitude there is. All I can say for myself is that I didn't quit trying.

The process of writing a novel, any novel, also demands introspection. Your theme will move you. Your characters will have growth. You, the author, will go through painful personal growth in the process too, take a good long deep look at life and know yourself more at the end than you did at the beginning.

If you hold on to the goal during a three day novel -- or one of the similar "Novel in a Week" challenges at numerous writing sites, including especially romance writing sites where they're common, you don't have time to choke or baby yourself when you do. You have to push hard and keep going no matter how it feels. That can get heady.

That can also get exuberant and joyous as soon as you push through the wall. It is a high. It is an incredible high to soar and do something that focused for 72 hours and shove everything else off your desk and out of your life for the weekend. I think human beings evolved to do challenges like this. It's the same instinct, the same mental process as running down a deer for three days when you stuck a spear in it and have a blood trail.

Most of those challenges are physical. 3 Day Novel is too. There is one other thing that can help -- and November is not the titme to do it. December is the best time of year to switch to the Dvorak keyboard layout. This raises anyone's typing speed by an average of 20 words a minute. It can also, and this is why I chose to do that in 2000, help reduce repetitive motion injury and carpal tunnel problems. I switched well before any writing challenges and did so in a group of other writers who shared a chat room.

If you practice Dvorak an hour a day and spend at least another hour typing in the normal Qwerty layout, you won't forget how to use Qwerty touch typing. I didn't do that and I now fumble with hunt and peck if I have to use a Qwerty keyboard. I don't mind that because I also don't work in an office where I have to use shared machines. You may still want to retain Qwerty because it's so much more common and it's more convenient for things like the Blackberry, which does not come in a Dvorak version.

Anything that improves your typing speed and composition speed will help in doing a three day novel. The biggest thing besides typing speed is to journal or do daily writing exercises, get used to the process of freewriting. Just get it down as fast as you think of it without worrying about whether the prose is any good. Exercises to improve prose skills become internalized. Freewriting is essential to retain the ability to just let go and tell the story as if you were excited and telling someone else -- just tell it the way you remember it with confidence, unselfconsciously.

Do not ever halt yourself in a Three Day Novel. Not for anything. Play it as it lays. If fixing a mistake is effortless, fix it. If not, get the story down fast and fix them all at the end in another pass. Try to pace it so you finish with a day left for editing or edit continuously and don't expect to be able to go through the whole book a second time at the end. Either will work.

Give it a try if you think you're ready. You can't lose really. If you don't finish in time, you have still got a huge chunk of manuscript with enough momentum to keep writing Tuesday night and the following weekend until it is done. If you finish it, then Nanowrimo becomes a fun run, full of giggles, just a neat way to write a novel and hang out with lots of other writers while you do.

The one thing that has knocked down every level of confidence problems I've ever had is the fact of past success. If I know I've done it before, it's easier. If I know I've done it before lots of times, it gets joyously easy and I focus on a new level of it, like editing-while-writing became this time. The rewards are enormous in the 3 Day Novel Contest. 

Think about it. If you don't quite make it while climbing Everest, you're still one of the rare few who dared. You still went a lot farther than you ever thought you could. The happy little climb a couple of months away will be a lot easier, because if you got your 3 Day pace you would definitely finish with plenty of time to spare. It's easier to accept failing at something ludicrously near-impossible than it is to stumble on something easy. So give it a go! 

Twitter rocked this year for connecting with other 3 Day Novelists. The hashtag is #3dnc and you can read back over everyone's trials, tribulations, triumphs and giggles. It's better for posting word counts at chapter ends than a blog, because it's much harder to get distracted by blogging and not go back to the book.

Enjoy. If this sounds like fun to you, then go for it!


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    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      YES! Congratulations, Corwin Nighthawk! You're ahead of me -- you've just reached my next milestone. Selling one of these novels. I'll be reading your Hubs. Write lots about how you published. I'd better go subscribe to yours.

    • profile image


      8 years ago from Louisville, KY

      Hello Robert. I'm glad I stumbled on to your hub. I never knew such a contest existed. I may never enter anything like that myself, but I think you just taught me a lesson about setting goals. I've just published my first novel and wrote about it in my first hub. The hub itself is rather short, but keep in mind it's my first attempt. Perhaps you can give me some pointers? I'm new to this hub thing.

      Brightest blessings to you, sir, and good luck with the contest!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Juhi -- relax about Nanowrimo! You're not actually sending it in, just uploading the text to a word counter to prove its length is over 50,000 words. A lot of writers come out of Nanowrimo with a great rough draft, edit it and sell their novels online or through Print On Demand, some few go through all the trouble of submitting to pro publishers till it sells (and this does take some major edits!). It's a load of fun!

      Skye, I think I'll know in January when the winners get announced, though I might get informed sooner if I'm short listed for it. I'm content to trust that I'll know in January.

      I tend to start with an idea for the opener and then just let it go where it goes based on what the characters do. My plotting is very character driven. I come up with an opening conflict and then find out what that leads to. Whether I race through it like 3 Day or relax and just do a chapter a day or so like Nanowrimo, I make it up as I go along because to me that's the most fun way to write a novel.

      I have used outlines and so on, it's just not as much fun as finding out on every page what happens next.

      I will definitely do the dinosaur novel someday, bought some research books for it and when I'm ready will just reel it out and write the story. I love nature stuff and the other nature novel I've got planned is about a sabertooth cat.

      Glad you liked my latest Hub! I'll keep doing writing hubs now since I'm kicking the editing on Vaumuru's Curse into high gear this Monday.

    • skye2day profile image


      9 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      When do you know if you won? I hope you do Robert. (dinosaur) This is awesome you have an anointing for writing. I love to write but find I can barely get a hub out per week. Although I have written material, I tend to change my mind on submitting. I will save some material in case I decide to use it down the road.

      Question? When you write do you have an idea about the whole story or does the story unfold as you go along?

      God Bless You Robert. I have been blessed by your experience. You are an inspiration for many. You touch many hearts. Thank You

      This is another awesome, helpful, delightful hub.

    • juhi basoya profile image

      juhi basoya 

      9 years ago

      Wow, and congrats! I can barely imagine completing a novel in one month (I only signed up for NaNoWriMo coz it's a non edited version that you need to send in :)), leave alone three days. And that too an edited version! Amazing. You are definitely the person I will be reading to pick up tips on commitment!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Exactly. If you don't finish it in the three days but give it a good try, you will have a HUGE chunk of novel going and a lot of momentum. Doing it unofficially out of season, you can then extend it to "try for novel in a week" and don't stop. Which is in itself a massive achievement.

      Go for it. It really is a lot of fun. Hope to see you on Twitter next year!

    • waynet profile image

      Wayne Tully 

      9 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

      Sounded like fun...wait a minute!!! a novel in 3 days, wow! I'll have to try that one weekend, I suppose it comes down to self discipline to stick to that continuously for 3 days,even if I blasted through and didn't make it at least there would something there to work on, a good blast at something you can focus on is what can make all the difference for a better product(novel)

      Challenge is good most times and what you can learn from challenges is even better! I know I could do something like this with the right mind set...


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