I have just finished my 5th weekend writing for the International 3 Day Novel Contest (3DNC). As usual, I’m absolutely exhausted. Like I’ve been pummeled. I’ve done the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and it has its challenges. But there is nothing like the 3 Day Novel Contest, the world’s most notorious literary marathon. So I thought I would share some of my experiences–some tips for future 3DNC writers, but also some reflections on writing in general.
Someone once said, “It’s not a 72 Hour Novel Contest.” This is true for two reasons: preparation and strategy.
I wrote extensively about my preparation and prewriting for my NaNoWriMo novel, “The Curse of Téarian.” For that novel, an epic myth that I am editing this fall, the story began with an image in church on Sep 28th, 2012. I had my journal with me and sketched out the idea. What began as a the mental picture of a glass sphere in church eventually grew and grew over the next month until it became a 300 page story.
My 3DNC 2013 novel was different. It began with an idea on a sunny Saturday morning in February. I asked myself how I would respond if someone offered me a shortcut to a writing career–not a “break,” not a publisher reading a blog and being interested in something, but a clean shot to a bestselling novel. Would I take the offer? Would I cash in the ticket on that lottery?
As I played with the idea, I came to see how disastrous that blessing would be. If The Curse of Téarian or Hildamay Humphrey’s Incredible Boring Life were suddenly in stores and loved by everyone because of a magic wish, how would I know if they were really good? During the weekend I wrote out the consequences in Chapter 14, “The Myriad Wondering Little Voices”:
“I walk into a bar, Jonas, wanting nothing more in life than to be a brilliant writer. I wanted to tell great stories, write beautiful lines, tease out people’s imagination. I think you know what I mean.”
“And then this perfect stranger offers me all that. The keys to the kingdom. The quick path to fame and success. Now imagine I walk out of that bar certain that it will all happen. It all comes out, right? The writing, the agent, the contracts, the readers, the awards. It’s a good story.”
“It’s your story,” I interrupted.
“But think, Jonas. What assurance do I have that my stories are actually good?”
“I like them. They’re good tales.”
“Ah, but Jonas: you’re bewitched, aren’t you? You and I both. If Ishmael’s wish comes true it’s true forever. It doesn’t just affect me, that choice I made. It affects everyone. The readers are as charmed as the writer.”
I saw it then. I saw the trap.
The more I worked on the idea, two things developed in opposite directions. First, I saw other characters, other wishes that sit in people’s hearts, the greatest ambitions that haunt the hearts of man. So, suddenly, there were characters–a dozen of them clambering to tell their story. Over the months, though, the Wishmaker character, Ishmael, developed into a real personality. It would be fun to be a Wishmaker, giving wishes when you can. But what if you had to do it? What if you must grant people a wish each day, every day–and not just one wish, but the deepest wish, the desire of their hearts?
It sounded very exhausting to me.
In fact, it sounded like Sisyphus. You may know him: the proud king who tried to trick the gods into letting him stay on earth forever. The gods finally plucked him up and punished him with the task of rolling a stone up a mountain, only to have it roll back down again. The real punishment, though, is that he must do it again, and again, forever, consciously tortured by the useless task for all times and every age.
That was my Wishmaker. That was Ishmael. Wishes for a stone.
As stories go, they can become more complex. In 2007 I read Albert Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and Camus says something startling. I will quote it because it is one of the most philosophically beautiful thing I have ever read:
“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.
“…At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock….
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I did not know if my Ishmael would be happy, and that becomes Jonas’ task to find out. I didn’t know how much of my book would be a response to Camus, but I wanted some influence in it beyond the conceptual. So all of the chapter titles are taken from his essay. As the months went on I sketched out the characters and their wishes and what I thought might happen to them.
At first I thought that they were boring stock characters. For example, you have a guy who just wants money–gobs of it. Ishmael gives him money. Jonas can see the emptiness of it. Scene done. The subplot of every 80s brat pack film. Boring.
But what if the character with all the money was truly happy? No, I mean it. What if the rich man does not walk away dejected, but is truly, wonderfully content? That, to me, is far better. And the characters began to take living shape.
In the last day, the Friday before the contest, I sat down and did all the naming, tweaked the outline, set up all the technology, etc. There’s only so much one can do. I had never matched characters and scenes to lines from a book before, but it was a tremendous focus. I loved it. And I also benefited from writing a precis, a dustjacket cover description:
It is the story of a young struggling journalist, Jonas, who tumbles into a dingy bar, succumbing to a writer’s cliche but desperate for ideas. What he finds is a man who calls himself Ishmael, who is, at least, willing to buy Jonas a beer. Jonas soon discovers that Ishmael is able to give people the greatest desire of their heart–and he does so, one wish granted each day. The wish is not unlimited. It must be the person’s singularly greatest heart-desire, the one wish that hides secretly within. The wish, a skeptical Jonas discovers as he begins interviewing people who have met Ishmael, really does come true, and each year Ishmael is visited on the anniversary date of the original wish by those he’s gifted.
What happens when your greatest wish is granted, when all your heart’s desire is fulfilled in a single day, when your life is defined by what you want most at a particular moment in time? Jonas is surprised by what he finds, and intrigued by the man Ishmael himself. Given what becomes of the people Ishmael meets, why does he return to the dark bar each day, repeating the story over and over again? As Jonas tries to find out, and gathers the stories of the people Ishmael has touched, the question remains open for him. Will Jonas accept Ishmael’s offer? Will he find the short path through to all he’s ever wanted?
The description has grown a little stale now that I’ve written the book, but it was still quite helpful.
All writing includes strategy. Some of the freer poets might claim it comes unbidden, unleashed. But why is their a pen in their hand to begin with? Writers are always strategizing, angling toward the great arc of artistry.
It is especially important to be prepared for the 3 Day challenge. I expected to write a book of 125 pages (double spaced) and about 35,000 words. It came in at 128 pages, 34,755 words. Pretty close, but not an accident. In the past I came in at 45,000 words, and I had no time to edit. I edit twice through the weekend, so I knew I needed about 16 hours for editing. 160 pages, or 45,000 words, would take 20 hours to edit twice. It’s too long.
How did I do it? Here are some of strategies, I used:
- I keep hourly notes of how much I wrote or edited, and how the writing was coming along. And I’ve done this every year, so that I know some things:
- On Day 1, I begin right at midnight and work until 4 or 5am.
- Then I try to sleep for 4 hours, but only get a couple of hours in. I’m usually back at the desk at 8:30 and able to see the screen through the fog by 9:00.
- I work all of Day 1 with a 1-2 hour nap, and stop at 1 or 2am on Sunday morning, just into Day 2. I try to get 7 hours of sleep, but usually get 4 or 5, and I am at the screen by 9:00.
- I reread what I wrote on Day 1 at the start of Day 2. That takes 4-5 hours, and makes me panic. But then I am back, ready to pick it up. Even in that rereading and editing, I usually add 1500-2000 words.
- Ideally, I have a draft by midnight on Day 2. This year it was 2am. The first year, it was 9pm on the last day! So I feel okay. I try to sleep 7 hours and usually get 4-5 hours.
- Day 3, Monday, is all editing and rewriting.
- I drink lots of fluids, but very little coffee–just one or two a day. No alcohol, little coffee, don’t overeat (though I eat a lot of snacks)–these will keep some ridiculousness away. It would be horror to wake up and find 12 pages of caffeine-infused giddiness on the screen.
- Each year, I went in with a strong sense of the project. This year it was character and plot rather than a strict outline, but in 2011 and 2012 I followed a good outline. I know some people love the thrill of discovering the piece. That’s fine, but I start strong. I want 6 or 7 hours of writing planned out in detail.
- Before the day, I write the first paragraph a few times, trying different things. Have to be ready.
- When the plot twists come, I go with it. In 5 novels, only twice have I had to back up and restart a section, and once I had to add in some chapters to bring it all together (that was this time).
- I would not be able to do this without family support. That was key. It is a bad weekend to disappear, as we are both educators. But my wife is totally supportive, and my son is excited to hear my page count. I’m like a literary version of a hockey star to him. Don’t disillusion him.
- Some people ignore word and page count. I don’t. I relish it in, and keep good track. If you write for 50 hours of the contest (think food, sleep, editing for the rest), you can do it in 2 pages per hour. My most productive hours have 4-4.5 pages per hour. In 2013 I averaged 3.69 pages/hour. In 2012 that was 3.8, up from 3.58 in 2011 and way up from 2.88 in 2009. In 2010 I wrote a children’s book, and was pleased with 2.4 pages/hour.
- This year, not including spaces, I wrote 285.75 words/page. Usually that’s in the 270s, but I wrote more internal dialogue this time, so a little more dense.
- Knowing these stats helped me plan for NaNoWriMo (50,000 words = 170-180 pages). I know that will take me 48-55 hours, so I knew I would be committing 1.5-2 hours per day for NaNo. But this also helps me plan other writing, and guides me on how to carve out space to write. For NaNo, I decided to go bigger and aimed at 2500 words/day. I came in at 2000 instead, and now I know for next time that NaNo is better slowed down, while 3DNC needs the speed.
- I would encourage people who do 3DNC to have a complex set of characters and a simple plot. Taking time to map a difficult and twisting plotline is probably a bad idea. But you will find continuity in your character development as it all happens so quickly. Good characters, with the plot as a baseline.
- I had a single plot thread, and a second one emerged near the end of Day 1. So Day 2 meant some reconfiguring to bring both plotlines together and to pace it well. That was a big challenge, and though I think the new plotline is a bit indulgent, it has made it enjoyable.
- I expected to write a dark, brooding 1st person narrative of self-discovery and self-loathing. It is 1st person, and it is about discovery. But the whole dark feeling fell apart, and it is an upbeat philosophical novel. Sometimes you just have to go with it. I guess I’m a happily ever after kind of guy (though the novel doesn’t end quite that way).
- In other 3DNC books, I could see how I could make the piece longer or shorter, simpler or more complex, etc. In this case, I think the length of 35,000-45,000 is perfect. It is a philosophical short novel/novella, and so brevity is good. Can you imagine Animal Farm as a George R.R. Martin-length epic, or Camus’ L’Etranger drawn out into a John Grisham courtroom drama? It’s a good length.
As always, I struggle with naming the piece. Because I ended up using more of the myth of Sisyphus than I intended, I needed to ditch the name. The images of “stone” and “path” were central, and so all kinds of ideas came:
- Wandering Way the Stone Path
- The Wishmaker’s Stone
- The Wishmaker’s Path
- Shifting Sand and Mountain’s Way
- Ages Broken Upon the Stone
I didn’t think any were right. There was also the idea of “The Wishmaker”–the key figure in the book, the man of destiny. But I think it gives the wrong feeling.
After a facebook call out for help, I chose “A Stone’s Throw Away.” I’m wondering now if just “A Stone’s Throw” is better, but the first one has a pun that works with the book. We’ll see. It can change.*
And so it is complete. I simply have to send it off to the International 3 Day Novel Contest for judging. For the kind of genre that tends to win 3DNC, my book is a good fit. So we’ll see if there are any judges that think it would be worth an honourable mention.
But as always, the weekend is not about winning (I have never come close). It is about hammering out an idea faster than doubt can keep it in. “Write to flee the demons” as Stephen King once said. In the end, I think this is publishable, after major editing, either as a novella in a magazine, or as a serial, or as a small book. Good luck to those who dare!