A 3 Day Novel Contest Post-mortem: Thoughts After my 7th 3DNC

3dnc survivalFor the 7th consecutive year I have been a contestant in the International 3-Day Novel Writing Contest. This is literally the exercise of writing a full novel in 72 hours. No extensions, no extra time, no time outs. This is 3 days of pounding out the story that’s been in your imagination begging to get out.

This year I wrote a Middle Grade novel, a humorous story about an alien race that seeks to conquer Earth to steal our refrigeration technology so they can make banana splits. When they get to Earth, they slowly realize that they are actually very tiny—just three or four inches tall. Conquering Earth is going to be harder than they thought. Based on a facebook survey, I have named the book, Pants are Evil, and Other Lessons from Outer Space.

3DNC 2015: By the Numbers

Here is what 2015 looked like:

  • 17 chapters (plus a short prologue & epilogue)
  • 126.75 pages
  • 37,015 words
  • 3.55 pages written per hour
  • 287.4 words per page
  • about 17 hours of sleep

Don’t forget immeasurable bottles Coke Zero, more chocolate covered coffee beans and jujubes than is helpful, and support from great friends—digital and analogue, at home and throughout the world!

My 3 Day History: By the Numbers


Over the years, I’ve found some consistent features to my 3 Day experience and have shown some growth. I’ll talk about some habits below—most people want to know what it is like and how to do it. But here are some interesting trends.

On Learning to Leave Word Worries

7_Year_3DNC_Word_CountIf you follow social media during 3DNC (and I do), there are some intriguing trends. People are very concentrated on word length. Many are very focussed on getting more and more words out onto the page.

As a writer I have never had trouble getting words out. My issue has been getting the right words out, in the right order, and knowing when to be quiet.

And I have discovered that the average winner of 3 Day create works of about 30,000 words. They are short, tight pieces with complex characters and solid writing. Length is not really a key factor. Moreover, the three books that I wrote with the fewest words (2010, 2013, 2015) have the greatest publication potential, and the fourth smallest (2012) is next in line, after a rewrite.

So I have never worried about getting enough words on the page. Instead, I’ve chosen the word count by the genre. If you take a look at this chart below (selected out of the one above), you can see that there is a link between length and genre.


The Middle Grade novels are intentionally shorter, which matches marketplace expectation. Hildamay, the 2010 MG comedy that is being shopped out to agents right now, grew to 37,800 words in a serious rewrite. That makes it exactly the same length as this year’s MG comedy, Pants are Evil.

There are two novels in the group, The Drive in 2009 and Star Cross’d Lovers in 2012. These are each at the very top of what I can do in a 3 Day Novel weekend and still take time to edit my work. Both are too short for their genre, and the pace of The Drive, my first attempt, is way too fast. Both were longer than I was comfortable with writing that weekend, though by 2012 I was faster and had enough time to edit.

The 2011 New Adult Travelogue, Reach Out and Touch Faith, was meant to be a 35,000 word novella—which is what I nailed with my 2013 Wish for a Stone. In 2011, though, it got out of hand. The same thing happened last year with the Dark YA piece, The Skin I’m In (2014). This was a suicide journal, so the length was not as important. But I only had about 6 hours to edit at the end and I need 8 or 9.

I’ll talk more about editing below.

My advice in this area is this: Write what you can according to your ability and genre. If you struggle to get words out at all, then celebrate your 5,000 or 20,000 words or whatever. If you are trying to get a good start on a 90,000 bromance, get the first 30k or 40k done in 3 Day and finish by the end of September. If you are honing your skills in other ways, then target your word count for your own reasons.

3_day_novel_7_year_productivityFly, You Fool!

Despite what I just said, the 3DNC rule is simple: pound out the words. Just keep writing. Write through the problems and the worry and the weariness.

I am usually so doubtful when I write that this is the only way to get the job done. I write quickly and edit later. Even in the normal patter of everyday life, this is how I stay ahead of the self-doubt that would freeze me in my literary tracks.

Over the 7 years of 3 Day writing, I have pretty standard ranges of word density. I range from 271.8 to 303.2 words per page, depending mostly on description, style, and the amount of dialogue.

Over the years, my ability to produce words has increased. In 2009, I produced just under 3 pages per hour, almost exactly 900 words every hour I was in writing mode. With Hildamay in 2010, when I was slowing down to write a children’s book, I produced the same.

being-fat-and-runningWith bigger targets in 2011, my speed increased to 3.58 pages per hour, moving up to 1025 words an hour. In 2012, I improved a little more, going up to 3.8 pgs/hr for 1050 words each writing hour—a pace I matched in 2013 with Wish for a Stone and again this year. 1025-1050 words an hour is, for me, a strong but not difficult pace. When I do NaNoWriMo, I set aside 2 hours a day and can complete 60,000 words in the month.

2014 is out of step with the rest. The Skin I’m In is a journal, a suicide note written to a specific person (a pedophile, actually). As it is a coming-of-age (dying-of-age? coming-of-death?) novel, the narrative and conversation flowed really easily. Rarely did I have to stop to discover where I wanted to go. I had also sketched out the characters really well and had a good sense of where it was going.

This year I was more hesitant and more tired than normal. I stopped often. The tempo is consistent with the last five years, but there were many times when I caught myself just staring at the screen.

The Rhythm of My 3 Day Weekend

I track my weekend pretty closely, and so I have a pretty standard pattern. I know there are some that write for 72 hours straight. I can’t do this—especially when I have to be in the classroom the day after I finish. Here’s my ideal, beginning with midnight on Friday (so, Saturday morning):

Day 1 (Saturday)

00:00-04:00     Write
04:00-09:00     Sleep, trying to get 3 hours out of the 5
09:00-10:00     Editing
10:00-15:00     Writing
15:00-16:00     Nap
16:00-24:00     Writing, with a break for supper with family and a shower

Day 2 (Sunday)

00:00-08:00     Sleep, trying to get 6 hours out of the 7 or 8
08:00-12:00     Editing
12:00-16:00     Writing
16:00-17:00     Nap
17:00-24:00     Writing

Day 3 (Monday)

00:00-08:00     Sleep, trying to get 6 hours out of the 7 or 8
08:00-12:00     Editing
12:00-16:00     Writing, goal of finishing the 1st Draft at 4:00
16:00-17:00     Nap
17:00-24:00     Editing

My Writing JournalI never sleep very well during 3 Day. My mind is too active, my body too tired. The result is that of the 72 hours:

  • 35-45 hours are writing
  • 15-20 hours are editing
  • 15-20 hours are sleeping
  • 2-3 hours are with family, going for a walk (rare), showering, or eating

My ideal, almost unreachable goal is to finish the first draft by the time I go to sleep on Sunday night, Day 2. I’ve only met this goal once. My comfortable goal is noon on Day 3 for a full draft. That gives me lots of time to edit. This has worked once as well. Usually I finish at suppertime on Day 3. It is a terrifying editing rush from that point on! I have the first half edited already on Sunday morning, but there is often a lot of rewriting to do.

Cabin in the Woods or Social Media Star?

I have chosen not to go to the cabin in the woods for this event. Partly because that is a classic horror film set up. And even though I am not a good horror victim (busty blonde, athletic alpha male with square jaw, creepy technology geek, etc.), one can never know when they are the star of the show that ends their life.

zombie-cheerleader-costumeMore than the horror memes under threat by my isolation, there are a few reasons I don’t go by myself to the wilderness:

  • Food: My partner is super supportive of me on this weekend, despite the fact that we both have classes to teach on the next day. Being at home saves me the time of cooking and cleaning.
  • Cost: I just don’t have the coin to go into the woods. There are many cottages in Prince Edward Island, but they are quite costly on that weekend. I could go camping, but we often get a hurricane that weekend. I would like to save my rental dollars for family time or couple time.
  • Internet: I have great internet at home, unlike many cottages. During any particular writing contest I might have to look up any of these sorts of things:
    • The full name of NASA and whether there are dots.
    • The life cycle of an urban gray squirrel.
    • The Polish for “tongue.”
    • How to calculate the ratio of a Smallification gun.
    • The linguistic history of the word “tongue.”
    • Why bananas don’t have seeds.
    • Iberian patterns of mosquito migration.
  • Support: My 2015 Middle Grade Comedy has a leg up, I think, because I have a Middle Grade kid in my house who loves funny things. I read the entire book aloud to my 10 year old, and he gave really good criticisms—especially in the area of inconsistencies. I noted when he laughed, and when he didn’t, and when he got bored. Nicolas is a great editor, and so is my wife. More than editing, though, there are hugs and kisses and words of encouragement during a pretty discouraging process.
  • My Writing Shrine: I write in the least interesting part of the house: a basement corner with no great view, no clean air—nothing to distract me. I have set up my writing area with an extra screen, great speakers, and an ergonomic keyboard. It is exactly where I want to be.
  • Social Media Presence: This is not for everyone, but I use Social Media throughout the weekend. I don’t read the regular Twitter feed, but I do post  my hourly results on Twitter. I often send a quick note of encouragement to struggling #3DNC contestants on Twitter, and appreciate when others do that for me.
    Facebook is my biggest online tool during the 3 Day weekend. This past weekend I used it to get Math help, and tested a couple of scenes with readers (including a Prologue I added late in the game). I actually used a Facebook poll of friends to name the book, so Pants Are Evil, and Other Lessons from Outer Space is a fan favourite.

Social-Networking-SitesWhy do I spend this precious time on social media? Many of my real life friends are away that weekend, so they aren’t online and don’t give encouragement until later. But I do this for two reasons:

  1. I get tremendous courage from all the friends and digital co-contestants that send their best wishes.
  2. I am trying to build a digital network that is going to be responsive when I finally get one of these books published. When it comes time to promote Hildamay Humphrey’s Incredibly Boring Life or do an e-launch of Wish for a Stone, I have 2000 people who will at least consider my work.

old-typewriterWhat Do I Do Well?

I have never been a 3DNC finalist. However, I think I do this contest pretty well. Here are the bright spots:

  • I write quickly and worry about the consequence later. This is part of my “writing to flee the demons,” as Stephen King puts it. But it also gets a first draft onto the screen without the faltering that I have experienced in the past. Often I grow bored with a book, or feel useless as a writer, by about the 3/4 mark. This gets me to the end, for better or worse.
  • I think I balance the weekend pretty well. I am able to show up for work on the Tuesday after 3 Day. I only get about a half work day, and I am tired all week. But I am pretty well balanced. I would encourage future writers to consider making it a marathon with sleep and eat breaks.
  • This will shock some: I don’t drink coffee or energy drinks. I have a dozen cups of coffee a week, normally, and will have a couple on the weekend. But I don’t stimulate myself. I did that in year one and two, and found that I could get jittery or hungry or sleepy from the caffeine, and then I couldn’t sleep when I lay down. I drink a lot of diet pop, gallons of water, and the occasional coffee. When I am 3-4 hours from having a nap or bedtime, I pour a finger of Scotch and sip it over the hours.
  • I think I balance social media well. I could lose a lot of time on there, avoiding the real work. But I do pretty well.
  • I prewrite well. I am usually prepared going into the contest. I talk about my prewriting process here.
  • I am glad that I edit. It is possible that I could write the first 60,000 words of a 100,000 word novel that weekend if I didn’t stop to edit. Maybe 70,000, if the mood was right. The reason I avoid that approach, besides the fact that 3 Day judges don’t want to read a 60,000-word piece, is that when you don’t edit your 3DNC piece as you go, you miss the greatest advantage that 3 Day offers: Continuity. Because all the writing happens at once, you will develop continuity of characters, intriguing thematic strings, and narrative movement that is well founded on its starting point. Editing keeps me in the centre of the writing moment and leads to the greatest literary whole (even if that unity is bad in other ways!).
  • I don’t push the book idea. This is a hard one to weigh. I allow the book idea to emerge throughout the year. For Wish for a Stone and Hildamay, I knew the winter before what I would do. The Drive I spent years getting ready. This year’s Pants are Evil, though, is the recovery of an old, failed story that only occurred to me in July. I almost wrote about an unfortunate 13-year-old vampire whose suburban parents force him to get braces to fit in their human community (called Overbite). A good idea, but I was struggling with plot and knew that there was an overfull market. When Russell and his world where Pants are Evil re-emerged, it was right. So I dove in.
  • I target the weekend well for the kind of book that I want to do. 3DNC is perfect for writing a MG novel (like Pants are Evil or Hildamay). It is also ideal for doing a philosophical novel/novella (like Wish for a Stone). The weekend also works well for writing something that has no commercial audience, like my New Adult Reach Out and Touch Faith. I also use the weekend to test out a storyline to see if it will work in another genre. My Star Cross’d Lovers is a great story, and I will either extend it to a novel or turn it into a screenplay. My first attempt, The Drive, I realize now was a good chance to get a bunch of characters out of my head.

What Would I Do Differently?

There is not much I would do differently, but here is what I could do if I wanted to win:

  • I would read 5 or 6 more of the winners and find out what they do well. I wrote here in my “Weekend Writers” blog about the “3 Day Novel Genre”: it’s time for me to update this and be strategic. Otherwise, I can take any week and carve out time to write.
  • If I read these books, I would blog reviews to support the authors. I’ve done that only a couple of times.
  • I would contact some of the finalists (the honourable mentions), and see what their advice is.

Will I Do it Again?

Yes, probably. At this point, I am 90% sure that 2016 is bad for me. If one thing isn’t happening, a second thing will. If both of those (life-changing) events fail, I’m in.

In 2017 I am secretly planning to invite my son to work on it as well. He loves writing stories, and it would be a good weekend for him to give it a try. He’ll be super pumped, I’m sure.

Why Do I Do This to Myself?

meThe International 3-Day Novel Contest is one of the most difficult things that I do. It is hard on my body, exhausting to my mind, challenging for my spouse—and I always lose. Why do I do it?

My goals are very precise:

  1. I am building a social media platform for my work—a community of mutual support and encouragement.
  2. I am testing and development my skills as a storyteller and editor.
  3. I would like to be a finalist as part of my writer’s CV.
  4. I intend to complete a manuscript that will do one of three things:
    1. Be the first draft of a complete story;
    2. Test an idea that could develop into a novel, a screenplay, or a novella/serial; or
    3. Tell a story for which there is no market.

The last one—write a non-commercial story—looks sad and lonely on the screen. But it is a good exercise: one never knows when the market will change or how a story will evolve. While Reach Out and Touch Faith has no market—too religious for the broad market, to edgy for the religious market—my romance, Star Cross’d Lovers, would make a great sappy Hollywood RomCom or a fun, tear-jerking paperback.

Now to You

3 Day Novel Contest journalThat’s the post-mortem of my 7th International 3-Day Novel Contest. I’ve written this so that I can do better next time, but also so that potential contestants (people who might beat me!) can approach this wonderful, awful, terrifying and satisfying event with eyes wide open.

Now to you.

Have you done the 3DNC? Do you have a link to your own story, published book, or 3 Day post-mortem? If so, let’s hear about it in the comments.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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8 Responses to A 3 Day Novel Contest Post-mortem: Thoughts After my 7th 3DNC

  1. wanderwolf says:

    This is a really cool activity and wreite-up. When I started reading your post, I was intrigued byt he work of writing, but then wondered how you could square away 72 hours for it. Then, you explained that part and I’m strangely inspired to find the opportunity to do such a thing. Your middle grade humor stories sound good, but I’d want to read the philosophical novella.


  2. Reblogged this on The Oddest Inkling and commented:
    Here are the results from that Non-Ekphrasian-friend’s 3DNC. Enjoy.


  3. Steve says:

    Why do I always learn about these things when they are over?


    • Yes, that’s how I felt too when I first heard of it!
      But… as it turns out I heard about it too early. It turns out I needed a couple of other years before I was actually ready to right.
      So perhaps this is the perfect time.


  4. Pingback: The Three Day Thesis | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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