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How to Write a Novel in Three Days

Maybe you’ve heard of NaNoWriMo, the annual creative-writing challenge in which participants attempt to churn out a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. Maybe you’ve participated before. Or maybe you’d rather stab your eyes out with an ice pick than attempt to write 1,667 words a day for 30 days. I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo four times, and each time it was a grueling, soul-crushing affair. I love writing, but NaNoWriMo is such a relentless grind that I’ve skipped it the last two years and not missed it.

3day novel 300 jpgMy annual word-orgy of choice is the 3-Day Novel Contest, a Canada-based contest in which participants attempt to crank out a novel over the Labor Day weekend. That’s right — hundreds of writers around the world spend their long weekend huddled in coffee shop corners, over-caffeinated and sleep-deprived, furiously scribbling or tapping away on their masterpieces when they could be out enjoying the pleasant weather and spending time with friends and family over barbecue. And since 2007, I’ve been one of them, glued to my MacBook, neglecting my spouse and personal hygiene and drinking way too much coffee, all in the name of writing the Great American Novel. Or something.

To me, the beauty of the 3-Day Novel Contest is to see how much you can really accomplish in three days when you make writing your No. 1 (and really, only) priority. There’s not enough time to really let life get in the way. It’s a holiday weekend, so if you work a regular nine-to-five job, work can’t get in the way. Neither can school. My husband has come to expect that he is not going to get any attention over Labor Day weekend, and he is resigned to it totally supportive.

So how does this happen? How do I churn out such a massive amount of words in 72 hours? Sheer will and dedication. Also, a plot outline doesn’t hurt, but it’s not at all necessary.

Every morning, I’ll get up around 4:30 or 5:00. First thing, I either make coffee or a green smoothie. Or both. Then I get crackin’. I’m a morning person; I like to get stuff out of the way first thing so I can get on with my day, and that’s how I approach this contest. My personal daily word-count goal is 10,000 words. I’m not allowed to spend quality time with my husband, friends or cats until I somehow manage to get at least 10,000 words written. That’s just the way it is. It’s only for three days (unlike NaNoWriMo’s behemoth 30) — I think most of us can handle any challenge for three measly days.

The first few hours of Day One aren’t bad — everything is new. You’re establishing characters, building your story’s world, dropping chunks of back story. There’s not a lot of plot to contend with at this point because you’re setting everything up. In fact, the entire first day is relatively easy because, at this point, you’re still well rested and your novel is like a new lover — you’ve got the warm fuzzies and you don’t know all of its deep, dark secrets yet.

I usually hit my target 10,000 words between 6 and 8 p.m. At that point, I either finish up whatever scene I’m working on (or not), and put the novel to bed for the rest of the day. I’m not the type to pull all-nighters (I can’t; 10:30 is my bedtime), and I think the trick to making it through the contest is pacing yourself. I spend the rest of the evening with my husband, watching TV, chilling out and not thinking about my novel. There will be plenty of time for that on Day Two.

Day Two is the worst. I think it is by far the most difficult day of the contest. You’ve created characters, you’ve built a world and maybe you’ve set some of the plot in motion. Now you have to figure out what the hell’s going to happen next. Day Two is when a sense of hopelessness will start to creep in. You might want to give up, but you can’t. Press on, no matter how crappy your story seems. You can make it better later. Right now, you just have to muddle through and get your brilliant story onto paper. It usually takes me longer to reach my word-count goal on Day Two. And maybe I’ll only hit 9,000 words that day. Whatever. It’s OK, because tomorrow is Day Three.

On Day Three you’ll be exhausted. You’ll probably be cranky. You’ll have a caffeine hangover, even though you probably thought a caffeine hangover wasn’t even a thing. Roll out of bed. Drink a gallon of coffee. Do your thing. You know the drill by this point. On Day Three, you’ll have to clean up all the messes you made on Day Two. Your protagonist accidentally blew up his office building? He’ll have to pay the consequences (or split town). It’s time to tie up all those loose plot threads as best you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect (that’s what editing is for) — just do what you can. You’ve been throwing yourself into this novel for nearly 72 hours now. Your brain will not be firing on all cylinders. Keep going. The 3-Day Novel Contest is as much performance art as it is a test of your endurance and creativity.

When you’re done (hopefully, it’s still somewhat early in the evening and not 11:59 p.m.), save and close your file. Don’t even think about it for the rest of the day. Don’t go back and start fiddling around with it. Just like you shouldn’t pick a scab, you shouldn’t go back and start picking at your novel — you’ll just open up fresh wounds, and you’ll be up all night trying to stop the bleeding. As an old boss of mine used to say, “Stop yourself. Just stop yourself.”

If you actually register for the contest, you’re supposed to print out and mail in your creation (yes, unedited, save for maybe running spell check) for the judging process. Or you can just print it out for yourself and marvel at your accomplishment.

The point of the contest is to see what happens when you put writing above all other priorities. That it is possible to write a masterpiece (or at least the first draft of a masterpiece) if you just put all the distractions (and responsibilities) in your life on hold for a few days.

So if NaNoWriMo and its 30 days and nights of literary abandon is too much for you, try the 3-Day Novel Contest. You just might surprise yourself.