Friday 2 September 2011

Write a novel in three days?

            It's Labour Day weekend, and I'm reminded of another Labour Day weekend from 2006.  While most of my friends were outdoors enjoying the last days of summer, I was inside figuratively chained to my computer taking part in the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest.
            The contest itself first began in 1977 and has continued every year over the Labour Day weekend. There is an honour system of rules.  No one is watching you to see that you don't start before midnight but after so many years, they can tell when someone has cheated and not kept within the 72 hours. In the end, the writers are not necessarily competing against each other (even though there are three top prizes) but rather the competition is with themselves. Just the insane thought: Can I write a whole novel in three days?
            Although you are not allowed to do any writing of the actual manuscript ahead of time, you are allowed to come up with a story and even an outline.  As I wrote in an earlier blog entry:
(, that the inspiration for my novel, The Depth of Deception, came from a tabloid headline I had seen 16 years earlier.  So I put together a rough outline with all the plot points I wanted to cover and the ending. That was key. I've never been able to write a screenplay or story unless I had the ending first and knew where I was going.
            Day One - At the stroke of midnight I began typing. My wife was completely supportive and was looking after our one-year-old daughter while I embarked on this crazy venture.  Since I was normally the cook in the family, my wife purchased a weekend stock of frozen dinners and easy to make lunches and made sure that I ate. After many years of working together in theatre she knew I would forsake eating to get the job done.  I had also e-mailed all my friends and colleagues and told them what I was doing and to not bother, call or e-mail me for the duration of the long weekend.
            Using the my outline as a guide, I felt I was off to a good start. I didn't get as far as I had hoped but the main characters were becoming well defined.
            Day Two - From my years of going to school during the day, theatre in the evening and working the graveyard shift at a variety store, I learned that I could survive with short 20-minute power naps. I employed this technique to survive this weekend (it was easier when I was eighteen). Still the 20-minute naps would give me a few hours of focused writing time. The contest's website stated that this is usually the time that "the outline may be discarded". This was not the case with me. I was right on track. Every once in a while my wife would check that I was still breathing and bring food.
            Day Three - One nap was longer than I had intended and I was now behind. I was typing furiously, very glad I took that typing class in high school. (You can't do something like this with the hunt-and-peck-typing-system.)  As I was writing I was becoming increasingly aware that everything was moving too... conveniently.  On the screen it was clear who the antagonist was and their comeuppance was foreshadowed too soon.  Suddenly there was a surprise twist.  It was such a surprise that I didn't see it coming until my fingers stopped typing and I read what I had just written.  I had killed off a major character. I didn't intend for that to happen.  They were supposed to be triumphant at the end. I looked at the screen again. They were dead. Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to backspace and delete that last sentence. But I couldn't. I stared at it. It made sense. It was essential. It threw doubt onto who was good and who was bad. I looked at my one-page outline and crumpled it up. It no longer applied.
            I got up and went to the living room and calmly told my wife, "I just killed off a major character."
            "What?" she blinked. She asked me a couple of other questions and I think I answered but I can't be sure. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was past seven o'clock in the evening. I had less than five hours left to complete the novel.
            "I have to take a walk," I said to her. "I have to figure out what's going to happen next."  
            I didn't go too far. I could feel the effects of sleep deprivation on my body and did not trust myself crossing the street. So I walked around the block... many times. I recall talking out loud to myself, sometimes as the characters, figuring out the dialogue and the consequences of what had happened in my novel. I'm sure to any passerby, I looked insane talking to myself with no newfangled Bluetooth, hands-free cell phone in sight.
            After a short while, I returned to my computer and typed away as fast as I could.  By this point, spelling, grammar, character development, and even scene description become immaterial.  The main driving goal was to be finished writing by midnight.
            I finally reached the end of the novel. I looked at the clock, there were 13 minutes left to go. I hit 'save' so that it would be date-stamped with the actual time, proving that I had completed it in the allotted time. I woke up my wife so she could witness the momentous occasion and sign the form as a witness that I obeyed the rules. About one minute after midnight I was in my own bed and sound asleep.
            The next day, I sent in my manuscript with the title, The Unthinkable - playing on the ironic nickname of the Titanic being "unsinkable". It was 77 pages long and contained a total 17,487 words. It was full of spelling mistakes and errors. My tenses were inconsistent.  Still, I was very pleased with myself for having completed a manuscript in three days.
            A few weeks later I met a handful of other 3-day Novel Contestants from the Toronto area at a pub for drinks. We were all asked to bring our first chapter to read to each other's work. It was very interesting to see the different genres that were tackled in this contest. When I read my chapter, it intrigued them. They wanted to know was going to happen and suggested I pursue getting it fleshed out to a point where it would be published. 
            One other writers took a poll and asked how many of us were procrastinators.  We all put up our hands. She concluded that this was the appeal of the 3-Day Novel Contest. It was to conquer the procrastinator inside of us and prove to ourselves that we can do it.
            I don't know if it applies to all writers but it certainly worked for me. It worked again in the fall of 2010 when my agent at Writers House, echoed the opinion that Unthinkable should be fleshed out into a full length novel. Since 2012 will be the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and James Cameron is re-releasing his blockbuster movie in 3D, my thriller novel connected to the Titanic would be very marketable. She challenged me to expand it from 25,000 words (I had made corrections and added details before showing it to her) to over 60,000. Though she said she'd prefer over 80,000.
            I picked up the gauntlet and worked towards an agreed deadline. Six months later I sent her the re-titled, 381 page novel with 90,351 words.  My agent read it over the memorial-day long weekend and loved it. She said the pace and the suspense made it the perfect book to read at a cottage or beach.
(The book will be published April 2, 2012 -
            So, to answer my original question: Can I write a novel in three days?  Yes. It may not be perfect but it was proof of what I can accomplish when I put my mind to it.
            To anyone else wanting to challenge themselves in writing a novel in three days, I highly recommend the experience.  For more information on the 3-Day Novel Contest visit:

My novel Depth of Deception (A Titanic Murder Mystery) can now be purchased at an introductory rate of $0.99 from Amazon at as well as in other e-book formats from Smashwords at
Illustration by Jonathan Adams -


  1. Hey Alex!

    I did the 2007 3-Day contest. I highly recommend it for any aspiring writers. It really makes you focus.

    My approach was slightly different:

    I was sound asleep at midnight, opting instead to manage my time and keep my brain fresh. I figured if I tried staying awake for the duration, I'd be writing gibberish by the end.

    I woke up at 8 the next day, fully rested. Got up, went for a walk, had a solid breakfast then sat down and started writing at 9 (ish).

    Around 1 pm, I got up, stretched, went for a walk again, and had a good lunch before resuming work.

    At 8 pm, I decided that I was baked, and promptly moved away from the computer, had dinner and watched a movie to clear my mind, before going to bed. I'd written 10,000 words.

    On the Sunday, I followed the same routine, only went slightly overtime. It was about 10 pm when I clicked out. But, I'd written another 12,000 words and completed the draft, which gave me a full day for editing.

    Day three was fairly laid back, as I edited what I had, and ended up writing one more chapter running another 3000 words. Which is what I submitted.

    Alas, I didn't win anything, but I got a lovely note from Melissa at 3-Day complimenting me on the pacing of the story.

    One hell of a contest - I may have to try it again.



  2. I've thought about doing it again in the years that followed but I was always prepping for a stage production over the Labour Day weekend.

    It was a great experience. And I read that you've also been expanding your novel. That's terrific!