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How to write a novel in three days

Every year, on Labour Day weekend, hundreds of men and woman participate in the 3-Day Novel Contest. The goal? Write a complete work of fiction in 72 hours. The prize? Publication by Anvil Press.

We thought we would check in with some of the pros, six men and women who have won the challenge, and ask them how to survive the writing marathon. 

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Bradley Harris won the 3-Day Novel Contest twice—once in 1998 for Ruby Ruby, and the second time in 2012 for Thorazine Beach.

1.   My favourite short-phrase tidbits of advice for making it through the 3-Day Novel extravaganza...
...Write. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
...Starbucks Blonde Roast—extra shot.
...Keep typing, even if it's crap
...It's a three-day contest—not a 72-hour contest. You can't go 72, or 48, or even 24 without sleep and still hope to write well.
2.   As the only person who's won the 3-Day twice, I think I'm entitled to claim this one... Pay attention to your writing process. The act of writing. Learn what doesn't work, and quit doing it. Learn what does work, and do that instead. You don't need pills to go the distance. Just determination, a little sleep, and awareness of the parts of your process that make you produce the most and the best in tight time.

Jennifer K. Chung is the author of Terroryaki!, winner of the 2010 3-Day Novel Contest and the 2012 Independent Publisher Bronze Medal for Best Regional Fiction (West-Pacific).

Try to keep your Facebook status updates at least twenty minutes apart—and only after major milestones, like chapter breaks or finished cups of coffee. If you must post more frequently, invent a cousin who can flit in and out of your Timeline, leaving comments hinting at the increasingly dark holiday she's having in Nova Scotia. Add a gorgeous research scientist, a spunky niece, and a couple of sharks, and you've got yourself a winner. Seriously, shark is like totally the new zombie.

Brendan McLeod is the author of The Convictions of Leonard McKinley, winner of the 2006 3-Day Novel Contest.

I think the biggest thing is not to try to win. Just set your own goal for what you would be happy with at the end of a three-day writing period. Something ambitious to keep you going, but not too ambitious that you'll despair you can't get it done. 

Kayt Burgess is the author of Heidegger Stairwell, winner of the 2011 3-Day Novel Contest.

I know you can sleep when you die, but you can also sleep while you’re alive and it will make your writing actually coherent. Seriously, go the f*ck to sleep.

Jason Rapczynski is the author of The Videographer, winner of the 2008 3-Day Novel Contest.
1) The most important thing, from my perspective, it’s knowing where your story begins. If you’re working without an outline, you want to get off to a fast start, so it’s pretty essential to go in feeling that you know your characters in terms of who they are, what they’ve been through, and how they arrived at this point where your novel begins—that whole “tip of the iceberg” analogy Hemingway talked about. Obviously you’d like to know the ending from the start, but any ending you initially envision, it will be different once you (or your characters) make unexpected choices along the way. So simply having some idea for a conflict should be enough to get you rolling.
2) As for setting a pace, I recommend trying to average two pages per hour, which means you can end up taking up to fifteen hours off and still manage to bang out well over a hundred pages. You can divide your “break” time any number of ways. One example would be, say, six hours of sleep Saturday and Sunday nights (with three hours left over for bathroom breaks, meals, etc.). But go in with this number in mind—2 pages per hour—and after the first day adjust your remaining time and schedule accordingly.
3) Otherwise, it’s just important to have everything ready in advance. Stock up on meal replacement bars, energy bars. Food you don’t need to prepare. If you don’t have one of those K-cup machines, keep three days worth of coffee in thermoses in the fridge. Then sit down ready and rested and believing not only that you can finish…but that you can actually produce your best work in such a short amount of time. Don’t go into it dreading the deadline; instead try to use it to your advantage. Rush has more than one meaning—so look at it as something that can work in your favor. It’s amazing what can happen when the sentences start to come, one after another, faster than you can type them out.     

Mark Sedore is the author of Snowmen, winner of the 2010 3-Day Novel Contest.

1) Begin at midnight on Day One
This is 72-hours where you won’t be doing much else but writing.  During that time you are going to get stuck.  It’s best, therefore, to get stuck as early as possible.  If you start right when the gun goes off you can write until you’re either exhausted or stuck.  Either way you can go to sleep and your subconscious can figure out what comes next.

2) Make the main character close to yourself
Again: you are going to get stuck!  If you make the character close to someone like you, you don’t need to ask as frequently: what would this character do in his or her situation?  Instead you just need to ask: what would I do in this situation?  You can’t afford to spend time figuring out what comes next; you need to know, and you need to know quickly.

3) Set goals (and meet them)
The first year I took part I was shortlisted and I wrote 15,000 words per day.  The second year I came in 2nd and (thinking that I didn’t write enough the first year) I wrote 18,000 words per day.  The feedback I got from the organizers was that I was maybe writing too much.  So the 3rd year, the year I won, I cut it back down to 14,000 words per day (but still overshot this because I tend to write long).  Set your goals and meet them.  Use whatever system works for you to keep track of how far you are and how far you need to go, whether that’s every day, or every hour—I tend to go by day/chapter/wordcount.  Take breaks when you meet a goal.

4) Do preparatory research and talk about your project with others beforehand
Again, like point two, you need to know what happens.  If you do research beforehand and make notes about interesting things, you can write about them when you get stuck.  Also, if you talk about the plot with others prior to the contest they may point out possible sticky parts to help you minimize them before the gun goes off (and though I would never recommend writing a detailed outline, surely that works for some people).  Knowing where you’re going is more important than knowing how you’ll get there.

5) When stuck, turn off your monitor
I don’t know if this would work for everyone but I suggest (when you get stuck) that you turn off your monitor, or blindfold yourself, or whatever you need to take your mind off your work while you’re still working on it.  Go for a walk.  Call a friend to talk it out.  Drink alcohol (best saved for later in the day when you know sleep will come soon).  Don’t edit while you write.  Always turn off your Internet; but turning off your brain while leaving your fingers on is maybe my primary piece of advice.  Keep writing!


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