There comes a time, when the inspiration runs dry and nothing seems to be happening to get the words out on the page, when you realize that only a drastic measure will get things moving and keep you on the path of writing. Some people take the nuclear option and get rid of everything they’ve been writing, others shove it in a drawer for a while and move on to something else, hoping that inspiration will come back later and they’ll be able to start again with fresh eyes. I’ve found a new strategy that seems to be doing the trick; do something drastic. Like, say, write a whole novel in three days.

Not to shill for any one particular challenge, but the Three-Day Novel contest is a particularly fine example of the literary marathons that have been proliferating in the past several years. Most people are familiar with National Novel Writing Month, running since 1999 and in which participants commit to writing a novel of at least fifty-thousand words through the month of November. This contest is much less well known, but has actually been going on longer; it began in 1977 with a handful of people, and has now expanded to accept hundreds of entries a year. I did it before, two years ago; I produced a Very Literary Work that didn’t make the shortlist and in retrospect probably had very little to distinguish it from what I’m sure were a hundred other Very Literary Works, all earnestness and messages. This year, in a bit of a writing rut, I am trying again, and trying to write something truer to my voice, along my fantasy roots. We’ll see if it works. I will be holed up for the Labour Day weekend writing, and perhaps the next time I post I will have some update on how it went.

The reason I bring this up is that it seems like a perfect idea to strike a spark in the act of writing, some big ridiculous gesture that will have at its end a product that I hope will win the contest and be published. But in the end, such writing contests are about more than that. They are a way to impose a deadline , a defined end by which the act of writing has to be completed. I am the sort of person who has difficulty without a limit, as the lack of a certain amount of anxiety seems to keep me from doing what it is I set out to do. Many others will say the same, that the limit of as writing contest can be just what’s needed to kick-start a frustrating stall in the writing process.

I’d be interested to hear what others think about the use of writing contests as a way to get things moving. Is it a technique you’ve used in the past? Has it worked? In the meantime, I will post an update once the Labour Day Weekend has passed to let people know how it’s gone.

5 responses on “Contested

  1. Evan

    Good post, Dylan.

    I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but I did the 50,000-word challenge in June of last year (I almost made it to 60,000). It was great! I also need deadlines — without them, I’m lost — but I’ve been pretty good about creating my own artificial deadlines and forcing myself to abide by them. I make myself weekly goals, and I’m often up REALLY late on Sunday nights trying to meet them after a long week of procrastination.

    The three-day novel thing sounds intense. Keep us apprised!

  2. Brandon M Lindsay

    I’ve heard that Michael Moorcock used to make a living doing the three-day novels. Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea. I’ll admit, though, a novel in three days sounds really scary. I don’t even think I’ve ever done a short story in three days.

  3. Evan

    I imagine to do the novel in three days, you have to go into it *really* well-prepared and have a plan for exactly how much story ground you need to cover each day. How much prep work have you done, Dylan, or are you going to more or less play it by ear?

  4. Dylan

    Thanks for the comments, guys!

    It is a bit scary, although I have the advantage of having done it before. I’m not completely happy with the product, but it was a novel (well, a novella; 33,000 words, I think) that despite it’s faults, tells a story beginning, middle and end. That makes it a bit easier this time.

    The contest is such that you can’t start writing the story before the first day of the contest, but you can plan in advance. I’m working on my beat sheet for it and I have a story and characters already sketched out; I need to figure out the ending, but it’s got some basic shape. I don’t think I could go into it completely blind, I’d have a fit. Last time the story had three parts and I would use that as my benchmarks; finish one part each day. It took about ten hours of solid writing and not much time for editing.

    I’m interested to hear that Moorcock did this – maybe there’s something to this for long term as opposed to a yearly novelty.

  5. KylieQ

    I don’t write short stories often but I do find that when it feels like there are no words left, a short story in a different genre can get me moving again. I usually use a particular contest or anthology as a starting point but, invariably, what comes out is totally unsuitable for what I was aiming for. I guess that comes back to my inability to write what I intend to.

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