For the past 3 years, I’ve been booked Labor Day weekend — no picnics, barbecues, hikes or drives to the country. You’ll find me out on my balcony (weather permitting) with my laptop and a cup of weak coffee by my side, churning out a mini-masterpiece for the International 3 Day Novel Contest. It’s a simple premise — start and complete a novel over the 72 hour holiday weekend.
On the honor system. It’s Canadian.
The first year I entered, I did hope to achieve the ultimate prize: publication. The first prize is a book contract with a small press. They don’t announce the winners till January. I drove myself nuts waiting. It was a more intense experience than any previous contest I’d ever entered before. The reason now seems clear. This isn’t a normal situation where you enter using something that’ you wrote long ago. The 3-Day demands that you create something new and create it under intense pressure. You are allowed to write an outline in advance though mine have proven useless once I started. One emerges at the end with a sense that one has been through, if not an ordeal, then at least an intense ritualistic experience.
In my case, I’m not the only one going through it. My better half has been a devoted partner, acting as a caregiver, cook, sounding board, personal assistant , and massage therapist. He’s also signed off on the “affirmation” statement that the novel was started and completed within the time frame.
This year life issues were getting in the way of the creative flow. Ten days before the big day, I had no clear idea about what I even wanted to write. The BH demanded I show him some outlines and pick a plot so that I would not spend the first few hours staring in horror at blank screen. I came up with two ideas — one was a sort of As I Lay Dying set in present day Queens, the other a strangely lighthearted lad-lit tale of a youngish man getting romantic advice from an old man/ghost haunting his basement apartment. Thank goodness, he advised me to go for the latter.
Have I ever won? Not exactly. But winning isn’t everything; in fact, it’s not even relevant. I’d compare it to entering the New York City Marathon. It’s much more about personal best and achievement than it is about getting first place. (Though it would be nice if like a marathon they gave prizes in categories. I’d settle for best novel in the under 25k words category by a woman over 40.) However, that’s not how I felt the first time I entered.
My first entry, The Death Trip came in at a bit above 20,000 words, barely a novella. They say size doesn’t matter, but then they say it might be a factor. I didn’t even make the shortlist. My better-half who loved the story, is still bitter. But here’s what I did get out of it: I got a novella draft in need of little (but not much) revision. I not only got it quick, but I got it with a story that I might never have bothered with otherwise. I learned that I could crank out something coherent in 3 days. I also used the obsession I developed waiting for the results as the basis for a story I told at the Narativ Story Workshop which was filmed, and then used by 3Day on their website.
I revised the novella and realized after a couple of rejections there wasn’t a big market for it at that length. I had no desire to either shorten or expand it, so I decided to put it out as an e-book. To date I’ve had over 1,800 downloads.
My effort the second time around, Hungry Ghosts, actually made the short-list. It too barely made it to 20k, but I fell in love with the story and although other projects have gotten in the way, I’m still working on expanding it to a full novel length. With its combination of erotica and horror, I’m hoping it may even be commercially viable. I’m sure it never would have been written without the contest. All I had of it before Labor Day was a first line (which I wound up changing), a premise that wasn’t completely thought out, and a list of characters.
This year, I promised myself I would somehow get up to 27k, and somehow made it to just that point. Of course I’m still hoping that the third time is the charm, but even if I don’t make this year’s short list, I’m still feeling high from the writing. As a way to jump start a first draft, the 3 Day can’t be beat.
It hasn’t gotten easier over time. I had a tough first night or more literally morning this go-round, but the spirit of the thing kicked in — the idea that in some way, I’d been “preparing,” anticipating this special weekend, reserving it for a purpose. I felt like I had nothing to lose by continuing, so there was no reason not to push on to the end.
I wound up with something unlike anything I’d written before — a lighthearted view of gentrification that almost celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit of people who buy and develop property, a romance that might even work, a happy ending!
The process allows writers to take risks and encourages them to follow Elmore Leonard’s maxim and “skip the boring parts” because there’s simply no time to write them. Whatever I think I learned getting my MFA is useless. More useful is the storytelling technique practiced at Narativ. Although that method was designed for oral storytelling of true stories, the method of focusing on “what happened” and not explaining it, kept me from getting lost in my story and forced me to keep going, even when I wasn’t sure of where.
Thanks to the contest, I now have one novella out in the world attracting a little bit of attention, and I have two projects that need development and expansion, so I don’t have to face the dreaded blank page. I have confidence in my ability to crank out material under pressure and I’ve further honed my skills. The contest allows you to turn your home into a writer’s retreat at a much lower cost than actually traveling to one. It costs $50 to enter, waived if you got a prize or honorable mention the previous year.
So to anyone who writes fiction or has even thought about writing fiction mark your calendar now and start thinking about the book you’ll be writing Labor Day Weekend 2011 (thinking is not against the rules).
Here’s the clip of me talking about my first 3- Day experience: