Lessons Learned From the 3 Day Novel Contest

September 18, 2017

This year was my first time ever taking part in the crazy intense writing extravaganza known as the 3 Day Novel Contest.

For those of you who don’t know, the 3 Day Novel Contest has been occurring annually over the long Labor Day weekend (or Labour Day, since it originates in Canada) for 40 years now, and it’s exactly what it sounds like it is. Participants may begin their novel no sooner than 12:01 a.m. of the Saturday of Labor/Labour Day weekend, and they may finish no later than 11:59 p.m. of the Monday that ends that weekend. Brainstorming and even outlining are allowed (and encouraged) beforehand, but the actual writing of the novel must take place within the designated 72 hour period. (I say “novel” because the name of the contest says “novel,” but I would argue that what I and most others wrote that weekend would actually be classified as novellas.)

Anyway, the birthing of this book-baby was no small feat, and the whole experience merited some time spent in contemplation afterwards. Whether you’re curious about it in a vicarious way or because you’d like to take part in this contest or something like it yourself, here are some of my key takeaways, both big and small, from the time I spent writing my novel. Novella. Book-baby.

Writing a book in 72 hours is haaaaaaard

Did I expect this contest to be a walk in the park? No, I sure didn’t, but I didn’t understand the complexities of how difficult it would be. I didn’t realize how often my ideas would completely dry up, or how frequently I’d be at a loss for words. I didn’t know how slowly the pages would fill up or how rapidly the hours would melt away. I couldn’t have anticipated the way the experience would tap into my emotional reserves, or how it would leave me questioning any capabilities as a writer I thought I possessed. I experienced an onslaught of both positive and negative emotions while trying to exercise as much creativity as possible and as much disciplined time management as possible while spending all three days in front of a computer and in total isolation. I knew it would be hard. I just didn’t know it would be haaaaaaard. (See, my words are used up, and I’m reduced to stretching words out to expand their meaning, like a well-loved pair of yoga pants. Lexical yoga pants.)

It is possible to feel physically exhausted after sitting still for three days straight

I did not exert myself physically one single time during the contest. I sat in a reasonably comfortable chair and ate food and typed and drank lots of coffee (for the caffeine) and a little bit of wine (for the inspiration), but I was weary beyond anything I expected by the end. It took several days to “recover” afterwards. I couldn’t believe how tired I felt physically, and also how emotionally and mentally drained I felt. It’s kind of amazing how our feelings of physical health or unhealth have to do with so much more than just our actual physical condition. One wouldn’t expect to feel exhausted after sitting quietly. I’m here to attest that one can.

I’m more annoyed than I’d care to admit when I can’t do something right the first time

(Do you like my short, punchy headlines for this thing? When someone asks me to write a blog post, I’m all over it. When someone asks me to come up with a clever, grabby title, I break into a cold sweat and write long convoluted things like the one you see above or just give up and try for something alliterative. Fun fact: my title for my 3DNC is an alliteration. An adequate alliteration. An amazingly adequate alliteration.)

Anyway. Titles aren’t the point. The point is that all throughout that writing weekend, I kept worrying that I would fall far short of my word count goals (I didn’t), and that even if I met those goals it wouldn’t matter anyway because everything I was writing was crap (it might have been crap), and I felt sad and discouraged by that and kept thinking that I was a fool to ever consider myself a writer and I might as well just give up.

As reasonable as all those feelings obviously were, they revealed some very unreasonable expectations. I had never written a novel before ever in my life. Why in the world would I expect my very first attempt to be accomplished flawlessly? I have certainly never written that much content under that much time pressure. When I write a blog post, I edit obsessively. I may write a post one day and not publish it until a week later (case in point: this very blog post took five days start to finish), and it’s not because I’m twiddling my thumbs. It’s because I keep coming back to it over and over and over again until I feel satisfied with what I’ve written. That’s my style, and that’s my habit, but for the 3DNC, that’s not an option. It’s WRITEWRITEWRITESUBMIT. It was such a challenge for me to turn something in without all the obsessive, time-consuming editing, and of course my first time attempting such a thing left me with a final product that was far, far from perfect, but what else should I have expected? Is it evidence that I shouldn’t write? (That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is no.)

I know I’m not alone in feeling discouraged upon trying something new and discovering that I’m not as good at it as I wanted to be. I also know that fear of incompetence shouldn’t stop us from continuing to try. In his book Start Next Now, Bob Pritchett offers this helpful wisdom:

Ignorant. Incompetent. We treat these words as insults and cringe when they’re directed our way. And if we feel in these insults the sting of truth, we want to escape — to hide somewhere safe and comfortable where our shame won’t be called out. But ignorance and incompetence are nothing to be ashamed of. Ignorant and incompetent aren’t elements of our character; they are descriptive terms for a temporary state of affairs…The next thing you need to know or do is essential to taking the next step, and it’s the thing that will make you the most uncomfortable. You need to embrace this discomfort.

Embracing discomfort. Refusing to hide somewhere safe and comfortable. That’s how we grow.

“Serious” equates to “shallow” when you’ve only got three days

At least, for me it did. This is maybe my biggest takeaway from the 3DNC. I tried to tell a story that spanned many months and explored ideas of home and belonging, using characters who found themselves in complex circumstances. When I read through it again afterwards, it felt depressingly over-simplified and juvenile. In a story written this quickly, there simply isn’t time to give hefty ideas the treatment they are owed. If I were to do this again, I would absolutely write something more fun and light. And actually, I am a firm believer that some of the most important truths can surprise us in a single moment of sweetness (or bittersweetness) that occurs in an otherwise lighthearted story. The sudden pivot from normal to painful, or from hilarious to heavy, can have more weight than something that tries to be heavy throughout. Attempts at gravity can too easily feel pretentious, while attempts at levity usually don’t, and we’re more likely to cry along with characters with whom we’ve also laughed.

An author ought to use his or her own voice

That advice is old hat, but I’ve become more convinced of its importance. During the 3DNC, I felt I ought to write with a more distant-sounding voice than the one I use when I blog, but I’m not so sure now. C.S. Lewis spoke to his readers in The Chronicles of Narnia as well as in his theological works for adults, and I love it. Lemony Snicket did it. Anthony Trollope did it in Barchester Towers, Charles Dickens did it in A Christmas Carol, Elephant and Piggie do it in the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems. From flights of fancy to philosophy, I love when there is a kind of camaraderie between an author and his or her readers, when writers join their readers in exploring the thoughts and ideas they write about. That’s the style I try to use when I blog (oh hi there, reader!), and it’s the style I intend to employ next time I write a novel/novella/book-baby.

It’s not all bad news

For the most part, this experience revealed plenty of areas of weakness for me (or “growth opportunities,” as the modern business world likes to say), but there were some happy revelations too. For one thing, I finished. Yay! There was a beginning, there was a middle, and there was an end, and it was a generally cohesive story. I discovered that I really like writing flashbacks and was able to put them to good use in casting light on the behavior of my characters. I feel like I learned a lot about the pacing of a story that will be helpful to me in future endeavors. And I gained a whole new appreciation for people who tell stories well, because a well told story is certainly no small accomplishment.

Did I enjoy participating in the 3 Day Novel Contest? Well, “enjoy” is the wrong word. It’s the word I associate with a good meal or a fine wine or a massage or even just going to a decent movie. It’s a word for how I feel when I am the passive participant in a pleasant experience. In this case, asking if I enjoyed it is like asking if I enjoyed giving birth to my babies, or if I enjoyed a rigorous workout, or speaking in front of a couple thousand people that one time at high school graduation. I don’t know if we “enjoy” the experiences that stretch us further than we’re used to being stretched, but we can enjoy the outcomes. In this case the outcomes are a greater understanding of my abilities as a writer (for better and for worse), a greater enthusiasm for writing in general (after dismissing my initial conclusion that I ought to never write anything ever again), and a greater appreciation for my husband, who took all four of our boys away from me so I could have those days to write undisturbed (writing this blog post has been….not undisturbed). So yes, I enjoy the outcomes of the 3DNC, I am thankful for the experience, and I would encourage anyone reading this to find ways to challenge themselves in the things they’re passionate about.

 

  1. Jessika

    September 18th, 2017 at 3:23 am

    “Experiences that stretch us further than we’re used to being stretched, but wr can enjoy the outcomes.” …as related to childbirth. Yikes. And yes.

    I’m glad yoy did this. And I’m glad you shared about it. I obsessively edit mere Facebook posts, so I can’t imagine a full blog post- and especially not a novel. Keep sharing. And I say you should do it again next year.

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Elisa Joyful 

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