The Three-Day Novel

The idea of writing a novel is surprisingly popular. It seems that nearly everyone who reads a novel or two entertains the notion that they might, one day, sit down and write one themselves.

Of the reasons given for these notions never advancing beyond a Sunday afternoon’s daydream, lack of time is the most prevelant.

After all, even assuming research and planning for one’s Magnum Opus is complete, everyone knows that writing a novel is a painstaking, almost all-consuming task which will take months if not years. Or will it? During this year’s Adelaide Festival Fringe 40 people wrote novels in three days — and they were not the first.

In 1845 the French novelist and playwright, Alexandre Dumas, famous even today for such novels as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wagered that he could complete the first volume of his then projected three volume work Le Chevalier de Maison Rouge in 72 hours including time for sleeping and eating. He emerged from his study with his completed manuscript a mere 66 hours later.

Ernest Hemingway wrote The Torrents of Spring in a fit of inspiration that kept him going from the 20th to the 26th of November 1925. Just to show that it wasn’t a fluke he wrote Rasselas in 7 days in 1951. This time, however, it was the need to pay for his mother’s funeral rather than the touch of the muse which kept him going.

For more than ten years Walter Gibson, who, as Maxwell Grant, was chiefly responsible for the pulp detective character known as The Shadow, produced a complete 60,000 word novel every fortnight. His most spectacular show of speed occured on a holiday in Maine. The log cabin he had commissioned as a hideaway was barely started. With nowhere else to stay and a new Shadow novel due in three days he ordered the builders to throw together a desk and a chair. His work space secured he sat down and, whilst the cabin was being built around him, wrote the new novel in the three days he had left.

The Running Man, a novel originally published as by Richard Bachman but eventually revealed to be by Stephen King was written — and eventually published with almost no changes — in 72 hours ‘with an energy [King] can only dream about these days.’

Even Shakespeare himself was apparently not free from the need to produce work in a hurry. Tales suggest that more than once fellow members of his company locked the great bard in an attic and would not let him out until a completed play was passed, page by page, through the gap under the door.

So, it seems the old standby of ‘not enough time’ is no excuse for all those would-be novelists not producing their tomes. Given the right motivation anyone should be capable of producing a novel in a week.

Getting the right motivation, however, seems to be rather difficult. How many of us are ever hit with inspiration sufficient to keep us standing in the kitchen writing on top of our fridges for three days, as Hemingway is reputed to have once done. How many of us have held the wolf from the door as desperately as Thackeray, Walter Scott or Dumas were forced to. Each of these three were, at various times, writing almost literally one day ahead of their creditor’s demands for money.

All is not, however, lost. Something of the impetus needed to produce at such great speed is the guiding idea behind the literary marathon known as a Three-Day Novel Contest.

On the Canadian Labour Day Weekend of September 1978 Pulp Press International, a small press in Vancouver, British Columbia, held the first of its now locally infamous Three-Day Novel Contests.

The rules are simple. One registers an interest and pays the entry fee before the contest runs. Then, on the three days prescribed by the rules, you chain yourself to your typewriter or word processor and write.

Outlines are permitted prior to the contest; only the actual writing of the novel is restricted to the three specified days. Collaborations are permitted, but no more than two authors per novel are allowed.

The kick which make this contest an acceptable substitute for inspiration or economics is the first prize. The winning novel is released as a genuine published book the following Northern Spring.

Pulp Press have run twelve contests to date with the thirteenth scheduled to run over September 1 — 3 of this year. Winners in the twelve contests so far run range from bp Nichol the established Canadian poet whose novel Still won the 1982 contest to the 1989 winner Stephen Miller. His book, Wastefall, is his first novel.

In 1988 Landin Press, a small publisher based in Adelaide, decided that what was good enough for the Canadians was good enough for us and ran the first Australian Three Day Novel Contest during that year’s Adelaide Festival Fringe.

The only notable differences to the rules used in Canada were an undertaking to publish the winning novel before the end of the Festival and a requirement that the novel contain some reference to Adelaide’s Festival of Arts. For the 1990 Three-Day Contest the requirement was broadened to simply some reference to Australia.

The other stipulation, that the novel will be published before the end of the festival, may also go by the time of the 1992 contest. Many more than the forty entries recieved this year will make judging in time almost impossible.

So all would-be novelists out there have no excuses left. Next time you hear someone, as they put the latest blockbuster down on the easy table, sigh that they are sure they could do something just as good if only they had the time give them a nasty grin and tell them they have. After all it only takes three days.

2 thoughts on “The Three-Day Novel

  1. Addendum

    The Three-Day Novel Contest is still running. Pulp Press International became Arsenal Pulp Press in 1982 and continued to run the contest until 1991, when they handed the marathon literary competition over to Anvil Press. Anvil Press ran the competition for the next eleven years. In 2003 the competition found new digs at Blue Lake Books. This was a short-lived residence, however, and the contest is now running independently as the 3-Day Novel Contest. The rules remain much as they always have and a registration form can be filled out or downloaded from the registration page.

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