In the last two posts I wrote about why I entered the 3-Day Novel contest; the origin of Undine, the Lovecraft-goes-to-the-Interlake novel I wrote; and how going out to our cabin meant I started 6 hours behind.
A NOVEL IN 3 DAYS ISN’T SO MUCH, necessarily. What counts as a novel? Traditionally, that’s ‘A story not meant to be read in one sitting.’ So let’s say 90 or 100 pages. A moderate-good reader could read that in one sitting, but probably not — and that’s also nearly the length of most of the winners of the 3DN*. People sometimes don’t regard books that short as ‘real’ novels, but even at that length a story is almost certain to be structured around multiple incidents that provide natural breaks for a reader to leave and rejoin the story. At that point, whether your novel is 100 or 1000 pages, it’s still a different kind of thing from a short story, and there are plenty of well-known novels around that length — The Turn of the Screw; The Red Pony; Black Water; Heart of Darkness; Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde**. Teachers like to assign them because they have some hope*** that even their less motivated students will manage to finish them.
Since most of the winners of the 3-Day Novel have been about 100 pages, let’s be generous with extra space for chapter breaks and call it 20-25,000 words. Then we’ll say over 3 hard days that’s about 40 working hours. Leave 4 hours for tidying and re-write and call it 36. Then (I bet you can do the math yourself, but just in case) that’s 550-700 words — or 2-3 pages — an hour.
That’s not so much! L. Ron Hubbard wrote faster than that; so fast that he used a roll of paper so he wouldn’t lose time putting new sheets into his typewriter — possibly to leave himself the time to start a religion that solved all the deepest questions of life and creation, he said. Heck, Lawrence Block (best known for his crime novels — The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons is the most recent, I think) says he wrote some of his, well, less respectable novels in less than 3 days. So it’s certainly doable. As long as, you know, don’t sweat making sentence pretty. And as long as you don’t need to waste much time working out what should happen next.
I had a 1-page outline (there aren’t strict rules about it, but the idea is to see what happens when you compress the creative process into 3 days, not to do most of the work ahead of time), and I had it briefly broken up into 3 acts. I wrote the whole first act (about 20 pages), more or less, on that shortened first day, pausing only for one walk into town to buy a few provisions. It was slow work, because it had been such a short night, and because I was just warming up, but in a way the first act was the easiest bit, because it was largely about establishing the setting, the main characters, the basic problem, and I already knew those things. Here’s how I started:
This was the story left to me by Michael Leskanich,
the sort of old friend you can’t say no to, especially when
you think they are dead.
Not the most original thing in the world, but not bad, I think. I ended the foreword with:
I’m not going to pretend I didn’t tidy it up a bit for
him; I’m a writer and he was an old friend who was working fast.
Punctuation, sentence structure. That sort of thing.
I only left out a few things, and I think you’ll see why.
So, an old-fashioned framing device for what was supposed to be a story that someone else left for me, or for some writer almost exactly like me. But here’s another reason I wanted to do it this way: I re-read a lot of Lovecraft in the months before the 3DN contest, and notice that in “The Rats in the Walls,” Lovecraft had a minor character named Thornton — a failed psychic researcher who faints, goes mad, and ends up in an insane asylum. And if THAT’s not an invitation to write yourself into a Lovecraftian tale of horror and suspense, I don’t know what it.
Not much more to say about the first day and first act, except that getting myself to do even that much work wound me up enough I had some trouble getting to sleep. And that we don’t yet have indoor plumbing. And if, after spending the day writing a supernatural-suspense novel, you find you are woken by your bladder, and facing a walk through the black and lonely bush to get to the toilet, then even though almost no one ever gets eaten by bears in Riding Mountain National Park, you might, as I did, declare all nature your outhouse, take a whizz off the deck and go back to bed.
NEXT TIME: Days 2-3. Act II! Act III! Practicalities. Also I still didn’t mention what life-changing wisdom I may or may not have brought back from the Jungian underworld at the heart of the Writer’s Journey™.
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*For pages, by the way, read “250 words”, since in the olden times (before word-processors) that was what a typed, double-spaced page amounted to. In print, most books for adults average more than that, but not all. The late Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” detective novels, for example, had a (hardback) word-count of about 250 words/page. Much less than that and it starts to seem like someone just doesn’t care about the trees.
**In fact RL Stevenson is supposed to have written Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 3 days, shown it to his wife, burned it, then written it again in another 3 days. But then he was sick and febrile and, um, medicated. I think. Look, just because I’m too lazy to double-check this on Wikipedia doesn’t mean you have to be. Or Philip K Dick.
***Hope, that is. When I taught first-year English at Red River College I had a (white, middle-class) student for whom even the 110 pages of Heart of Darkness was too much, so for his essay he just wrote that he was so offended by Conrad’s use of the N-word in a story about the colonial exploitation of Africa that he couldn’t bring himself to read more than the first five pages. I wrote “nice try” and gave him an “F”.