3-Day Novel (5): Personal Archetypes and The End

The last few posts have been about entering the International 3-Day Novel Contest last spring. But it would be embarrassing to spend more than, say, 72 hours writing about the contest, so it’s time to finish:

Monday (Day 3)

No walk, no cinnamon bun, just coffee, old pizza, dark chocolate, and work.

In Act II I had managed to get through most of the problems Act I had set up, and by the end of it I had engineered enough new ones to manage the turn that Chandler said was needed to get past the middle of a novel without the energy slacking — the turn towards some problem unanticipated at the beginning. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, the initial mystery of the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is solved by the end of the 2nd act, but that leaves the third-act’s new, if retrospective, problem — Jekyll’s struggle to control Hyde.

For Undine, as near as I recall, that happened when my hero took an unplanned boat journey and was dropped off on an island in Lake Winnipeg where he met two elderly women — one white, one native. They were unexpected, but I recognized them. Because you can be weird and new age-y about it, or just accept that’s how stories work, but I think every writer has their own personal set of archetypes. Dickens, for example, had those insipid innocent women, and that wise rich uncle figure who fixes things up; Stephen King has the protagonist frequent readers call the “King stand-in,” and that innocent-mentally retarded-psychic-blind-black-girl sort-of character (you know the one I mean).

It’s not necessarily a simple thing: in a Christmas Carol Scrooge changes from villain to wise rich uncle. In the Little Dorrit (somehow great and boring) the insipid innocent girl is the protagonist and she solves the older rich man’s problems (and then marries him). In It, the King stand-in role is split among two or three characters; in The Dead Zone the protagonist is the innocent crippled psychic, &c.

And it’s not that writers can’t think of other characters; just that those types reflect things inside who, like Mr. Hyde, keep wanting out. So Undine was the 7th or 8th novel I’d written, and I’d started to recognize a few of the company: The cocky newfound maybe-friend (a figure like, say, Alan Breck in Kidnapped). The feral young boy (Peter Pan with a hangover, or maybe my cousin Dan). And the cranky maybe-wise grandmother (certainly not like either of my actual grandmothers; maybe Maggie Smith in one of her crotchety roles).

Now, without my intending it, I had come to an obviously Mysterious and Significant Place and found not one but two cranky grandmothers. When someone from the cast shows up just because they’re needed you pay attention, and these two pointed out … issues …. that were maybe larger than my hero’s missing girlfriend. Then it was Act III and at last that happy sense the story was slipping along by itself — and I just had to hang on to the toboggan.

I had planned to spend the last few hours doing a quick re-write. Deal with sentences I had left unfinished, characters who changed names, traps that were set but never sprung, or mines that exploded without having first been laid. And maybe if I hadn’t started late I would have. But as the time ticked down towards midnight, even as the story-toboggan began to slide faster and faster towards doom (3), I also began to get that Zeno’s paradox feeling that comes towards the end of a project. I got stupider and slower; I found more little things that had to be fixed; I wrote more pages so confused they needed to be rejigged before I moved on….

So I was still writing almost to the very end. I don’t think I even understood how the Lovecraft character with my name (one of the inspirations behind Undine) came into it until that last half-hour. In the end I had about 10 minutes to re-format things, and then it was midnight.

I sent Undine off, emailed home to say I was done, went to the washroom without being eaten by a bear, and slept.

Tuesday morning I breakfasted at White’s, went to the shower house at last, closed up the cabin, and had a long wait for the bus to take me home. A long bus ride too, and I had the time to reflect on all the things that were supposed to be in Undine but had never showed up: the scene between the lovers on the beach; the sound of the water running through the karst beneath their feet; seeing how odd the girlfriend’s family was (1). Will those bits remain forever in the limbo of unwritten stories? Or if I try to make Undine again, as a longer, slower book, maybe I’ll find them there.

After all that I can’t really say if Undine was any good — except for the bit from the beginning I clipped out for one of these blog entries (2), I haven’t even read it yet — but probably not really. But maybe I will turn it into a longer, slower, better book later; and even if I don’t, it was a great experience:

It was the whole process of writing a novel, just in a little box —

slow and doubtful at the beginning (I wasn’t even sure until I was 5 pages in that it was Undine that I’d be writing); settling into the voice; hitting dead spots. The moments half-way through when you think it will never come together and must be abandoned. The surprise bits of inspiration. The final rapid unfolding of understanding.

I understand how people get addicted to running marathons; if my kids were older I’d have a shot at the 3-Day Novel every year.

– – –

(1) Which of these three elements came from the author’s own experience?
(2) Here.
(3) Just like in Ethan Frome, ha-ha

3-Day Novel (4): don’t worry about fibre

My last few posts have talked about entering the 3-Day Novel contest, my plan to write Undine (an HP Lovecraft-goes to the Interlake gothic), how I managed to start late, and how I wrote Act I.

Sunday (Day 2):

I woke up, walked out for coffee and a cinnamon bun, and then it was day 2. The writing is going to be slow on Day 1, when you’re warming up, and by the 3rd day you should have enough momentum built up to roll you out the door, but the 2nd day is when the real work happens.

I had to write 3 nearly finished pages an hour; you can type faster than that but it’s hard to write much more (1). So while you might have roughly figured on something sort of happening at a certain point, you don’t really have time to worry about your outline, only about what has to happen next. And if there isn’t enough narrative push to tell you, it’s best not to worry about the plot. Just do like Raymond Chandler: have a man come through the door holding a gun (2) and write your way out of it.

So that 2nd day, unplanned and expected settings and secondary characters appeared and involved themselves and revealed things I hadn’t known about the central mystery of Undine (the narrator’s missing girlfriend). I had an unplanned journey by road and water. The RCMP came back. My protagonist had the dreams of a troubled man alone in a cabin in the woods.

I moved my writing spot between tables and chairs, I went for brief walks (no indoor toilet). I had coffee. I could have drunk a lot of coffee to keep going, obviously, or I could have used Ritalin or Allertec or something. And it’s not that I didn’t think about it — but it’s a 3-day contest and I’m not Hunter S. Thompson, and you know, I wasn’t trying to stay awake because I had to fix Apollo 13: it was just a writing challenge for me and my normal brain.

Taking a hint from the 3DN website, I bought dark chocolate and ordered a pizza (no indoor toilet at our cabin, but we do have delivery pizza). That was the best advice they had and probably the best advice I can give too: if you think of the 3DN as an exploration of your underworld, then pizza and dark chocolate are your iron rations(3). Don’t worry about fibre; there’ll be plenty of time to poop after you level up, when the book is done.

By the end of the 2nd day I was not quite done the 2nd Act, but I had a good sense of how it would end. And I went to bed and dreamt the dreams of a troubled man alone in a cabin in the woods.

– – –

  1. Italo Calvino famously played with this idea in his collection of linked opening chapters, If On a Winter Night a Traveller and, look, I know that was the point, but still, reading it is a matter of feeling repeatedly cheated that the promise of the openings will not be fulfilled.
  2. Well, John Creasey did maybe. He wrote hundreds of novels: westerns, mysteries, science fiction, and they were surprisingly … not bad … even good, sometimes, though you might say they were the sort of quickly novels that were best read quickly. Last week, after many years, I re-read one of his best-regarded novels, The Famine. The Famine is one of a long series about Z5, an international agency that was always fighting off mysterious global threats, usually perpetrated by megalomaniacs bent on drastically thinning the Earth’s population.
       In this case the global threat was a famine caused by a race of hungry mutant midgets that bread faster than rabbits. One solution after another is tried until Z5 realizes the only way to save the human race is to keep the useful people in well-guarded cities, while tricking everyone else into going into the countryside to either die of starvation or be eaten by midgets — drastically thinning the earth’s population.
       If you read it quickly enough maybe you won’t pause to wonder, what was it like for Dr. Palfrey, leader of Z5, to ponder that irony? Or for all the people doomed by their leaders? Or for all the Useful People when they emerged to find the ruined world full of the skeletons of everyone they had sent off to find their slow or violent deaths? I think John Creasey could either worry about little details like those or keep to his daily 6,000 words, but not both.
  3. Figuratively. Could be any forcing action. But I think I did use a gun once.
  4. Iron rations, nothing; a large pizza will pretty much do one man for two days. That’s lembas-good!)

3-Day Novel (3): All nature was my outhouse…

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 DarknessDoctor 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™. 

– – – – – –
*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”.

3-Day Novel (1), why?

I thought I’d begin by writing about the 3-Day Novel contest.

I’d had an idea, years ago, for an eerie, HP Lovecraft-goes to the Interlake sort of story — the initial image being, if I can recall, a man whose girlfriend had disappeared in the water (and he’s pretty sure she didn’t drown).

        I never pursued it because, first, I always had other things to write, and second, the form seemed so limited. Because the patterns of a Lovecraft-type story, or a story using his “Cthulhu Mythos,” is always pretty much the same: after a lot of exposition, the hero gradually comes face to face with irrefutable evidence of the awful, COSMIC HORROR of the universe — the realization that human beings are irrelevant, that everything is doomed, or even that the hero or narrator may himself be transforming INTO THE VERY SORT OF NON-HUMAN BEING HE IS HORRIFIED BY. That sort of thing.

        It’s worth pointing out that not only do we kind of know where it is going from the moment we see Lovecraft’s name, or just recognise the form, but that the hero himself (always HIMself for Lovecraft) usually isn’t even a very active protagonist; he is more of a horrified witness. Because that sort of story, as Lovecraft pointed out, is more of a gradual entry into a bad dream than an actual conflict.

        And that is how the nightmares I remember seem to me — not like my regular random-action dreams (like old episodes of Mannix)  but an accretion of unsettling details until the final revelation, so awful that one has to wake up. For example: everyone has left and you are all alone on the Earth, or you aren’t all alone because your girlfriend is there, except, it turns out, SHE’S A VAMPIRE — don’t laugh unless you’ve been there — etc. Always followed by a QUICK CUT to being awake and slightly confused about why you feel scared and lonely, and quite concerned to establish the actual existence of your spouse in bed beside you (unless your spouse used to be that girlfriend, in which case, hard luck).

        Anyway. It’s not that there’s nothing to a Mythos story, it’s just that, as Fritz Leiber observed — he was one of the many young writers who owed a lot to encouragement and advice from Lovecraft — it seems like a kind of aesthetic dead-end.

        (But Lovecraft is unsettling — he had caught some magic, or something, in a bottle, and there are scenes that have remained in my dreams for, literally, decades — although he is also almost never actually scary. You’d think this might be a complete disqualification for a “horror” writer, but in fact, a disappointingly small number of horror writers are actually scary, ever. Still it’s strange, considering his enormous influence and reputation, that Lovecraft is no Stephen King, no Shirley Jackson.)

        So… I had this idea for a longish horror story that would belong most of all to this very narrow and limited genre. Who would ever want to read it, or publish it? But that image, of the girlfriend in the water, and drowning is not what the hero is scared of, that stuck with me.

And then I thought of the 3-Day Novel competition. A good venue for a short novel, a good place to try an exercise in genre-writing. I don’t know if everyone who’s tried it agrees, but I thought if I was going to write a whole freaking novel in three days, I wanted the scaffolding of a well-established form for support. And the judges have to read your story.

        So, I had a method, and I had an opportunity, and I had a motive, too: because I had just taken two years to write what should have been a fairly simple novel, probably because I worried about it too much (and I had had trouble with the one before that, too). So I wanted to just, please, START and FINISH a book without worrying about it too much.

        Anyway, why have a cabin if you don’t use it to hide out and get smelly while you pursue some secret project?