Wednesday, September 9, 2009

3-Day Novel

Way back in 2005, when I first discovered National Novel Writing Month, I wrote my first novel. Well, I should say I wrote 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. What resulted was a rambling, incomplete mess.

But I loved it.

I had rediscovered my love of writing and storytelling. I continued to participate in NaNoWriMo every year after that. Every year but one, I would meet my 50,000 word goal but not yet have a completed novel. That wasn't really the point. The point was to spend some time with my new online friends, and exercise my creative muscles. Each year but one, I was successful at both of these goals.

Then, one of my new online friends told me that she thought I had enough talent to write for her online literary digest. So I took my first NaNo novel and polished it up for publication. The Piker Press serialized The Prisoner and I had finally completed my first novel. (Or novella, depending on your definition... after I got done polishing it, it had shrunk from over 65,000 words to 35,000. Hardly a full-length novel.)

Fast forward to about a month ago. I was hanging out in the Piker Press forums and saw a posting from a fellow Piker asking for a partner to collaborate in a 3-day novel. I went to the website, and read up on it. It sounded like just the thing. Unlike NaNoWriMo, which is a contest just for the fun of it, the 3-day Novel contest actually has judges, and prizes. The winning novel gets a publishing contract.

So, I have already demonstrated my ability to hammer out thousands and thousands of words. Given a couple of years to get around to editing, I can even craft a story that people enjoy reading. Can I do it in three days?

Short answer: Yes.

Slightly longer answer: With a little help from my friends.

Chris and Mary and I have been planning this novel ever since we all agreed to give it a shot. We have pages and pages of character sketches, plot outlines, chapter summaries, and just plain notes of all the discussions we have had during the planning stage. (Contest rules allow all the pre-writing preparation you want, as long as the actual text of the novel is completed during the 72-hour period.) The rules also disallow a third collaborator, so Mary was gracious enough to accept the role of an advisor. (Since our story's main character is a teenage girl, we needed a Subject Matter Expert to ensure we sounded genuine!)

Midnight, we opened a new Google document and got to work. Oh, by the way, both Chris and Mary live in Canada - so all collaboration was going to happen via the Internet. We finished the first two chapters before going to sleep. For me, it was about four in the morning. The next day, along with my normal familial duties (including a shopping trip among other things...) I wrote and wrote and wrote. My dear wife was doing her best not to be exasperated at the amount of time I spent at the keyboard. I was doing my best not to be exasperated at the number of times I had to stop writing to take care of a crying baby. At the end of the first day, we were nearly halfway done, at least according to our outline.

The second day was Sunday, which took a four-hour chunk out of the writing schedule. Nevertheless, by bedtime Sunday night we had all but two or three of the chapters complete.

Wait, what do you mean all but two or three? Was it two or three? Well, this was the hard part. As we wrote, the story evolved. Chapters appeared out of nowhere, little plot lines growing voluntarily out of the neat plan we started with like sprouts appearing in those potatoes in your cupboard. Some get pruned right away. With only 72 hours there is not a lot of time for exploring unplanned territory. Others were interesting enough that we just had to keep them. Which meant going back and filling in plot holes that had formed due to our unplanned detours. So chapters appeared, reappeared, disappeared, merged, and transmogrified as the day progressed.

Nevertheless, at bedtime, we were confident that we could spend the bulk of the day Monday on editing and revising. A whole day for editing. What could go wrong, right?

It was about ten o'clock when panic began setting in. I was still working on Chapter Six of fourteen chapters, and I was trying to convince Chris that I needed to add at least two more chapters. And merge a couple. And drop one altogether. Gaah! What happened to that neat timeline we worked up?

Chris was great. He patiently listened as I proposed change after change. He patiently encouraged me as I totally re-wrote some of his chapters and recreated his characters with and without permission. I kept waiting for him to scream "Stop! I am tired of you changing everything I wrote!" He never did. Thanks Chris!

When I finally got around to writing the final chapter, it was after midnight my time. (Since Chris and Mary are in Mountain time, we were using their clock. I didn't start writing until 2 AM in my time zone, so I wasn't cheating!) Chris had already signed off and gone to bed (another huge gesture of trust in me!) so I was on my own. I started writing, and realized that while I had a very firm idea of what I wanted the closing chapter to contain, my brain was fried and the words were just NOT coming. It must have turned out OK, because when my wife read it later it made her laugh out loud.

As for me... I have not been able to bring myself to look at it since I finished formatting it for printing and sent it to FedEx Office.

When you pour that much effort into a story, and you write, re-write, edit, revise, rearrange, and delete, you get a tunnel vision that makes it impossible to read the story. You can't see past paragraph formatting and spelling and grammar errors. You can't see the imagery or identify with the characters, you simply see that your character starts talking about another character before she even meets him in the story line.

So it is saved in my Google docs, as well as in hard copy on a shelf in my closet. A few months from now, when the tunnel vision has receded and the fuzziness of memory has clouded those 72 hours a bit, I will pull it down and read it again. I am always surprised at how much better the story is when I have a bit of distance between the writing and the reading.

Until that time, I have yet another writing challenge to prepare for... November is only two months away.

Keyboards at the ready....

© 2009 Tyler Willson. All rights reserved


  1. Love the link to your new online friends.

    Good job with the Three-Day Novel. You're braver than me, a thousand times over.

  2. All of my bestest online friends are at that link... how could I leave them out?