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This Labour Day weekend, while most Vancouverites are out enjoying the last long weekend of the summer, I’ve turned down a last chance summer getaway so I can hole up inside my downtown condo and try to write a novel in 72 hours.  Like I have done for the past two years, I’ll stay up late on Friday night, and then starting at midnight, I will begin a novel with only an outline, a rough idea of the characters and three wide open days of writing time.  Or so I think.

The 3 Day Novel Contest is known as a gruelling challenge.  Aside from lack of sleep, you’ll experience moments where you think your writing is cliched, moments when it is and you don’t care, moments when you want to give up, but the points where you experience total dedication to your plot and characters over the 3 days are meaningful and productive. The on-line survival guide on the 3DN webpage sums it up perfectly: “That manuscript is now your only friend, the only thing that matters.  Come to think of it, the only thing that has ever mattered.”

This year, the world’s most notorious literary marathon is celebrating 35 years and many people in Vancouver are still unaware that the famous contest originated in our own literary community. “It’s all lore,” Melissa Edwards, the managing editor of the contest describes. “It started in 1977, in Vancouver.  And I know it was at a bar on Pender Street.  I’m not entirely sure which one; I think there has been a couple that have been pointed out to me as the original.”  As the story goes, a group of friends, including Stephen Osborne, publisher of Geist Magazine, got to talking about writers who completed great works in a short span of time. Considering Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or Voltaire’s Candide, the question that spawned this annual writing frenzy arose: Can it be done?

Out of that first weekend, no one felt successful enough to say they had a novel, but the challenge proved worthy and has continued ever since.  Arsenal Pulp Press ran the contest during the 1980s, opening the contest to international writers and publishing the winning manuscript each year.   After that, the contest was put on by Anvil Press and then passed on to Blue Lake Books.  When that publisher folded, the contest became its own independent organization.

“These days we have been getting 500-600 entrants, so 400-500 manuscripts,” explains Edwards. The contest has grown from the three original participants to include people from around the world, but many of the entrants are based in Vancouver because of its connection to our local literary community.  Notable Vancouver winners have been bpNichol for Still and Brendan Macleod for The Convictions of Leonard McKinley, but local writers emerge on the shortlists year after year.

Winning isn’t the only motivation as writers sign up for the challenge of pounding out a first draft during the three days of writing time the contest affords them. Christopher Meades, local author of The Three Fates of of Henrik Nordmark and The Last Hiccup, explains:  “I thought it was a great way to get a lot of work done in a short period of time. Plus it was a challenge and, as an aspiring author back then, the thought of possibly getting published was exciting. Before I wrote my first 3 Day Novel in 2005, I’d already written two large works (one not so good, the other not so bad) and hadn’t written in a while. I was looking for a good kickstart to get more writing done. When I heard about the contest, I couldn’t wait to do it.”

Registration and the entrance fee are proven motivators and writers find they accomplish more than they would on their own and with the knowledge that they will be submitting their novels to numerous judges who are scouting through hundreds of 3 day novels to find the one with the most compelling first draft.
“I usually call in about 25 to 35 judges, some reading more than others. Every year, it is volunteer judges. There are a lot of literary publishers, freelance writers, book writers, magazine editors, basically anyone I can tap on the shoulder that year, and say “hey do you want to help out?”  Edwards explains.  “Each manuscript gets at least 2 reads, and then as the pile get narrower and narrower, more and more reads. Once we get to the top twelve, the manuscripts have been read about 7 different people.”  Judges are not looking for a perfectly edited masterpiece-they understand that each novel was written in 3 days.

Once writers submit their novels on-line or by post, they have the chance to win cash prizes or the most coveted prize, a publishing contract by 3 Day Books, where they will work with an editor before the published version is released.

After the challenge, writers have a first-draft manuscript, at whatever stage of completion.  “By the third day of the 2007 contest, The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark was a complete story from beginning to end. But at 25K words, it was too short,” says Meades. ” After the contest, I took a few weeks off and then set out looking for places to insert subplots, find characters that needed to be more fully developed and expanding chapters that I simply didn’t have time to expand during the long weekend. It took me a full year to double the length of The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark and decide it was ready to send to publishers.”

The contest is an exercise in creativity and endurance, and there is definitely something about it that keeps the writers coming back year after year.  Meades continues to do the challenge despite contract obligations: “In 2009, I signed a 3 book deal with ECW Press and by contract, I owe them my next work over five thousand words. So I haven’t submitted a 3 Day Novel to the competition the past few years. But each year I still sequester myself in a room with a pile of Smarties cookies and a giant bottle of Gatorade and I write a 3 Day Novel. That’s what I’ll be doing again this Labour Day weekend.”

This year, my manuscript may veer off slightly (or completely) from my intended outline, but I’ll keep to the narrative and try to get the best writing I can over the three days. I can’t guarantee I will write the next winning manuscript, but I know that I will write as many words as I can muster over the long weekend in attempt to break last year’s record, and then submit it to compete with all the other manuscripts and hope for the best.

The 3 Day Novel Contest starts at midnight the morning of September 1st at public and private spaces all over Vancouver. Registration is still open.

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