How to Write a Novel in 3 Days

That crucible of invention known as the 3-Day Novel Contest takes place every Labor Day weekend.

Billed as “The World’s Most Notorious Writing Contest,” it originated back in the dawn of time, aka the late 1970s. Read the story of its birth here.

My 3-Day Story:

I entered the 3-Day Novel Contest in 1989, when I was a student, and spent the Labor Day weekend banging out a mystery novel at work (I was a word processing operator at the same university I attended). I did it at work because back then, only NASA and the military had laptops. Back then, phones were still attached to walls and smoking was permitted on airplanes. I do believe I had a perm, and I know I was irresponsible about many things. But I went into the contest responsibly, with a bag lunch and a thermos of coffee, just like a regular work day. My view was that in the best-case scenario, I’d finish a draft of a novel by midnight on Monday. Worst-case scenario, I wouldn’t. Either way the whole thing would play out in three days and I’d be back at work Tuesday morning with nobody being the wiser (I had a key to the office).

What Happened Then:

I won. Boy, was I surprised. Nobody was more surprised than I was. I can only think that the entries received that year were unusually abysmal. I won, and then I thought I was a genius. Just like 2014’s winner (more on him below), I wasn’t a writer when I entered the contest. I was just a student who worked as a typist. Afterward, I took up writing and I wrote daily on my lunch hour. In fact, I’ve never stopped writing since that contest. I got a publishing contract for the manuscript (that’s first prize), and $200. I was interviewed in newspapers and on radio shows. Doubleday asked me to send them my next novel (they eventually turned it down). The whole thing was a heck of a trip.

Fast Forward to Lately:

Fast-forward many years to fall of 2015, when the 3-Day Novel Contest publishers invited some of us past winners to help celebrate 2014’s title holder, Craig Savel of New York, who wrote the very funny Traversing Leonard. It was an evening of fun (Craig Savel’s first ever public reading!) and I realized that I had been missing out all these years, thinking that I shouldn’t enter again because I’d never win again, and therefore it would be anti-climactic.

Why Do It?

It’s true, it’s unlikely I’d win the same contest twice. And it’s true, the entry fee is no longer $5. And the contest takes you out of commission  for BBQs and other fun stuff on the last long weekend of the summer. But where else on earth can you find an imperative to write when it gets awful, write through wrong plot turns and bad character decisions, write through too much coffee and too little sleep, write through all of your own impediments until Monday at 11:59 pm, when you have to stop (at which point, you will have at least a solid draft, and possibly the winning tale).

Where else can you emerge from a three-day commitment with the first draft of a novel clutched in your sweaty hand?

As one of the other past winners said on that convivial evening celebrating Craig Savel (I’m paraphrasing): The act of not stopping when you’re stuck actually seems to create new pathways in your brain, present new solutions, and make new possibilities manifest.

Enter it Now!

So without further ado: here is the 3-Day contest website:

I’m going to enter it this year yet again, and give my kids a full weekend of self-sufficiency, movies and pizza while I grind it out with the door closed. Yes, conditions have changed since 1989–I’ll write it on my laptop, and I’ll send it in by electronic mail. But the heart of the contest–an opportunity to take a wild trip, knowing that hundreds of other people around the world are jumping onto the same train–hasn’t changed at all.