Writing The 3 Day Novel

On the long September weekend, Labour Day weekend in Canada, I participated in the International 3 Day Novel Contest, an annual literary marathon, for the third time. Run by Geist Magazine, from Midnight on Friday through 11:59pm on Monday, participants write a novel. The winner gets published; the second and third place winners get cash.

Sound impossible? It isn’t. Participants have written over 50,000 words in seventy-two hours and a typical novel size begins at 40,000 words, depending on the genre. You can plan as much as you like in advance, but the actual writing must take place during the contest. It’s a deliriously addictive experience.


A Literary Marathon

The first time I participated in the 3 Day Novel, I wrote a chick-lit story whose characters I had carried with me for four years. The 3 Day Novel was the perfect time to finally get the story out of my head and onto paper. I didn’t know what to expect, but despite some paranoia, I finished my first manuscript at 34,000 words, after 3 days of work and 4 years of planning. When I finished the story, I grieved for my characters, finally letting them go after putting their stories down for others to read.

The second time I participated in the contest, I wrote a 27,000-word young adult fairy tale, a story I’d been thinking of for two years. As a planner, I found a copy of Story Engineering, and actually plotted out the story line during the two months leading up to the contest. I took this one seriously, and really felt like I discovered my voice.

This year, the contest was different. I wrote purely for fun about an idea I had only a few weeks before the contest. Because I didn’t have it planned out like in my first two attempts, I spent most of my first day actually trying to figure out what my plot was. I panicked often, afraid I wouldn’t finish. I was halfway through my second day before I knew where I wanted to take the story, finishing only an hour before the deadline. 

Why do it?

I enjoy writing the 3 Day Novel for two reasons. The first is a sense of accomplishment. I’ve done the National Novel Writing Contest (NaNoWriMo) for a couple of years now, and it’s taught me to write a little (or a lot) every day. However, I can’t quite maintain the pace while I work. It’s great for the first ten days, then I hit a wall. By the second Friday I collapse because it’s too much to do with a career. By the time I hit the middle part of my novel, at approximately the 20,000 word mark, self-doubt creeps in; it’s difficult to keep momentum. My first 3 Day Novel gave me a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t felt before: for the first time in my life, I felt like a novelist. I have written three solid novellas out of the process, and two of them have a lot of potential with some editing.

The second reason is more important to me. Writing the contest forces me to turn off my inner censor for three days, while I complete a draft. The condensed time frame makes me set aside my doubt, revising only when I change my mind about the direction of the plot. I may fall back on tired plot devices like telling the story instead of showing it, but those are items that I can fix in later drafts. For those three days, I can just focus on the story, and getting it from my head onto paper. 

If you’ve carried a story around with you for a while, I recommend trying the 3 Day Novel Contest. It’s a fast and furious way of getting the story out, if you can focus for seventy-two hours. Next year, try it. You won’t regret it.

3 day novel


Have you participated in the 3 Day Novel Contest? Tell us about your experience in the comments below. Did you finish? Did you enjoy it or was it pure torture? We’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

9 comments for “Writing The 3 Day Novel

  1. September 16, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience! I like that you contrasted it with NaNoWriMo. This was very helpful.

  2. Heather Button
    September 16, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks Carol! It’s a totally different animal, and it really makes you put aside your inner critic.

  3. September 16, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    You are very brave – and inspiring. Great job!

    • Heather Button
      September 16, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks Linda! It’s really fun to do. I recommend everyone try it at least once!

  4. September 16, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Congratulations, Heather! I can’t imagine writing a novel in three days. Thanks for the motivational story!

    • Heather Button
      September 16, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks Jennifer! I really enjoy it! And it’s amazing what we can do.

  5. September 16, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    Awesome, Heather! I’ve often considered it, but it’s the darned day-job that gets in the way. Maybe next year … thanks for the inspiration!

    • Heather Button
      September 16, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      Thanks Melanie! You should really give it a shot if you just want the excuse to get that first draft done of a story that’s been with you for a while. It really works!

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