Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Iron Man of Words!

Woo hoo! I did it! I finished a substantial, coherent manuscript for the 3-Day Novel Contest! It's 37,500 words! It doesn't suck! I'm awesome!

I signed up just in time, weeks after actually printing and filling out the application form (those who know me, especially my wise and beautiful girlfriend, will not be surprised by this). Then on the day before the contest, I got more and more anxious. I couldn't possibly finish a novel. I could, but it would suck. It would suck and I'd be so tired I'd sleep for 24 hours after it was finished.

I was sitting at the computer, almost bouncing up and down in my chair for the last five minutes before midnight Friday, staring at the blank MS Word file. The my watch alarm went off and my fingers dove for the keys like starved weasels darting for scraps of rancid jerky.

For those who don't know it, the 3-Day Novel Contest has been around since 1977, and is therefore a year older than I am. It is based on the honour system, and anyone can enter, from anywhere in the world. The rules are simple: write a novel, on any subject, during the three days starting at 12:01 a.m. the Saturday before Labour Day, finish at 12:00 a.m. the following Monday. Outlines are allowed, and notes, and research, but every phrase in the novel has to be crafted during those three days.

I've so far only published two stories, but I knew I was capable of writing fairly clean first-draft copy, and of writing it fast. Speed, indeed, is one of my main talents, and I sometimes wish I had been born during the golden age of the pulps, when it was an asset that trumped style and characterization nine times out of ten. My outline was simple, just four sheets of paper on which I had scribbled the outlines of my main characters and a sketch of the first few chapters (and I lost the piece with the chapter outline before I started).

Still, it went amazingly well. The first morning, after 12 a.m., I wrote until about 4:30 a.m. and then staggered off to bed to sleep. I woke up at 10:30, started filling myself with tea and mini-Cokes and using caffeine to stave off the next collapse. That turned out to be a bad idea. The headache started around noon and faded in and out all day. By about 8 p.m. I'd fallen into an extended break from the writing that lasted until 11 p.m. I finally decided I just needed more sleep, or the writing wouldn't start again, or wouldn't be any good when it did. I set an alarm for 8 a.m. the next morning and slept almost nine hours.

I woke up, sans headache, and feeling a hell of a lot better. I kept myself to about half the caffeine ration of the day before, made myself some tortellini and vegetable soup around 2 p.m. and generally tried to act like it was a normal working day. My productivity was as good as when I had been panicked on day one, and I was able to look at my own work with a much cooler eye. By the end of the day, when I stopped writing at about 10 p.m., I had more than 20,000 words saved. Another night of decent sleep, up at 7 a.m. the next day, and another productive, pain free day.

From the middle of the afternoon on the last day, I knew I would finish with time to spare. The climactic chapter was finished by 2:30 or so, and I stopped writing for three hours. Then from 5:30 to 10:40, I finished the 1500 word epilogue and tackled the task of editing the whole thing, making sure there were no glaring errors or dropped plot threads. I also punched up the language and characterization where possible. This added about 1,500 words to the manuscript. I didn't get up during the last stretch except to go to the bathroom, and when I was done, my brain felt like mush. But it was triumphant mush!

In general, I have to say that the contest was not nearly as hard as I had expected. And it was a hell of a lot of fun. I love writing, and a long uninterupted stretch during which no one would bother me, call me or drop by to do nothing but write was like a blessing from the gods.

Now what? Well, it goes into the mail today or tomorrow to the judges. I apparently won't hear back from them until about December. (But I need feedback now!) The winning prize is a publishing contract, second is $500 Canadian cash.

I'm not going to get either. Let's be clear, by Tuesday afternoon (which I took off work) I was already thinking of all the things I could/should have done in the novel. But even if I had worked myself harder, had forsaken sleep, had jammed caffeine pills in my mouth, I don't think I'd have written a winning book.

The thing is, I'm a genre SF and fantasy writer. I don't write stereotypical stuff, I hate ordinary military space opera and elf-quests alike, but my work is strongly plotted stuff. I've tried to develop a strong style and to build up great characters, but what got me going on this book, as on any story, was a really cool central idea, one only possible in fantasy.

So, as I told my girlfriend (who is both wise and beautiful) I don't think it will get selected by a panel of non-SFnal judges. It's like bringing a zebra to a horse show. It may be the finest damn zebra there is, but that's not what they're looking for. There's never been a straight up SF or fantasy winner of the contest.

Of course, if by some miracle they do choose me, I'll be happy to eat crow.


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