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  • Writer's pictureJan Redford

Isobel's Mountain - My 3 Day Novel

Recap of the 3-Day Novel Contest 2020

Day 1 – Saturday, September 5

Woke at 5 am. Too wired to keep sleeping but my Fitbit says I did fall back to sleep. I must have because it took another 2 hours and 45 minutes to drag my butt to my computer. Five hours of sleep doesn’t work for me.

I created my document for the 3-day novel contest at 7:45 am. My goal was 100 pages, the average length of manuscript that comes out of this contest. Apparently, you don’t have much chance of winning with less than that.

It was a pretty good day considering the first day is supposed to be the hardest. And considering I’d decided only twenty-four hours earlier which of my novel ideas I was going to fly with, leaving me with little time to outline (see previous post about my nine days of NOT working on my outline) I’ve come to the conclusion I need maximum pressure to produce.

By 12:20 AM, after 16 hours and 5 minutes, I had 29 double-spaced pages. For some reason I had worked out that my page output for the three days would be Day 1- 30 pages, Day 2- 30 pages, Day 3- 20 pages plus edit. It wasn’t until I was lying in bed congratulating myself on being only one page short of my goal for the day when I realized 30 + 30 + 20 = 80. Not 100. That meant the next day I’d have to pump out a whole shitload of pages. The pandemic has not been kind to my brain. Maybe it’s all the Netflix.

Day 2 – Sunday, September 6

No early bird action this morning. Had a good long stretch because my neck was starting to seize up from too many hours with bad posture at the computer, made my very strong coffee with almond cream, and headed up to my office. Clocked in at 9:45 am sharp. I thought of all my fellow 3DNC’ers all over the world who’d been up for hours, maybe even all night, pounding away at their keyboards, probably already past the desirable 100-page mark.

Advice # 1– Do not start the day re-reading and editing. Anvil Press had sent out an email that morning to encourage contestants and I should have read it earlier:

"Remember, don't get caught up on perfectionism — what we love about reading your entries are how juicy and creative they are. Get things down on the page for now — you can always revisit things when you've hit the end."

But by then it was 11:30 am and I’d just finished perfecting my prose. On top of that, because I was editing, I had switched on my inner critic, the one who has to come along when I’m editing, but should be locked in the attic when I’m trying to produce.

Advice # 2 – Step away from the thesaurus! If you’re using a thesaurus during a 3-day novel contest where speed is your friend, there is something wrong with you. There is something seriously wrong with me.

Advice # 3 – Do not answer a phone call from an unknown number. Even if you end up having a very deep, very important conversation with a stranger. You can have that very same conversation on Tuesday. That cost me about five pages and hours of built-up concentration.

Advice # 4 – Disconnect your internet hook up. You do not need to google the exact height of a particular mountain in Alberta, or the exact year it was first climbed, for example. Nor do you need the exact names of the first ascensionists of that mountain. You can make that shit up until later. It’s called fiction for a reason.

Advice # 5 – Do not waste precious minutes of your day sharing a meme on Facebook to describe the frustration and futility of being on page 45, already two thirds of the way through a contest! when you’re trying to produce 100 pages. Even if it’s a really cute meme of a tiny little kitten winding up to jump up on a counter from the floor and only getting about three centimeters into the air.

Advice # 6 – Don’t be surprised when that man your narrator, (your MARRIED narrator) is kissing on page 35 suddenly turns into a woman and then back into a man, as though someone took control of your keyboard. It felt like that scene in Monte Python’s Life of Brian where the aliens swoop in out of nowhere, take Brian for a ride in their space ship for a few confusing seconds, then set him back down in the movie, never to be seen again. An unnecessary plot twist.

Advice # 7 – Use lots of dialogue. Watch this:

“Oh no, Joni, are you crying?” Kate clicked pause and turned to her sister.

“Mom never got to go to Greece, Katie! And I’m never going to get to Greece.”

“I didn’t know you wanted to go to Greece.”

This only made her cry harder. “I’m speaking metaphorically.”

With only 48 words I’m four double spaced lines closer to my 100-page goal. One word sentences are even better.

Advice # 8 – Don’t drink two glasses of wine on an empty stomach just because it's 5 pm. Not a real motivation booster.

Advice # 9 – Don’t go to bed until you’ve hit your word count for the day. Stay up all night if you have to. You can sleep on Tuesday.

At the end of day 2, I had produced a mere 19 pages. Most of them written between 11 pm and 1 am. I was now on page 49 and felt like I’d been hit by the train one of my narrators, Isobel, was taking from Montreal to Banff in 1920. I also felt like I was getting tendinitis in my wrists. But I had resisted quitting and binge-watching Nashville. That was something.

Day 3 Monday, September 7

After seven hours of sleep, I took off out of the starting gate at 9:08 am, no re-reading, no editing. I was going for SPEED. I wasn’t going to get sucked into inviting my inner critic back to the party.

This third day, everything came together. It kind of had to, being the last day. Before going to bed I’d created an outline of what scenes I still needed for each narrator (yes, I had four narrators, each with their own POV, something else I’d advise against) so I had very definite road map to follow. That was key.

I moved quickly into a really productive zone. Ideas seemed to tumble out of me, and solutions. Just one little example: I was struggling with how to reveal the main narrator’s earlier transgression (that kiss) and had been withholding it to build suspense, and suddenly, one of my minor characters jumped in and told me (with glee) that she could tell the readers about her mother’s big fuck up. There I was with my fifth POV. WAY too many voices for a novel written in 72 hours, but it was the perfect solution to have the big reveal in the main narrator’s daughter’s voice.

Before 11 pm I’d tied up all the loose ends (hopefully) for twelve characters (five of whom were narrators), spanning seven generations and two countries, finished the story with what seemed like a real narrative arc, and brought my narrator full circle, back to her mother’s room in a nursing home, where I’d started the story before sending her across Canada in a banana yellow Tab trailer to her “metaphorical Greece.” I did a speed re-read of the whole manuscript to fix the more glaring typos, and actually liked what I’d written.

I didn’t get my 100 pages, which wasn’t even a requirement anyway. But I did write 83 pages in 72 hours. And more important, I now have a first draft and a very clear direction to go for the next year or so. Isobel's Mountain is a saga based on my ancestors' lives, which has been bumbling around in my brain for years, but I've never been able to get it down on paper. I've never even been able to start. The problem was I couldn't get past this rigid idea that I had to write non-fiction, and now I see the freedom of fiction. The freedom to let the story go in any direction it pleases, and to make the main narrator someone other than me. Even if the themes in her life are similar.

Just the act of writing seemed to create the story, as though I were taking diction. This doesn’t happen to me very often. I usually edit painfully, self-judgingly as I go along. Writing a novel in 3 days was the best cure for my inner critic and self-doubt, knowing no one but the judges would read it. I feel like I’ve finally broken down a brick wall that’s been keeping me from my vocation for the past year or so.

After closing down my computer, I watched Nashville till 3 am.

Here's an example of a failed attempt at an outline:

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