/ creativity

3 Day Novel Contest

A few weeks ago I did something I had never done before -- I wrote a novel. While it certainly wasn't the next great Canadian novel (not nearly depressing enough for that), and despite the fact that I hate the finished project with a Herculean passion (people tell me I'm supposed to) I did it, and that's 15 000 words of something, I guess.

I decided to look into the contest this year as I have been worrying lately that since graduating I've slowed my creative output significantly. I program full time, and have been trying to build skills in other areas of software development which takes up a lot of time. On top of that, is the problem I touched on a little in my imposter syndrome post, I have an internal reputation for half doing things before the fear of failing kicks in and I leave it until I've 'researched' the topic more. Using this system I've half written stories, developed one-act text adventures, and only seem to blog with moderate regularity. The novel contest was a great excuse dedicate a whole long weekend to writing, and nothing else. Also, because the contest is a contest (with both an entry fee and judges) I was really personally pushed to finish the novel above all else and stop losing my mind over all the details. Ideal for someone with distinctly Hamlet-like tendencies.

The contest starts Saturday of the Labour Day weekend at 12:01AM, and goes until Monday at 11:59PM. According to the contest website, the average submitted novel is 100 pages long (double spaced). Some back of the envelope math suggested this was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 27 500 words, if you write about 8 hours a day solid you need to crank out 1146 words per hour. If I'm in a good zone, I can comfortably write about 750 words in 45 minutes (based on a weekly assignment I had in second year philosophy), so I was feeling reasonably okay about the volume I was capable of getting out. In reality I ended with a little over half of the average story length, not exactly hitting my goal, but easily being the longest thing I had ever produced in a single sitting.

The actual writing process ended up being far less stressful than anticipated, I generally found myself calm and I even slept through all three nights (I did eat almost exclusively candy for all three days). I was amazed that I was able to just sort of let go and write, I let myself get distracted, but not for so long as to be completely ruinous -- in general I was far less strict with myself than I usually am. The three day novel contest builds this up as the most stressful weekend of your year but I found it breezy and pleasant. Maybe if I had been more keen on getting to that magic 27 500 mark I'd report differently.

I generally prefer to handwrite the first draft of anything I produce because I type relatively slowly for a computer science major. I didn't do that for this contest (though handwriting during the contest window and then typing it up before the submission date is perfectly valid) because I rightly assumed that after the contest I would never want to see my novel again. So, I typed the whole thing on my Android tablet an Asus Transformer with click in keyboard. The sort of setup that's light, with a long battery life, though I found I didn't move around as much as I expected to.

I bought the pro edition of JotterpadX for Android which I settled on because it was easy on the eyes, had a full screen writing mode, saved as a plain text document with support for markdown and even had an export to PDF option. Another great feature was the version control built in, which became especially important when on Sunday night 3000 words magically disappeared. For the most part JotterPadX was a great choice, simple and reasonably snappy, my only complaint is that towards the end of the contest, if I needed to edit something around the middle of the story it slowed to a barely functional crawl. Appending characters to the end was never a problem, but I ended up doing my final edit on my PC to help with the lag.

In terms of completing the contest in general, my biggest issue ended up being mostly in the prep department. I did have an outline ready before the contest as recommended, but it was nowhere near as comprehensive as it needed to be. On Saturday night I was frantically writing a fuller outline to try and figure out how all the pieces I had already written were going to fit together.

The problem was definitely how I write -- I start by fleshing out large parts of the story that I find interesting, and letting them come together as the sections get bigger. In small games and short stories these scenes tend to blob together pretty quickly, but a novel's worth of writing in 3 days wasn't pulling together quickly enough. Saturday night was largely dedicated to putting a skeleton in my blob monster and facing my old nemesis 'which of these five endings I like should be the actual ending'. Before noon on Sunday a random number generator picked the ending. Compound that with my need to fall on my old crutch of 'more research is required' (I had started in a familiar domain but slowly gone off the rails) I think the hardest part of the contest ended up feeling ill prepared, and going rapidly off script. Did things come together in the end? Not really, but I did at least get to the end.

In sum, I am glad I participated in the contest, it was a nice vacation from being a developer. I do believe I'll enter the contest again, probably armed with a better outline. Maybe I'll even treat the end result with disdain rather than outright loathing.