Now that Rachel Slansky’s novel “Moss-Haired Girl” has been named the winner of the 2013 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, along with the shortlist, I thought I’d share a few tips on writing and submitting a good entry for this contest.
The 3-Day Novel Contest began in Vancouver in 1977 and runs every Labour Day weekend. The premise is simple: in 72 hours, write a complete short novel with minimal pre-planning. It’s an intense creative experience and sure to jumpstart your imagination. First prize is publication, including editorial work with a real editor. I’ve been judging the 3-Day Novel Contest for a few years so I thought I’d weigh in on what makes a good submission.
Disclaimer: All opinions are my own and are not officially sanctioned by the 3-Day Novel Contest, and are not guaranteed to give your work a leg up. Also, these tips are biased towards my own acquisition and reading preferences, and may be completely different for another judge. But same goes for any writing submission, really.
I suspect that most of this advice can also be applied to submitting a manuscript to a publishing house or agent. In which case, swap out “judge” for “editor” or other appropriate title.
Content: What makes a good novel?
Outline Your Novel Before You Write It. Some of the strongest novels I see are, unsurprisingly, the ones with defined plots that are present from beginning to end. The reader should always know what the main character wants and why they’re doing it. Let the reader see the goal at the end of the novel. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be any suspense, but it’s better when the surprises aren’t an unexpected supernatural plotline halfway through your previously realistic novel.* The rules of 3-Day permit you to outline your novel before the contest begins. Use that bit of extra time to your advantage!
Related: Spend time making your opening pages really good. As a judge, I can usually tell whether I’m going to pass an entry to the next round within the first three pages or so, so make them good. Use this space to grab the reader’s attention, not slowly meander into the story. If you are going to revise or spend more time on any part of your novel, do it here.
Keep the number of major characters down, if possible. Your novel is probably going to be in the neighbourhood of 100 pages, and that’s not enough room to have a fully-developed protagonist with seven sisters and two love interests.* Simple can be better.
Be aware of trends (and maybe avoid them if possible). It’s tempting to write about creatures or character types that are hot right now, but be aware that the market is pretty saturated. Like, I’m sure your zombie novel is great, but it’s hard to be fresh when there are 12495 books and movies starring them already. Also, I have probably read like six other zombie entries already*; how is yours going to stand out? This is something to keep in mind, especially if you’re writing in a supernatural genre that has received a lot of attention in the past decade or so (e.g. vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, etc.). Past winner Terroryaki is a great example of employing a fresh take on the supernatural: the haunted teriyaki truck is reminiscent of the Flying Dutchman, which is an unusual trope that creates great tension and suspense.
Related: Build your world. If your novel has a supernatural element, make sure that the “rules” of your fantasy world are clear, or at least mention how this world is different from regular old earth or other well-established supernatural worlds. Vampires allergic to caffeine*? Interesting! An elf, a dwarf, and a goblin attempting to seize a magic ring on the edge of a volcano*? Been there, done that.
Basic historical accuracy counts. I’m not saying you have to do in-depth research for every aspect of your novel, but maybe perform a quick google here and there before you have your protagonist lovingly gaze upon a photograph of their mother in 1650.*
Presentation: So you’ve written the novel and it’s time to submit it. Now what?
If you have time, do a quick spellcheck and/or proofread. Make sure you are consistent with your character and place names, and pay attention to those homonyms! Your manuscript is much easier to take seriously when you don’t mix up orgasm/organism* and when people aren’t dying “in vein.”*
This is definitely my own bias, but don’t submit your manuscript in Courier. Courier is a headache to read on the screen, and do you really want to annoy the judges more than you have to? Same goes for other fancy fonts that make your manuscript look “edgy” or “futuristic.” I recommend a more standard (read: boring) font such as Times New Roman or similar plain, serifed font. Let your writing, not your font, be the thing the judge remembers. Leave Courier to scripts (which, reminder, are not eligible for 3-Day).
Submit your novel in black ink. I really don’t think more needs to be said about that.
So, this is my advice for you, 3-Day Novel Writers! Again, there are no guarantees that following this advice will put you at an advantage (except the spelling and proofreading. Do that!), but at the very least your novel will outshine those that didn’t read this blog post. Let me know your tips for writing under pressure, and feel free to ask me any questions you have about the contest!