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Grace Under Pressure: The Three-Day Novel Contest

August 30, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — For most North Americans, Labor Day weekend means a last-ditch effort at fun, frolic and the fabled joys of summer. This is supposed to be a time of barbecues and baseball, not transitions and character development. So how come so many people will be voluntarily spending the time slaving over their typewriters, madly seeking the glory of the great three-day novel?

Not that this 8-year-old literary Olympics attracts actual hordes or legions of would-be Ernest Hemingways.

400 Manuscripts

But last year, Fran Eger, coordinator of the Pulp Press International Three-Day Novel Contest, reported more than 400 presumably sane people submitted manuscripts that were verified by a witness and a signed affidavit to have been completed in the 72-hour period between midnight Friday and midnight Monday.

One 1983 contestant, Jeff Doran, likened the process to a religious experience. An American now living in Nova Scotia, Doran said he holed up in a primitive cabin, lacking even the modern convenience of electricity. For three days, Doran wrote and wrote and wrote.

"When he got done," Eger said, "he wasn't quite sure what he'd written" but figured it was either great or awful. Judges apparently were of the former opinion, for Doran's "This Guest of Summer" bagged the top award that year.

"It got pretty scary on the third day," Doran remembered. "I thought, 'What if I get to the deadline and it's only three-quarters done? Nobody wants a four-day novel.' "

Born in a Pub

Like so many good ideas, history's first recorded three-day novel contest was born in a dimly lit pub, this one on the lower north side of downtown Vancouver, Canada. Sharing a beer . . . or two . . . or three . . . that evening eight years ago, antiquarian book dealer Bill Hoffer and Pulp Press founder Steve Osborne were musing about how "Candide" was written in three days, how "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was supposedly written in four days, how Mozart was wont to compose a little concerto before supper, how Shakespeare could write a sonnet while he brushed his teeth, and so forth.

One thing led to another. Osborne and Hoffer challenged each other to complete a novel that very weekend. They gave each other three days.

Neither succeeded.

"The challenge was up," Eger said, "but neither of them finished."

But word traveled. Friends and fellow literati said things to Hoffer and Osborne like, "Well, you're good, but we're better, so we'll do it."

So by the time Labor Day weekend rolled around the following year, Pulp Press was offering a real prize--publication--and the contest was attracting entrants beyond Hoffer and Osborne.

'Punk Sex Odyssey'

"Dr. Tin," the first three-day novel to win publication in that first official competition, was described as "a wild punk sex odyssey" written by Canadian playwright Tom Walmsley. Published soon thereafter by Pulp Press, "the book was a great seller," Eger said, "because of what it dealt with: sex and violence. I think it sold close to 5,000 copies in three printings."

Added Eger, "It really was quite an exciting piece of literature at that time."

One year later, the winner was not a sex odyssey, but Ray Serwylo's "The Accordion Lessons." That three-day book told the story of "a little Ukrainian boy growing up in Winnipeg," Eger said.

Founded in 1972 by Osborne and a group of Vancouver students and writers, Pulp Press is a cozy operation with just 75 fiction, non-fiction, poetry and "experimental writing" titles to its name. For years, Pulp Press published a 3-Cent Magazine--a magazine, that is to say, that actually cost three cents--and so the friends and family of Pulp Press saw nothing remotely unusual in organizing a contest that has evolved from joking dare to annual tradition.

As a piece of Pulp Press' own literature about the competition describes it, "This contest has been called a fad, an idle threat, a great way to overcome writer's block and 'trial by deadline.' " Most of all, Pulp Press contends, the Three-Day Novel Contest "continues to fly in the face of the notion that novels take eight years of angst to produce and lush cash prizes to stimulate."

While the first serious contest drew "oh, gosh," Eger said, "I think you could count the entrants on two hands," the mystique began to travel. Soon Pulp Press was partnering with a well-known Toronto bookstore, This Ain't the Rosedale Library, along with Liberation Books in Winnipeg and Octopus Books in Vancouver, to sponsor a contest that in short order brought aspiring three-day novelists from throughout the Canadian provinces and territories and, before long, even the United States. Sponsoring U.S. bookstores this year include San Francisco's legendary City Lights, the Midnight Special in Santa Monica, New York's famous Gotham Book Mart and the Book Cache in Anchorage, Alaska.

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