Write a novel in 3 days? Bellevue software engineer wins first prize

With all due respect to the Muse, a writer's best friend is really the deadline.

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Jennifer K. Chung won the 3-Day Novel contest.

With all due respect to the Muse, a writer's best friend is really the deadline.

Deadlines might get in the way of perfection, but they encourage completion, which is part of the conceit of the International 3-Day Novel Contest, won this year by Jennifer K. Chung, a software engineer from Bellevue.

Set in Seattle, her humorous novel Terroryaki! is about interracial love, family, and a haunted teriyaki truck. Her manuscript beat out about 675 other entries, approximately 200 of which were not completed in the allotted time. As the winning entry, her book will be published in August by Vancouver, B.C.-based 3-Day Books, which also administers the contest.

Professional and amateur writers from around the world have competed in the 3-Day Novel Contest every Labor Day weekend for more than 30 years, all attempting to complete their best work in fewer than 72 hours. The contest does not require a minimum length for a story, although length is a factor in the judging.

“I was surprised to hear that I won,” said Chung, 31, a writer with little formal training. “I thought it was too short.”

Terroryaki! was conceived as a story about a family that owned a teriyaki restaurant, and a competing teriyaki truck that parked nearby. It was a concept that Chung, who grew up in Southern California and went to college in Boston, came up with after noticing the popularity of teriyaki in the Seattle area.

“Within five miles of where I work, there are about a dozen teriyaki places,” said Chung, who incidentally is a vegetarian. “It’s one of the things you start to notice as part of a feature of the city, like how every gas station has an espresso shack…. I also enjoy reading a lot of food writing, so this was a way of writing about food.

“When I started writing, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be about the family or the truck…and then I came up with the idea of this supernatural, flying-Dutchman being who drives around in the truck — it sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud. It wasn’t until part way through the contest that I knew how it would end.”

Terroryaki! came in at about 20,000 words and slightly less than 100 pages, which is about the length of the average entry in the contest. Chung said she was able to craft a clear beginning, middle and end, with fully formed characters.

The contest is run on the honor system — in theory, a writer could spend a year or more preparing a manuscript and pretend to have written it in three days — and the nature of the contest encourages honesty. “You would only be cheating yourself and the experiment,” said Melissa Edwards, managing editor of 3-Day Books.

As Edwards explained it, if you wanted to spend years on a manuscript and thought it was good enough to publish, you would have little reason to enter this contest and pay the $50 entry fee, when you could submit the work without a fee through conventional channels to a traditional publisher. Furthermore, the judges of the 3-Day Novel Contest look specifically for and reward the kind of creativity an extreme deadline induces (and in doing so, they can tell if a writer cheats).

“You could fake climbing Mount Everest,” Edwards said, “but why would you want to?”

The contest receives most of its entries from Canadians and Americans, but also gets submissions from Australia, Japan, China, Pakistan, Turkey, and all over Europe. Writers work at their own pace; they are able to communicate with contest administrators by chat or through Twitter. The only requirement is the manuscript be written in English. Once the contest ends, writers are asked to print out and mail the manuscript. Many do not bother with this step, the writing experience having been enough for them.

This year’s runner-up, Gwendolyn Bird, of Kasilof, Alaska, won $500 for her novel The Island of Broken Toys, described on the contest website as “the haunting tale of a community of mysterious children who seek out the truth behind their exile.” Third place went to Tate Young of Toronto for The Ridgeback, described as “a witty thriller about a bloody murder, a very large diamond and a dog walker on the run.” Young received $100.

The judging of almost 500 manuscripts was done by two dozen “long-suffering friends and colleagues,” Edwards said, most of whom are editors or writers themselves, working for other small presses or literary magazines. Each of the judges reads about 20 manuscripts, usually two or three times. The winning entry, chosen by the editor of Arsenal Pulp Press, would have been read eight or nine times. The judging is not blind, so judges know if they are reading a published author or a hobbyist. None of the judges is paid beyond the chocolate chip cookies Edwards bakes for them.

The contest began, unofficially in 1977, in a Vancouver bar by a bunch of drunk writers talking about the work of Jack Kerouac (who supposedly wrote his masterpiece, On the Road, in three weeks on a single roll of teletype paper). They took it upon themselves to go home and each try to write a novel over the weekend. None succeeded, but an idea was born.

In 1979, a small local publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, started the contest as we know it and published the first winner. Other publishers have taken turns administering the contest and publishing the winning manuscript. Six years ago, 3-Day Books became the publisher of record for the contest; the winning entry is the only book it publishes each year. Arsenal will distribute Chung’s novel.

The annual contest begins at midnight Friday of Labor Day weekend and ends at midnight Monday. Because of the time constraints, most of the submissions are very personal, bordering on memoir, following the write-what-you-know formula. “This is not meant to be a great tome of literature,” Edwards said. “We’re not looking for Moby Dick. This is meant to be a creative experiment. For the writers it’s an opportunity to take risks they would not take otherwise.”

In many cases, the real reward for the writers is that the contest forces them to produce the basis for a novel they can spend more time refining and developing later. Many losing manuscripts have been reworked and picked up later by other publishers. By paying the entry fee and setting aside the weekend, writers produce the soul of a novel that might have taken them years of procrastination to accomplish. Some past winners have gone on to make a living, at least partially, by writing. For instance, the inaugural winner, Tom Walmsley is a playwright in Toronto.

Chung beat out several published novelists like Jake Wallis Simons, Gayleen Froese and Ashok Mathur. About 1,500 paperback copies of Terroryaki! will be published and available for sale through the 3-Day Books website and most book retailers, which will likely have to order the title. Edwards said her micro-press will endeavor to make actual copies available in Seattle-area bookstores. As a sign of the times, the winning entry will also be made available, for the first time in the history of the contest, as an e-book.

For now, Chung has no plans or desire to become a full-time writer, although she is an avid reader of fiction (particularly science fiction) and has taken classes at the Richard Hugo House. “I like what I do very much,” said Chung. “I enjoy software and writing code, and don’t plan on stopping that anytime soon.”

Chung comes from a family of engineers. Her grandfather is a mining engineer; her parents are chemical and civil engineers; her sister is an electrical engineer. Chung was a prolific writer in high school and wrote for her college newspaper at M.I.T.

For the past three years she has also participated in National Novel Writing Month (known as NaNoWriMo), an exercise similar to the 3-Day Novel but longer. The three drafts she produced for NaNoWriMo (in which the Seattle area is typically highly represented) remain as unfinished files on her computer that she “hopes to get to someday.” Strict deadlines, she said, are the “best way for me to write; otherwise I end up procrastinating.”

To write Terroryaki! she sequestered herself (mostly) in the guest bedroom of the townhome she shares with her sister, who was conveniently out of town that weekend. Her boyfriend also agreed to leave her alone for three days. She did step out of the house to eat, and to meet friends in a coffee shop Sunday morning. She slept a reasonable amount each night and took several naps.

“I feel like I slept more than I should have,” she said. “If I hadn’t slept as much I think the story might have come out stranger.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.