"Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?" It's a nearly inevitable question at author readings, often preceded by an overlong description of the epic novel/memoir/free-verse poem that the questioner has been working on for the past decade. Every author's response is a little bit different: Chuck Palahniuk, for instance, usually takes the question seriously, providing a sincere, detailed description of his process, but other authors emphasize some tiny part of their writing technique to the point of self-hagiography, making themselves sound like preternaturally gifted conductors of rhythm and cadence.

The truth of the matter is much simpler than all that. If you want to know how to become a writer, this is the answer: You have to write. A lot. Jeff Lawshe is one of thousands of writers who produced tens of thousands of words (specifically, 123 double-spaced pages) over Labor Day weekend as part of the 32nd Annual 3-Day Novel Contest. Lawshe, an internet marketing writer, had always wanted to be a novelist, but he hadn't produced much of anything in 13 years. The almost impossibly short 72-hour deadline shook him out of his creative coma and forced him into action. He describes the resulting novel, titled Earth's Imago, as "a post-apocalyptic eco-political sci-fi horror romance" involving "humanitarian clones" battling with "de-evolved cannibal humans."

The looming deadline inspired Lawshe to stop thinking about things like "probability and reality" and just "go with something that felt a lot more like playing make-believe when I was a kid." As if the novel wasn't enough, Lawshe kept a blog (www.modularstories.blogspot.com) detailing the weird revelations that erupt from high-speed noveling (sample sentences: "How did this happen? HOW DID I END UP WRITING A ZOMBIE NOVEL?!!!"). But it wasn't all childish fancy. He learned about storytelling, too, especially while figuring out how to shape huge swaths of exposition into something that wouldn't put a reader to sleep. In the days since, he's become more aware of the techniques other writers use to put their stories together.

It's only after you produce the draft that serious editing becomes an issue. The winner of the 3-Day Novel Contest—this year's winner will be announced in January—is ultimately edited and published under the 3-Day Books imprint. But you don't have to win to be published: Corey Redekop is a librarian whose losing entry in the 3-Day Novel Contest, titled Shelf Monkey, was ultimately published by ECW Press in 2007. During the publication process, Monkey, the story of a corporate mega-bookstore employee who butts heads with a talk-show host "whose wildly popular book club is progressively lowering the I.Q. of North America," grew from its three-day birth weight of 22,000 words to about 60,000.

"The basic structure did not change, it was just broadened," Redekop says. "I worked on some of the secondary characters and gradually began to see themes I had not realized were present before." Redekop also had to change the ending of the book: In the three-day version of Monkey, every character died at the end—"When you're pressed for time, kill everybody off," he advises, "it's an easy out"—but his first readers, including novelist Miriam Toews, convinced him to lower the body count. Redekop is all right with the decision, although he says, "Part of me still wishes I had kept the original ending, because it ended on a joke that I still find funny."

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Contests like the 3-Day Novel Contest and the much less competitive National Novel Writing Month in November do a genuine, generous service for aspiring authors by providing compelling (if entirely artificial) deadlines and introducing them to the concept that words and ideas are easy to come by (and equally easy to abandon) in the quest for a novel. It's the idea of writing that drives most writers (like Lawshe, who laments his pre-contest "chronic procrastination syndrome") into years of inaction. After they've learned that important lesson about the mundaneness of the writing process and the importance of actually sitting down and writing—only then can writers get into the business of honing their words into something beautiful.

Most published authors are so incompetent at answering the question of how to write that it can sometimes seem like a smoke screen, meant to protect those within the gates of publishing from the barbarians in the audience. But Lawshe points out that these contests create more sympathetic readers, too; he's more likely to forgive writerly flaws in books and movies because he's experienced similar problems as a novelist. "It's tough out there in the middle of fantasy land," he says. recommended