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A Novel Idea

Three days, two winning titles, one author.

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What does it take to write a novel in three days? A winning novel. Start to finish in 72 hours.

Ask Memphian Bradley Harris what it takes. His 120-page entry just won the grand prize in the 3-Day Novel Contest out of Vancouver, Canada. What's more: Harris is the first writer in the contest's 35-year history to earn first place twice. Back in 1998, his winning entry was his novel Ruby, Ruby. This time, it's for Thorazine Beach, a detective story set in Memphis.

So, again, what does it take — what did it take — for Harris to win against nearly 500 other writing marathoners the world over, all of them working the long Labor Day weekend of 2012?

"The last time I won this, a gentleman called from some hipster publication, and he asked with a seeming gleam in his eye: 'So, did you pop pills?' I said, 'No, I drank a lot of coffee.' Then he said, 'But how did you stay awake for 72 hours?' I said, 'Well, I didn't stay awake for 72 hours. I went to bed. I went to church Sunday morning.'

"He was surprised at that. He wanted a different answer, a different image. He wanted a pulling-his-hair-out writer. He was disappointed.

"I wouldn't say I got eight hours sleep a night. But I sure went to bed. I went to the grocery store. I had coffee with a friend. I did normal things. I just worked real hard in the other hours and let what was ready to come out come out. I wasn't trying to act like some strung-out writer."

Which is good, because an anxiety-ridden writer is what Harris is not. In his day job, he works with other writers seeking editorial help with their book-length manuscripts. Off-hours, he's district governor for Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing communication and leadership skills. And he sometimes conducts writing workshops, having once been a workshop student himself as an MFA candidate — from Calgary, Alberta, Canada ("cowboy country," Harris calls it — in the writing program at the University of Memphis in the 1990s.

Harris will admit, however, that the 3-Day Novel Contest does encourage an image of the writer as fueled-up and go-for-broke — the contest's website, 3daynovel.com, describing the marathon as a "creative kick in the pants" and, in the words of one observer, the "deformed left foot of the literary world." Useful self-challenge — win or lose — is really what it is, one proposed in 1977 by a group of writers who happened to be inside a Vancouver bar.

Contest rules are simple. You have, beginning Friday night of the Labor Day weekend, three days to write what you want (any style, any genre) and where you want (home, coffee shop, tree — yes, up a tree, and people apparently have used that setting to write). You're allowed to have an outline beforehand, but the idea here is to write — and fast. Remember, though: You're on the honor system. What's the point of putting yourself through this if you're going into it with a ready-made manuscript? (Judges can spot one too.)

After 72 hours, time's up. Time to shut down your computer (and hit "print"). Pens down (rules do allow you a few days to type up what you've written longhand). Your manuscript, warts and all, is ready to mail to Vancouver. What have you got to lose? You have in your hands a novel to return to on your own time and polish if you wish (or wish to discard). Judges — a pool of volunteers drawn from the writing and publishing community — have in their hands what could be a grand-prize winner. The big prize: a deal with Canada's Anvil Press, which will be publishing Bradley Harris' Thorazine Beach later this year.

The novel is the newest in a series of stories featuring Harris' crime investigator Jack Minyard of Memphis, but, nearing 60 and overweight, he's seen better days. He's certainly seen easier days than the one that begins with Minyard in the company of a wisecracking barista inside a Summer Avenue Starbucks. But their entertaining back-and-forth may have been just the key to Harris' first-place finish.

"My motto to writers is simple: Write something!" Harris says. "Write fast, get it out, as my teacher at the U of M, Tom Russell, used to say.

"When I started the contest manuscript, I wasn't even sure what I was going to write. But I went back to my character Jack Minyard. I like the rhythm of American detective fiction. It's snappy. It's forward-moving. And there's the tone, the mood. There are certainly weaknesses in my plot. But you can't write Moby-Dick in three days.

"I've spent so much time helping other writers write in the past few years, though, that I've been neglectful of my own writing. Now I'm thinking: My winning the 3-Day Novel Contest is a sign. Here I am talking to you. I should be working on another new novel.

"But I'd also like to see more people entering the contest. I want the judges driven 'mental' with thousands of entries of people discovering the joy of writing."

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