What I Learned from Writing a Novel in 3 Days

Nine years ago I heard about the 3 Day Novel Writing Contest for the first time. At that point I’d already done NaNoWriMo, NaPoMo, and Script Frenzy, and the idea of writing a novel in three days, even if it was more of a novella in length, was very appealing.

Unfortunately I’d just created The Poetry Marathon and had scheduled it for the weekend before Labour Day. Every year since,I considered doing the 3 Day Novel Writing Contest, other events always ended up changing my plans.

This year I was feeling overwhelmed, out of sorts, exhausted, and kind of at the end of my battling chronic pain rope, when a friend mentioned it on her FB page.

I was quick to dismiss it as impossible in public before second guessing myself and sending her a private PM asking her for personal experience details.

I’m so glad I did. She encouraged me to attempt it, even if I wasn’t going to submit the novel as part of the contest. That goal, one that involved no one else reading it, seemed feasible.

With that encouragement and information I was able to move forward towards writing the novel (which was really more of a Novella at 101 pages – although well within the goal length of the contest).

Through attempting and completing the 3 Day Novel Writing Contest, I learned the following things.

The power of working on pieces in focused bursts

Because I have two kids, a full time job, etc, I write mostly in the evenings, usually at the rate of one or two hours a week. This is not very much time, and because I tend to take big breaks between these periods, part of that time is spent reminding myself what I wrote last time and getting back into that head-space.

When you write a novel in one long weekend it’s easy to keep track of details and feel a sustained connection to the world you are creating. I was able to be much more efficient and effective when I was writing because there were minimal distractions. When finished, the novel/novella felt a lot more cohesive because it was written in such a concentrated period of time.

The importance of having a specific time to write

Obviously, I already knew that it was important to take time to write, that’s just common sense. But I think as a working parent who doesn’t want to ask for help very regularly and is always nervous to do so, it’s hard for me to find time normally, but once I had the motivation of the 3 Day Novel Writing Contest, it was much easier not only to ask for help, but to ask for it at a particular time (I’m great at delaying these sort of things usually). Maybe the timing wasn’t perfect, but it actually happened, and that in and of itself is significant.

The power of setting goals

The most important factor going in was actually setting daily goals. As part of my normal working life writing 6,000 words in a day is far from unheard of and even 9,000 happens from time to time.

So I decided going into this that I was going to set a goal for myself of 40 pages a day, 15 of which had to be completed before noon. This was just for the first two days.

I know that when I write this fast, I require more time to revise and edit, and that in order for the piece to feel polished and consistent, to give me time to add in little details that I might not have thought out initially, I would need to budget most of the third day to revision. I also wanted buffer time in case the unexpected happened – which really worked out because between 9 Pm and 1 AM, on the 2nd-3rd day I had a terrible migraine.

Knowing I had this extra time on Monday, didn’t make the migraine go away but it helped me manage the stress the migraine caused and made it possible for me to take the morning after a little easier.

The power of knowing oneself

A lot of what I talked about in number 3 involved knowledge of self. When I’m talking to other writeres, Ithey often set unrealistic goals for themselves because they don’t know what it’s like to spend a lot of sustained time writing, and they are unaware of their weaknesses.

Part of why I entered the challenge, fairly confident that I would succeed in completing something (no matter how terrible), is that not only have I had a lot of experience completing writing challenges, I also have a lot of experience writing for work. I know what I’m capable of, when I can sprint, and when I need more time (always at the end).

I also knew that I had to exercise regularly throughout writing, if I wanted to maintain my focus and speed. A lot writers think spending energy on exercise during this kind of challenge is a waste of time, and maybe it is for them, but for me it’s almost always worth it. I get a lot more done in terms of writing if I exercise. Unlike puttering on the internet, it doesn’t drain me, it refreshes my creative juices.

In Conclusion

I already know this challenge isn’t for everyone, but it was a very meaningful and refreshing experience. After months of focusing on helping improve others’ writing it grounded me in my own creative experience.

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The Poetry Marathon Plan – 2016

This year I have a very different plan for The Poetry Marathon. Usually I challenge myself to write poems of a certain length, but this year I am having a different approach. This may go well, or it may go horribly wrong.

Jacob often tells writers that doing The Poetry Marathon is like writing a chapbook in a day, and it really is like that in some ways. Most chapbooks are not even 24 poems long. However my favorite chapbooks are always thematically linked. Most of the poems I write during the marathon having nothing in common with each other.

That is about to change. This year all of my poems will be written about a theme, and connect directly to the title of the chapbook.

The title of the chapbook and the theme is – The Ways We Go Missing.

I am not going to reveal anymore about it before the marathon itself, but I am rather excited to start writing.


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Salmon, Raspberries, and Marathons (oh my!)

Last year I did a half Marathon for the first time during The Poetry Marathon. I was seven or eight months pragnent at the time, so the full marathon was not logistically possible.

I found myself luxuriating in the opportunity to only write 12 poems in 12 hours, instead of 24 in 24. I wanted to make sure that during each hour I wrote the best poem possible

Then for the very last hour of the half marathon I wrote a poem that is one of my personal favorite poems. This poem is named Salmon. Of course I still had to edit it a great deal and the version of Salmon I started out with after the marathon was very different than the one I submitted for publication. Salmon went on to be published in the 2016  spring issue of Tar River Poetry.


I want for you to know the joy of eating
raw fish filled with fat, glorious waves
of it and a kind of salt that comes only
from the sea and cannot be distilled into crystals.
Perhaps you will be a vegan, or simply fish
averse, the smell of it in our kitchen
will cause you to exclaim Oh Mother
brown eyes rolling. Of course,
I am imagining your protest, your eyes,
their color still unknown to me. During the first
tentative months of your existence within me, raw
fish was one of the few things you allowed
me to keep in the pit of stomach, besides yourself.
So I ate it with an eye on mercury levels,
and those doctors who can never agree.
I consumed it with desire. But even if you don’t
like the taste of it, I want for you to know the joy
that comes from eating something so fresh
you can still taste the life in it. Snap peas grabbed
off the vine, apples plucked, raspberries removed from
their messy bush along the back fence. Someday perhaps
you will know what it is like to consume something
for someone else, to take it into your own body,
then give it away to theirs, with fear, with hope.

I  wrote this poem for my daughter June (although she was un-named at the time). The strange thing is that when I wrote it, I imagined her many years later trying salmon for the first time and plucking raspberries off the back fence.

What I wrote has now come true, less than a year later. It turns out I didn’t know very much about babies and eating.

June has now plucked raspberries from the bushes along the back fence (I did have to hold her there during the experience). Although she largely eats raspberries I have picked. This is mostly because she does not pick nearly as fast as she wants to consume.

She has also consumed salmon, raw and cooked. While she despises the cooked version (which I couldn’t handle while pregnant) she loves the very small sampling of raw salmon we have offered her.

It feels wonderful to have written something that has come true, more or less. As you can see in the photograph below, she has very blue eyes. Also, she cannot roll them yet. Hopefully the “oh mother” years are a long way off.


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On Writing, Motherhood, and Balance

This essay (of sorts) is going to be flawed and incomplete. I am warning all readers of this in advance, so no one can complain at the end.

I became a mother 9 months ago and because I am a planner I prepared for my daughter’s birth.  Her nursery was already to go, as was my hospital bag, and a month worth of freezer meals. However some of the most important baby items, things I would rely on every day after her birth we had not even bought yet, because I a) did not know about them or b) thought we did not need them. This was one of the many ways I failed to be prepared for her arrival.

Our life was changed completely. Jacob and I knew it would be changed, but we didn’t know how. And we still don’t know how it will change. For example one week June would wake up at six am, nurse and go back to sleep till nine. This gave us a lot of nice morning time. But it only lasted for a week or so. Then her schedule was completely different and we did not even realize it at first. We were shocked that she was up at seven and did not want to go back to bed.

Before June was born I worked with Jacob running a web publishing company. I still do that. I also wrote a poem a day. I still do that too. In fact there are very few things I gave up, in terms of work and art. But I did give up a lot of other things.

I still manage to write over an hour each day. I also still work on the publishing company the same amount I did before. So a reader may jump to one of many conclusions, most which are incorrect.

One of the conclusions several people have jumped to is that my work is not actually work. Another mother, a stay at home mother, told me the other day that I was just like her, because working from home doesn’t count as working. But here is the thing, I spend a solid chunk of time every day doing something that does not involve June or chores. I spend this time working on concrete things that bring in income. If I stopped working that money would not be coming in. I also enjoy my work.

But I didn’t say anything to this stay at home mom, because I think what she doing is important, wonderful, and also a lot of work, work that doesn’t earn her money, but helps her child, keeps her house clean, etc, etc. I was worried that anything I would say would make her feel devalued or misunderstood.

When I mentioned before that I gave up a lot of things, this is what I mean by it. I gave up the sources of my sanity. The little pockets of emptiness in my days that helped me refuel. Casual wandering. Spontaneous dates. Spontaneous anything.

Instead I do more and more things in smaller spaces in time. When before I might spend forty-five minutes cleaning the house, now I do that while taking care of June and handling phone calls. In everything I try to be as efficient as possible. The work I did in eight hours I now complete in four. All night I dream about squeezing more in. I sleep less. I have less time for it.

In order to complete everything that I have to do, I have become harder on myself. Whenever I am only doing one thing, I chastise myself. Every time I sit down to read or even to eat I find myself questioning if I really have to do that.

Recently I started writing a novel. I had an hour break away from June and I found myself writing. Later that same weekend I told a friend about the novel. He laughed at me when I told him about it, he said “So you will finish it 15 years from now?”. In the face of adversity, I tend to double down. It is a month later and I am on page 65.

The novel might seem like I am ripping a hole in a ship during a storm (which is something that happens in the book), but instead of adding to the insanity, it is helping with it. It gave me something that is mine, and only mine. Something that I have not had since June’s birth.

I don’t think there is any perfect way to be a mother. If I gave up work I would be around more for June, which would be great, but I would become a different person. Maybe that person would be  a better mother for June, but probably not. Because of my work schedule I only regularly don’t take care of June for 16 hours a week. That still leaves a lot of June time.

Still I am very aware of how lucky I am. When I go to work, it is a studio in our backyard. Janice, the person who takes care of June in my absence is a wonderful friend who loves June . Even though we live hours and states or countries away from most of our biological families we are part of a vibrant and caring community, but even with all that the last nine months have been hard.

This is most likely something that will take me my whole life to figure out, and I am sure that once June is old enough to say complete sentences she will want to weigh in on it, but I know no matter what she says, or anyone else I am trying, and I am figuring things out. That each day she becomes less of a baby and more of a child, one that loves me already, even if she is still just figuring out how to kiss.


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My First Half Marathon

Four years ago now, I came up with this crazy idea for a poetry marathon, a day when poets wrote 24 poems in 24 hours. I googled it to see if it already existed so that I could participate. Since google revealed nothing but poetry reading marathons, a different beast entirely, I told Jacob about my idea. I was going to do it on my personal blog.

But Jacob really liked the idea, in fact he wanted to try it too. In fact he thought other people might want to as well. So he designed a basic site for it, and that summer we convinced a very small number of people to join us in this crazy scheme. Only one other person completed it, Melissa McCarter (and she wrote some terrific poems). Although others got awfully close.

Based on the poems we wrote and published during that time, the second year was a lot easier sell. Writers were interested as they had seen that it had worked for others. However we skipped that summer, due largely in part to the fact that we had no fixed home base and things were chaotic, even without a marathon.

However in the summer of 2014 we set a date and made it happen. This time over a hundred people attempted to complete either a half or whole marathon. It was a real experience.

Jacob and I had no problem finding participants and we only had a small window of time when they could sign up. Part of that is because made there be a half marathon option. We did this because of  popular demand, Not even is up to producing that many poems in a fixed amount of time or staying up all night (with naps, if you so choose).

Each year I participated I learned something different. During the first year I learned that it was possible to complete a marathon while writing longer poems, as I challenged myself to always write at least 22 lines. I also learned how much mental energy and focus writing like that required. The next day I felt very drained, and could not even remember writing many of the poems.

Right before we held the marathon in 2014, I did a solo marathon that spring. Jacob supported me but did not write. This was the least rewarding of any of the marathons, but I did learn that exercising between writing periods helped keep my energy and focus up. It was less rewarding in part because I was doing it alone.

The 2014 marathon was the first one with a large number of participants from all over the world. There was a group facebook page where everyone could chat with one another. Also the main page during the marathon was constantly being updated with everyone’s new poems. It was really impressive and motivating. It really gave me energy to write new and compelling poems.

Last year during the 2016 Poetry Marathon I was 7 and a half months pragnent. This time an even larger number of participants were involved. However well in advance of the marathon I realized that I could not compete in the full marathon, I would have to do a half marathon instead. I could not lose that much sleep while in the third trimester.

I was disappointed initially to know that I was only going to do a half marathon when I knew I was capable of doing a full one. In fact I didn’t really prepare for the marathon like I usually do. I was not taking it seriously, up to the point where it was 6 am and I was writing the first poem.

Suddenly I realized that I would only have 12 chances to produce a really good poem instead of the usual 24. I had to make every poem count. Usually I only spend 20-30 minutes on every poem. If one is awful I feel a little embarrassed posting it, but it feels unavoidable.

During the half marathon I instead spent 30-40 minutes on almost every poem. I really focused on crafting good poems. If I didn’t like the poem I started I scrapped it before reaching the last line. Instead of thinking about conserving my energy so that I could continue going for 24 hours, I just focused on using the energy that I had and not thinking about the next hour or the next poem.

I think I expanded as much energy and focus in 12 hours as I usually expanded in 24.

In short it was a wonderful and exhausting experience. Next year I will most likely do the full marathon instead, but I will approach it with the same focus, the same willingness to use up all the energy I have on one poem.

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On Faith, Writing, and a Specific Apocalypse

Humans dream again, repurpose a barn, carry light in their pockets. Maybe the god they waited for isn’t coming, but at least they are happy.

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens

The above quote is the last paragraph from a review of my chapbook Incident Reports. The review is thoughtful and very detail oriented. Jennifer MacBain-Stephens (who I do not know) manages to follow the narrative of Incident Reports closely and with much insight. The quoted paragraph is particularly apt, and captures something that I want readers to take away from the book as a whole.

I am a person of faith. To be more specific, I am a Christian. Which means that some might find it strange that I wrote an intentionally non-biblical apocalypse. The vanishings in my poems are not the rapture. Long after the world has been permanently changed there is no God returning. But I do not think that this contradicts my faith at all, or is at odds with it in any way.

When I was younger, the Left Behind series was extremely popular. I remember once, at 16, while hanging out on a porch with a few friends who were younger than I, one brought up the fact that we had not heard from our parents down by the dock for hours. He was in the midst of reading the Left Behind series, and he wondered if they had been taken, if the rapture had happened, and we were still there. He then asked me if I was capable of driving their car. Considering we were all on a small car free island that did not seem particularly relevant at the time. I certainly did not know how to drive the boat.

I remember his fear being particularly striking to me. I had not read the series past the first few pages because I did not like the writing style. But for him this was something real that was going to happen. The book was in someway prophetic. I could not understand that feeling.

When I was about 10 I used to ask my mother a lot of questions about Revelations particularly about when Jesus was going to return to earth. After listening to all her answers it was very clear to me that guessing when wouldn’t help, and thinking that it would happen at a specific time, predicting its occurrence, was actually contradicting statements made in the bible. No one will know.

It is interesting how long the end of the world has been predicted, how many people have thought they are living in the last generation, how their reasons for this belief are varied and different. That is what intrigues me. That we can never know, and as people of faith who are told we cannot know, yet people keep claiming this knowledge.

The original Greek meaning of the word apocalypse is not necessarily even about the end.  It focuses instead on the revelation of truth, the ripping of the veil, in other words a seemingly irreversible change. The world has had many of those. From the spreading of literacy to the invention of the car. Sometimes these changes are global, like the popularization of the internet. Sometimes they are more local. For the natives of North America the arrival of Europeans was certainly an apocalypse. So many people have survived an apocalypse (positive or negative) over the years, without an end of the world or a return of Christ occurring.

The multiple narrators that exist in my chapbook survived an apocalypse, it was just not the biblical one. Because the changes they experience, like any other major changes, they inform who they are and how they live, and different individuals handle them in different ways.

However as with all my narrative poems in this manuscript, each is told from the point of view of a different, imagined person. So even if a poem explicitly about an individuals faith was included it would probably not reflect my beliefs.

For me the best writing on faith is not literal, it does not take the bible and re-tell it, instead it takes risks with biblical ideas. I am thinking now specifically of the Great Divorce, one of my favorite C.S. Lewis books. One that deals with all sorts of theological issues if you get down to it, from purgatory to judgement day.

But C.S. Lewis does not preach to you. He is not trying to sell you that version of heaven. That is not the point, it is an exploration of ideas by an artist, by one man. Some people who read The Great Divorce take issue with it theologically.  So even when I write more explicitly about faith, as I do in some of my rare personal poems, I feel nervous.

I want to have the freedom to explore ideas about sin, about the intimacy of faith, etc, without fearing the picking apart of it. Whenever I write I am not telling the truth as I know it internally, as much as I try, I can’t. It is just a facsimile, an attempt. But still it is something I am trying to do more of.



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The World of Literary Journals is Changing

In December I prepared to submit to a favorite literary journal. One I have purchased on many occasions. One I was planning to buy a subscription to. However, they had a warning up that they would respond to all submissions slowly, outside of the official reading periods. The next one started January 1st. I decided to wait to submit.

I went back today and found that they had added a two dollar fee. One dollar went straight to Submittable (their submission manager) and the other dollar went to them, but you received a one dollar off any of the products in their store. They do not pay their writers. They are a non-profit. They are using the money to keep operating. I wish they were getting their money from somewhere else.

I paid the fee. At least I knew explicitly where the money went. And I was glad they were encouraging submitters to buy issues.  However, it is part of a larger movement I am very leery of. In the last four years there has been shift toward charging writers rather than readers, because there are more people interested in submitting than in reading the publication. This is problematic on many levels.

When I first started submitting I was lost and overwhelmed, but I found Duotrope, a great resource that contained data on thousands of literary journals.

At the time Duotrope was free, but two years ago they started charging 5 dollars per month, or a flat rate per year. I reluctantly became a subscriber, because I already relied on them and regularly made the amount to cover the fee they charged from accepted submissions. However, for someone who never used it before, or rarely did, there is now a barrier up to using their services.

Because they rely on user inputted data about response times and acceptance rates this affects the services they provide. I think that ultimately, particularly in this last year, Duotrope’s services has started to suffer from charging a fee. I think the results are skewed because the only users are those so committed to the service that they pay for it.

When I first started submitting in 2011, I only encountered one journal that I wanted to submit to that had a fee. But it was a fee you only had to pay if you submitted online. Now many journals that do not have a postal submission option charge a fee. So that the only way you can submit is to pay that fee.

Now not all writers have other jobs, or other jobs that pay well. So they really have to focus on using the money they have wisely. $5 dollars a month for Duotrope or $2 to $3 dollars for submitting to a literary journal does not sound like that much. But it can add up.

On a busy year, I still usually manage to submit to 130 literary journals. If they all charged $3 dollars I would have to pay $390 dollars a year, plus my Duotrope fee ($50 dollars for a yearly subscription). It is highly unlikely that I would make that money back in payment from journals.

Also, some journals do not offer contributor copies, and I always make sure that I have at least one copy of the journals that publish me. Being a writer that submits to and is published in literary journals is heading in the direction of becoming an expensive side project for a writer who, like most writers, really would prefer to just write.

That isn’t even going into the submission fees for book contests and chapbook contests and all the other steps writers are often encouraged to take these days.

I am someone who has an MFA, who has been a professor for a number of years, who writes professionally about literary journals, and who plans to have a book out some day. Having a good publishing record helps you get good teaching jobs, it helps you get a book published, and is something I plan to continue. In many ways, my career depends on it.

However, the group of people who submit to literary journals is already not very diverse. It is mostly people who have undergraduate degrees in creative writing,  MFAs or MAs. Part of what I do when I write about literary journals is encourage writers who do not have an academic background to submit to literary journals.

However, if we continue to head in the direction where a submission fee is the standard instead of the exception, the writers who submit to and are accepted by literary journals will be even less diverse. Not only will they most likely be from an academic background, they will also need to have enough money to justify the process of submitting, which already takes a lot of time and energy. They will also most likely be writers whose careers depend on publication in such journals.

I find this shift towards charging submission fees to be upsetting, but I think that the long terms effects could actually be devastating. Not necessarily in a personal way, that is less significant, but to the loose community of writers at large. Literary journals will no longer reflect the larger community of writers at all, but just those who can afford to pay, or those whose career relies on publication.

I want young writers to be encouraged to submit. I want writers who are self taught, like Ray Bradbury was, to submit. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the direction literary journals are heading.

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Two Reviews of Incident Reports

Two reviews of my chapbook have been published recently. One by the wonderful poet Kelly Boyker was published in Menacing Hedge. The other is by Christopher Frost for Neon Magazine. I am afraid I do not know anything more about Christopher Frost than the bio he wrote below my review. However I am curious to read more of his work.

You can read Kelly Boyker’s full review here: http://www.menacinghedge.com/fall2014/review-boyker.php

Below is a short excerpt from the review.

Thomson’s extraordinary poems explore the absence found in the in-between spaces, the moments between blinks, the slow seconds between heartbeats. Thomson’s delicate and clinical ear proceeds with lightest of touches and a subtle sense of fine-tuned emotion. She writes with deceptive simplicity – having excised all superficial flesh to reveal the essential skeletal framework of the natural world. Though there is a haunting sadness throughout the journey that Incident Reports represents, in the end we are left with a clean cauterized sense of despair and a hopeful glint of light and purpose.


You can read Christopher Frosts full review here: http://neonmagazine.co.uk/?p=5415

Below is a short excerpt from the review.

Or else there’s the long poem from which the collection takes its title. “Incident Reports: The Vanishing” is a stunningly novel piece which – through a variety of case files – charts the events that transpire when all at once, and for seemingly no reason, a huge chunk of the world’s population suddenly disappears. The skies fall dark. Washing up is left undone in the sink. Houses sit empty. Fires burn with no firefighters left to combat them. Melancholic as the poem is, it’s also incredibly beautiful.

The same holds true for the majority of poems in this collection. Whether it’s the disappearance of the moon, or any number of smaller and more personal incidents, Thomson’s reports catalogue a series of apocalypses that are eminently worth exploring.

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Incident Reports

My second chapbook, Incident Reports, was released today. The best place that you can buy it is on the Hyacinth Girl Press website. Incident Reports cover-1-smallThis chapbook is about a possible apocalypse. The word apocalypse is used all the time these days. It can involve zombies, killer plagues, global warming, or any number of other things. I am more interested in the Greek origin of the word, which means uncovering, a revelation of truth, a tearing of the veil, from one time to another. Under this definition the renaissance would be a time of Apocalypse. My poems are about a very different, theoretical,  societal shift.

Please consider purchasing it here: http://hyacinthgirlpress.com/yearfour/incidentreports.html

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A Quick Note on Long Marathons

I have been traveling and very busy. However today I removed the poetry marathon poems. It was so strange to remove the effort of so much work. Although really all I am doing is making something that was public in a very limited way, private again, as most poetic efforts are.

It was a wonderful experience this time, but I have not yet even had the time to review the poems I wrote. Although perhaps that is for the best. The editing process is always the most difficult for me.

If you have any interest in Marathon-ing this August and hearing updates please email me at cthomson@gm.slc.edu.

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