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The 24-Hour Novel

Some writers seem to know what they’re doing when they start a novel. Some—or so I’ve been told—even have a complete outline or a stack of index cards with planned scenes jotted down. Wow! Must be nice to be that smart and organized.

But I’m not.

When I start a book, I know almost nothing. I just start. Is this scary? You bet. On the other hand, there’s a bracing sense of adventure about it. I’m open to surprise. In fact, I’m constantly surprised.

So, for example, I was roughly fifty pages into my most recent Key West caper, One Strange Date, before I realized that it was on its way to becoming something I’d always wanted to attempt but hadn’t got around to trying: a novel in which all the essential action is compressed into a fraught and tidy 24 hours.

Now, I’d worked on deadline many times before, but this was a different kind of deadline, imposed not by a publisher but by the story itself. I was under no pressure to finish up the manuscript, but I was under a great deal of (self-imposed) pressure to make sure the plot was resolved, the tension was heightened and released, and the characters had all had their final moment and their final say–all by a certain hour of a certain evening. Artificial? Sure, that’s why they call it fiction. But the device enforced a strict discipline that I enjoyed. There was no time for just-passing-through characters or throwaway scenes that would squander momentum. There was room—there had to be room–for emotional complexity but not for meandering, for human comedy but not for labored jokes.

Readers, of course, will be the final judges of whether this somewhat accidental experiment in form was worth the trouble. But for me, tapping out a narrative in sync with the rhythm of a ticking clock was a refreshing—and a timely–challenge.

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