Twenty years ago today, an elite group of the nation's finest writers gathered at the Groucho club in Soho, London. There, they swore that that they would know neither rest nor sustenance, that they would write until their fingers bled, and that they would finish a novel in a single weekend - or die trying.
Well, okay, I may have embellished that a bit, but not entirely. The World One Day Novel Cup was indeed held twenty years ago. There were thirty-two entrants, they did all get together at the Groucho, and they did spend the weekend writing novels - or at least as close to a novel as you can get in two days. Realistically it was never going to be much more than a novella for each of them, if they finished at all. Quite a few of them did, and lo and behold, the collected edition of all these novel(las) is now out of print. The experiment was tried again in 1995, and then laid to rest. It's not hard to see why: the entrants were professional writers to begin with, and this could never be much more than a gimmick for them - a gimmick that required a lot of effort and probably didn't provide much of a return.
However, the basic idea was kind of resurrected with the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In this rather more sane programme, people have a whole month to write their novel, and they have a sensible target to reach - 50,000 words. There were 428,584 entrants who finished in 2013, which is a bit of an improvement on 32 (unless you actually try and read all those novels). And of course, the entrants are a much broader group than just professional writers: the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to give anyone who wants to write a novel the motivation to get it done.
The main difference between now and 1994 is pretty simple - technology. NaNoWriMo works because it's organised over the internet. There's no need to gather in a single place. There's no requirement to lug your desktop computer to the venue, as the participants did twenty years ago; anyone can join in, and that's why it's been a success. But at the same time, there's also much less chance that your novel will actually be read. It'll almost certainly be lost in the near-half-million strong pile of other entrants - which does beg the question of why people write novels at all, when they know their work will almost certainly never be read. But then, this has been the case for virtually every would-be novelist since long before the internet existed, and it never seems to stop anyone...
(it certainly hasn't stopped me!)
And the winner, twenty years ago? That was The Resurrection of the Body, by Maggie Hamond, a supernatural thriller that she later expanded for publication outside the anthology of books completed over the weekend of the competition. This version is still in print (though you'll want to check out the reviews on Goodreads, first).