It struck me today that writing your first novel – or perhaps any kind of writing, but possibly more so with longer forms – is a little bit like training to run your first marathon:
1. You have to make time: The reality is that most of us already manage to fill our time more than adequately. From the stressed-to-the-max work / family / extra-curricular / volunteering super-achiever to the retired-but-never-seem-to-get-everything-done individual. If our diaries are not actually cram-packed with appointments and responsibilities, there are still a million and one distractions to sap any ‘spare time’ we thought we had. Just like training towards a marathon, when you have to find time to put on your running shoes and hit the pavements, writing requires us to create a space in our lives to write and then stick to it (See #2).
2. You don’t always feel like it: For people with very fluid lives perhaps they can wait for that moment where they say to themselves “Now, I will run.” or, in a writer’s case, “Now, I will create.” But most of us have commitments and responsibilities that often take precedence over pandering to our muse. So, when that reminder pops up in our diary, bidding us to “Go for a run” or “Write chapter 36”, we may not really feel like doing so. And then, if e’re not careful, we’re back to the draw of those crazy distractions (how can you resist another cute kitten video or thought provoking save the planet TED Talk when you don’t feel like running / writing?)
3. Sometimes you’re in the flow and sometimes you aint: You know those days where it comes easy – the temperature is perfect, the wind is in your hair, your breathing is just right and the playlist is spot on…? No, me neither, but then I’ve never really particularly enjoyed running, but you get my point. Then there are the days (probably most of my running days, if I’m honest) where your body feels as though you’re hauling concrete and your lungs would put a pack-a-day smoker to shame (even though you never touch the things). Same with writing. Some days I can show up at my keyboard and feel as though my fingers are possessed, no real “thought” to what’s flowing – in the zone, I think it’s called. Then there are those sand-bag days, where every single word is an effort. Where you watch the word count in Scrivener notch up almost imperceptibly, or worse still, scream backwards because, on review, you’ve had to delete a whole chunk of drivel.
4. Anything can count towards the end goal: To run a marathon, you have to been running; but maybe today isn’t a running day. That’s OK. Maybe it is a weight training day or a swimming day or a stretching day. All of which contribute to your overall fitness. Similarly, with writing, maybe you really are stuck and no amount of grind is going to progress the novel today. My suggestion? Write something else. A poem. A blog. Your journal. Maybe go off-piste and long-hand write a short story about one of your characters, unrelated to the specific plot you’re writing (I’m not talking about backgrounding or planning here, although that might also work as an exercise). Write to your Gran. Or an ex boyfriend (Do not send this, it’s not AA).
5. One foot in front of the other: I’m told, by friends who have trained for and run marathons, that this is how you get through. Not by “running a marathon” but by running the next step, and the next and the next until you see the finish line. Similarly, it’s impossible to sit down and “write a novel”, particularly, I believe, when you are starting out and learning your craft. With writing, I can write the next word, which will become the next scene, which will morph into the next chapter and, eventually, there will be a novel. Just. Keep. Going.
6. It aint always pretty: I suspect that people can spot a mile off that I’m not a natural runner. I turn puce. I sweat. I am rarely smiling. I grimace. But, if I was training for a marathon and all of that were still true it would feel different, no matter what it looked like. Writing can also be rather unattractive, I’ve found. The other week, my flatmate came home from work and found me crashing away at my keyboard. “Are you still in your pyjamas?” She asked. Yes, I had to admit that I was, which was exactly where she’d left me earlier. I had managed to brush my teeth at some point during the day, but I was still to find my way to the shower. Feral, yet productive.
7. We may compare ourselves with others, but in the end it’s our own race: There is, perhaps, an overall marathon-running slim, long-legged “type”, particularly in the elite section. One look at the starting line -up of, say, the London Marathon and that perception of “type” will be instantly dismissed. All ages, heights, weights and silly costumes are acceptable, each person stepping up to the start line with their own stories, histories, family circumstances, preparation levels, excuses and hang-ups. Unless you are an “elite” writer – trained, proven, published, being paid – the rest of us are just showing up and running our race the best way we know how.
8. It’s predominantly a solo sport: The only person who will show up to the start-line, wearing a pair of running shoes and a competitor number is you. If you don’t show, then that marathon won’t get run. Unlike team sports where there can be a substitution or reserve if you fail to show, marathons don’t work like that. Nor does writing. Not really. Yes, I know there are collaborations and ghost writers but if you have a book to write, then you have to write it. End of. No substitutions here.
9. Find your pack: Notwithstanding #8, there is something wonderful about showing up for other people and bizarrely, sometimes we’re more willing to show up for others than we are to show up for ourselves. So, find your pack – in person or on-line. They’ll be the people who cheer for you when you reach a milestone or commiserate when you’ve had another rubbish week – whether running or writing. Maybe you will meet some people who have already written and published their first novel. There might even be people who now earn their full-time living as novelists. Remember, they all started somewhere.
10. Sometimes you benefit from working with a trainer or coach: Let’s say running this marathon is REALLY important to you. You’re prepared to put the work in, do the training, run the miles and make the sacrifices but have you considered it might be both more enjoyable and more likely to happen if you work with a professional? Maybe they can help with a schedule, or provide motivation when yours is flagging. Perhaps they can give you tips and tricks for improving your style or advice on nutrition. Same with writing. Sign up for a course, hire a coach, enrol for formal study – all of that can accelerate your progress and propel you forward.
11. Metrics can be your best friend: OK, OK, so, if you’ve read any of my blogs, you know I like a good word count! Just as marathon running requires you to aim for a specific distance (26.219 miles or 42.195 kilometres), broken into manageable targets and goals along the way, having a word count in mind ensures that the project propels forward. The specific numbers will only ever be relevant to your project, genre, audience and medium. Whether it’s your 50,000 word project for for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) through to a whopping 544,406 (which is what War and Peace clocks in at) and everything in between.
“A year from now you may wish you had started today.”
(Karen Lamb – Illustrator * Animator * Author * Artist)
PS. The play (from my last post) got written and submitted. It wasn’t selected for the scratch night and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a twinge of disappointment. But what I said about the process being bigger than the outcome held true. It’s a story that has started and will evolve, when it’s ready.
© itshelsbels September 2016