The ‘writing vs marathon training’ comparison – Word Count = 78,049

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

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Word Count = 63,893 + a stage play

Nearly two months has flown by without a blog post, but I’m not concerned.  During that time the novel has progressed by a very respectable additional 21,500 words and in the last two weeks I’ve accidentally written a short play.

Perhaps I should explain.

I may have mentioned in this blog, somewhere along the way, that I went to drama school and completed a masters in acting in my mid 40’s.  It was one of those “I don’t want to wake up at 60 wondering if I could have” decisions that I haven’t once regretted (sure, there were some very challenging moments during those 14 months where I wasn’t sure if I could carry on, if I’d left it ‘too late’, if this was a wise idea, but I never had any regrets for following that path).  Once qualified, I realised fairly swiftly that living in London and working as a jobbing actor did not suit me at all, so I took off and travelled and worked.  Somewhere along the way, I rekindled my love for writing. Its portability, in particular, allows me to wander the world and still be able to tell people’s stories, a driving theme and passion behind my acting.

When I started writing, people naturally wanted to put these two aspects together. “You’re an actor”, they would say, “You should write plays.”  But I didn’t want to write plays.  Screenplays maybe, but not for the stage.  Mainly because I didn’t think that I would make a very good playwright – my writing style is rather literal, a bit too linear; less suspension-of-reality, more once-upon-a-time.

A couple of weeks ago, I was allowing myself to be distracted by Facebook, instead of writing, when I spotted a post from @ActorAwareness about a scratch night for new writing.  Actor Awareness is a campaign run by Tom Stocks, fighting to have more equality, diversity and working class actors in the industry.  Every six weeks they host a night where six short (less than 15 minute) new plays are presented, each time featuring a different theme such as class, gender, sexuality, age and so on.  Next month’s (on 15th August, in London) is entitled “Intergenerational”, targeting older actors.  The plays must have a maximum of three actors, including a minimum of one actor who is 40+ (yes, folks, that’s ‘older’ in this game).

At 49, it is a subject close to my own heart.

So, I consulted my digital scrap book (I have a Scrivener project where I store snippets of ideas, inspirations and curiosities that may, at some point, turn into books or stories or screenplays or poems).  And there, I rediscovered a piece I had outlined a while ago, with the vague idea of turning it into a screenplay or novel at some point.  It met the criteria – in fact there are two characters in their 50’s – so I started to play with whether their story could be told in a short theatre play.  And apparently it can.

Now I have a less-than (here’s hoping) 15 minute play, written and ready to submit ahead of tomorrow’s deadline.

You may be wondering why I would blog about this before I even know whether it’s going to be selected.  Whilst I really hope it is (although it will mean lots to organise from a distance and waving good bye to much paid work in August!), truly, the fun of this project has been the experimenting,  a chance to stretch my writing, put me outside of my comfort zone, the opportunity to collaborate with friends and the necessity of working to a tight timeframe to achieve the deadline.  It’s a new writing scratch night and I don’t have the luxury of time to get lost in over-perfecting.  So, it will be selected, or it won’t.  Either way, it’s been an enjoyable project.

Now, it’s time to get back to Lucy and Harry’s story.

(p.s. I’ll let you know how the submission goes)

© itshelsbels July 2016

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Sanity savers – Word Count = 42,353

Looking back at my blog history, I appear to manage a post about every 4-5 months, which is hardly a devoted-following-building level of activity.  Nor will it allow me to create one of those blogging empires, where you get paid for clicks and ads and referrals.

Despite this, I am very excited that the novel (for that is what is it now, an actual novel, not just ‘The Book’) is trucking along nicely.  There is a full outline, pretty extensive (and growing) character outlines, a calendar of events and much, much more.

As a new writer, I am learning this craft as I go along, drawing on resources as I discover them;  balancing my need to get on and learn by doing with the opportunity to learn from people who already do this called ‘writing’ for a living and discovering tools that help me to stay on track and remain calm during the creative process.    In this post, I wanted to share a few of the things I have discovered that are helping me do just that:

  1. An editor/coach: Those of you who have read some of my other posts, will have already heard me talk about working with Cynthia Kane of Open Book Editing.  For those who are new to this journey of mine, Cynthia is a development editor and literary agent who I’ve been working with for a while now.  She reviewed my first 50,000 words of mind-ramblings, which turned out to be, at minimum, two distinct projects, not the single one I had initially thought.  She also saw plenty of options for where I could take the material and encouraged me to explore some of the other themes she could see within the work.

    When I announced, last December, that I had shelved all 50,000 words and started a brand new work of fiction, she was just as enthusiastic, reminding me that nothing is wasted in this iterative process of word-crafting.  Since then, we have put together a coaching strategy, which holds me accountable and encourages me to push forward and put a priority on my writing.  Initially, I submitted a full story outline and some sample chapters for her to assess.  We then agreed on a timetable and now I submit work to her every three weeks – whatever I’ve written.  At this stage, I have asked for the feedback to be limited to general “am I on the right track?” comments, rather than any detailed editing, as I want to stay in freeform, and not give too much power to my analytical, sometime over-critical mind.  I love the pressure of having a date in my diary, even if, in the end, it is being driven by me.

  2. An Outline:  A quick search for the phrase “How to write a book” on provides 19,751 hits, so there is certainly no shortage of advice for would-be writers.  I even own a few of them already, some I’ve even read.  But in January, I stumbled across a book that has impacted my whole approach to writing: Structuring Your Novel by KM Weiland.  Before reading this, I had no idea that there were two types of writers – “pantsers” (people who write by the seat of their pants, letting the creative juices flow from fingers to keyboard directly) and planners (those who meticulously outline every twist and turn, character arc, possible story-turns, time-lines, character outlines…).

    Now, if you and I had been a party and you had asked me what sort of writer I might be, I would have guessed a pantser.  I like to think of myself as quite spontaneous; I like to believe in creative inspiration.  However, on reading KM’s book, I discovered I was actually a planner and I had already started employing many of her suggested techniques into my process, quite naturally.  For those of you who think that planning might stymie your creative flow, I have found it to be the opposite.  It transpires that I don’t write chronologically  (well, not this time, anyway).  By having an outline, I can write whichever chapter or scene is calling to me and know that it is likely to move the story forward.  New characters and situations have still appeared, but when they have, I’ve seen very quickly where and why they fit into the overall story.

    Having a good software programme also helps this process, which is point 3.

  3. Software: At some point, I may write a more in-depth analysis of the programme I’ve chosen, but, for now, I will simply say that buying Scrivener has been an invaluable investment into saving my sanity.  It enables one to create a detailed outline, easily moving chapters or sections around, split and combine blocks, meta-tag, timeline, create character templates and store research – from web links to photos, MP3 files and video links. Split screens, snapshots, section labelling, key word searching, project statistics and compiling – it took me over three days to work through the on-line tutorial and I’m still learning about it’s extensive functionality.  In the end, though, being able to see how everything links, track my progress and store all aspects of this one project in one place, has been an absolute revelation.  SO much more intuitive than a word-processing programme, I couldn’t imagine writing without it now.

So, the journey continues.  When I started this blog, I had no idea where the journey would take me and I still don’t, but as Steve Jobs said:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.
This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” 

Here’s to continuing to connect the dots.

© itshelsbels May 2016

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Less about the word count – all about the process

For the first week or so of my self-enforced isolation, I set rigorous targets of timed writing blocks and word counts, calculating the number of days and weeks available, working backwards and coming up with a set of expectations.  This is what I needed to achieve (or so I thought), to validate my time here in the mountains.  But somewhere towards the end of week 2, a few realisations landed, the first being that by switching from writing a memoir to a novel, EVERYTHING truly has changed:

  1. I no longer know the character: In fact, other than the small glimmer of an idea when I was in Slovenia, I am really back at square 1.  If the protagonist is no longer me, then who is she?  Who are her parents? Does she prefer tea or coffee? What are her fears, her hopes, her dreams?  When did she lose her virginity?  What films make her cry?  The questions (and occasionally, the answers), come thick and fast.  And I discover that I care, passionately, about honouring her, and her supporting cast as multi-dimensional and interesting characters.  I feel as though I’m back at drama school and I’m loving the process of discovery and creation.
  2. I no longer know the story: It is not possible to crash out thousands of words based on my memory of events – now I need to research all sorts of topics I know nothing about.  How do you become a Legal Executive and more to the point, how did you become one in the UK 15 years ago?  This is feeding the endlessly curious part of me (but possibly could prove distracting).
  3. I no longer know the world of the story: When did supermarkets rise to popularity in England? If I was a sensible young man, buying my first flat in London in the early 1990’s where would I have been able to afford?  What would my neighbourhood have been like?  Whilst it may be fiction, I’ve chosen to set this story in a fairly recognisable location and contemporary period, so I want readers to recognise them as such and not be jarred by thoughts like (“yeah, well, he’d never have been able to buy there” or “they didn’t even have supermarkets in Kent until 1998, I know ‘cos my Dad worked for the first one.”)
  4. And I still don’t know the plot: Some of Cynthia’s early feedback about the memoir was that if it wasn’t going to just read as a diary of events, it needed an arc, plot points, conflict.  These requirements still exist.

And then there’s the tricky issue of genre.  It was easy when it was “memoir” and in my post on 2nd January I announced that I was writing “Chick-Lit” – but now, having downloaded and read some, I’m not so sure.  Luckily, I took heart from the following quote “…is it chick lit?  Maybe.  But instead of worrying about labels, focus on writing your book.” (From ‘See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Chick Lit’ by Sarah Mlynowski and Farrin Jacobs, Quirk Books.)

So, these past few weeks have mainly been about re-evaluation.  If this isn’t a one-book-wonder of a memoir (oh, plus the ‘big, close-to-the-heart’ project, which continues concurrently – two more interviews completed) then I’ve realised I need to get on and learn how to be a writer.  And no, that’s not an excuse to slacken off and stop writing, but I have switched focus from word count to crafting.  Given that this is my rest-of-lifetime we’re talking about (let’s face it, you can never grow too old to write), I’ve also been putting some consideration (and effort) into how I structure my bill-paying life to accommodate the journey.

In my next post, I’ll share some of the books I’ve been finding inspiration in, some that I’ve been learning techniques from and the technology I’ve chosen to invest in to help with this next phase of the adventure.

Right, back to arcs and inciting events.

© itshelsbels January 2016

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Walking in the Woods – Word Counts 36,462 + 13,601 + 11,332 = 61,395

I’ve recently discovered Kyle Cease, described on his website bio as “a keynote speaker, transforming audiences through his unique blend of comedy and transformation” and, I have to admit, I’ve been doing a bit of binge-watching of his videos – both comedic and inspirational.

The video that led me to him is The End of Control in which, (at 1:32) he says “why don’t you go to a cabin for a while and write a book.” And it occurred to me that that is exactly what I am doing. Well, maybe not a cabin – it’s more of a studio apartment – but it is half way up a mountain, in a little village, where I know absolutely no one and speak neither of the local languages. For someone who is usually intensely people-focused, both at work and socially, this has been an interesting choice and is, rather unexpectedly, turning into a bit of a life experiment.

The first few days proved quite tough as my chosen reality hit home – really, what the hell had I done? Why this this location? It was apparent that I might spend the next six, or more, weeks having no real face-to-face conversations, just the occasional stumbled attempt at German or Italian when needing to convey something important. But it was unlikely that I was going to discuss the meaning of the Universe, our role in life, the nature of love….or have much of a social life either. “It’s going to be a very lonely 6 weeks”, I thought.  Although, I reminded myself, I had really come here to focus on my writing. The book(s) that have stumbled along over the past few years needed a good kick in the back-side and how else do you do that but allocate some time, go somewhere with minimal distractions and WRITE?

However, it also occurred to me that this time would provide a wonderful opportunity to experiment with some other aspects of my life that I’d had curiosities about. What would it be like if I actually slept as long as I wanted, no alarm clock? (It turns out I quite like about 8-9 hours); What would it feel like to get up and do yoga or a movement meditation, like 5 Rhythms, every morning? (Great, as it turns out. As tiny as my place is, it’s still big enough for a yoga mat and even to dance around a bit); What about seated meditation – a practice I’ve been trying, rather unsuccessfully, to incorporate into my routine for a while now? (I’m enjoying the space it provides but still struggle with the inner demons that tell me I should be “doing” something).

How about getting out into nature each day – for a walk or a ski, given that the local field is just 1.5km from my front door – oh yes, one of the reasons I chose this precise spot.  Ah yes, it’s this last one that has provided me with some real nuggets of wisdom and clarity. Being both action and future focused, I can get rather wrapped up in “OK, so what’s next?” as soon as I hit the next anticipated milestone. Yet, here I am, through my own choice, sitting in a studio half way up a mountain, with nothing to do but write, move my body, meditate and cook for myself in my cupboard-sized kitchen (there aren’t many choices for eating out, either!)

And in the woods the other day, striding through the snow, I suddenly realised that this was what it was all about – the whole experience. It isn’t just about the writing. The writing may never go anywhere further than the hard drive of my computer, but I will still have had THIS EXPERIENCE. And I will never wake up and wonder what it would have been like to go to a “cabin” up a mountain and write for a few months. Because I’m doing it.  And that is the point.

© itshelsbels January 2016

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Let the words begin again – Word Counts 36,462 + 13,601 + 3,672 = 53,735

This blog may lurch along drunkenly like a New Year reveller in Barcelona’s Plaça Espanya but the actual book(s) continue to putter away in the background. I made my June deadline of 50,000 words, over the two projects, ahead of time and sent my fledglings into the arms of Cynthia @ Open Book Editing to read, review, dissect, analyse and critique – while I got busy with my 18 hour days, serving coffee and canapés to charter guests. Mid August, her feedback arrived in the form of a 10 page editorial letter and marked up versions of both documents with comments, questions and ideas carefully annotated on each.

There was a lot to digest.

And I didn’t really have time – the season wasn’t over. But…

What I gleaned was that she saw merit in much of what I had presented. Raw, yes. Brain-to-keyboard, yes. Lots still to do, yes. And yet. Plenty of options about how I could take the stories, the material, the adventures and weave them into something of worth. Worthwhile.

And given that I was still busy at work and then had a couple of months planned of rather intensive travelling, I simply sat with that. I had something worthwhile.

For the last two months I have jumped on and off planes, attended workshops, visited friends, been to gigs, been to school reunions – all the while – the feedback has been tickling the back of my brain. In particular the observations on the bigger project. Bigger only in terms of its current word count. I think the other one is probably the “bigger” project in terms of ambition and scope but Cynthia had some interesting questions around the 36,000 one, given its primarily autobiographical nature. What was the character’s (my) story arc? What was she (I?) looking for? How did it end? Did it HAVE to be my story? How did I feel, laying myself quite so bare? Initially I stayed with my higher ground stand point – “I didn’t need to resort to fiction to tell the story”. I can hear the disdain in my tone, my rather elitist stance on what I saw as my alternative – “chick-lit” – and for some reason I didn’t want to think my life had become a reality TV series. It had social commentary, meaning, a message – surely?

But then.

In a hotel in Slovenia, mid way through an ayurvedic detox programme about a month ago, the heroine and her story “arrived”. And she isn’t me. And it IS chick-lit. And I couldn’t be happier.

So, I’m 3,672 words into the new project. And while I think I should feel distressed that I’ve “wasted” all that time on a project that will never see the light of day, I actually feel hugely excited about this next phase. As a wise artist friend of mine, Nikki Davidson-Bowman said, at some point as we exchanged creatives-come-late stories “maybe this is the story you have to write through, to get to the other side and discover the actual story you want to write”.

From tomorrow, I will be based in the mountains for a few months with the key objective being to write (and ski and dance and do yoga and learn to cross-country ski too, but primarily, to write).

Hello 2016.

© itshelsbels January 2016

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Breaking through the 40,000 barrier – Word Counts 9,510 + 32,156 = 41,666

I’m back on target! Having now got a deadline and anticipated word count to work towards, I recalculated my weekly targets, updated the (previously rather ambitious) spreadsheet, reprinted it and stuck it back on my cabin wall. That spark of knowing someone else is relying on you to deliver something is unbelievably motivating. No longer can I hide behind a nebulous “I’m writing a book”, never actually delivering on anything. Now, I have a contract to deliver on – word count and date.

I’ve set two targets: Target One is 45,000 and I am 485 words ahead of where I need to be, based on my writing weeks available. Target Two, a stretch target, is 50,000, so I’m a bit behind on that one. Even so, I’m enjoying the process now. Today, my crew mates decided to go into town to do some sight seeing, shopping and maybe have a beer at an Irish pub (incongruous in Athens, maybe, but let’s face it, there are great Irish pubs all over the world!) but I stayed so I could write, I WANTED to write – and write I did – hence the blog update. Them’s the rules.

The urge to critique and edit and critique again is strong; knowing that someone will be reading my pages soon. But Cynthia has asked that she see the “raw” version, no edits, no cuts – so she can get a feel for where I’m heading, gather a sense of whether I really have a story to tell or perhaps, a story worth telling, because we all have stories to tell, even if we consider them mundane. I guess she will also determine whether I can string a sentence together, keep the reader enthralled, weave a plot line and generally do what writers should do – provoke thought, entertain or both.

I remain in awe of the discipline it takes to write. In awe of those who sit down at their laptops day after day and write enough words to be able to then sculpt them back into the true essence of a piece, culling and selecting only the words that truly contribute to the story. It makes me think of a sculptor, who starts with a block of marble or wood and whittles away until all that is left is the story that needs to be told.

In focusing on quantity, I fervently hope that I end up with enough raw material to create a masterpiece.


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