The First Novel Marathon

Absolute Blank

By Stephen W. Simpson (Macfisto)

The novel is the marathon of writing. Most fiction writers can knock out a short story, just like most people can finish a 5-k race with little training. But even many of the best 5-k runners stay away from marathons because they’re too daunting. They require a level of commitment, sacrifice, and pain that most runners can’t fathom. I suspect the same is true of the novel for writers.

I’ve run five marathons but I’ve only written one novel. I wish I could tell you that I discovered the secret of writing a novel my first time out. I can’t. I’m in the middle of the fourth draft and don’t even have an agent. However, I learned a few things that might help if you aspire to this lofty goal. You only need a little talent, a good idea, and some courage to get started. But if you want to finish something that someone other than your friends and Aunt Sadie will read, enjoy, and purchase, you need three things:

Endurance. Probably one in ten people say they want to write a novel “someday.” Of those, maybe half write a chapter or an outline. Almost no one finishes it.

In my first marathon, I made the classic blunder experienced runners warn against: going out too fast. I got too excited and dashed out with fantasies of a record-breaking time. Ten miles in my quadriceps tightened up. Fifteen miles in my hamstring said, “I’m getting off here.” By mile twenty, I didn’t know my name, where I was, or what possessed me to do such an excruciating, stupid thing. Reaching the finish line seemed impossible.

Something similar happens to most aspiring novelists. They might dash out of the gate with a flourish, maybe a gripping first sentence or intriguing characters in exciting circumstances. Then the work starts. Plot and character development take longer than expected. Building up to those pivotal moments starts to feel more like work than titillating creative passion. Then they “hit the wall.” This usually comes in the form of dropping the story, with sincere plans to return to it “someday.” When you start a novel, understand that it’s going to take a long time. For your first novel, give yourself at least a year.

But that year should be structured. Marathon training requires several runs a week as part of a consistent program. If you only run whenever the mood hits you, can forget about crossing the finishing line before dark. The same thing applies to writing the novel. Set a schedule and stick to it, whether it means you write a page a day, three on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So your muse is hiding under the covers during your scheduled time to write? You’re too worried about cleaning out the gutters? Write anyway. The novel requires you to no longer be a slave to your creative impulse. It has to be the other way around or you won’t finish.

The thing that got me through was a commitment to write something every night but Friday and Saturday. On those nights, I kept writing as long as I felt the words flowing. If they didn’t, I wrote until I got to a logical stopping place even if I was turning out nothing but verbose crap. Once I finished, I rewarded myself. I wrote e-mail, visited TC (highly recommended), or played video games. Thursday nights I’d have a beer. But I didn’t treat myself to any of these unless I wrote something first.

Don’t even think about reaching the end until you’re almost there. In the meantime, enjoy reaching smaller goals, such as the end of a chapter. Otherwise, you’ll hit the wall before you get started.

Humility. You are not as good a writer as you think you are. Neither am I. It’s actually good that we don’t know this, because we might never start. It takes at least a little arrogance to write something you hope thousands of people will pay twenty bucks a pop to read. Nothing wrong with that. But be prepared to think a lot less of yourself soon after you type the words “the end.”

A friend of mine decided to run a marathon without doing any training runs above eight miles. Everyone told him this was a bad idea and that he needed to work up to twenty. He was a great athlete and figured he didn’t need the advice of “recreational runners.” He finished the marathon—in six hours after limping through the last seven miles. He injured his foot and didn’t run another step for six months.

Listen to what other people tell you. Brush up on your craft by reading books on technique and ask for feedback. In On Writing Stephen King says you write the first draft “with the door closed” and the second draft “with the door open.” Seek out those who will be honest with you. It’s wonderful to hear how much someone loves your work, but it doesn’t help you. A true friend in this process tells you when they get bored or confused and points out your mistakes. Listen to what they have to say and be ready to make changes.

You don’t have to change every little thing someone doesn’t like. However, this is where Voltaire’s maxim “The masses are asses” doesn’t apply. The more people who don’t like something, the more reason you have to change it. Yes, I know that you love that section where the protagonist has an epiphany in the middle of cornfield because it showcases your dancing prose. Change it anyway. Some of what you regard as your most brilliant work will have to go. And it hurts, which brings me to the final lesson.

Self-Amputation. No, don’t start cutting yourself when you get negative feedback. Take your medication and hang in there. But get ready to start hacking away at your story.

I did something else stupid while training for my first marathon: I ran too much. I thought I needed to do every training run I read about, including stuff that was out of my league and unnecessary for finishing the race. I was doing over 65 miles a week when I really only needed 50 to reach my goal. My left knee paid for it on marathon day.

I write too much, too. My main character is breaking lamps and throwing four-letter words all over the page, but I feel obligated to tell you that’s he’s angry. I’ll take three paragraphs to describe his seething inner turmoil. Heaven forbid you don’t know exactly what I mean, even if it bores you to tears and ruins the flow of the story. The best advice I got from a friend about my novel is “show don’t tell.” And I love to “tell” my readers every detail, scared to death they might miss something.

On my latest draft, I’m cutting like crazy, using a machete rather than a scalpel. I began doing this as an experiment, deleting everything that was not essential to the story. I took out everything possible as long the reader would still understand what was happening. It was mortifying. I highlighted paragraphs written with agonizing care and slapped the delete key. It felt like loping off an appendage. I was ripping out the soul of my novel. Shuddering, I went back and read all that I’d maimed.

It was better. It was more like the stuff that I like to read than the stuff I like to write. It was a realization born of pain and humility, but it was undeniable. If I’m ever going to get this novel into the hands of paying readers, I have to chop every superfluous word. It might not be worth it to you. That’s fine and you’re in the company of many great writers and Anne Rice. But it’s worth it to me if it means more people will read my story.

That’s what I’ve learned so far. But I’m not finished. If this is a marathon, I figure I’m at mile eighteen. That’s where the pain usually sets in. That’s where I start to think this was dumb idea to begin with and I feel like dropping out. At this point, it’s not about training, ability, or even courage. The courage got me started. Now, it’s about determination. When the rewrites hit double digits, when the rejection letters come, when your best friend says, “Will you shut up about your stupid novel and get back to reality,” you have to persevere.

When my wife waits for me at the marathon finish line, I can’t leave her waiting around for hours, only to go to the results board and read “DNF” (“did not finish”) by my name. It’s a good idea to enlist supporters before starting your novel marathon. Have somebody waiting at the ten-mile mark to read your first few chapters. After that, ask them to drive down to the finish line and wait for your first draft. Imagine the crowds of cheering readers waiting for you to finish what you started. There are people who want and need to read your story. Don’t let them down.

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