Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What I learned about writing while failing my first marathon

As a middle-aged guy, I struggle to keep in shape. Ok, to be honest, I’m not in good shape unless paunchy is considered chic these days. I rarely get to exercise much beyond walking 15-20 minutes between my office and the subway station. But there was a time before I became a dad when I actually tried to -- and believed I could -- run a marathon.

Perhaps that is overstating things. In my training to run 26.2 miles, I never got beyond 15. Still, those months of training taught me a lot about writing, especially about writing novels. Here are a few of those lessons.

Lesson 1:
You don’t have to do it every day, but you can’t let it go too long if you want to remain both motivated and in shape to accomplish your goal. When I started training for a marathon, it was summer. On occasion, I had to deal with some heat issues, but mostly I would run early on Saturday or Sunday with the occasional “maintenance run” after I got home from work in the evening. But summer days eventually shorten and when you live in suburban New Jersey, you learn not to trust drivers to see your reflective vest as the sun goes down. So before long I was running almost exclusively on the weekends. The same can be true about writing. Sure, lots of writers aim to write every day, but sometimes there's just not even fifteen minutes to squeeze in between work, commuting, perhaps a doctor's appointment or special dinner or event. Life happens. But if too much of life gets in the way of writing, well, let's just say you start to doubt your ability to complete things.

Lesson 2:
Treadmills are boring, but they help you meet your targets. The analogy here is writing backstory that you’ll need to remove. Some writers will disagree, but not everything you write needs to be golden. I’ve written thousands of words that will never see a reading lamp outside my home. But I needed to put that time in to get to know the characters better, to get a stronger sense of what motivates them or what they aim to accomplish. It gets edited out – at least, it should most of the time. Unknown characters are like relationships that don’t get beyond the physical attraction. Without putting in the time to discover your characters, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to the “injury.” You need to build endurance.

Lesson 3:
Your longest run can still serve as motivation, even years later. I still recall the thrill of running 15 miles. It had been a major milestone for me, because before that run, my longest was about 13 miles – not quite half a marathon. I have “finished” a novel. I’ve had beta readers go through it and give me lots of great advice for ways to improve it, much of which I’ve applied. It was wonderful to complete that first draft and entertain the dreams of seeing it published. But still I know it’s not ready. I eventually trunked it and went to work on other novels, which have also been trunked as a result of my commitment to EBP, but they too will eventually see “The End” written, I have no doubt -- in part, because I've finished one before.

Lesson 4:

It’s ok to change your goals, even to “quit,” as long as you know why you’re doing it. I still run, even though I have not aimed for a marathon in almost ten years. I set new targets for myself. I have annual mileage goals I aspire to these days, and I set monthly goals with the annual goal in mind. In a similar way, I have realized I don’t have the time currently to write a novel. But that’s because I started Elephant’s Bookshelf Press and instead of seeing my own novels published, I aspire to see my company produce at least two books a year, preferably more. It might not sound like much, but it works for me. I also know that I will eventually chisel out the novels that are in my brain. Call me a quitter if you like, but I chose the path I’m jogging along even if my pace isn’t quite what it used to be.


JeffO said...

Good stuff, Matt.

I bet you got a lot of quality thinking about your Works in Progress during your running time, too.

I particularly agree with #1--I know that, the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to get started again.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks Jeff!

You're absolutely right about the value of running time for thinking about characters.