I’m not a marathon man. I’m a short-distance runner, a sprinter.
When I was a kid I was in AYSO and I always played center halfback, the hard position, the running position. It wasn’t the glamour spot—I rarely made goals. The forwards got the glory. But the team knew they lived or died by the strength of their halfbacks. The entire field was mine and at any given moment I might be supporting the fullbacks defending our goal then sprinting up-field to help the forwards penetrate our opponent’s defense. It was a fast-run position and I was fast.
But put me on a paved track and tell me to run for an hour and I’m done for. I just don’t have the stamina.
And yet, what is a novel if not the longest marathon a writer ever faces? A single thought sustained over an entire year. Bits and pieces of ideas coming together over many months, interrupted daily by the millions of thoughts and actions required to keep us living our lives.
What really drove this home was a recent thought I had for the climactic conversation between my protagonist and antagonist set to take place in the final, climactic scene of a book I’ve barely started. I realized I’m going to have to tuck that conversation away for a long, long time. Put it in a drawer. Think of it from time to time, build moments towards it as I write what precedes it. Foreshadow. That’s stamina stuff and it drives me crazy. I’m a “now” kind of guy. It makes me crazy that I can’t execute an idea as soon as I’ve conceived it. I’d make a terrible scientist. If I spent half my life figuring out how to get to the moon, there’s no way I’m spending the other half waiting for the materials to be built to accomplish the task. I have zero patience.
And yet…somehow I’ve managed. Against all odds. I’ve managed to hold and sustain a thought over many months, even years. I’ve managed to place the pieces of the puzzle into their spots despite the terrible lag in time.
I think the trick is that I see a novel as a series of sprints. Each time I sit down to write, whether it’s for two hours or eight, I’m sprinting. I put all my energy into one powerful burst of writing and, when I’m done, I crash. There’s no passing the baton. I cross the finish line and fall over. And then, the next opportunity I have to write, I pick up from where I left off, a new race, a new sprint.
Occasionally I need the relief of writing a short story. Or a poem. A blog post. I never blogged before Murderati and, although it can be maddening having to find a worthy subject every other week, it’s also refreshing to start something and finish it in a few days’ time. Getting immediate feedback is validating. I’m sure that’s the reason film actors slip away to do Broadway every now and then. I know, I’ve done some theater and there’s nothing better than feeling the vibe of the audience, hearing the laughter or holding the tenor of a silent pause in the palm of your hand. And then there’s music performance, playing with others, communicating musically, sax to guitar to piano to drums. Cause and effect. Instantaneous connection. Try dragging that song out over a year, see how fun that is. Try writing a symphony. Long-term shit again. That’s what we’re in for when we write novels. We take a good concept and, over the course of months, sometimes years, we bury the thing in more gobblygook than we knew we could muster and after a while we don’t know if it’s gold or if it’s crap and the only guideposts we get are the comments of friends or family or an editor if we’re lucky. It is torture and don’t let anyone say it ain’t so.
And yet, God what a neat thing it is to sprint through a passage. Just one passage. A perfect three pages. Surrounded by weeds, a patch of green. It might be crabgrass, but it grows, and it’s green, and it’s…pretty.
I’m never really happy with my work until the third pass or so. That’s when I take the story I’ve written and tighten it down to the thing I really wanted to say, from the start, with great attention placed on the placement of words, and movement, and punctuation. And if it takes nine months to get to that third pass…that’s nine months of not really being happy with my work. Who lives this way? Why do we do this? Maybe it’s that big financial pay-off waiting at the end. That was definitely a motivator when I wrote my first book. It even teased me through the second.
Now that I’m not so goddamn naïve I realize there’s another reason I put myself through it all. I do it because it must be done. I do it because, when you get right down to it, I LOVE IT. I love being a writer and I love writing and I’ll do it as long as I live whether there’s a chance of financial success or not. Because if I added up all the money I’ve made as a writer I’d have enough to buy a car and a year’s worth of gas. Or maybe six months of health insurance for my entire family (the premiums only, not the deductibles). The point is, it’s not about the money. I’m sure that, once I start getting paid a lot of money it’ll be more about the money, but the truth, the godawful truth, is that I’d write whether I got paid for it or not. Hell, half of us would pay for the opportunity and I bet, in one way or another, all of us have.
So, let it take a year. It takes as long as it takes. I’ll be pushing myself in 2011 anyway – tackling a screenplay and two novels. But it will be easier than ever before, because I won’t be balancing it with a day job. But that’s a blog for another day.
All writing, all the time. Sprinting every day. Before I know it I’ll have run a marathon. (Or two).
I want to thank Brett and Rob for recommending William Goldman’s “Marathon Man,” which I tore through in two days. Ah, the lessons I’ve learned!
And, oh, I think there’s a holiday coming up. Happy New Year to All!
Best wishes from a fellow sprinter (albeit a very s-l-o-w one)
It's like how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time ;-]
For some radon the thought of eating an elephant really troubled me, Zoe.
The best writers I know all came to it through compulsion. As maddening as writing is, if one feels at peace when not writing, he might not be a writer.
(that word above should be reason. I'm still in bed lazing with the dog, typing on my iPad)
Murderati is my home page, and nothing starts my day better than turning on my system and reading the inspiration that you all bring to your blogs. Thanks for a wonderful year of writing. Here's to a year filled with creativity and acceptance from agents, editors, and readers…oh, and with a few movie and tv options thrown in! May it truely be a, Happy New Year.
I love writing too, and although to this point in my life it has not earned me very much money at all, I like to view it differently. Writing functions as some sort of vent or release of pressure for me. When I write, whatever I write, my daily life is easier and things flow for me. When I don't write, life turns into a pressure cooker and things get stuck.
So from that perspective, my writing has a hand in every good thing I've ever done. How can you put a dollar amount on that?
There's a very good reason my husband periodically says to me: you need to go somewhere and write.
Happy New Year to everyone at Murderati! A good friend shared this on Facebook today and I am passing it on:
from David Whyte, "All the True Vows"
All the true vows
…are secret vows,
the ones we speak out loud
are the ones we break.
and out of the silence
you can make a promise
it will kill you to break.
Stephen, it's ok. Patience really does suck.
I think I have that sprinter thing as a reader. I get really antsy if I'm spending too long with a book. If more than a few days go by and I'm still reading the same book I want it to be over already so I can move on to something else. Usually it's not the quality of the book at all — I don't read books I don't enjoy — but sometimes life interferes and my usual pace is off. A book every 3 or 4 days sounds good to me. I own several epic books of whatever genre that I really want to get to and I'll even get ][ this close to reading something but then I think, man, I'll be spending forever with it — what about all the other books that will go more quickly I want to read?
Speaking of goals this week, I even made a goal one year to read the "honkin' big books" as a challenge. Didn't make it past the first month. This year's goal is to include the non-fiction books I've been meaning to get to. We'll see how it goes.
Happy New Years Eve!
Zoe – the problem I've found with eating elephants is that I have to eat so much fiber, too, just to stay regular.
Alafair – that's a very good word to describe it – compulsion. There's a magic and inspiration that comes from that process, but there's also a great wear-and-tear. It was easier to do when I was younger – pull those crazy all-nighters. I need to fall in love with a longer writing cycle if I want to stay healthy.
Debbie – Happy New Year to you, too. I hope your words are heard by the TV and film executives of our day.
billie – That's a very powerful little poem there. It's got me thinking now. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Sylvia – I should have used that as my blog's title.
PK – it didn't occur to me until now, but you're right, I feel exactly the same way about reading a book. It becomes an all-consuming event and I find myself staying up very late at night reading, loving it, but at the same time hating the fact that it has me, controls me, keeps me up when I know I have to get up in a few hours to go to work. It's a weird love-hate relationship. But I wouldn't want it any other way.
PK: I experience the same phenomenon of reading a long book–even one I really enjoy–and still getting antsy. I'm experiencing it right now with Peter F. Hamilton's PANDORA'S STAR, which is the typical Hamilton thousand-page (literally) galaxy-spanning SF epic with a cast of what seems like thousands. It's great, but I had to take a break from it and sprint through Lee Child's 61 HOURS. But I will go back and finish it.
Zoe, Alafair: I've often used the 'eating an elephant' metaphor for novel writing. But I think I'm going to adopt Stephen's much less squicky "series of sprints'. 🙂
Why thank you, Dusty, for helping me coin a phrase. I'm taking 85% of the royalties. I'll trust you to write up the necessary documents.
I guess by the end of the day, we all need to know what works for us and use it to push ourselves forward. Many short bursts add to a big boom, or in your case, a big book, I reckon 🙂
Happy New Year to you and please keep writing.
Great post. Just finished my own "next" marathon. Phew!, am I glad that's over with.
You know how you can tell if the advice you're getting from your writer friends can be trusted? They suggest you read MARATHON MAN. The smart ones know a great thriller when they read one.
Dao – it's funny how, during my third and fourth pass, I'll take that big book and cut it down to a rather short one. Seems my perfect page count is around 350 pages.
Gar – Congratulations on finishing the next Gar Haywood classic! You are steady as a rock, my friend.
Another great book that Brett recommended was "The Ax" by Donald E. Westlake, which I'm reading now, and it is also excellent. Let's do some cafe writing together in 2011. Get you out of the house.
Aaahhh!!! Schwartz!!!! Get out of my head!!!!
Actually, I don't think of writing novels as a series of sprints, but I had started a blog post for tomorrow about how it's been saving for me lately to think of writing as One Day At A Time.
Oh well, I'll think of something.
But ODAT is really useful. I always had that attitude in a way – as in – "All you have to do is five pages, today. They don't have to be GOOD pages, they just have to be DONE pages." (Or 9 pages, or 15, depending on book, script and deadline).
But now I'm tentatively discovering that One Day At A Time can actually work for ENJOYING the writing that day, who the hell would have thought? After all, if it's only about those five pages, or nine, with no anxious anticipation of tomorrow's pages or, you know, the entire rest of the plot, then why not surrender to them and put in and have the full experience of whatever those pages are? It's an amazing trick I'm playing on myself, seems to work, hope it keeps up.
Alex – I laughed out loud when I read your comment. ODAT – yeah, I like that a lot. I really don't like to give myself page-count or word-count expectations. I just sit and try to access the story, each day. Let it appear and see where it goes. If I write one page, then, hey, that's the breaks. Some days I'm focused on writing GOOD pages, other days I'm focused on just moving the plot forward at all costs. I tell you, it kind of drives me nuts when I see everyone posting their daily word-count accomplishments on Facebook.
Great post, Stephen. And happy to recommend Marathon Man to anyone, especially great writers like you, who can appreciate exactly what Goldman did in that book in terms of technique, etc. He's an amazing novelist and I recommend ALL of his books. I don't think there's a clinker in the bunch.
I find it sad that he finally decided to give up on novels in favor of devoting his life to writing movies. Yes, there are classics like Butch Cassidy and Princess Bride (although the latter was a novel, first), but I think his best work is in novel form.
Another great one is Magic. Forget the movie versions. Read the books.
I look forward to your next series of sprints, and plan to enjoy it. I truly appreciate you all sharing of yourselves, and taking the time to keep some of us who are just readers up to date on your writings, etc. I have this dream that someday I will really write something. I am working on that. Thank you all and a Happy productive New Year to everyone.
LOL! Yes, what you said. Patience is neither of my two virtues (which vary at any given time in highly erratic rotation, but never, EVER include patience.) I'm all fast twitch, even running/sparring – very fast and hard for a very short period of time, then sucking wind no matter how much cardio I've been doing. The trick is to make it look like I'm slowing down to psyche out the competition 😉
At least that's how I remember it, years ago, sometime around the last Ice Age.
Thank you for sharing your perspective – it definitely helps to think of a novel as a series of sprints rather than a marathon. While a daily writing habit is good for my productivity and faintest pretense at sanity, like you, I need to bounce between short stories, poetry, and another chomp at my novel elephant.
Huff . . . huff . . . huff . . .
I think I'm a marathoner — or I'm becoming one — as a writer. Not so much with an eye on the prize and with the steady pacing of daily practice. That said, I'm an absolute sprinter when it comes to reading.
EVERYONE: Have a glorious New Year celebration tonight. I hope 2011 brings joy, health and success to us all!
Yo, Robster, thanks for the compliment. And I'm going to pick up all William Goldman's novels, on your recommendation. It's funny how I can see the same technique playing out in his novels and screenplays. He manages to capture character very quickly, and every character is real and smart and shows a unique form of humor. I hope to bring some of that to my current novel, from observing how Goldman does this, seemingly without effort. He really is a master.
lil – I know you will write your novel one day. I'm looking forward to seeing your writing career develop. Maybe 2011 will be the start.
Inkgirl – sounds like you are an actual marathon runner. I'm with you on that huffing and puffing.
Pari – thanks for the New Year's wishes! I hope you have a great night tonight! I was invited to a really cool party in Hollywood, with loads of producers and TV writers…and I'm going to stay home with the wife and kids insead. I'm kind of figuring out where my priorities are.
Yeah, we're staying home too. We've got two discs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a brisket in the crock pot, more chips and salsa than you can imagine, and love, love, love.
Geez, I was just getting the hang of seeing things in acts and scenes, now I have to run sprints? Pffft. Not with my knees.
Patience is not one of my virtues either. (Ha! I say that like I have more than one. Or any.) But I really do like the concept of breaking this marathon of effort into smaller faster pieces. With shorter pieces of writing, I can carry all the words in my head at the same time. I can see the entire thing before I write it. It's been a big adjustment for me to write novel length fiction, because I can't keep the whole thing in my head all at once in the same way. If that makes sense. Breaking it down into pieces is the only way I can manage it.
Best wishes to you and yours, Stephen (and to everyone else over here), for all good things in the New Year!
Would like to add my thanks also for the wonderful posts I have enjoyed over the past year. It's one of the highlights of my day – delightful, funny, insightful, honest, etc.etc. reading! Happy New Year to all of you.
Very interesting post. I write in exactly the opposite way. I get up every day and sit my ass in that chair and finish off a reasonable chunk, careful not to hurry. I savor those moments. My problem is that I hate being between projects. When I've got something good in front of me, something that will take months to complete, I hate to rush because some part of me doesn't want that to end.