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!