Writing is like training for a marathon

by Ksenia Anske

Please welcome Martha Brockenbrough, author of Devine Intervention (2012), a young adult novel about the world's most inept guardian angel and the girl he accidentally kills, The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy (forthcoming), as well as Things That Make Us [Sic] (2008) and It Could Happen To You: Diary Of A Pregnancy and Beyond (2002).


Every once in awhile I'll read tweets or blog posts by people who've completed their fourth manuscript of the year. Or people who woke up from feverish dreams and a week later had a novel that went on to become a bestseller.

I have spent a lot of time wishing and hoping the same thing would happen to me. And it's not all laziness. I think there's a notion out there that the process of creating a novel depends on some sort of inspiration that comes from elsewhere on sparkling wings. Magic, a muse. If you get that transcendent feeling, if the story flows in a supernatural way, you must be doing it right.

I have not found that to be the case. Not even close.

In fact, for me, writing is a lot more like training for a marathon. Back in the days when I used to run marathons, I used to run for about an hour a day. On weekends, I’d put in three or more hours. I never hoped for some winged creature to lift me above the pavement. I knew that running 26.2 miles would be possible if I put in the time and the miles.

Some miles felt better than others. The ground slid by as if the earth had been greased. Other miles were comically painful. During the last few miles of my first marathon, it felt as though aliens were eating their way out of my calves. But I finished, simply by putting one foot in front of the other.

And so it is with books. I have to put in the time every day. Just as exercise is harder if you let too many days slip by without working up a sweat, writing is harder if you don't have a steady daily practice with the occasional long workout.

Just as there are always occasional runs that feel effortless, where the air is right and the light hits the trees in impossibly beautiful ways, there are pages that seem to come from nowhere—that I can hardly remember having written even as I enjoy reading them later.

So I do understand this magic that others have written about. It might not come for me in quantities that would let me unspool a whole novel quickly. But it comes in the midst of the work. In other words, the work is what creates the opportunity for inspiration—it's not the other way around.

Every book I write requires many, many drafts. Some picture books, I have rewritten completely more than a hundred times. Novels, I’ve struggled with for years. For me, this is how long it takes to understand who my characters are, what they want, how their story should be told, what will make it different from other books out in the world, what will make it essentially my own.

While I wouldn't mind if some angel showed up and started whispering in my ear, the bright side of the one-step, one-word-at-a-time technique is that I don’t have to worry that the angel of story will abandon me. As long as I put in the hours, I will put down the words again and again, until I find the end. 

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