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).

WRITING IS LIKE TRAINING FOR A MARATHON by Martha Brockenbrough

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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How to write a novel first draft in 6 weeks

by Ksenia Anske


If you asked me several years ago if I knew how to write a novel, I'd stare at you, blank. And here I am now, editing my 1st novel's 2nd draft, still not knowing what the hell I'm doing, but moving forward. I thought, hey, if I can do it, you can do it, right? Why not share? Well then, here goes:

HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL FIRST DRAFT IN 6 WEEKS:

Get yourself fired. Seriously. If you really want to write, you've got to write full time. That, or sleep only 3 hours a night and have no social life. Take your pick. Remember, that's what the glorious unemployment benefits are for. (Disclaimer - I didn't get fired, I was laid off, and not on purpose, it was time for me to go, but still. You get the idea.)

Find a supporting body. Spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, distant aunt who loves books, a writer's group - you name it. If you don't have someone to talk to about your book DAILY, and I mean, DAILY, then forget it. Your story will die without ever being born, unless you're an antisocial genius who can talk to yourself in your head. If you can do it, my hat off to you. I can't. (Oh, did I mention that the supporting body better be the one who praises and encourages you no matter what?)

Get a room. For real. The one with a working door that you can slam shut. And some desk and a chair and a lamp. Until you have a spot like that (doesn't have to be fancy, can be a refurbished closet), you won't be able to shut the world out enough to focus on your story. (If you have children in your household, you'll agree with me immediately.)

Do the math. OK, don't make that long face. It doesn't sound sexy, I know. Here is what I mean by it. Based on my research, a typical novel can be anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000 words (more experienced writers - correct me if I'm wrong!). I aimed at 100,000 - just because it's a nice round number. I anticipated to cut about 20% of the total word count when editing, which would make the final book 80,000 words long (good length for a Young Adult novel). I had to produce 3,400 words a day to be done in 6 weeks (not including the weekends). For comparison, Stephen King likes to produce 2,000 words a day. Obviously, his 2,000 is pure genius while my 3,400 is full of air. Do your math to fit your schedule, and tell all your friends the date you'll be done. (They will bug you if you don't - a good motivator).

Write. Yes, write. Wake up, drink a ton of coffee, turn off your phone, close all the browser windows on your laptop (that includes Facebook), close the door, sit down, and... write. I planned my book out kind of like Garth Nix usually does, but you don't have to. As long as you have an image in your head, start there. Write. Don't worry about grammar, or characters, or plot. That will come later. Write. Don't come out of the room until you produce your number of words. When done, walk away. Here is the catch - the next morning DO NOT REWRITE what you wrote the day before. No-no-no. Keep moving forward. Otherwise you'll be stuck in the re-write land forever.

Read. When you've done your daily writing, read a book. NOT a book on writing. Fiction. Read something for the pleasure of reading. Read anything you can get your hands on. Classics. Cult books that everyone reads. Bad books that nobody wants to read. Your friend's 1st draft who is trying to write a book (like you). If you don't have time to read every day, might as well forget about writing. You will learn a ton as you read. I didn't say it, Stephen King did.

Do not chicken out!!! Keep at it! No matter what happens, stick to it! If you think you're stupid, still write. If you hate your story, still write. If crying helps, cry. Cry a lot. Cry every hour if you need to. Or yell at the wall. Or blast loud music. Under no ciscumstances are you allowed to chicken out. Focus on your writing one step at a time, one day after another, and in 6 weeks - presto! You'll end up with a completed first draft. Remember, it doesn't have to be perfect, it simply has to be DONE.

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