Writing a Novel : The Importance of Having Endurance

I’m aware this is, much like my other recent entries, divergent from the central topic of the last month or so. But after seeing the wonderful Charlaine Harris the other night, and having a conversation with a fellow would-be writer, I think it’s important that I discuss endurance. (and, later, stretching.)

As of right now, I have two half-written novels. You may have more than two; you have may have fewer. For various reasons, I’ve had to abandon both of them at the hundred-page mark. For one, I had an entire outline planned, and then veered off track to the point where I just didn’t know where to go with it.

At that time, I decided that I would be treating writing the same way one would prepare for an endurance race; start off with smaller stories, then build my way up to the novel. Writing is different from running, in that somebody with sheer willpower and enough time could make it through a whole first draft without preparation; but it’s also very similar. If you do put in the time beforehand, it’ll be… well, it won’t be easy, but it’ll be easier.

My fellow writer from the night before barely made it past the ten-page mark, and said, “I should really consider writing something shorter first.” She’s right. It’s all a part of training yourself, and getting into the mentality. One can’t physically handle running a marathon the first time through; it’s all about long training, discipline, and building on small successes.

If you work hard, stay focused, and avoid injury, you could one day run a marathon.

Right now, I sure as hell couldn’t run a marathon. I started running a month ago, and I might be able to handle two miles at a decent pace, in one shot. But I’m building on small successes. I’m learning new skills and doing research. But, most of all, I’m learning to focus more on my goals, how to reach them, and giving my all to get there. I’m not going to run a marathon tomorrow, but in three months, I might be able to run a 5k.

In the same way, I don’t think I could write an eight-hundred page epic right now, but I think I could write a three-hundred page novel, since I’ve spent some time building up to it.

As I mentioned earlier, though, stretching IS important – mentally and physically. It’ll help you keep going when you would’ve normally cramped up. (Brain cramps aren’t fun, people. Trust me.) It helps you build muscles, keeps them loose, and most of all, it helps you focus on what you’re about to do. Do some mental warm-ups and cool-downs when you’re writing. If there’s a particular time of day (or night) that works best for you as a writer (or a runner), stick with it. Get into a routine. Challenge yourself.

And, as Marjorie Liu notes in a great entry, JUST DO IT. You don’t get muscles just talking about them; you get muscles by using them.

-Ryan

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6 responses to “Writing a Novel : The Importance of Having Endurance

  1. That was great comparing writing to running. I’m sure most think it’s easy just to pick up a pen and write, but there’s alot that goes on that can wear you out. I’ve never tried stretching before I write (honestly never crossed my mind that it could actually help) but I’ll soon be giving it a shot!

    • Thanks, Matt!

      I totally agree. It’s really easy to get worn out, and as far as stretching goes, use the same principles you would with physical stretching. Don’t spend time stretching muscles you’re not going to exercise; focus on the stuff you’re going to work on. But since you’re writing, use it to keep making progress!

      You can work out potential plot points, try to visualize a scene in your mind before you write it, work in a new word or two from the thesaurus, re-writing sentences for maximum impact – hit all of the little things that’ll help you out later, and make you a stronger writer overall. Just as you wouldn’t spend all your time stretching, don’t get caught up in doing the little things; just give them enough time to help you shine.

  2. An interesting thought – though everyone keeps telling us that you have to write every day and that they more you write the more you want to write and so on. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • Hi Cassandra – thanks for the comment!

      I disagree with the “you have to write every day” notion. You can’t exercise every day; the muscles need time to rest, reform, and strengthen. Otherwise, you just burn them out. Writing’s no different.

      I’d agree more with a “write three days, take a break; write three days, take a break” plan. Eventually, once you’ve built up the endurance, you should be able to do six days, and then take a break, but there’s a reason the standard work week is five days and a two-day respite. I think it’s more about finding a rhythm that works than writing every single day.

      And hey, if writing five days straight and taking weekends off works for you, go for it!

  3. Sometimes I think we share a brain. I have about three or so half finished novels! My first attempt at a fantasy novel made it to the 300 page mark before I quit!

    Also, what was that about Charlaine Harris? You met her?

    • That’s possible; I wonder where it goes on the weekends.

      Yeah – I went to her signing in Philly, and got copies of Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas signed. Independent corroboration suggests I was one of maybe five guys there, among several hundred women.

      …I wonder if my odds will ever be that good again?

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