Novels & Marathons

I ran the Sioux Falls Marathon yesterday, so I had a lot of time to think about many things from 9/11 to writing to life to running (yes, you think about running while running – or at least I do). One of my favorite things to do when running, especially during long runs, is to turn over story ideas in my head. Most of my time was spent working through how I’m going to end one of my current projects, Into the Caldera. I’m in the last two chapters of that one, and I want to end it on a thrilling note.

I tossed around several ideas as I ran along the Big Sioux River outside Sioux Falls. I expect to finish the rough draft this week, and I’m confident I know how I want to end it. It’s just a matter of executing.

Speaking of execution, as I thought about my novel on the run, I couldn’t help but compare writing a novel to running a marathon. They are more similar than you might think. Sure, one is mental and the other is mostly physical, but they both share a common profile. Or, maybe it was just my depleted glycogen stores playing tricks on me. It’s been known to happen, but hear me out.

Novels, like marathons, begin with a lot of pomp and circumstance (at least in my head). There’s the excitement of beginning a journey and where it will take you. Of course, you know where a marathon will take you, but the journey to that destination is largely unknown (will I feel great the whole race or will I be reduced to a shuffling mess at mile 24?). Every single time I’ve begun a novel I’ve been pumped to type those first few words or sentences onto the page. The first chapter usually just flows from my fingertips as if the novel were writing itself. I’m usually so excited to start that I could spend the entire day just writing.

That excitement carries over to the first few miles…err…chapters. It’s like the momentum of the start just carries me forward with little effort. No sweat. This is the honeymoon stage where I’m simply in love with the idea of the novel and enjoying the first steady miles of a race. I’m all smiles. There’s no struggle. No doubts. Just me and the pages or miles that whisk by without a care in the world.

Like all honeymoons, this feeling soon comes to an end. The dreaded middle of the novel announces itself just like mile 13 in a marathon makes you realize that you are ONLY halfway to the finish. What? I have to do that mileage again?  The excitement at the beginning belies the ugly truth that the middle won’t be so easy to navigate. Every single author struggles with this, or at least, this is what they say in the articles and videos I’ve seen. I know I struggle with it. My pace slows, ideas seem at odds with the feel of the novel, and I wonder aloud how I’m going to have that great ending I’ve already planned. By mile 13 in a marathon, my pace starts to slow, I start to question my sanity, and I wonder how I’m going to hit my goal time. See. It’s the same.

The flutter and stutter of the middle is enough to make anyone want to quit. Doubt sets in and desire comes into question. I’m reading a training book called How Bad Do You Want It? by noted professional athlete Matt Fitzgerald. His central theme in the book is that winning (however you define it) boils down to your psychobiological makeup and how bad you want it. He’s talking about athletic endeavors like running, but he could say the same thing about writing a novel. Getting through the lull in the middle really tests your mettle, and it’s not just getting through it, it’s creating something that will make your reader want to keep reading. Easier said than done.

The good news is that if you can make it through the middle of a novel (or a marathon), you can bring it home. As I hit the mile 24 marker yesterday, my feet started moving faster. I could taste the finish line. I pumped my legs harder. The sooner I crossed that line, the sooner I could rest and shower, both of which had immense appeal to me at that moment. Likewise, when I’m nearing the final chapters of a novel, I start working more furiously. It’s like I received a fresh jolt of creative energy because I can see the end. I can’t wait to cross that finish line to the first draft.

During the mad dash to the finish, all those doubts fade away. While I may have questioned why I was even doing this in the first place during that awful lull, the only thing I’m thinking when I cross the finish line is “When can I do this again?” All that pain and I still haven’t learned my lesson.

Maybe I’m a masochist after all.

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