Today’s guest blogger is Rick Ochocki, longtime associate, now associate director, of the SCWC.
450,000 people started a novel for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2018, and 53,000 entered the Winner’s Circle, writing at least 50,000 new words of an original work of fiction in just 30 days. That same year, as many as 90% of the people who started a marathon completed the full 26.2 miles.
While running my first marathon recently, I realized there were six ways distance running is like writing a novel, especially if the first draft is done during NaNoWriMo. I would like to share my observations with you; maybe this will help you finish your own new novel in November.
The first thing I realized is that starting is the hardest part. Because I have run more than 50 5K races in the last five years, people sometimes assume I love to run. The truth is more complicated. I don’t like running; I love having run.
That is exactly the same way I feel about writing, even after finishing the first draft of 10 different novels. For me, the greatest satisfaction comes after the writing is done. Beginning, with the blinking cursor on a blank screen, is a challenge that I waste a lot of time and energy fighting.
The solution is as simple as just beginning. For running, I take deep a breath, walk up to the starting line, and take the first step over. For writing, I do something similar. Every first draft for me starts with, “Once upon a time, there was a …” These words never survive revision, but after having 50,000 words in the bank, getting started is no longer the paralyzing difficulty it once seemed.
The second thing I learned is that succeeding in each of these endeavors requires a plan. Running a distance that stretches farther than Petco Park to Solana Beach in one continuous trip isn’t something to try without a little bit of prep. Fortunately, last year I discovered a book called The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer by David Whitsett, Forrest Dolgener, and Tanjala Kole that presented a simple program that even I could do. By sticking with a proven program, I realized the promise of the authors that I would complete my first marathon.
For NaNoWriMo, I’ve developed my own personal plan to guide my work. I would hate to have to approach my computer each day without knowing what I was going to write about. By using tools like the excellent A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves or What Would Your Character Do? by Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel, I compile a list of at least 30 – 50 bullet-point writing topics before I even begin.
Normally, I get into the flow of my story after about a week of daily writing. Having the writing prompt/topic list available means that whenever I get stuck, I have already considered scenes, characters, or plot developments I want to explore. This list makes it easier for me and prevents panic when the calendar requires increasing story word count.
The third lesson I discovered is how valuable it is to let people know that I am working on a serious project. Despite our worst fears that the world is full of people laughing at us when we try something new, the reality is that many people want to cheer us on.
Publicly posting my marathon goal on social media got me surrounded by a community of folks eager to see me succeed. And even though the race had to be run virtually due to the pandemic, several people used cutting-edge technology to record personal messages of encouragement that automatically played for me throughout race day. Finally, having my wife and another friend unexpectedly cheer me on in person (appropriately socially distant) on race day really bucked me up as my enthusiasm for the run flagged.
Signing up for NaNoWriMo and letting people know I’m writing 50,000 words of a novel in a single month has similarly led to success. While some writers are reticent about informing people about the task they’ve undertaken, I’ve found public accountability to be a net positive. A surprising number of friends and acquaintances (not to mention family members) want to be in your support network When you give them the chance, you might find their backing is just the boost you need when your own confidence fades.
The most important thing to do for both activities is to keep moving forward. In marathoning, there is an almost mystical fixation on hitting “The Wall” when your body is exhausted and taking one more step seems impossible. If you’ve followed your training program, this is an illusion. The reality is the body is willing, but the spirit is weak. Somehow, just the act of putting one foot in front of the other despite the resistance in your mind is sufficient to push you up, over, or through the wall.
The same is true during NaNoWriMo. Typically, the end of the second week or the beginning of the third, is when your mind tries to trick you into quitting. The best solution in overcoming this temptation is to sit down, turn the page, and keep writing word after word. The story may seem hopelessly muddled, the characters inconsistent, and the ending a mirage. Keep going anyway. By trusting yourself (and maybe referring back to your list of prompts) to push ahead despite the discomfort, your writing muscles will get stronger and your story closer to being done.
Pushing ahead leads to the realization that any one of us can accomplish more than we think. I’ve done it, and so can you! Not only had I never expected to run 26.2 miles, I had never really wanted to. Now, after completing my marathon, I know that I can, and I know exactly how much exertion the task requires.
In the same way, despite being a voracious reader, I had never thought of myself as someone who could write a whole book. One of the beauties of NaNoWriMo is that the process has a discrete length of time – 30 days. As a result of participating in this world-wide activity, I know that a resounding ‘yes’ is my answer to the question of whether I can write a book. I don’t have to wonder, and I don’t have to hide in a cold, dimly lit basement office pecking at a keyboard with no end in sight. This is one reason I firmly suggest that anyone who wants to write ought to give themselves the gift of thirty days of writing. There is a good chance the commitment will lead them to an accomplishment well worth the effort.
Finally, both activities benefit from celebrating every milestone. On race day, one of the personal joys I experienced was lifting my fist in the air every time I crossed another mile. In the same way, I rejoice at my computer as my novel word count grows to 1,000 words, 5,000, or 10,000. There is no need to wait until hitting the finish line to cheer yourself on. Each word in a sentence, just like each step on a long run, takes you ever closer to the ultimate destination.
Just as my first-time marathon did not come close to a world record for speed, none of my NaNoWriMo first drafts have won awards. That’s not the point. Each intentional journey of body and mind has helped me learn more about myself, grow stronger, and become more creative.
The same thing is possible for you. I hope you will try. Whether your goal is to run a marathon or write a novel, I know for a fact: YOU can do it!
- Starting is the Hardest Part
- Have a Plan
- Tell Other People What You’re Doing
- Keep Moving Forward
- You Can Accomplish More Than You Think
- Celebrate every milestone