There used to be a billboard in my old neighbourhood, I don’t even remember what it was for, but the slogan on it, in big blocky black type on bright yellow, always grabbed me. It said
BLOOD, SWEAT… AND TEN YEARS
Let’s talk goals. There’s the nebulous desire to “be a writer”, yeah, but imagine what that looks like: not just a big pile of words on your hard drive, but a big pile of words out somewhere where everyone can see, whether it’s on a blog or Barnes and Noble. What could you do with blood, sweat, and ten years?
Yeah. Me too.
But the problem is ten years is too far away, it’s a fantasy, and, honestly, even this Christmas is just a fantasy, too. Sure, I’ll have written a novel by then, sure. I’ll probably start tomorrow.
Pretty sure I said that in October 2017. And, look, let’s be honest with each other: I’m pretty sure I said it in October 2007, too. But here we are. Well, here I am. How about you?
I spent the last few years working with people who have among their hobbies the desire to run really far; did you know there’s a thing called an ultramarathon? The funny thing about it is, it’s considered any distance run of 50 kilometres or more, which means if you run 50 or 150, it’s an ultramarathon both ways. Do you think the person who runs 150 feels kind of ripped off? Maybe not.
Imagine how it feels to wake up the next morning, hopefully not in hospital, and realize, “I ran a hundred fifty kilometres, for fucksake!” Imagine! It takes deliberation to even drive that far. Here’s the thing, though: your car is probably up for grinding out a quick 150 any old time, if there’s some gas in the tank and it’s not a total wreck. But a human being can’t just get up from the desk you and I are sitting at right now and run 150 klicks… or fifteen…
Even five will be a struggle, until you practice.
And that’s the crazy thing: I can maybe run five K, maybe, if wolves are after me and my loved ones. But I can’t run 10 K without stopping, let alone a marathon, and yet… there’s no physical reason why I can’t run a marathon if I trained for it.
See, novels are like that. Only took me twenty years to absorb that analogy. You figure, I love LotR and R.A. Salvatore’s stuff, and people are always telling me how imaginative I am, I’d love to write a novel! And then you try and don’t get anywhere, over and over again, and you feel bad about yourself and give up. Who knows why we think writing a hundred thousand words of coherent, structured, exciting narrative is the kind of thing a person should just be able to do with no training when even a goddamned toaster oven comes with instructions, but if you think of a novel as a marathon a lot falls into place.
I reckon you can train for a novel the same way you train for a marathon. A marathon requires a whole bunch of running, packed into a small time frame. You run and run and run and run, a lot, before you get to recover. Same deal with a novel, if you have any intention of cranking out more than one a decade.
And be honest: if you think you want to spend a decade carefully crafting your novel, but you’ve written pretty much nothing in the previous decade, especially at length… well, you’re probably fooling yourself. You’re saying you want to do the following with no training: thinking about what should happen next and what happens after that and after that and after that and after that in the form of a three- or four-act structure that may or may not dovetail with the Hero’s Journey but definitely needs a satisfying denouement that wasn’t telegraphed at the beginning but nonetheless follows inevitably from everything that came before…
I’m exhausted just describing that, let alone doing it in ten thousand words, let alone a hundred thousand.
See, I’m out of shape.
So, we gotta train.
The same way you can’t run a marathon in a single step, you can’t just sit down and write a novel in one sitting and if you throw at me that spin-off of National Novel Writing Month where people crank out a first draft in a weekend, or tell me anything about Kerouac and Benzedrine, you and I are through, ok? Corner cases are like lottery tickets: fun to fantasize about but let’s not peg our retirement plans on one.
You can only run a marathon by putting one foot in front of the other, over and over and over, and you can only write a novel by sitting down to write in the same iteration. If you’re anything like me, and God knows how you got through eight hundred words of this if you’re not, the place you fall off is not sitting down. Not every day, right? And not for very long. And the mind wanders. And the web browser is right there.
I decided at some point that I don’t want to run a marathon, but 10 K seems like a reasonable goal for a relatively healthy human being: I want to be able to run ten kilometres without stopping. So I looked up a plan, and the one I found basically goes like this:
- The first day you get your shoes on and you walk for four minutes, and then run for one minute
- Then you walk for four, then run for one, again
- Repeat until you’ve done that four times, i.e. you were “running” for twenty minutes and you only spent four of them actually running. Because you need to condition your body.
- You do what I just described three days in the first week.
The next week, you walk for three minutes and then run for two, repeat. And the next week, you walk for two and run for three… and on, and on, until you’re running for, say, eight minutes with two minutes of walking in between, for a total of forty minutes, until, after thirteen weeks, you are running for one hour without walking and without stopping.
Thirteen weeks is a long time, but it’s also not that long. Just like any slice of life. You might think, ugh, “can I wait thirteen weeks?” or “do I want to spend thirteen weeks?”, but the real question is, do you want to become someone who runs or remain someone who does not?
The thirteen weeks, the ten years, they pass regardless.
Replace runs with writes, and here we are.
I’ll tell you where I’m at, specifically, right now when I’m drafting this post (August 27th, 2018): I’m still not writing every single day, but I’m working on it. I’ve got a habit tracker taped to my wall, and the goal? The ultimate goal might be to become a novelist, but the right now goal is to tick the box today. And tomorrow the goal will be to tick the box. And the day after. And maybe it takes thirteen weeks or a hundred and thirty, but the same way you might realize you’ve put a hundred kilometres of pavement behind you in the past few months, and that’s a hundred more than you ran in the preceding decade, maybe you look back and there’s a pile of words behind you, and once you’re sitting on that pile… stacking up another pile of words in the form of a novel seems not just possible, but inevitable.