(Part 1 of a two-blog series)
Just finished watching the Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside, with the athletes running the last of those 70.3 miles right by the house. Now, gearing up for this weekend’s Carlsbad 5000, the world’s fastest 5K road race. And, in two weeks, the marathon world turns its focus to Boston for the Boston Marathon – which I plan to run for the fourth time in 2014.
Speaking of marathons, authors often compare writing books to running marathons. The usual line: “Writing a book is not a wind sprint, but a marathon.” They often don’t really think about why that is (except that writing a book usually takes a long time, along with all the mental energy you can muster). I speak about this when teaching workshops. Readers and writers alike can gain great insight into how your favorite stories come together, and how the author got there, by drawing comparisons to the most celebrated of all long-distance races.
Since I’ve run eight marathons, along with writing ten books and ghostwriting seven others, thought I’d share 15 points in common between marathons and the writing process. Lace up your shoes, boot up the computer, and toe the starting line. Away we go…
Enter the race well prepared: Marathoners know better than to enter a race ill prepared. If they are not prepared, they will become very intimate with agony. Most marathoners train for 12 to 16 weeks, and work out every nuance of the race in their minds before lining up. Same with writing. Make sure your research, thoughts and rough outlines are in place before firing the starting gun for Chapter 1. Let the material mentally percolate for weeks, even months. Play out the scenes or sequences in your mind. Move them around. Sketch them out. Then write. The better prepared going in, the better the finished result – and the happier the reader.
Read the Race: All races are different. The courses, competitors, dynamics and conditions change from race to race. So does the way you feel, what you think is possible, and how you will run the race. Likewise, all stories are different. They require different approaches, paces and characters. That goes for subjects, too, especially when writing non-fiction books and interviewing. When interviewing people, read their faces and expressions, and listen for what is not said as much as what is said. Go into every article, book or story knowing it will be unique – and read it as it unfolds.
Vary your pace: A lot of people thinking racing marathons is a matter of finding a pace and sticking with it for all 26.2 miles – or until fatigue and sore muscles slow you down. Not so. Good racers change their pace several times, pushing hills, speeding up for a half-mile in the middle, surging at the end, or even throwing in a 100-meter pick-up just to change the stride. It helps – a lot. Likewise, good writers vary their pace within a book, switching from fast-dramatic-action sequences to slower-thoughtful-contemplative scenes. They do it within dialogue, as well as the way they write sentences. Changes in pace reflect real life. Vary your pace.
Enjoy the process: About 10 years ago, during an arduous 20-mile run in the desert mountains above Tucson, ultramarathon star Pam Reed told me something: “It’s going to hurt, you know it’s going to hurt, so just relax and enjoy the process.” Likewise, whether writing or reading, enjoy it! Writing is very hard work, but what could be a better vocation than sharing stories and subjects with a reading audience? And communicating directly with them through the written (or electronic) page? Feel the creative buzz. Write from a place of love – love of process. No matter how tough the work, try to enjoy every moment. Trust me: readers will notice, and beg for more.
Make tight, well-angled turns: Road races often feature a lot of curves and turns – sometimes, hairpin turns on out-and-back courses. Good racers know to stay clear of the inside on hairpin turns, to swing a bit wide, lean into the turn, and then find a direct line to the next straight section. So it is with writing transitions from one scene to another. Make your transitions lean and mean. Lean into them, using the momentum of the prior scene. Write tightly, carrying us into the next scene, but don’t write them abruptly unless that is part of the dramatic tension of the story. Learn the art of the turn. Write transitions, metaphors and similes that connect – instantly. My all-time favorite comes from the late Los Angeles Times sports columnist extraordinaire Jim Murray, describing a picky home plate umpire: “He had a strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart.” That’s the art of a well-run turn.
Pick your way through the crowd: Good racers know how to anticipate traffic on the course, and pick their way through runners without breaking stride. Likewise, as an author, you will have a crowded field of other writers in your genre. Distinguish your work by content and voice, identify the crux of every scene among the myriad thoughts pouring through your mind, and run to the exact sentences and words to best capture your scene. And do so without breaking form.
Make your move: Commit yourself fully: At some point in every race, runners make their move to ensure the best finish. They pick up the pace, tap into their inner reserves, and lay themselves out. These surges are beautiful to behold. And readers love it as well. When you commit to a character action or a line of argument or discussion in a non-fiction book, commit fully. Give it everything you’ve got, the fruits of all the hard research, interviewing, deep thinking and planning. Write every sentence as though it were your last. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to “save it up for a knockout punch.” Be like Ernest Hemingway: pour your blood, sweat and collective life experience into every sentence you write. Commit fully.