(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the conclusion of my two-part series that compares 15 points in common between the writing process – particularly book and extensive projects – and running marathons. Actually, it’s 18 points in common, but who’s counting?)
“The race begins at 20 miles”: Years ago, a friend, journalist and veteran marathoner said this to me. While most people might crash and burn at 20 miles (or before), serious marathon racers dig in the final 10K. So it is with book writing. The last leg is often the hardest. You’re tired, you’ve lived with the subject for months or years, and you want to be finished. But this is the most vital part of the book, next to the first chapter. Focus more intently than ever, tap emotional and creative reserves, and power through to the finish.
Enjoy the solitude: If ever four groups of people know and understand solitude better than the rest of the population, they would be runners, writers, artists and monks. We spend countless hours alone with our words. Enjoy the quiet time; enjoy the ideal atmosphere it provides you to create, think deeply, and work. Not everyone gets this chance. Ask someone who works in a cubicle or workstation all day. The material percolates in solitude. The more you can enjoy it and immerse in it, the more you can produce – and the more cohesive it will be.
Push the hills: One of the best road racing strategies is to push hills hard – and then surge for 30 meters or so at the top. All authors know there are many uphill climbs in the long course of writing a book – struggles with scenes, characters, getting the right information, fluid narrative description, etc. Some days, we feel like we can write anything; on others, our sentences feel like back roads clunkers. We all hit them; we all wonder how we’re going to get to the top. The answer: one word at a time. Push past the obstacles, while holding to the greater vision for your work. Write hard to keep the momentum going.
Increase focus as the race progresses: The same thing has happened in every marathon I’ve raced. For the first eight miles or so, runners talk to each other, compare strategies, talk about favorite runs they’ve ever taken, maybe shoot photos of the crowd (if they carry smartphones, which many do — not me!) and truly enjoy being out there. For the next eight miles, the focus tightens, paces become locked in, and the talking lessens. For the final ten miles, there is very little talking and very deep focus. Good authors take us deeper and deeper into their stories, a reflection of their increased focus as they deliver the goods. Focus, focus, focus.
Don’t hit too many aid stations: One of the myths (and, actually, physical dangers) of long races is that it is important to drink at every aid station. NOT SO. When I run marathons, I only drink six times – roughly once every 4½ miles. Everyone has their number, but point is: don’t take too many breaks. This applies directly to writing. Momentum and rhythm are everything; when you’re on a roll, stay on it. If you must, take only small breaks when writing books to recharge, but never more than a week or two. Long breaks are a no-no, unless you’re between drafts.
There will be pain: To borrow from a surfwear manufacturer’s 1980s ad campaign, Every marathoner knows the feeling. It starts at about 15 miles, hits fully at 18 to 20 miles, and envelops you the final 6 miles. PAIN. We know it’s coming when we toe the starting line, but we know how to handle it – by reaching down and taking the race one stride at a time. Likewise, book writing can be (and often is) emotionally painful and mentally taxing, especially tell-all memoirs and novels with characters exhibiting emotions that grab you from the page. When you read scenes like this, you know the writer is feeling it. Embrace the pain, and turn it into your ally. Use it to drive more deeply within yourself, opening new thresholds of possibility for your writing – and greater perspective as a person. The more you can work with writing pain in all its forms, the more deeply touched readers will be.
Head down; one step at a time: This extends from the last comment. I ran the 2009 Boston Marathon with moderate plantar fasciitis. In other words, the last five miles were hell. However, I nearly held my earlier race pace because I pulled my cap over my eyes like I was in the ‘hood, looked down at my toes, and took it one step at a time. That’s exactly how I write books; by adopting that technique, I’ve gone from being a good starter to a good finisher. Keep your head down and write one chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time – and one sentence at a time. This approach becomes especially important when revising and self-editing, when you make sure every word fits and every word counts.
Finish strong: One of the best ways to ensure good race results is to finish strong in each training run, picking up the pace at the end. Likewise with book writing. Good final chapters sew up the story or subject, and leave readers feeling: a) like they want more; b) wholly satisfied; or c) Googling you for more books, or for more perspectives based upon the great book you have given them. Reach down and give it everything you’ve got in the last chapter – just like a good racer.
Celebrate!: When we finish something as monumental as a book, or a marathon, it’s time to celebrate! Then take at least a week off from writing of any kind … your batteries will definitely need to be recharged.