Why Writing a Novel Can Feel Like Running a Marathon

I’ve always been writing stories. When I was seven, I wrote a book called The Squirrel and the Greedy Ravens (I even made the cover and everything). It was a children’s book about a plethora of greedy ravens that took all of the food from the forest goers each night. It wasn’t until a clever grey squirrel came up with an idea to reclaim their food from the ravens. It had illustrations (and even a dedication page) in it, and I really thought it was going to be something beyond cardboard and construction paper loosely put together in my parent’s living room. Of course, it didn’t. But it inspired me to keep writing.

When I was nine, I wrote a story about a girl named Anna who was kidnapped by a mummy vampire. Her boyfriend tries to save her from the mummy vampire only to discover at the end of the book that it was too late: Anna was already dead (and to think I read this to a bunch of first graders during a school initiative for older kids to read their creative writing to younger kids). Believe it or not, this wasn’t my last story that involved darkness and death. In eighth grade, I wrote a Halloween short story about a girl (I think her name was Lily) who was at, what you would call, a typical teenage Halloween party. She was in love with her friend Simon, but Simon never really noticed her until the night of this party. From what I remember, they left the party, she threw a tantrum, and she killed Simon and makes a lot of horrifying decisions about what to do with his body. I know. Not an incredibly original horror story, but I was thirteen and I was trying. I wish I could say my fascination with death in my writing stopped there. But it didn’t.

The next year, I started to get serious about my writing (or I thought I did). I started writing a book (that I actually wrote several chapters to) that you could call young adult fiction/drama. It was about a high school girl who is trapped in her high school gym with two boys she loves, but who is hysterically crying and trying to convince…Shiloh…that’s his name….to drop the gun that he has pointed at…Jake. I believe it was Jake. From there, the rest of the novel is a huge flashback up to the first chapter (and basically all about how she falls in love with both the popular, blonde haired jock and the recluse, dark haired school photographer). Obviously, I was trying to vicariously live out some kind of nonexistent love life through the characters I had created. Why it ended the way it did, however, was not any reflection of how I wanted my own future love life to shape out. I took a page right out of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and just killed all of the characters. Why anyone would want to go through that rollercoaster of teenage drama only to have it end in silence and death beats me. But at the time, it was the story I had in my head. No, it never saw the light of day, but at the end of the day, I felt accomplished in writing something that I was interested in. And as a high school student, having some kind of love life was certainly something I was interested in (even though I’d rather pull all of the hair out of my head than write a story of that nature now).

Those are just a few of many stories I’ve had swirling around in my head over the last twenty four years. A lot of them weren’t very good and they didn’t become anything extraordinary or even mediocre. But these stories have been the building blocks for the project I’ve pursued for the last six years. Without those stories, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today. And the writer I am today will likely be a less refined writer than the one I will be five years from now.

People often ask me, whether it is writing or art, how I know what words to use or how I know what lines to draw. They want to know the secrets to my work, thinking that I must have the answer to their own struggles as a writer or as an artist. And each time I give them my answer, they always seem to be disappointed. The key I tell them (as cliche as it may be) is practice. Lots and lots of practice. Van Gogh wasn’t born an artist. Amadeus Mozart wasn’t born a musician. And Oscar Wilde wasn’t born a writer. Sure, there are people who are considered prodigies in their form of art, but simply having a knack for something isn’t enough to be truly great (especially in this day and age), to be truly marvelous, and to be truly exceptional at something. So when I tell these people that want to know how I’ve become an average or, perhaps, slightly better than average writer or painter, I tell them it is because I spend several hours a week practicing and refining my craft. I let my passion for writing and art run through my veins and linger below the surface during my nine hour workday. It isn’t until I get home when I let this passion pour out of me like a fountain of bliss. It is during this time that I have the freedom to hold a pen or a brush in my hand. It is during this time that I have made the decision to commit to my craft in a way that is exciting, intoxicating, and purposeful. And writing a novel for the past six years has by far been the most intoxicating and torturous experience of my existence.

Now, the purpose of this post isn’t to share with you what my novel is about (because, to be honest, it’s scary putting an unrefined idea out into the world and my novel is quite a ways from being considered truly finished). The purpose of this post is to share my struggles and experiences as a first time novel writer. Because, as much as I created stories in my early years as a writer, I didn’t birth the idea of this novel by sitting down for three hours with a cup of coffee in hand and a pen in the other, writing down a bunch of story ideas until one stuck. No, this novel idea was a calling, whether I was ready to answer it or not. It all started during my senior year when I took AP Art. As part of the AP Art test, I had to create a twelve piece concentration that told a cohesive story about something. I remember feeling quite lost when I created my first piece. And I remember it being a complete and total flop. It didn’t make any sense and it was clear that the art piece wasn’t going to harbor the beginnings of a story that derived from a place of genuine emotions and unresolved issues. So I tried again. And the second time, I got it.

For the next eleven pieces, I created a story about me, the most true and genuine thing I knew. I weaved together and fabricated a fantastical and dark story about how I felt trapped in a world of creatures called Mimes (they existed in the four corners of my pieces, each an exact mimic and replica of the one above and next to it). These Mimes were androgynous shape shifters that were trying to make me into one of them. They took on the appearances of court jesters, kings, gravediggers, and spiders and they used the tools these types of identities would have access to to change and to transition me into an identity that was far from me. By the sixth piece, I was about to succumb to a fate of being a Mime forever, until I realized that the final phase of initiation was making a little girl into something that she was not. It was from that point in the story that I switched sides and made it my sole mission to protect the identity of this girl and to prevent the Mimes from stealing mine too. As a result, the Mimes pursued destroying us rather than changing us. By the end of the twelve piece concentration, I used all of their own tools against them to strip them of their Mime identities. By the twelfth piece, the four Mimes were revealed to be four stunning girls with their own distinguished faces and with their own unique curves. It was a story that was once full of black and white shades and ideas to a story full of life and vivacious colors. Luckily, with this complex storyline and with my fairly decent drawings, I passed my AP Art test with a 4 (I needed a 3 to pass). But even after passing the AP Art test, I couldn’t fully shake the story.

I started to wonder if there was something more here than just a concentration that I simply created for AP Art. This is when I began writing the first draft. I had just started my freshman year of college and I had plenty of homework and tests I needed to study for. But this story called to me like a ghost that yearns for a resolved past. This story called to me as a ghost of my AP work that would not rest until I satisfied it’s demands to put pen to paper or fingers to keys and to write. This was the only way I was going to shake it (but I can say it’s still rummaging around and wailing in my head to this day). So I started writing, thinking that it was going to be fairly easy. I had the rough idea in my head and I thought it would be a piece of cake filling in everything else. Yeah, well, it wasn’t.

Starting a novel is very similar to starting an essay. Yes, having a rough idea or the outline done is a start, but working up the motivation to initially write it as a cohesive piece is daunting, especially when you get to all of the kinks you have to work out. As much as I wish a perfect first draft existed, it doesn’t (at least it doesn’t for me). What I learned in writing the first few chapters was this: if you constantly reread what you just wrote, you’ll never get anywhere in your writing. This is exactly what I did for the first four chapters of my draft. I would write a page or two and then reread it. After rereading it, I would go back and edit what I just wrote. But of course, I would reread it again, and see more things wrong with the writing. This became a vicious cycle of obsession, perfectionism, and getting nowhere. Sure, sometimes I felt better about the writing after editing it a bit, but by obsessing over the details of the beginning chapters, I lost sight of the rest of the book. And because the vision of the story’s future had escaped me, the details seemed unimportant and irrelevant because it was likely I was going to have to change them anyway based on how the rest of the story developed. This method, I realized, was impractical and dangerous to a writer’s motivation and confidence in moving forward with the project. I needed to push through the writing, no matter how bad the writing or how inconsistent the details were. That’s what revising and editing is for, which should always come much later in the writing process.

So I decided to give NaNoWriMo a try during the summer before my senior year of college. I had made very little progress engaging in these methods during my first three years of college. I was still excited about the plot and the characters, but my ability to get the idea down on paper or onto a laptop screen had fallen flat. I had heard about NaNoWriMo from a few friends who had either tried it or had friends who had tried it. During that July, one of my high school friends and I committed to work on our novels together using Camp NaNoWriMo as a way to finish our first drafts. And it actually worked. Despite the fact that I was working 55 hours a week (working at a nearby summer camp) and despite coming home exhausted, I did it. I met my word count goal  of 50,000 words and I finished my first draft. I felt pretty fantastic after having the first draft done. I thought, Okay, I can do this. I can finish this novel and seriously see if it can go somewhere and be something more than a finished manuscript that slowly accumulates dust on it’s surface and contains lonely pages seeking and craving love and affection. My senior year of college, I took a creative writing class that I really enjoyed and truly loved. It was fun being able to write stories for homework and it was neat being in a class where I was actually encouraged to read my own work to a live audience. At first, it was freaking terrifying having a bunch of strange students listening to me pour my heart out with a blatant quiver in my voice. But overtime, this got easier. And it was in this class that I learned how to accept criticism about my writing in a way that was going to make it better. It was in this class that I learned that being vulnerable and having the courage to open your heart to others through your writing is something that you need to do in order to become a good and even a great writer.

It was also in this class that I realized how I had lost a bit of interest in my first draft. I found myself sitting down to start the revision process, only to find that I no longer felt excited about the plot, that I no longer loved my characters, and that I no longer felt the dialogue was natural. It wasn’t because I thought the idea itself was bad, but the way I had presented the idea seemed too bland, too simple, and too predictable (especially for a novel that was supposed to be fairly complex). I felt like there was something missing in my novel that was pulling me back from moving forward. So I took a break from the revision process. I needed time to think about if the novel was worth continuing or if it really was a total flop that I should just delete from my digital folder titled “Alley’s Novels.” I mulled over my novel during my first year of teaching ninth grade English. I had days where I still felt it had potential, while also having other days where I still felt frustrated with it and uninterested in it. At the beginning of my second year of teaching, I almost abandoned it. I was on the verge of actually moving my mouse up to my digital folder and permanently deleting it. But then…….it clicked!

I now knew how to save the plot, the characters, the dialogue, and the project. The key to saving it, however, seemed incredibly daunting and flat out tiresome. I was going to have to completely rewrite the first draft and start from scratch. Great, I thought to myself. So did I just waste the last five years of my writing abilities? At first, my answer to this question was “yes.” But now having finished the new draft, my answer is “no.” If I hadn’t spent the first five years putting my energy toward the first sketch of the idea, I likely wouldn’t have arrived at the draft that I just finished. And let me tell you, the second draft, though much more interesting and exciting, was still a challenge to write even with a rejuvenated purpose to continue the project.

I wrote the first four chapters of the novel at the beginning of this school year and I felt okay about how the story had developed in those four chapters. But once I got to chapter five, I felt stuck and was plagued with every writer’s worst fear: writer’s block. Gah, the terror! Writer’s block is like a wordless black hole where you misplace the ideas, thoughts, inspiration, and motivation that once fueled your current writing endeavor. You search and search, but the words and the ideas don’t come as easily to you as they once did, and you sit at your desk banging your head against your keyboard, hoping that you will come out of this wordless blackhole soon by filling it with distractions and opportunities to procrastinate. I had fallen into this hole of torture and I found myself frustrated in my daily life because I could not express what rumbled around in my head and what I held in my heart. It wasn’t until I finished Stephen King’s On Writing on my bus ride back from visiting a friend in New York City when I saw the light seeping back into the pages of my novel again. Up until then, I had been treating my novel like a hobby. I wrote when I felt like it and I wrote when I felt like I had time (meaning I wrote sporadically and once every two weeks maybe). And this was exactly the problem.

The reason why I wasn’t getting anywhere with my novel was simply due to my attitude toward it. I wasn’t taking myself seriously as a writer and, as a result, I wasn’t taking the novel or the project seriously either. According to King, in order to be a better writer (and, perhaps, even a successful writer) you need to be more stringent, more regimented in your writing and you must be more dedicated and more committed to it. In other words, you must find as much time as possible (hell, create a schedule if you can) to write. If you treat your writing like a hobby, it will remain a hobby. But if you treat your writing like a job, it may actually become one. I realized by the end of this bus ride, that I needed to build time into my days for my writing and to not just magically dream and hope that some fairy would come along, spread some gold dust on me and create the motivation for me to write. From that point on, I decided to build four hours of writing into every Saturday until I finished the second draft of my novel. I also decided to do these four hours of writing at a coffee shop where I wouldn’t be tempted to watch Netflix or fold that laundry I never did the other day. By writing at a coffee shop, I would be less likely to cave to distractions and unfinished tasks that made me feel guilty for putting my writing first. And, hey! Coffee, for some writers (like me), is an essential component of the writing process.

For the next five months, I did this. Some Saturday’s felt more productive than others, but I did it. I dragged myself out of bed and forced myself to write for four hours, whether the writing was good, bad, or mediocre that day. At the end of the day, I knew that just writing something was a victory and a feat in itself. And as much as I sometimes obsessed over the little details and inconsistencies of the story and the characters in it, I knew that there would be a time to smooth out the ruffles of the story in the future. I needed to keep taking the project one step at a time or else I would lose my sanity and abandon the project out of total frustration and intolerable madness. This is where I can say I’m at in the novel writing process. I have now completed the second draft and I am starting the process of revising the storyline and the characters, ensuring that everything matches up and aligns the way it should in order to read easy. As daunting as this part of the process seems, I am confident that I will keep pushing forward at this point because it is through this agonizing process that I have really found myself as a writer.

Writing this novel has felt like running a marathon that I did not totally prepare for. Like I said, this novel didn’t just perfectly play itself out in my head one day because I wanted it to. This novel called to me (as crazy as that may sound). When answering this call, I didn’t already go through rigorous amounts of training to be a writer. I didn’t have all of the tools in my writer’s toolbox to easily figure out this new writing endeavor. I had to build my toolbox as I went along by picking up tips and tricks through my own trials and errors and through the advice of other writers like Stephen King and my creative writing professor. Yet, it was through building this toolbox that I discovered the true burden and the ultimate victory of writers. Being a writer isn’t about making money and always getting recognition for writing (as great as that is). Writing is about having the courage to make the thoughts and ideas in your head known and to expose the feelings you carry in your heart. It is about revealing your own identity to the world in a way that is both empowering and an accomplishment. Writers do not write for the money or the fame. Writers write because their hearts and minds will not rest unless they have the ability to touch the souls of others in a way that extends beyond the current physical world.

So whether you are working on your own writing endeavor or whether you are simply someone who appreciates the writing of others, always appreciate the soul-crunching process it takes for a writer to complete a novel, a short story, a poem, a blog post, etc. I believe that anyone can be a writer, but not everyone can be a good writer. It takes practice to become truly remarkable at something. Show a little appreciation for yourself or for other writers in the amount of passion they have for writing. If they are willing to devote hours of time to refining their writing, to revealing their minds, to exposing their hearts, and to sharing their souls, I think that’s pretty remarkable.

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One thought on “Why Writing a Novel Can Feel Like Running a Marathon

  1. What a great post about the long journey an author takes in their writing skills. I fear I will have to completely rewrite my novel once I finish the first draft too, but I suppose I should not let that thought deter me. I am very excited to finally finish a first draft.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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