Why trying to write a novel is a bit like trying to run a long distance…
I’m a hopeless runner. I go through phases where I’m training for an event, and I might run 20–25 miles a week. But then the event is over, and I struggle to find my motivation. It might be several weeks or even months before I start running again.
Even at my best, I am a very mediocre plodding sort of runner, the sort of hopeless staggerer who is quite capable of being overtaken by someone who is just, well, walking. But then again, I am nowhere near as bad as I once was. About 25 years ago, I was cajoled into going for my first-ever run (since school, at least) by my roommate of the time, whose habit was to consume a prodigious amount of beer on a Friday night, and then work it off with a 20-minute jog round our local park on a Saturday morning.
If he can do that, surely I can, I decided. But the very first time, I ran for 12 minutes, and then I fell over exhausted. It was a depressing realisation of how unfit I was. At the same time, it was a spur, because I was so disgusted with myself that I went out again the following Saturday — and just about flopped over the finishing line.
After that, I took to running the circuit regularly. Now that I knew I could finish it, the next step was to improve my time. I started beating my roommate’s time too, which he didn’t like. In the early days of running the curve of improvement was gratifyingly steep, because I was starting from such a low base. Slowly I graduated from 5Ks to 10Ks and even half-marathons. One day I even hope to run a full marathon, though obviously I will have to start running again first.
I’ve been thinking about my running habits because I recently rediscovered the phrase ‘writing muscles’. It’s a phrase that was used quite often by David Foster Wallace, especially when he was asked how he managed to write something as long as Infinite Jest. In actual fact, as he pointed out, the book was originally significantly longer than the published version. The extensive cuts were just some of the big chunks of his writing that never got further than the cutting room floor. But that didn’t matter, he said, because it all helps to build your writing muscles.
By writing muscles, I think he means here not just the physical and mental writerly stamina required to get to the end of a full-length novel MS; I think he means developing the emotional and psychological resilience that’s required too.
For 30 years I bored everyone stupid with my ambitions of writing a novel. I’d get an idea, start a page, then wake up next day and hate what I’d done. Eventually — and, as I say, it only took me about three decades — I decided to write some shorter things. I began writing flash and very short short stories, using competition deadlines as a stimulus to get pieces actually written.
Slowly I developed the habit of finishing things. My short stories got a bit longer. I developed a bit more patience, a bit more kindness to myself: never mind if you hate what you’ve written, just get it down, leave it aside and come back to it later. Start something else. Feel negative things, but push on anyway. A story I wrote accidentally turned into a novella (whatever that is). Ten thousand words!
I joined a writer’s group, which was a revelation. Here were people going through their own agonies of literary development like me, sweating away at the keyboard, busy living their own crises of confidence and creative blockage. They quickly became my literary gym buddies, the people I had to show up for. I started getting a bit confident — I began a novel.
I wrote 50,000 words of Heaven Bent. It’s the story of a man trying to extricate his daughter from a (really rather sweet) New Age cult — only to discover he’s more in need of saving than she is. After about 50,000 words, I ran out of steam. I had over-extended myself. There was no real plan, so the story just fell over in a tangle of contradictory plotlines and irreconcilable timeshifts. Still, I wrote The End and pretended it was a book.
It is hard when you sit down to write your first ‘novel’ to remember that many, many successful novelists have written two, three or even more polished full-length manuscripts before they get it right. You fantasise that it won’t be like that for you. But of course it was exactly like that.
My current novel — Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound) — is actually my fifth full-length novel MS, and even then I needed two co-authors/gym buddies to get me over the line.
But this is how it works. When I start training for a half-marathon again, I know it will hurt. But I also know I can do it, because I’ve done it several times before. My leg, lungs, heart and head have all been there. They remember.
Similarly, no writing effort is wasted. No matter if some of your efforts never see the light of publication: your future successes are built on those brave failures, and you couldn’t have one lot without the other. Every time you keep going rather than stop, every time you feel like giving up but don’t, every time your writing bores or infuriates or depresses you but you carry on anyway… It all helps you to believe that you can get through the next challenge. It’s all helping you to build those muscles.
Dan Brotzel (@brotzel_fiction) is author of a collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, and co-author of a new comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). For 10% off your order, quote KITTEN10