Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing a Novel is Like Running a Marathon


I plan to graduate my MFA program with a fully written, ready to be shopped around, serious piece of work, which tells a sweeping, specific story that speaks to the universal experience of human life and, at the same time, illuminates intimate truths of the individual self. In other words, I plan to write a novel.

This is not exactly ground breaking news. In order to finish my MFA program I have to complete a thesis. This is generally expected to be a book-length piece of writing. Some people choose to compile a collection of short stories and/or essays. Others write novels. I will be one of the Others.

But it's not as easy as it sounds! You see, I have been trained to write short stories. For years and years, in workshops and at home, I have been sprinting to the finish line of plots that are small and contained, that focus on one or two pivotal moments in a character's life. As any runner knows, you can't go from sprinting 5K's to long distance running overnight. And the novel, it turns out, is a marathon.
Writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”
The quote above comes from a great article I read months ago in The Millions, about how writing workshops and programs focus on the short story because it's easy to critique in class and are too often the only thing journals are willing to publish in their limited spaces. In my own experience, I know this to be true - I have never written a single piece longer than a twenty or so pages (with the exception of NaNoWriMo novels, which I am loathe to count) and when faced with the prospect of a story arc that could carry a reader through several hundred pages I freeze, become frightened, and run back to the safe haven of the short story. This, despite the fact that my life's ambition is to be a novelist.

Here is the good news: I'm in an MFA program and I have three years to figure my shit out. Well, 1.5 years, really, because I am determined to spend the second half of the program writing and revising my thesis/novel. Next year I plan to take a novel writing workshop class - it spans not one but two semesters, giving the students a full academic year to write and workshop sections of their books-in-progress. This particular class is one of the reasons I was drawn to UNCW. I'm waiting for year two to take it is because I want to have a really good idea for a novel first and good ideas are at least 50% of writing. (The other 50% is the ability to find a gem in a bad idea.) (I have a lot of made up statistics about writing. My other favorite is that writing is 25% writing and 75% revising. See? Writers can do math!)

To make a long story short: by May of 2014, I will have written my first novel, by making a short story long. Also, I will not tell you how much time I spent getting the previous sentence's pun just right. That is between me and me.  

For more on the writing/running connection, check out these links:
The Running/Writing Parallel by The Running Historiain (a blog post by one of my favorites)
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
99 Problems: Essays About Running and Writing


15 comments:

  1. I know you can do it, and I can't wait to follow your progress through the novel-writing process!  And keep those puns a-comin'. 

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  2. Christy Melton LeDuff9:40 AM, September 30, 2011

    You said in your last paragraph, "make a short story long." Can't you do that? Take a short story you've written and expand it? (This is probably something you talk about already.) I just know Ender's Game was a short story first, and then a novel, and it's one of my favorite books. I guess there are probably a lot of books that started off that way. The whole "coming up with an idea" part of writing has always been daunting to me. 

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  3. You are my greatest hero!  I'm not sure how you manage to inspire me as a geologist, but you do :)  I'm always able to take your words and bring them to my job.  Thanks for making me smile!  Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading your novel!!  Also, thank you for helping me become a runner.....

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  4. I hope you'll share with us when it's published so we can go out and buy it!

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  5. Good luck!  I think the best training I had for novel writing was taking a course in playwriting. Writing for the theater requires strict attention to motivation and pacing. I still think of books in terms of acts, and when the plot rambles, I can hear tiny impatient coughs from the audience in my head.

    I'm really enjoying reading about your experiences in grad school. And about the mini donuts.

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  6. Good luck, my dear.  You are a talented and insightful writer, and I cannot wait to curl up with your novel in bed.  Cheers to blogging, for it gives me the delightful opportunity to be here while you transform yourself into a novelist :-)

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  7. That last little pun was a gem in my day. :)

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  8. The puns are definitely here to stay! 

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  9. I'll probably try to do that. I have a few stories that I think could be something bigger. But part of me feels like I have to come up with a sweeping, awesome idea that starts out as a novel. I'm probably wrong (I hope I'm wrong!) but for now, I will keep playing with ideas and see what happens.

    Ideas are definitely hard. I like characters and dialogue best, which is why I favor the short story. It's my crutch. A novel is a whole new animal but I do like challenge!

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  10. I'm not sure I deserve such kind words, but I will take them! :)

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  11. That won't be an issue. I'll probably pay people to read it if I have to. 

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  12. Wow, what a great analogy! Thanks for sharing that - it's extremely helpful!

    And thanks for reading/commenting in general. It's nice to share with like-minded folks. :)

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  13. There's more where that came from. ;)

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  14. I can't wait for an autographed copy of the book...in hardback, of course.

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