A friend of mine told me last week that the best thing about running a marathon was the mythical “wall."
He said: “The minute you feel it coming on you, just as you know you’re about to hit it, you realize that if you keep going you’re going to experience the brilliant sensation of pushing through it.”
Personally I think he is crazy (Not for what he said, I see his point entirely, I just think he is utterly mad for wanting to run a marathon!)
I tried to explain to him that I think writing books is a lot like running a marathon. Just like a marathon you start at the beginning with no real end in sight, just like marathon you should have trained with smaller bites at the cherry before you launch yourself into the big one. Just like a marathon, nine times out of ten you’re doing it for no one else’s satisfaction other than your own, and just like a marathon it will involve hours of solitary torture during which the rest of your family will think you are basically crazy, but will encourage you just the same.
The one thing where it really differs is, writers don’t just have one wall to push through, we have loads of walls to push through before we break the tape.
The first part of writing a book is like the flat bit of the course at the beginning. You get a nice steady pace going, you feel that all that training you put in is paying off, as the word count goes up like mile markers around the course.
Then you hit the first wall.
For me it usually comes around the 20k word mark. It’s around then that everything I thought I was going to write goes out the window as the plot starts to wrap around me like long grass around my ankles. It slows down, keeps me looking back, changing characters, changing dialogue, tripping on details and running out of story like it is breath going up a hill.
I normally take a day or two off around this point. I take stock, refresh, think, then take a deep breath and start again.
Last time I scrapped 6k words in three hours.
That is one very painful wall.
When I push through that barrier there’ll be the odd trip and stumble but I normally keep on until I hit the 90k mark, and then, like grey hair and making noises when you get out the chair, comes the inevitable second wall.
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I don’t really plan my novels. I like to watch them unfold like real life in real time as I write them. For me this is a great way to write, and I find it really exciting for about ninety percent of the time. I’m getting to watch my own movie in my head, not only that I get to direct and star in it as well! The only problem is, I don’t know how it is going to end.
I write crime thrillers, which hopefully, are pretty exciting to read. They should fizz and bubble and increase in pressure right up until the cork flies out the bottle. The problem is, if I keep shaking and cranking the pressure, there often comes a moment when I stare at the screen and think:
“I don’t know how he/she is going to get out of this.”
And there is nothing as frustrating as writing yourself into a corner.
I hate cutting an extreme situation out of my work because if I do I feel like I’ve cheated. The way I see it, if I’ve written realistic bit of work, I should be able to think a realistic way out of the scenario my character is in.
I often try and solve problems in real time. If my character has a few minutes, I have a few minutes to find the solution. This can be stressful, as I’ll often feel like it is me hanging off the windowsill by my fingertips, which can pretty exhilarating!
Problem is, if I can’t think of a way out, it means I’ve hit another wall, and it is usually a lot harder to push through than the first one.
It can sit on my shoulders for days, drifting around in my head every minute of every hour. In the store, in the car, when people are talking to me in the coffee shop or the pub. People think they have my attention, but secretly I’m hanging off a roof in a snowstorm/ in London in 1946.
And then bam!
I’m through, it comes and I’m off again heading for the finish line, excited, delighted, pushed by adrenaline I’m lifting my arms as my chest breaks the tape and I type:
I sit back, stare out the window and smile, I’ve done it.
Except I haven’t.
My editor will have a few more walls for me to push through before I really reach the finishing line, and they are normally a lot bigger and tougher than the ones I thought were bad.
All of those walls are why I told my friend writing a book is harder than running a marathon. The only upside is I have more coffee, more chocolate, and I don’t have to wear tight nylon.
Thing is though, it is still the best job in the world.