Writing Tips: Sprints vs. Marathons

Marathon RunnerI’ve been in two writing groups for the last four years, both of which are open to new writers. At this point, I can’t tell you the number of times a new writer has arrived and said something like…

  • “I’m writing a dystopian YA novel…”
  • “I’m writing a werewolf urban fantasy police procedural novel…”
  • “I’m struggling with an SF thriller conspiracy novel…”
  • “I’m working on a post-apocalyptic novel…”

The common element here is “novel” and, more specifically, their first novel. Ever.

Folks, writing a novel is like a marathon. For those who aren’t overly familiar with marathons, it’s 26.2 miles long. I’ll come back to this momentarily…

In the last four years, none of these new writers have published any of these novels.

Let me repeat this. None of these new writers have published any of these novels.

None. Nada. Zilch.

Because writing a novel is hard. In order to reach the finish line for a good novel, a writer has to do a lot of things right. The story concept has to sustain a novel-length work, the characters need to be well constructed, the plotting needs to be crisp, the scenes have to move the story forward effectively, etc.

Only a few of these novels were ever finished. Even when they were finished, I haven’t seen any of the writers do the kind of ruthless editing and rewriting that would be necessary to bring the novels I saw up to what I would consider a professional level.

Admittedly, my writing groups are a relatively small sample of the overall writing pool, but all of the beginning writers had the same thing in common. The novel they were writing was the first significant work they were seriously trying to get done.

On the other hand, the writers who have achieved some degree of success seem to have a few things in common, too. They’d honed their craft by working on a bunch of different works over time before they successful completed a (publishable) novel. In the case of one author, he had a string of novels he’d either 1) abandoned part-way through, or 2) finished but had decided that they were unpublishable first drafts (that he didn’t know how to fix). Other authors honed their craft on short stories and novelettes before embarking successfully on longer works.

Now, obviously, there are people out there who have been successful with their first novel (although we don’t know how many drafts they went through to get the novel to where it needed to be). There are people who write very fast and finish novels in two weeks. But, based on what I’ve seen, that’s not the way I’d place my bets.

Runners typically train for marathons by participating in shorter races before moving up to marathons. So, if you’re a new writer, I want you to consider honing your craft on shorter works before trying to write that masterpiece of a novel that you have in your head.

And if you do choose to develop your craft with some short stories and novelettes, go for some diversity. Write that emotional story that doesn’t have much action in it. Write the origin story for the character that’s going to be the hero in your eventual masterpiece. Do an urban fantasy mystery short story. Do a…well, you get the picture. Stretch your boundaries so you’ll be ready for that novel when the time comes.

OK, your mileage may vary. I understand this. Starting with shorter works might not be the right path for everybody. But…at least consider it. I’m getting tired of critiquing trunk novels.

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