Fingers vs. Feet—How NaNoWriMo Is Like Running a Marathon

Running and writing are at once complementary and opposing activities. Running requires a high level of physical activity; writing calls for a high level of cerebral activity. They are seemingly miles apart on the spectrum, but in reality, not at all.

For both, you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.

—Amanda Loudin, Washington Post

On October 7, 2017, I was fortunate enough to run the St. George Marathon for the very first time. Since I ran the race while I was in the middle of preparing for this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it was impossible for me not to see the similarities between marathon running and marathon writing.

Not everyone enjoys running, of course, but over the past several years it’s become a big part of my life. It’s also become an integral element of my writing process. Even if you have no interest in ever running a marathon (or even a 5K), if you’re “competing” in the 50K/30.0 “marathon” of NaNoWriMo, you’re still a marathoner in my book.

Why? Because they’re similar in so many ways.

1. You must prepare.

Marathons aren’t run on race day. They’re run in the months (or years) of training that lead up to race day. The race itself is essentially the final exam after many hours of practice, and just like NaNoWriMo, it’s basically pass or fail.

There may be some people who can just waltz up to a marathon starting line and, without any training, run the race. These people are freaks of nature and we will not speak of them again. Similarly, there are people who can begin pecking away at their keyboards on November 1 without preparing at all and still finish a novel by November 30. These people are freaks of literature and should be applauded.

Nothing will guarantee that you’ll succeed in either endeavor, but preparation sure can help. If you’re running, preparation means miles—and lots of them. You can do tempo runs and hill work and fartlek training (it’s probably not what you think), but distance is the key. If you’re writing, you can do all sorts of things to get ready for your NaNoWriMo “marathon.” You can brainstorm, outline, “snowflake,” create character bios and write character monologues. You can work on developing good writing habits—after all, each novel you write is “training” for the next one. You can read extensively in your genre. All of this can help contribute to your success between the “starting gun” at 12:01 a.m. on November 1 and the “finish line” at midnight on November 30.

By the way, for all the talk about “writing sprints” during NaNoWriMo, I’m not a big fan. Slow and steady finishes the race, whether you’re running or writing. Lots of practice actually helps you win.

2. You must begin with the end in mind.

When starting anything monumental, it’s critically important to have a goal. With NaNoWriMo, as with a marathon, you have a built-in baseline. If you don’t write 50,000 words or run 26.2 miles in the time allotted, you can’t count it as a “win.” In race terms, that’s a “DNF,” or “Did Not Finish.” As a point of pride, nobody wants a DNF on their record.

For my first marathon, I was just hoping to finish, but I had more ambitious goals my second time around. My target was to get close to a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, with the understanding that I would go for a BQ in my next full marathon. I actually missed that goal, but only because I overshot it and ran the race faster than expected. That’s the good kind of goal-missing, and it’s more likely if you’ve put in adequate preparation beforehand.

Five years ago, I just barely managed to complete my first NaNoWriMo, verifying my word count at 11:55 p.m. on November 30. I prepared a little better the next few years, setting and reaching higher goals each time. You never know what you can actually accomplish until you really put the effort in. And whether it’s a race medal or a pile of words to craft into a finished novel, the result can be very rewarding.

Just keep thinking about posting this to all your social media accounts on December 1:

NaNoWriMo-Winner

3. It’s all about pacing and consistent effort.

I run pretty fast for an old guy, but I  know my limits. I wanted to be realistic when I was game-planning St. George, so I picked a pace I knew I could handle … and then pushed it just a little further. The difference between training pace and race pace comes from adrenaline and willpower. It’s amazing what the human mind and body can accomplish when they conspire to psych each other out.

The baseline target pace to win NaNoWriMo is 1,667 words over 30 days—and that’s if you write every single day. It’s a great idea to set your goal a little higher than that, and supplement your daily writing with some additional “marathon” writing sessions throughout the month. Then (and this is the key to finishing NaNoWriMo) make sure you stick to it.

If I don’t hit my goal on a particular day, I make up for it the next day. Or the next. You have to make it a priority, which almost always means giving up other things. I don’t watch TV during the month of November. I don’t read anyone else’s books. I even cut back on my mileage.

In addition to adrenaline and willpower, you’ll probably need caffeine. That’s a big component to success. Your mileage (of any kind) may vary, of course.

Here’s another trick: When you hit your daily goal, walk away. Literally stop in the middle of a sentence, close your file and shut off your computer. Stopping in the middle of things (in medias res, so to speak) gives you somewhere specific to pick up during your next writing session.

4. Sometimes, things go wonderfully wrong.

Anyone who’s done NaNoWriMo multiple years knows that feeling of nervous excitement that comes on the day before the challenge begins. It’s very similar to what a marathoner feels right before a big race.

My goal for the 2017 St. George Marathon was to finish in 3:30:00, which would bring me within five minutes of a Boston Qualifying time. When I boarded the bus for the starting line at 4:30 in the morning, I was feeling great about this target. Then I realized I was missing my safety pins. Then I lost my phone. Seriously. I managed to get new pins and find my phone, but then my watch lost contact with the GPS satellites just minutes into the race. Because of this, I had a difficult time tracking my pace. The result, and I’m not making this up, was that I ran the first half of the race much faster than I’d planned.

That might sound like a good thing, but actually it was a real concern. I honestly didn’t know whether I’d be able to maintain that pace for the duration of the race. My worry was that I’d bonk at mile 18 and have to walk the rest of the way. A race-ending injury was also a real possibility.

We’ve all had writing projects that go pear-shaped. Anything can go wrong, but sometimes, when things go wrong they actually go right. Here are a few possibilities, and the obvious solutions:

  1. Problem: There’s “no there there”—you simply can’t squeeze enough words out of the story idea you picked. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. (There’s nothing in the rules that your 50,000 words have to form a single, coherent project.)
  2. Problem: You lose interest in your story. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. If you don’t have a new project at hand, free-write (using writing prompts, if necessary) until something catches your fancy.
  3. Problem: You get partway through your draft and realize your book is morphing into something completely different than what you planned. Solution: Go with it. In December, you can revise the earlier chapters to match the later ones.

5. You will feel self-doubt.

A I mentioned, when I hit the halfway mark on the St. George course I experienced a major moment of doubt. I must’ve looked a little lost, because a woman running beside looked over and asked me if I was doing okay. According to her race bib, her name was Bonnie. I admitted to her that I was going way faster than I had intended. Bonnie’s reply: “That’s a good thing, right?”

Maybe yes, maybe no. I told her I was worried I would crash and burn. Wisely, Bonnie asked me what my gut—and my body—were telling me. I did a quick self-check. I was feeling pretty good for having just run a pretty fast 13 miles. When I told her so, she looked over at me and said, “You got this. Go for it!” I’d never met this person before, but her little pep talk was the turning point for me in that race. I give Bonnie a lot of credit for helping me realize I could do what I’d set out to do.

Whether you’re doing your first NaNoWriMo or your tenth, at some point you’ll probably question whether you can finish or not. Find your Bonnie. Talk to a friend—writer or non-writer. Write your next 1,667 words and then treat yourself to ice cream. See a movie or get a pedicure. Then get back to your keyboard and finish your dang novel. You’ll thank yourself, afterwards.

One of the best T-shirts I saw at the St. George Marathon said “I can do hard things.” Writing 50,000 words in a month is hard. But you can do it.

6. The accomplishment is permanent.

st-george-medalThere’s no such thing as a “participation trophy” in competitive running. You don’t get anything just for showing up, but you often do get a medal for finishing. Similarly, you get exactly nothing for starting NaNoWriMo if you don’t finish it.

As with any competition, it’s all about the numbers. The registration cap for the 2017 St. George Marathon was 7,800 runners. About 6,000 made it to the starting line, and exactly 4,723 crossed the finish line under their own power, within the time limit.

A 26-year-old man from Lindon, UT, finished the race first, setting a new course record of 2:14:44. Yikes! The very last person to finish before the cutoff was a woman in her mid-40s from Idaho. She finished in 4,723rd place with a time of 7:27:29, and she was as deserving of his finisher’s medal as the guy who came in first. Both “won” in the sense that they ran the 26.2 miles in the required time frame. And nobody can ever take that away from them.

Numbers matter in NaNoWriMo, but mostly in determining who wins and who doesn’t. It makes no difference whether you write an hour a day or whether you produce those words in the first 24 hours (or even the last 24 hours). If you crank out 60K, 70K or even 100K words, you’re no more a winner than the person who writes exactly 50K. And once you’ve verified your words and received your winner’s certificate, it’s an accomplishment you can claim forever.

According to one estimate, about half a percent of the U.S. population (or around 1.6 million people) has finished a marathon. Believe it or not, being a NaNoWriMo finisher puts you into an even more exclusive club. According to the NaNoWriMo organization, roughly 384,000 people attempted NaNoWriMo last year, but only 34,000 won. (As far as I can figure, about 66 percent of participants were from the U.S.) The average win rate over the past five years is just 12.5 percent.

You can be part of that 12.5 percent. Don’t settle for being a NaNoWriMo starter. Be a finisher!

If you’re working furiously toward your 50,000 words, keep going! If you get stuck, I encourage you to put on your running shoes and go run a mile or two. Even if you don’t get the inspiration you need, you’ll be one or two miles closer to running your first marathon!

Fingers-vs-Feet

(For the record, I finished the 2017 St. George Marathon in 429th place out of 4,720, 40th in my age group, with a personal-record time of 3:16:57. I also qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon with a “cushion” of over eight minutes.)

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Focus

I have a slight (okay, huge) problem with staying focused on tasks that I don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s because I find a task boring–like housework. Or it’s repetitive, or I don’t see the point, or . . . I love it, and I find it interesting, and I want to do it, buuuuuuuut it’s hard.

Writing, you guys. Writing is hard. I love writing, but it’s hard. So hard. It is, I might even  go so far as to say, quite difficult.

Whenever I get stuck for words, or I’m not quite sure how I want to go about writing the next scene, that’s it, my brain’s like “this is HARD,” and I’m off clicking on social media, checking my texts, getting up to grab a snack I don’t need, etc. But I’ve been trying a few things to help with this problem, and I thought I’d share them with you in case you have a similar issue.

File Jan 15, 4 47 18 PM.jpeg

1. Meditation

Meditation is basically just training your brain to focus, and you don’t have to do it for very long each day. I’ve been using an app called Headspace to help me out. It does require a subscription to be able to use all of it, but the Take-Ten (10 minute) beginner/training sessions are free. There are also other apps out there–a quick search in your app store will bring up many. But you don’t even need an app for the basics. Just find a quiet, comfortable spot (sitting, preferably, so you don’t get too relaxed and fall asleep) and focus on your breathing. Count your breaths in your head, if that helps. And whenever you notice that your mind is wandering (and it will), just gently acknowledge that and bring it back to focus on your breaths again. I try to do this before I sit down to write, and it really helps a lot.

2. Physical Activity

Again, it doesn’t take much. A brisk walk or some yoga, or even just dropping to the floor and doing a few pushups can help get the blood flowing to your brain and increase your ability to concentrate. I will often do some stretches or pushups between writing sprints.

3. Less Caffeine

Wait . . . WHAT?!

Yes, I know. I’m a writer. Don’t writer’s practically bleed caffeine? I used to, but I just can’t do it anymore. Too much caffeine sends my brain into hyper drive, and makes it more difficult for me to reign it in. I do need some in the morning, however, to jumpstart my day. so I’ve started making my morning cup with one scoop of caffeinated grounds, and one scoop of decaf. That combo is perfect for me. You might need to do some adjusting to figure out the right balance for you.

4. Set up a Permanent Writing Space

. . . and be consistent about writing there. I’ve had a writing desk set up for quite a while, actually, but the couch is so comfy, you know? And so, until recently, I rarely ever wrote at my desk, preferring my laptop, a cozy blanket, and my sofa. It’s no wonder writing often made me sleepy. As soon as I lost focus, I’d often opt for a nap (and no, this has nothing to do with the reduction in caffeine–couches just make me want to nap no matter what, so don’t even go there.) Not only that, but the living room is where we watch TV and play games, and mine’s connected to an open kitchen where I can see all the dishes that are piling up, not to mention mail and papers and . . . you see what I’m getting at? It’s distracting because it’s associated with many different things, and they’re all competing for my attention.  My writing desk, however, is tucked away in this weird little nook in the hallway that the builders thought needed to be there for some reason, and it’s away from the chaos of the rest of the house. Everything on and around my desk reminds me either of my writing, or the things that have inspired my writing (like my T.A.R.D.I.S. and my Mulder and Scully Pop figurines.) If I consistently choose to write at my desk, my brain will associate that spot with writing only. And so far, it’s working really well.

So those are the main things that have helped me focus and stay on task as a writer. I hope you find them helpful too, and if you happen to have any other tips, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Take Care of Yourself!

Last Saturday, I ran a 50-mile relay with two of my siblings and two close friends. This does NOT mean that I ran 50 miles; I ran two five-mile legs of the relay with a couple of hours to relax in between. As I was reflecting on possible blog post topics for this week, I first thought of the relay as a metaphor for writing–I draft a manuscript, and at various points, I pass the baton to my critique partners or beta readers or agent or editor, and I can take a breath and a break while the manuscript still moves forward.

But then I realized that what I did last Saturday doesn’t just have to be a metaphor for writing. There are valuable, direct lessons from that race that influence all of us as writers, and the overall message is this:

Take care of yourself!

Here are some important aspects of that message, all of which probably seem obvious, but all of which writers have a particular temptation to ignore:

First, and most obviously, EXERCISE! This is extra important for me because I get grumpy when I don’t exercise, in much the same manner that I get grumpy when I go too long without writing time. Physical activity is valuable for all writers, whether this means walking, running, swimming, team sports, dance… Whatever gets your body moving will make you healthier and happier, which will clear your mind and improve your writing.

Second, EAT BETTER! I’m not advocating radical or extreme measures here, but again, you will feel better and think better and write better if the fuel you’re putting the right kind of fuel into your body, and the right amount. (Full disclosure: I eat junk food and drink soda almost every day. But I do make sure to eat more good stuff than bad stuff!)

Third, SLEEP! Our critique group has an ongoing (and hilarious!) Facebook conversation, and one of the things some of our members do sometimes is post the gibberish lines they typed when they fell asleep at the computer. Although they are loads of fun to read (“God only knows what the guardians would do to him if they ever found out about pigs…”), they do illustrate the principle that our best writing doesn’t happen when we’re overly fatigued.

Fourth, BE OUTSIDE IN THE SUNSHINE, BREATHING FRESH AIR! Enough said.

Fifth, SPEND TIME WITH PEOPLE WHO MAKE YOU HAPPY! Whether you go to lunch with a friend, snuggle up with your kids, go on a date with your significant other, or gab in a car while asphyxiating yourselves with your own relay-induced BO, spending time with people who make you happy is an incredible boost, and one that even the most introverted writer needs on a regular basis.

After all those tips, here’s my final one: ALL THINGS IN MODERATION, INCLUDING MODERATION! There will be times when you sit at your computer, day and night, binge-scarfing chocolate and isolating yourself from the world. And that’s okay–sometimes that’s just what you need during or after your endurance is tested. Sometimes that’s how you take care of yourself, for a little while anyway.

Readers, we love you. So, one more time, take care of yourselves! Your writing will thank you.

What tips do you have for writers to take care of themselves? Which of the above are the most important to you? Which are the hardest and the easiest for you to live by?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂



Writers: Are You Remembering to Take Care of Your Health?

Writing isn’t easy. Writing requires a lot of extra time. Writing requires sacrifice.

How many of us have ever sacrificed sleep, diet, and exercise until we got that draft finished, or those revisions done, or those edits completed? *raises hand a million times.* The problem is when the list of sacrifices plus the list of things “to do” stack up. Sometimes they stack up so much that they topple over and crush us.

I’m guilty of putting my health second to writing. I used to rationalize my crazy writing schedule and crappy diet by saying that I would take a short hiatus when I finished my next book and finally work on those things then. But new projects developed, deadlines happened, collaborative projects demanded my attention, and that planned hiatus? That was three books ago.

I knew my life required change a little over a year ago when I started having health issues. Note that these aren’t necessarily as a result of writing, but they did coincide with the time of my life when I was writing on a rather maniacal schedule. It wasn’t until recently that I was forced to make some fairly drastic changes in my life, and I am amazed at how my major health issues have improved, how much more energy I have, and how overall less stressed I am.

I am NO expert, but these are some of the things that I’ve found have made a difference in my life (all of which were recommended by my physician). Even if you don’t require a major overhaul like I did, maybe they can help you too. At the very least, they’re worth thinking about.

1. Stock up on healthier snacks and beverages. Chocolate, diet soda, and sugary treats are staples for lots of writer friends of mine (believe me, I was guilty of chocolate. Lots of chocolate.) But sugar and sugar substitutes cause energy spikes and crashes and long-term use can wreak havoc on your health. At the very least, try to incorporate healthy snacks as part of your regimen. And while these aren’t for everyone, if you require daily caffeine boosts, coffee and green tea even have antioxidant properties (plus other recently discovered benefits that can even be in decaf versions!) My favorite writing snack: apples or carrots dipped in almond butter or guacamole. My favorite writing beverage: green tea with pomegranate

2. Take stretch breaks. Prolonged sitting dramatically increases chances for serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. Recent studies show that even if you exercise regularly, the effects of that exercise will NOT counteract the damage done from sitting for long periods of time. The health risk goes down when you get up intermittently to take breaks. (Read one of the many recent articles on this here.) Get up and stretch in between short writing sprints. Or write at a standing desk. Or try working while sitting on an exercise ball instead of on a chair (It’s actually kind of fun!)

3. Reevaluate your sleep schedule. I used to force myself to stay up until past midnight to get writing done. I mean, hey — I worked all morning and was with kids all afternoon and evening, so late night was my time. I would often write until I was bleary-eyed, or sometimes even when I was half-asleep, and in the morning, would wake up to a bunch of crappy words and a lot of frustration AND I would still be tired. Over the last month, I have been going to bed earlier (sometimes ridiculously early) and waking up early enough to get in a good hour and sometimes two hours of writing before my kids got up for the day. Ultimately, you need to do whatever works best for you and your brain, but it’s always worth a second look. 🙂

What about you? Suggestions for a healthier writing snack or healthier writing habit?
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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL (coming 2015) and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She is also one of the authors on the YA/NA crossover anthology LOSING IT.