Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Saturday 4 May 2024

Writing a Novel is Like Running an Ultramarathon. Part 1

The first in a two part marathon, Marie Heitz, author of the intriguing and edge-of-the-seat adventure The Diemen Alexander, reveals how endurance has fuelled her passion for extreme sports and writing. Her scientific endeavours shine through in this novel that explores genetics, palaeontology and biological change as well environmental and social issues.

How do I know that? Because I’ve done both. Often both at the same time. You don’t have to have done one to see some similarities. You do have to have done one to see how they are both a creation of the mind.

1.     You have to want to. 

Really really want to, because your pile of difficulties is ever replenishing and will heap up so high you can’t see over it. The road is long and seems longer. You will need to fight your way through swamps that weren’t on the map. You have to want that destination.

The flip side of wanting to, is that if you do, really really, want to, a novel or an ultra are doable. Almost always. Absolute requirements? A lack of disqualifying physical handicaps – one-leggedness, blindness, illiteracy – you could even get over those, though possibly not all three. You do need enough spare time after your day job and your kids/spouse/ailing parents. You don’t need to be a special person. Its not about whether you have gifts, though having them certainly helps. It’s overwhelmingly about your desire and application rather than your talent.


2.     And you have to know you can finish.

 Because you are up against the ravening monster of doubt with your plastic bow and arrow of confidence. You have to slay the monster over and over again. You get intermittently better at slaying it, with practice, but it never stays dead. It can still end the story by eating you.


3.     Just keep going.

It’s both as easy and as hard as that. At any point along the way, you only have to keep going to the next point. When you reach there, you keep going to the next. Repeat until you get to the end. One step, one hill, one checkpoint; one word, one sentence, one chapter. Followed by the next.


4.     Keep going forwards.

 As opposed to upwards or sideways. Children and fit non-runners have a spring. They bound into the air with every step. Uplifting. And inefficient. Lifting the body upwards takes far more energy than moving it forward. So don’t lift your body, or even your feet, any higher than you absolutely have to go forward. Over uneven terrain (most ultra’s - and all of mine, are run offroad) take the most direct route. With every single step. Because the whole 100km is made of single steps.

The other aspect of forwards is to have a mental hand pushing you forward, relentlessly, whatever the terrain, whatever else you’re thinking about (socks, salinity, fruit cake) or even your gait. Going through a bad patch? Walking? Walk forwards. Shuffling? Shuffle forwards. Limping? Limp forwards. When the mental hand stops pushing, you slow down.

Writing? Go forward. Be short, not breviloquent. Avoid expanding into bouncing bounding steps, athletic, leonine, tautologous, purple sentences. Even with pared-down sentences, you can get diverted in so many aspects of your novel. Fall repeatedly into bogs of research. Follow your butterfly of scene description into an enchanting and pointless forest. Wander offtrack into subplot after subplot which get you no closer to the finish. Your reader has long abandoned you.


5.     Pacing is crucial.

There is an ultra-runners’ dictum which instructs: ‘Start conservatively, then slow down.’ It takes Zen-like control not to start too fast, especially when nobody else can do it either and they all go streaming past you and scamper out of sight. If you have managed it better than them, they will have spent all their chips and you will overtake them all, hours or more hours later.

You can’t exactly follow that advice in writing a novel of course, unless you’re Proust or Henry James, but you absolutely need plot/character/thematic chips in reserve to dole out strategically along the way. And you – and your reader – need to be confident you’ve got them, otherwise the book and the race become a misery and you risk your reader becoming a DNF.


6.     They are best done in maturity, but not too much. 

The average ultra-runner is in their 40s and has been running for 15 years. You can’t run that far without years in your legs and in your brain. You can’t plan all the detail without having gone through all the things that went wrong. You can’t spend so many hours keeping on while your body is shouting at you to stop. Unless you’ve spent some years differentiating when it’s merely offering its whingy opinion from when it’s flashing a red stop light. 

You get better at avoiding injury, but with every year over 30 you get worse at recovery. And things that were thoughtlessly effortless in your 30’s become race and life-threateningly difficult: reading your map without the glasses you lost; opening your food or closing your jacket with cold-stiffened fingers.   

There are some successful young novelists but there aren’t many. There are some excellent first novels, but none of them, none, spring fully formed from a mind which hasn’t engaged in writing something: journalism, advertising, script writing, i.e. a million practices at writing a meaningful sentence.

I have half the words in my head as I had a decade ago. And they are much harder to retrieve. Next year I’ll have a few less. There is an age where the brain wears out. Always.


7.     Gear matters. 

You could be lucky and finish your ultra-wearing road running shoes, instead of trail shoes. Or you could pulp your feet, get blisters on your blisters and break toes on the rocks. Your notreallywaterproof jacket, in the rain could give you hypothermia, get you lost and derail your race. Or kill you. 

On the way down from Frenchman's Cap- a run with no socks - 
those white things on Marie's ankles are dressings!
Some writers might have all the words they need already filed away and an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything they’re writing about. I don’t. I need a good thesaurus and a search engine for research. Google earth for settings I can’t get to. My camera for recording the details of settings. A notebook I take with me absolutely everywhere. Most of my novel ideas happen on a mountain somewhere.

Marie Heitz

Marie in a Diemen Alexender t-shirt
that she made herself.
Meet Marie: Born in Switzerland, Marie went to school and Uni in Perth and - via Kakadu - now lives in Tassie. She has practiced medicine in laboratories and emergency departments, under river gums and in operating theatres. All of it has increased her respect for humanity. Her life has featured bicycles and motorbikes, surfskis, scuba tanks and yachts and swimming in 100 miles of open ocean, aeroplanes and parachutes, tubas and clarinets and symphony orchestras, pencils, birds and words, mud, mountains, (she loves mountains) and a lot of pairs of running shoes.

No comments:

Post a Comment