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Saturday 11 May 2024

Writing a Novel is Like Running an Ultramarathon. Part 2

Last week, readers navigated
Part 1 of the marathon and this week the finish line is looming. Tasmanian author, Marie Heitz, concludes the journey, identifying further steps that explore both the ultramarathon and the writing process, that will help you reach the finish line. Are you up for the challenge?

8. Most of the work is invisible. 

The race is just the last part of the project. The first and biggest task is surviving the training. Not just  all the running. Sorting your nutrition, and hydration, the overuse injuries, the scheduling around life, testing the gear, and the thousands of kilometres of training, uphill training, downhill training, sand training, water crossings, and rocky technical training, without falling over, or with falling over. 

The words on the page spent years coming into being. Reading, reading, reading, writing emails and blogging and short stories, maturing your ideas, the novels that failed, finally this one: its first and second and fourteenth draft, the beta readers, maybe the paid editor, the submissions to publishers…..a shroud drawn over this…. WOOHOO the acceptance, the editing and drafts and editing and drafts, the changes you liked and didn’t and the proofreading and the proofreading and then suddenly the thing has escaped out into the world and has its own life now.


9. Somewhere along the way you will crash. 

Comprehensively. You’ll be absolutely sure you are gone. Not just your legs, every last muscle fibre is spent, and everything, everything hurts. Your mind’s forward push is spent, the last drop down the plughole. More than that: every so-called achievement of your life is worthless, you could just die right here and it wouldn’t matter to anyone, least of all yourself. The first time this happened to me, I was deep in the Tasmanian wilderness, miles and hours from the nearest checkpoint. Further from the nearest road. I would have given up if I could have, but I had to get to the checkpoint first. Solely to get there, I ate and drank and started walking. Slowly but forward. Eventually managed running, 50 steps at a time. I recovered.  And I finished. I discovered that sunk in a well so deep that all light is lost, I can still find the means to recover. Even when my body and spirit and soul have given up, my mind can keep going.

The story will traipse off track into mud, flounder ever deeper; your prose go limp, grey and lifeless. You are delusional that you ever thought anyone would be interested in the ideas. But. If the end is clear to you, keep going till you reach it. That’s what first drafts are for. 

Here’s where ultras and novels differ: Unfortunately, you can’t go back and rewrite that sentence where you trod on a wobbly rock and broke your ankle.


10. You have to avert your eyes from the totality if you want to finish. 

You can’t imagine yourself running all day, from before dawn, through everybody else’s breakfast, workday, sun travelling the whole sky, shadows swinging from west to east, sundown, people going home and having dinner, you still running. That’s ridiculous. You just can’t. So you don’t.

Do you believe you can write one arresting funny sentence? Yep, maybe. Write ten thousand? No chance. So don’t think about ten thousand. Just the next one. 


11. Whatever the weather. 

Rain, wind, scorching heat, hail, snow all happen outside. At some point, in some race, they will happen to you. So welcome the chance to train in horrible weather, because it gives you a chance to develop strategies to deal with it. Make it not scary. And the worse it is in training, the better chance that the race will be easier.

Marie during the Takayna Ultramarthon

If you want to finish your novel, you don’t just sit down to write when you’re cheery and well rested, the house is quiet and the muse is sitting on your shoulder, ready to share. You sit down, whatever your mental/emotional/life circumstances when sitting down to write. If you make excuses - not today because I’m tired, depressed, hungover, pimply, heartbroken - most days you’d never sit down at all. 


12. Your competitors are your comrades too.

Ultramarathons are races. But for many participants, that’s the least important thing about them. That’s true for all amateur running races but becomes ‘more true’ the longer the distance: Increasingly, it becomes not you versus all of them, it’s all of you in it together against the course. You share your fatigue, pain, doubt and laughter. And the vivid green prehistoric forest and the view of mountaintops stretching into a blue haze or lit up with dawn or sunset. You share food and bandages and Panadol and spare socks. Conversation to shorten the miles. Get lost together and back on track together. Help them search for the shoe that got sucked off in the mud.

Nobody gets what it’s like to write a novel unless they’ve tried to write one. They recognise the tyranny and terror of the blank page. And the thrill of filling it with something resonant. And they’re the best people to ask when you think your novel is misfiring because they know what goes on under the hood. All the authors I’ve ever met are generous.


13. It affects the lives of those around you.

Not just because you disappear for hours, out onto the mountain or into the cocoon you inhabit in your study or at the end of the kitchen table. It’s because of the additional hours you are present but effectively absent, because you’re working out how you can plausibly get your new lovers to split up in the haunted house. Or because you’re totally flogged; you left your brains and sense of humour - and your cooking and algebra-homework-assisting energy - somewhere out in 28kms of mud and march flies.


14. Crosstraining helps. 

For ultras its cycling, weights, pilates, paddling. Because when your core fails, everything crumbles. 

To build your novelist muscle, exercise the discipline, precision and punch of poetry. Write nonfiction to hone accurate, evocative description, opinion pieces for lucid development of ideas.


15. You can run/write a very long way feeling just awful.

All going well, the first 30km should be no effort, enjoyable. In the next 20k the “forward” voice starts its work. The body’s reply is “I’d really rather not, but ok.” Around 50k, the niggles have started, agility and spring gradually leach from your legs as they transition to lead pipes, the “forward” voice adds cajolery, bargaining and downright lying. Eventually the brain setting bottoms out on “grim.” Somehow you still keep stumping along, and your spirit is still open to beauty. My enduring memory of the Surf Coast Century is the last 10km on a beach under a sky brilliant with stars, the invisible immensity of Pacific ocean, the rhythm of the surf, the rush and the long white ribbons of surf that loomed and vanished.

The most useful description of novel writing I ever read was “Staring at a blank page until it bleeds.”


16. They’re good for you. Except when they’re not. 

It’s not a secret that exercise benefits virtually every aspect of living, but too much exercise provides a similarly broad choice on how to damage or kill yourself, not limited to hypothermia, hyperthermia, falling off cliffs or getting caught in bushfires, overstretching your heart muscle (yep “athlete’s heart” is a thing), kidney failure. Every tendon in my lower half has had legitimate cause to complain of abuse. (But no, it does NOT bugger your knees.)

Writing engages multiple, brain functions, memory, analysis, creativity, planning, visuospatial manipulation, play. It’s an exercise, a release, an escape, a meditation. I get a definite “high” when I come up with a phrase or a sentence I like, especially if it’s funny. Writing is brain exercise. 

However… Twice, I’ve had to stop and reassess where my novel was going when I realised I’d been depressed for weeks and the cause was my subject matter. In the first case my hero was drifting between coma and terror and pain, his team seeing no way forward except death and betrayal. The second was set in a dystopian future in which the only remaining non-extinct animals were the apex scavengers: rats, cats and crows which had evolved towards each other in shape and savagery. And skill in killing cockroaches. I had to stop. I couldn’t spend my days in those dark places. The second book had an arresting premise and my world-building was advanced. But I had to abandon it.


17. Coffee.

No explanation necessary.


18.  Encouragement.


12. – Your competitors are your comrades too.

17. - Coffee.


And to conclude, and in the struggle to think of a sentence to encapsulate this piece — something illustrative — nothing came to me. So I went for a run and found one…

The practical application of these correlations is that performing one activity prepares you for the other.

Marie Heitz

Author of The Diemen Alexander, and with a wealth of experiences in laboratories emergency services, and a host of outdoor activities (including running, of course!)

Editor's note: The takayna Trail (see image above) is an annual event in the rainforests of takayna / Tarkine in northwest Tasmania

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