The Book Olympics – writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint.

With the London Olympic Games just around the corner there are analogies aplenty to describe the processes by which authors get a book ready for the finishing line.

Let’s for a moment overlook the obvious comparison of marathon versus sprint, ignore the temptation to talk about hurdles to be overcome, and skip the image of taking the plunge. The preparation needed to be a Book Olympian (roughly translated as an author with a completed work) is every bit as dedicated as athletes who cloister themselves in training camps and pound the miles in daily exercise routines.

I’m not suggesting the physicality of writing is anything like that required by Olympians – but authors too have daily routines, and they can be just as lonely, tedious and draining as those experienced by their muscular counterparts.

There has always been a lively debate about how authors should make room in their day for a set writing routine. How many hours per day? Is there a recommended daily word count?

I’m happy to admit being a bit haphazard about routines. I believe we are all so different in our lifestyles and commitments that it is impossible to be generic in advising standard writing schedules.

Writing is a creative process which by definition requires creativity before one word is typed. The progression of ideas necessary for completing a novel must be allowed to grow and nurture within us, before we can give them expression on a blank page. That’s just a fancy way of saying you can’t write when the ideas aren’t exactly queuing up in your brain. Conversely, when they are there, you MUST find the time to get them down onto paper.

One great tip for when you’re in the mood is never to finish at the end of a chapter. If you’re on a roll, keep ‘er lit! Start into the next chapter (no more than a paragraph or two) – that way, you’ll have something to get your teeth into at your next session.

I guess what I’m saying is that for most of us the urges will come in fits and starts. There will be times when we can’t face turning on the computer, but other times when we can’t walk away from it. I’ll bet you’ve all been there!

Most of us try to spend as much time as we can to review and increase our output on a regular basis. For what it’s worth here are a few handy tips I employ during those times when I’m not sure what direction to take the story:

  • Read back through your previous few chapters. Sure, you know what’s written there but the exercise of going over the ground again might spark an idea of how to move forward a bit more. If nothing else, the time can be used to proof and tidy up what you’ve already done – and that’s never time wasted!;
  • If you’re still stuck with the problem of seamlessly shifting to the next chapter, try to jump even further ahead by tackling a fresh chapter chronicling events later in the book. The gap in between can be filled on another day, by which time I often find it easier to make the leap;
  • It’s not ludicrous to suggest writing the last chapter, even if you’re miles away from the finishing post. Many writers have a great ending in mind so don’t wait to walk a long road to get there – do it now and it will empower the thought processes of what needs to happen in between. I’ve tried it – and it works!

All the above is valid, even if you have taken the trouble to storyboard your book from the outset. It’s all very well plotting out what seems a logical sequence of events, but too often – and rightly so in my opinion – a story will take you to places you had not originally thought to go. These ad hoc deviations will, I promise, add greatly to the impact and credibility of your story. Be prepared for them and embrace them wholeheartedly.

The biggest problem we face as authors is rushing to get the word count moving, and then falling into the trap of trying to speed up the whole process. All we want to do is get the book finished – but using this approach is a recipe for disaster. Don’t be afraid to let the story mature like a good wine.

Take your time, have the patience to be methodical, and, above all, put yourself on the side of the reader who wants to be entertained and challenged, not dragged headlong across a jumble of words and paragraphs which seem to be designed only to suit the author.

Avoid at all costs those who preach parameters and lecture you on how you must have a daily discipline. Authors are individuals, thank God, who enrich the world with an explosion of ideas which erupt from minds too diverse to be regulated by standard rules. Do it your way, and pay scant attention to people like me who pretend to know the answers!

My own routine? I try for at least two hours each day, with at least one major session per week (usually lasting most of the day). I try to bite off the novel in 5,000-word segments per week, which provides for a 20-week book completion schedule. I’ve been known to knock out 10,000 words in a single weekend, but this kind of burst is commonly followed up by a downward output over the following week or so.

And therein, I believe, is the crux of this debate. Like most of you, I do what I can when I can, and when I most feel the urge.

Book writing for me has roughly three distinctive phases – the starting third, the middle third, and the final third – and each provide different mood swings and impetus for an author.

When we first plan a novel, the enthusiasm to get started with a great scene-setting opening will take us through the first 3,000 to 5,000 words almost effortlessly. That momentum will keep going, albeit at a slower pace, as we build the story. The brick wall usually comes in the middle third when we try to assemble plot conversions, while at the same time keeping the overall story ticking over in a natural way. That’s the period when we hit the slowdown button, grapple with the many directions we should or could go, and end up with what can best be characterised as the staring-at-the-screen phase.

Once I get over that angst, I’m on the downhill third – and boy can I motor! This last section, even if it’s as long as 30k, can be the most exhilarating, both in terms of pleasure and output.

Knowing I’m within spitting distance of the end always seems to make me find more time and energy to devote to my writing schedule.

Some of what I’ve said might find resonance with many of you. For those who don’t buy into these ramblings, and who take entirely different approaches to their writing, rock on! Do it the way that suits you best.

But whatever you do, do it!

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