Ten years ago, for want of an exercise regimen, I decided running would be a good idea. Although I’ve been active most of my life, I had never taken up running as a sport and didn’t know what I was getting into. At the time I lived in Evanston, north of Chicago, so I ran early in the morning on the lakefront. Unfortunately I never progressed beyond a few blocks and eventually gave up.
I took a different tack four years ago and signed up for a running class through Bettendorf’s Life Fitness Center. Although it was a challenge, I stuck with it and ultimately ran the Bix 7 race twice and two half-marathons in the Quad-City Marathon.
Now, I know you’re wondering what running has to do with writing a novel. As it turns out — quite a lot.
After retiring, I had time on my hands and quickly grew bored. I’d always wanted to write a book but with a full-time job, never had the time. At least that’s what I told myself. With plenty of time and a computer, I had a new problem: I didn’t know how to go about writing a novel. I’d write a page or two and run out of ideas. I asked myself how writers manage to fill up hundreds of pages, when I could barely eke out three. That’s where the parallel with running comes in: I realized I needed some kind of training to get started.
I found an ad for a fictionwriters’ workshop and immediately signed up. Now, those of you new to novelwriting might think that was the end of the story. But let’s go back to running for a moment. When I began to run, I was not only out of shape, but the oldest student in the class and always ran at the back of the pack — way back. I told my coach, Ray Porter, I thought I should quit. He would have none of it. “Why did you sign up in the first place?” he asked.
Good question. I had no illusions about winning a race. I just wanted some exercise, to have some fun and maybe lose a few pounds.
Back to my writing class. As most of you who’ve tried it know, writing is a solitary pursuit and hard on the ego. When your work is critiqued by a group, it can be humiliating. I often left the workshop close to tears as I felt my best efforts would never be good enough. One day I went to the instructor and asked him to tell me I had no talent and that I’d never be published.
His response was, “So you can stop all this pain and get on with your life?”
“Yes, oh yes, please tell me that. This is so hard,” I told him.
His response was a resounding, “Sorry, Joan, I can’t do that. Keep trying and you’ll eventually make it.” Later he asked the group this question: “If you knew right now that you’d never be published, how many of you would continue writing?” Everyone raised their hand.
Does that exchange sound like a little bit like the one I had with my running coach? I wasn’t running to win a race. And I wasn’t writing to get published. I was doing both because it filled a deep-seated need within me.
So I continued attending the workshop and wrote manuscripts for two novels, neither of which were published. I subsequently moved to the Quad-Cities, joined a writers’ critique group and wrote four more manuscripts. Like the running, I continued to learn, acquired a mentor, attended writer conferences and classes. I queried agents and was repeatedly rejected.
Quitting was always a temptation. But then I’d remember how I managed to run both a half-marathon and the BIX. It was hard and the training relentless. I’d get up at five when I preferred staying in bed. I ran when my feet hurt. I had Athlete’s Asthma, so my chest hurt as well. It was humiliating to always be so far behind everyone else. Then a funny thing happened. The Quad-City Times newspaper wanted to do an article on a beginning runner in the month leading up to the Bix and I was chosen to be the subject.
Thinking it would be one small story on the back page, I agreed to do it. When the issue was published, my photograph was at the top of the front page directing readers to a full-page story on an inside section containing a huge photo of me in full running regalia—I looked like a bona fide athlete. I was shocked and even more surprised to learn they planned to do follow-up articles every week until the BIX, culminating with an interview on the day of the race. I became something of a celebrity in my neighborhood.
Now, I’m telling you all this because after thirteen years and six manuscripts, my first novel was published in January. Like the races I participated in and the pay-off with the BIX articles, getting published wasn’t a sprint. It took years of training, discipline and, as my mentor and friend, author Michael Romkey said, “You have to be just plain stubborn and refuse to quit”.
So, if you have it in you to write, remember that to get to the finish line of a published novel, you need to work at it, stay focused and have a support team to encourage you when you’re down. You may or may not ever get published but, as with running, you’ll have the joy of doing it — and after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?