The Starting Line

Thought for the week:   If I freeze at the start, I will surely never finish.

I write for sanity, but I run for fitness.  I seem to lack coordination for any other form of exercise.  I have tried group exercise classes, perhaps you have seen my kind, the one capsizing in the warrior pose, knocking down the perfect yoga poser next to me or zigging in Zumba when everyone else is zagging.  So I run.  It is relatively safe.  Although, on occasion I have tripped over my own feet and wiped out, sprawled on the concrete, it is a rare occurrence.

Since I began both hobbies at an early age, I see parallels in my life between running and writing.  I wrote for years before ever thinking about going public and I ran for years before ever entering my first official race, terrified of being last, thinking I should be a ‘real’ runner to compete in a community  race.  Not true.   Anyone can run a 5K; some do it without any training at all, although I would not recommend that unless you enjoy being sore for days afterward.

The more races I ran, the more comfortable I became as a runner.  At the finish line, there were always people ahead of me and always people behind me.  After years of racing, I decided to push myself a little harder and trained over several weeks to run a ten-mile run, The Blessing of the Feet, in Narragansett, RI.  Guess what?  I was not last.

Eventually I even got faster.  I won a third place medal for women in my age group, two years running, in the Keep Your Colon Rolling 5K in Southern Maryland.  Now there is a T-shirt to wear proudly!  The race raises money for colon cancer research, a good cause and no joke; I have lost family members to this disease.  Granted it is a small race and I was competing against a tiny group, but it was an accomplishment for me to place.

Around this same time, feeling triumphant, I wrote a sample story, sent it to Bay Weekly, a local paper, and received an e-mail back from the Editor, which led to roughly two years of freelance writing.  The paper with an estimated circulation of about 50,000 and I was an infrequent contributor at best, but published.

The first time I saw my words in print and my name on the byline, I was both nervous and ecstatic.  I walked around town a little prouder.  Still, I fretted about public recognition.  Once, while sitting in a local restaurant, the customer at the table next to me was reading one of my articles including photos of myself and family members and yet, I still went unrecognized.  Amazing!  My fear of publishing and the remains of my ego quickly dissipated.

I was content for some time, running and writing, doing two things I loved.  I marveled at marathon runners the same way I marveled at novelists.  I could never do those things; I was a short distance runner and a short story and essay writer.  Then one day, I thought, if I can run ten miles, maybe I could write a novel.  I started writing, only a few pages at first.  I put the project down for weeks, coming back to it and then writing some more.  It took ages to write the first ten thousand words.  It was a start.

Years later, my family and I moved to Italy.  I was still running, still writing here and there but still nowhere near completing the novel.  A friend asked me to train with her for the Rome to Ostia half marathon.  Me, run a half marathon?  Well, I ran a ten mile race once.  I trained, progressively adding miles to my training over several weeks.  At the midpoint of my training, I developed runner’s knee and thought I was doomed, but I rested, used alternate training methods and quickly started training again.  After months of preparation, I ran the race with my friend and finished in a respectable amount of time.  I was not last.  It was a proud moment.

By conquering my inner running demons, I realized that I had always possessed the stamina and the self-discipline to do whatever I set my mind to, including finishing my novel.  What I lacked was courage and commitment.   To compete at the half marathon level, training almost every day was essential, just as completing a novel requires consistent daily writing.

I challenged myself to write every week.  I began with a weekly goal of ten hours.  Vigilance was difficult with so many distractions, responsibilities, family, friends, and fun.  Life gets in the way of writing.  I had a single-minded goal and remained fixated on that.  Before long, I was writing twenty hours per week, sometimes at night, weekends, early in the morning, when I could steal time.  Finally, I completed the novel.  It did in fact, take years, but maybe, had I begun sooner, with more focus, it would not have.

Polishing and publishing it is another story, hopefully a shorter one.

Now I have characters waking me at night when I am trying to sleep.  While standing in line at the grocery store, I daydream about plots.  When I meet someone new, I immediately start thinking about what a great character he or she might be in my next book.  On non-writing days, I am cranky; I take this as a sign that writing is essential to my mental health.

Consistency, creating your own rhythm, I believe, is the secret to writing, not only talent and education, although these are helpful.  This is the one piece of advice I have seen appear with frequency in author interviews.  It makes sense.  It sounds simple.  However, it requires sacrifice to make writing a priority, especially without income attached.

Becoming a published novelist is an entirely different bag of worms, but I cannot allow that to steal my momentum.  In addition, about those nagging doubts whether the novel is ever truly finished, I continue to make changes.  It is all part of the process.  However, I started writing a second novel, in the midst of tweaking the first, so as not to waste time staring at blank pages.  The second is nearly finished and considerably more expeditiously than the first.  What do you know?

I no longer count the hours.  I write every chance I have.  Some days, while my children are at school, I look up from the computer screen to realize hours have passed.  In my mind, I have stopped considering writing a hobby and begun thinking of it as a serious profession.  As for hobbies, I still have running, the one thing that quiets my mind, offering solace, a refuge, an escape.  Someday, maybe I will run a full marathon, but first, I have a few novels to finish!

So, you want to write a novel.  What are you waiting for?  On your mark, get set, you know the rest!

Thank you for reading and keep writing!

Yet to come:  Writers Group, Momentum, My First Writers Conference, Query Letter Hell and Seeking Support:  Surprises and Stumbling Blocks

Becoming a Real Writer

Thought for the week:  Dream bigger, what do you have to lose?

Like many of you, I have been thinking about writing a blog for a long time.  Thinking about writing anything and not doing it is pointless because your ideas only become something when you put them down on paper or onto a computer screen and even then, if you never share the document with anyone else, you still have not accomplished anything.   If you share your writing with at least one other person, you can then say, “I wrote this and someone read it.”  Even better, “I wrote this and someone liked it.”  Best, “I wrote this and someone published it.”

I have dreamed of being a writer all of my life, but only recently have I dared call myself by that noble title.  Why?  I began writing in childhood, making greeting cards and filling journals with poetry while sitting in my bedroom closet.  At ten I did not know anything about poetry except that I needed to write my thoughts down on a page in an obscure way, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, sometimes comprehensible to others, sometimes not.  I read one of my poems to my Mother once.  She said it was depressing.  It was my first official critique.

In college, I wrote short stories and read them in front of my classes.  It was mortifying.  Sometimes my professors felt the stories were publishable.  Therefore, I did the logical thing, stuck them in a drawer, and never showed them to anyone again.  The thought of having my writing out there, my soul bared, terrified me.  I switched majors knowing that remaining an English major was the path to unemployment, until one of my writing professors pulled me aside and said, “Why aren’t you writing?  This is what you are meant to do.”  So struck by her confidence in me, something I surely never possessed, I stuck it out and graduated with a BA in English from the University of Rhode Island.

Beginning the very day of graduation, I fielded questions such as “What are going do, teach?”

“No, I answered, I am going to be a writer.”   That response brought scoffs at best and at worst; long diatribes on how most writers never see their work published.

My father, a Professor at the University, retired the year that I graduated, so we were invitees to a special reception where all of the important staff and graduates mixed and mingled, including the Valedictorian of my class, whom I had a crush on and the guest speaker, Kurt Vonnegut.

I remember standing under the tent in the buffet line next to Kurt Vonnegut straining to think of something brilliant to say.  We both stepped sideways pausing to spoon mayonnaise infused salads and cold cuts onto our plates.  He was so close; I could have touched him.  Before we reached the end of the table, he stopped and looked down at me.  I am five foot nine, but I suddenly felt like a small child.  I looked up at this famous writer, a towering oak, this man who was an expert at his craft and profoundly said, “Hi,” and then looked sharply at my potato salad.

How many chances do you think one person gets in life?  Can you walk away from your destiny and not expect it to shadow your steps for the rest of your days?

After college, unable to find work as writer that paid enough to keep me from needing a second job, I worked as a server, a bartender, a housecleaner and began writing my first novel.  I think I still have it somewhere in a box, in the attic, a mass of scribbled notebook pages and notes on cocktail napkins.  The most idiotic thoughts seem profound jotted down onto a cocktail napkin.  If I remember correctly it was typical of most first novels, far too autobiographical, overly emotive and missing a so what?

I quickly tired of serving people food and cleaning toilets and found a job in the business world where competent writing ability is valued-sometimes.  I planned to keep writing creatively on the side.  The problem with having a real job, if you are doing it right, is that it leaves you with very little energy on the side.  However, I fulfilled other dreams of mine, traveled all over the United States and overcame my fears of public speaking and cocktail parties; in Sales and Marketing you do or die.

The great thing about a real job is it gives you a real life and real things to write about when you finally stop daydreaming and decide that you will write that first novel.  I married a brilliant man, had two wonderful children, left my career, wrote freelance (emphasis on the free part) for two years, lived in Italy for three years and finally got serious about writing.  I have one novel written, although I cannot seem to stop changing it and a second more than half-written and several ideas and chapters for others.  I am now utilizing my business background to help me navigate the business of publishing, which is no easy task, especially since the industry is elastic.

After coming out of the “writing closet”, I have discovered something astounding: many people write or aspire to and never tell a soul.  For the longest time, only my closest friends knew about my writing.  We ‘want to be’ writers apologize and say, “Well, I’m not a real writer.”

What is a real writer?  Today anyone can self publish.  Anyone can write a blog.  Does being a real writer still mean publication by one of the big New York publishing houses?  Ultimately, this remains the goal of many writers, including myself.  Despite the fact that e publishing is all the rage, I still have my heart set on posing for a photo in front of a bookstore window displaying my published novel.  I also frequent libraries and prefer to hold an actual book in my hands when I read it, blissfully turning paper pages.  I realize this makes me a Techno Dino and I may have to revise my goals.  Flexibility is key in today’s publishing market, even if I do everything right and follow all of the advice I’ve been given, I may never be published in the traditional sense.

After spending more than a six years seriously writing and over two years researching and employing tactics of how to publish my work, I decided to blog about this topic, to talk about what’s working for me and what is not.  Who knows, I might be able to help other writers struggling with the same issues.  With luck, this journey will take us both to the bookshelves!

Thank you for reading and keep writing!

Yet to come:  The Starting Line, Writers Group, Momentum, My First Writers Conference & Query Letter Hell!