The Sprinter and the Marathon Runner

Thursday, 2 August 2018

In writing the first draft of Black Box I tapped into two sides of my writing personality – the sprinter and the marathon runner. With the former, I dashed out 10,000 words for a Literature Works science fiction novel competition, ‘One Giant Write’, a couple of summers ago. The idea had been knocking around in my subconscious, like a billiard ball in zero gravity, for some time. I’d just finished teaching and experienced the giddy weightlessness that comes with having those clamps removed. In a fever dream I wrote the opening chapters of the novel, and without hardly revising them, pressed ‘send’ and by the next day had forgotten about them. As I put it later, it had been a ‘hasty afterthought’. Then a few months later I received notification that I had won the national competition, receiving a £1000 prize, and a chance for my manuscript to be considered by the commissioning editor of Gollancz, Marcus Gipps. All I had to do was write the rest of it! And so I made plans (fortunately the competition had insisted on a synopsis, so I had that at least – although synopses, like snakes, like to slough their skins…). It was time to channel my inner marathon runner. I arranged to go on a two-week writing retreat on the coast of Wester Ross, Scotland. There I holed myself up with coffee, whisky and oatcakes, and set to it. I managed 20,000 words in the fortnight and had successfully ‘jumpstarted’ my novel, and got it into orbit. With 30K under my belt, I was feeling more confident. Time was of the essence, with Marcus waiting to receive my manuscript – and I knew I had to do a minimum of 80,000 for it to be considered by them, and so I decided to undertake the NaNoWriMo challenge, the National Novel Writing Month, which runs every November. The goal of 50K was perfect – as if I managed that then I would make my word count target. Knowing that thousands of people around the world were also taking part was encouraging – each user posts their daily word count, and updates; there are local meet ups, online forums and all kinds of virtual cheerleading – although the real motivation for me was the big prize: a Gollancz contract. So I knuckled down and sucked up the pain, hammering out a minimum of 1.333 words a day, however dismal (and much of it was inevitably sludge) – often I achieved more, and on those giddy days, my daily quota decreased. But then I’d have an ‘off day’, and would have to play catch up with a ‘binge session’. Carrot and stick, or rather: coffee, coffee, type, type, work, work, sleep, sleep, repeat. By the end of November I had reached my target – 80K! I had, officially, a novel. Although I had to do know was make it beautiful. I let my keyboard cool down, printed it off, read it through (as a reader), then read it through again (as an editor), then, cracking knuckles, I set to redrafting it. By mid-January (after a marathon Yuletide stint) I was ready to press send: the moment of truth. It would take months before I got a reply, but I was proud with what I had achieved: within four months I had written a novel. That may seem like all sprint to some, but that second phase felt more like a marathon – a sustained effort over a longer distance which draw upon all of my resources. I glad I kept something in reserve, because the journey, as I discovered, was not over … My increasing interest in running has served me well in that respect – helping to build up my stamina (the staying power which is de rigeur for the ‘long-distance writer’), as well as keeping me healthy, both mentally and physically. You learn to pace yourself, to keep me something back – for that next hill, and the one after that … and, maybe, even a sprint finish.   

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