6 Steps to Run Your First Marathon

I am a huge fan of NaNoWriMo. Hand on heart, I can say that I would not be a professional author without this November scribbling frenzy and I owe the Office of Letters and Light a debt of gratitude.

However, writing novels does not begin and end in November. It involves a commitment of several months and years if you’re ever going to write for something other than your desk drawer or your Dropbox.

Here are my five tips for keeping writing after NaNoWriMo and travelling further up the road to publication:

1) Rest and Recharge

On December 1st, take a break! You’ve been slaving away for thirty days on this novel and, for some, this may be the first time you’ve written so regularly and in such a flurry of words. Pick up your glass of wine/mug of tea/box of Celebrations and relax. Your novel will still be there when you get back.

While I am definitely not an exercise enthusiast, I’m going to talk a little about the writing muscles. NaNoWriMo is a bit odd in that it basically involves running a marathon on very little training. But, somehow, most limp across the finish line and collapse in a heap of victory.

However, even the most seasoned marathon runners (including that fool Eddie Izzard!) need to take a break to allow their bodies to recover. So it is with writing. On December 1st, your writing muscles are flagging, especially if you’re not used to such writing exercise. Let them have a rest – and recharge them by getting out there and experiencing.

TIP #1 – Relaxing and experiencing life are essential parts of keeping your writing on track. For more concrete ways this can help your writing, see my post The Writer On Holiday.

2) Finish that first draft

Some people write a complete novella or novel by the end of NaNoWriMo. I wrote 80K in both 2011 and 2013, which formed the first drafts of Binary Witness and Code Runner respectively, but it’s not something I would recommend. This year, I will have completed 50k of my new project, which is approximately halfway. I am, therefore, planning to write on into December to get my first draft finished.

That is okay. We are not aiming to leave November with finished novels. NaNoWriMo is only the beginning. You might want to take a break in December and restart in January, or plough on like me, perhaps cutting down your daily word count.

When your first draft is finished, whenever that may be, you need to walk away. Put it to one side and leave it alone. BUT FIRST you have to finish it!

TIP #2 – Keep writing until the first draft is complete, even if it takes you ’til next November. To see how other writers get their first drafts done, check out Rebecca Bradley’s First Drafts series.

3) Set yourself a word count

I find word count targets the easiest way to get me through a first draft. Why? Because I will take any excuse to slack off. Code Runner was a pretty taut novel-writing process, from first words to publisher submission in three months – but that was purely because I had a contractual deadline. When I don’t have a deadline, I am a major flake. Binary Witness took eighteen months to knock into shape, including several months where I just faffed around moving commas.

Set yourself a daily word count target to get that first draft done. Maybe 1,667 is perfect for you, or maybe it’s a total uphill struggle. Perhaps you easily write 3k per day. Find what works for you and stick to it. Inevitably, some days you will have zero words and some days you might find 5k just tumbling out of you like magic, but you never know which days will be which until you sit down and type.

TIP #3 – Make a personal word count target and stick with it, charting progress over weeks and months. You can even make your own spreadsheet to stay on track.

4) Write every day

This little piece of advice gets everywhere, right alongside “write what you know” and “writing is rewriting”. Like all truisms, it can be interpreted every which way and this is my personal spin on it.

Writing is not always writing. Sometimes, writing is thinking about writing, preparing for writing, or deleting writing. Confused yet?

Writing a novel is a process far beyond just putting words on a page. It is certainly more than typing each individual letter. Hopefully, before NaNoWriMo, you put together at least a rudimentary plot and some characters before you started your journey. This was thinking about and preparing for writing. Sometimes, that takes two days at the end of October. Sometimes, that takes months of notes, research, mood boards and talking it out with someone you trust.

Writing is not the first draft. It is taking a raw diamond and chipping away at it until it becomes a flawless jewel (although folks also wear emeralds and topaz and cubic zirconia, y’know). When you get to editing your novel (and you will have to edit it), you may add some words but you’ll probably delete a whole lot. Entire scenes, whole chapters, maybe even a character or three. All of this is still writing, even if your word count is actually falling.

TIP #4 – Think about your novel every day, even if it’s just a few lines of dialogue in the shower. If you’re very time-poor, here are a few ways I’ve found to maximise writing time.

5) Think beyond your first novel

Gone are the days where authors could dine out on one book, if those days ever really existed at all. If you’re serious about this writing business, you need to write more than one book. Perhaps you think you’re a one-book kinda gal. “Every person has a book in them” you say “and I have now written mine”. Unless you’ve written an autobiography, that is unlikely to be true.

Maybe your first novel is the beginning of the series. Maybe you want to get your first novel edited before you get distracted by the next project. Maybe your first novel was actually just proving to yourself that you can write a novel and you want to move on to something completely different.

My first novel never even reached the editing stage. My second novel got to a first edit, and then fell by the wayside. Binary Witness was my third novel – or, at least, the third one where I actually finished the first draft. I have many more abandoned at 20-30k, where I lost momentum.

TIP #5 – Plan ahead. Do you have a 1-year, 5-year and 10-year writing plan? Danny Stack talks about the importance of appreciating the long-haul for scriptwriters, but it applies equally to novelists.

Know this:

the first draft of your first novel is only the first step on a long and exciting journey. Congratulations on taking that step – now where will it take you?


BIORosie Claverton is a screenwriter, novelist and junior psychiatrist. Her debut novel Binary Witness was published by Carina Press in May 2014, and the second book Code Runner was released in September 2014. follow her on twitter as @rosieclaverton where she co-runs the monthly Twitter chat #psywrite, advocating accurate and sensitive portrayals of people with mental health problems in fiction.

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