Writing a Novel: It’s Like Running Up a Really Long, Deceptively Shallow Hill

Or, Analogies self-referential from my childhood

I live in the coastal flatlands. My exercise of choice is jogging, and I have some very nice parks blanketed with green grass and trees draped in Spanish moss under which to run. But it’s all flat—every step of my run is as difficult (or easy) as every other step.

I grew up in the rolling hills that dominate the South’s landscape after you get north of the coastal plains.

I went jogging at my parents’ house this weekend, on the road where I cut my teeth as a pre-teen hoping to make the junior high cross-country track team come fall. The entire two and a half miles is up and down hills, and the last hill coming back in is this long—almost a quarter-mile—gently rising monster. It’s barely noticeable as a hill in a car, and when you start up it on a run, you think it’ll be nothing to get to the top. But halfway up, your legs are burning and your breaths are getting ragged as you try to maintain your pace up what is, after all, a not insignificant incline.

As I was panting my way up the hill yesterday, I was struck by how analogous that hill is to writing a novel. It’s a long grind that you start without properly understanding what will be involved in getting to the top. Your momentum going in can only carry you up about a third of it. Willpower and stubbornness are what take you through the middle third—the dangerous third where it’s so tempting to stop and walk just for a bit, but where, if you do, you will stop completely because the inertia of running again from the middle of that hill is just too great to overcome. By the time you get to the last third, every step is harder than the last, but you can also see the end in sight, and having come so far and seeing that end in front of you make you more determined to finish than any amount of pain and despair will convince you just to go ahead and quit. And then when you finish, you are exhausted, your energy is shot, and your lungs and your legs are burning…but you feel the most incredible sense of accomplishment, of satisfaction, of having met and vanquished a challenge unlike any you’ve ever faced.

And, just like you have to fight that battle every time you write a novel, you have to fight yourself every step of the way up that hill every time you go for a run.

Here’s to powering through that middle third….

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