What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

I’m on vacation though October 25, so for the next few posts, I’ll be sharing brief reviews of some of my favorite books.

I asked for this book for Christmas in 2010 after finishing Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. It took me months to get through Chronicles, not because Murakami isn’t a mind-blowing writer (he is), but because it is one messed up story. I could only handle it in small doses. I would read a chapter, or even less, then sit for an hour staring out the window thinking about how some actions are so clearly the ones we take right before diving head-first into disaster; momentum seems to keep us from avoiding those first small bad decisions until we’re suddenly in it to our necks.

It reminded me of my own struggle with depression in college and in the year after – how clearly I could see, in hindsight, what awful choices I was making – but at the time, they seemed like the right thing to do. I was fascinated by the person behind this novel. I felt he must have experienced life in a way very familiar to me before using his remarkable skills as a writer to turn those memories into some very trippy literature.

This introduction to Murakami happened to coincide with my foray into the Couch to 5k running program. All through the fall of 2010, as I slowly worked up to running for five minutes, then fifteen, and finally, to a very slow forty-four minute 3.1 miles, my interest in reading about other runners was piqued. And here was a runner who was also a writer. I had to read his book.

And it was wonderful. Of course, he’s a long distance runner who has been at it for many more years than I have  – the same could be said for his writing, of course, so that didn’t matter much. What did matter was that his book brought together his career, the tempo of his writing, and heartbeat of his running in a way that was magical to me. Each of those elements sustained him and his work, and made him better at all of the things he loved. It was the first book about running that I ever fell in love with, and it remains one of my favorites to this day.

To learn more about Haruki Murakami, head over here. (FYI: This site has music, so if you’re heading over there during work, when you’re supposed to be finishing those TPS reports, mute your speakers first.)

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program…

…to bring you a few more thoughts on the joys of writing. I didn’t have time to read much at since Monday because I’ve been working on revising last year’s novel from National Novel Writing Month. It’s a project that’s been nagging me since June (when I decided I had put it off long enough). Ha! Even people like me, who despise procrastination and fight it with every ounce of will stored in these anal retentive genes, find that certain tasks are…well, easy to ignore.

For me, editing is an easily ignored task. Do I know that it makes for a more polished (or in the case of this particular novel, more comprehensible) final product? Of course. Does that mean I want to sit down and get to it when I could be reading, reviewing, or writing for pay? Of course not. For me, editing falls only slightly above research on the Necessities of Writing checklist, and let me tell you, research is very far down the list.

This week, however, my paid project was on halt while my writing partner was in Pennsylvania leading a retreat, and for some reason, I could not settle down into any of the books I have waiting for me. I wandered around the house failing to vacuum, dust, or put away a single thing. I went on a few meandering, slow runs. I longed for grueling workouts at the gym just because they were a distraction from my complete lack of productivity. I called my dad twice; the first time, he was delighted – he second, he smelled a rat, and I had to admit I was killing time until my brain kicked into gear. He was not amused. Finally, after checking Twitter for the fortieth time in an hour, I couldn’t avoid it any longer…my novel wanted to be read, and it wanted to be read now.

It was, in a word, schlocky. You want two more? Try “hot mess.” Over the course of two and a half days, I cut about four thousand (of fifty) words, and if I were to go through it again, I’m sure plenty more could go. One of the tricks I inadvertently use during my November novel-writing frenzy is to write six sentences where one (or even none) would do. I don’t know how many times I found myself hesitating even when it was obvious a line had to go. “The phrasing,” I thought to myself, “the phrasing is so clever! How can I ever let this beautiful sentence be lost?” Then I would read it again, this time out loud, give into a fit of laughter (because honestly, I wrote the most maudlin adventure/love story imaginable) and cut the entire paragraph.

About six chapters in, however, I got a big surprise, sandwiched between awkward romance and leather breeches (yes, one of the characters wears breeches, and he wears them well). I realized I had absolutely no recollection of writing a whole section of the plot, and it…wasn’t terrible. As it turns out, I had actually forgotten about sixty percent of the story. When I got to the last page, my first thought was, what kind of idiot writer would leave the story mid-paragraph?! Cliff hangar much? I railed about this for an embarrassing minute before remembering that, in fact, I was that idiot writer, and I had probably ended it there because I hit the fifty thousand word mark and my laptop battery was dying.

What really struck me about that moment though, was that it meant, even in the midst of all that chopping and margin-scribbling, I had gotten swept up in the story to the point that I was genuinely curious about what happened next. Sure, the book was filled with over-wrought glances and hokey fantasy clichés, but I liked it enough to want more, and I don’t think anything is as thrilling to a writer as knowing that even one person wants more. Sure, that one person is me, but I count, right? I’ve read more than 100 books this year alone, and I would conservatively estimate 10,000 over the course of my lifetime, since as a child, I regularly read ten to twenty chapter books a week. I’m completely biased of course, but this pleasant reaction to my own work brings me to the point I really want to make.

If you write, and it intrigues even one person – you –  it is a worthwhile endeavor. I love talking about the wonderful stories other writers publish, but I also believe it’s  important to pause on occasion and remember that we all have the power to create something  worth sharing. We may not end up on the bestseller list, but that’s not essential in order to be a productive and joyful member of the literary community. What I find to be the most rewarding part is the opportunity to be surprised by the written word. It moves me when I write something that builds anticipation, earns a  laugh, encourages angst – even when I know it doesn’t compare to the emotional resonance achieved by my favorite authors. I love books, both my own and (even more) those written by others, for what they ask of me as a reader: they serve, as Kafka so eloquently says, as the ax for the frozen sea within us.

So go – write, read, edit, create – allow yourself to be at the mercy of the written word, and see where it takes you.

No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, Chris Baty

Okay, folks, we’re taking a little detour here, and I’m going to ask you to go with it because let’s be honest – Part 2 of Summerland is not exactly the newest installment of Downton Abbey, and if we can all be forced to wait a year for six episodes of genius BBC television, you can hang on until Thursday to hear how I feet about the end of the book. (I mean, have you seen that show?! It begins with the sinking of the Titanic and things only got worse from there! Epic! Hilarious! Well-mannered! British TV has gotten so good that I’m thinking of making a couple of the shows honorary books. Because I totally have the power to do that…)

Anyway, this is less a review of Baty’s book, which (spoiler alert) is awesome, and more a plug for National Novel Writing Month (November), Camp NaNoWriMo (June and August), and, obviously, getting more novels written so I have more books to read and review.

Because I started this blog in December, you have yet to live through NaNoWriMo with me, nor I with you. This coming fall will be my sixth year (although only four challenges were completed), and I’m interested to see what it does to me to try to A) write my 50,000 words, B) read and review twice a week here and C) finish the book contracted and due in December. I’m thinking I might end up in the fetal position, with lots of broken computer parts strewn around me. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Don’t you want to be a part of that journey?!

Yes, you do! And hopefully, so does my friend Nick, who recently wrote to me asking for some advice on how to proceed with his first novel. I know a lot of you are writers, and I wanted to share the conversation he and I had, and hopefully hear from some of you about your own techniques, road blocks, and victories. For the record, I’ve been writing a long time, and my advice comes from years of talking with people much wiser and more experienced than myself, but my very favorite piece (point 4, below) comes from Chris Baty himself (so go ahead and buy his book already!)

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I had the urge to write a novel recently.  I totally busted out a page and a half in a google doc, then hit the point of asking myself, “Wait, who are these characters, what’s their back story, and how do I arrange the overarching plotline?”  It was a critical moment; I was debating blowing up a whorehouse in a dystopian future.

Then I just stopped writing.  And instead started building a web app to let me organize my thoughts and write the novel in manageable chunks, but I’m still not sure how exactly writers manage it.  Anyway, if you have free time on your hands, mind giving your opinion on how you organize your thoughts?  

My first piece of advice? ALWAYS blow up the whorehouse. Seriously. When writing a first draft, always take the most interesting path available to you.

Second piece of advice? Set yourself a goal. The reason I love National Novel Writing Month is that I HAVE to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Some of them might suck, but not all of them will (I know this for a fact because I’m revising right now, and not all the words are being deleted!). NaNoWriMo actually has a summer program running too; you should definitely check it out because it’s a great way to force past your inner editor (who is the devil and will definitely keep you from ever, ever writing a book). http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/campnano I’m actually considering doing this in Aug as well.

Third piece of advice? Murder your inner editor in his sleep. He’s a rat bastard and he will not help you at this stage (this stage being the one where you have one and a half pages written). You can resurrect him when you have your first complete rough draft done. Until then, he’s dead to you.

Fourth piece of advice (and the best I ever got)? Write the book that YOU would want to read. The first many years I did NaNoWriMo were brutal because I was trying to write what I thought I should be good at. This year, I said screw it and wrote a wacky fantasy with lots of antagonistic romances, and lo and behold, it was actually fun! Shakespeare, it’s not. But it makes me laugh and I want to keep working on it, and what better book is there then the one you love enough not to abandon?!

Okay, that’s all my advice. Now, on to organization. This varies hugely from writer to writer. Some people are great about planning, but I’m more of a by the seat of my pants type. I like to just write and write and write with basically no plan at all and see what happens. Later, I go back and sort things out.

That’s certainly not the only way to go about it, and it sounds like you’re working on a way to get things organized, but keep in mind that you might just be procrastinating from fear that the novel you want to write isn’t possible. That fear cripples many writers to the point that they plan and tweak and organize for years without ever writing a single word. You have to choose for yourself what’s worse – making mistakes, or failing to start.

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Now, I know not all of my readers are also writers, but many of you are. And I suspect that even more of you would like to be (in much the same way I would like to be a marathon runner…which is to say, it feels impossible, but I’m told it’s not). Well, I’m going to start training for half marathon when I get back from vacation in a few weeks, and I expect those of you who have a story you’re burning to tell to at least consider joining me in August or November for a 50,000 word challenge. Chris Baty created this program to make writing a novel more accessible for every one of us, no matter age or ability. He’s written a great book to get new (and not so new) writers started, so if you need a little nudge, this is it.

And just remember, as you’re sitting at the bottom of whatever mountain you wish you were good enough to climb, that we are made free not so life can be easier, but so that we have the opportunity to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, despite the fear that our efforts will be found lacking…

More information about Chris Baty can be found here.