The long, long walk
Starting in June, 1970, Dave Kunst circuited the globe on foot, covering 14,450 miles in four years. Steve Newman also did the earth-walk, trekking 15,000 miles in four years. Rosie Swale-Pope, at age 57, set out to run around our planet, often over daunting terrain, going through 50 pairs of running shoes during that adventure and raising a small fortune for charity. It takes an estimated 20 million steps to walk around the earth. You can’t actually girdle the world in a straight line, of course, because there are a few rather large oceans in the way, but these exemplary journeys are nonetheless amazing. How did they do it? The facile cliché answer would be one step at a time. Obviously it requires an almost superhuman degree of willpower and determination, and cannot be done without overcoming myriad hardships, doubts, and dangers.
Trying to write an average-length novel can appear to be a near-impossible slog with a hazy finish line far, far away over the horizon. It’s a major reason why so many people vow to write a book one day but never manage to do it. Those relative few who do complete a 100,000-word story, sometimes over tortuous terrain spanning years, are to be commended for making that long solitary journey, even if their work never sees print. By sheer endurance, if nothing else, they've earned the right to call themselves authors. And I think, pretty much to a person, they’ll tell you the trip was worth taking.
So, for the intrepid few who long to take such a journey, how does one go about it?
There’s a lot of advice out there, but I think it all condenses to a simple formula: A place sacred to your writing + a rough time frame reserved for only writing + putting words down every possible day of the week + a stubborn refusal to ever give up = a book, eventually and certainly, barring a catastrophe.
The prolific Stephen King writes nearly every morning, then gives himself the afternoon off to walk for exercise, to enjoy being alive, to be with his family, and to take care of life’s chores. He does not do it for the money; he’s already made plenty of that. He does it because he’s obsessed with the wonderful journey, as most top authors are.
I like to write early, starting before the sun comes up across the river outside my office. I try for 500 new words each day, but that’s a flexible goal. Sometimes I can lay down 1,000; sometimes I’m ecstatic to get 250 if it’s a tough scene. I begin each day by going over yesterday’s output, tweaking and polishing a bit, then forging ahead. I work to only a rough plan, letting my characters do as they will, while I try to be aware of clarity and pacing and good sentence structure and correct grammar, of course. My job is to get to the end of the book before tackling any serious rewriting or editing. And on each book journey, I find a certain magic steals in fairly early in the word count. The story seems to take on a life of its own. The characters become real, and I begin to share their adventures, quail at their trials, summon courage with them, choke up at their tender moments and triumphs. And most mornings I can’t wait to get back to the keyboard to find out what will happen next.
The book I've recently completed, my fourth novel (fourth publishable novel, that is; I wrote two books years ago that were unsalable learning experiences), took fifteen months and has cost me 830 hours of editing time alone (can’t even estimate the total first-draft writing hours). It will probably require another 100 hours of rewriting and editing and polishing before I’m ready to declare it fit to publish.
And yet the faint glimmerings of another story, this one to be staged in Africa, are already gathering.
I can’t wait to set out for that far horizon once again.