Full disclosure before I begin– I have not yet published a novel, so maybe I am wrong about this. But I have just run my first marathon. After several months of training, I finished the New Jersey Marathon in a respectably average 4 hours and 3 minutes. While I wasn’t thrilled with my overall time, I (A) did complete my first marathon, (B) did not stop running at any point, other than a port-a-potty stop, (C) did not get seriously injured, other than typical post-race soreness, and (D) did not throw up on the course, though I did come close at a few points. So I consider the run a success, all things considered.
When it comes to writing, the old saying about novel writing is “it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” The parallels are apt. Both take a long time. Both involve pain and inner struggle. You might throw up. Both give you justification for putting bizarre things in and on your body. Both are things that many people say they will do, fewer set out to do, and far fewer finish. So if you finish– either a novel or a marathon, or both– congratulations!
There were moments in the marathon, mostly between miles 18 and 22, when it was just a pure grind. One foot ahead of the other, feeling crappy, but refusing to let myself stop. And having completed at least two novels, I can say there are moments in writing a manuscript where the exact same feeling comes into play. You feel as if you’ve been writing (running) forever, but the end of the novel (race) is not in sight. A long, listless place where only sheer will and determination will get you to the end. This is where a lot of people stop. They set the manuscript aside, say “It’s just not working,” and move on to something else in life. It’s the part that makes or breaks the writer (runner).
But just as I wanted to run my marathon well, I don’t just want to finish a novel. I know I can do it. I’ve done it before. I want to publish a novel. And here is where the analogy falls apart. I have been querying two separate, very different novels. One is historical fiction, an account of a Holocaust survivor starting a new life in upstate New York. It is based closely on a survivor I knew. The other is a science-fiction work, a near-future dystopia about education. I have been querying agents for the first novel for over a year now, and the second one for five months. Nary a nibble on either one. I know what I must do– persist. But where is the finish line? Querying is nothing like a marathon, because in a marathon, I know that one way or another, whether I sprint or run or jog or walk or crawl, once I reach 26.2, I have met my goal. But querying is like running a race, unsure if it’s a 5k or an ultramarathon. A rare few authors find interested publishers immediately, some query a dozen agents, some thirty, some seventy-five.
Querying has been harder than writing and harder than revising. Revision, even when it’s a tiresome slog, is at least forward motion. The story is getting better, one deleted word at a time. But with querying, I’m running toward nothing. I’m running in the hope of a finish line. The race isn’t over yet, and I have no idea when it will be.