When I was in college I read Patricia Nell Warren’s “The Front Runner” and it changed my life forever. That was way back in the early 1970s when I was young, thin, and had way too much energy for my own good. Ms. Warren’s book propelled me to buy a pair of good running shoes, a pair of running shorts, and my first tank top t-shirt. This was my official running gear.
For more than twenty-five years I was a long distance runner and ran at least five miles every day. A long running day would have me put in at least ten miles. I averaged 6.5 minutes per mile. Not a speedy runner, but not the slowest runner either. Running, like writing, is addictive. The more you do it, the more you want to do it. In running you want to improve your time and how far you can run. Naturally, I started running half marathons and marathons.
The runner’s “high” is a reality. At the start of each training run it always took me a about a mile to get into my rhythm, slip into the runner’s zone, and literally just run without thinking about running. When the endorphins kick in your mental state really does give you the sensation of floating above the pavement. You don’t even feel your feet hitting the ground. That runner’s high is addicting and it’s what keeps runners pounding the pavement.
Writing is very similar to running in many ways. Sometimes you just have a hard time getting started. But, once you do start putting the words in some semblance of order and you see the story begin to take shape, you settle into a writing rhythm, similar to a running rhythm.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what this rhythm is. For me, it’s when the words simply flow from my brain to my fingertips and onto the laptop screen. Just like running, I don’t think about the technical aspects of doing the writing. i.e. typing. The typing is something I can do automatically with my eyes closed. I never take my eyes off the laptop screen and just let my fingers fly across the keyboard tapping out the words.
The rhythm comes when the character’s voices become clear in my head and typing out their conversations and thoughts flow easily out of my mind. When I’m writing a first draft I literally just let the ‘story wash over me’ and write it as it comes. Later, I can always do the polishing, revisions (if necessary), and rewriting to smooth out any rough spots or fill in gaps that I omitted while in the writing zone.
Like running, writing can be just as addictive. Once the words start flowing it’s difficult to put on the brakes and stop writing. As a writer, when I have a clear image of the setting and the characters that inhabit that setting, the individual personalities really do manifest themselves through the words the characters speak. It’s easy to hear each distinctive voice and what a character would say in reaction or response to any given situation.
The Wythes have become my obsession. I can’t get enough of spending time with them and seeing where their next adventure might take them. I had written earlier that I always plot out a road map so that I have some sense as to where the story might go. But, I don’t necessarily stick exactly to the road map, I give my characters the freedom to more or less dictate their own routes.
For example, I knew that I wanted to have Phin, the fifteen year old narrator of the story, go to Provincetown for Bear Week. I needed several other key family members present when the conversation took place—meaning, when the uncles Myles and Bertram suggest he might want to go to Bear Week with them. And, of course, I needed one of the parents present to be part of the conversation to take the side of the opposition to the idea. And which parent would most likely be the one to say “No?” The mother, of course.
I had planned to have this conversation take place around the dinner table, but that would have meant that there would be too many people who had to be part of the conversation and it would be a bit tricky, and possibly forced, to keep everyone’s views part of the conversation. The idea came to me that a picnic on Gull Rock, just a few hundred yards off the tip of Wythe’s End would be the perfect place to take just the right number of family members to engage in this important conversation.
The picnic wasn’t on my road map, but it made sense so I let the scene/chapter unfold to see where it would go. I slipped into the writing zone and the words flew into my laptop and all I had to do was keep track of who was doing what when while the picnic was taking place. The scene unfolded easily and gave me the chance to plant the seed for the next scene when Phin talks to Pab, the father, before his mother has her talk with him.
In a writing frenzy I wrote the set up scenes for Bear Week—about twenty pages in all. There will be some necessary revisions and rewriting, but the scene is now out of my head and into my laptop.
Now I can focus on the wild adventures that can, and will, happen in Provincetown during Bear Week.
One of the important elements that I have to keep track of in this story is letting the reader follow along with Phin as he puzzles out what the family’s deep, dark secret is. At fifteen, he is a sophomore in high school and will have to start planning for the exams that he will need to pass in order to be accepted into Harvard. He’s an excellent student and one of his personality traits is that he doubts his own abilities and is a bit insecure about his place in the family. Phin is a conscientious boy who is responsible and can be a bit too serious. In other words he’s me when I was that age.
In order to plant clues and let the reader discover important hints along with Phin I needed to have Phin spend a great deal of time in the two libraries at Wythe’s End. The family thinks he is putting in a great deal of extra study time in preparation for his final two years of high school and the difficult entrance exams he must pass. In reality, Phin is scouring the libraries for clues as to why the “Wythes missed the boat.”
Again, when I was writing the picnic scene several details came out that led me down a side road to seeing more clearly how I can move the central plot line along in an interesting and logical manner.
The Writing Zone is a good place to be, trust me.