Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 25, 2017

Finish Your Novel One Stroke at a Time

Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine Into Gold

This is a picture of me at the age of 52, swimming the length of Trout Lake in northern New York. My husband Dave is trailing behind in a rowboat with a life preserver—you know, just in case. Off to the left is a loon who popped up to watch, alarmingly close, wondering how that would turn out for this middle-aged broad (everyone has to deal with critics!).

The first time I swam the length of the lake I was 47; the last time was last year as I turned 60. Distance swimming might sound like an odd thing to take up late in life. Truth is, I would not have been able to do it before then.

When I was a teenager on the lake, my father would row its half-mile width while my three sisters and I swam behind the boat. At the time, I was active in dance, cheerleading, waterskiing, and snow skiing. I’d grown up in this water and was the second oldest daughter. I should have had every reason to believe I could complete the swim.

Much to my shame, however, I couldn't keep up. My Dad had to help me climb into the boat to ride the rest of the way. I dripped onto its floor, shivering in defeat, while my sisters got the glory.

That would change.

More than three decades later, I’d swim the length of the lake—almost four times as far. I was no better a swimmer than I was in my youth. It's not that I was a fiercer competitor, either—as you can see from the photograph, no sisters. It's just me, the water, and the loon.

So how is it that I was able to start doing in my late 40s what I couldn't physically achieve in my athletic prime? I have some pretty nasty life obstacles to thank. They required that I summon inner strength that as yet had remained untested.

The result: I just figured I could do it. I finally understood the way the accumulative nature of effort applies to all disciplines: if I kept my arms moving and my legs kicking, and continue to breathe in and out, I would eventually reach my destination.

The metaphor works for any long process, including writing a novel.

You'll get there, stroke by stroke.

I like "one stroke at a time" better than "one step at a time." Because water molecules have more heft than air, it’s easier to see that not only am I moving forward, I am physically creating a path for myself by applying my muscles and willpower to part a medium that resists me. I seek change by pushing aside fear and self-pity and denial and any other obstacles standing between me and the destination I seek. I leave ripples in my wake.

Swimming is taxing but so is change; productive change is never achieved without a significant application of effort. In swimming as in writing, I am using the very medium through which I must move to help me move through it. The water buoys me as my legs and arms press against it; the very experiences my writing requires me to face will help demystify all that frightens me and weighs me down. If I am truthful on the page, the words and sentences and paragraphs will contribute enough meaning and structure to hold me up.

Swimming, my focus alternates above and below the surface, separating that which is easily seen from that which is hidden. I fear that which is hidden; after all, there are those legends of the Trout Lake monster... but then up pops a beautiful loon. Despite his sharp beak he wishes me no harm, but simply wants to join the blue sky and evergreen pines and my patient, understanding husband in witnessing my journey.

Novel writing isn't a sprint. You won't achieve the same effect if you close your eyes, hold your breath, and make a mad splash to "the other side." With one purposeful stroke at a time, at my own pace and with my eyes open to note the changing scenery along the way, I could eventually turn around and see that I'd gained distance from my starting point. Its details, once so sharp they could bite, had blurred. Renewed to my task, I turned toward the future, knowing in my heart that I am capable of reaching my destination, and reminding myself to look around along the way because the journey has so many rewards.

Note that the number of strokes I have taken has not made me a better swimmer, any more than the number of black marks on the page makes you a better writer. There’s more to mastery than pushing yourself through to completion. But knowing that you can complete the journey takes a lot of pressure off of a novelist, who now has a better sense of the scope of her undertaking.

This picture came to mind because I am starting a new novel. The cursor blinks at me from a still-empty page. The old fear creeps in. Yet I know I can do this: I have swum the lake! In fact, I’ve swum it four times now, one for each manuscript completed, and plan to do it again. Stroke by stroke, I will reach for the grace that comes from facing adversity, the grace that whispers in my ear: "Keep swimming, we're almost there."

Do you have any personal experiences with extreme endeavor that you lean upon to remind you that you too can reach “The End”? Please share!

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About Kathryn

Kathryn Craft  is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

52 comments on “Finish Your Novel One Stroke at a Time”

  1. Love this photo with the loon, Kathryn! And you know, your lake is one of my favorite spots to "just keep swimming"! This is a hopeful post. We may try to accomplish things and fail, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try again! Perhaps in another time, with other experience under our belt - and new perspective. A much needed post for me today 🙂 .

  2. Such an inspiring post! Thank you, Kathryn, and congratulations on all of your accomplishments!

  3. This is so timely as I'm currently reading Swimming to Antarctica and being inspired by Lynne Cox's unflinching belief in herself and her inhuman ability to withstand cold and exhaustion and a million other obstacles. I love the long-distance swimming metaphor! so true. Just keep putting it on the page and you get there. Thanks for this morning's inspiration to keep at it. Best to you with your manuscript, too.

    1. Oh my Cara! She has a ton of fortitude! I swim over one place that plunges to 90 ft deep. You know when you hit it because the water turns much colder. The worst that happens to me is a toe cramp!

  4. Hey Kathryn, Wonderful essay, and good on you for your determination and outlook (in swimming and writing)! You got me thinking this morning (always a good start for a Monday). I guess I no longer worry about whether I can finish a novel. But before I pat myself on the back, I realize that my issue - as I plug away on my fifth manuscript while waiting interminably to hear on past projects - feels more like "why-bother-ism."

    Some days, keeping myself working on a series that's yet to sell takes the sort of stroke-by-stroke fortitude you describe. It's sort of like I got comfortable swimming my pond, but continuing on this journey is like swimming out onto the big lake, its waters dark and unknown (and pretty damn cold, to boot). You rightfully point out that it has to be done not simply because the other side of the lake is a destination, but because I understand the effort it takes to leave my warm pond and try will be fulfilling and enlightening - an agent of positive change not just in this writer, but in this human being.

    Thanks for the Monday provocation! You're an inspiration. Here's to the Dory in both of us (Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...)!

    1. Day made--I jump-started Vaughn's Monday thinking!! ? I get the why-botherism. But for me, getting to the end tells me more about the story I meant to tell. The story now has a container, however flawed, and I so love diving back in to make sure I've done right by it.

      I suggest, if you like this metaphor, to use my lake, not yours. It really helps to have a lake short enough that you can see the far shore so you can gauge how far you've come and how far you have yet to go, and a lake narrow enough that you can enjoy the changing scenery along the way. I can imagine that in a Great Lake I would feel hopelessly adrift.

      1. I agree, the challenge and the love certainly outweigh the why-botherism. Good point!

        And, Ha! Excellent point about using your lake rather than Lake Michigan - daunting even on a calm day. Although I have a neighbor - a former competitive swimmer - who routinely dons his wetsuit and swims until he disappears from sight. Always gives me the willies.

  5. Thank you for this Monday inspiration, Kathryn. Each time Life pulls me away from the words, I return to my chair with renewed doubt that I'll never reach the end. And each time my husband tells me, "This is a marathon, not a sprint." 🙂

    1. Hi Brenda, your husband is wise! I have a friend who writes every morning for one hour. Protecting that time is a form of writerly self love. While flipping back through pages you've already written (as one must to re-enter a work after a break), it can be hard to relate to the sense of accomplishment, since you are now approaching the project as a reader. Staying in the water--inside the experience of creation--seems important to assessing how far along the shore you've traveled.

      1. "... it can be hard to relate to the sense of accomplishment, since you are now approaching the project as a reader." Nail on the head, Kathryn. I will look for ways to "stay inside the experience of creation" more often. Thank you again.

  6. So inspirational, Kathryn! I discovered a truth about myself years ago that has helped me overcome so many difficulties. Every time I read one of your posts I am amazed.

    1. ... and you're not going to share it? What a tease! Thanks so much for your kind words Barb. In general, I do believe that writing fiction-uncovering deep truths worth writing about, and the process of crafting the stories--should confer a PhD in self.

  7. Love this, Kathryn. After 417 rejections before I sold, I've had 8 books published, and just contracted for three more.

    So you'd think I wouldn't feel like I'm drowning in the middle of my current one, right?

    Nope. Glub, glub.

    Your story is inspiring! I know I push too hard against my limits sometimes, but if you don't, how do you know where the limits are?

  8. Love this. Thank you for a healthy bit inspiration. On my way to the supermarket, I was contemplating my crazy, busy week at work; appointments; exercise; and other obligations. And somehow try to squeeze in writing without burning myself down. Your post confirmed what I knew I needed to do.

    1. Sometimes if you seek the love in each thing it helps relieve the stress of "obligation" and revive the excitement of choice. I know it's hard. Good luck with your crazy busy week, Dominique!

  9. Kathryn, I'll admit it: the idea of a novel scares the crap out of me. I can never think about that part until the end because I freeze. But a scene...I can think about a scene. Or even a chapter, or a turning point. I can think about Act 1 or the denouement (sp?). But to try to contemplate the novel as a whole? Nope. Not my cookie.

    1. Jenny I just heard an interview with NYT bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler and she said something similar. She has to think in terms of parts or individual arcs that entwine to make the whole. I think the trick is choosing a distance that challenges without overwhelming. On my phone--will be back with the link to that interview in a minute.

  10. So much truth to be had in this essay, thank you. I took up distance running at the mature age of 57. I understand so well what you said so eloquently.

  11. I have found that sometimes it's not just about the writing, but experiencing and taking a step back, giving yourself time to float a little, rest, re-group, before plunging on. I did so well at the writers retreat with the memoir and shortly after I got home. Then "life" interfered and my writing (only on the memoir) got sidelined a bit. Now I realize it's because I am bad a structure and am at the point where I need it. So I bought a large board and sticky notes and will break down my three books (years) and write which story I have already completed and put them on the appropriate year/book and subsequent chapters. I haven't done it, yet, but I've been giving it a lot of thought. Soon I'll dive in and swim again, always remembering I can float if I need to. My book. My time.

    1. I agree that floating can be good to let the old brain stew cook a bit. But what it sounds like you are doing, Mary, is managing the size of the lake. Even a Great Lake can look doable if you break it down into swims you can handle. Let me know how your new system works!

    1. One keystroke, one arm stroke--same difference. Welcome back from the WFWA retreat Orly! Sounds like your efforts sent many writers swimming happily across their individual lakes.

  12. I am breathless with admiration for you. And to be blessed with a loon companion--serendipity! And you are quite right. Once you're in the water, every stroke (of the keyboard) takes you nearer your goal. It's that getting in that's the anchor to any project. Thanks for a terrific metaphor, and applause to you.

    1. That admiration is so sweet, Jeanne, but it made me laugh. I go at my own pace so I don't get breathless. An Olympian would do this distance at 14 minutes; it takes me 90. My strokes are no thing of beauty and hardly efficient. But if I keep moving, I get there!

  13. Such a good point, Kathryn. When we pursue a goal like swimming, we can feel the resistance of the water, and automatically push against it. The resistance we feel while writing is less tangible--and easier to give in to (i.e., give up for the day). I think I'll imagine the writing gremlin as the water today, and push! (And I'll imagine the loon as cheering me on...)

  14. I love the idea of one stroke at a time, rather than steps. I'll carry that thought with me as I work on a rewrite. Thank you for sharing your insight, relatable at any stage of the writing (or life) process!

  15. This is wonderful inspiration, Kathryn. Bravo to you! One word at a time, I tell myself, a story is built. Or in your case, one stroke at a time completes the manuscript journey. Thanks for sharing this with Writers in the Storm followers.

  16. I love the swimming analogy, Kathryn. I swam a lot in college, though I wasn't on any team. With the pre-orders on my first book going live tomorrow, I really get that "writing is not a sprint."

  17. Hi Kathryn, I love reading your work and this one is just what I need right now. When I gave up full time homemaker, wife and mother and took the step to enroll in college at the age of 40 and if I didn't give up or flunk out I would try to find a job. My roll in the part I had played had shifted from prime to support and I needed a life of my own. I made in the english class I started and my neighbor help me and supported my sagging confidence at not getting fired the first week. I started as a unit secretary and (retired sadly)as a program manager for the engines on all the Air Force aircraft, helo, and missiles. I had gone to school to get my ultimate goal a Masters in Science and was writing running a home and prime caretaker for a very ailing husband. Now I have nothing to stand in the way of writing (a few health problems but just about all taken care but one and it is close) but I am not making any headway with the writing I have loved since 3rd grade. I think you helped me (as so many times before) find what is wrong. I have nothing to work against to achieve my new goal of a professional fiction writer. I've always as swimmers say swam against the tide. Negative people, competition of other for the job, the driving desire to accomplish where I wanted to be. I had no water to swim against and I need that. I'm not sure how I'll be able to concur this but I'll try doing it in mind since that was the way I got where I am. No one told me I could be a college graduate or head of a team with an important mission or nurse a husband at home until he had to give up his journey and join the Lord but I've done all this. How wonderful it is that your mind works to send us what we need when we need it. Thanks again for all your help.

  18. What a lovely note to wake up to in a Monday morning, Jo, set against news of the horrid shooting in Las Vegas. There's some resistance for you: our world needs to become a more compassionate place, and there's no better way to walk a mile in someone else's shoes than through story. If your current story is not engaging you, reach for a bigger, more important one, until the compulsion to write will not ease its grip.

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